Somewhere around five percent. That’s how many music conservatory grads wind up with the coveted orchestra job. What about the rest? In a series of conversations with Susan de Weger of Notable Values, we have explored how she fixed her own broken musical identity. Then how she took this experience and her years of success in business and went on to forge a new paradigm for 21st-century musical careers.

Through Notable Values and now IgniteLab, she helps professionals and students create careers out of their own unique identities. Here we spoke with Susan about her emerging IgniteLab program at the Melbourne Conservatorium.

Q: Welcome back to Musical U, Susan. Earlier we spoke about the imbalance created by some traditional attitudes within the conservatory system—a glut of highly qualified orchestral musicians competing for a small and shrinking pool of orchestra jobs. It seems like now, with IgniteLab, you’re going right to the heart of the beast.

Few conservatories in the world would challenge the fact that young musicians need to be trained to do much more than just play their instrument. Inspired by my time at the New England Conservatory in Boston, I met with the Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Professor Gary McPherson, and said, “I’m here as a Masters Performance student, but this is my entrepreneurial background and I have the capacity to deliver you an innovative program that meets the needs of your school and your students.”

I saw a need and I presented an answer to someone who had the power to provide the resources. He said yes to a pilot program and from the success of that project, the school has created a new faculty role of Associate Lecturer in Music Entrepreneurship. I’ve created a job that didn’t exist because I saw a gap and was able to present a solution.

Q: How does IgniteLab work?

IgniteLab has three streams to the program:

Firstly we host a range of seminars and workshops where inspiring speakers share their stories. This helps our students to understand the many places their degree could take them.


These speakers come from a wide range of the music business. Some are self-managed performers and some involved in music administration. These sessions finish with networking that provides our students the opportunity to meet these role models and connect with them.

The second component is an entrepreneurial grants program where we fund students to curate and create their own projects outside the music school. This year we were fortunate to fund six projects, and four of those were performance projects of new music.

Interestingly, two were non-performance projects and one of those projects has gone on to build into an income-generating business for that student. This grant program allows our students to experience employment and opportunity—not just in performance, but in many other areas of music.

Q: How does this grant process work?

First of all, we insist that the students go beyond the idea stage and present us with a full project and business plan.

”… there’s no need to wait for some mystical time to be ready: the only time is now.”

One of the students came and said, “We have an issue with recording recitals for students. If our students play outside the building, there’s not an easy way to record their performances, and professional recording services are too expensive. I’ve got some technical expertise in this area so my proposal is to create a business to offer on-demand, location recording services to students and young professionals at an affordable cost.”

We thought that was a brilliant idea. He saw a need, understood how he was uniquely equipped to fix the problem, and presented the solution


Musician performer flute playing. Flutist on the blackThen there is this brilliant flute player, one of the best young flutists in this country. She said, “I was really curious about how conductors learn their music when they don’t have their instrument. They don’t have the orchestra with them. How do they learn this stuff?”

She did a lot of research about mental practice, then applied it to herself: “Being a flute player—like a horn player—I can’t practice for nine hours a day. It’s physically impossible. How do we use our time effectively to be able to learn music when we don’t have our instruments with us?” She’s worked with performance psychologists from the university and a couple of other places in the world.

Now she’s producing an Ebook. “Here are the core 25 flute excerpts that come up on auditions. Here’s how to learn about them and work on them when you don’t have the instrument on your face.”

This first iteration is for flutists. Then she is going to go on to write for other instruments.

She sees the challenge that comes with professional performance, with the mental challenge and the financial difficulties. She said, actually, “As much as I love performing, I really love working with young people and inspiring them, helping them to develop.” She’s looking to build a career in and around curriculum and policy development for education programs in primary and secondary schools.

Q: Fascinating. So that was part two—the entrepreneurial grants program.

Yes. Then, part three, which is quite unique, is one-to-one coaching. Before the students come and see me, they fill out a pre-meeting questionnaire that helps them explore their identity:

“Where did you grow up? What languages do you speak? What’s your family background? Who do you live with? Describe to me, if you had a whole day free on Sunday and $100.00 in your pocket, what would you choose to do?”

This reflective questionnaire helps them to refine who they are and what they want. From there we work together to map out a plan of how to get there and where to start.


Q: Terrific. Inspiration, entrepreneurial support, and one-to-one coaching. Those are the three components. Where do you see IgniteLab going in the future?

It would be wonderful to see IgniteLab growing to include a health and wellbeing program because musicians are elite athletes. The Alexander technique of bodywork has become part of our curriculum for singers, but there’s not quite as much available for instrumentalists. For example, I play the horn: a really awkward, heavy piece of plumbing. It’s not only wonky sideways, but it’s wonky back to front.

Every instrument has its own ergonomic quirks so we need to know how best to practice for optimal performance—with our own instrument and our own body. How do we use our bodies as efficiently as possible to continue a lifetime of playing without injury? Hearing preservation is another major occupational health issue that we need to be addressing.

Moving beyond physical well-being for peak performance, it would be wonderful to integrate the research into mindfulness and its benefits. Bringing together these issues of training for musical excellence, autonomy in career success along with physical and mental wellbeing will create a new generation of artists equipped to thrive.

Q: Let’s come back around to the inspiring workshops and seminars that formed the first aspect of IgniteLab. They go beyond simple classes and become networking opportunities. Can you tell us more about that?

Networking is about giving and not about getting. It’s not by magic these relationships happen. They take time and investment. Being present with everyone you meet, and not just thinking that it’s only other musicians who can create opportunity for you.

susan-de-weger-horn-door-smileMost people are truly interested in what we do and they need to hear us speak about ourselves with passion. Their support can come in a range of different ways so we need to practice phoning people and saying, “I’m really interested in your work. I’m keen to pursue a career path similar to yours. Could I meet you for a coffee and hear a little bit more about the work you’re doing and if you’ve got some advice for me?” Investing in creating and nurturing relationships will help ensure you’re in the right place for luck and preparation to collide.

Great networking means putting yourself forward all the time to move relationships forward—not anticipating, or expecting, that it will come directly back to you.

Give others the support that you would want for yourself.

There’s one thing that’s often overlooked when we’re talking about networking. There’s huge opportunity to be had in volunteering your services. Giving your time puts you—and your great talent and ability—in front of other people. That’s where a lot of networking and opportunity happens. It’s not who you know, but it’s who knows you and knows the quality of your work. Volunteering connects us to the world outside the practice room and shows how we can build a rich life in many ways, not just musically.

The real world can be quite a shock when we emerge from that practice room. It sounds like IgniteLab prepares conservatory grads to hit the ground running.

We hope so! Students who choose to connect with our program are supported to put themselves out there through volunteering, networking, creating arts ventures and developing a picture of who they are and what they want to do. We help them understand that there’s no need to wait for some mystical time to be ready: the only time is now.

In that sense, their graduation is part of their musical journey—not the start of something new or a hurdle they need pass in order to start building their career.

Fantastic. It’s not like a leap off the old cliff.

Correct, hopefully we can create a seamless transition and given students the support to understand a full picture of the places their degree could take them.

I have a family member who built a globe-trotting career as a professional cellist and now has a successful legal career. She quite openly says, “I wouldn’t have the success I have now if I hadn’t trained as a professional musician.” That’s why I am so grateful to 3MBS who have supported my new podcast, Beyond The Stage, which explores the value of high-level music training for career success in medicine, law, business and beyond.

Hearing these stories of people who have been musicians and—if you ask them in their heart—would still say, “I’m a creator and I’m a musician, but it’s not the life I’m living. It’s not what I do. It’s who I am.

That shows our young musicians that they can decide what success means, and not accept the one-size-fits-all notion of the orchestral performer or concert soloist as the outcome of their training.


That ties perfectly back to your own story. I think it’s such an exciting project you have underway to meet this substantial need.

Thank you, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share this with your readers. They need to know that—far from a single track outcome with limited job prospects—music education is flexible. It is up to them to decide how to use that training and build a musical life. We’re in such exciting and uncharted territory now, with the digital revolution on us and the erosion of the traditional barriers to success.

When we take it upon ourselves to be autonomous and to think beyond ourselves, the opportunities are limitless. I’m really excited for this next generation, to see what they choose to do with their ability and how they can change the world through their art.

Q: That’s terrific, Susan. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations, and I’m inspired to see that—thanks to forward-thinking musicians like you—the career picture for highly trained musicians is shifting from cutthroat competition to limitless opportunity.

Beyond the Stage

beyond-the-stage-podcastCurious about those inspiring IgniteLab seminars at Melbourne Conservatorium? Susan has made this kind of material available to us all with 3MBS and her Beyond the Stage podcasts. Open your mind with these 30-minute interviews with highly trained musicians who have built successful careers in law, medicine, business and social enterprise.

Are music career decisions looming for you? Even though it’s only one program at one conservatory, the principles IgniteLab are available to us all. Inspire yourself with the stories of other musicians creative career choices, look deeply into your own identity, build networks through giving support to others and volunteering, seek mentoring, and look for ways in which your talents can serve your community.

Want to become more musical?

Musicality ChecklistWe can help!

Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you're starting from.

The Musicality Checklist will quickly reveal your personal musicality profile and how you can improve your natural musicianship.

Available FREE today!

Get the Checklist

Musical ULearn More inside Musical U

Musical U provides in-depth training modules, an easy-to-use personalised planning system, a friendly and supportive community, and access to expert help whenever you need it.