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Working with Musical Clients? Remember to Look at Transferable Skills!


by Jan Bottomer

I am a career advisor. I am also a cellist.

For the past five years I have played with I Medici di McGill Orchestra – “the doctors’ orchestra” of McGill. To me, my orchestra is a weekly reminder that musical training is only limiting if you let it be, and that, more often than not, the skills developed along the way can open up worlds of experience and opportunity. The core members of this high-level amateur orchestra include doctors and professors representing specialties from Ophthalmology to Obstetrics, Oceanic Sciences to Electroacoustics. These people have been musicians for most of their lives, and continue to play while also holding down highly demanding jobs in a range of diverse fields.

As the Music and Arts Career Advisor at McGill University, I often meet with music students or those with significant musical training, who are looking for work outside of their field, be it for short-term summer or part-time employment, or as part of a longer-term career move. At first glance such musical backgrounds can present a potential challenge to both career counsellors and employers, who wonder how to help the violin performance major applying for part-time sales work in a bookstore, the recent piano graduate interested in marketing, or the oboe player planning on applying to medical school.

But it is important to remember that much, much more than sheer talent is involved in becoming a good musician. I’ve found that one of the keys to working successfully with musical clients is to spend some quality time discussing their background and experience with the goal of illuminating the many transferable skills they have likely developed as a result of their training. While mastering their instrument, what else did they learn in the process?
Some skills, such as creativity and discipline, spring to mind immediately, and when you dig a little deeper there are many more. As part of my presentation during the Cannexus conference back in January, we brainstormed a great list of skills, including the following dozen:

  • Ability to work well independently (i.e. in the practice room)
  • Teamwork and Collaboration – so much of musical training revolves around being part of numerous ensembles, ranging from 2-4 to 40+ people!
  • Poise and Presentation Skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Receptivity to constructive criticism and ability to quickly integrate feedback
  • Time management and organizational skills
  • Fine motor skills, Manual dexterity, Physical stamina
  • Listening and Communication skills
  • Resourcefulness
  • Professionalism
  • Discipline, Perseverance, Goal-setting
  • Adaptability/Versatility/Improvisation – musicians need to be able to think on their feet and adapt to everything from last minute program changes to audience requests


Following his B.Mus. and several years as a professional musician, my brother-in-law completed a Master’s of Library and Information Science and now works as a research project manager for a local hospital, while continuing to gig occasionally as a drummer. I know music students who have brought their myriad skills to bear in medical school, and also in the mining industry! Others have gone on to work in marketing and business, and to run arts organizations.  As my colleagues and I often tell students who arrive at appointments asking: “What can I do with my degree/training?”, the more pertinent question is usually: “What do I want to use my degree/training to do?!” Helping our musical clients to develop an appreciation and awareness of their transferable skills will only expand the sense of possibility and potential which the latter question opens up!

Jan Bottomer, M.A.
As Music and Arts Career Advisor at McGill University, Jan Bottomer, M.A. (Counselling Psychology), CCC, has initiated and developed a comprehensive program of career services for Music students. A life-long amateur musician – she is currently one of the principal cellists with I Medici di McGill Orchestra – Jan is an active member of the Network of Music Career Development Officers (NETMCDO), and is passionate about helping musicians achieve their career goals. At Cannexus12, she presented on Getting in Tune: Effective Career Counselling with your Musical Clients. She can be contacted at

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