Book Review: Life in the Real World

 Life in the Real WorldLife in the Real World – How to make music graduates employable
Edited by Dawn Bennett
Review by Tanja Raaste

Many music students aspire to a full-time performance position on graduation.  However, according to Dawn Bennett, only ‘approximately 0.4% of Australia’s 167,000 musicians hold full-time performance positions with a single employer’.  So the logical conclusion is that the other 99.6% of graduates have to change their expectations and create a different kind of career for themselves.

This is where Dawn Bennetts’ book comes in – packed with information, it shows, through case studies, that a there is a varied selection of paid employment for those who know how to look, and that this may actually be preferable to the holy grail of the one full-time performance position.

This book is one to take time over.  I read it one chapter one week, another the next, reading essays written by musicians and educators from many countries – the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Europe. It is not a quick read, but more a reference tome that you will want to have by your desk to dip into time and again.

The book is packed with information and data, examples and case studies.  The case studies illustrate a varied range of careers and jobs that may not even occur to the recent graduate.   There are exercises designed for groups (and some for individual students) – many encouraging strategic thinking.  For example, one suggests that what you think you want to do, and what you actually want to do may be different things. Food for thought indeed.  There is a skills audit, a networking exercise, suggestions for further reading and lists of industry bodies, associations and websites.

Entrepreneurship and reframing success

The book could be called ‘Embracing the ‘e’ word’ like one of its chapters, as the people behind this book are strong advocates of entrepreneurial skills.

Every year, universities chuck out thousands of hapless arts graduates, who have no idea of how to make a career out of what they love, and end up trying to ‘make it’ while trashing about in the job market like a shoal of fish caught in the shallows. Anything that helps them find their way into a part of the ocean they can call their own is a good thing.

The education system is failing students in the key area of entrepreneurship skills. As an interesting counterpoint, where entrepreneurial courses are offered, they are rarely taken up by students.  This suggests that the thinking has to change at all levels.  Students tend to wake up to the need of entrepreneurial skills only some time after graduation, so this suggests that the educational establishments need to champion these skills too.

One of the strengths of this book is that it encourages the reader to re-think their vision of success, making it unique to them.  We are too used to thinking that a ‘successful career’ is a thing, whereas the reality is that success is different for everyone.  The book asks: ‘What does success mean to you?’  For the successful modern musician, performance is only one component of a successful career.

Who is the book for?

The book is aimed at music educators, but it is also great resource for students.  It is written in an academic style – a study of how the skills musicians learn can marry with the real world.  However, those looking for a quick ‘how to guide’ should still delve into the book, dipping into those sections that are of particular use to them – especially as not all will have enlightened teachers willing to guide them in preparing for ‘the real world’.

Artists from other disciplines will find much of interest too –  the advice applies to any artist looking to make a living in the real world: actors, dancers, artists, designers etc.  I would urge any arts student who is serious about their career to add this book to their professional library.

Some highlights

  • I found the different geographical viewpoints of the chapters very refreshing and engaging.
  • Michael Hannan’s chapter is written as a story, and highlights the importance of networking, while being an advert for versatility and non-typical skills combinations.
  • There is a reminder that we should learn about the less interesting business stuff – as this is yet another advantage we can gain for ourselves with just a little bit of effort.  (In my experience, the more ‘boring’ the skill, the fewer people have it).
  • Rineke Smilde’s chapter ‘Change and the Challenges of Lifelong Learning’ challenges ‘hierarchy thinking’ (p115); ie – those at the top are better than the rest and get performance careers, while those who ‘don’t make it’ teach or do random jobs.  Do we really still believe this?  Isn’t it time we shook up these old ideas?
  • I also particularly liked the case studies, which are profiles of actual careers, and how they came to be.


Few young artists understand just how crucial entrepreneurial skills will be to their career success, and that these skills are often not that difficult to learn.  Even those few who will go on to have careers based solely on performance, will find cultivating skills such as networking very useful.

In a changing world, it is the educator’s responsibility to prepare the student for life outside academia, and it is the student’s responsibility to figure out what ‘success’ will mean for them.

Buy the book from Amazon