5 Yale Music Entrepreneures Share Their Insights on Success: Follow Your Passions and Trust Your Gift

I love organizing the career panel for my class at the Yale School of Music so that my students can hear from successful musicians just what it takes to create success in this environment.  Last week, I hosted yet another amazing group of 5 Yale alumni as part of my class, representing a wide range of interests and backgrounds:

Melvin Chen
 who has double degrees in piano and violin from Juilliard and a doctorate in Chemistry from Harvard and in addition to serving as our Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Music, teaches, performs as a soloist and chamber music and runs a summer music festival;

Ashley Bathgate, the cellist with Bang on a Can who has an active solo and chamber music performance career, has founded a number of ensembles and actively collaborates with composers and other performers;

David Kaplan, a pianist with an active recital and chamber music career who also serves as artistic director of a chamber music festival;

Brian Ellingsen
, a double bass soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player who also performs as The Musician in An Iliad, a one-actor version of Homer’s great epic; and

Sam Quintal, the violist of the Jasper String Quartet who shares his knowledge of how to start and run a professional ensemble.

As you will see, these extraordinary musicians are powerful role models of the music entrepreneur of the 21st Century since they are incredibly positive, passionate resilient, persistent and hard working and have much to say on how to create successful careers in today’s music world.  In essence, they encouraged students to follow their passions and trust that everything will work out for the best.

How to get started in your career

Our panelists agreed that when embarking on a music career, you typically do not have a lot of concerts and engagements so it is up to you to create more opportunities. That may mean saying yes to everything that comes your way so that you can meet people and get your name out there.   The panelists emphasized the importance of following your passions.  It also helps to have mentors that support you and to cultivate relationships through networking.

Brian advised out students to “go for what you want”.  He had always wanted to do new music and chamber music in New York so he moved there right after graduating. Initially he worked at some “awful” non-music jobs, attended The Academy and did a lot of networking to the point that he is now regularly performing and doing what he wants.

David’s advice boiled down to two things: never say no to opportunities and “get out of Dodge for a while”. David went to Germany for a few years where he expanded his network and was exposed to different schools of playing which he felt enriched his artistic life.  David also advised students to take risks and to “broadcast what you want because it will happen.”

Ashley also advised out students to” go for what you love because you will make it work.” While she initially thought that she would be a classical musician, her life did a  “flip-flop” when two professors at Yale suggested that she audition for Bang on a Can.  She was accepted and that launched her into the new music scene. And that turned out to be a better fit for her because the music she loved to listen to was not classical music and she learned that she loved to collaborate with others to create something new.

Continuing with the theme of “never say no”, Sam encouraged students to cast a wide net “because you never know what will happen.”  He cited the example of a house concert in Washington, DC where the quartet met the head of a recording studio, which led to the ensemble’s recording of two CD’s.

Melvin’s path was a bit more unusual.  When he graduated from Juilliard in violin and piano, he felt that he did not have a lot of concerts so went to graduate school in science where he got a stipend and full tuition.  This gave him time to practice and use the library.  His music career started to take off thanks to his relationships.  One of his friend’s from Juilliard asked him to accompany her in a competition.  They won first prize which led to a series of concerts.  In addition, his undergraduate teacher at Yale was  Ida Kavafian, a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and she encouraged him to apply for CMS 2 which he also won. Melvin’s advice was to cultivate great relationships with your peers and to find a mentor.

How do you create success?
We then turned to the topic of what you do to create success once you have begun to establish yourself.

Sam observed that once you leave school and are working in the field, you have the freedom to do what you want and to create something unique. He urged our students to figure out what you do best, as well as create your signature of what you bring to the musical world.  Sam further told our students to “convince yourself that you have something to say.”

Both David and Melvin cautioned that it is exhausting to attempt to play everything.  Briand and David both felt that it was important to focus on what you feel closest to.  David advised students to create a platform and a brand, citing the example of a pianist who announced on his website that he was playing all of the Bach partitas as part of  The Partita Project.

Ashley encouraged our students to come up with interesting programs since that is what presenters are looking for. Have an idea and sell it and then tour it!  It’s much easier than performing everything and it also helps with time management.

Sam indicated that the quartet likes a balance of old and new repertoire in order to feel fresh.

Ashley also commented that in order to create success, it is important to be honest with yourself.  As a student, she thought that as a cellist, she was supposed to be playing classical music.  But that is not what she listened to! She loves new music as well as meeting and collaborating with others to develop projects.  She also likes to explore technology.  Trust your instincts and look at your passions and your talents. 

Managing One’s Music Career

The panelists had a variety of insights on how to manage one’s music career.

Sam told us that the quartet sets aside a separate time for business so that it does not bleed into rehearsal time.

Ashley enjoys the administrative side of managing her career because she likes being productive and checking things off of her to-do list. She also encouraged students to block off time for administration.

Melvin summed it up quite nicely:

“We all do a lot and we all administrate.  I just have a job title.”

As for having a manager, David observed that the more skills you have, the better a partner you will be to your manager. Don’t rely on your manager to do everything.  You still have to write emails and follow up with presenters.  This is your career!

Sam observed that the quartet’s manager, Astral Artists, has been fantastic about putting the ensemble together with people on their roster.  Astral suggested that the quartet program Aaron Kernis’ Second String Quartet for their first concert and the quartet “fell in love with it”.  The relationship with the composer has deepened and that first contact has led to recordings and other commissions. Sam also emphasized that musicians should not to rely on their manager for everything.  For example, musicians should make it a point to meet the presenters because “presenters want to know you, not your manager!”

Ashley self-manages her career and enjoys being in direct contact with presenters, publicists and peers.

Relationships and Networking

All of our panelists agreed that cultivating relationships and networking are among the most important things that musicians can do to advance their careers.

Melvin encouraged students to be friends with as many people as possible and to get to know their peers because at this point in his career, his peers are not only successful musicians but they are also important arts administrators.  When Melvin was in school, he routinely made it a point to have lunch with other people.  He further commented that your reputation as a colleague is very important. People will remember you as a nice person to work with.  Moreover, most presenters are not musicians and they cannot tell who is really great so they will see what you are like to work with and invite you back if you are easy to work with.

David’s advice for networking was to ”be yourself and don’t put it on.”  In the same vein, Brian counseled the students to “be natural, hang out and talk to other people.” 

Ashley indicated that she initially did not feel comfortable in social settings and was really scared to email or call people.  However, a friend told her that she had nothing to lose and she now advises young musicians to “push yourself to take risks and believe that you are interesting!”

The panelists advised students to use social networks, especially Facebook, in order to be visible. David sends out a quarterly newsletter to keep in touch with people and he especially loves it when someone writes to him after receiving his newsletter.  

We then explored the challenges facing young musicians in today’s world.

Not having enough work

Brian commented that his first jobs out of Yale were awful! But he networked a lot and things then started to pick up.  It made him very grateful that he is now able to do the kind of work that he loves.

David said that when all else fails, you can practice and learn new repertoire.  If you are not busy, it is also an opportunity to take some time off and refresh yourself.

Lack of Balance

Ashley urged the students to keep some balance in their lives.  She initially spread her too thinly because she used to say yes to everything, including doing free gigs..  However, she learned that her time is precious and that she needed to set some boundaries so she advised students to do the following:

1.    Take a vacation
2.    Instead of 5 little gigs, find one gig that pays well
3.    Figure out what I really want to do and ask my gut:  if this gig passes me by, will I regret it?

Rejection and Competition

We talked about how to manage rejection and handle competitions.

David advised students to “take a page from business-savvy people like my dentist and don’t take it personally.  Focus on the concerts you do get rather than the concerts you don’t get.” Brian encouraged students to think the same way about grants and to be patient.

Melvin advised students to be persistent since it may take a lot of auditions before you win a spot in the orchestra. He also urged students not to compare themselves to other musicians, commenting that “everyone progresses at his or her own pace. The only thing you can control is yourself.”

Sam said that for the quartet, “competitions were not our thing”.  At one point, they we chose to go to Korea on tour rather than enter a competition.  “We focused on the future and it really helped us to realize what we were good at.”

Similarly, Ashley chose not to do competitions and instead, has turned her energy into meeting people and appreciating the fact that she lives in New York, is in daily contact with amazing colleagues and attends a lot of concerts.  That is what spurs her on, rather than worrying about what other people are doing.

David quoted his Juilliard teacher who said that in competitions, “The house always wins.”


Ashley sustained an injury recently that made it impossible for her to play for a while.  Initially, it was awful but then it became the “best thing” because she had time to cook and do other things that she otherwise had no time for.  She also worked on other aspects of music. Now that she is back, she appreciates the fact that she can actually play her instrument.

What keeps them going?

I was fascinated to hear from each panelist about what keeps them going.

Ashley feeds off of the energy of her audiences.  When Bang on a Can toured Russia, she was thrilled when the crowd in a tiny town went crazy over the music!  She is also inspired by the energy of New York and the people with whom she works and collaborates.

David noted that even when the piano isn’t the best and the venue is off and your collaborators aren’t in the best shape and the hearing aids go off, once you hit the first note, it is great because “we get to do this amazing thing of playing music and giving so much to the audience.”

Sam shared that “I feel incredibly lucky to be making music with my friends and doing outreach to children and getting a direct, honest reaction from people who don’t know much about music.” Sam particularly enjoys doing outreach programs for children since it makes figure out what speaks to kids and leads him to think about things very differently.

Melvin commented that musicians are very lucky to be making a living doing music.  A lot of people work to have money in indulge in a hobby that is our way of life.

As Brian noted, “every so often, you get the right music, the right venue the right people and it’s magic!

What do you wish you had known or done while you were at Yale?

Brian wished he had taken more advantage of the incredible level of talent on the faculty and had gotten to know more of the composers since he is a big new music person.  Fortunately, he eventually met up with the Yale composers in New York because he wished that he had used his time at Yale as a “mini-New York” because these are the people who have been very helpful to him.  He advised the students to start networking NOW!

Ashley wished that she had made more connections rather than spending so much time playing the cello. She also advised students to take courses outside YSM since they are free and you actually have the time.
She also observed that “Life is long and you can do whatever your want. It does not all have to happen right away so don’t worry so much.”

Sam enjoyed taking a sculpture class at Yale and he advised students to take advantage of the incredible facilities, faculty, peers and the speakers.  Sam also felt that it was important to have balance and encouraged students to listen to different music and “do something that takes your mind off of your music.”

Melvin offered the following three observations:

1.    School is a safety where you don’t have to worry about things like paying the rent and health insurance. You are making the transition to professional life so it’s great to start a project while at school and take risks!
2.    Have a group of people to collaborate with.
3.    Find a mentor:  someone who believes in you.

Thank you, Melvin, David, Ashley, Sam and Brian, for your honesty, your passion and your insights. You are helping to inspire the next generation of musical greats!