Susan de Weger changes things. First of all herself. Susan trained in Australia as a classical horn player, then left behind her “broken musical identity” to become a very successful entrepreneur and consultant in the UK. Surprisingly, her musical skills came with her along the way.
A return to Australia, a return to music—but this time with all her entrepreneurial drive, and a passion for transforming the music education system through her own lessons learned. In our first of several fascinating talks with Susan, let’s find out what life learnings led her to her present musical expression and her role as mastermind of Notable Values , an initiative dedicated to re-engineering the music careers of the 21st century.
I left music pretty much as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. I was one of the 99.6% of music undergraduates for whom a job in an orchestra was not going to be a reality.
I had no idea of who I was and what to do. In fact, I had been broken as an artist by my musical education, which told me that there was only one mold, one good outcome out of all that training—and I didn’t fit that mold.
I walked away from music altogether, and into 16-year corporate career, including a very successful 10 year IT consultancy practice in the UK. When we came back to Australia, it was a time in my life where I really wanted to work out what had happened to me as a musician, as an artist. Whose view of my worth was I operating under? What had the rest of the world seen of me? Did I have any value in my musical voice?
I was very fortunate to playing again after 16 years of being completely away from music, even after I had abandoned my musical self as this broken shell in my early 20s. I started working professionally quite quickly. Then I decided to tackle a master’s degree in performance in my early 40s because I thought, “I’ve got the capacity in my brain to be able to think independently about what I want and what I’m going to do with this.”
I was accepted at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. It became readily apparent that the conservatory education experience does not meet the needs of the 21st century—and not just at that school. I could see that my background, as an entrepreneur and business owner, really fit with what the 21st century world of musicians actually is—self-employment and creation of employment for themselves.
I started looking around at what music schools were addressing this, and I found the New England Conservatory of music in Boston. It so happens that Melbourne and Boston are sister cities. There’s a very substantial fellowship available for talented Melburnians, across disciplines, to go to Boston and to embed themselves in world-class programs and then to bring that knowledge back and to do great stuff here. I was awarded that fellowship, and I was able to go spend a couple of weeks with the director of their program.
I was ignited! I understand the world of enterprise and I also understand the world of musicians. Career support and identity development—that’s really where my skills fit and also where my passion fits.
It was the right time in my life for all the parts to collide.
That’s how Notable Values was born. I thought, “I have two choices here. One is to be at the front of the conversation about what it means to be a musician and how to build a life. Or the other one is to walk away from it again and not be involved in music-making anymore.” I couldn’t walk away from it. I just couldn’t abandon it again—not for myself, not for others. As a mature musician, I am responsible to our next generation to help them have a better outcome than I had out of my training and early music life.
Absolutely. Those of us that have one foot in higher education world and the other in the working world of musicians.
I think this happens to a lot of conservatory students. They get to the end of their training and they start to see where their skillset is in relation to the standard that’s required for professional performance. They see that there’s a quite a gap there.
There are other music students for whom a job in an orchestra is not what they’re interested in. It’s a wonderful opportunity but it also has an equal amount of limitations and challenge. The conservatories really hold up this orchestra job—or concert soloist for keyboard players or opera singers—as the only successful outcome out of your training.
If you don’t fit that model, who are you? How do you start to gauge what success, life and career are going to mean for you, when the last four years you’ve been training for something that doesn’t fit who you are and what you’re good at?
Yeah. It’s taken a lot of unraveling actually and that’s been the buggiest learning for me out of this entire experience. Here I am, a successful, independent entrepreneur. Yet just a couple of people, all those years ago, told me that my artistry was not valuable—and I let that be the message to myself.
What I wanted to do was to reclaim ownership of my artistry and be able to be satisfied in myself that I had something of interest and of value to share with other people.
I wouldn’t change my trajectory because I wouldn’t have had this experience. It would not have been part of my story. I’d just like to say to others to not go it alone. If this is a journey that you’re going through, seek out help. There’s a lot of amazing performance psychologists who themselves are musicians, who have had similar experiences. They want to heal our community as well and assist others to not live in fear and pain. Seek out some help.
When I worked in business, I didn’t tell anyone I had a music training because I was so embarrassed and devastated by the fact that some people had said that my musicianship was worthless, that I was ashamed to be a trained musician.
Yet everything we do in the practice room—how we train, our creative process—transfers to career success in any industry.
Just recently, the World Economic Forum released a report about the job skills required for employability in 2020:
- Communication. That’s what we do as musicians.
- Collaboration. That’s what chamber music is, and playing with other people.
- Creativity. We have to take this complex code that is written music, that’s far more complex than text, and translate it into sound and emotion. And we have to work out technical problems on our instrument to be able to play the damn thing in the first place.
- Problem solving. When we train at a very high level as musicians, we develop a core set of employability skills that translate anywhere you choose to focus your attention.
I see now how it connects. But I didn’t at the time. I had chosen to shut the door on who I was as a trained musician because I didn’t fit the model of success for that school. Therefore I was unsuccessful and worthless in my mind.
I still perform, I still solo. I’ve got a big solo gig coming up in October. This month alone I played Tchaikovsky program on Sunday. I’m doing a chamber opera this month and I’m also doing a thing called the Australia Discovery Orchestra, which is a live streaming orchestra. I continue to play as a professional freelance horn player.
I choose to not hide from my performance anxiety, to stand on my own and make music.
No. It’s just me. That comes from having built your reputation and a network. Keeping those connections alive. I target opportunities where I know I’m going to be working with really great people because that’s more important more than anything.
There’s absolutely a place for professional representation, but completely handing over the responsibility for your contractual and financial well-being is not a very wise idea. If you have representation, it’s still your money that needs to come in your pocket so you need to be actively engaged in ensuring that you understand the decisions that are being made and that they’re in your best interest.
I play the horn, and we have a certain body of work available to us. We don’t have the depth or volume that the violin or the piano has. The same pieces get played all the time. Particularly things like the Mozart concerto that don’t really fit who I am and they don’t really fit my style of playing. They’re incredible pieces of music but everybody plays them.
I don’t want to be the same as everybody else and I won’t ever play the way they do. Trying to aspire to something that I can’t achieve is really damaging to my developing voice. So what am I going to play?
Then I discovered this huge amount of really fantastic 21st century repertoire for the low register of the horn. It’s not the stuff that sounds like rusty gate being closed. It’s beautiful music. What is the best part of my playing? It’s the low register. I pretty much only solo now and specialize in playing 21st century repertoire for the low horn.
There’s nobody else doing it, apart from Sarah Willis in Berlin and Denise Tryon in Philadelphia—but I’m not competing with them because they’re on other sides of the world.
Work out what you’re good at, find what you like and find a way to combine those two things to differentiate yourself as a soloist. Find the biggest niche you can.
Also, it means I don’t feel the weight of having to play things a certain way. If you reinterpret Mozart, most people will think it’s wrong. It’s fun playing new repertoire and I’m starting to commission works as well. There’s no wrong, it’s just my version of it. When I perform, I don’t have the weight of this anticipation that it has to be certain way. That helps with my performance anxiety as well. It is who I choose to be today.
From the Practice Room to the Stage and Beyond
From music to business—to music business: Susan de Weger’s experiences light the career path for 21st-century musicians. She has learned first-hand that rigorous musical training prepares musicians for a surprising number of lucrative and rewarding careers. In her Beyond the Stage podcast, she conducts interviews with highly trained musicians who have built successful careers in law, medicine, business and social enterprise—while keeping their musical identity.
In future installments of this interview, we’ll learn how, with Notable Values—a resource for independent thinking about identity development and career outcomes for musicians—Susan is actively transforming the way we teach and learn what it means to be a musician today and in the future.
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