How I Stopped Asking Permission to Have a Career in Music: A Talk21 with Sarah Robinson

As an aspiring classical musician, Sarah Robinson did everything right. She went to a conservatory for an orchestral studies program; she honed her technique with a “flute guru” until she was a “monster player;” she devoted all of her time and money throughout her 20s to the task of winning a full-time orchestra job. After all, you needed that orchestra job to be a successful musician. At least, that’s what Robinson needed, and she was working her very hardest to get it.

But what if you still don’t win the job? Do you really have to forever resign yourself to the idea of being a “failure?” At the 21CMposium hosted by DePauw University, which welcomed performers, educators, entrepreneurs and musicians of all kinds to imagine the 21st-century musician, Robinson shared how she learned how to take charge of her own career: how she came to book her own shows, make her own programs, create opportunities and, most importantly, how she learned to embrace music once again as something that could be not just life-affirming but fun.


On the grueling ordeal of orchestra auditions… 

A funny thing happened. The more auditions I took, the worse and worse I played – because I felt so much pressure. I knew there were only so many jobs available. … I had one really heartbreaking day as runner-up for a full-time job in Hawaii. But runner-up, final rounds – they get you nothing. You go home empty-handed, minus all the money and time you’ve spent. And I kept having to do this … failure after failure after failure. No job. I got depressed, and I felt terrible all the time. And I started to take auditions really hard. When it didn’t go well, I would come home, and I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for two or three days.

On the turning point…

One winter evening in Cincinnati, I went into the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, and I saw the musicians of Classical Revolution Cincinnati performing there. And they were taking their music straight to their audience. … They booked their own clubs, they found their colleagues, [they] chose what they were going to play. And I saw creativity, joy, life, music and this beautiful connection between audience and performers. And it was like I had spent 10 years banging my head against a door that would never open, only to look around and realize that there were no walls. I could just walk outside and create the career that I wanted. 

On what performance started to mean…

Gradually I came to realize that I really didn’t care if I had the job that would prove I was a successful musician. I was too busy being a musician. I was creating projects, collaborating, contributing to other people’s projects. And I found that I wasn’t a fearful performer anymore. Because performing meant getting together with a bunch of people I really liked and making something awesome. 

On personal definitions of success…

I came to my own definition of success. And I would check my internal compass against what I was doing to see if it was successful. So [now] I ask myself: Is it interesting? Am I supporting other artists? And am I helping to make people’s lives a little happier and a little bit more fulfilling? And those questions are how I decide what I do next in my career.

Sarah Robinson

Sarah Robinson is flutist and co-founder of Helix Collective, a Los Angeles-based ensemble that specializes in multi-media, collaborative performance and recording. Sarah has recorded on the scores for over 30 films, …more 

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