by Dr. Paul Guise (originally published in 2005)

is an arts consultant, conductor and music educator living in Winnipeg, MB, Canada.
Check out his website at

Last month we looked at the pluses and minuses of learning to be a professional musician through trial-and-error. This month, we’ll consider another popular approach that has been around for centuries, mentoring. Mentoring can be a great way to learn the business side of musicianship. Established professionals are often well versed in the skills needed to succeed, and many are enthusiastic about passing on their knowledge to the next generation. Others, however, will see you as potential competition and will be sure to squash you like a bug. It pays to be able to tell the two groups apart.

As mentioned last month, sometimes the best approach is to combine approaches, and from this perspective a mentoring relationship can be ideal. Consider that your mentor may have learned through trial-and-error, in which case you can learn from their mistakes without suffering their consequences (this is what your Grandparents have been trying to say for all these years). On the other hand, if they learned through education, you can benefit from their tuition fees! There is no free lunch, however, so be prepared to take the good with the bad, the relevant with the… interesting. Remember it all – what’s relevant now may not be what’s relevant in five years.

Mentors can also provide access to industry professionals and networking opportunities that can make a huge difference at the beginning of a career. Being a professional musician involves more than just knowing your instrument, your craft, or your market. Sometimes what you know can only take you so far; you need to know who, and they need to know you. Having an established professional vouch for you (or even mention your existence) can make the difference between playing an instrument and being a professional musician.

There is one major pitfall to mentoring: the mentor’s experience may not match your needs. A performer who gets great reviews but makes their money from teaching at a college may be a great mentor to have as a performer. That same individual may not be the best source of financial advice if you’re planning to be a session musician, piano tuner, or luthier. Similarly, an experienced professional in the recording industry may know little about touring, or teaching, or composing. It can also be difficult for a professional musician to be objective about their profession or their own knowledge of it. An individual’s professional reputation may not mean as much as their personality, objectivity, or communications skills when choosing a mentor.

Another possible concern is the amount of time you and your mentor can spend together. Due to professional, personal, family or other pressures, there may simply not be enough hours in the week to get a lot out of your mentoring relationship. Scheduling conflicts may mean that you can only get together when there isn’t much going on. This can be a major problem or a major opportunity, depending on the situation. Some people learn best by observing their mentor during the action, such as a concert or recording session, while others find quiet conversation and reflection more effective. The same concept applies to both parties, so make sure there’s common ground!

The bottom line if you’re entering into a mentoring relationship is to choose carefully. Mentoring can be a wonderful thing for some people, while others will do best if left to their own devices. And of course, some learn best in groups, carrying books and paying tuition, surrounded by their peers and led by professional educators. Next month, we’ll look at opportunities to learn about music business at Canadian colleges (don’t worry, there won’t be a test).