Case Study of 4 Music Entrepreneurs: How do they do it and what keeps them going?

Many young musicians wonder how to go about creating a career in music.  They may have a general idea of what they want to do but they are not sure of the steps to take.  To help them see that it is indeed possible to create a successful career path in music,  I invited four recent alumni of the Yale School of Music (who graduated from YSM between 2004 and 2010) to talk to my students about their career paths and what they have learned about creating successful careers as musicians in today’s world. 

The panelists were:

Timo Andres: pianist/composer with a hit CD and an active freelance career as a pianist and composer;

Tina Hadari: violinist, member of the Haven String Quartet and founder of Music Haven, a non-profit in New Haven that provides tuition-free string instruction to underprivileged youth;

Paul Murphy: free-lance trumpeter and teaching artist with the NYPhilharmonic; and

Sam Quintal: violist and member of the Jasper String Quartet.

This wonderful group of artists showed my students that it is indeed possible to make one’s way in the world as a musician and that there are many different paths to creating career success.  Here are some of the top lessons that I gleaned from their remarks which center on the themes of knowing your mission and purpose, proactively creating your own opportunities and making your luck happen, nurturing relationships, taking risks, maintaing high standards and working hard at your career development.  Next time, I will share my students’ observations.

Know Your Purpose and Mission

All four of our panelists started off with an idea of what they wanted to do. In fact, one of them stressed the importance of giving yourself time to think about why you want to do this work.   Indeed, I spent the first two sessions of my class helping my students think about what entrepreneurship meant to them  and define their own vision of success, together with their values, strengths and passions, so that they were clearer on what was important to them about a music career.

Closely tied to this inquiry is feeling a sense of mission around your work as a musician.  For Tina, who founded a non-profit, music is the vehicle for a higher purpose of using the string quartet to build a vibrant urban community through performance and music education that empowers young people, their families, and professional musicians.

For Sam, it was doing what gives you joy and playing incredibly beautiful music with his fellow quartet members. Timo has carved out a niche as a new music composer and pianist because he felt that this was what he had to offer. Paul was engaged by drawing people into music and thus is passionate about his work as a teaching artist and performer. 

In short, these artists were able to combine their sense of mission with their passions and their affinities for doing what they were good at.

Seek Out Opportunities

All four of our panelists stressed the importance of pursuing as many opportunities as you can in the beginning of your career, even if it is not necessarily exactly what you want to do.  Often, that means doing anything that gets you to perform and be in front of a lot of different people, as well as meeting others and nurturing your relationships.

Sam related that while doing their undergraduate work at Oberlin College, the Jasper Quartet attended the Aspen Festival, through the generosity of Earl Carlyss (the former second violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, and director of the Quartet program at Aspen). One of the most peculiar engagements was a Master Class with Mr. Carlyss at 9am for a group of doctors in Aspen. In the audience that day was the Dean at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music who, unbeknownst to the Quartet, was intrigued enough with the group’s playing that when it came time for the quartet to apply to graduate schools, Rice asked them to come audition. The time the quartet spent at Rice earning masters degrees turned out to be the principal formative experience for the group.  The Quartet then worked with the Tokyo String Quartet at Yale and during this time, they applied to a lot of festivals and residencies, not knowing which ones would work out. After graduating from Yale, a number of these opportunities came to fruition, enabling the Quartet to perform widely and spend time teaching as well. 

With a CD in the works and a lot of performance opportunities under his belt, Timo moved to New York after graduating from YSM and applied for a series of “terrible” (his words!) day job while performing and composing all over the place.  He soon realized that he did not need the day job because he was able to find enough performance opportunities and commissions to keep him going.   One of his great opportunities was to play for a YSM faculty member who then invited him to participate in a festival where he formed some important relationships that helped to further his career.

Tina started a quartet while at Yale, and at the end of her quartet’s residency out in Colorado, an individual from New Haven called her to ask her to return to New Haven to start an urban quartet residency (inspired by Community MusicWorks in Providence). Knowing that this was her calling, she convinced the quartet to move to New Haven to start the program of which she is now the Executive Director. 

And Paul moved back home to the Midwest after a “secure” orchestra job abroad fell through, all the while spending his weekends auditioning in New York and Los Angeles.  After reading an article in the New York Times about the newly minted Academy Fellowship created by Carnegie Hall and Juilliard, he persisted in attempting to secure an audition for the program, even though the fledgling organization didn’t yet have a phone number or website.  He was ultimately successful in auditioning for the Academy and invited to move to New York City.  His time as an Academy Fellow helped him to discover his passion for creating meaningful engagement between music and his audiences, and eventually led him to his current job as a teaching artist at the New York Philharmonic.

In short, they did not wait for the phone to ring but instead, they proactively put out a lot of feelers and went after these opportunities.

Is it luck or talent?

Great question, right?

In Paul’s words, luck is setting yourself up to take advantage of opportunities. And Tina added “Fortune favors the prepared.”  I agree with both of these statements.
All four of our panelists found themselves at the right place at the right time—after working hard and putting themselves out there so that people knew them and wanted to work with them.

How to Launch a Career

The panelists gave a variety of answers to how to launch one’s careers.

1.    Start with your end goal and work backwards. 
2.    Be persistent. Don’t take no for an answer if something does not go your way at first.
3.    Be prepared.
4.    Follow your passions and your version of success.  Don’t do something just because a teacher or a mentor tells you that this is what you have to do in order to be successful. 
5.    Get support, both personally and from your colleagues, your mentors and your network.
6.    Get yourself in front of as many people as possible.
7.    Nurture your relationships
8.    Strive for excellence wherever and for whomever you perform.  That means children’s concerts, educational concerts, festivals, marquee concerts because you never know what you might learn and what that performance might lead to.

Next Steps in Career Evolution

At some point, you will realize that you do not have to do everything!  Have the courage to say no to things that do not fit your vision.  It helps to have a list of criteria that you use before saying yes to an opportunity.  Here are some things to consider:

•    What is the quality of the venue, the audience, and the other performers?
•    Does it pay and how well does it pay?  On this note, it is important to negotiate the right fees.  If you don’t like doing this, hire someone who can do it for you!
•    Does it fit my mission?
•    What can it lead to?
•    What relationships are at stake?

Allow yourself to grow and evolve.  Your interests and goals may change and be flexible enough to recognize the shift. 

Take Risks

One of the panelists felt that musicians tend to gravitate to the “safe” whereas other artists seemed to be more willing to take creative risks.  In this day where the supply of musicians exceeds the demand for traditional musician services, it is doubly important to be creative about creating opportunities.  It helps to be clear about what you want to do and to have the courage to say so.  Often, musicians are afraid to do that for fear of foreclosing their options.  The advice from the panelists was to follow your convictions and not to be afraid about not pursuing things that did not make sense for you.

What keeps them going?

One of the most interesting discussions centered on the question of whether you ever thought of throwing in the towel and doing something else. (By the way, I have discussed this with a lot of my musician friends and they all have had that moment on many occasions!).  So what keeps them going?

For Tina, it was the sense of mission and commitment to the children and the community, together with extraordinary teaching moments and transformative concerts.
For Sam, it was the opportunity to play the greatest music in the world with people he knows well and cares a lot about.
For Paul, it was the opportunity to draw people into music.
And for Timo, it is getting to do what you love and are good at.

Bottom Line:

Know what makes you tick, have the courage to pursue the opportunities that engage you, plant a lot of seeds, meet people and nurture those relationships, and stay true to yourself and your vision.

Make your luck happen!