Don't give up the day job.
That kind of thinking often pervades the minds of young classical musicians waiting for that one big break. But it can also work its way into the minds of young musicians who have already seized that big break.
Take 24-year-old piano hotshot Charlie Albright, who makes his Mondavi Center debut at the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre on Sunday. Despite earning some of the highest awards the industry has to offer and performing with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and the San Francisco Symphony, Albright said he's unsure whether he will continue to play music for a living.
"The career is still up for grabs, even though I'm giving lots of concerts and traveling a lot," said Albright via phone from Centralia, Wash., his hometown, where he was visiting for the holidays. "I could keep doing the piano, but I'm thinking, 'Let me learn something else so that I do not end up living under a bridge.' "
Albright took first prize at the New York Biennial National Piano Competition and the Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition in 2006. Three years later, he won the top prize at the 2009 Young Concert Artists International Auditions a much-sought-after prize for instrumentalists that has helped launch the careers of past winners Pinchas Zukerman, Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax.
While Albright's wariness may seem a bit severe, it is underscored by the professional uncertainty that orchestral musicians and soloists face. The economic downturn has had a withering effect on the classical music field. Orchestras across the land have cut back seasons and deeply trimmed budgets. A plunge in contributed income has led some organizations to close altogether.
Nowhere has the troubled paradigm for classical music been more evident than in Sacramento, where last year the Sacramento Philharmonic threatened to close down because of a $150,000 deficit. When orchestras such as the Philharmonic close or cut back seasons, it means far fewer concerts available to an ever-growing pool of young, talented musicians.
"It's rough, and God knows, being a young musician is not very profitable," Albright said. "If you make it to one of the coveted few positions as an instrumentalist where you're touring with the largest orchestras then you can demand six-figure fees. But there is a steep drop-off after that."
When Albright appears at the Mondavi Center, he will perform a program heavy on the Romantic era that includes two Schubert impromptus from Op. 90, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110. Albright will tackle Chopin's tricky Twelve Etudes, Op. 25, in the second half of the concert.
As a backup plan to his music career, Albright recently graduated from a five-year joint master's degree program offered through Harvard University and the New England Conservatory. At Harvard he majored in economics and pre-med. At NEC he majored in piano performance.
Albright, who lives in New York City, is pursuing a degree in piano performance at Juilliard. He remains undaunted, though a bit wary.
Although he has an interest in economics and is drawn to medicine in part due to an illness that kept his father bedridden for years neither profession is his true passion, he said.
On the classical concert scene Albright has no shortage of supporters, and none more emphatic than longtime classical music presenter Scott Nickrenz, curator of music at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
"Charlie is an astounding artist in so many ways," said Nickrenz, who has been booking the popular 50- concert-a-year series at the venerable museum for the past 23 years.
"I know that he's studying to be a surgeon, but I'm trying to discourage him from making money, and be an artist instead."
Nickrenz is so emphatic about Albright that he has booked him to perform a series of concerts of Schubert piano sonatas over the next year.
"These are projects that take a certain type of musician, one with a certain type of intellect and power, upstairs in the mind," said Nickrenz.
Like most classical musicians, Albright, who is soft-spoken and exudes a buoyant youthful confidence, was drawn to the piano early in his case at age 3. He has said that one of the first things his parents remember him performing on his own is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." His mother was soon teaching him, although Albright was playing mostly by ear until age 7.
In 1995 Albright began studying with Nancy Adsit, a piano teacher based in Olympia, Wash. This musical relationship would have a profound effect on Albright.
"He came to me when he was 7 years old. I listened to him play. It was Mozart, and it was full of mistakes but you could hear the music in it," said Adsit.
What followed was a teaching regimen in which Adsit taught Albright to read music.
"He was discouraged for a while, but he picked it up quickly."
Adsit, who has taught piano for several decades, said Albright was in a category all his own.
"He was my best student," she said.
As Albright's skill deepened, he began entering and winning competitions. At the time, he was too young to travel on his own. Adsit took on the role of career mother and gladly agreed to travel with him to competitions.
"She became a grandmother figure. She was a supporter and guiding role," said Albright.
After Albright left Centralia to study at Harvard, teacher and student remained in contact via Skype. In that forum Adsit has been able to coach Albright on technique and musical approaches.
These days Albright is studying with the noted teacher Yoheved Kaplinsky at Juilliard while building the foundation of a concert career. With each new accolade a job in medicine or business is beginning to look more remote, and that's just fine with Albright, who says any financial uncertainty is more than counterbalanced by the rewards of music.
"There's a world of difference between something you are passionate about and something you're very interested in," said Albright. "So I've decided to give my piano career a fair shot."
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Tickets: Sold out, but a waiting list for returned tickets is available.
Information: (530) 754-2787; www.MondaviArts.org