Career progression in challenging times

Last year COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown affected all of us who work in the music sector and caused many of you to look at how you could make the most of the skills that you already had, whether it be teaching online, live-streaming a performance or working at home. As we move into the new year, whatever stage you have reached, it is always useful to reflect and review your career, to develop skills and expand your portfolio. Here, career coach and mentor, Marion Friend (, takes you through a few questions you should be asking when you look at your career and think about the future.


We begin by asking three questions so we can start thinking about our careers: ‘What might we all share’ ‘What challenges might we experience in 2021’ and ‘Are there any positives to come out of this extraordinary period in our lives?’


What might we all share?

  • a commitment to music
  • membership of ISM, a renowned and respected professional organisation with benefits and access to specialist advice and support
  • the desire to belong to a community of like-minded individuals
  • the opportunity
    • to develop on a personal and a professional level
    • to exchange knowledge with fellow members
    • to adapt to changing environments and to adopt new skills


What challenges might we experience in 2021?

  • the continuing impact of COVID-19
  • personal and professional fears for the present and the future
  • being scared
  • a sense of isolation
  • a level of anxiety, sometimes severe
  • mental health issues
  • questioning our career paths
  • lack of employment opportunities
  • financial difficulties


Are there any positives to come out of this extraordinary period in our lives?

  • increased engagement with social media for learning and communication
  • local community support and activity
  • awareness of the power of nature and the changing seasons
  • connectivity at all levels, in person or remotely
  • time at home for personal pursuits and with family, neighbours and friends
  • the value of friendships old and new
  • music-making in a wide range of settings, often with professionals and amateurs connecting locally
  • time for creativity through new pursuits or re-visiting long forgotten ones

How can we help ourselves to stay centred and motivated within the constraints imposed by COVID-19?



Currently, there is much discussion about the need for resilience in these challenging times, to be able to recover from setbacks and to bounce back with resolve.


Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest-serving First Lady in the United States allegedly said, ‘People are like teabags, they don’t know how strong they are until they are put in hot water.’


Research has shown that the key ingredients for maintaining and improving resilience are having perspective, a sense of purpose, emotional intelligence, a network, and keeping healthy. Here are a few points for reflection:



God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference

Reinhold Niebuhr theologian, philosopher (1892–1971)



  • do you have the intention to accomplish what is meaningful to you as an individual?
  • is there congruence between your own values and your working life?


Emotional intelligence

  • are you able to acknowledge and express how you feel within a personal and a professional context?
  • can you change your mood and emotions when you need to?
  • can you recognise the emotions in others?



  • do you have a support network to get you through ‘hot water’ times?
  • are you supporting others in your personal and professional networks?



  • are there ways you can help yourself to achieve a balanced lifestyle?
  • have you investigated mindfulness? For example, the Headspace app: com


How can I widen my horizon?

It is easy to become too embroiled in the negative aspects of our career progression and to lose a sense of who we are and what inspires us, whether in music or in other spheres.


A useful way to explore our interests and to build energy, confidence and perspective is to access the myriad of free courses that are available and to ‘dip in’ with no particular agenda. Examples of such courses are:

  • Open Learn: edu/openlearn/
  • Future Learn: com/
  • Coursera: org


Looking at your CV – do you have one and when did you last review it?

Writing a CV is a great exercise for reflecting on your skills, attributes and experience, whether or not there is a job application on the horizon. Take a look at yourself holistically and include the key achievements from across your career or your university or conservatoire period if you are a recent graduate. What did you initiate, develop and how did you make a difference? What is your sphere of influence? Do include any voluntary work and interests too. CV writing applies to performers and composers as well as teachers and arts administrators, even if you have never been asked to produce one, it will be useful and interesting for you and for those reading it.


Take a look at: How to write a brilliant CV (Corinne Mills, But there are many equivalent good reads in this area.



Gaining experience –where do you begin?

For recent graduates or those needing to look at new career options, do explore internships, work placements, volunteering and shadowing opportunities. The reality is that these will be unpaid or at the minimum wage, but they can provide invaluable experience and useful contacts for future employment. These roles are usually advertised so it is important to subscribe to as many relevant mailing lists as possible.

Your networks and contacts also come to the fore, as some roles are set up informally.


Some examples of useful sites are:

  • com
  • Young People in the Arts



Looking outside the music sector

Whether as a part-time job or to bring in additional income, remember there are jobs outside of the music sector that you can do too.  A frequent response I hear is: ‘but I’ve only ever worked in music’.  This does not mean that your skills and attributes will not be recognised elsewhere. Think about your transferable skills such as: organisational abilities, digital and technical expertise, event planning, marketing, teamwork and multi-tasking; these are applicable in many other sectors. You may have demonstrated them in small ways, but they are still relevant.


Explore, develop your online presence, build your networks and have courage. Good luck!

[written for Incorporated Society of Musicians 2021 Handbook]