As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson. David Loebel, Kristopher Tong, and Melissa Snoza.
In this last guest installment, some of the very students we are preparing at NEC take over the conversation–again. Feisty, adaptable, imaginative, and passionate, they make me optimistic for the future of music. They know what they will be facing when they emerge from the Conservatory and are ready to embrace that life, however challenging. I’m so proud of them. —Tony Woodcock
In late March, we had the opportunity to gather in the President’s Library with Tony Woodcock to speak about our futures in music—the roles we want to step into, the concerns we have, the new challenges that the professional community will throw out to us. We shared ideals, dreams, worries, assurance, self-doubt, strategies—sometimes expressing things we had never previously admitted to others. It was exciting to find so much common ground across age, nationality, discipline, and professional trajectory. And, so, when we were asked to ‘sum it all up’ in a blog post, it seemed fitting to compose a set of guiding principles, a credo if you will, for music’s future and our role in it. Here goes:
1. Shifting paradigms lead to new opportunities. It’s scary to acknowledge that so many of the professional structures that support, preserve, and present music are struggling. How different it is at NEC where music-making is thriving, vital, and full of passion. How could it be that outside our halls, audiences are shrinking, organizations are in crisis, and music education is experiencing deep cuts? Spend a day in our shoes and you’ll appreciate the contrast. Large organizations and government bodies don’t change quickly—they aren’t, for the most part, nimble and able to respond deftly to changing conditions. But we are nimble, and we have the space, time, and creativity to build new structures for music and musicians to be in the world. That’s the important bit to hold on to.
2. Be adventurous and grapple with uncertainty. As artists, we know how to navigate uncertainty in the context of a performance–in fact that’s what makes live performance so exhilarating and meaningful. But, when it comes to building a new artistic venture, uncertainty can cause us to clam up, to create barriers that we imagine will save us from the messy business of failure. “It’s too competitive,” we say, or “I won’t make enough money to survive”. Uncertainty, troublesome as it is, must be taken as an opportunity to look beyond what exists, to see what could exist. Our task as artists is to find a balance between risking it all and playing it safe. The former can lead to ruin; the later, stagnation. We’re shooting for the sweet spot somewhere in between.
3. Just try it. We work so hard to master our instruments, perfect a new piece, deliver a flawless performance. As a result, many of us walk around with the notion that anything less than mastery is, well, simply not good enough. But pretty good can do a lot of good. We know that building a sustainable career requires more than musical brilliance. It requires a diverse set of skills: creative marketing, financial wit, clear-eyed negotiation, engaging public speaking, and the list goes on. All of that can be overwhelming when taken together. But these skills are within reach, individually and collectively. With curiosity, pluck, Google, and a friend who has done it before, we can become the versatile change agents that our field is waiting for.
4. Look internally for your brand. Brand. It sounds so Madison Avenue and constricting: one phrase, image, or idea that’s supposed to represent you. Really? That might be possible for a can of soda, but not a human being. Each of us is a beautifully unique, complex, messy, breathing, moving, changing entity. And we’ve each got more than one thing that makes us unique as artists. Creating a brand is just about identifying the particular mix of gifts and quirks that is unique to each of us. And promoting our brand is nothing more than telling our own story. More on this in number 5.
5. Find the people who love what you do. “Marketing” is a loaded term for many of us. It smacks of strident hucksters and conspicuous consumption. But marketing, at its core, is about telling stories and building relationships. It’s about opening up your art, and your world, to those who want to take part. Marketing is just a set of strategies to help you connect with the people who love what you do (but don’t know it yet). We like to think of our audience–potential or real–as a community of people who value our gifts and want to see them grow. And it’s not just about warm and fuzzy feeling. If we can build a small but mighty group of super fans–people who love what we do, will go to our concerts, buy our albums, and contribute to our fundraising campaigns–we can also make a living.
6. Audiences connect most to music when they connect to the people making it. Yes, we think about our audience as a community—maybe even a family–and we think of ourselves as part of that community. No more off-putting protocol, no more formalized ritual that only the “initiated” understand, no more snobbery. Communities form through open exchange, support, and shared values–not through strictures, barriers, and distance. We must strive to reach and welcome people where they are—in parks, coffee shops, online spaces, living rooms, and local schools.
7. Say yes, a lot. Remaining open to opportunities is vital for maintaining forward progress as an artist. Remember, we’re nimble. That’s what makes us well poised to create the change that is needed in our field. Being nimble means: remaining open-minded; stretching; putting ourselves in situations that make us a little uncomfortable (“I never thought I’d do ________”); and signing up to do something we’ve never done before. These experiences will bear fruit, build connections, lead to a light bulb moment (or two), clarify what we hate doing, and help us uncover skills we never knew we had. These are all good things.
8. Elevate music. Music can be a powerful tool for addressing the deepest social needs: education, hunger, expression of powerful feelings, and communal solidarity. Music is a common language that can offer joy or solace where it’s desperately needed, call attention to injustice, provide a nurturing context in which young people can grow, and preserve cultural memory when it’s threatened. This element can’t be a “part” of what we do, it must pervade what we do.
9. Act local. We like local food. We like local businesses. We like to talk about the quirky things that make our neighborhoods great. So, why, when it comes to our music do we look outside our local communities for validation, support, and engagement? We stand the best chance of making a real and lasting impact in the communities and neighborhoods we know best. Maybe we’ll be the quirky thing about a neighborhood that people love.
10. Talk it out. These kinds of conversations are vital for overcoming the formidable challenges that face the arts. Their purpose is not just for catharsis or “kumbaya”. Deep, probing discussions can clarify positions, plant seeds, forge connections, and incite action. Teams are formed and ideas are hatched around cafe tables, kitchen tables, and yes, president’s library tables. We are going to need many more enthusiastic teams and creative ideas if we are to build the structures of tomorrow and make a central place for music in the world.
Compiled by Eva Heinstein, Assistant Director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department with contributions from Robert Cinnante ( ’13 MM Vocal Performance), Tyler Gilmore (’13 MM Jazz Composition), Julia Partyka (’13 BM Vocal Performance), Caroline Scharr (’14 MM Oboe Performance), and Tong Wang (’16 BM Piano Performance).