Career Profile: Elizabeth Lim, Musician

Some of us do grow up to be exactly what we wanted. Case in point: Elizabeth Lim, a doctoral candidate at the Juilliard School where she also completed her master’s degree, has been pursuing musical composition since she was a senior in high school. Before that, she attended Harvard College for her undergraduate studies, where she majored in music and minored in East Asian studies.

Did you know you wanted to pursue a career in music when you were younger?

I started playing the piano when I was four, so I knew I loved music, but I didn’t start to think about pursuing it seriously until I was sixteen or seventeen. Even then, I knew I didn’t want to be a performer. I started composing when I was five, and composition always seemed more exciting to me, maybe because I hated practicing.

How did you prepare yourself for a career in music? What steps did you take in high school and college?

In high school, I attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s preparatory division, where I studied theory, history, piano, voice, and composition. Before that I’d been taking private piano lessons, so it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn in a community of fellow students who were serious about music. The experience also prepared me for college—as a composer, it was important for me to attend a liberal arts college and take courses in different disciplines, especially literature and history. At Harvard, I tried to open myself to learning as much about everything as I could. Some of my most valuable musical epiphanies happened during a physics course or during a conversation with friends about Indian carnatic music.

Describe what you do on an everyday basis.

Every day is completely different, which is one of the things I love about being a musician. If I’m working on a film, I might meet up with the director to discuss the type of music she or he wants for the scene, or I might show my progress on the film via electronic simulations of my work. I also write a lot of music for orchestra and choir, so I’ll be working on projects for various commissions at the same time.

What do you love or hate most about the music field?

I love the passion that goes into music. Everyone’s in the field because they love it, and I’m always inspired by that energy and commitment from my peers and colleagues. Personally, I love creating a piece of art; it’s very fulfilling, and knowing that you’re writing something no one has ever heard before is exhilarating. As a composer, I’m dependent on other people to perform my music, and working with my fellow musicians is a constant learning experience. Of course, music isn’t the most stable of industries, so I guess that would be one of the things I dislike about it—it can be difficult securing performances and getting a job, especially as a freelancer, so that can be challenging.

What surprised you most about working in music?

Since I’m still a student, I’m not yet a full-time professional composer, but I have been surprised by how small the community is. You might get a gig because you know X, who knows XX who needs a composer for XXX’s film. You just never know.

What three qualities allow someone to be most successful as a musician, and why?

1. You need to be creative–music is an art, and in order to pursue it successfully you should have a vision of what you want to contribute.

2. You need to be persistent–music isn’t an easy field to penetrate or pursue. Stay motivated and always keep working on the next project. Optimism, fearlessness, and patience also help here.

3. You need to be open-minded—your path in music might not always be what you expect. I had a friend who trained for years to become a concert pianist, and then she got an important position in arts administration and loves it.

What kinds of career growth opportunities are available in this field?

Music is such a large field that there are infinite opportunities if you are creative about it. In film, there are opportunities as a music supervisor or music editor. From a technology standpoint, you could develop apps for music creation or recognition software. More traditional jobs include teaching at a university, writing for the symphony hall, or being a songwriter.