The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 11: Getting Over the “Starving Artist” Stereotype

By Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

We all know the stereotype in popular culture - the “starving artist” who’s determined to do what they love, even though the pay is meager compared to any other field presented in the given scenario. Oftentimes, (especially if you’re me), you jokingly apply this label to yourself when someone asks about your career in the arts - even when things are going well.

But sometimes, things aren’t going well. Sometimes, you may really feel like that starving artist that we like to use as a joke. As a grad student who’s truly been living paycheck to paycheck for the first time in my life for the last two years, I feel this way a lot. There have been times when I wasn't sure where my next meal was coming from or relied on the charity of my family and friends to eat three meals a day. I really felt like the “starving artist” too stubborn or devoted to her ideals to consider pursuing any other field.

But even when it’s true, the “starving artist” stereotype isn’t really worth internalizing. Personally, I’ve always found it a little demeaning and belittling to what we actually do - I know some people may think I’m being “oversensitive” when I say these things, but in an age where arts programs are already underfunded nationwide, we should be doing our best to promote the importance an arts education can provide, rather than mocking it when it proves less lucrative than something else.

So when you’re confronted with the “starving artist” stereotype, here are a few things you can consider (especially if you feel the way I do about it):

  1. Remember why you got into the arts in the first place. Countless people warned me from the beginning about going into a career in music - everything from “Don’t do it unless you can’t see yourself doing anything else,” to the classic “How are you going to make a living with that?” Personally, I find the fulfillment I get from a good performance, or a Q&A with middle schoolers hearing a piccolo for the first time, far more important than having more zeros at the end of my paycheck. As long as I can pay my bills and eat enough meals without too many worries, I’m happy with what I’ve chosen to do. For all its frustrations, the rewards we reap as musicians are truly incredible.
  2. Go listen to a good performance or recordingI always enjoy listening to and watching my MU colleagues in their concerts and recitals. Seeing their joy reminds me of the existence of my joy from performing, even when it gets buried by schoolwork, stress, and grading. If you can’t get to a live performance though, a favorite recording will always suffice - I usually go to Ravel’s G Major piano concerto (as played by Pascal Rogé with the Montreal Symphony), any of Mahler’s symphonies, or some Eric Whitacre - anything that I find soothing, that clears my mind and helps me focus.
  3. Find joy even when it’s hard.  This one is way easier said than done, but it’s important that we do this as much as we can. I’ll use my own experience as an example - when I first started writing this for my blog in early January, it was a Thursday afternoon. I was typing in the WordPress app on my phone at the Drury Inn and Suites in St. Peters, MO. I’d been up since 5:00 AM that day. The Wind Ensemble left the hotel at 6:15 that morning to go play two 30-minute concerts at one high school, followed by two more 30-minute concerts at a middle school after lunch. And we still had one concert to go that night, at Lindenwood University’s Performing Arts Center. Right then, it would have been easy for me to just complain about how tired I was, how chapped my lips were, and how much I wanted to go home and rest before school started. But when I started focusing on that, I remembered how I felt at our first rehearsal Tuesday afternoon before we left town for the tour - I was overjoyed to be back in Columbia, making music with my dear friends and colleagues. That’s the feeling I want to hold onto more than anything negative, especially as time goes on.

The bottom line is this - even if you are a “starving artist,” it’s not something to laugh off or be ashamed of. We don’t go into the arts for the money. We go into the arts because they nourish our soul, they help us remember what it truly means to be human, and they remind us of the good things in life worth celebrating. No culture has ever existed on Earth without some kind of music. This craft is an innate part of who we are as a species, and it’s worth cultivating, regardless of the paycheck we get in return.

That's all for now, folks! Until next time!


Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance. Follow more of her writing at; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

Leave a Reply