Parting Letter: Sunrise, Sunset

I wrote this letter with Eva Heinstein for the students in my section of The Entrepreneurial Musician course at New England Conservatory. Eva is the Program Manager of Entrepreneurial Musicianship, and our writing together is an organic outcome of our regular post-class conversations. The Entrepreneurial Musician is a survey of important professional skills and resources, but it’s also a space for students to consider what they want the fabric of their work and artistic life to be. In writing this letter, Eva and I tried capture some of the principles we hope students will take away as they continue their studies and begin to lay the foundation for a life in music.

May, 2011

Sunrise, sunset—it’s the end of the year and we’re feeling all reflective. Last week in the Entrepreneurial Musician class we spent a little more time talking about the M-word. No, not music, money. Well, money as it relates to music. A few particularly pensive students lingered after class—they wanted answers. How do we make a life in music work? Give it to us straight! In response, we put our heads together and set out a few guiding principles that we’ve found especially helpful in our own paths.

1. The fate of your career is not determined by what happens in the first few years out of school. Think about your career as a long, fluid succession of twists and turns. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Too many people judge themselves prematurely: you tell yourself that if you haven’t accomplished X by Y date, it’s never going to happen. Not true. F@*$ Y date.

2. You can only get so far by depriving yourself of lattes. What do we mean by that? That living cheaply is not the whole answer to weathering the first few years out of school. Sure, you want to live within your means, and you may not have a huge flow of money coming your way, but the point is, there are two sides to the equation: expenditures and income. If you can’t cut back any further without turning into a cheerless miser, then you might want to think about earning more instead of spending less. You’re thinking it’s impossible, aren’t you? It’s all how you look at it. Sometimes it’s easier to earn an extra $400 a month than it is to save the same amount by cutting back. Check out Ramit Sethi’s recent post in the New York Times Bucks blog for more on this idea, and check out Ramit’s own web site for a host of ideas on how to earn $1000 a month on the side.

3. Your first years out of school are a time for investing in yourself. You will be building capital in the form of professional networks, experience, extended training, reputation, and a body of personal work. You might not be building a lot of financial capital, but the creative capital you build during this time builds a strong foundation for the rest of your career. Don’t underestimate the value of creative capital. (Meanwhile, healthy financial habits keep your head above water.)

4. Now it’s time to debunk an unproductive myth about musical careers. Who says the only honorable way to make a living as a musician is with an instrument in your hand? (No, really, who said that? We want to know where he or she lives.) We are all multifaceted people. We all know how to do many different things. There is more to us than music. If your career is taking you in a direction where you’re making a comfortable living playing the music you want to play, more power to you. But if that’s not happening, there are many reasons why this might be, very few of which have anything to do with your quality as an artist, let alone as a person. Maybe the music you want to make has a smaller audience. (If so, that doesn’t make your music any less vital. We say it makes it all the more vital!) Maybe your career path has a slower rise (opera singers, that’s you, but it’s also any artist whose creative development takes place over a lifetime, and we’re not talking in dog years, here). Maybe you’ve sampled all your available options for musical employment, and find that none of them are the right fit. So, if a “traditional” musical career is not happening right out of the gate, carve your own path. Keep going. See point number 1.

4(a). And don’t think of non-musical employment as purgatory. You may find that a “day job” can ignite you and be an asset to your work as an artist. Maybe you find you actually enjoy the stimulation of doing something different. Maybe the connections you build and the money you make allow you to do artistic work that otherwise would have been impossible.

4(b). One more thing. You’re not an evil person if financial stability is important to you. No one said you can’t be a great musician AND have a stable income.

5. In most cases, no one decision you make will irrevocably change the course your life. We make a lot of little decisions every day that push us forward, or move us back. Check in with yourself often, and adjust as you go along. This is all to say, if you make a career move that sends you down a path you find undesirable, don’t despair. Change it up. Examine the fabric of your daily work life and figure out what it is that makes you feel rewarded. And if something feels like it’s sucking your soul, figure out what that is, too. Building a happy professional life is all about steering yourself away from the soul sucking and into the green and pleasant meadows of the rewarding. It may not happen overnight, but if you are self-reflective — and actually do something about your self-reflections — then it will happen in time.

6. Speaking of doing something… Be prepared to work harder than you think you have to. Be prepared to do things you don’t initially want to do. Be prepared to invest steeply in yourself. If you believe a life in music is worth having, then it’s worth the hard work. Luckily, you all know about hard work already. You do it every day in the practice room, in class and on stage. Now, you’ve just got to extend your work ethic to other activities. For example, booking and promoting your shows, maintaining an online presence, taking auditions, managing a teaching studio, etc. These activities may at times make you feel disconnected from the passion that led you down the path of a musical career. But it’s all interrelated, and it’s all part of the project of making a life in music. We know there are only 24 hours in a day, but small consistent efforts over time (see point number 1) pay off handsomely. Every time. Promise.

7. Congratulations, you’re in control. When you’re in school, it can feel like everyone’s telling you what you can and cannot do. Out of school, suddenly, you’re the one who’s steering the ship. There is a lot of freedom and possibility that come with this new stage. There is also some aimlessness, and you shouldn’t be too down on yourself if you lose your bearings for a while. That’s what the wandering twenties are for, friends. It’s all about trying things out and crossing things off the list. See also point number 1.

8. Don’t obsessively compare yourself to others. It’s a drag, and mostly, you’re just projecting your own imaginings onto another person’s reality. Their life might be awesome, or it might be really dark and hollow. The world will never know.

9. The main strategy for advancing yourself as an artist is: work, refine, develop, repeat. It never ends. This is good news. You will always have something productive and meaningful to do with your life, and it rests entirely in your hands. Your music will be one constant, stable element in your life; an anchor when other areas get murky. Most people don’t have this: they just have TV.

10. Don’t suffer alone. If you’re questioning your path or feeling unsettled, talk to someone about it. Talk to us about it. Believe me, you’re not the only one who questions yourself or feels unsettled. We all do, and it is utterly liberating to realize that most people feel a little insecure and ponderous as they face change. There are also many resources at your disposal. Don’t be a hero. Take advantage of people and information that can help you get over life’s little humps. First stop: EM department, SB106. If nothing else, we usually have baked goods in the office.

Now, we have to thank you. Yes, you. These life and career negotiations never really stop cropping up. They may shift slightly with each decade of life, but they are there, like little sneaks, waiting for you just around the next corner. When we guide students through the process of career visioning and planning, we engage in the same process, too. We’re asking ourselves all the same difficult questions and learning from your answers. 50 minutes, once a week, just isn’t enough time to wrangle these topics. At the end of each class we feel that so much is left unsaid. That’s why we’ve written this to you.

We like to talk — and write — but we also like productive outcomes. So what are the productive outcomes of this piece? Well, one, it was pretty cathartic to write. Two, we hope you laughed a little, and saw your experience reflected in some small way. But most important is three: we’d like to carve out some space for these conversations to happen more often. What we’re proposing is this: bi-monthly dish sessions. Good company, good snacks, and straight-up conversation about the future of music—your future in music. We’ll run these every two weeks starting in the fall, but first up is Monday, May 16 at 5PM in SB106. Spread the word, drop us a line to let us know you’re coming, and send us your inspired suggestions for snacks.

Wishing you a restorative summer, with lots of fresh tomatoes and slightly tanner skin (apply sunscreen regularly).

—Tanya & Eva

Contributed by: Tanya Kalmanovitch, Assistant Chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department and Eva Heinstein, Program Manager of Entrepreneurial Musicianship