Conversation with David Shifrin: Creating Opportunities Throughout Your Career

\"shifrin1A few weeks ago, I had the honor of interviewing renowned clarinetist and beloved Yale professor David Shifrinone of only two wind players to have won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize since the award\’s inception in 1987.  

With  a wide-ranging career as an orchestral soloist, recitalist, chanber musician, university professor, artistic director and collaborator, he has constantly created and sought out opportunities for himself and others.  Thus, he was the ideal person to speak on the topic of Creating Opportunities Throughout Your Career. I was joined in this conversation by 3 current Yale School of Music students in order to elicit the point of view of musicians who are just starting their professional careers.

The fascinating part of this conversation is that from his earliest years and continuing to this day, David Shifrin has sought out opportunities to make and share music, has cultivated relationships with outstanding and highly professional musicians with whom he has collaborated throughout his career and serves as a mentor to and champion of the next generation of musicians. Indeed, he demonstrated his generosity and why he is such a beloved mentor by mentioning the many Yale School of Music students who are pursuing interesting, entrepreneurial ventures, as well as questioning our student interviewers about their own projects.

You can watch the interview to learn more about how he creates success:



Here are some of the highlights of the interview:

Career Background

David Shifrin attended the Interlochen Arts Academy where he toured around the country as an orchestral player. He then went to Curtis where he formed and managed his first chamber ensemble.  Told by his teachers that it was not possible to have a sustainable career as a chamber musician, he auditioned for and won seats at various orchestras, landing up at age 23 as principal clarinet for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Lorin Maazel.

As an orchestral musician, he was invited to teach students at local conservatories and discovered his love of teaching. When the opportunity to teach full-time arose at the University of Michigan, David left Cleveland since the new position gave him the freedom to play concerts as well as teach. He formed a successful concert series at Michigan, his first experience as an artistic director. He also was invited to play at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon and became the artistic director in 1980, a position he continues to hold. As artistic director, he has built up the program by inviting both internationally-recognized artists together with emerging musicians like our student to expand the number of performances.  He has also demonstrated how to build an audience by adding outreach programs, educational concerts and performances in unusual venues.

Through the many wonderful professional relationships that he cultivated, David was invited to join the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1989 and served as its artistic director from 1992 to 2004. He also inaugurated CMS Two, the program for young chamber musicians.

David Shifrin joined the faculty of the Yale School of Music in 1987 where he is Professor of Clarinet and Chamber Music and runs two concert series: Yale\’s Chamber Music Series and Yale in New York. He considers Yale to be his home base from which he is able to teach, mentor perform internationally, serve as artistic director both at Yale as well as at various festivals.

Thus, he has been able to create a successful chamber music and solo career despite the warnings of his early mentors!

Observations on how to create a successful career

Creating a successful career involves a certain degree of salesmanship, as well as letting people know that you are interested and available and demonstrating that you are reliable.  David offered these words of wisdom on how to be a successful chamber musician:

  • Be diplomatic;
  • Learn how to speak with a professional level of discourse;
  • Come prepared; and,
  • Be a good colleague.

Commenting on the opportunities that exist in the age of the internet to raise money and promote yourself, David emphasized the need to be entrepreneurial.  He noted that chamber music is portable and flexible, advising musicians to perform in living rooms, churches, classrooms and bars in order to build up their repertoire and gain performance experience.  As such, chamber music presents a viable career path since the economic and production values are within reach of young musicians.  

He summarized his advice to today\’s musicians as follows:

  • Listen to your teacher;
  • Be prepared;
  • Practice;
  • Be open to many different types of opportunities as opposed to focusing all your efforts on one endeavor;
  • Apply to a lot of different competitions and take a lot of auditions and allow yourself the opportunity to fail since you only have to win one!

Above all, be patient and keep rehearsing, preparing, collaborating, learning the language of professional discourse and finding and creating opportunities to perform in order to gain experience and to build your repertoire.

What great advice from one of the most charming, generous, collegial and professional people that I have had the privilege to meet!