The two classes I teach for New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department have become high points of my week. They’re sites of lively, complex and illuminating discussions about the meaning of music, making a difference, and making a living. But if anyone had told me back when I was in music school that one day I’d become a lecturer on entrepreneurship, I’d have laughed pretty hard.
I decided to become a musician at least in part because I wanted nothing to do with business. I wanted to be an artist, and to me that meant a life that aligned heart and mind, and body and soul. I didn’t see how business and the bottom line could enter into it: like a lot of the students I speak with, I drew a thick line between music and money, quietly pretending that one had nothing to do with the other.
I spent the better part of my twenties and thirties on the music side of that imaginary line. Like many of my friends in improvised music, I was blazing my own path. I discovered a rich resource in my fellow musicians, whose ‘shop talk’ conveyed a vital stream of information, opportunities and survival strategies. Recognizing the power of the musicians’ community, I served on my local board of the Musicians’ Union in my twenties, and in my thirties had a hand in launching two thriving artists’ cooperatives in New York. So I jumped at the chance to teach entrepreneurship classes at NEC: it seemed like a logical extension of my interest in individual and community action.
Except for one thing: the word ‘entrepreneurship’ stuck in my craw. It sounded a falsely cheerful note, like a euphemism. It sounded like passing the buck: entrepreneurship was becoming a buzzword at the same time that old professional structures were collapsing, and the professional musician was starting to seem like an endangered species.
Musicians brave this world armed with slender weapons to defend their livelihood – bows, strings, reeds, mallets – and nothing much has filled the gaps where old categories of employment and income once stood. As I prepared for my lectures it was dawning on me that the tools I’d used in the first part of my career might not be adequate. Personal initiative and community action are as important as ever, but breaking even is not a sustainable financial solution. Hope, as my friend Rachel is fond of saying, is not a strategy.
And so, my weekly entrepreneurship lectures forced me to confront challenging questions about my own choices and assumptions. What aspects of professional life had I been neglecting? What lay on the other side of the imaginary line?
Over the past couple of years I’ve been learning at least as much, if not more than, I’ve been teaching. In coming to terms with the term ‘entrepreneurship’ I’ve uncovered a productive line of inquiry about striking a balance between music, meaning, and money. The biggest thing I’ve learned about the other side of the line is that there is no line. As much as a business needs precision, planning, preparation and accountability to carefully chosen goals, so does a life in music.
I recently attended a talk in New York by the American composer/producer and Buddhist teacher David Nichtern. He spoke with great clarity about how creativity, spirituality and livelihood exist as strands in a braid: remove but one, and the structure falls apart.
I won’t make any predictions about the future of the music profession, but you’d only have to walk down the halls at a conservatory to hear that music itself is not dying. Change is a given, hardly limited to present-day circumstances. But I’m inspired on a weekly basis by the intelligent hearts and minds in my classes who are deftly handling the three strands of that braid, setting the course for long lives in music.
Read on in this month’s newsletter (two weeks late, but better late than never). Responding to requests, I’m opening up small group workshops for emerging and mid-career artists in New York and Boston. Anthony Coleman and I are performing and conducting a Contemporary Improvisation workshop in Istanbul this December, and there’s news from the Kalmanovitch Reichman Coleman Trio. And as usual, I’ve included a round-up of upcoming performing and recording activities in New York, Boston and beyond.