A Life in Music

By Hilary Apfelstadt

For Ruth Watson Henderson, there was never any question about her career path. From a young age, she was committed to music, practicing daily, entering and winning competitions, and leaving Toronto as a teenager to study in New York. With remarkable talent as a pianist, a supportive family and excellent teachers, and strong personal motivation, she knew her life’s work early. A career in the arts takes that kind of dedication that marks the life of musicians, visual artists, actors, dancers and athletes, among others. One simply cannot “catch up” after a late start in fields where it can take years to develop such performance skills.

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As a child, Ruth seemed destined for a career as a solo pianist, but as time went on, she moved from soloist to collaborative pianist, serving as accompanist for outstanding choral colleagues, and in the meantime, branched into composition. Given her varied talents, she could have pursued any of those areas exclusively, but one path led to the next as Ruth’s life circumstances changed. Her choice to marry and have children made it logical for her to work closer to home as an accompanist rather than living a more solitary life of a solo pianist, which meant traveling to concertize and play with orchestras. Similarly, her experiences accompanying choirs led to her productivity as a choral composer. As a keyboard player, she could also write for piano and organ, and challenged herself to expand her compositional skills to composing for orchestra as well.

Not everyone is as compelled by music as Ruth was, nor do they have her talent or level of family support. But even if we are talented, motivated and educated, how do we know a career in music is the path we should take? Some of us feel we have no options, given our passion. But others are not so sure, and sometimes our families express concern about whether we can make a living from music. When I told my parents about my decision to major in music, my father, who was always supportive of my musical pursuits to that point, asked me how I would support myself. He thought that teaching English, my second choice, would be more secure. But to his credit, once the decision was made, he got behind it 100%. Like Ruth, I was fortunate.

The current reality is that music is a highly competitive field and not everyone reaches the heights they may imagine for themselves. In today’s market, it is vital that musicians be flexible and agile, entrepreneurial, and willing to adapt to the changing demands around us. Good skills and passion will always serve us well, but these days, openness to many possibilities within music and a willingness to explore various career options will better position us to succeed. In her own way, that is what Ruth did by shifting from one focus to another within her musical life.