Friday, 25 September 2015

The highest road

Someone who asked me for one of my free consultations — see below! — said that as a conservatory teacher he feels like he's surrounded by "unkown unknowns" (to use a famous Donald Rumsfeld phrase).

I'm sure many people at conservatories feel like that. And entrepreneurship can be one of those unknowns. Such a popular buzzword, but what does it really mean, and how much of it just might be hype?

Good questions. But there are answers, and showing what some of them are is one way I can help. Contact me now for a free consultation, or read to the end, where I'll offer another link that will reach me.

So why is entrepreneurship such a hot buzzword in professional classical music education?

highest road blogAs we'll see, there's a simple answer. And then, going deeper, maybe one that takes us to a very high place.

But let's start with the simple one, which is that we face new realities. Especially graduating students. There are fewer jobs for classical musicians. So students should know how to build their own road, and make their careers on their own.

But that's just the start of the story. Under the banner of entrepreneurship, what should students be taught? Often they're offered business skills — writing grants, raising funds, writing press releases.

Which is fine, but it's not really entrepreneurship. See an essential piece of writing by Jeffrey Nytch, director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Entrepreneurship isn't just business. It's doing business in new ways, going where no one ever went before, doing something only you could do, finding your personal path to classical music success.

Which helps build the future for all of us, because we don't yet know — or don't fully know — what classical music's future will be. We're all creating it. And since it's going to be (well, of course!) different from what we've seen in the past, we're going to have to do new things. For which an entrepreneurial spirit is the best gift anyone could have.

Which can lead to something wonderful. It can open new paths for art, by giving musicians a new, empowering sense of artistic freedom. If you're making your career in your own way, who can tell you what kind of music to play? Who can tell you how you should play it? If you're good at what you do, and you believe in it, there are people out there who'll love what you give. Now you can go out and find them, no matter what the old gatekeepers — or even your school and your teachers — might think.

Though in fact schools are now giving entrepreneurship grants so students can do these new things.


But all isn't rosy. There can be tensions between music and entrepreneurship, and, more pointedly, between faculty members focused mainly on music, and others who want that focus expanded.

Students, too, can be torn. I remember years ago — when New England Conservatory was starting its flagship entrepreneurship initiative — meeting a student committed to the new path, but also torn. Yes, entrepreneurship, but how would he find time for it, with all the practicing and performing he already did?

When I worked with DePauw School of Music faculty, as a consultant helping the school launch its 21CM curriculum, LINK here's the first question anyone asked me: If now we emphasize entrepreneurship, what happens to artistic standards?

My answer was uneqivocal. Artistic standards have to be just as high as they've always been. Or else what's the point? We're trying to help classical music, not weaken it. So the music always comes first.

But that doesn't answer the question. How do we keep artistic standards high, when we're now spending time on new things?

I answered that with a hopeful (but still fairly general) thought. If we all believe in music, and we all believe in entrepreneurship, then we can work the tensions out. The problem won't present itself, after all, as an all-emcompassing either/or. It'll show up case by case, situation by situation, involving particular teachers, particular students, particular courses. And varied times of year. If we all respect each other, and give room for all points of view, we can work out each time what a good solution might be.

This idea doesn't solve the problem, but it puts it in a ballpark where solutions can be found.

But more specificallly…

To work this out in more detail, it helps to remember that not all students — and not all teachers — are the same. Some students may badly need musical work, let's say with a recital coming up. Others might sail through the music, and have more time for entrepreneurship.

Some students, on the other hand, may not be good at entrepreneurship, and may never stress it in their careers. Taht doesn't mean they shouldn't learn about it — they might play in entrepreneurial ensembles, or may need others to handle the entrepreneurial side of their solo work. But if we identify students like this, it might be good to give them more time for music.

But — and this is very important! — it's wrong to think of all of this as if it hasn't come up before, and if in many cases solutions haven't already been found. For one thing, even before entrepreneurship was a buzzword, some musicians were entrepreneurial. They created concert series, festivals, new ways of teaching. They took leadership posts at schools and elsewhere. Their music didn't suffer.

And then entrepreneurship programs at schools didn't just start up this year. They've been around for a while. They've had their successes. Students have moved through them, doing new things, and still playing well. We can learn from this. In fact, I'm going to see if some of the people running entrepreneurship programs at music schools will share some thoughts and some stories.

I'm thinking of — just for instance — of people I know fairly well, like Jeffrey Lynch, Rachel Roberts at New England Conservatory, Angela Beeching at the Manhattan School of Music, Gerry Klickstein at Peabody, and David Cutler at the University of South Carolina. Some of these people are or have been entrepreneurial musicians themselves. They could tell us a lot.

The highest road

And one last thought. Are entrepreneurship and high musical standards really opposed?

When we think of high musical standards, I think many of us — including me, until I thought of what I'm now going to say — take for granted that musical heights are reached by work in the practice studio, in rehearsals, and in performances. That's a much honored, very traditional classical music thought.

But is it the whole story? Isn't it also true that having wider goals than simply music — wider goals for your career, and in fact for your life — could make you a better musician?

To take just one thing you might get from the new ways of thinking that entrepreneurship is part of, suppose you had more direct, warmer, more lively, more personal bonds with your audience than many classical musicians have had in the past? Couldn't this make you a more communicative, more vivid performer? Or, if you're the kind of musician who moves inward, toward the core of your soul, and not so much outward toward your audience, couldn't it make you move inward with more depth, and more glow?

Couldn't contact with your audience help build your inner inspiration, which then could help you soar through technical challenges in your art?

In the end, it's not just about playing the "Hammerklavier" sonata more accurately, or with more respect for its structure and for Beethoven's style. It's about what a healthy work life is, and what a healthy work/life balance would be. Not that these things are the same for everyone. But working them out for yourself — and not just spend hours practicing — could make you a deeply better musician.

And that, if you ask me, is what entrepreneurship programs in the end are about.

As I've been saying, I'm offering free consultations to anyone who'd like to discuss these questions. Contact me now. And if you bring me into your school, I can help facilitate discussions, and, just maybe, ease difficulties by bringing in examples of success.

Next: how should we teach music theory and history?

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