Excerpt from the expanded new edition of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, published by Oxford University Press.
Today, many music schools provide students and alumni with career development assistance to help them prepare for and thrive in the professional world. Now, more than ever before, musicians need to be entrepreneurial in creating their own paths to success.
As a music career specialist, my work involves helping musicians at all career stages with their dreams, goals, and strategic action plans. The work is fascinating and inspiring, seeing both what helps individuals succeed, and what gets in their way. While there’s no one roadmap to success for musicians, there are habits and approaches that advance careers and can lead to success. Based on advising thousands of musicians over the years, below are six strategies – ways of thinking and behaving – that lead to career advancement and success.
1. Commit to the Long Haul
Don’t buy into the myth of the overnight success or the lucky break. The idea of being discovered on YouTube and landing a record deal, a manager, and being set-up for long-term success is simply a fantasy. The truth is, when musicians are interviewed in depth, the overnight success invariably turns out to have been ten or twenty years in the making. There is substantial research that shows that it takes 10,000 hours, or roughly ten years of study, work, and experience, to become an expert in any field.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success, details the experience of the Beatles. As teenagers, when they were just getting started as a band in Liverpool, they connected with a local promoter who had connections in Hamburg, Germany, where they could get ongoing work. In Hamburg back then, Gladwell explains, strip clubs hired rock bands to play exceptionally long sets: five or more hours each night, seven days a week, for continuous shows. According to Gladwell, the Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and 1962 “performing for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”
The point is that success is a process, a journey, and you need to be in it for long haul. Getting a lot of performance experience is crucial and most musicians must book their own performances in order to gain the needed experience. So if the next goal is to gain additional performance experience, what can you do about it this week, this month, this year? Long-term career goals are realized through everyday choices about the use of time, talents, energy, and money. Whether you’re just starting out or are in midstream, these everyday choices are critical.
2. Clarify Your Intent
So, what exactly is your dream? What is your desired future and your long-term goal? I like to ask the question this way: “If a fairy godmother were to appear suddenly and bonk you on the head with her magic wand, what would you ask for?” Write down your answers. What is the life you hope to be living ten years from now? Where and with whom would you like to be living? Do you see a house, pets, and/or children in the picture? Detail what you plan to be doing professionally. Consider how you want to be involved musically in your immediate community. Be specific and concrete about your future goals because you will need to think strategically about how to reach them. Write this down – it will help motivate you to act on your goals.
For a video explaining how to get the most out of this goal-setting exercise, watch the short video on my site: http://angelabeeching.com/bt/Consulting.html
3. Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Career advancement involves two kinds of work: the internal and the external. The internal work is about self-reflection and assessment. The external work focuses on research and networking. To help with the internal work, here are two essential questions and some help with finding answers:
- What Are Your Strengths? It can help to write all this down as a list. In what areas do you excel? Be specific. Think about all aspects of your musicianship in relation to the career you desire. Performers need to consider their technical performance abilities and levels, interpretive skills, range and repertoire, and performance experience. If you teach, what are your specific strengths as an educator? If you are interested in arts administration and music industry jobs, what relevant skills and experience do you have at this point?
- What is your reputation? How would your colleagues and mentors describe your abilities? What about your interpersonal skills, teamwork, and leadership abilities? Consider your professionalism. Are you known as someone who is easy to work with, who shows up on time and is well prepared?
- What Needs Improving? We all have weaknesses. Write them down: be specific and honest. If you are serious about moving ahead in your career, you need to be willing to confront what needs changing and then work on making improvements. Because we are not usually our own best judges, it’s important to get objective feedback. Make individual appointments with three or four trusted mentors who know your work well. Ask people whose professional opinions you value, such as coaches or former teachers. Do not ask loved ones or close friends – they are biased, and for this you need objectivity. When you make these appointments, be clear that you are asking for unvarnished feedback on both your strengths and your weaknesses.
- Be prepared for honesty. I recommend writing down everything you hear in these consultations – both the good and the bad – so you can sort it all out later. Listen calmly, do not get defensive, and do not make excuses. In meeting with different people, you may get contradicting input. Take time to think it all over carefully. It takes maturity to ask for and to process this kind of critical feedback. Humility and objectivity are called for and these are the characteristics of a committed professional.
4. Be Project-Oriented
Music career advancement is never a straight line – careers are far messier. Typically, musicians have multiple projects. They may be actively performing and recording with several different ensembles, and they may be managing their own private teaching studio and organizing their own entrepreneurial projects as well. At any given point in a musician’s career, the “map” of these projects may seem a jumble.
But projects determine most musicians’ career trajectories. Reputations, as well as careers, are built project by project, driven by a musician’s particular skills and interests, contacts, and initiative. Projects make up the fabric of most musicians’ artistic careers, much more than any single job or position. Music careers are project-driven.
Through advising over the years, I have found that musicians often have an idea in the back of their minds for a special entrepreneurial project, something they’ve always wanted to do, create, or help make happen. These can be anything from researching and applying for grants to study abroad to starting a reed-making business, writing a teaching methods book, launching a concert series, or raising money to buy an instrument. Music career projects demand a range of musical and non-musical skills, and they can be tremendously satisfying to work on and complete.
Unfortunately, musicians often keep their project ideas to themselves and never act on them. They may talk themselves out of pursuing their project idea, thinking it’s too ambitious or time-consuming. The usual reasons given are a lack of time, collaborators, and/or funding. This is a shame, because it is usually these creative project ideas that lead musicians to rewarding and satisfying career paths, and advances the field. So if you have a project idea, you owe it to yourself to investigate and see what’s possible.
5. Strategize a Plan
Musicians often are fairly clear about their long-term dreams, but find it far more difficult to determine short-term goals and action steps. It can be difficult to see a clear path toward that long-term dream. Achieving your goals, getting from Point A to Point B in your career, really comes down to learning to manage projects. Essentially, this is about choices: how to spend time and how to focus one’s energy. In order to succeed, musicians need to break down big goals into manageable smaller pieces.
Backward planning is the secret weapon of wedding planners, corporate executives, and savvy musicians. The idea is to work in reverse from your desired outcome, making sure you have a manageable timeline with benchmarking goals along the way to help keep you on track. By breaking down a big list of responsibilities into manageable weekly tasks, the work is doable and the stress is minimized. The trick in managing any project is to think strategically and realistically about what needs to be done and when. It’s great to have the satisfaction of crossing off tasks on your to-do list at the end of each week, knowing that you’re that much closer to reaching your goal.
6. Cultivate Your Support Network
Seek out advice and feedback on the project you have imagined. If you don’t talk with others, ask questions, and explore, you can’t determine if it’s actually possible. Ask current or former teachers, alumni, or your music school’s career development staff. Ask friends and family if they know anyone who has done something similar. You may find shared interest and enthusiasm. Do not underestimate the importance of having a support network; projects require collaboration, they take a team, if not a village. Think of your inner network circle as your advisory board and treat them well.
In sum, the difference between successful people and everyone else is this: those who are successful take action. They work at moving a dream from an idea, to a plan, to action steps. Confucius had it right – the journey of a thousand steps really does begin with just one. Career success is all about the journey, so take it one step at a time. Happy trails!
Beyond Talent is readily available on Amazon.com. Trained as a cellist, Ms. Beeching formerly directed the Career Services Center at New England Conservatory and is a consultant to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Angela maintains a thriving private practice based in Boston and is committed to helping musicians and institutions build paths to success through project-based coaching and consulting.
Copyright, Angela Beeching, May 10, 2011. http://angelabeeching.com