Tag: career path

Determining a Different Outcome

It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.

I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.

Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.

Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.

She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.

“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.

So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.

I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.

Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).

It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.

A Talent for Organization

About 35 years ago, a psychic told me that I had a “talent for organization.”  I looked at her like she was crazy.  Did she not know that I was first and foremost a musician, finishing my coursework for a DMA in piano, with a minor in composition?  I was insulted and appalled, associating “organizational talent” with the corporate world of gray business suits, balance sheets, and indoor 9 to 5 jobs – everything I had rebelled against my entire life.  I could certainly imagine a future job teaching piano at a university, but the idea of any kind of “organizational” occupation gave me hives.

I associated “organizational talent” with the corporate world … everything I had rebelled against my entire life.

But here I am, retiring after 34 years as co-founder and artistic director of the new music group Network for New Music; and, looking back, I have to admit that the experience of putting together (yes, “organizing”) that first proto-Network concert of new music with my musician friends in 1983 was intoxicating and, ultimately, addicting.

Back in 1984, when NNM was incorporated, the venerable Relâche Ensemble was the only non-academic new music group in Philadelphia. In the opinion of Joseph Waters (Network’s co-founder) and myself, there was room for a new game in town.  Joe and I originally ran Network as a membership organization, in order to generate funding through dues (thus the name “Network”).  When Joe left for the West Coast after two years, I dropped the membership format, as it required the programming of many works that were embarrassingly bad in exchange for composers’ membership dues.  As I began programming music by more recognized composers, I realized that the quality of my own, incipient compositional efforts could not compare with other music on Network programs.  At that point I concentrated on becoming the best pianist I could be, while running the organization, finishing my DMA, rehabbing a house in a sketchy section of Philly, and enjoying the early years of motherhood.

Like many startups, Network relied on the generosity and enthusiasm of participating musicians and composers, all of whom were paid peanuts for their work.  Excitement was high, and so were performance standards. What money there was always went first to the musicians.  As Network achieved middle age in the early 2000s, the board and staff realized that support for a strong organizational infrastructure, including union-scale wages for performers, was necessary for NNM to sustain itself over time.  This was a crucial period for Network, and a point at which many young organizations falter and die.  But I am happy to report that NNM continued to grow and prosper.

As NNM matured, artistic and institutional collaborations became more important, both as an opportunity for composers to deepen and expand their work and as a means of attracting wider audiences. Always somewhat of a purist, I originally came to the collaboration table with doubts.  I resisted anything that would interfere with my own, very personal experience of the music.  However, I was soon persuaded that deep, intentional cross-disciplinary collaborations could produce legitimate and meaningful new art.

Deep, intentional cross-disciplinary collaborations could produce legitimate and meaningful new art.

I personally felt a natural affinity for music/dance projects, as both took place in time and dealt with movement, rhythm, and phrasing.  I am proud of Network’s early collaborations with dance groups, including: a partnership with (the then-named) Phrenic Ballet which led to the creation of new choreography for Vincent Persichetti’s King Lear (the original Martha Graham choreography was lost); a full-length concert work, with music by Robert Maggio, choreographed by the Leah Stein Dance Company; Lung-ta, the Windhorse, composed by Andrea Clearfield with dance by Group Motion and art by Maureen Drdak; and various new dances responding to commissions by Lee Hyla, David Ludwig, James Primosch, Chen Yi, and others.

I am equally proud of the many other collaborations Network has fostered across disciplines, including with: the visual arts and artists (Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The Print Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art); poets in NNM’s ongoing Poetry Projects (Sonia Sanchez, Stephen Berg, Trapeta Mayson, Frank Sherlock, Beth Brandt, Stephen Dunn and many others); and with composer/video artists Maurice Wright and Gene Coleman.  Many “Aha!” moments experienced by artists and audiences during these projects outweighed the messy challenges inherent in the process of putting them all together.

Also meaningful to Network were in-depth explorations of the works of renowned composers (Bernard Rands, John Harbison, Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter), as well as a three-day festival of electro-acoustic music and whole programs devoted to the music of other countries: Great Britain, Korea, Japan, and Italy.

Linda Reichert, Joan Tower, and Jennifer Higdon seated together on a couch in 1995 (Photo by Don Springer)

Linda Reichert (left), Joan Tower (center), and Jennifer Higdon (right) in 1995 (Photo by Don Springer, courtesy Network for New Music)

Through it all, I have always been something of a connector for myriad ideas about programming, guest artists, venues and collaborations.  I think I was able to consider the (often exceedingly strong) artistic opinions of others—including the views of Network’s excellent advisory board—while also trusting my instincts about curating programs that encompassed a wide variety of styles.  I got a lot of feedback from audience members, through conversations and online surveys, and I did not think I was doing a good job unless listeners exited a concert loving some works and really disliking others.

I did not think I was doing a good job unless listeners exited a concert loving some works and really disliking others.

Network for New Music has played a big part in the integration of new music into the broader cultural community in the Philadelphia region.  NNM began championing new music and composers at a time when this music was segregated from the rest of the classical concert- music world, and associated almost entirely with the academy.   Network helped to coax this music out of the silos and into the mainstream.  Nowadays, new music can no longer be called “classical”, and it can be heard online and in every corner of the community – from libraries, subway stations, and firehouses to outdoor parks and public squares.  Composers are brilliantly promoting their own music (and they care if you listen) and often performing it as well.  Younger composers and musicians naturally breathe the air of collaboration and connection, and new ensembles are springing up everywhere, with impressive levels of performance.  My hope is that many of these fine groups can make it through the “middle age” period, and mature into sustainable organizational models that can provide their players with stable living wages.

My own tastes have evolved to be broader and broader over time. If a work has “a voice” and achieves, on a high level, what it sets out to do within the context it creates for itself, I am all for it, whether it moves me or not.  The only music I cannot bear is music that bores me, which is usually the result of some form of brain-numbing predictability.  I am so viscerally irritated by boring music that I sometimes start audibly muttering to myself in the concert hall.

I am so viscerally irritated by boring music that I sometimes start audibly muttering to myself in the concert hall.

So, what remains of an organization after a co-founder/artistic director leaves a group she directed for 33 years?  (Jan Krzywicki, the wonderful Network Ensemble conductor, tells me I might be the longest continually-serving new music A.D. in the country; it would be interesting to know if this is a fact.)  The organization either gracefully closes up shop, or a transition takes place.  After a deep and valuable discussion, which forced us to even more clearly define and articulate the relevance, purpose, and viability of our mission, Network board and staff decided the organization should continue forward under new artistic leadership.

Here are some of the reasons for our decision to carry on:

  1. The musicians in the Network Ensemble are the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus, and can’t be matched for their virtuosity and commitment to excellence;
  2. The Network Board of Directors comprises some of the finest and most dedicated arts professionals in this city or anywhere;
  3. NNM’s small-but-mighty staff is smart, hard-working and highly effective;
  4. Network’s roots within the cultural community go deep and wide.

In sum, Network’s core values and reputation for organizational and artistic excellence guarantees it will survive and prosper well after the exit of its current artistic leader.

And so, we began a thorough, two-year succession process.

I look forward with great excitement and interest to the new directions and vision Thomas Schuttenhelm, NNM’s soon-to-be artistic director, will bring to the organization and to the Philadelphia community.   Thomas – a fine performer, composer, author and educator from Hartford, Connecticut—is thrilled to be joining the Network team; he and I will work together for several months to ensure a smooth transition.  After that, I look forward to having time to again explore and play dead composers’ music (Bach and Beethoven), volunteer for a yet-to-be-identified environmental organization, learn Italian, and continue my work toward achieving a handstand, independent of a wall.

At the end of my Network tenure, I am already feeling the loss of the inspirational relationships I have so enjoyed with Network musicians, composers, board, and staff.  But I am also filled with pure gratitude for the huge opportunities I have had to work with these fine human beings, especially those amazing composers, who somehow fashion beauty out of thin air, translate it into markings on a page, and trust that musicians like those in the Network Ensemble will bring this music to life, moving hearts and minds in the process.

An outdoor photo of the 30 composers that NNM commissioned for its 30th Anniversary in 2014 (photo by Annie Sarachan)

The 30 composers that Network for New Music commissioned for its 30th Anniversary in 2014 (photo by Annie Sarachan, courtesy Network for New Music).

[Ed. Note: Sunday, April 29, 2018 at 1:30pm, Network for New Music will honor Linda Reichert with a catered benefit concert at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia that will feature world premieres by Andrea Clearfield, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, James Primosch, Bernard Rands, Augusta Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, Richard Wernick, and Maurice Wright as well as a reprise performance of an earlier Network premiere by Michael Hersch, and a performance of a work by Gareth Haynes, the winner of the Network Student Composition Competition. Since capacity is reached, ticket sales will end on April 27 and there will be no tickets at the door.—FJO.]


Questions I Ask Myself

In May 2017, I gave a talk at the New Music Gathering to share what I’ve learned about the practical work of being a composer. I’ve had some success writing percussion music, and I wanted to share exactly what I do for promotion, community building, professionalization, and business stuff in the hope that it could help others also have some success. I wanted to de-mystify this work (which is not hard, but can be mysterious), and so I pushed myself to be as open and transparent as I could.

That desire to open up took me farther than my spreadsheets. At the end of the session, I stepped back to reflect. I opened up about a sea change I’m going through, which is re-arranging my own ideas about what I think music is good at, what I have to offer through it, and what I want out of life.

I was nervous to share these very personal reflections, but I’m glad I did. It sounds like a lot of us are thinking similar thoughts but maybe not talking about them so much. Many people who were at that talk wrote to me to ask if I would share the text of one particular section. It was a list of tough questions that dog me about making my home in new music. They all more or less boil down to: is this a place where am I living my values?

I want to say up front: I’m not sharing them because I think they’re necessarily all fair questions, or kind questions, or because they add up to some kind of coherent critique of anything. I’m sharing them because they’re the ones that I wrestle with. Maybe you do, too.


Am I just trying to impress people and get famous?

Do the experiences I create draw people in or push people out?

My musical world seems to get smaller and smaller, and look more and more like me. Is that what I wanted?

Do I want to be in a culture where hierarchy and prestige have so much power? If not, would I ever have the guts to give up mine?

Do we composers really earn the reverence we are shown?

Our whole disposable capitalist culture is obsessed with novelty and progress. Is a value system based on the newness of music really as countercultural as I think it is?

How many of my ideas about new music really stand up to critical thought and how many are magical thinking?

Do I want to live a life in front of my computer making scores and sending emails?

How does the range of meaningful feeling I experience at a new music concert (or create for others to experience) stack up against other things I love—say, being outside on a summer night, cooking a big meal for friends, or swimming in a lake?

What’s the difference between being a champion of my community and being a partisan, fighting to expand the size and status of a little kingdom just because I happen to belong to it?

Am I OK making music basically with and for people who have received similar educations to me?

When I say “21st-century music” why do I really mean “21st-century music, except for everything made by people who aren’t educated in the culture I was”?

Have I used esoteric musical preferences and interests to feel different from (superior to?) other people? Has that isolated me? Can I in good faith encourage others to do the same?

Am I OK with an aesthetic ideology that values making people uncomfortable more than making people happy?

I LOVE to dance to music, maybe more than anything else in the world. Why am I in a musical culture with no dancing??

For all its education, the words of value I hear more than any others in this field are “weird,” “crazy,” and “cool.” Why is a sound cool if it’s crazy?   Is “weird” actually an interesting idea? Is “cool” enough for me?

Do the technical fixations I inherited—extended technique, virtuosity, hockets, structure, technology, etc.—actually relate to what I find meaningful and powerful in a musical experience? Do I use them to connect with people, or just to impress them?

I feel so much more joy and warmth and connection with others in informal musical situations and with amateurs than I do sitting on a stage in a big hall. So why do I focus so much of my energy on the big hall?

Do I want to learn from other people/traditions/cultures, or do I just want them to do music the way I do it?

Is my ignorance of other musical cultures just ignorance, or is it indifference? Is there a shade of contempt in that indifference?

Am I a snob?

If what I value most is connecting with other people deeply and sharing meaningful experiences, is the way I’m doing music really achieving that?

Forest Trails

Photo by Jens Lelie

I have been wrestling with these questions for the past few years. My ideas about success, music, life, what I want and what I have to offer—I feel like they’ve been melting and are only now, maybe, starting to take a new shape.

When I was a teenager I wanted music to be my passport to the world. I had friends who spent months at a time as happy vagabonds busking in Europe, traveling all over, never needing a hotel, always discovered and taken in by their counterparts after flying their hippie flags. That was my dream—to be able to walk up to any campfire, join in with my guitar, and, by the end of the night, turn some strangers into friends.

I snuck into music school in college and my dream changed. Instead of a passport, I wanted a VIP pass: access to those imagined Arcadias with names that glowed, words I’d never heard but that all of a sudden seemed very, very important—Aspen! Tanglewood! Darmstadt! I dreamed of a future where I’d gain admittance to a sequence of ever-smaller and ever-more-enviable rooms.

I never went to those places, but I have been in some very small and enviable rooms. I don’t want to sound ungrateful: some of them have been to my great personal and professional benefit and I’ll probably never give up the perks, no matter how conflicted I feel about them. But the truth is, I just don’t feel motivated anymore by the prospect of impressing people enough with my CV to move into the next, higher, smaller, more exclusive room. It’s unnerving, honestly, to look inside myself at the hole where that ambition used to be. I ask myself, a little bitterly: Are you getting lazy? Are you giving up?

What’s unsatisfying to me about those rooms is that they’re all in the same country. I’m back to wanting a passport. I don’t want to be a partisan for a territory, I want to travel to new ones. I want to connect with people who aren’t just like me. Music is a great way to do that, but it’s not enough to just open our doors to others; we have to be willing to leave our comfort zone, and take the risk of stepping into theirs. And when I arrive, the last thing I want to do is impress them with my CV. I want to impress them because I can listen deeply. Learn quickly. Fail happily. Connect openly.

As these feelings have become conscious in me, I have started to steer my life in a different direction. I’ve found two new ways to be a musician that feel much more like passports. Both lead me out of new music. One is learning to play the berimbau, which led me into capoeira, the national martial art of Brazil (at which I am a happily failing beginner). The other is teaching music at a prison, which has shown me that what I love about music—where I think it has power and where I have the most to offer—has nothing to do with newness, with style, or with my CV. It’s in how music creates a common ground for ambition, learning, creativity, self-discovery, and joy. It’s in how music can bypass guards and barbed wire, stigma and shame, and give people a way to celebrate and inspire each other, no matter how cut off they are.

I’ll write more about that in the next post.

Eight Easy Steps to Becoming a Successful 5-to-9 Composer

So how can you too hold down a glamorous, innervating office/day job and still find time to fulfill your artistic dreams, musical or otherwise? Here are some suggestions (some of which I’m sure apply to “full-time” composers as well):

1. Find a job that will accommodate your creativity.

Part-time or reliable freelance is great. If not, something with flexible hours is a big help. If full-time/five days a week, avoid areas of the business world that require you to be constantly available (e.g. finance). During the many interviews I’ve had over the years, I am always candid about my music life and that I’m not available 24/7. The jobs where I’ve thrived have been the ones that not only respected my outside life, but realized the value it brought to them.

Some recommended areas: arts administration, especially an organization in your field. The pay may not match the corporate, for-profit world, but the empathy and camaraderie will do much to compensate: most such institutions are heavily staffed with people juggling additional creative careers. If, like me, teaching is not your thing, other academic or university jobs can be very conducive. I have a number of acquaintances who’ve found the legal world very accommodating to off-hour artists; they realize that the rigors of the profession need some kind of compensatory outlet.

2. Be rigorously disciplined.

Like a minimalist refrain, this bears repeating. If you’ve pursued an artistic career to any extent, especially going so far as to earn a degree, you’ve probably already had this instilled in you. My schedule is planned weeks—and frequently months—in advance to ensure steady writing time, and it’s incredibly rare that I deviate from it.

3. Find your optimal working times and method.

What time of the day have you found to be your most creatively productive? Whatever that is—and it may take some trial and error to find it—block it off. My own best writing hours are the mid-morning and late afternoon—especially if I’ve been able to close my eyes for even a few seconds around lunch.

My best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days.

Also, my best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days, which in the case of my day/office jobs has usually meant weekends. That doesn’t mean I’m not rolling new ideas or revisions and developments around in my head the rest of the week.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (himself a day jobber for many years) is a fascinating compendium of the working habits of legendary artists across all genres and great inspiration for empowering your own habits. Maybe you’re a really early morning person, or maybe you’re a night owl. Maybe you do best a few hours at the same time every day, or in bits and pieces when you can find them. Find your optimal routine and then…

4. Guard your working time.

Clear everything else off your plate; leave no excuses for distraction (unless you happen to work best with a lot of distraction). As I said above, I work best in long, uninterrupted blocks. So by Friday night every non-writing demand—housekeeping, errands, medical appointments, socializing, administrative—is dispatched and there is nothing to divert me from writing for the next 48 hours.

5. Treat your body right.

To be at my creative best I have to be at my physical best, and that means treating my body as I imagine an athlete in training does. I envy those legions of artists past and present who could produce in a haze of alcohol, cigarettes, opium, laudanum, absinthe, and other romantic sounding stimulants, but I am not made of such stuff. That means keeping myself in a state of reliable health through regular exercise. Some of my best writing comes right afterwards and some of my best ideas have come to me during it. I’m also a big believer in lots of sleep and moderate caffeine and alcohol. When you are younger, we know that there are plenty of fake id makers out there but it’s best to stay away from that. They do indeed pass advanced scanners other known as “scannable fake ids”, this is what we did to get our fix. I don’t mean none: some of my best revisions and orchestral ideas happen somewhere around the end of the first glass of wine in the evening, and I frequently plot out my work agenda to take advantage of that.

A wine bottle and a glass filled with white wine next to some page of music score paper and a few pencils.

6. Treat your brain right.

Don’t let all the preceding lead you to believe that you have to be a non-stop workaholic, creatively or otherwise. I’m not, nor do I recommend it. All artists need down time to stare into space, to imagine, to daydream, to let your brain wander or go numb. Using the aforementioned methods to get all of life’s mundanities and necessities out of the way actually gives me more time for this, and the stability of a reliable income certainly facilitates it for me. The mental energy I might be expending wondering how the next electric bill will be paid can be put to creative use. Or, just as beneficially, not at all! The increasing number of composers I know who swear by meditation is a high recommendation for that last point.

7. Do a little bit every day.

Devote at least 20 minutes every day—including your “office” days—to tackling something administrative for your musical life: send out emails or score submissions, check up on discussions or negotiations, arrange catch-ups or networking opportunities. Schedule this stuff on your calendar as actual timed appointments: e.g., website updates on Monday, score submissions on Tuesday, etc. You’d be amazed the results that can be produced by spreading and cultivating a seed or two every day.

8. Stay in the mix.

The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity.

O.K., you’ve got a steady income. And you’ve carved out the time around that to produce creatively. Now you need to get that product out there (unless you’re just writing for yourself and your drawer, which is fine). Be involved in your local music scene and, where appropriate, in the larger national and global scene via your digital presence. Contribute to it, advocate for it, support it. The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity. And as any musician in any genre will agree, being out and visible and involved is imperative.

In my last post, I’ll offer musings on what impact being a day jobber has had on my life and music, with the hopes it will inspire or at least provoke thought on your own situation.


What I Didn’t Learn in Music School



If you’re earning a comfortable wage and living a happy life doing Exactly What You Thought You’d Do With Your Degree(s), I applaud you. Sincerely! I am among the many people in the music world who are not, but I couldn’t be happier with where I landed.

A brief history: I went to school for flute performance and, along the way, I learned a lot. Music history, how to maintain sanity after being in a confined, solitary room for hours on end, music theory, flute repertoire, patience (see “practice room”), a little jazz improv, pedagogy, large and small ensemble playing, and many other things that are specific to the field of music performance. Mission accomplished, right? Sort of. In the first year out of my master’s degree, my desire to win a full time orchestral flute job (What I Thought I’d Do) was diminishing at a rate that didn’t align with my increasing desire to lead a more diverse career and lifestyle.

So, what next? First, I’ll share a few things I wish I’d learned in school: marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking. I’m delighted that some institutions are extremely forward thinking in training what I’ll call the “Whole Musician.” Exhibit A: Paul Taub at Cornish College of the Arts teaches a career development class to junior and senior music majors which covers representation and promotion, fundraising, music business, recording, and graduate school applications. Exhibit B: Brian Chin at Seattle Pacific University leads a quarterly series for all music majors called “Futures in Music: A lecture series providing vocational exploration through engagement with renowned artists.” Last week, students heard from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw and Cameron Beauchamp. Up next will be New Music USA’s Kevin Clark, and later this year Seattle recording emperor David Sabee.

Awesome, right? I bet all former music majors out there are thinking, “I wish I had a class like that!” If you’re still in school and there isn’t such a course but you have some extra credits to fill, consider exploring the communications course listings. Volunteer or apply for internships. Looking for some extra cash? See if the recording engineer at your school is hiring student techs. Seek out an expert in one of these areas and ask to shadow them, or to have a coffee and ask them some questions. Most professionals will be willing and there’s nothing to lose by asking.

These seem like such obvious ideas to me in hindsight, but in the trenches of playing in at least one too many ensembles, practice time, class, papers, group projects, and more practicing, it was hard to stomach the thought of adding something else. If you’re like me and didn’t seek the aforementioned opportunities, you are not imminently doomed. I can offer some coping mechanisms and philosophies:

  • A creative and open mind is crucial to exploring career paths
  • Proactively continuing your education is strongly advisable (whether through formal courses or informal mentorships)
  • Timing and luck do account for some success

Those principles led to my current job as assistant program director at Classical KING FM where I co-founded Second Inversion and currently manage all it’s content and platforms. It’s a project dedicated to rethinking classical music through a 24/7 audio stream, blog, Seattle event calendar, and collection of music videos filmed in our studios and eclectic venues around town. After a year of four young KING FM staffers brainstorming, sketching logo designs, making contacts, and building the website and stream, it launched in 2014 out of our general manager and program director’s desire to reach a younger, more diverse audience for classical music.

Entrepreneurship and advocacy—two buzz words from a session at the 2016 New Music Gathering called “The ‘How to Be’ of Being a New Music Musician”—are foundational to Second Inversion, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot ever since. While many agreed that the E word can have a bit of toxicity attached to it in the music world, Claire Chase reminded us of entrepreneur’s Sanskrit meaning: inspiration from within. On advocacy, Claire went on to say, “It’s doing something for oneself and the community in the same in breath and out breath.” NANOWorks Opera co-founder Kendall A. added, “Advocacy is the rising tide that lifts all ships.”

Second Inversion began as a grassroots, entrepreneurial project and has grown into a thriving, active community joined together by and advocating for the common interest of new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. I didn’t learn about these things in formal ways in music school, but rather through trial and error (entrepreneurship) and relentless passion (advocacy). For new music to thrive, we need composers, performers, recording engineers, promoters, audience, donors, and advocates. We’re all in this together and none of us could do our work—whether it’s Exactly What You Thought You’d Do or not—without each other.

Maggie Stapleton

Maggie Stapleton is the assistant program director at Classical KING FM and manager of all programming and platforms for Second Inversion. As an active flutist, Maggie plays regularly with the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.


In Response: You’re an Artist AND an Entrepreneur

Since my How to Procrastinate Like a Pro manual tells me that it’s more fun to volley back to R. Andrew Lee’s essay “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur” rather than do any of the work looming in front of me, I’m responding in what I hope will be read as a good-natured manner.

The dictionary graphic at the head of his post informs that an entrepreneur is “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” I’d say these words precisely sum up any artist attempting to create income from their art.

The final sentence of Andrew’s essay states,

The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.

Alex, getting advice from the field.

Alex, getting advice from the field.

Uh-oh, you mean it’s either/or, and no one told me? Thanks to my driver’s license, the label on all those stupid catalogs stuffing my mailbox, and a cheap bathroom mirror I check daily, I have yet to forget who I am (though as age advances, I’m sure that day will be upon me soon). Even the IRS loves to remind me that they know who I am. How thoughtful of them.

But seriously: no authentic, talented artist—you included, Andrew—is ever going to forget the importance of the quality of the art that they create just because they wish to earn a living from it. A fine chef who opens a restaurant wouldn’t be accused of losing focus and creating lesser dishes. Indeed, knowing that the cuisine will be consumed by a paying public might inspire the chef to offer an even more sophisticated menu.

If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, “Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.” Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an “arts entrepreneur” (or Chase, for that matter) is bad for everyone.[2] It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am.

I don’t know anyone would who chalk up your, or any able artist’s success merely to business savvy. (Sure, we all occassionally make snide remarks about a few “emperors without clothes,” but that’s to be expected and keeps us entertained.) Talent, and offering something that others want to experience, is the first and most essential part of the equation. Only once an artist has wrangled those ingredients can they attempt to monetize them. Should you, or Ms. Chase, or any other artist also be defined as an arts entrepreneur, that’s simply a nod to your capabilities. The E-Word is not a four-letter profanity, I promise!

We are not creating new industries or products, nor are we objectively improving on the past.

Google Glass, and the uses of wearable tech like MIDI gloves that control artistic outcome, are two of many examples of something new. Another is one of my own many income streams: webhearsals, in which a composer is Skyped into rehearsals and concerts all over the world to coach and speak about her or his music. That’s a new industry, using a new (as of maybe five years ago) product. One could argue that the ability to work with and inspire musicians around the world, in real time, “objectively improves on the past.”

Screenshot from a recent Skypehearsal

Screenshot from a recent Skypehearsal

As Aaron Gervais succinctly put it, “Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design…

It makes me particularly sad when a talented musician chooses to think that what he does is not useful. Art is not “useless.” Now, some artists like me may be useless before our first cup of coffee, but at least we can enjoy knowing that our music is being used, in lots of wonderful ways.

If music didn’t serve an important purpose, there wouldn’t be thousands of years worth of the stuff. On a human level, music is exceedingly useful in keeping our collective mental health in check; just ask any teenager who can’t live without their mp3 stream of love and breakup songs, or any adult reliant on the radio to get them through the travails of drive-time rush hour. We rely on art to improve our lives. Humans do, indeed, need music—maybe not as immediately as water, food, and shelter, but then again, all the other things that might be placed into the “useful” category like a grocery cart, a shoe repair shop, and an excellent chocolate mousse recipe, don’t rank high up there with survival, either. And yet, they are considered useful. (Personally, I rank the mousse right up there with survival.)

As Anne Midgette reported in her recent article for The Washington Post, the U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on its military bands—which means paying for conductors, instrumentalists, and…composers! I guarantee you that if the government didn’t think music was useful, it would just continue to waste its money on $600 hammers instead (a 1980’s reference) and not on symphonies, fanfares, tone poems, and elegies that make people feel something emotionally.
To continue from the same Gervais quote,

…Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design.”

I certainly don’t adhere to the belief that it’s scarcity-based. Like many of my colleagues, I take the opposite approach, and do my best to share whatever information I come across if I think it’ll be helpful to my peers. This only seems to brighten my own career, not threaten it. And, entrepreneurship is not necessarily “pragmatic by design.” In fact, a very keen entrepreneur uses his or her creative mind to a tremendous degree in order to resist thinking pragmatically, and instead, to be able to be visionary and gaze far beyond the practical.


Another great promise of entrepreneurship in the 21st century is that technology allows everyone to be a content producer while the cost of distribution has been essentially reduced to zero.

Ooh, gotta be careful here, because this is a misleading statement. Let’s remember that there are many costs associated with creating content that is to be distributed, even if a cat can accomplish the act of slamming his paw on the UPLOAD key. (Um, yup, that’s actually happened to me.) In fact, we all know that it’s the false sense of “hey, music on the net should be free since it’s only in the air and doesn’t cost anything” that’s gotten our art into a pickle.

Whether it’s the undefinable cost of the creative time from the artist’s life, plus the cost of the instruments and computer gear needed to create and post the resulting music, or if it’s the more notable hard costs of all that, plus recording studio time, musician fees, music preparation, and printing services, there are potentially thousands and thousands of dollars worth of costs associated with getting our work out to the public. As I mentioned earlier, hey, just ask the IRS. Even if the artist is merely uploading a well-intoned post-IPA burp into their iPhone, there are still costs: the phone, the cell service, and of course, the beer [beellllch!].

So I would alter the following sentence,

…when anyone can produce and distribute content for free, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it.

To the even more damaging truth:

Despite how much money we invest in distributing our art to the public, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it.
And this is where entrepreneurship comes in: when we step outside of our private writing spaces and make ourselves relevant to audiences in any of a hundred different ways, that’s how we build an affinity that will be more successful at encouraging people to pay for what we create.

You’re absolutely right, Andrew: the marketplace isn’t beholden to artists, just as it’s not beholden to anyone else on any other career path. If we seek remuneration for our work (and it’s fine if we don’t), then each of us has to make an effort to reach the hearts and wallets—usually in that order—of those with whom we wish to connect. There’s no need for the doom-and-gloom thinking of “there’s too much classical music.” Like chocolate mousse for those who love dessert, there really can’t be enough of it. Our task is to find and cultivate the supportive gourmands around the world who’d love to try our recipe, if only they knew it existed. Bon appétit!


Alex Shapiro
Composer Alex Shapiro aligns note after note with the hope that at least a few of them might actually sound good next to each other. Her persistence at this activity, as well as at non-fiction writing, public speaking, wildlife photography, and the shameless instigation of insufferable puns on Facebook, has led to a happy life. Created from a broad musical palette that defies genre, Alex’s acoustic and electroacoustic works are performed and broadcast daily across the U.S. and internationally. Ms. Shapiro’s pieces are published by Activist Music, and can be found on over twenty commercially released recordings from around the world. She is the Symphonic and Concert writer representative on the ASCAP Board of Directors.

You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur

On October 2, 2012, the MacArthur Foundation named Claire Chase, CEO and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a MacArthur Fellow. It was a half-million dollar[1] stamp on an increasingly prominent buzzword in new music: entrepreneurship.

Where 2011 MacArthur Fellow Francisco Núñez was simply described as a “Choral Conductor & Composer” and 2013 Fellow Jeremy Denk as “Pianist and Writer,” Chase was given the distinction of being an “Arts Entrepreneur.” The foundation recognized her in part for “forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and live performance of contemporary classical music.” This was the future of music.

Since then, entrepreneurial programs in conservatories have earned a new degree of recognition and legitimacy, while the (increasingly few) schools without such programs seem to be behind the curve. What was once a possible alternative to the increasingly scarce “traditional” jobs for musicians has become the de facto model for conservatory graduates. “Can’t find a job? Make one!” is the new motto.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me say up front that a lot of the thinking and skills that are behind an entrepreneurial focus in music education are not all bad. I, after all, helped co-found a record label, have been designing websites since before WYSIWYG editors were the norm, and have made an enviable number of professional contacts through social media. Were I better looking, I might be considered a poster boy for entrepreneurship, or at least Mr. November.

Therein lies the problem. If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, “Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.” Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an “arts entrepreneur” (or Chase, for that matter) is bad for everyone.[2] It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am. To focus on entrepreneurship is to get only a small fraction of the picture, which could in the end be leading the next generation of artists down a path toward greater frustration.

Over the course these four essays, I hope to address some of the problems I perceive with this entrepreneurial focus. In the remainder of today’s post, I’ll look at some of the reasons why this trend came into being as well as the empty promises it holds. In my second post, I’ll compare an artistic-oriented career approach to a business-oriented approach in greater detail. Third, I will analyze in detail the ideas Claire Chase presents in her 2013 Convocation Address at Northwestern University; the working title is “Why I Think Claire Chase is Wrong.” Finally, I will conclude on a more personal note, looking at how entrepreneurial skills have helped me over the years while at the same time demonstrating how they were neither necessary nor sufficient to get me to this point in my career.

How We Got Here

Let us begin our narrative by looking back on the dot-com bubble at the close of the 20th century, when it seemed that anyone with a modicum of technical skill could found a company and become a multimillionaire.[3] Buzzwords like “new economy” became the norm while the promises of connectivity, efficiency, growth, and scale blinded the masses to a fundamental lack of profits. Yet if the boom was all about starting a website to replace a brick-and-mortar company, the bust saw an inc

orporation of internet technology into extant businesses and organizations. The internet was becoming ubiquitous.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until a few years after the boom that some of the most important internet companies and services were launched.[4] (Think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the iTunes Store, etc.) Here was the promise of the dot-com boom fulfilled. New tools for building connections and creating content were rapidly increasing, while at the same time technology in general was becoming increasingly cheaper. Media as a whole was becoming democratized, and that was not lost on the arts.

And then there was the Great Recession. Millions of jobs were lost in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, and it took a heavy toll on less “essential” sectors of the economy such as the arts. It is little wonder, then, that in the face of staggering levels of long-term unemployment, entrepreneurship would become an increasingly viable option. [5]

This is, without a doubt, a ridiculously brief overview of the last 15+ years, and one that omits more than a few significant world events, but it should offer a glimpse as to how entrepreneurship became so entrenched in our thinking.
An entire generation has come of age during the worst economic crisis in living memory while also witnessing revolutionary technological innovations. It has seemingly never been easier to strike out on one’s own and the motivation to do so is staggeringly high. In our field, this effect is compounded. First, there is the problem of vanishing traditional jobs, such as tenure-track positions[6] and a society that increasingly wants music to be free[7]. Second, other income streams, such as finding gigs and private students, seem perfectly suited for leveraging technology and entrepreneurial skills.

The Promises of Entrepreneurship

The fundamental promise of entrepreneurship, which cannot be separated from the definition of the word, is that you can create your own job. The problem, however, is that while we may constantly strive for artistic innovation, that does not equate to entrepreneurial innovation. The tools, technology, and music itself may change radically, from an economic standpoint this is not new.

For the rest of the world, to be an entrepreneur means to develop a new product/service or to fundamentally improve on an existing product/service in such a way as to disrupt the marketplace. How can we do that in music?

To teach, perform, compose, commission, start ensembles, or start a concert series is nothing new. We are not creating new industries or products, nor are we objectively improving on the past. As Aaron Gervais succinctly put it, “Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design.” We are not creating jobs for ourselves so much as finding economic opportunities that have been in existence for at least as long as the so-called “traditional” jobs. Perhaps in lieu of the word “traditional” we should use “stable” instead.

Then there is producing. Another great promise of entrepreneurship in the 21st century is that technology allows everyone to be a content producer while the cost of distribution has been essentially reduced to zero. What is omitted from this glorious promise is that the when anyone can produce and distribute content for free, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it. Moreover, as the field of competition grows unimaginably huge and the market becomes flooded, the perceived value of music likewise diminishes. To quote Bob Shingleton (On An Overgrown Path), “The problem is obvious – there is too much classical music…. Indisputable data shows that audiences for classical music are shrinking, yet, equally indisputably, the supply of music is increasing exponentially. You do not have to be a so-called industry expert to see that this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
In the end, we talk a good talk about creating one’s own career, but fail to recognize that the marketplace isn’t beholden to us. We remain reliant on big donors and grants to support the arts and yet still think that a spiffy website and self-produced album alone are going to magically turn into a sustainable income. Don’t get me wrong; an injection of business savvy into the arts is not inherently a bad thing. The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.


1. The award amount was increased the following year to $625,000.
2. Or as Aaron Gervais argues, calling Chase an entrepreneur is simply inaccurate.
3. Some decent venture capital connections didn’t hurt, either.
4. Other luminaries such as Google and Amazon are survivors of the dot-com bust.
5. There is some contention among economists as to the effect the Great Recession has had on entrepreneurship. The Kauffman Foundation, which tracks “people reporting entry into entrepreneurial activity,” noted that entrepreneurship was at a higher level in 2009 than at any point in the previous fourteen years, with a considerable uptick beginning in 2007. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland notably contested this conclusion, noting that “the Great Recession had a negative impact on U.S. entrepreneurship” and that “the largest effect came from a decline in new business formation.” I’ll let the economists fight that one out.
6. I’m not even going to cite anything here; just google “rise of adjunct faculty.”
7. Aaron Gervais, “No Seriously, There’s No Such Thing as Arts Entrepreneurship.”


R. Andrew Lee walking among trees

R. Andrew Lee

R. Andrew Lee has dedicated himself to the performance and recording of new music. He has premiered or released the premiere recording of compositions by many composers whose work lie on the boundaries of minimal music, including Ann Southam, Paul Epstein, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, William Susman, Dennis Johnson, Scott Unrein, and Ryan Oldham. Upcoming projects include a recording of previously unreleased piano music by William Duckworth, and the premiere of a work by Scott Unrein meant to last from sunset until sunrise. Lee currently teaches at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and was most recently Artist-in- Residence at Avila University.