Career Planning for Music Entrepreneurs: Tapping Into Vision and Going for Plan A

The past two weeks, I have had a great time working with the future stars of concert music and talking a lot about how to create a successful career as a musician.

First, I spent two days with the Fellows at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, located in the picture-perfect hills of Northwest Connecticut on a beautiful estate where the Fellows are coached by some of the world’s greatest chamber musicians and regularly perform for a devoted coterie of fans.  This was my fourth summer at Norfolk and it just keeps on getting better!

This week, I also had a great time at the So Percussion Summer Institute, run by the four fabulous members of So Percussion for aspiring percussionists and a few composers who are eager to learn more about percussion performance.  This was my first time at SoSI, an annual event that takes place on the gorgeous campus of Princeton University (yes, I am a loyal Yalie but Princeton is a pretty amazing place and ever so beautiful in the summer!). It’s a treat to walk into the Woolworth Center and hear young percussionists rehearsing the greats of the percussion repertoire. Working with my friends from So Percussion is very special since two members of the group have previously come to my class at Yale to share the So Percussion entrepreneurial model of success. 

I genuinely appreciate being able to talk with music students about how to create a successful music career in today’s quickly changing landscape where traditional ways of making a career as a musician are hard to come by.  That’s why I, along with many others in the field, advocate looking at one’s career in a broader context and seeing how to create your own opportunities. 

One of the things that gives me a lot of hope is that today’s musicians are committed to creating something new.  Both at Norfolk and at SoSI, the majority of students were excited about careers that involved ensemble playing, teaching, collaborating with other artists and new creations-coming up with new models, new groups, new ways of performing and disseminating music.  

And here’s the good news:  with a little knowledge about the options for musicians and by learning how to think about your careers, you can plan for your success. It starts with knowing how to set and achieve goals.

Career Goal Setting and Achievement

Here is my suggested process for career goal-setting:

  • Set a powerful intention for your career;
  • Convert your intention into an inspiring goal and break it down using the SMART goal process;
  • Take weekly action steps towards that goal;
  • Identify your challenges and take actions to overcome the challenges;
  • Learn from what is not working, as well as build on what is succeeding;
  • Make corrections to the things that are not working; and
  • Examine what you enjoy doing and what you are good at and see how you can do more of that.

Most young musicians I encounter have a general idea of where they want their careers to look like but are not able to come up with a specific vision for their careers.  That’s fine! In that case, it is important to pay close attention to what works and what you love and to align your career with those factors.  It may also involve sorting through your multiple interests and passions and choosing to focus on a few things at a time in order to maximize your creative fulfillment and your chances of success.  

Once in a while, I meet a musician who sees “it”.  That was certainly the case with my friends at So Percussion who had a powerful vision of what they wanted to achieve:  a full-time percussion ensemble at a time when this niche simply did not exist.  This was the idea that got them out of bed every morning and they were committed to do everything in their power to make that happen.

Their commitment was evident from the fact that when I asked them what was their Plan B, they were very clear:  there was no Plan B.  Everything they did was in service to creating the quartet. Indeed, the chances are that if you have a Plan B, you won’t go for Plan A because that means that your vision is probably not compelling enough for to make that your sole focus.

Working from a Vision

So let’s take a closer look at what is involved in making your vision a reality.

For starters, what is a vision?

It is an exciting, compelling goal that you are inspired to pursue.  In my experience, this means that 3 elements are present:

  • it taps into your passions,
  • it reflects your value system and
  • it utilizes your strengths.

For So Percussion, these elements are all present.


The members of So Percussion were and continue to be passionate about creating a percussion quartet in order to expand the number of people who listen to percussion music and play and commission and compose great music for this ensemble.

If you attend a So Percussion concert, hang out with the members of the group, watch them teach or even listen to their music, the passion is palpable!  That’s one of the things that makes it so exciting to be around them.


So Percussion was formed as a collaborative non-hierarchal community with four equal members.  The group has adapted the collaborative model to the way they see the world:  instead of competing for a few narrow spots, they want to expand the musical terrain so that everyone is your potential friend.  In the new music world, they believe that there are many more people who are excited about percussion music so that there is a huge potential for growth.

Having this value system has clearly worked to propel the quartet forward and believe in their success.


The members of So Percussion know how to leverage their strengths, both musically and in the business side of the ensemble.   Here is how they divide up some of the business tasks inherent in running a successful ensemble.

  • Jason enjoys working with people so he is in charge of booking concerts and dealing with their manager and wit presenters.
  • Adam has a DMA from Yale and enjoys writing so he is in charge of the website, social media and the press releases.
  • Josh is great at making lists and checking off the tasks so he handles concert production, travel and the budgets.
  • Eric has a background in fundraising so he writes the grants and does the fundraising.  He also runs SoSi since he was the one who originally came up with the idea.

In short, these fellows know how to work smarter, not harder, because they are leveraging their strengths to make the ensemble function smoothly and effectively.

Project Positivity

With your vision in mind, adopt an aura of positivity both to inspire yourself and others.  This attitude stems from knowing that you are in control of yourself and making the right choices. Having a positive attitude is the fuel that will inspire you to create opportunities, inspire others to join along and help you to keep the faith, even when you hit challenges. Try these 5 tips to help you develop your positive attitude!  Then tap into your Best Self, figure out exactly what your challenges are and strategize the solutions to overcome those challenges.

Be sure to tell others about your vision and act as if it is already happening.  This can generate a lot of enthusiasm and inspire you to carry on!

Use SMART goals to make your vision happen

Having a vision is like having a magnet:  it pulls you in the direction of making that vision come alive.  It also enables you to see the future and reverse engineer the process of making it happen.  That’s where the SMART goal process can help because you break your big vision down into a series of goals, each involving a time period in which you can see success.

The process works as follows:

S: Specific: what specifically do I want to accomplish?

M: Measurable: how will I know when I reach my goal?

A: Attainable: is it possible for me to reach this goal?

R: Realistic: how realistic is this goal in the context of my life?

T: Time-bound: in what period of time will I accomplish the goal?

At the SoSi workshop, one of the students had a 5-year vision of having a successful private teaching studio and ample ensemble performing opportunities.  We first narrowed it down his vision to 3 years:  he chose to focus on developing a full-time private teaching studio.  We further narrowed it down to his 1-year goal:  to have 8-10 students per week in his studio. It met the SMART test because it was specific (8-10 students) and he would know if he achieved that goal.  He felt is was attainable (which is critical since if you don’t believe you can achieve the goal, no one else will!) and he felt it was entirely realistic since he already has private students.

The student will also set SMART goals around the other part of his vision:  having a successful performing ensemble.  In this way, he can work on both aspects of his dream and make sure that his Plan A succeeds

Commit to your vision

When you have a vision of success, commit to your dream!  Seek out as many performance opportunities as possible.  Think about the different ways that you can get your name out there.  Be creative in the types of people and presenters with whom you would like to work. Have a variety of activities and sources of revenue so that you are too small to fail! 

If you have to wait tables or serve grandes and ventis at Starbuck for a while in order to fund that dream, that’s okay because it is in the service of your mission. Some of the students expressed fears around having to have a day job, thinking that it might deter them from making the dream happen.  And some even went so far as to say that they felt guilty about having a day job. So banish the guilt and the fear and remember:  you are working towards making that dream happen!

Enlist the support of others 

Making your vision happen is hard work so now is the time to enlist the help of your friends, family, mentors, teachers and other supporters. One great strategy is to form a personal board of directors is comprised of the people in your life who support your vision and to whom you turn when you want honest and trustworthy advice and/or when you are looking for help in figuring out solutions to your challenges.   Learn how to network effortlessly and effectively so that you are part of a mutually supportive circle of like-minded business friends.

Bottom Line

If you are lucky enough to have that vision, take a page from our friends at So Percussion and stick with Plan A, even when the going gets tough.

And if you don’t see it, keep doing what you love and what you are good at and your vision may very well find you!