Why musicians should learn to code

Photo credit: Jemima Willcox

My name is Paula Muldoon, and I’m a highly trained classical violinist. I have a B.M. (from the University of Michigan) and an M.M (from the Guildhall in London). I’ve recorded in Abbey Road, I’ve performed in Carnegie Hall, and I’ve played in four continents. I’ve been a member of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and I’ve played with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I’m currently the leader of the Cambridge Philharmonic and the Cambridge String Quartet.

For the past three years, I have also held a full-time job as a software engineer. And in this post, I’m going to tell you why I think you should too.

1. Salary

I’ve been a freelance musician in both the USA and the UK and I hope I never take for granted the unbelievable security of having the same amount of money deposited in my bank account every month. I earned more money as a junior developer in my first job than I ever did as a violinist. And I’ve had roughly a 10% increase in each of my jobs. Plus with salary comes a much easier ability to take out a mortgage. I can’t state what a diffence a regular salary has made to my quality of life, especially to my mental health. (Hey, I can now afford therapy!)

2. Pension

I always said pension was something I’d worry about when I turned 30. Then I turned 30 and became a software engineer, and now I have a tax-efficient, employer-contributed pension. UK law requires employers to contribute at least 3% and employees at least 5% of their salaries to a pension. Yes, I started saving about 8 years later than most employees, but with 35 years of a working life left and an aggressive savings plan now, I am confident I’ll be able to retire comfortably.

Photo credit: Jemima Willcox

3. Healthcare

Less relevant in the UK, but if you live in a barbaric country that doesn’t regard healthcare as a basic human right, this could literally be life-saving. I still remember the time I got a $600 bill after going to the ER in the USA for a strep throat test shortly after I got off my parents’ health insurance. With insurance? No problem. Without? I spent six months paying off that bill. And I didn’t even have strep throat.

4. Holiday/Vacation days

I have 30 days of holiday (plus 8 public holidays). Now I work for a German company, so this is more generous than my UK jobs, which were usually 25 days plus public holidays. Even in the USA, you will still get some holiday! This means you can recharge, rest, go somewhere WITHOUT THE VIOLIN (or whatever your instrument is). It’s taken me 3 years, but I’m finally able to take a violin-free vacation without the feeling I should be practising.

5. Coding is fun

OK, enough with the boring practicalities. Coding is a lot of fun. You can work on all sorts of problems — so far, I have sold shoes online, developed cognitive assessment tests used in clinical trials, and now work in legal tech. Is there an area of the world you care about? You can code there. I actually had no idea whether I would like code before I became a programmer — I just really needed financial stability. Turns out coding is SO MUCH FUN.

Photo credit: Jemima Willcox

6. Musicians have lots of transferable skills

Communication skills, teamwork, analytical minds, desire for excellence, strong work habits.

7. Music can be even more rewarding

I still play lots of music, and I now enjoy it so much more. Everything I do is on my own terms, which means that I turn up for rehearsals and concerts where I want to be there — it’s not for the paycheck.

8. You can still be a professional musician

Lots of programmers have side hustles. Often they are a small code-based business but sometimes they are music! So I have a nice side-income in violin playing / teaching that I love doing (see above) and am in no way dependent on the income. So yes, with Covid-19 I lost a lot of income, but I still have my programming job and just slightly less disposable income (oh yea, you get disposable income).

Photo credit: Jemima Willcox

9. Ethical Considerations

The software industry has a huge issue with lack of diversity, which leads to serious ethical issues — think algorithms that perversely punish people of colour. Musicians bring a tremendously fresh perspective and a mindset geared toward understanding and cooperation. You can make a real difference in the world by coding.

10. It’s not selling out — it’s creating a new path

People look down on musicians who take a day job. I’m calling b*llsh*t on this. Classical music has a very narrow definition of success, which results in many music grads living a financially perilous existence in exchange for the perceived glory of being on stage with a great ensemble. The financial freedom a day job gives allows artists space to be more creative. We need to redefine being a professional musician so that it includes people with all sorts of income rather than stigmatising them as “sell-outs” or “not good enough”.

Hopefully this has given you some food for thought. If you’re a musician considering a career change, check out the resources on my website https://paulamuldoon.com/resources-for-new-programmers/ and get in touch — I’m happy to chat with you.

We’re at a sweet spot now where the demand for programmers still massively outweighs the supply. It’s also the only career where you can train in 3 months and get a full-time well-paid job. If you’re thinking of becoming a software engineer, now is definitely the time to do it. Good luck!

Photo credit: Jemima Willcox

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