Tag: career

Don’t Wait Until You Hear Sirens

Staying Composed

I think of chaotic events like an illness or a death in the family as an ambulance cutting a path through my life. No matter how congested a street is, there is always room for an ambulance; there is always room for everyone on a road to work together, move over, and create space for the ambulance to pass.

Last week, I canceled a trip to a premiere because I’d been grappling for a few weeks with the kind of anxiety that makes just leaving the house a challenge. The premiere was a multi-movement work where each composer had written a different movement; my movement was four minutes long. I figured the ensemble wouldn’t miss one composer out of many.

Still, I agonized over that decision. My flight and hotel were booked and had been booked for months. How unprofessional does it look to back out of attending your own premiere? I used to long for the day I’d be traveling around the country often, with my flight and hotel paid for by whomever was commissioning me. It was built into my definition of success: being paid to create the kind of work I wanted to create, and traveling often to go hear it. And here I was, about to cancel exactly the kind of trip I’ve worked so hard to make a part of my life.

If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you.

When I’ve reached a mental or physical breaking point but no emergency is carving out a clear path for me, I remind myself that an ambulance makes its own path. If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you. In any of those scenarios, you’d be forced to readjust your schedule.

On a trip to New York several weeks ago for a different premiere, I found myself in Grand Central Station on the verge of a panic attack, feeling unable to breathe and like I had little idea where I was. The year so far had felt like nothing but travel: to Boston, to Kansas City, to Minneapolis, all in the span of a month. To Portland and New York City back-to-back. And then, last week, another flight ahead of me, the fourth weekend in a row where I’d be out of town.

This year has been abundantly full of wonderful things. I’m getting married in two months. I’m releasing a book I’ve been writing for more than a year. I’ve had career-defining performances with some of the ensembles I admire most. And yet it’s this same season that has been slowly building up to where I found myself last week: with an amount of anxiety that I described, in the email I sent decisively canceling my trip, as debilitating. That’s what it had become.

In a few weeks, I’m publishing a book about anxiety in the creative process, with lessons learned from composing. It’s called Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. I’m releasing a book about anxiety, and yet, ironically, this was the most anxious I’d felt in ten years: vice-grip chest pain matched by racing, runaway thoughts I suddenly found myself unable to control.

In the book, I’d outlined coping strategies for nearly every mental hurdle you face in a creative career, and yet I didn’t have one for this feeling: wanting to step outside of your life, just for a moment, to breathe.

I’m not talking here about an occasional day or even week where you put in long, sleepless hours or order take-out for several meals in a row in order to meet a deadline. I’m talking about how you build mental and physical well-being into your day-to-day creative life. Your mental health, your sanity, and your life are worth more than any performance, any piece, or any networking opportunity.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack driving down the freeway. It was practically a cliché: heading down the 110 in traffic, merging over four lanes, I felt my chest constrict painfully, had trouble breathing, and went straight to the health center thinking I was having heart problems. I was sent home with a prescription for Ativan. I’d slice up the pills into tiny pieces, because taking a whole one made me too sleepy to do much of anything. Eventually, I abandoned them and aggressively pursued other tactics instead: yoga, walking, meditation, and a resignation to the fact that I was an anxious person; I would always be a bit anxious.

Having experienced both the frantic, sleepless, anxious variety of composing and the kind where I prioritize my health above all else, I can report: the second way of living is vastly preferable in every way. I am happier with the work I make. I am not happy all the time, but I take so much more pleasure in the life I’m living.

In the decade since, I’ve designed my life to look, for the most part, the way I want it to look. I am phasing out teaching piano; I am composing full-time, which has been my career goal since I was seventeen. I take on the kind of work that lights me up, that prompts a swift and gut-reaction yes. I’ve worked various part-time jobs (arranger, editor, nanny, teacher); now I’m here. I can meet friends for mid-morning coffees and work long into the evening. I can fly across the country to an artist residency for a month without worrying that I’m missing my job; my job comes with me. I can schedule premieres and school visits and a life spent driving to and from the airport. I thought I wanted that life. When I first started to get it, I thought I wanted even more of it: this life, but bigger premieres and even more travel. This is a tremendous privilege, I know, to complain about too much travel.

I don’t know about you, but on days where my anxiety is at its peak, the act of sitting down to work feels impossible and insurmountable. My daily routine priori­tizes my mental health, because without it, I put myself and my art at risk.

This year, I could feel anxiety slowly compounding into something beyond my rational control. I was using every tool I had in my arsenal to counteract it, but I was also crying on the kitchen floor in front of my baffled partner. For the first time, exercise wasn’t helping; neither were yoga or meditation or any of the other usually helpful reframing techniques I use so often. I knew everything was ultimately going to be okay—These were all good things! I was so lucky to have this career! This was all what I wanted!—and that still wasn’t enough.

If you need help for anxiety or depression, seek it out. If you need to ask a friend for advice or a collaborator for an extension on your deadline, ask them. Your collaborators—fellow humans—will understand, and if they don’t, they haven’t yet realized the simple truth that it’s hard to make art at all when your health desperately needs your attention.

This idea is sprinkled throughout Staying Composed: if you need help beyond these coping strategies, seek it out. At my most anxious, it was thinking about this chapter I’d already written, the one that’s quoted in italics above, that made me finally book an appointment with my doctor. If I was going to tell other people to imagine the path an ambulance would carve through their life when they most needed a break, I’d better imagine that ambulance’s path through my own suddenly unmanageable life.

Now, I’m finally trying medication for anxiety. Three weeks out before the launch of a book that—in its very subtitle—promises to offer tips on overcoming anxiety, I am trying an SSRI for the first time. I call my mother to catch up over the weekend, tell her that I’m trying anxiety medication, and she says that the book will need an extra chapter, implying that it would be something like: Ignore All This Advice and Just Take Drugs. “But it’s not like that—” I start to protest, and she says, gently, that she was joking. Still, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. A dear friend reminded me recently that the book is about “overcoming anxiety,” not “not having anxiety in the first place,” and I think of this often.

Your present situation might not feel like a true emergency, but you can still carve out time to prioritize your well-being. You can always cancel an event. You can always ask for an extended deadline; you might not be granted one, but you can ask. No artistic project is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Several days into the new medication and finally having sought help outside of myself, the ping-ponging between things to worry about (deadline, other deadline, other deadline, wedding, house is a mess, forgot to mail out scores, forgot to book a flight, forgot to plan crucial element of wedding, when am I going to write music?!…) is already less of a spin cycle on endless repeat. Now, it’s more like a list of worries that float to the surface but can once again be rationally dismissed or silenced until a later date. I still have all of the anxious thoughts, and I’m still using the coping strategies I talk about in the book, but right now, my anxieties aren’t growing roots and taking hold in an unmanageable way.

Taking that medication isn’t a failure to “stay composed”; it’s a direct result of listening to my body and doing what was best for my mind. Canceling that trip to a premiere was crucial to regaining control over my mental health. It was the result of asking what an ambulance clearing a path through my life would look like and carving out that time as soon as I realized I needed help.

So what does it mean to stay composed within a creative life? I’ve done my best to articulate every answer I have, and I’m still discovering new answers. But above all, I am positive that sometimes staying composed means making the difficult decision to put yourself before your career—to put life before creative as you live your creative life.

Staying Composed, new book by Dale Trumbore about overcoming anxiety and self-doubt within a creative life, will be available digitally and in print on June 4, 2019. Pre-order and sign up to receive additional updates here.

All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action

There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.

This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.

Yes, I felt selfish.

I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.

When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.

It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.

It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.

One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.

I wanted to set something on fire.

I wanted to do something.

I no longer wanted to be a composer.

I thought:

Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?

After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.

I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.

I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.

It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.

Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?

And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.

What Makes Music Matter?

A few weeks ago NewMusicBox posted my list of “Questions I Ask Myself” and, in the weeks since, it has led me into many big conversations with old and new friends that have both confirmed and challenged the feelings I shared. In many of them, I found myself struggling to make some point about what makes music matter, what mattering is. I was feeling a conviction growing inside but every time I tried to put it into words, it came out confused, facile, or worse.

I sat down to write, hoping that thinking slowly would help me figure out what I’ve been trying to say. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’m sharing it with you here in the hope that these conversations will continue.

What makes music matter?

Here are some of the things that I think of first:

  • its cultural or historical position
  • special qualities of its form/content
  • its ambition, scale, or scope
  • if it won prizes, was recorded, or was heard by lots of people
  • if someone important wrote it and important people play it
  • if it does something nobody has ever done before
  • if people agree that it’s the best

But when I consider the music that actually matters to me, the reasons are different:

  • I’m invested deeply in it, either by playing, studying, writing, or teaching it
  • it matters to someone I care about and they brought it into my life with infectious enthusiasm (wrote it, taught it, shared it)
  • it’s part of the life of a community that I care about
  • it gives me a particularly vivid and intense interior experience; it makes my eyes go wide
  • it inspired a sense of freedom and possibility and added fuel to my own creative drive
  • it gave me comfort or strength at a time when I needed it
  • it reconnects me with some time or place or person in my past

The mismatch between these two lists suggests that I have some fundamental misunderstanding about what music is. The items from the first list aren’t irrelevant. They set the public conditions for an encounter and multiply the possibilities of one. But they’re abstractions. The “mattering” is private, concrete, and rooted in life—labors, relationships, joy and heartache, private epiphanies and shared experiences.

A personal sketch (maybe you can relate): I spent some years in a very focused music school culture where it’s just a given that certain music really, really matters. I left, and the world felt like a desert. My constellation of heroes and monuments was unknown. My arguments (often from List #1) for their importance failed to move others. Temporary gatherings of fellow desert-wanderers made me feel like myself again. Other concerns grew—family, justice, politics, money—and my art, which once had real traction in my insulated culture, seemed to pass through them like ghost arms.

I was indignant for a while. The indifference of the world to List #1 offended me. I felt a duty to spread the culture I had joined. Exciting phrases included “educational outreach,” “let’s play it in a bar,” and “what if babies just grew up listening to Boulez and thought it was normal.” I framed my evangelism as a service, as if having big ears for difficult music constitutes some kind of moral force.

Really, I was just trying to make the world more comfortable for myself. Green my desert my own shade of green. Turn the people around me into people like me. Recreate the conditions in which what I do matters.

I still want to matter, of course. We all do, and it’s good that we do. It’s better for everybody if we make a life in which our efforts, creations, and passions aren’t just for us. But I misunderstood “mattering” by confusing List #1 with List #2.

List #1 is all just variations on being impressed, which, as an actual experience, compared to the deep web of life and love in #2, is pretty thin soup. But I think that the real trap of #1 is that it required me to identify with a specific culture: respect certain authorities, share certain opinions, subscribe to a certain narrative of history. If my work matters because it’s, let’s say, “a new synthesis of serial and minimal techniques,” without a shared ideology to prop up those words, it doesn’t matter. It is a scary and isolating position to hang my identity on, because as soon as I meet someone who doesn’t share that culture, I might stop mattering. It’s more comfortable to gather with people who believe what I believe, and the need to proselytize becomes almost existential.

Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life.

Instead of depending on an abstract culture, reasons #2 identify that value comes from the actual experience of building meaning, often with others. Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life. This shift in my thinking has been liberating because it’s all in my control. I don’t have to wait for prizes or recognition for my efforts to matter. My work doesn’t have to fit into a narrative of history. It doesn’t have to be the first or the best. And I’m not trapped in a single culture: we can create meaning together over anything as long as we dig in, work hard, and care about it together.

I want to give you an example. The most meaningful piece of music to come through my life last year was a song. It was written by one of my students, and it matters not just to him and me but to a musical community that I feel very lucky to get to be a part of. It’s in a prison up the river from where I live.

This community is really good at making music matter. We make it matter by wanting it badly and working hard at it. It’s rare and hard won. We’re 32 students and a handful of teachers who meet twice a month, and we’re in our fourth year. Our students are learning to play violins and cellos, keyboards and guitars, saxophones and drums, most of them with uncommon verve and dedication. They’re learning theory and notation. They’re writing songs, big band charts, string quartets, and an opera. We put on concerts and play in each other’s bands. I get to teach a little bit of everything, and I have never worked with students more motivated to learn.

“Music has the power to create community” is something we hear a lot, but I admit that the idea had become a kind of a pious formula to me and had lost, if not its meaning, much of its force. Now I have a vivid example. Our students tell us that it gives them new purpose and identity, a new way to think about themselves, a new way to be together inside, and also to relate to their families outside. “We don’t really have anywhere else to practice positive relationships, practice trusting each other, being vulnerable and opening up, but we can do that here” is a sentiment I have heard in many variations. This is now my personal gold standard of music mattering.

I want to tell you about this song and the man who wrote it. I’ll call him Ned. I want you to have a sense of what he’s like. He’d be the first to tell you: from the outside, he is grouchy, negative, dark, and cynical. He’s prickly and keeps other people away. He always finds the downside. If you point out something good, he’ll turn it inside out. If you invite him to do something, he’ll tell you he can’t (but he probably can).

Here’s how I know music has power: it took 20 minutes of playing guitar together for him to let his guard down. He’s also smart and artistic and sensitive. He’s a novelist and a poet. He somehow quietly learned music notation and chord theory without me noticing. You give him a compliment and a challenge, and it’s like the sun comes out. His grumpy facade is just a hardness that gets him through the day.

He had a creative explosion last spring. One week, I couldn’t have even told you whether or not he’d actually absorbed the theory and notation classes I’d been leading. The next week, he’s written out a lead sheet for a song — I remember it had a wild melody that arpeggiated every chord. I tell him that melodies usually stay within an octave and have more steps than leaps; the next week he’s revised it and written another. Then another. By the end of the semester, he’d written ten.

If my ideas of value were based on List #1, I’d consider this all sweet but not worth much. The songs weren’t innovative. They didn’t have “high quality” form or content. Maybe someday he’d write something truly great, but he’d have to work a long time at it for any of it to matter. (The idea feels so wrong to me that even typing these words makes me want to explode.)

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people.

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people. For him, and for those of us cheering him on, this song was an absolute breakthrough. It’s called “The Me You Can See.” I asked him last week if he’d be OK with me sharing it with you, and he said yes. Here’s the chorus:

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s just the me
I allow you to see

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s not the me
I wanted to be

The melody is plaintive, earnest. He wrote a special part for a cellist he’d started playing with more. The song is so open, so vulnerable, so true about himself, so self-aware. That he would want to open up like this with me or to other men in the program was significant and risky, because it compromised the identity he’d constructed to survive in prison. He went ever further: he wanted to share it with everybody. He asked me to sing it for a big “general population” crowd at one of our concerts. It was the greatest performing honor I think I’ve ever had.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened…. I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened. I might have assigned him a flute solo with a limitation on the number of pitches, with Musica ricercata as a model. I’d be pushing him to find new sounds on his guitar. I could have easily left him feeling embarrassed by his confessional poetry, triads, and simple arrangements, as I used to feel when I brought songs to teachers. I’d be saying, “Well, if you’re into songs you should really listen to Wolf or Björk…” I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine. I probably would have stifled something really important in him.

Thankfully my agenda wasn’t “champion new music culture,” it was “connect with this person.” Music gave us something in common. It was a way to spend time together, to care about something together. You might argue that this demotes music from sacred art object to mere social instrument; I say this is what makes it matter at all.

What would happen if we gave ourselves to people instead of ideologies?

What would happen if we could let go of our anxiety about not being the first or the best?

What would happen if we dropped the idea that art is justified not by its position in culture or history, but by the actual experiences of real people?

What would happen if we measured our success not by the quantity of people who hear us, but by the depth of the experience we have shared?

On Being a “Choral Composer”

female chorus

When I finished graduate school for composing nearly six years ago, I decided to structure my life and livelihood around the pursuit of a full-time composing career. I took stock of where I’d had the most success with composing, and at that time, I was selling the most scores and hearing the most performances of my choral music. Maybe assessing the commercial viability of my music sounds crass, but my motives weren’t purely financial. Writing vocal music comes fluidly and enjoyably to me, for the most part, more so than writing for (non-vocal) instruments. Given how much I love working with language in music, too, I often find vocal music the best medium for what I hope to express through my composing. I find an easy grace in writing for the voice—and by “easy,” I mean this: all composing is still work, of course, but this is the work I most love to do.

Structuring my life post-grad school, then, it made sense creatively and financially to focus on writing for voice, and more specifically on writing for chorus. I knew I’d eventually return to writing for instruments; I just didn’t know when or exactly how it would happen.

In the years since I decided to pursue writing for chorus, I’ve been asked if I consider myself a “choral composer.” I do, and I don’t. I’m happy to use that label if I’m in a situation—say, a choral conference—where I’m pursuing more opportunities to write for chorus. Other times, I find myself resisting the term, defensively reminding someone that I write for other instruments, too. Sometimes I get the impression that contemporary choral music is perceived as “lesser” than new instrumental works, at least within the new music community. When asked what kind of music I write, I usually mention my instrumental writing first and add that I compose often for voice, almost as if there’s something shameful in being defined primarily by my choral writing.

Over the last six years, I’ve written more than twenty-five works for choral ensembles, ten or so art songs, two pieces for voice with chamber ensemble, one piece for speaking chamber ensemble—there’s text, yes, but not singing—and five pieces purely for instruments, with no vocal element whatsoever. I wrote three of these non-vocal works within the last six months, in an effort to return to writing chamber music, and the transition has been a bit rough. Writing instrumental music doesn’t come quite as easily to me as writing art songs and choral works. My chamber music is not as well-known as my choral writing, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if it’s not as good. To be fair, at some point in the process of writing every one of my compositions, I’ve been convinced that the piece in question is absolute garbage—it’s an unfortunate part of my process, not a reflection on the music itself.

All of that said, do I regret structuring my last six years around writing almost exclusively for chorus? Not a bit. I’ve accomplished the goals I set for myself when I graduated: several of my choral pieces have been accepted by and are now available from major publishing companies, and I’ve found viable ways to self-publish my other works as well. I’ve worked with several professional choruses and excellent conductors and released an album of my choral works. I know how to negotiate a choral commission, and I feel confident in my rate and the value of what I write. All of this feels like success.

I’d urge any other composer contemplating a full-time composing career to ask the same questions I considered six years ago: What work do you most enjoy doing? What work of yours have others already recognized as excellent? What medium or mediums stand out as the best fit for the ideas you feel compelled to express in your music?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is still choral music. It’s only when I find myself working on several pieces with a similar instrumentation in a row—say, three pieces for high school-level a cappella SATB chorus, all four to six minutes long—that I start to question my decision to focus so intently on choral composing. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling writing two works of similar length and style in a row for orchestra or for string quartet. Worrying that I might be repeating myself within my work and running low on innovation is what feels tiring, not the genre itself in which I’m composing.

As a result, I’ve found “niching down”—composing in one specialized field for a number of years, in order to build up a reputation and career in that field—to be a solid career choice, yes, but also a complex one. The question of whether to settle in one genre for a year, for a few years, or for an entire career comes down to this, I think: There’s only so much room to grow in your art if you’re not continually pushing yourself.

To avoid burning out and for my work to evolve, I need to seek out projects that don’t conform to what I already feel most comfortable creating. It’s good to stay a little uncomfortable when it comes to creativity. I need to look for variety in the projects that I take on, staggering similar projects across a wide span of time. And as long as I feel compelled to write vocal and instrumental music, I need to do both.

I’ve been considering all of this as I set long-term goals for the next few years, too. I very likely can’t continue to build a career as a “choral composer,” write and record an album’s worth of solo piano music, and compose two new works for orchestra at the same time, or even during the same year. Over the span of a few years, or a decade, or even a whole life spent writing music, though, there’s more than enough room for all of these goals to co-exist. We can focus on one field of music, then branch out to another. We can “niche down,” and we can embrace one identity (“choral composer,” “band composer,” “film composer,” etc.) for however many seasons that identity serves us, as long as we remain open to whatever music—in any genre—calls us to write it next.

In The Absence of Money

Income and Music research

Affinity clustering research for this article. Colors reflect estimated % household income from music as reported by interviewees.

Why else would you come together for hours at a time for free if the goal isn’t to walk away feeling like you made something beautiful and did the best you possibly could? Why have I given years of my life to something that doesn’t pay money in a capitalist state, in which value is directly equated with money? Because the highest quality art I’ve ever made has been with some of those people. ~ Violist, NYC

When does an artist, trying to make a living, not care about being compensated? If they do stop caring, have they also stopped valuing their art’s worth?Creating art is, of course, not about making money. But one must make—or have—money to live a somewhat traditional lifestyle. ~ Cellist, Seattle

This article is about what it means to perform without pay. It’s not a discussion of when it is acceptable to make art for free; that rubric has already been discussed eloquently and exhaustively.

(To explain why artists can’t do their thing for free all the time, I’ll borrow from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Artists who make their living from art make their living from art. Art is their only source of income. String together enough days of free performance, and you are looking back on a life without a livelihood.)

I spend much of my time observing and working with community orchestras in Seattle as director of the Live Music Project (an egalitarian platform for orchestral/chamber performance promotion and discovery), so I thought I’d explore the not-money side of the money story.

There are more than 50 orchestras in the region, many of which are made up of unpaid players. Some of these are new professional-level volunteer ensembles that are in the early stages of a growth plan that moves toward paying performers at scale; others are community orchestras made up of performers with varying levels of experience and with full-time, non-music careers as engineers, data analysts, doctors, attorneys, computer scientists, and so on.

Usually, the pros play exclusively with the pro groups, and the enthusiasts play exclusively with the community orchestras—but there’s some crossover. I’ve heard professional musicians say they practice more for paid performances, while others said they felt more committed to the community projects—not that they necessarily practiced more, but that they were more passionate about them. And so I wondered: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, instead of monetary remuneration, what is the impact on performance quality, commitment, and artistic freedom?

To find out, I interviewed 30 composers and performers—professionals and part-timers—in my home city of Seattle and across the US. Among these are artists who rely on music for their entire household income, artists who have partial non-music income, and artists whose income is completely independent of music. Their answers vary, but not along those income lines.

Money, Quality, Time

Curious about priorities, I asked: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, does quality suffer? And does it always suffer, or only if there are competing (paid) efforts to prioritize at the same time?


For most, money is not the determining factor for investment. Standards are standards, reputations are on the line, and there are other key inspiring motives for working hard: shared commitment to great artistry; rising to the level of your colleagues; opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and fulfillment; passion for a project, a charity, or fulfilling a personal favor; interest in new/difficult repertoire; need for a creative outlet; investment in future employment; chemistry/energy/connection with collaborators—these are the reasons to perform.

You can create a complete turkey on mega-resources, and pull off an instant classic on a shoestring budget. In the end, it’s all about personalities intersecting and the capacity to inspire and lead people into believing in a singular creative idea. The collective will is a mighty force and can make the seemingly impossible a memorable reality. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle

So what does impact quality?



If I don’t have time to do everything to the very best of my preparative abilities, I prioritize whichever gig is most important to my long-term career—and that is usually also the best paying. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

When there’s a crunch, musicians dedicate their available time to paid gigs—and that can be a paid music gig or a full-time non-music job. Preparation for other musical projects is diminished (or eliminated entirely) as a result.

Even dilemmas couched in terms of money boil down to time:

Money plays a bigger role in competing with large organizations. A smaller organization like ours [a new music focused ensemble] is hard-pressed to tell a musician to not go for the gig that pays $1500 a week. I think it’s part of the deal…it doesn’t mean that the musician doesn’t love to play new music, but they’ve got to live, and an organization like ours has to be flexible. It’s about creating a community of musicians that enjoy playing the repertoire and with one another, and supporting one another toward this artistic lifestyle. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle

What is time but an opportunity to do work and put food on the table?

Finally, a few performers whose entire personal income comes from making music expressed a deep connection between compensation and self-worth—and, by extension, quality of performance:

I feel better about myself when I’m working for money—more successful. I take greater pride in it. I think I compose harder when there is pay. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

The more I’m getting paid, the better I feel, the better I play. I always feel more valued when I’m getting paid. I have a better attitude about it, practice harder, and feel happier overall. ~ Violinist, Seattle

Part-time performers with non-music careers may have the luxury of measuring the value of their work in other contexts (and, as we’ll see later, they enjoy other luxuries as well).

Money and Artistic Freedom

Boundless funding can open doors for creative exploration. A hip-hop producer once told me that when he worked with Kanye West, part of the creative process was bringing in as many interesting collaborators as possible, deciding later which tracks to use. “When you know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”

Understandably so! Risk is difficult to navigate, even/especially between close friends and colleagues.

I wondered, again, about the flip side. What if there is no money involved? Does freedom from financial obligation result in great artistic freedom?

I wished I’d asked the interviewees that question, but instead I phrased it like this, fallacy and all:

When there is no money involved, and therefore no financial risk, is there more room for artistic freedom? Do great works emerge?

I was trying to get at the idea of “playing for fun” (goofing off, jamming, the musical version of doodling—what I, a casual musician, do at my keyboard while waiting for the kettle to boil). But folks took it in a more serious direction, and they took it down two very different paths.


Funding = Rules; Money is Icky

For some, not having funding means having the freedom to collaborate more openly and explore creative limits.

For new pieces, the weirdo techniques and sounds we were making were exactly what the composer wanted because he/she came and hung out with us and players in the [community] orchestra, and the orchestra [members], having no job security and less competition to worry about, often ask questions of our collaborators and composers freely, thereby contributing to the musical and social culture of the organization. Sometimes in paid gigs, asking a question exposes a vulnerability, and I feel many orchestral musicians equate vulnerability to threatened job security, which can definitely have an adverse impact on artistry. ~ Violist, NYC

And then there’s this bit of negotiation genius:

When there is no money involved, I do get to call the shots more. When working with directors, I remind them that if I’m working for free, I’m an investor in their film or video game and get to do what I want. This generally prods them to find the money unless they are looking for true collaboration. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

In certain cases, money can be downright harmful to the creative process:

Every time I’ve been paid an actual commission fee, I feel like it really messed with my head. I feel like those pieces were not as good as others, and many of them I’m less proud of. It’s a big part of the reason I’ve slowly stopped composing. ~ Composer, Seattle

…and even losing money can be worthwhile:

I’ve bankrolled a few workshops of my pieces, and it’s been fun, and freeing, and people got paid a bit, and I knew I was gonna lose money, but I learned a lot about the piece, which is what I wanted. I was definitely in a position of financial risk, but that intentional willingness to lose money helped me have the artistic freedom to really research the piece. It was great. ~ Composer, Seattle

And yet, whether it’s the performer, presenter, venue, patron, or audience, someone always has money in the game.

There is Always Risk

There are almost always financial obligations around making music, even if the performer does not shoulder them first-hand.

Money is like the oil that allows the old fashioned “machine” to run: for musicians, we need money first of all to get an education, and to buy and maintain an adequate instrument, and then to pay for some kind of transportation to wherever we’re called; orchestras need halls and stands and lights and chairs; conductors need musicians, who need to be paid if not in money then with some kind of prize (such as Krispy Kremes at break time or Starbucks cards or just flowers); and if we don’t play traditional classical music with free parts from IMSLP, we have to pay royalties to modern composers and rent the parts from self-promoting companies. ~ Violist, Seattle

For those making a living from music, there just isn’t a lot of time to goof off, and playing without pay can have a huge opportunity cost.

When you’re not being paid, you’re risking your finances/income/livelihood for, one hopes, some other benefit (guaranteed or unguaranteed). Once you take that free gig, a paid gig might come up, and then you’re in a difficult professional position: either you back out of your commitment to the free gig and rightly earn something for your time/talent, or you honor the commitment and basically lose money (because you COULD HAVE been playing for money). ~ Cellist, Seattle

There is certainly financial risk when no money is involved, because doing the [unpaid] work can hurt your interpersonal relationships, cause you to not seek real work, and send you into a dark artistic hole where nothing gets finished. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

Full-time performers drove home the fact that even with money off the table, there are other risks at play, especially when commissioning new works. Unpaid ensembles without deep-pocketed (and potentially controlling) backers are still concerned about getting people in seats, and need to program around that. Performers worried about playing a difficult, exposed concert where they’d “look like an idiot on stage” won’t take the gig, even if it is paid.

And finally, we come back to time:

The financial stress associated with being in the arts is so great that it’s hard to free up space for creativity, or any “extra” projects. The reality of being a working artist is that you are most likely juggling several things such as teaching lessons, maybe a part-time but steady gig, and freelancing. And, maybe you have a side job to supplement that. So that means there are so many moving parts that it’s hard to find the right energy to really create new things. ~ Flutist, Seattle

If a project is generously funded—enough to give the musicians time enough to take a hiatus from other projects—then you will have the MOST artistically-free possible greatness of an outcome. ~ Composer/performer, Seattle

What might that look like?

Financial Stability = Freedom to Choose


Money is only one of five factors that I consider when taking a gig. The other four are time commitment, people (other players, conductor), repertoire, and potential growth as a musician. If a gig meets at least three out of the five, I’ll usually do it. ~ Flutist, Seattle

I decided it was a matter of my life, and my life’s creativity, to live in a creative space in my music work, and that meant ditching the freelance mentality and adopting the generative artist mentality. What can I make? What creative artists can I support by collaborating with them? So I do all kinds of amazing stuff that is really at the forefront of goodness in my city. I am proud of my stuff and my collaborations. But the money is small to non-existent. ~ Violist, Seattle

It’s probably time to address what one performer called “duh obvious elephant”: the privilege of choice afforded those with alternate (non-music) income, or a financially supportive spouse/family, or savings from a previous job.

This sentiment figures prominently across all income groups except the entirely volunteer bracket:

  • Income from teaching lets me be a patron and opportunity-maker in my field. ~ Singer, Chicago
  • I have invested many thousands of dollars and many more unpaid hours in my gig. Having other paying jobs is the way to feed the passion. Learning how to prioritize time and energy is the name of the game in this field, especially if you are interested in a genre that may not pay well. ~ Conductor, Seattle
  • A lifelong day job can allow you the freedom to do what you like outside of the job. ~ Composer, Michigan
  • Charles Ives was an insurance man, and he could write whatever he wanted (way out-there stuff!) ~ Performer/conductor, Seattle
  • I subsidize my creative music habit by borrowing from my freelancing/teaching to give myself a “grant.” ~ Composer/performer, Seattle
  • I like to work other jobs so that I can have more artistic autonomy and freedom. ~ Violist, NYC
  • My [day job] income is higher now, so I have a choice in whether or not to take a gig based on whether I think I’d enjoy it, not because I need the money, which is absolutely freeing! ~ Bassist, Seattle

Contrast the above with the sentiments of those who depend more on music for their income:

  • Half our household income comes from music. It can be scary, because there is no security in it. ~ Composer, Chicago
  • There are occasions where the music is quite inane, and I’m only there because I’m paid. ~ Violist, Seattle
  • All of my income comes from conducting and teaching. I make a decent wage from my five to six jobs. ~ Conductor/performer, Seattle

From this, a tricky challenge with music-independent income rears its head:

The abundance of community orchestras in Seattle creates a challenge for those of us who play for a living; people in the position to hire musicians become accustomed to getting something for free, and are less concerned with how the quality may suffer. It’s great that community orchestra players have that opportunity, but it saturates the market in a challenging way. ~ Flutist, Seattle

If this is indeed the case, what does one do about it? Is there a solution that supports both communities?

As I ponder the strangeness of a competitive field shared by artists who are all deeply rewarded by the process of making music, yet divided on the subject of volunteerism, I can’t help but think: if we could remove money from the equation by making sure artists get paid enough to do better than get by, what would that look like?

The Ideal

To be paid for expressing yourself as you see fit would be an amazing life for any creative. ~ Composer, Chicago

“I don’t care if the audience is paying or not. If I can make a living playing music, I’m happy.” ~ Violinist, Seattle

As I made my way through these interviews, I realized I’d been conflating two aspects of free performance: performing without pay, and attending without cost. For musicians whose livelihoods depend on getting paid for their performances, performing too often without pay would lead to starvation. What about providing music at no cost to the listener?

I turned back to the group with a hypothetical proposal that removed the main stressors of musical life (money, lack of autonomy) and emphasized the joys they had mentioned when talking about which gigs they do choose to play for free (playing compelling repertoire, working with inspiring creative partners, reaching for the height of one’s own creative artistry, having a chance to take risks and grow).

I asked:

Envision a scenario in which you were paid a comfortable living wage to perform (or compose) for a fixed number of hours per week. You would have the freedom to choose your schedule, the performance venues, the repertoire—you could be busking Steve Reich or playing Brahms with an orchestra, and everything in between. Between rehearsing and performing, this would be a full-time job. All of your costs would be covered, and the performances would be free to all audiences. (For composers: the scores you produce would be available to all ensembles at no cost.)

Would you do it? Why/why not?

Hell yeah.

The response was extremely positive. Performers called it “a dream come true,” “the ultimate ideal,” “the outline of reaching pinnacle of my career.” One asked for a job. Another said he’d leave his current career and take a pay cut to be employed in this way. For all types of artists, at all income levels, this sentiment rang true: “I’m not committed to paying audiences—I’m committed to getting paid.”

And then they really dug in.


Not Too Much Creative Freedom, Please

Musicians were thrilled with the prospect of full artistic control. In contrast, composers were quick to note that their creativity thrives in an environment of limitations (creative, temporal), and that having too much artistic freedom can be problematic.

Setting specific limitations helps us use our creative minds to their absolute extremes. If you have no limitations, then what are you conveying to the audience? A story cannot keep its listeners if it branches off in numerous and endless directions. The same can be said about music. I have recently worked on an opera that had specific limitations as to the ensemble’s regular audience and instrumentation, but instead of thinking of how “caged” I was in those limitations, I let my imagination take over as to how I could meld stylistic genres, and how to let certain timbres of the instrumentation mix and match so that they could help create the story, develop it, and move it forward. ~ Composer, Chicago

If I were paid just to produce music, I think that would be rather grand if I were forced to do specific things. I would really like to compose for a TV show because of those requirements. It’s hard to get work like that…Being a staff recording engineer or orchestrator would be great too, because assignments can be quite inspiring. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

I’d likely still want to pair with specific ensembles and performers for each project, even if it wasn’t required contractually. I’m a very strong opponent of people writing pieces of their own volition and not for a specific group… I know so many composers who try to write big pieces (symphonies, operas, choral masses) and then attract ensembles to premiere them. It sometimes works, but often, the ensemble understandably wants to be part of the inception of the piece, so coming to them with an already-written piece is not as exciting for them. ~ Composer, Michigan

Intellectual Property

One composer, citing a parallel with Vivaldi, said he’d jump at the opportunity to be salaried and share his works at no cost; another said he could pass up licensing for his scores as long as he was happy with his income. But a third was more hesitant to give up the rights:

Intellectual property ownership is important. Control of my own music for the future is immensely important. If someone else wanted my IP, even if I was getting paid full-time, I’d be disinclined to do it. It would make me think there was a market opportunity I was missing, and that I’d be better off keeping control of the royalties. ~ Composer, Seattle

Value, Audience, and Choice

In a world where all performances are free, what might the impact be on the value of music—and the demonstration of that value?

  • I’d take this job as long as I don’t have to demonstrate effectiveness by the number of seats filled. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
  • This model seems to jettison any sort of a market… how long would I be working before people stopped coming to see what I was up to? If it were free, would people still want to go? Would they value it? In a utopian world where people would just play my pieces and I could choose venues as I like: What choices would they have to either play my music or play the better music of some more worthy composer? Eventually, the market starts to creep in when more people come to some concerts than others, and people want to figure out how to attract the largest crowd so as to have the most cultural salience. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
  • I think there would be an uptick in the work one has to do to communicate “value” around classical music performance. But, I would welcome that situation. ~ Singer, Chicago
  • Just writing the music doesn’t mean that anyone would actually play it or embrace it, even if it is available for free. And in the end that begins to take me back down the road to where I am now, which is to say that it’s really hard to write music, and feel good about it, when nobody is playing it or embracing it. ~ Composer, Seattle

They are not alone in these concerns. One music director—an exception among interviewees—explained that he doesn’t believe in free tickets. The community orchestra he leads has enough funding to perform their concerts at no cost to the audience, but the organization decided that doing so would lead audiences to take them less seriously.

Exceptions aside, most expressed an ecstatic enthusiasm for having a dependable living wage, and glee at the idea of having full creative control. Familiar themes of time, control of one’s own schedule (and geographical location), opportunities for growth, and freedom to take artistic risks emerged as well:

The thing I don’t have anymore is time, and being able to be a full-time composer and write what I want, when I want, would be amazing (mostly because there’s so much more that you need than just simply writing the notes: you need time to think, listen, revise, think, ponder, write, think, listen…) ~ Composer, Seattle

This is the scenario where you would have the opportunity to find a niche that could be innovative: new music, women composers, music with ethnic diversity, collaborations with other art forms… ~ Conductor, Seattle

Oh my gosh, talk about a dream job! Comfortable living wage and freedom to choose schedule and repertoire? To just perform all week??? That is basically the outline of reaching the pinnacle in my career. I would totally do it. ~ Singer, Chicago

The Reality

Something people always say to me when I tell them I’m a musician is “oh, that’s so great you get to do what you love for a living.” To me, that illuminates two separate but related problems: one, that statement implies someone in a more traditional profession doesn’t love what they do. Two, just because I happen to love my job, does that automatically mean I don’t deserve to get paid for it? ~ Flutist, Seattle

Trouble comes when commitment to a passion supersedes self-preservation. ~ Composer, Michigan

surrounded by Post-Its

As I write this, I am surrounded by walls draped in big sheets of craft paper dotted with clusters of Post-Its containing quotes from interviews. There’s a sheet for the question of quality, a sheet for financial risk, and a sheet for our lovely utopian world. There’s also a sparse, unlabeled sheet with a small collection of tangential comments that caught my attention as I read through interviews—little mentions that, each on its own, might sting a little.

Late the other night, coming down from the utopia of the autonomous artist, I put those final quotes together on a single page and heard their weighty, heart-rending chorus:

  • I lose 10K a year on my creative music habit.
  • I make almost as much from composing as I do from my minimum-wage job.
  • I could decide to accept a few more gigs if I decided that I was comfortable with under-performing.
  • Passion ≠ career.
  • Eight of my all-in musician friends got evicted this year.
  • Pioneering a new project that will sustain itself and the musicians is rough for me and my family. Besides the financial strain of committing all that time and practice—that’s rough for me and my family, because I am sacrificing, I’m tired—I’m also doing other paid gigs to make up for it.
  • I’m embarrassed to advertise that we don’t pay. I’d be blacklisted in NYC. We have a weak union here—I guess that means certain projects can get off the ground without fear of blacklisting. But if everyone’s doing the work for free anyway, where’s the incentive for anyone to raise or give money?
  • Most people simply want to consume Passion rather than pay Passion’s rent or help Passion repay its student loans.

The collective weight of these thoughts brought me to the floor.


All of my music-making is done out of the love and passion for doing so. ~ Violist, Seattle

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

Money plays a role in our lives, our priorities, our decisions. The absence of money may allow (in the case of those who are part-time) or force (in the case of full-timers) musicians to prioritize along particular axes. Part-time musicians, salaried but short on time (and, perhaps, artistic outlets), put their disposable energy toward meaningful growth collaborations. Full-time artists, short on money and time to make more, ultimately choose gigs that pay.

But when I added money to the equation with the hypothetical scenario above, I found that most performers and composers from all walks of life wanted the same thing: to perform/compose as much as possible, with as much creative control as possible, for as many people as possible, and for free—as long as they can put food on the table.

Power of the Project-Based Life

jenga playing

Photo by Claus Rebler, courtesy of Flickr

As a faculty member at Seattle Pacific University, conversations with music students around “What am I going to do with my life?” come up almost daily. The anxiety over which direction to go resonates deeply (as I imagine it does for most creatives) and, in an attempt to console while acknowledging the value of regularly asking this question, I find myself saying such pithy lines as:

“Artists should constantly ask themselves why they do what they do.”


“If you aren’t seriously asking yourself why you are doing this at least once a year, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

While intended optimistically, these aphorisms strike a relatively cynical tone compared to my actual intentions and beliefs.

After years of these conversations, however, I have a few observations. Our mainstream American ideas around work and success are a bit misguided and are reflected in the silent (and not so silent) messaging of the university and conservatory systems themselves. While the ivory tower in many cases really is the bastion of independent thought, critical thinking, and fearless experimentation that we want to believe it is, from the perspective of a parent’s bank account its goals need to be much more pragmatic.

As higher education is slowly responding by retooling programs to address the much-needed vocational skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century, we are also going to need to rethink our philosophies around how we conceive of our careers and our methods of making money.

Young musicians in particular are overtly encouraged to follow their “passion” but cautioned that they must realize that they will probably starve along the way. Maybe they should consider that business degree so that they can have a desk job to cover expenses and then keep music as a hobby. Or perhaps they should go into education because it’s just too hard to compose or be a performer—as if choosing one path would negate the other.

This way of thinking creates a duality mindset implying that our creative calling into the arts is at odds with the realities of making a living and so we are encouraged to choose one (I can be either a teacher or a performer, I can be a composer or in arts leadership). I think that the fundamental problem here is that these ideas all stem back to a flawed concept of work and success. Somewhere, deep down, we as a people idolize the idea of the single paycheck and the lifetime job. It goes something like this:

Step 1—Get into a good college, pick a track, and pop out the other side with skills and credentials.
Step 2—Get a job that will support your lifestyle and become your identity/source of your life’s purpose.
Step 3—Retire happy at 65 with full pension and healthcare, closing the book on your life’s work and a job well done.

The problem, of course, is that this is overly simplistic and, honestly, not really how it works for most people. Yet our capitalist system encourages this mentality and our universities are becoming increasingly more vocationally focused to meet the demand for increased value for dollars spent. This builds tremendous pressure to “go get that job” and to demonstrate your success as a musician with big commissions or a single W2 (teachers/orchestra musicians), or—maybe easier—with fame. This sets up a system, however, that is really hard to thrive in when the 21st century is so far trending in the opposite direction. As someone who spent years on the audition trail, I came to realize that the landscape really wasn’t what I had thought and that I had so much more in me to give.

Vocation and Career might not have to be identical

Typically we all view vocation and career as virtually the same thing and both words are usually used in the context of describing how we bring home the bacon. We often use the words vocational training and career development interchangeably and confusingly talk about our vocational careers, that in some contexts describes a way of making money that is within our chosen discipline.

This is admittedly a slippery slope, but I think that there can be great value for 21st-century musicians in reframing the differences between vocation, career, and our perceived relationships to money.

If our careers are defined as our overall work in a chosen discipline or disciplines, then think of vocation as the big picture vision of who we are and our overall vision (or purpose, or calling) for our lives. Vocation becomes a larger, more holistic view that includes both the work of our careers and the whole of who we are. This includes what we do for money, what we do with our off hours, who we choose to connect with, who we love, and how we choose to spend our time in music. For example, I would describe my vocation as growing to become the best human I can and to help make the world a better place by advancing the cause of music and art. A lofty mission statement such as this is very broad and many diverse careers could support and uplift the values of this vision.

In contrast to vocation, try thinking of career as the sum of our daily practices and the thousands of individual projects we create along the way. These projects could be as simple as putting on a concert or building a teaching studio or as elaborate as building a business or working for a tech corporation for thirty years. With this definition, our careers can even involve the noble blood and sweat of our daily routines and struggles. Steven Pressfield, in his beautiful book The War of Art, describes the daily battle with our own resistance as key to our professional careers. And thankfully, some of our projects are even monetized. But it is important to realize that our projects do not need to bring in money to be considered as part of our careers. Our careers are ultimately built up from what we do on a daily basis and our careers fit into the bigger picture of our vocations.

Not creating a clear distinction between vocation and career can lead us to conflate what we do with who we are, often with the even more damaging conclusion that how we make money defines who we are. We carry with us the embedded message that our “vocational skills” and “entrepreneurial training” are here to help us succeed in our careers and in our lives.  However, it is so crucial to remember that we are more than what we do to earn a paycheck.

A great deal of liberation is possible when we view vocation as our big-picture vision, purpose, or calling, letting go of career and money’s tendency to dominate.  In the big picture, I am a musician, a teacher, a friend, a husband, a father, a son, a neighbor. I cook, eat, drink, travel, love, go to concerts, and make music. I cry, whine, laugh, joke, and play. Oh…and yes, I do make a bit of money in there, too.

Meanwhile, my vehicle for making the moolah is constantly changing. Even with the cushy academic job (project), I have countless 1099s, W2s, and hand-written checks to process. Artistically, I get my fix from a diverse range of projects from playing with the symphony downtown to recording a flamenco record, composing for my new music ensemble, or running a non-profit. No doubt all of these activities add to my career as a musician but not all of these bring in money—in fact, often times, they cost me money. The money factor is simply unrelated. Sometimes it is connected to what I do, but it does not define my career. Someday, I might adapt my career and may go get a desk job or open that restaurant. I used to think this meant that I was falling short of success, but now I just don’t believe it. No doubt if the way I make money changes, I will still be generating a plethora of projects to advance my cause of music and art. My career is just bigger than how I make money. It is built upon a series of projects, sometimes one-week long, sometimes spanning years. By linking these projects in interconnecting circles we can build toward a brilliant career. Look at Charles Ives and J.S. Bach… those two understood this concept of career and vocation.

Thinking of our work this way helps with the frantic urgency we feel around publicly proving ourselves by supporting ourselves financially with our chosen profession. We struggle daily between the concepts of patience and urgency—and I would argue that we have it backwards most of the time. We want to rush into our success with our fancy new entrepreneurial skills and spend much time and energy nurturing the idea of our rigid career tracks. Yet, because of our anxiety over career, money, and demonstrable success, the real work of actually pursuing the creation of our art is often done with a lackadaisical, distant, or fearful approach. By reframing the scenario around a project-based life, we can now approach each day, and the challenge of one particular project, with urgency and fervor. And what we do with our present day ultimately becomes our life in music. This way we can find the patience with our careers and earn the peace of mind that comes with fully and intentionally engaging in today’s work.

Maybe it is strange, but I think that satisfaction in our crazy profession comes down to deeply embracing the concept of a project-based life. What would it look like if we all changed the way we view our careers? What would music schools look like if we changed the way we message vocation? I plan to work and to create until the day I die, and honestly, my project list is longer than anyone could complete in three lifetimes. I dream of being able to quit my higher paying projects so that I can work harder at others. I believe that the quicker we can all lose the idealized fantasy of American success the better. If, instead, we fully embrace the ideas and the flexible glamour of the project-based life, the question of “what am I going to do with my life” moves from some imaginary point in the future to “what am I going to do with today.”


Brian Chin is the founder and artistic director of Common Tone Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring positive change for our diverse world through arts education and music. As an international trumpet soloist with the Yamaha Corporation and advocate for new music, Brian has commissioned and premiered many works for trumpet and is the creator of the Universal Language Project, a concert series creating new music and multi-arts programs. Brian is also an executive leader with the UNITY Arts Alliance, a national collective of non-profit organizations dedicated to social justice and to demonstrating an alternative model for working artists. His two solo recordings, Universal Language and Eventide are available on Origin Classical.

Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

school bus

Photo by Gerry Dincher, via Flickr

I envy those who feel compelled to teach collegiate composition and music theory, who pursue a doctorate with this end goal in mind. Academia offers a stable career option for a composer: a salary, benefits, and possible tenure in a field that’s notorious for instability and little financial reward.

In the field of music, though, so many composers default to pursuing a doctoral degree and a teaching career without 1) considering the musical and general strengths that could augment their composing career outside of academia, or 2) asking themselves whether they excel at teaching or even enjoy it. I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues continuing on to a doctoral degree simply because it’s the next logical step, something to delay having to find a job.

I adored my time at the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s degree. My two years there felt too short in many ways, not because of the classes I’d taken, but rather because of the wonderful professors, abundant performance opportunities, and colleagues who quickly became lifelong friends. I was tempted to continue on to a doctoral degree at USC, but to do so would’ve been ultimately motivated by fear. While there is beauty in pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my getting a doctorate would have been staying in school only to delay the inevitable, the “real world” that seems so terrifying as a student.

This “real world” is just as full of performance opportunities and outstanding mentors/colleagues as a university, though; it just takes a little more work to discover them. I made a pact with myself when I graduated with my master’s degree that I’d give myself three years to pursue whatever it would take to turn composing into a full-time career, and to evaluate the many forms in which that career could take shape.

If the arch of my career started to flatline or decline over the course of those three years, I decided, I’d consider going back to school. If my career continued to ascend at the same rate it had previously—which is to say, each year I had more performances than the previous year, or performances with higher-profile groups; or I made a little more money composing; or I simply felt more confident in my ability to ultimately make a living as a composer—I wouldn’t go back to school. If I could make it through those three years, I reasoned, I could make it through ten, or twenty, or whatever it took until my income matched my aspirations.

It’s been four years since I made the decision not to get a doctorate. I knew I’d have to find other sources beyond composing to support myself initially; I worked part-time as a nanny after graduating with my master’s degree, and more recently I’ve been teaching piano and composition to a small roster of around 15 students.

I do find it slightly ironic that after choosing not to apply for a doctorate—insisting I don’t want to teach for a living—I’m now teaching private piano and composition lessons. But the students I teach now, who range from ages 5 to 15, are passionate about piano and/or composition, and they are—most days—an absolute joy to work with. I run my own teaching studio; I control when and to whom I teach, and I’m on the path to making a living solely from composing by 2017.

I teach Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons/evenings, with one flexible student on Sunday mornings. This leaves mornings and Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends for composing and the business of composing. I continue to do what I’ve been doing since high school: applying to every composing opportunity I can find that excites me and offers the chance to advance my career.

I’m lucky that I love to write music for chorus, one of the few fields where a majority of ensembles actively program new music. Choosing a few years of making $25,000-30,000 a year in favor of ultimately supporting myself through composition has been well worth the trade-off to me: I am the one in control of how I spend my time. Filing taxes is never a fun activity, but this year I was happy to find that close to half of my income in 2014 was from composing. This percentage has been growing steadily every year.

I’ve made the decision to pursue composition as a full-time career, to align myself with this choice daily and pursue it whole-heartedly; so far, it’s working.

Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy


Photo by Rich Brooks, via Flickr

In June of 2013, Claire Chase delivered a convocation address to graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. In this speech, she eloquently laid out her case for the exciting possibilities of, as well as the need for, entrepreneurship in music. As she said, “Whether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us. Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and for one another…. In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.” Anthony Tommasini wrote about the address for the New York Times. “In that convocation speech, which caused a stir on the Internet, and through her work, Ms. Chase, 35, has been making the most positive case I have heard for the new entrepreneurship.” It was also this speech that was the primary impetus for me to write these four essays.

Before diving into her speech a bit, let me first say that I do not begrudge Claire Chase any of her success. She is a phenomenal musician and an astute businesswoman; the more I’ve read about her and learned about the International Contemporary Ensemble, the more impressed I’ve become. I have an enormous amount of respect for Chase. I just don’t share her perspective.
In her convocation address, Chase outlines several points on arts entrepreneurship. If you’ll forgive a long quote:

The capacity that we have today in this room, with the number of people calling themselves composers and musicians in the year 2013, with the technology that can potentially connect us…the capacity that we have to produce our own and one another’s work is staggering. The traditional classical music and arts management structures have dissolved. The traditional record label structures have crumbled. You now don’t need a producer to make a record. You don’t need a promoter to find fans. You don’t need a presenter to present your work. So what happens when the line between the artist and the producer has disappeared altogether? When the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work, but when she can simply give it to the world based on her own impulses. What happens to the work that we will produce? What will it sound like? What will it look like? What of it will withstand the test of time? Well, this is our era. This is your stage. And anything is possible.

The Hope of the Long Tail

It is in this that we again see the hopeful promises of technology. When you can make music much more cheaply than in the past, when you can distribute it around the world for free, then we can all find a fan base to support our art. This thinking represents the “long tail” theory of economics.

In general, this means that relatively few artists and organizations dominate the market while a large number of others jockey over a small percentage of market share. The good news is that because the cost of production and distribution has gotten so low, it is possible for a greater number of goods to become economically viable. Moreover, because technology also allows for considerable connectivity, niche products/producers are able to find niche audiences, and both sides win.

This does happen sometimes, with one example being Erstwhile Records. I’d actually be surprised if many regular NewMusicBox readers were familiar with this imprint. Yet this label, which focuses heavily on electroacoustic improvisation, has been around since 1999 and has released nearly 100 albums. They have managed to build a devoted following to sustain their limited operation despite not being widely known outside a specific audience.

Unfortunately, such stories are not usually the case. Instead, the promises of the long tail are not often met, and if anything, the long tail is only getting shorter and more crowded.[1] Robert H. Frank, professor of economics at Cornell, speculates as to why that may be the case. “One possibility is that today’s tighter schedules have made people more reluctant to sift through the growing avalanche of options confronting them. Many consumers sidestep this unpleasantness by focusing on only the most popular entries.”[2]

He goes on to write that our connectedness enhances our perception of popularity. Alan B. Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton and chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, discusses the popularity problem in the context of the music industry. He cites an interesting experiment in which a control group is given true information about the popularity of certain songs and an experimental group has that data reversed.

In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking. The most popular song rose in the rankings, so fundamental quality did have some effect. But, overall…the final ranking from the experiment that began with the reversed popularity ordering bore absolutely no relationship to the final ranking from the experiment that began with the true ordering. This demonstrates that the belief that a song is popular has a profound effect on its popularity, even if it wasn’t truly popular to start with.[3]

I would hope, and I think audience demographics bear this out, that those interested in new music or classical music in general tend to be more educated on the subject, but I do not think our community is immune to such psychological effects. When artists become more popular, whether organically or through some notable press, we tend to view them as better even without having heard a note of their music. And when a listener has a nearly unlimited amount of music at his or her fingertips, it takes a real effort to look beyond those at the top.

Winners Take All

An alternative to the long tail theory is the winner-take-all model. While both perspectives acknowledge that the market is dominated by a few, the winner-take-all model suggests that things will only get worse for those on the other end of the graph.
Scalability is an important concept in this line of thinking. Consider the touring career of Paganini. Despite his enormous popularity in Europe, he could only perform for a limited number of people, especially given the speed of travel. But with the rise of recorded music, an artist’s potential reach grew exponentially, allowing those at the top to dominate a much larger share of the overall market.

But surely this applies to only recording revenue and the like, yes? Live performances are not nearly as scalable as digital media. Yet when competing to get the attention of presenters, an artist still has to face the dominance of bigger names in the market. When looking for grants to fund entrepreneurial endeavors, new organizations are competing against that same name recognition, and while kickstarting projects has become an increasingly viable option, you still have to convince your donors that your project is just as worthy as the three other big-name projects they’ve helped with in the last few months.
Sam Reising, in a thorough and well-written article for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine, takes issue with the winner-take-all model. He writes, “Proponents of this theory forget that there is an active aspect in forging a career in the arts. They seem to believe that if you are a great composer or performer, people will come flocking to you with commissions and performance opportunities…. There must be an entrepreneurial middle step.”[4]

I agree, at least in part. I don’t believe that the cream will inevitably rise to the top given current market situations, and obviously there was a point in time when virtually no one knew who Claire Chase was. My contention is that even if the step between becoming good and becoming known is somewhat based on entrepreneurship, we must recognize that the same tools that allowed Chase to succeed are making it increasingly difficult for others.[5]

And it isn’t just entrepreneurship that fills in that middle step.

The New Gatekeepers

The internet is not nearly as democratic as we tend to believe it is. While almost anyone in the world can see what you produce, that doesn’t mean that anyone actually will.
Duncan Watts, a mathematical sociologist and principal researcher at Microsoft Research summarizes the problem:

We may be seeing the replacement of one hierarchy with another hierarchy. We may be seeing the replacement of one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers…. But we’re certainly not seeing an egalitarian world where everything has the same chance to become known or accessible. [6]

Claire Chase is incorrect when she says that “the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work.” True, an artist needs no permission to produce her own work, but to disseminate that work today absolutely requires help from cultural gatekeepers. A New York Times review is no longer a prerequisite for notability (even if those who can still put quotes from The Grey Lady in the first paragraph of their bio), but there are still important bloggers, reviewers, and even Twitter users who can greatly raise the profile of an artist. Grassroots viral growth, while it exists, is exceedingly rare.

Arts management and music label structures have indeed undergone a seismic shift in the last decade, but their replacements are not necessarily better or more egalitarian. Without the support of the new cultural gatekeepers, to say nothing of the still powerful old-media giants, it remains exceedingly difficult to separate oneself from the background noise.

The Failures

“Popular perception has not caught up with the emerging research,” writes John Wihbey, managing editor of Journalist’s Resource, based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “We often judge the Internet based on the relatively few stories of success—where democratization seems to operate—rather than the millions of failures. Viral is the exception, big broadcasts—and lonely voices whistling in the digital hurricane—are the norm.”[7]

I think that Claire Chase has in some ways been blinded by her own success, and the rest of us along with her. It is natural to see the success of entrepreneurial organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and declare them the new path forward. But we know little of the myriad failures that have come in its wake.

Still, we cannot easily erase the realities of our situation. There is a narrow path to success in this model, and even perhaps some room for the long tail, but the more we speak of entrepreneurship as our great hope or even our calling, the more we reinforce a system that benefits only a few. We are subsuming a mindset that places little value in our work and then wondering why no one cares about what we do.

If a touch of entrepreneurship is how we survive our present situation, so be it. But I do not believe entrepreneurship holds great promise for our future.


1. Anita Elberse, Blockbusters, 2013, p. 161

2. “Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?”, New York Times, Feb 22, 2014

3. “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics and Rebuilding the Middle Class.” Remarks prepared for delivery on June 12, 2013.

4. “The Failure of Music Education,” Issue 8, August/September 2014. I regret that I did not have time to read this before my previous post was due. He goes into considerably more detail about the entrepreneurship programs that universities offer than I did and argues strongly for greater adoption of such programs. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a contributing editor for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, and Reising is on staff at New Music USA.

5. There are other avenues of revenue that help insulate classical musicians from the winner-take-all economy. Private teaching, for example, is not scalable. Even when the possibility of Skype lessons is factored in, one teacher still has a limited number of hours for teaching.

6. John Wihbey, “Rethinking Viral: Why the Digital World is Not as Democratic as We Think.” Pacific Standard, June 9, 2014.

7. Ibid.

Making the Numbers Work

One of the toughest parts of being a musician in new music is finding the balance between making a living and performing the music and concerts you are passionate about. Often times those two don’t line up, with one siphoning away your time and the other siphoning away your income. This is a puzzle that I constantly struggle with.

As someone who is both an artistic director of a growing organization and a pianist, I often switch between practicing, teaching, working on creative projects, and tackling administrative tasks. Before I decided to make teaching my only day job again, I had worked at a creative agency as a production assistant, then as an events producer at a nonprofit that I loved. While working these jobs, I also maintained a small private piano studio. Towards the middle of last year, we at the Nouveau Classical Project were launching our first benefit on top of producing our largest project to date. My gut told me I had to leave the event production job much sooner than I had planned (I thought it would be at least another couple years) because I knew I needed more time to put into NCP. It came down to needing not only the time, but also the energy and the brain space to nurture my vision. But I wasn’t going to quit without knowing first that I had enough teaching hours to pay my bills. I made it my new priority to make sure that I could maintain my 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. practice schedule with time in the evening and weekends for NCP hours.

It used to be about being as busy as possible, playing as much as possible, with the hope that it would line up at the end of the month. Right after I got my master’s degree, I was eager to take on every single gig I was offered. Besides the fact that I needed to find a way to eat and pay rent, I suffered musician FOMO (fear of missing out); I worried that if I did not play in nearly everything I could, I would be hindering my career. I thought this strategy would allow me to eventually become a self-sufficient musician. What I did not account for was how much time it takes to do everything well—and that in order to do it well, I needed a lot of free time to practice for my performances.

This is not a time management problem; I have always been very disciplined about practicing and having an organized schedule. But how do you manage time when you don’t have it?

Just because you can make time to attend every rehearsal and perform in the concert does not mean you can find the time to practice and be prepared. That might mean saying no to performing every now and then. It also depends on the music, of course, and maybe the assessment can be made after you see what is being programmed, but for the most part, it will be obvious if you are spreading yourself thin. We aren’t invincible.

With wedding music or random cocktail receptions, it is easy to offer rote performances and make an easy buck. But for the concerts that I’m sure most of us NewMusicBox musician fans love to perform—the concerts with music by living composers who have poured their energy and love into writing it—we can’t just phone it in. And we shouldn’t. The compensation for these concerts ranges, so it’s difficult to project how much will be coming in from these gigs. Because of this, we find ourselves in the difficult position of taking on as many gigs as possible to cover our living costs, which can unfortunately quickly put us in the corner of over commitment. We aren’t able to fit in the time to practice because we have too many rehearsals and concerts.
You have to be your own boss—to be responsible for creating the schedule for the week—and this isn’t easy. You need to be able to step outside of yourself and, in the case of freelance musicians, become a second person who tells you yes and no. How anxious are we to play everywhere, be everywhere, and do everything? We need to make a living but we also need to be artists and we need to nurture our careers by performing a significant amount to get our names out there. This is the essence of the struggle.

A scene from Potential Energies.

A scene from Potential Energies.

In NCP’s recent piece Potential Energies (a collaboration with dancers) we have a movement nicknamed “It Comes Down to the Numbers.” It’s about time and money, and the turning point where they aren’t lining up with your original goals. In my case, in the past I’ve tried to do too much to make this happen. Some gigs paid well and some did not but were artistically fulfilling. It would be a shame to only think in terms of financials and not see the artistic merit or potential of a project, because oftentimes, especially with projects by less established but talented artists, the numbers do not quite line up with the value of the art. If instead you used some of your time to teach or take a part-time day job, you might be more able to take on the gigs that are more artistically fulfilling than they are monetarily fulfilling. And you could find the time to prepare for them.
How do you make all of these numbers line up?

What worked for me was when I separated what sustains me financially versus what fulfills me artistically until the day comes that I make the two meet. Everyone has their own individual solutions, but I think it is most productive to keep in mind whether or not we are maintaining the quality of our playing and artistry and have a solid source of income while we build our careers. I’ve learned that one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is learning how to tell myself “no.”

The Artist’s Dictionary: Redefining Success

Around Christmas last year, I received the music for an upcoming concert I was going to be playing with Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente. Being my usual neurotic self, I looked at the parts and immediately commenced freaking out by practicing furiously, even though I was technically on vacation. A few days later, my brother-in-law relayed to me a conversation that he’d had with his six-year-old daughter:

“Daddy, why does Auntie Sara play cello so much?”
“Because it’s her job. That’s what she does to earn money.”
“Daddy, that’s silly! Cello isn’t a job!!”

You know how sometimes a six-year old can say something that instantly shatters your self-esteem? Well, suddenly I found myself defending my career choices to a kindergartener. I literally began to recite my resume to her, at which point I realized that, well, I was reciting my resume to a kindergartener.

This whole episode reminded me of similar stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues. Together we’ve rolled our eyes at the people in our lives who just don’t get what we do. What we often don’t admit out loud, though, is how hard we take it. So I started wondering: Why are musicians so on edge about the validity of what we do? What does it take to make us feel like we are successful? And how do we even begin to define success?
violinist meme
What it seems to come down to, in many cases, is that musicians are hardwired to base our sense of success on how our career is perceived by others. If you think about it, it makes sense: when others approve of our playing, we get good reviews, big audiences, standing ovations, fame, fortune, etc. Throughout school, auditions, and gigs, we’ve relied on the judgement of others to gauge our own talent, so it’s all too easy to allow their perceptions to determine how our professional career is going, too.
The root of the problem might be that the 21st-century classical musician doesn’t seem to have an updated guide to gauging success. Think about what you were taught in school about how to become “successful,” and where you would be now if you had followed that path. If you had truly succeeded, you would have either landed a full-time job in a major symphony orchestra or ensemble, accepted a tenure track faculty position at a prestigious university, or won first prize in a major international competition. No biggie. But seriously, is this model of success even valid anymore? Why are these still the only clear markers we have to “prove ourselves” in our field?

Because our views on success are so often skewed towards these milestones, musicians who take alternative paths are often unfairly looked upon as less successful. Our traditional ways of defining success are suddenly inapplicable, and this leads us to feel dubious about the legitimacy of someone who is forging their own entrepreneurial path, or who feels satisfied with their work, though it may be unconventional. If what you’re doing isn’t easy to slap a label on, then you must be failing…unless, of course, someone influential notices you and publicly declares your success. This is the sense I sometimes get, both from the outside world and even among musicians.

One emerging musician whom I know has done a lot of thinking on this subject is Meerenai Shim, a flautist who specializes in new and experimental music. When I asked her to define success, she laid out five separate definitions, from how she used to think of success to how she defines it now. She began with her view when she was a student that achieving success meant becoming famous or winning a big orchestra job (sound familiar?), went on to her real-world post-college impression that success meant being able to pay the bills as a full-time musician, to then land at her current definition: “Success to me is making meaningful art.” She has approached her career from all types of angles: gigging and teaching to make ends meet, getting a day job to allow herself the financial freedom to pursue her new music projects, and, ultimately, ditching both the teaching and the day job so she could focus solely on the music that is most important to her, which is turning out to be the key to achieving that last definition of success she came up with. Taking this approach certainly comes with its financial risks, of course (check out Meerenai’s blog post on “making it work”), but often the confidence that comes with taking those risks is what can lead to hard-earned successes, both musically and financially.

More and more musicians these days seem to be following the same line of thought as Meerenai. When I posed the question of how to define success on Twitter, many of the responses I got were along these lines:
twitter success definition
The new music community is clearly thinking about success in new ways–ways that free us from external judgement and allow us to base our success on the achievement of personal goals, artistic fulfillment, and driving vision. But while it’s great that so many professional musicians are coming to these conclusions, I couldn’t help wondering whether the old model of success, the one that’s based on fame and fortune, is still what students and young professionals are clinging to. So on a recent trip to Miami, I spent an afternoon chatting on this topic with Howard Herring, the president of the New World Symphony.

As a New World alum myself, I know all too well the organization’s reputation for churning out young hotshot musicians who head straight from their NWS fellowships to the top symphony jobs around the country. And fifteen years ago at NWS, you might say that winning a symphony job was the official definition of success. However, orchestras aren’t as stable as they once were, and word has gotten out that the euphoria you might feel after winning an audition may not necessarily stick with you for the next 40 years on the job. What Howard pointed out at the very beginning of our talk was that there’s a big difference between a “job” and a “career.” A job is something that you get, a career is something that you build. When I asked him what definition of success he hopes to imprint on the NWS fellows, he explained that achieving success in one’s career comes from embodying these three principles:

  1. Independence. Independent thinking allows us to think outside the box and be proactive about our passions.
  2. Inclusiveness. When we engage our communities, great things are possible.
  3. Responsibility. Taking responsibility for our art form ensures its continued relevance in society.

“When you are true to those concepts,” Howard told me, “you can manage the potential and the problems, and the success is all yours.” And those concepts, according to Howard, are constantly morphing to fit in with each new era. Take inclusiveness, for instance. In the not-so-distant past, that may have meant playing an outreach concert in a nursing home or giving spoken program notes before a performance. But now–and this was when he started really getting excited–we’ve reached a new digital era that is changing the way we think and igniting our imaginations. No longer is our community limited to the audience in front of us or the city we live in. In the digital era, our community is truly global, and that makes the potential for inclusiveness, and therefore success, all the greater.

Howard admitted that, for a large number of the current NWS fellows, winning an orchestra job is still the most important measure of success. For now. “Far more musicians are cut out for this [alternative] type of career than they acknowledge,” he told me. He is giving young professionals the knowledge and the resources to eventually make their way to redefining success for themselves, while at the same time aware and accepting of the fact that those young professionals might not be ready to do so right away.
My biggest takeaway from the various responses that I heard from Howard, Meerenai, and others was that in this new and somewhat turbulent era for classical music, our own personal success isn’t just about us anymore. The old model is no longer relevant because simply having a job or being a superstar doesn’t necessarily contribute to our communities or to our art. Music is bigger than ourselves, and how we shape our careers affects the role that classical music will play in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

I had to chuckle as I thought back to that comment from my six-year-old niece. “Cello isn’t a job!” she protested. She was completely right. Success cannot be defined by how we make a living. What truly defines success is the way in which we incorporate independence, inclusiveness, and responsibility into our careers. When we focus on these principles, we succeed not only in satisfying our own artistic needs, but by also making a difference in the communities we live in and sustaining the art that we are passionate about.


Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a cellist based in Chicago.  A member of Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she has also been heard performing with the Milwaukee Symphony, Ensemble Dal Niente, Anaphora, New Millennium Orchestra, and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami.  Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis. She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.