Tag: career development

Boulez, Twyla Tharp and the Creed of Curiosity

A gallery space performance

In the first chapter of Twyla Tharp’s instructional bible for creativity The Creative Habit, the iconic American choreographer identifies a contradiction. “There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub against each other.” Musical artists—instrumentalists, composers, and singers—are highly accustomed to the daily drilling of theoretical exercises and scales required to maintain proficiency. Tharp’s comments are apt considerations for musicians, and more especially for classical musicians trained using old school discipline at conservatories. Tharp reminds us that, in addition to the acquisition of skills, there lies something more at hand—something in addition to the technical dexterities we need to practice and hone in order to produce our work to its fullest capacity.

Since the classical age, the Greeks have been calling this missing ingredient “play” (paidia). Since around 500–300 BCE, Hellenic philosophical and artistic discussions have examined “play” as it relates to education (paidei). The relationship between paidia and paidei, with their implicit etymological references, are the center of Platonic ideas. The relationship of play and education does not pose as a paradox. Rather they are complimentary values.

For many, play and games are synonymous with childhood.  Play offers an opportunity to be spontaneous, leads to discovery by chance, and opens curiosity.  As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious. However, according to our Greek philosopher friends, our sense of daring and curiosity needs nourishment and experience. When we are young, the play and music tuition accidentally align. We might be flying on a swing in the backyard one minute, and playing scales on the piano in the next.  There is a spontaneous crossover, which accounts for why some young performers display fearlessness.

The challenges begin to build in mid-career if we fail to recognize and act on the importance of the trained skill-based creative play that Tharp discusses in her manual. Tharp suggests that creativity needs to be nurtured as a muscle. Our Greek philosophers don’t disagree. Tharp’s conundrum is not a paradox. In one of the surviving thirty-seven fragments of his six plays, the ancient Greek playwright Agathon wrote,  “chance and skill (techne) go hand in hand.”

Agathon and Tharp agree:  creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

So how do we practice chance and daring? One answer is that we need to be constantly in search for opportunities where attributes of curiosity, chance, and daring are triggered and that we learn to trust them. In short we must constantly search for new playgrounds that suit our needs.

My personal cognition of the importance of play in my classical music career was sparked at my first contemporary music concert—a recital by the late American-Armenian mezzo-soprano and avant-garde pioneer Cathy Berberian. I was fourteen years old. The concert took place in the Adelaide Town Hall, as part of the Adelaide Festival in Australia where I grew up and received my musical education. I remember the experience distinctly. I sat in Row B, second seat from the end. The stage seemed impossibly high. I remember that I had to crane my neck for the entire concert. I can still picture Berberian’s satin green kaftan imprinted with a paisley motif. I remember her signature white-blonde locks—bubbles of curls sitting on top of her head as if her hair and her scalp were not quite attached. She appeared as a slightly unhinged post-modern Mozartian character. She was not.

The repertoire in the recital included John Cage, Bruno Maderna, and Sylvano Bussotti alongside Berberian’s iconic interpretations of Beatles’ songs and her own composition, the comic book fantasy Stripsody. I was riveted by the obscure helter-skelter intervals of the Maderna, and I was amazed that this classical singer could make an audience smile and laugh with her comedic turns and her creation of sounds that seemed to emanate from a circus tent.

At the time, I could not account for why I was drawn to this singer, or why I chose to attend this concert. After all, why not The Magic Flute? I can certainly explain it now.

Cathy Berberian exhibited a joyful exuberance. She sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond and as if she was the only one who held the key to finding even more precious jewels. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but Berberian’s evident passion for discovery was a vital lesson of play (paidia) and skill (techne). She sang the most complex music with the candor of a child playing in a sandbox. She also displayed curiosity. Personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says, “Curiosity is the core of openness/intellect.”

The concert set me on the path. I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian—a curious, curly mop-headed woman who sang songs that no one else dared to embark on, and who instilled audiences with an intrigue for the undiscovered—the curiosity factor.

Several years later, my trek began at the conservatory. The academy of classical voice can be a precious heritage site. The tradition of the pedagogy of classical voice comes with protection and preservation. Certainly justifiable—sometimes the simple pragmatics of the short course work dictate the terms. There is a finite time of learning and skill acquisition that needs to be accomplished in a skeletal schedule of perhaps—if we can take an average—one lesson, one repertoire session, and one master class per week over the course of a degree. In that time, the singer must master lieder and art song, operatic roles together with three to four languages, leaving little room to discover different expressions of music. There is little time to play hide and seek or search for Berberian diamonds.

It was only at the end of my degree, that I realized that there was something missing. I was looking for Plato’s child’s play. So I went searching for a new playground.

Xenia Hanusiak in front of a music stand standing next to another singer in traditional Chinese dress whose face is obscured by that music stand.

Xenia Hanusiak performing a work she commissioned, Zhang Xiao-fu’s Visages Peint dans les Opera Bekin, at the 2008 Beijing Music Festival.

The importance of play entered the “educational” part of my career at a moment of complete surprise, somewhat like finding the piece that fits into your jigsaw puzzle when you least expect it. This opportune moment—what the Greeks call kairos—is also a key element of play conversations. My kairos arrived after graduation—first a residency with Kirsten Denholm’s Hotel Pro Forma in Denmark, and then, a course immersion at the Banff Center of Arts and Creativity in Canada. At that time Richard Armstrong, a performer, director, and teacher, was directing a course called Contemporary Music Theater. Armstrong, now an associate arts professor at NYU Tisch, helped to establish one of Europe’s most influential schools of voice and body research. He is the founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre in France. I arrived at his workshop with the baggage of conservatory training.

In the course of three months, I traded taffeta and black patent heels for leotards and bare feet.  Instead of singing beautiful legato lines, I was creating sounds like a growling angry bear in the register of a baritone.  Instead of standing in arms-length of a piano singing lied, I spent days rolling up and down the length of a floor. Picture here, the vision of a human rolling pin.

The “play” experiences were confronting and challenging. There is nowhere to run or hide at Banff. This is a residency course and your allies could well be the elks who loiter on campus. DeYoung tells us that approaching the unknown is not easy. “The unknown is innately both threatening and promising.” Imagine for a moment the feelings of a child entering a new playground. This experience is a facsimile.

While it took me some time to register that I was playing, Armstrong’s methodology alerted me that this kind of playtime was missing from my current education.  The ah-ha moment had arrived. Armstrong’s playground—a.k.a. skilled creativity—requires particular courage.

By the end of the three months I can report that I was more open, free, and spontaneous. However, I would be the first to say that there was much breaking down that needed to be addressed and conquered before I had reached this point. By the end of the program, I performed Denys Bouliane’s composition for solo voice Das Affenlied (The Monkey Song) literally in a tree. The performance was a personal milestone.  The workshop process also delivered unexpected results in my classical technique. Most of the improvements transpired as a result of the repetitious body-voice connection exercises. Armstrong’s game playing not only stimulated my imagination, but my performance practices improved. I stood in front of the piano with more poise and gravitas and the top of my tessitura was more consolidated.  I was playing and learning at the same time.

The Banff experience provided an important milestone in my realization that the routine of play was as necessary as it was a skill. Workshops of this personal intensity take the artist to a different understanding of vulnerability and growth.  Learning how to encounter and master chance and daring are technical lessons.

In 2018, I again found myself in that proverbial “What next?” artistic moment. As I was embarking on new projects, I sensed innately that my sense of spontaneity, my ways of seeing and sense of openness was calling for attention. I also understood I had to look beyond my usual vocabulary. I needed to find a new playground.

Fortunately, living in New York City, I was happy to learn of the program of master classes and workshops run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Mark Morris Dance Group. BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Group have presented more than 65 master classes since 2013. The aim of the classes and workshops is to provide participants with ways to engage with the artists and productions on BAM’s stages and enhance each participant’s own practices. BAM opens its doors to musicians, writers, dancers, directors, and composers. BAM aims to keep the classes accessible, affordable, and inclusive. The process is application-free and the admission cost is low—usually around $25 for a class. These latter points are two great benefits for both bank accounts and time constraints.  Truly, we have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald talk to attendees seated in a circle during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules" (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

With rejuvenation on my agenda, I enrolled in two workshops last November: “Sight Sound and Picture,” a response to the Lars Jan/ Early Morning Opera’s production of The White Album; and “Making Your Own Rules,” led by Heidi Rodewald, Donna DiNovelli, and Kevin Newbury, the creative forces behind a contemporary oratorio The Good Swimmer. Both master classes were scheduled in tandem with their performance seasons and focused on multi-disciplinary applications to performance. As 21st-century musical artists, we are called to seek and to expand the auditory and visual experience. In response, BAM’s series continues to expand and reflect interdisciplinary and genre-defying work.

My first BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” was the perfect entrée back to the playground. Upon arrival, fifteen chairs were already placed in a circle. No one was dressed in leotards, nor swinging their legs on a ballet bar.  It was somehow comforting to me that my return to play technique would be gentle.

For the first half of the two-hour session, composer/musician Heidi Rodewald, lyricist Donna DiNovelli, and director Kevin Newbury led a generous and open discussion of the processes behind their pop oratorio The Good Swimmer. The artists offered insights and personal disclosures that were satisfyingly real and thorough. We were, after all, in the company of fellow artists who had shared similar roads. In essence, how did we get here? Participants included directors, singers, writers, documentary filmmakers, and a puppeteer. All were, like me, on the threshold of a forthcoming project.

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in front of a group of instrumentalists and a vocal ensemble from the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz,

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy BAM)

The second section invited participants to offer found, non-literary text that we believed could be unique and serve as a stimulus for performance work. Once again, I was struck by the openness and generosity of all the participants in the play circle. In many of these discussions, the flow of ideas had a way of positioning my own work. I refreshed the button not only on my project at hand, but solidified ideas and recalibrated others. The experience was a success because the leaders provided a thoroughfare. We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

On the very same day, and with a lunch break to engage in stimulating conversations with new colleagues from diverse disciplines, I entered into the dance space for the “Sight, Sound, and Picture.” This was leotard time. As I entered the studio, music was playing. There was no safety of chairs. We were left to stand in our stocking feet. Some participants jived to the music. Others wrapped their arms around their torso trying to warm their limbs. Some simply stood still.  As per the morning session, this workshop reflected on a concurrent show of the Next Wave Festival. In this case it was The White Album, a multilayered theatrical realization of Joan Didion’s seminal essay. Lars Jan, the work’s director, led the workshop. His voice is mellifluous, harmonious even, and intones a kindness. The age and experience of the participants was varied, so Jan’s skills as natural communicator were welcomed. For two hours we played games, but in essence we were quietly instructed on layering techniques. It was highly directed and structured. We played games, and we opened ourselves to curiosity through skill-based play.

The midcareer artist is always faced with forks in the road. Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced. Without conflict there is no resolution. Resolution usually brings a higher response.  The trick is to capitalize and understand through flexibility and openness on how we can move forward and what playground works for us. We must heed these warnings in our various pursuits of not only creating and interpreting the music of our time, but how we collaborate. Researchers, psychologists, educators and philosophers are all in agreement on the need to consider various methods to awaken our creativity and our patterns of discovery. Boulez used to say, “The moment you lose your curiosity, you might just as well keel over.” There is no one path, but a path must be taken.

Artist residencies for musicians: 5 tips on the application process

Finding affordable housing and a space to do one’s work is a task on the minds of many emerging artists; artist residencies provide a solution, freeing up time and space with low or no cost to the artist. Residencies also emphasize the importance of meaningful exchanges, providing insights into local cultures, communities, institutions, and art markets. We’ve been traveling from residency to residency for about a year and have loved our experiences through these programs: they give us clear short-term and long-term deadlines; they help us stretch our collaborative muscles by working with people from many different backgrounds; and they have helped us adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to our music and practice. Here is the best advice we can give to anyone curious about applying to and pursuing residencies.

1. Finding opportunities

There are a variety of ways to dive into all of the opportunities that are on offer out there. The easiest way to start is through these three websites: transartists.org, resartis.org, and artistcommunities.org. Together, the three websites are an index of more than 1000 different institutions worldwide. These organizations also offer support to the residencies themselves, from creating listings for visibility to fiscal sponsorship in the case of Alliance of Artist Communities.

If you’re looking for a residency opportunity and can’t find at least a handful to apply for here, you’re probably not looking closely enough. There was a day when we sat down and went through every single opportunity in these databases, seeing which ones have a piano, accept musicians, and other factors that pertained to our specific situation.

At first glance, it might seem like applying to all these residencies could add up in application costs, but the truth is that the vast majority don’t have an application fee, have a very flexible application process (as they accept artists of all disciplines), and can be applied to on a rolling basis. And with hundreds of opportunities on offer, there are approaching deadlines each month. You can always check Resartis for upcoming deadlines, or start keeping a residency deadline calendar like we do. Anytime we find an opportunity, we add it to our calendar twice with the appropriate URL: once when we think we need to start working on the application, and once when it’s due. This way, you can immediately add any residencies you hear about that sound like a good fit and then not really have to think about it again until a deadline is approaching.

2. The Anti-Résumé

The headline of a New York Times opinion piece reads: “Stand Out With an Anti-Résumé for Your Next Job Application.” Monica Byrne, a writer, has created an Excel spreadsheet of every failure and rejection she’s encountered and coined the endearing term “Anti-Résumé.” Well, we’ve become pretty extreme proponents of the Anti-Résumé. We have a spreadsheet of both rejections and positive responses. It lets us keep everything in check. In our work, we have a success rate of about 1 in 2 with applications (knock on wood). It just means we have to do twice as many applications as opportunities we’re interested in. We’d encourage anyone to take this approach, to learn from the numbers, and to make their own observations about the application process. Even if our average was 1 in 5, or even 1 in 20, we could easily persevere just having the knowledge of how much work it takes to earn a single opportunity. All in all, it takes a constant regimen of looking for and applying for opportunities to travel from residency to residency.

Passepartout Duo in California

3. Turning in a strong application

In many of these cases, you’re going to be evaluated by a non-musician against a lot of other non-musicians, and we think that’s great. Our main suggestion is that, on its own, a straight-shot video of you running through your repertoire might not be super impressive to someone who doesn’t understand your instrument or new music. The video you create, and the portfolio you present, should be as representative of your ideas as the music you’re making. We’d suggest trying to reach out to designers or videographers to help make a dynamic and engaging portfolio that helps your project speak on a visual and conceptual basis, more than just on a musical one.

Making videos has been a huge part of our work as a duo, and we think it has played a big role in making our music more accessible outside of the traditional new music spheres, besides adding a collaborative and interpretative layer to the works.

Secondly, there’s an aspect of project proposals that is very important to the application process for residencies. Constantly sending in residency applications has given us a wonderful opportunity to re-codify our ensemble’s values and beliefs on a weekly and monthly basis. With each application, we try to be even more articulate in the conceptual aspects of our work; “Why are we even doing this, and why is it important and relevant to x place in the world?” Choosing a project that has a clear local and community-based proposition, while maintaining a globally accessible concept, is probably the key. If your project pertains to a specific region, you can easily propose it to many different residencies in that same area as well.

4. Building off an “anchor” opportunity and developing it further

Eventually, there comes a point where you’ve landed a great residency opportunity that makes it worth traveling halfway across the world. Maybe it’s that there’s a healthy stipend, a world-renowned artist nearby, or a friend you’d love to collaborate with. We always strive to take these opportunities and stretch them further. Our research to dig deeper is where we make the most progress in turning one opportunity into many. Once we know we’ll have a residency lined up somewhere, we look at how we can add concerts, university engagements, and other activities into the mix.

Our first suggestion is to like every Facebook page and sign up for every mailing list in that certain music scene; it’s the easiest way to see what’s going on in the world. Getting in touch with past residents is another great way to see what is going on in the local community and how the location might impact your work.

After accumulating these contacts, we’re sending emails and calling institutions; with the residency confirmed, institutions and venues will be more eager to invite you to perform or teach. We’re always looking at cost over time too, rather than just cost per engagement. That means that with this one “anchor” opportunity in place, it frees you up to take on engagements that you wouldn’t fly across the world for, per se, but that really contribute to enriching your life and add a lot of value to the whole of the trip.

This idea of building off a single residency opportunity is what will make these experiences rich and worthwhile, and you may find that a residency is usually just the start of many larger relationships with other artists and institutions.

5. Making something while you’re there (what residencies want)

Showing the work you’ve created at the residency to the local community and your hosts is also a very important part of every residency engagement. Bringing enthusiasm and a willingness to share a window into your creative process is possibly the simplest thing you can give in return for these opportunities. For composers and other people whose work doesn’t contain a necessarily performative or exhibitable element, we’d encourage you to find an engaging way of communicating your project to your hosts and the public.

It’s great to have a community engagement project, a performance, or some kind of presentation prepared for any situation. For us, creating videos that showcase our repertoire while in residence and organizing small touring “house concerts” have been some of our most fulfilling and popular approaches. Filming the repertoire can involve the collaboration of locals, and it can portray these unique places in the world. Organizing intimate concerts can help to stretch one’s ability to present and discuss musical ideas with people who might never have been aware of new music, and meeting local people can create lasting memories everywhere you go.

In the end, our approach is summed up in three words: “just do it.” There’s not really much more to it than that; we’re always trying, failing, and experimenting ourselves with a continually evolving approach. These pointers just represent some of the things we wish we more clearly knew when starting out.

Photos, Videos, Website: The Tools You Need and How To Get Them

Welcome to Post 3 in my series on the basics of how to promote and market your music! In Post 1, I covered the basics of publicity and how to think about the story of your music, and in Post 2, I laid out the ten most important things to know about social media.

Now, I’m going to talk about assets: the tools you need before you can do any sort of publicity or marketing around yourself and your music. The primary materials you’ll need are photos, videos, audio recordings, a bio, and a website to tie them all together.

There are two things you must consider about all of your assets:

1) Do they accurately represent you and your music?
2) Are they of high enough quality?

The former extends directly out of the work done in Post 1, as you must understand your unique brand and story before you can determine how best to represent that in a photo, video, etc. If part of your story is your commitment to contemporary music, but all of your videos feature you playing Bach, then there’s a disconnect there.

The latter will of course depend on what you can spend on these assets, but even if you’ve got a limited budget, there are ways to get high-quality tools without breaking the bank.


Even though we work in music, we still live in a visual world. When it comes to promoting yourself, the reality is that you’ll probably be seen before you’re heard, and that’s why your photos are so important. People will judge you (both consciously and unconsciously) based on what they see, and will act upon those judgments, so you need good photos that visually represent your music and personality.

For instance, are you fun-loving and easy-going? You probably don’t want photos of yourself dressed all in black, with dramatic lighting and pensive stares into the abyss. If you’re a performer, do you want your instrument in the photo or not? If you’re a composer, do you have scores with you? Will you wear formal or informal clothing?

Your photos should depict to some degree what people will encounter in your music, so think about your story and how you want to tell it (Post 1) before you invest the time and money in photos.

Ideally you should have 3-5 promotional photos, including a headshot for programs. Things to keep in mind:

  • You want a mix of portrait and landscape images.
  • Ideally at least one photo has some blank space where writing can be placed for marketing materials, album covers, social media banners, etc.
  • You can have black & white images, but I recommend focusing on color.
  • You want to keep an easily shareable folder of your photos (Dropbox is great, and throw in a copy of your bio too!), including sub-folders that have the photos in Hi-resolution JPEG (for printing, newspaper/magazines, programs, etc.), Low-resolution JPEG (for websites, social media, emailing to people), and TIFF (super high-resolution, for billboards, posters, etc. – these won’t be used often, but good to have when this degree of quality is available).
photo gear

Photo by Jakob Owens

BUDGET: Champagne and Caviar

A full-day, professional photo shoot can run well over $5,000-10,000, and can include the following:

  • Photographer (obviously)
  • Assistants (to help with lighting, setup, etc.)
  • Hair & Makeup (can be combined into one person sometimes)
  • Stylist (they will bring their own clothes, or borrow from showrooms/fashion houses)
  • Studio rental (unless the photographer has their own space)

For a shoot of this scale, you’ll want to work closely with the photographer in the lead-up, sending a “mood board” of images that inspire you and that you’d like them to keep in mind during the shoot. If you have a clear concept in mind, then the more that you can communicate to the photographer beforehand the better, as they can then assemble a team that can best realize that vision.

If the photo shoot is being paid for by a record label, presenter, or other entity, then you’ll likely sacrifice some of your own personal vision, but still don’t be afraid to speak up—ultimately, these photos are a representation of you and need to feel accurate in that regard.

You’ll also want to negotiate how many finished, edited photos you will get from the shoot, and what type of usage license you have for those photos (some will charge extra if you want to sell the photos, or use them on CDs/books/other merch that will be for sale).

BUDGET: PB&J Everyday

If you don’t have enough cash on hand for the full-on David LaChapelle treatment, fear not—there are plenty of options.

  • Professional photographers: Ask friends and colleagues whom they’ve used, and also ask what they paid (if you’re comfortable doing so), so that you have a sense of what to say when the photographer asks for your budget. The range will vary widely here, but if you hire a younger talent that’s just starting out, then you can often negotiate a lower rate and also get more finished photos out of them.
  • Use a friend: Instead of paying for a professional photographer, you could use a friend (or friend-of-a-friend) who is a solid amateur photographer and just pay them a few hundred bucks (or treat them to dinner or a bottle of nice Scotch) to shoot you. Pro-tip: bring someone else along to hold a reflector to fill in any shadows on your face.
  • Freelancers: If you don’t have friends (sorry) then other options are to ask local university film and photo departments, or go on websites like UpWork or Fiverr to find cheap freelancers; just go through their photo portfolios beforehand to make sure you like their work.
  • Equipment rental: If the photographer doesn’t have a pro-level camera, you can easily find a local photography store that will rent you top-of-the-line SLRs and lenses for very affordable day rates, so there’s no excuse to skip professional equipment. You can also buy various lighting and backdrop setups on Amazon, and then just return them after the shoot for a refund.
  • Locations: You can use an apartment or home if you have access, a rooftop can work wonders in an urban environment, or just go outside and find a non-populated area (though city parks can sometimes be risky as officials might stop you or issue a ticket).
Rink shoot

Photo by Jakob Owens

Whatever route you choose, just make sure that your photos are as professional as possible, and don’t look like you set up an iPhone on a table in your bedroom. Even a few hundred dollars can get you fantastic images that will carry you through the early stages of your career.

A note about post-production

Looking beautiful is nice, but being airbrushed to within an inch of your life can be a dangerous proposition. Photographers can do anything in post-production these days, but if you look completely different from your photos, then when people meet you that’s what’s going to stick in their mind—not your music. So skip the Kim Kardashian treatment, just a minor clean-up is sufficient.


In recent years, video has become one of the most important assets you can have from a promotional standpoint. A good video can be shared easily, used on your website, social media, presenter sites, embedded in articles, and more. It can be a powerful, compelling representation of your music and, if done right, can be useful for years to come.

So please, PLEASE do not have the only video material of yourself be a shaky iPhone video of your recital, shot by your mom in the third row.

There’s no excuse to not have at least a relatively high-quality video of your music in performance, and these days, you can make it happen on a shoestring. Regardless of budget, one thing that’s important to remember: You want to do everything in your power to have a minimum of two cameras shooting footage. That will give a more varied visual and professional feel to the video, and from a practical standpoint it will allow you to cover mistakes or jump edits by switching between the two cameras.

Another note: In general, video is less about the details of the performance, so you can get away with an imperfect interpretation. Audio recordings should have a higher standard here, but a beautiful video of a really good (but not world-beatingly-great) performance is worth keeping and using, since people will mostly view these on computers or phones, and won’t focus obsessively on the minutiae of the performance.

video camera

Photo by Jakob Owens

BUDGET: I live at the end of the rainbow and collect pots of gold

As with photo shoots, if you have money to spare then you can make a huge production out of a video shoot—director, multiple cameras, sound team, lighting, space rental, hair/makeup/styling, and more. Unless you have experience with video production, you’ll want to leave the technical details to someone else who can project manage the entire affair, and instead focus on the performance and creative elements, as those are where you should have more say.

BUDGET: A leprechaun took all of my money

You can still get solid video content with a budget of a few hundred dollars, and even one good video can go a long way. Some tips:

  • Hire amateur videographers: You can find videographers in a variety of places these days, from the film/media department of your local university, sites like Craigslist, local job boards, or just by asking around. Ultimately, as long as they know how to work the equipment, the footage they get will be professional enough to create a solid end-product with a competent editor.
  • Rent equipment: As with photo shoots, you can affordably rent a pair of digital SLR cameras with a wide angle and portrait lens, two tripods, and a solid portable sound recording setup, for very affordable rates at your local photo/video store.
  • Locations: You’d be surprised at where you can get a good-looking video. Rehearsal rooms, apartments, basements, backyards…obviously the more interesting the space the better, but if you don’t have the budget to rent something then go with what you have access to and focus the footage on the performance and performers by using lenses with tighter focal lengths.
  • Editing: You can learn a lot about editing (and shooting for that matter) online via YouTube and education sites like SkillShare, and both FinalCut and Adobe Premiere are very user-friendly editing programs. That said, you can also hire editors for very affordable rates on sites like UpWork and Fiverr. As long as you like their previous work, they should be able to edit a two-camera music video in a few hours (though definitely make sure you use someone who has experience with music videos).

People are always looking for video content these days, so if you can’t get someone else to pay for your video production then it’s worth investing a bit of money and doing it yourself – even if just to get a video of your most compelling piece or performance (or just a movement or excerpt). It’ll go a long ways towards getting yourself out there.

video production

Photo by Jakob Owens


I’ll speak more on this at length in Post 4, which will deal entirely with recordings. For now, suffice it to say that you want to be careful when it comes to audio assets, as they are the purest representation of your art form (and your business, given that you’re a professional musician). If you’re not ready to invest here, then hold off and create a few videos instead, as you can get more promotional use out of them in the short term, and the bar is lower in terms of people judging the sound and performance.


Wiser minds than my own have written on this subject, and there’s not much I can add to those words other than just to say that your bio will always be a negotiation between factual information about yourself that should be included to show your history, achievements, and the momentum of your career, and the more descriptive elements that speak to your unique brand and story, and why people should care about you and your music.

One other note: it’s worth having a short and a long bio on hand for each season, as both will have different uses.


Photo by Jakob Owens


Once you’ve got a bunch of great assets, you need to pull them all together, and that’s where your website comes in.

First things first: YOU NEED A WEBSITE. And it must be fast, functional, and responsive (meaning it looks good whether on a desktop, tablet, or mobile device).

This is not optional. A website is where you can curate and present your music and brand in a space that you control, and it gives you the ability to filter the content around yourself so only the best is on display.

With the options available to you, there’s no excuse not to have your own website at this point, as it can be built for free and maintained for a few dollars a month.

BUDGET: My swimming pool is full of gold coins

I don’t care if you are literally Daddy Warbucks, personally I don’t think you should spend more than a few thousand dollars on a website. As a musician, there are limited functionalities that you need from a site. To have someone custom-code a site from scratch is simply overkill at this point; you’re not building the next Facebook here. You should save that money to invest in social media or better assets. Or buying a solid gold donkey statue.

What’s most important is to have a content management system that you can update easily to add concerts, news, press quotes, etc. And you’ll want most if not all of the following pages:

  • HOMEPAGE: I advocate for a scrolling homepage that includes snippets of key info from other areas of the site (a few news items, upcoming performances, some key press quotes, photos, videos, social media, etc.). The more people have to click, the more you’ll lose them, so you want as much info available to them the second they land on your site.
  • ABOUT: Here’s where you can put your bio, other personal info, and a link to your press kit (hi-res photos, bio text, link to videos, etc.). If you have special projects, those can also go here or on their own page.
  • REPERTOIRE/WORKS: If you’re a performer, it can be useful for presenters to be able to see a list of what you play. And if you’re a composer, you’ll definitely want a page with info on all of your compositions, including links to score rentals, recordings, video and audio samples, etc.
  • NEWS: Here you can have posts about big performances, projects, or announcements. You’ll want to add in something every few months at least, just to show that things are happening on your end. These don’t have to be long blog posts; they can simply be a headline and a few sentences, plus photos or videos if you like.
  • SCHEDULE: Here you can list concerts (or performances of your music), with some brief info and a link to where people can purchase tickets. This is the most important page to update, as most people are going to come to your site to learn where they can experience you live.
  • MEDIA: Photos/Videos/Recordings – these can each have their own independent pages, or can be put on a single page with different sections, depending on how much of each you have. But you want people to be able to see and hear the beautiful assets you’ve created (again, only select the best of each), feel that you’re a professional who cares about how you are represented, and engage with your music via these assets.
  • PRESS: This is where you list recent reviews/interviews/pull-out quotes. Essentially it exists to show that people are talking about you and that your career has traction. This will be mostly for presenters and industry people visiting your site, so they can see what kinds of outlets are covering you. If you’re a young artist with no major press coverage yet, skip this page for now.
  • CONTACT: If you have booking, management, or PR, you want to list them here so people can reach out to them directly about you. You also want a contact form leading to your personal email address (or representative) so that people can get in touch directly – don’t list your actual personal email on the site though; you don’t want strangers to have access to that.

If you have those pages, you’re basically covered in terms of the info people would come to your site to get. You can of course add other pages around different aspects of your career, extra-musical interests, charities and causes, etc., but these are the core functionality pages you need in there.

BUDGET: I live in a van down by the river

Thanks to glorious advances in modern technology, you no longer need need to hire someone to build you a custom site. And if you want someone else to do it for you, you should be able to get someone to build you a great site for under a thousand dollars.

There are numerous DIY website platforms out there, but for the moment Squarespace is BY FAR the easiest to use. Wix and Weebly are both far less polished and can lead to messy, amateur-looking sites. Webflow is more complex and customizable, but is probably much too complicated for most artists.

I recommend building off of one of the templates on Squarespace – it’s very user-friendly, tightly coded, and easy to update. Downsides are that you have limited customizability, and Squarespace sites can look similar (though a lot of tweaking can be done on the Style Editor section). You’ll have to pay $150-200 in hosting each year, but that’s true of any website.

WordPress is another platform that people often use (my own company included). It’s far more powerful than Squarespace/Wix/Weebly, and infinitely more customizable, but it’s much less user-friendly if you have no experience with web development and design. And you have to constantly update it to avoid potential security breaches, so if you don’t know how to do that then you should avoid WordPress, or hire a developer to build and manage the site. (Again, you can find very affordable options on UpWork for this, and don’t need to spend more than a few thousand dollars here.)

In Conclusion

These are the core assets that you need to effectively promote your music, both via publicity and social media, as well around your performances via presenter pages. Even if you’re at the very start of your career, it’s worth investing a minimum amount money to get these done as professionally as possible, as they will make a major difference in how you are perceived, and whether people take you and your music seriously before even hearing a single note.

I’ll conclude the series next week with a separate note on recordings and how to promote them. Until then, my internet friends…

The Basics of Publicity

If you’re reading NewMusicBox, chances are you’re someone in the music industry working to make a career for yourself (unless you’re someone with an actual, physical music box that’s broken, and you’re trying to replace it, in which case try here). If you fall in the former group, then at some point or another you’re going to need to think about publicity, and so I’ve written these posts on the basics of publicity as a primer to help get you started on the winding, sometimes treacherous road of self-promotion.

Before we go any deeper, however, we need to be clear about what we mean when we’re discussing publicity.


At its core, publicity is about the public face of your music making and how people perceive it. What is the story of your music? What distinguishes you from the sprawling hordes of other people out there doing the same thing? Who is telling that story, how are they telling it, and to whom are they telling it? Essentially, it boils down to trying to get someone to care about what you’re doing, and then having them tell other people that they should care, too.

In the golden days of yore, that public-facing story was told in a rather controlled way—a publicist spoke about you to the decision-makers at a handful of very powerful media outlets (newspaper/magazine/radio/TV), and those media outlets either told your story to their readers/listeners/viewers and made you a star, or they didn’t.

Then the internet happened, and there was a flood of new ways that the story of your music (and your music itself) could be exposed to the public. As a result, the ways in which people heard your story, and told it, changed dramatically. Instead of a handful of highly controlled outlets, all of sudden you had blogs popping up like rabbits in summertime, not to mention forums, podcasts, video series, a parade of social media platforms, your website…even the older media outlets began expanding into digital and social media, in addition to their traditional platforms.

What is the story of your music? Who is telling that story, how are they telling it, and to whom are they telling it?

So today more than ever, if you want to get your music to an audience that’s larger than yourself, your cat, and your mom, then you must consider the question of publicity and how the story of your music is being told. And that begins with your branding and media relations (with or without a publicist), though it also extends into your social media and digital marketing, as well as your public-facing assets (photos, videos, website, and recordings—the last of which deserves its own category). But let’s start with the first of these.


At the risk of sounding like a budget Don Draper, you need to consider your brand. Yes, “brand” is a terrible word, and yes, I do feel a little bit dirty every time I say it, but I’ve yet to find a suitable alternative (though if any of you wordsleuths have a suggestion, please share in the comments).

You should think of your brand as the best possible slice of yourself and your music. It’s about taking the gloriously messy complexity that is your life, personality, and creative process—most of which is (spoiler alert) not very interesting to anyone other than your closest friends and family—singling out the most compelling parts, and shaping them into a narrative that people will want to hear and want to talk about.

It’s the difference between saying this: “She’s a young lady who spent her childhood in rural Montana, then studied to be a hotel manager at a state university while also singing on the side, and then, on a whim, she applied to a conservatory in New York, was accepted, and then after finishing her studies, was offered (via a close friend) a chance to be a cover at the Metropolitan Opera, and when the lead fell ill suddenly, she got the chance to sing in an actual production.”

Or this: “She grew up in the middle of Nowhere, USA, until a top-level conservatory heard her, brought her to New York, and four years later she was singing on the stage of the Met.”

It’s the same story, but the second version cuts out what’s extraneous and focuses on a concise story with a few “hooks” that people can easily catch on to, remember, and repeat to others.


Let me just pause for a second, since many people will read that last section and say: “I’m an artist…I don’t want some skinny-tie-wearing, hair-slicked-back hustler trying to sell me like a bar of soap. MY MUSIC WILL STAND ON ITS OWN MERITS, and if it’s good enough then I’ll succeed without any branding or publicity!”

Except it won’t. And that’s not what this is about anyways.

If you don’t promote your music then it won’t be heard, no matter how good it is. If you don’t talk about your art, no one will.

Listen, I understand that being a musician generally reflects a certain baseline level of commitment to integrity and a belief in the inherent value of art. And I also understand how people feel that any sort of promotion might somehow risk compromising that and cheapening their art, but the fact is that 999 times out of 1,000, if you don’t promote your music then it won’t be heard, no matter how good it is. If you don’t talk about your art, no one will.

The distinction—and it is a vital one—is between talking about what you have created in a way that is thoughtful, concise, and honest versus being a crass, egotistical self-promoter. We all know the latter when we see them, and while they might get some more exposure in the short term, they always lose in the long run since people get tired of having something pushed on them.

So once again—if you wish to be a public figure in any capacity and to have your music reach an ever-larger audience, then you simply must come to terms with the idea of talking about yourself and what you’re doing. The important thing, as I’ve said, is to do it well, and to always to be true to yourself.


So how do you figure out what your brand is and how best to tell your story? Well, you can hire a publicist and have them figure it out (more on that later), or you can go the DIY route. The first step is write down your story in your own words: how you’ve come to where you are now in your music career, step by step, in as much detail as you can. Then write about how you approach your music making: what you think is special about it; what you love most about making music; what you think is important (and not important); the people and experiences that have influenced you and why. Get it all out on the page, even if it’s messy and longwinded.

Next, come up with a list of close friends—people who you feel know you, and also appreciate and enjoy your music. Call them up, tell them you’re doing an exercise and were wondering if they might be willing to tell you what they find most interesting about you, what they enjoy most about your music, and how they would describe you and your music to other people. Write it all down. Yes, it’s going to feel a little bit awkward, but get over it—again, this is part of being a public figure, and if you don’t want to do this then it’s back to the basement with your mom and cat.

Once you’ve gotten some external opinions, you should start to see some patterns emerge. Compare those points to the story you originally wrote down and see how you can consolidate the two into a narrative that is true to yourself and your history, but speaks to the things that other people find engaging. Then read it back to those friends and see if it strikes a chord.

After that, you should at least have a much clearer picture of your brand and how to better tell the story of yourself and your music.


Now that you’ve got a story to tell, the next step is figuring out how to get other people to tell it—both to get the word out to new and larger audiences, and also to validate the elements of your story. So instead of you saying, “Hey, this is my story and it’s true, I swear it!” instead you can say, “My story is such-and-such, and here’s a sweet pull-out quote from a prestigious media outlet that proves it!”

This is what media relations is about: finding a way to get people in the media—journalists, critics, producers, bloggers, influencers, and anyone else who has access to a platform that reaches an audience—to talk about you and your music, to that audience.

Once again, there are two ways to do this: 1) you hire a publicist who has the media contacts you want to reach, and pay them to get your story told, or 2) you do it yourself. Let’s once again take the DIY route first.

If you want to do your own media outreach, then the most important thing you can do is actually engage with the media that you want to be featured in—read the blogs, newspapers, and magazines, listen to the radio, watch the TV shows, follow the social media accounts. See who covers what, how they talk about it, what stories, angles, music, and personalities seem to pique their interest…then start to think about how you might be able to make them interested in you. Do they write about live performances in NYC featuring avant-garde music by living composers? Don’t pitch them on your Gershwin recital in Kentucky. Do they do long-form, in-depth interviews with established stars? Don’t pitch them a listing for your upcoming house concert. When you’re reaching out to media for the first time, it’s crucial to show that you understand what they’re about and that you’re trying to present them with a story that they might actually be interested in telling, in the way that they like to tell it.

Be to-the-point and polite in your pitches—say who you are, what you’re doing, and why you think it might be of interest to them, then thank them for any consideration. That’s it.

Once you’ve identified some outlets and contacts who might be interested, you have to research your way to their contact info. Alternatively, if you’re performing with a venue or presenter that has a PR/publicity/marketing person or department, you should get in touch with them and see if they’d be willing to make the pitches, or at least give you the contacts. Or, if you have colleagues who have been featured in certain outlets, ask them if they’d be willing to give you a contact or make an introduction.

Be to-the-point and polite in your pitches—say who you are, what you’re doing, and why you think it might be of interest to them, then thank them for any consideration. That’s it. You can follow up once or twice after a week or so of no response, then let it go and try again next time. You’ll never get everyone to respond in the first go-round, and you shouldn’t take it personally if you never hear back from people.

If they do respond, and you end up getting some form of coverage, then keep a list or spreadsheet of that, and whenever you have other things going on that might be of interest, reach out to them again. It’ll be much, much easier the second time around.

I could write another ten pages on media relations, but those are the core basics if you want to handle it yourself. Alternatively, you can hire a publicist—which leads to our final area of discussion.


I can’t tell you how many people have asked me the question: “so, what do publicists actually do?” There’s a lot of confusion—not to mention smoke and mirrors—around the work of publicity, when it’s needed, and how to tell if it’s being done right. Let me try to clear the air a bit.


First and foremost, there are two types of publicity: campaign-based publicity and ongoing (or “retainer”) publicity. Campaign-based publicity is when you hire a publicist or publicity firm for a specific time period around a specific event or series of events, like a major performance, tour, album release, announcement, etc. Here, the goal is for the publicist to determine the best way to tell the story of your event, and to try to secure as much media coverage as possible for it, in order to achieve both general exposure for yourself and your event, and also to help achieve whatever the concrete goals of the campaign are (selling tickets or albums, for example).

Ongoing publicity (also referred to as PR or public relations), is when you hire someone to be your constant advocate and mouthpiece to the public, to shape the longer arcs of your story and career, and to also pitch and coordinate media placements around your important events. If you’re a top-level established artist, then this becomes more about controlling the flow of communications, deciding which outlets can run which stories when, and so on. For the rest of us, it’s about building a sense of momentum for your career and making sure more and more media outlets cover you in increasingly visible, impactful ways. It can also be about forging brand partnerships, collaborations, putting on showcase events or performances, and managing your social media and digital marketing, depending on the publicist and your own career goals.


Here is the cardinal rule: only hire a publicist when there is something truly of note to publicize.

Here is the cardinal rule: only hire a publicist when there is something truly of note to publicize. If what your trying to promote simply isn’t a good story, or doesn’t have the necessary elements in place for media to want to cover it, then you can pay A LOT of money (see next section) and get very little in return—and believe me, there are plenty of people out there who will gladly take your hard-earned cash if you’ll give it to them.

For campaign-based publicity, if you’re not playing a thoughtfully programmed concert at a relatively noteworthy (or a wildly unusual) venue, or releasing a professionally recorded album with a compelling theme on a respected label, or receiving a significant award that media have covered before, then you will most likely not get your money’s worth from a publicist.

For ongoing publicity, if you don’t have a relatively full schedule, ideas about interesting projects you want to do, a willingness to do interviews and promo performances, and at least a baseline of industry bona fides (top conservatory training, competition wins, awards, successful recordings, social media traction, etc.), then you most likely will not get your money’s worth from a publicist.

There are a lot of people who hire a publicist just because it makes them feel like they have arrived at a certain career milestone. This is not a good reason. Let’s briefly look at how you can tell if a publicist is actually getting results for you.


There are a few ways to tell if a publicist is actually making things happen or just taking your money and laughing all the way to the bank:

  • Media Placements: Listings, previews, interviews, reviews—are media covering you and your events? Also make sure to distinguish actual media placements with smoke and mirrors media placements (i.e. places that simply re-post a press release, tiny blogs whose readership is literally you, your publicist, and the person who wrote the piece, or pay-to-play websites where your publicist pays them to review you so they can say, “Look, I got you some coverage!!”).
  • Traffic to your website and social media: You should see a gradual but steady increase in online traffic and engagement around you (which, by the way, you should know how to read and monitor—more on that in another post). This might not happen overnight, but if you’re paying someone to increase your public profile, that should be reflected in the numbers.
  • More people should know your name: Even if you’re not getting covered immediately (and it can take a moment for the rubber to hit the road), then at the very least your publicist should be talking about you to people and trying to get them interested in you. And eventually that should somehow filter back to you via the trickles of communication that make up any niche industry. If after a few months of publicity, someone doesn’t say, “I heard about what you were doing from so-and-so!” then you should ask what’s being done for you.
  • A sense of momentum: This is a bit more difficult to quantify, but if you’re paying someone to promote you, you should feel a sense of excitement and an upward trajectory to your career—that you’re headed in a positive direction and taking significant steps to get there. This is crucial, but it’s also an area where many publicists can talk a great game to their clients, and sell them on the belief that they’re becoming stars, without actually delivering on any of the first three points…so while this is important, if it’s all you’re getting then you need to be wary.

Those are a few pointers in terms of deliverables. Now let’s talk money…


This is the question I get most often—how much do publicists charge? Obviously it depends on the publicist, how established they are, what other artists they represent, etc., but there’s one hard and fast rule: good publicity is expensive. If a major market publicist is charging less than $1000 a month, then chances are they don’t have the contacts or influence (or confidence in their abilities) to really deliver for you. Good publicity takes a certain level of expertise and experience, as well as contacts and relationships that are established over a long period of time, and you will pay a premium for access to both of those things.

Generally speaking, campaign-based PR is more expensive since it’s a shorter time-period, and has more concrete and high-pressure deliverables for the publicist. You should expect to pay at least $1000-1500 per month on the low end, to $5,000 and up (though for niche genres, unless you’re a superstar you will quite frankly almost never see a financial return on that kind of an investment). Ongoing publicity rates can depend on the length of the relationship and how much you have to actually publicize, but you should still be prepared to pay north of $1000 a month. Think of it as hiring a part-time employee to work with you on your career.

There can be countless add-on costs as well, such as press release writing, social media and website management, event management, and so on.


Hopefully that gives you an understanding about the core concepts of branding, media relations, and when to hire a publicist. Next up, we’ll look into some other ways that you can tell your story and present your public-facing brand: your website, social media and digital marketing, and the various audio/visual/written assets that represent you and your music.

Andrew Ousley

With more than a decade of experience in the music industry, Andrew Ousley has worked with artists and organizations such as Lawrence Brownlee, Conrad Tao, Kevin Puts, Warner Music, On Site Opera, and more. He has overseen the marketing, promotion, publicity, and project management of fourteen #1 albums, from core classical to crossover. He is the founder and president of Unison Media, an integrated music company that handles publicity, marketing, social media, websites, and more. He is also the creator, curator, and presenter of The Crypt Sessions, a concert series in a crypt in Harlem, and runs Burger Club.

You Need a Better Bio

This is part one of a four-part series of articles that will explore why you need a better bio, how to create an effective and vivid bio, how to describe yourself and your music without sounding like an ass, and how to be real in words so that readers can connect with you and your music.

It’s Not Me, It’s Your Bio

You know I think the world of you, and I’d never, ever want to hurt your artistic sensibilities! It’s just that how you describe yourself is . . . uh . . . it’s just . . . so. . . so BORING!

YOU and your CRAZY MUSIC aren’t boring! But baby, it’s your bio . . . it’s FALSE ADVERTISING! Makes you and your music sound so generic—it’s embarrassing and so not YOU.

Look, I know you hate promoting yourself, but I just can’t take it. Either you upgrade your damn bio, or I’m serious . . . I’m gonna question your commitment to your own work!

Writing about yourself is hard, writing about music is ridiculous, and writing about your own music can be excruciating.

As a music career consultant, I love working with musicians on their bios. It’s fascinating: helping creative people uncover and articulate their stories. It’s part detective work and part investigative journalism. With clients, I listen and learn about their work, projects, backgrounds, and goals. It’s about finding the real story—the connective thread that helps shape and give meaning to experience and intention. Together, we work to reveal the artist’s truth and communicate it through their promotional materials: their websites, program notes, and online profiles.

But I get it, most musicians find that writing a bio ranks right up there with getting a root canal. Writing about yourself is hard, writing about music is ridiculous, and writing about your own music can be excruciating.

Popular Excuses for Having a Crappy Bio

‘Who Cares?’ Excuses

Hey, my friend wrote mine using my résumé. What, it lists what I’ve done—what’s wrong with that? Covers all the bases and I come across as “professional,” like all the other musicians I know.


No one reads bios anyway—they’re just there to fill up space on the program or on my website. It’s not about the person: it’s about the music.

‘Too Shy’ Excuses

It’s uncomfortable to brag about myself. It feels too “sales-y.” Self-promotion is awkward, and I’m not about any of that.


Writing my bio unleashes all my self-esteem demons so I just keep using my same crap version with occasional updates.

‘Up Yours’ Excuse

I really don’t care if anyone hears my music: I write for me and my cats.

‘Too Busy’ Excuse

I don’t have time to work on it. I’m too busy complaining about how hard it is to get my music out there.

My Personal All-Time Fav Excuse

I want my music to speak for itself.

Sometimes your music only gets to speak for itself AFTER you’ve spoken on its behalf.

To be brutally honest, most musician bios are cliché-ridden boredom fests of performances, awards, and degrees. Composers and improvisers have the added challenge of describing their music. That’s where things usually go from soporific to seriously awkward. Descriptions of music are often word fogs. They come in two varieties: incomprehensibly poetic or analytic jargon-filled academic-ese.

As a field, we can do better.

You may still be thinking, “So what? My bio doesn’t impact who comes out to hear my music or who gets involved in my projects.”



With a more human, personal connection, an effective bio can enhance:

Your Buzz

To get a feature story, an interview, or even just a highlighted “pick of the week” for your upcoming premier, a journalist or blogger has to find something newsworthy about you and your music. Your bio is key to the press release: it needs to be a compelling read for non-musicians.

Your Fan Base

Your friends and family will come to your next performance, and they’ve agreed to each bring two friends to the concert. They send invites with links to your site so people can read about you and the upcoming event. Especially for people new to new music, an engaging bio and description of the work—written with non-musicians in mind—can motivate people to attend. Make sure you offer material that is FB, Twitter, and Instagram-friendly so that your supporters can help enlist new fans.

Potential Funders

The people who donate or commission works are those who have first become fans of you and your music. That means they need to get to know you. What helps strangers want to come meet you after a performance? It’s how you come across in the program (or online before the concert), along with how you introduce the work verbally from the stage. Do you come across in print, online, and in person as an engaging human being with a story a non-musician can relate to?

Your Collaborators

How do performers find out about you and your music? They too are influenced by what they find out about you online. Does your bio help make connections by revealing your personality and perspective? With a more reader-friendly, direct, and personable bio, you make it easier for people to want to work with you.

Your Self

In working with musicians on their bios, the ultimate focus is on their mission. When musicians become clear about why they do what they do, and can articulate it in words and convey it in their promotional materials, it has a marvelous effect: they become more centered, more confident, and more productive. It enriches their networking and their everyday behavior. As a result, their projects and careers start to move forward with new energy.

This may seem counter-intuitive. A bio is simply a marketing tool and who cares about words—it’s all about the music, right?

Actually, what I’ve found is that working with musicians on their bio helps them clarify their purpose. Then it’s easier to align their mindset with their actions, and for their careers to gain traction.

A bio is just words, but these words are gateways for your music. Words can motivate people to click and listen, to attend, to collaborate, to promote, book, and fund your music. Words can also help you clarify your values and goals—as both an artist and a person.

I found my favorite response to the “I want my music to speak for itself” rationale on CDBaby’s DIY Musician site: “Sometimes your music only gets to speak for itself AFTER you’ve spoken on its behalf.

Most musicians are confused about who they’re writing the bio for and why.

So let’s start with the ideal: an effective bio conveys a vibrant, distinct impression of you and your work. It communicates who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. As a marketing tool, bios need to pique readers’ interest, motivating them to click, listen, and connect with you.

The good news is that there are examples and tools that can help you write a better bio. I want to leave you with an example of a terrific mini bio (a perfect introduction for a website landing page):

A jazz singer and new music composer of eclectic tastes and prodigious gifts, GRAMMY®NOMINATED Theo Bleckmann makes music that is accessibly sophisticated, unsentimentally emotional, and seriously playful. His work provokes the mind to wonder, but connects immediately with the heart.

I love the description of his music. It’s humanizing: no clichés or jargon in sight. The three contradictory descriptive phrases help us imagine the sense of layered meaning in his work. And the last line describes how his music affects listeners. This isn’t hype. His recordings, full bio, and press quotes make clear he’s the real deal as described. This bio is more than accurate: it piques my curiosity and makes me want to click play. It works as a call to action.

Admit it, your bio could use an upgrade, right? Don’t be part of the problem: we all want more people getting turned on to new music and it can start with your own bio.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment with the first of the seven keys to writing a better bio.

Angela Myles Beeching

Angela Myles Beeching

Music career consultant Angela Myles Beeching helps musicians book more work so they can live the life they desire. Author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, Angela also writes the popular weekly blog Monday Bytes. In her sordid past, she directed career and entrepreneurship programs at Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University, and New England Conservatory. Comments, complaints, questions, career coaching needs? Reach her directly at [email protected]

Positive Power: Develop the Growth Mindset of Success

Independent Thinking

It’s hard being a professional composer or performer! The field is flooded with talent, traditional opportunities are highly competitive, and the career path is not clear. Many changes in the music industry, technology, and the way that audiences interact with and access music have made it harder for musicians to be noticed and create sustainable careers. On the other hand, the brave new world of technology and social media, along with more creative ways to make, perform, and disseminate music and interact with new audiences, have opened up opportunities for the entrepreneurial artist.

Given the competitive nature and complexity of today’s musical landscape, it’s no wonder that musicians feel intense pressure to excel and often worry how to make it.

You are taught to go for perfection, and you inevitably feel judged on the quality of your work. However, you probably judge yourself more harshly than any music critic or panelist or audience member would, which can give rise to self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence—exacerbating the perception of the need to be “perfect.”

This creates a lot of stress that can take its toll over the long term. Yet today’s artists can benefit from a life-changing concept from positive psychology on how to deal with these pressures as they make their way in the world: the growth mindset.

What’s on your minds?

Let’s first examine what’s on the minds of the many musicians with whom I have the privilege of working when they begin to doubt themselves and think that they have to be perfect and outdo the competition.

“I am going to die at this performance because I just don’t have what it takes.”

“Every time I write for a new instrument, I feel hopeless because it will never be as good as it needs to be.”

“I totally blew that competition. I’m just a loser.”

“I’ve got to be better than everyone else in order to succeed.”

“If only the ensemble had played my piece better, we would have gotten good reviews. Now my career is going nowhere.”

Which of these sounds familiar to you?

Do you notice all those harsh judgments, permeated with an underlying fear of failure, despite your training and your talent? These thoughts create a lot of stress that can wear you down over time.

Happily, you are not doomed by these thoughts because they are only perceptions and not the truth.

In fact, you have the ability to change those thoughts and adopt a new mindset to approach challenges in the spirit of growth and experimentation, as opposed to perfectionism and fear of failure: the growth mindset of success.

The Growth Mindset of Success

The growth mindset is the brainchild of Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University whose research on the mindset of success is documented in her eminently readable book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

According to Dr. Dweck, your success turns on how you view your talent and intelligence:

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset stems from a belief that your talent and intelligence are the starting point and that success comes as a result of effort, experimentation, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient, work harder, embrace collaboration with others, and achieve greater success than those with a fixed mindset because they are motivated by the desire to grow and learn. You reach out to others for help. You examine the strategies that work and keep building on them. You discard the strategies that don’t work. And you keep the faith, no matter what!

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that you are either born with talent and intelligence or you are not, which means you cannot change how talented or smart you are. As a result, you are afraid to take risks and rock the boat because you might make a mistake—which would prove that you really are not talented. Those with the fixed mindset are locked into perfectionism. They tend to play it safe and avoid experimentation. They also shy away from asking others for help, which they perceive as sign of weakness and further proof of a lack of talent and intelligence.

The fascinating conclusion of Dr. Dweck’s research is that those with a fixed mindset are less “successful” than those with a growth mindset. And with some work, you can overcome those fixed-mindset thoughts and develop the growth mindset with a four-step process.

Young plant

How to Develop the Growth Mindset in Four Steps

Step 1. Become Aware of Your Fixed-Mindset Thoughts

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that we all have fixed-mindset thoughts. The key is to recognize when the fixed mindset arises because that is the first step in a four-step process of change:

Musicians encounter the fixed mindset in many different situations:

  • Writing a new piece
  • In competitions and auditions
  • On stage in performance
  • Teaching
  • Alone in the practice room
  • Comparing yourself to other professionals whom you perceive to be “better” than you
  • Procrastinating for fear of not being good enough
  • Networking and having to meet new people

Pay close attention to the situations that trigger your fixed-mindset thoughts. Write them down or make a record of them over the next week so that you know exactly when to expect these negative thoughts. Notice the words that crop up in your mind that represent your fixed mindset, such as:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’ll never make it.
  • This is way too hard.
  • I give up.

Step 2. Affirm Your Choice to Change

Once you become aware of the situations that trigger the fixed mindset along with your fixed mindset thoughts, the next step is to convince yourself that you have the power to change.

Weigh the Evidence

One strategy is to look for evidence that supports and negates your fixed-mindset thought.

Suppose you have just left a difficult rehearsal and are thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes to make it. I’m such a loser.”

What evidence supports this thought?

  • I did not play as well as I wanted.
  • I didn’t win the last competition that I entered.

How about the evidence that negates this thought?

  • One tough rehearsal does not doom me to failure.
  • After a rough rehearsal, I work really hard and I don’t give up.
  • I am committed to figuring out a better way.
  • I played beautifully at my last recital.
  • I enjoy a challenge.

By doing this exercise, you are challenging that initial fixed-mindset thought and reaffirming your commitment to overcoming your obstacles and working hard towards creating success. This is the growth mindset at work!

Document your successes

Another exercise that affirms the growth mindset is a success journal where you document your successes and outline the process you used to create that success. Not only is the list a great reminder that you have in fact experienced success, but it also shows that success comes about through hard work, focus, persistence, learning from mistakes, and resilience.

Step 3. Answer with a Growth-Mindset Voice

The third step in adopting the growth mindset is to answer your fixed-mindset thought with a growth-mindset thought:

What can you say in response to the fixed-mindset thought?

  • I’ve done it before and I can do it again.
  • I am committed to handling this situation.
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What will I do next time?

You can find the right words from your success journal.

Another technique is to imagine what you are like at your best. Think about an actual experience of optimal performance, such as your last wonderful musical performance, the terrific piece you wrote last month, or a heavenly improvisation session. What are you like in this situation? Write down the words that describe you at your best and use those words to replace your fixed-mindset thoughts.

Step 4. Take a Growth-Mindset Action

The fourth step in changing from a fixed to a growth mindset is to take an action that reaffirms your commitment to growth. What are some actions that you can take?

  • When you hit a snag, keep going and don’t give up.
  • Explore a new way of overcoming your challenges and come up with new and better strategies.
  • Clear your mind by taking a break and doing something that restores your energy—such as exercise, a coffee break, or a phone call with a friend.
  • Reach out to colleagues and mentors for suggestions on how to improve.

The process of change takes practice. The good news for musicians is that you all know the process of practicing for improvement! So use those same skills to practice replacing the voice of the fixed mindset with the words of the growth mindset.

Rainbow Colored Toy

How Musicians Can Use the Growth Mindset to Overcome Challenges to Success

Let’s examine how other musicians have used the growth mindset to overcome many of the common mental challenges to being successful.

  1. Music Performance

Music performance is filled with opportunities for self-doubt and the fixed mindset. How can you use the growth mindset to overcome the fear of not being good enough and the perceived need to be perfect?

Often, it involves identifying the specific challenge and coming up with a new approach.

One musician, who was thoroughly discouraged by mistakes he made during an orchestra rehearsal, realized he was setting unrealistic expectations for himself with the following self-talk:

“I should be better than this. I don’t deserve to be playing principal with an orchestra of this caliber.”

While his fixed mindset caused him to doubt his talent, he reached out to a friend who had more experience as a principal and learned what it took to be a confident performer, thereby changing his entire approach. This led him to be very satisfied with his performance at the final concert.

Another musician was able to overcome her fear of “messing up” by adopting a growth strategy of being “upfront about my lack of experience coupled with being ready to learn something new,” finding that this “has always led to positive results.”

Another musician used the growth mindset to stop thinking of herself as not good enough:

“I can respond to the voice that paralyzes or frightens me with the voice of the growth mindset, by…access[ing my] best self, or thinking of ways a challenging situation can help me grow.”

  1. Auditions and Competitions

Auditions and competitions can easily trigger a fixed mindset with the inevitable comparisons to others. The growth mindset can help to change one’s approach to these stressful situations. A musician who successfully learned how to adopt a growth mindset shared how much more “good” energy he felt with a growth mindset, which helped to attract many more people to his world than with a fixed mindset. He also reframed the word “impossible” as “simply a word and not a state of being” which enabled him to clear his mind about competition.

Instead he perceived himself as follows: “I’m possible. No matter how the rest of the auditions pan out the remainder of the year, I know that going into my work and life with a growth mindset really opens my eyes to so many more ideas and opportunities than I see in a fixed mindset.”

  1. Career progress and success

Where you stand in your career is another area that is ripe for fixed-mindset thoughts. It is easy to look to other musicians whom you perceive to be farther along in their careers and feel that you “should” be at a certain point. This is understandable but not helpful! In fact, an old boss of mine used to say, “There is nothing more misleading than the score at half-time.”

So think about where you stand now, where you want to go in your career, and what you have to do now in order to get there. If you think of music as a life-long journey, you can instead believe that you are not there “yet” and, with hard work and persistence, you can learn what it takes to achieve the success you are aiming for. This is another manifestation of the growth mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck has spoken about in her TED Talk entitled “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. ”

  1. Learning from others and being open to their suggestions

The fixed mindset tells you that asking others for help is a sign of weakness and proof that you lack talent. This type of thinking can inhibit you from reaching out to colleagues, friends, mentors, or teachers and locks you into using the same unhelpful strategies. That is one reason that those with the fixed mindset tend to peter out and not achieve success in the long run.

Instead, using the growth mindset can encourage you to seek help from others, play for and show your work to your colleagues, and embrace the collaborative process since you are able to hear suggestions as learning experiences—as opposed to feeling that others are judging you and that you are simply not good enough.

  1. Networking and Public Speaking

Today’s musicians need to reach out to others by creating larger networks of support, as well as speaking to audiences during and around performances. Both of these situations easily lend themselves to fixed-mindset thinking.

Many musicians I know are afraid of networking since they think that they have to “sell themselves.” With that concept of networking in mind, they understandably avoid these situations, particularly if they think that they are not worthy. Yet I think of networking as developing a network of mutually supportive business professionals over the long-term without expecting immediate results. Networking is also an opportunity to learn from others. The growth mindset can help you to reframe networking so that you can approach other professionals.

Another area that gives rise to a lot of fear is public speaking. Many musicians tell me that their discomfort with public speaking stems from anxieties about being judged, not having anything to say, and feeling inadequate to address an audience. However, public speaking is increasingly important in today’s music world as a way of engaging audiences and bringing new people into our orbit. One of my musician students was able to overcome his fear of public speaking by thinking of it as “jumping into a cold pool. Things will always feel more comfortable once the jump is made, but it is taking the first step that is the hardest. The only way to get better, as with many things in life, is to do just do it and learn from my mistakes to grow.”

  1. Thinking big and taking action

I encourage musicians to articulate big dreams like creating one’s own ensemble, going on a world tour, or writing for orchestra. Thinking big can be scary when you perceive the vision as impossible to achieve: a classic fixed-mindset thought. With the growth mindset, you can overcome feeling overwhelmed by breaking down big goals into smaller shorter-term goals and concentrating on taking steps that you can achieve now towards that big goal. This will enable you to experience small successes on which you can build as you work on your long-term goals.

In my experience, musicians with the fixed mindset tend to be single-minded in their goals. Someone with a growth mindset is much more flexible and positive about taking steps, regardless of size, in order to achieve an end goal gradually, being more realistic about the process, and allowing himself the freedom to thrive.

Indeed, one of my students found that while she was excited about her big goals, it was the tangible actions that reaffirmed her commitment to growth:

“The very act of breaking a goal down and taking action is antithetical to the fixed mindset. SMART goals are tangible recognition that eventual achievement comes through a process, rather than a sudden windfall, and that we must persevere and take actions step-by-step, rather than expecting ourselves to be immediately capable of something difficult.”

  1. Being flexible and dealing with the unpredictable

Things do not always go as planned and the growth mindset can help you to stay positive and deal with the last-minute changes that inevitably crop up.

For example, what happens when your plans for a rehearsal are upset by last-minute substitutions? The fixed mindset would slow down the music making and instill stress in the other players for fear that the rehearsal won’t be perfect. Yet a growth mindset can help you to keep a cool head, remain open-minded, and trust your substitutions and improvisations in order to roll with the punches and make great music.

Moreover, the growth mindset enables you to accept that things do not always go as planned and that even when one’s expectations are not met, there is always room for improvement. This lesson applies to schoolwork, performances, compositions, working towards one’s musical career goals, and nurturing personal and professional relationships. You are able see life in a more positive light, to realize the potential for growth, and to accept what is out of one’s control.

The same spirit of acceptance and growth can come in handy for those who experience injuries and other setbacks. Using the growth mindset can help you to reframe this experience and be grateful that you can still teach or write music and spend time advancing your career and developing new skills.

The musical life is fraught with challenges that can create a great deal of mental anguish. Yet, by changing your approach and adopting the growth mindset, you can embrace a process to deal with and overcome the obstacles that you may encounter in your career to create something of value to yourself and to society at large.


Astrid Baumgardner

Astrid Baumgardner
Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Astrid Baumgardner, JD, PCC, a professional life coach and lawyer, has the privilege of working with supremely talented world-class early-stage musical artists at the Yale School of Music, where she heads the Office of Career Strategies and teaches career entrepreneurship. Baumgardner is also president and founder of her coaching company, Astrid Baumgardner Coaching + Training, where she coaches musicians and creative business professionals. Baumgardner guest lectures at conservatories, leadership academies, and universities and writes a popular blog on career entrepreneurship. Read more about her work here.


Got a Question? Get Answers on Twitter #MUSOCHAT

A couple of weeks ago, the #musochat hashtag popped up on Twitter and began to gather new music makers around sets of creative and career questions. This Sunday the virtual salon will hold its third open door event, and we realized that we had a few questions of our own regarding how this all got started in the first place (though we went old school and sent the founding group an email). Here’s what we now know:

What spark of inspiration kicked off the weekly (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) #musochat Twitter chats? Is someone spearheading this or was it a spontaneous creation of the internet?

Shaya Lyon (@pickleshy):

I’d been chatting with new music friends on a regular basis as part of a research project for NewMusicBox, and when the series came to an end, I found I really missed our conversations! I sent out a plea, they jumped in the ring, and Gahlord pulled #musochat out of a hat.

#musochat screenshot

Gahlord Dewald (@gahlord) a.k.a. Patternroot (@patternroot):

There have been many industry-specific #chats over the years. I don’t know if they’re all still there or not but, for example, #journchat and #edchat—just Twitterheads from those industries getting together and doing the Q&A thing. When we were hanging out the other day, using up all those characters trying to keep everyone included, it struck me that we needed to do a #chat so we could have a few characters left to actually communicate. I chose #musochat instead of #musichat so it would be differentiated should someone from the larger music community start a #chat and/or in case someone invented a hat/radio combo. It also helps identify the real humans from the bots and botlike Twitter accounts.

For the media producers among us (I write for my site, Shaya writes, Megan Ihnen writes, most of us are media producers these days, I suppose) the #chats also provide some useful content ideas for further documentation. That’s an area of weakness for the format. #chat streams become lost and inaccessible over time, and sometimes the ideas shared are worth returning to later.

What are the advantages of Twitter as a platform for such dialog? Can you really get a decent amount of information across in 140 characters?

Hillary LaBonte (@surrendertofun):

Twitter’s demands of brevity really make me focus on getting to the point quickly. That, combined with the rapid pace of the discussion, forces me to prioritize which questions I want to explore further. As a result, there’s not as much of the beating-around-the-bush that you normally get in other forums, which I appreciate.


We’ve all been to a conference where someone starts asking a “question” that turns into a long-winded speech that is actually a product pitch or completely off-topic. Twitter makes it difficult for that sort of thing to happen. With everything kept relatively short and fast-paced, people say what they need to and get on with it. When others say something intriguing, then more discussion and interaction follow. It’s terribly natural.

Jason Michael Gerraughty (@jmgerraughty):

There’s a lot to be said about Twitter’s leveling of the playing field, in terms of geography—I wouldn’t have been able to interact with the calibre of composers that I can today. What I appreciate the most is that the conversations happen in almost realtime. It gives a sense of vibrancy that other written formats don’t have.

Megan Ihnen (@mezzoihnen):

One of the reasons I fell head-over-heels for Twitter as a social media platform was that it helped me connect with my new music tribe all over the globe. I didn’t have to know them in person, yet, to start participating in conversations about music both artistically and business-wise. I completely agree with Jason that this type of platform releases me from some of the limitations of geography. #musochat is like the masterclass or forum I wish I had as an undergrad in South Dakota.

Are there rules of order that a newbie might not be aware of? Can anyone with a Twitter handle and 30 seconds dive into this virtual salon with a question?


Yes anyone can dip in or even be late (I was an hour late last time and just dumped my responses in). It’s a bit crazy at first, but you get the hang of it if you go slow enough. It really is completely manageable by anyone who has been to a 7-year old’s birthday party. Mostly I’d say, don’t just lurk. Throw your answers in the pile. This isn’t an “experts only” thing or whatever. There are no real experts. The raw pile of ideas and experiences is what makes the experiment worthwhile.

I should note, usually it is one person, the host, that is asking the questions. The reason is that all the questions get numbers and the answers get corresponding numbers. If everyone asks questions then the numbers get out of order and the chaos gets a little unmanageable. If you really want to know the answer to something there are two great ways to do it: 1) Volunteer to be the host for the next session and then you can ask all kinds of questions. 2) Ask the host to ask your question to the group—keeping in mind that the hosts are insanely busy during the #chat, so don’t get worked up if they don’t get around to your question.

Also, if you’re new to Twitter, a #chat would be a difficult environment to learn how to use the tool. They tend to be fast-paced and confusing. If you don’t already use Twitter, sign up and mess around with it a few days in advance so you learn how to post, how to include a hashtag, how to use the search feature, etc. Then you’ll be less stressed out during the #chat. Also, remember that you can take your time and go very, very slow. You don’t have to read and respond to everything, just answer the questions and keep moving along at your own speed.


A tip for newcomers: It is nearly impossible to keep up with the entire chat as tweets fly by. I’ve found it helpful to use a third-party tool like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite and set up filters for the individual questions. In Tweetdeck, I dedicate a separate column for each question, by searching for “A1 #musochat”, “A2 #musochat” etc. Here’s what it looks like on my screen:

#musochat in Tweetdeck

We’re also trying to collect the responses on Storify. Here’s a transcript of our first chat.


Remember, it’s a multi-person conversation. So, just like any large conversation, it’s as important to listen to (or, in this case, read) what other people are contributing as it is to contribute yourself.


I was a half-hour late to the second chat, so I decided to create a schedule for myself—10 minutes to quickly answer the first 5 questions, then 5 minutes of responding/favoriting/retweeting, and repeat with the remaining questions. I haven’t used any special tools to organize it for myself yet, but I’ve found that even just on the mobile app, I can keep up with things.

What have been some of the most remarkable/illuminating revelations (and/or good jokes, best use of emoji) the conversations have generated so far?


For me it’s been enlightening to see what kinds of challenges people are facing in producing more music and what the general bent is in terms of how to do more of it. There are moments of insight and idea generation. But looking for “key takeaways” or other stuff like that is probably not the best way to approach it. Better to just go in, answer the questions, and read others’ answers. Make connections with other people, try what they’re trying, etc.

In our “entrepreneurial” #musochat I realized that some people confuse “entrepreneurial” with “wearing lots of hats” and that there might be some opportunity to help in that regard. As a result, I’m going to do a free webinar going over Business Model Generation/Business Model Canvas—something I do in my work life on a regular basis.

I also suspect several of the composers who have attended will begin work with some of the performers who attend. I got added to a local-to-me composer group by way of one of the attendees, for example… sort of a friend of a friend thing. I’ll probably end up performing something they write in the fall.

It is these outgrowth projects that are the result of people just hanging out and answering some questions etc. That is probably the more tangible outcome, more networking that leads to production.

It works this way in other industry #chats all the time, so I’m certain it will work that way here as well.


What struck me the most with the “entrepreneurship” #musochat was just how willing people were to contribute. I was not expecting such a sizeable turnout (and we can’t even account for the folks who followed along without answering any questions!).

Favorite tweet, from David Rakowski: “I’m not an entrepreneur. But I am entrepreneurial. It’s not something with binary properties.”


So many people have had interesting, compelling responses (in part due to that Twitter brand of brevity!). I’ve also loved getting to connect with people I don’t know and may not otherwise meet, but who engage with me on the significant issues of our field.

Favorite tweet, courtesy of Shaya:

#musochat favorite tweet


I cannot say that #musochat will be extremely relevant in the future, but it is such a powerful use of our current resources. As new music people, we are inherently interested in the new, the untested, the frontier—this is a genuine way to explore socially what that means. How we make music isn’t only dependent upon what you hear in the performance space—it’s wrapped up in conversations like #musochat, and I want to be a part of that.


I don’t think I can top any of the above references. All I’ll say is how impressed I’ve been by the tenor of the #musochats: most everyone who is participating wants a sincere exchange of ideas, which is difficult to achieve in any context in which a bunch of composers/new music folks are having a conversation. I think this attitude speaks to (what I perceive as) Shaya’s original impulse to pursue what has become the #musochats—recapturing the congenial, open discourse of the New Music Gathering last January in San Francisco. I think this out of bias, mostly—many of the participants in the #musochats (Shaya, Megan, Hillary, for example) are people I met for the first time at NMG, and one of that event’s defining qualities was the approachability and openness of its discourse. Conversations happened between strangers that were more forthright than what I’ve observed among cohorts of students/professors who have known each other for years. At NMG, I think this dynamic came from the recognition that everyone at the conference, regardless of what they might have accomplished elsewhere, had the same stakes, the same investment, because they had taken the time, trouble, and expense to be at the New Music Gathering. Participating in #musochat is, obviously, far less burdensome, but I think some of the same spirit of what I saw at NMG has infiltrated these Twitter-based conversations.

As someone who has used Twitter for a long time, the functionality of the #musochat discussions is very impressive, because Twitter is not, in my opinion, well-suited for conversation. Possibly because #musochat is a specifically designated time and space, the folks who have participated in these chats have, for the most part, bought in to the idea that #musochat is a time for exchange and connection, not broadcasting.

Advice from Strangers: Finding Your Own Strangers

bon voyage

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This is the final column in the series.

A few months ago, I set out to explore areas of the software development experience whose depths, I felt, were in need of plumbing.

The project began with a questionnaire, ate its way through at least 500 Post-its, inspired a few unexpected interviews, and finally found its voice on this site about new music.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Advice from Strangers was not the overlap between tech and new music (which was, after all, its impetus), but discovering that the process of researching and writing exemplified the themes discussed within the series: creative growth, community building, trust, collaboration and resource management.

There are also other challenges worth exploring. How do we document and/or (an)notate our work so that it is usable by others? How do we make smart technology decisions in the face of cost and ongoing obsolescence? How do we support ourselves financially while starting a new venture? Furthermore, the juicy juxtaposition isn’t limited to new music and tech; I’d venture to say we could look at any two creative fields and find advice (and even solace) from across the divide.

So: How to harness this delightfully eye-opening and joyfully serendipitous experience? It can be yours in seven easy steps:

  1. Choose a field. Starting with friends, find a few people you respect who work (or play) in an industry that is not your own. (It helps to pick something you find interesting.)
  1. Identify the challenges. Ask them what their main challenges are in their work, interpersonal or otherwise. This is the backbone of your questionnaire.
  1. Prepare a questionnaire. When you start to see themes surfacing, use the themes to write a questionnaire. (Here’s mine—Gmail access required.) In the questionnaire, describe the challenges and ask people how they handle each issue. You may be able to use the same questionnaire for both the industry you’ve chosen and your own industry; if you need to, make a copy and tailor the language to fit the audience. Use quotes or examples to clarify the questions as needed.
  1. Find strangers. Share the questionnaire on Facebook, Twitter, and email. Ask your friends to share it with others in their industry. This is where the strangers are! If you’re lucky, you’ll get responses from around the world and from many different perspectives.
  1. Write down the main ideas. When you have at least 15 responses from each industry (the more the merrier), arm yourself with a sharpie and a stack of Post-its. You’ll need two colors, one for each industry. Start with the first question from your questionnaire. As you read through the responses, write down each independent concept on a Post-it. You may find there is more than one concept in a response. For example, Question: How do you successfully balance collaboration and privacy? Post-it #1: Sharing feels natural!, Post-it #2: I believe in sharing over hiding.
  1. Group the responses to discover themes. Stick those post-its on a wall and admire your glorious handiwork. Then, start looking for themes. Group together similar concepts until you end up with little Post-it clusters all over the wall. These are your answers! (Or starting points for further investigation.)
  1. Dig deep for meaningful information. Are any of the themes vague, or too theoretical to be actionable? Ask your strangers what they had in mind. Request anecdotes to explain a strategy or outlook. Follow up over coffee and a pastry. Worst case scenario: they draw a blank. Best case scenario: you get to know an interesting person who will continue to share his or her wisdom for years to come.

That’s it—your very own advice from strangers.

Should you choose to embark upon this Jules Vernian quest, you may find that looking at a familiar problem through an unfamiliar lens can cast rainbows on even the thorniest of challenges. Go talk to strangers, have a blast, and drop me a line if you turn up something interesting. Bon voyage!

Location, Location

US Map
In the beginning, all music was local. If back at the dawn of humanity a caveman came up with a particularly appealing combination of vocal melody and log-drum rhythm, it probably couldn’t be heard much further than the next cave or two over. Fast forward through numerous epochs of human evolution to 18th-century Europe, and if you wanted to hear Mozart, you still pretty much had to go to Vienna.

Things stayed like that until the 20th century, which brought a series of technological developments that made it possible for music to be recorded in one place and heard all over the world. But even as the physical form of music moved from wax cylinders to 78s to LPs to CDs, geography of origin remained a major point of classification and differentiation.

(That’s especially true in the case of American popular music, which, if one chooses, can be framed and analyzed almost exclusively in terms of cities and regions—there’s Mississippi blues and Chicago blues; the commercial country music of Nashville vs. the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound and western swing from Tulsa; hip-hop’s East Coast/West Coast/Dirty South divide; soul music from Muscle Shoals to Memphis to Motown to Philadelphia; and countless other examples. For more about the intersection of technology and regional popular music styles, check out the book Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song by Edward P. Comentale.)

Now, as music production and distribution in the 21st century are done increasingly in the digital world, some have suggested that the importance of place—of where the music is made—may be fading. (For example, when Flavorwire listed the most influential pop music acts of the past 15 years, note that there’s only one mention made of an artist’s geographical point of origin.)
That’s not to say that listeners’ tastes have become entirely homogenous. The Echo Nest, a company that analyzes information on listening habits, has done some interesting work looking at musical preferences by region. (Though their publicly available results so far seem confined to pop music, it sure would be interesting to see similar data-driven analyses made of the listening audience for new music, jazz, classical, and other less commercial forms.) Some of the results are unsurprising—for example, country music is popular in the south, and Bruce Springsteen still is tops in his home state of New Jersey—while others are not necessarily what you’d expect.

Still, the question remains: when computers allow one person to do everything from composition to recording to promotion and distribution from anywhere with an internet connection, what difference does it make if you’re in Seattle, San Francisco, Syracuse, or Sarasota?

The short answer is that making music is about more than technology. Even if one presumes that promotion and distribution will be mostly digital from here on out, there’s still a lot that goes into creating that music before it gets turned into a digital file.
Technology may provide the capability for one person to create music from start to finish, but (at the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious here) not everyone works that way. And for those who don’t choose to make all their music on a chip, location still matters very much, though perhaps in different ways.

In short, local and regional music scenes are where artists develop before they go worldwide on the internet. Composers and performers who are working on new ideas need other musicians, rehearsal space, access to instruments and recording facilities, and, if they plan to test out their ideas in front of live audiences, performance venues and some sort of presenting infrastructure.
So while localities and regions may be less important in terms of a specific shared sound or group of influences (although that’s still a possibility, too), I’d contend they remain essential as accumulations of a “critical mass” of resources and opportunities to collaborate.
It’s important to note, though, that “critical mass” doesn’t necessarily equate to a major metropolitan area like New York, Boston, the Bay Area, or Chicago. Here in Missouri, the Mizzou New Music Initiative is extraordinarily fortunate to have started with generous funding and an association with a major university, yet there’s no doubt MNMI has gotten a lot of help from others around the state, and benefited greatly as a result.
Some of the collaborations have been promotional, like swapping email lists, program ads, and social media mentions with New Music Circle and Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis and newEar contemporary chamber ensemble in Kansas City.
Closer to home, this past spring MNMI kicked off ticket sales for the annual Mizzou International Composers Festival with an event at Ragtag Cinema, a popular alternative movie theater in Columbia, featuring a live performance by the Mizzou New Music Ensemble; a screening of Choking Man, a film scored by Nico Muhly, who was one of the festival’s guest composers; and a live Q&A session with Muhly via Skype.

Other collaborations have been artistic. Perhaps most notably, this past season the St. Louis Symphony performed works during their subscription series by composer, clarinetist, and Mizzou alum Stephanie Berg and Patrick Harlin, who was a resident composer at the 2013 MICF.

Being part of a community also has allowed the composers and musicians associated with MNMI to get involved in creating site-specific works for Missouri Botanical Garden, Forest Park Forever, the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, the World Chess Hall of Fame, and other institutions.


This past year, MNMI’s co-artistic director Stefan Freund also delved into regional history, composing an oratorio for orchestra, choirs and soloists about Missouri’s involvement in the Civil War.

And MNMI currently is part of the University of Missouri Extension Community Arts Pilot Project, a multi-year, multi-disciplinary program designed to promote economic development and tourism through the arts in Lexington, MO, a town of 4,500 about 45 minutes east of Kansas City. Composers from Mizzou have helped develop an audio tour of the town, complete with original music, field recordings, narration, and sound effects, that will be made available in digital and CD format.
While there’s no characteristic “Missouri sound” that can be identified in all these varied projects, none of them would have come about if MNMI were not part of a larger, geographically-based community. Though technology offers many promising possibilities (including, admittedly, new ways to collaborate over distance), it seems as if being in the right place—for many possible definitions of “right place”—continues to offer advantages, too.