Crafting a career in the arts: an interview with Dr. Jill Timmons of ArtsMentor, LLC

Jill Timmons possesses the rare ability to share hope, even in dire circumstances. Her concert tours cancelled and projects suspended, the "unsinkable" Jill Timmons of ArtsMentor, LLC appeared on a FaceTime chat with me several days ago beautifully dressed, coiffed, and full of her trademark irrepressible energy.  Rather than succumbing to worry about things she can't control, Jill looks for ways to find solace and beauty in dark times. Her antidote to social distancing? Consult with clients online, play Brahms and Schumann, meet friends for virtual cocktail parties, and remain flexible, adaptable, and open to change.

I've known Jill Timmons for decades--first as a client of hers and then as a colleague and friend.  Where others see roadblocks, Jill sees possibility.  Her uncanny ability to uncover hidden abilities in her clients has allowed me (and countless others) to build sustainable careers in the arts.  Here, in this brief interview, Jill reminds us that surviving and thriving in the arts isn't luck--it's hard work, self-honesty, and embracing an entrepreneur's ability to take ownership of our own careers.

What is ArtsMentor? 

Artsmentor, LLC is my company that I developed some 20 years ago. It contains the diverse array of activities that I pursue. Central to my work is helping individual artists and non-profits thrive in the music industry. It can be done, but it is largely through following the path of entrepreneurship.

What are the three biggest challenges most artists face when building careers? 

There are three beliefs that many artists subscribe to, and sadly they are false. 
  1. Starving artist - There is no money in the music industry.
  2. No one else is doing what I want to do, so it will be impossible for me.
  3. If you haven’t done it by 30, it’s probably too late.

You also work with arts organizations.  What sorts of problems do you help them solve? 

That’s a BIG question! But if I were to boil it down, there are several themes that tend to emerge:
  1. The challenge of building an effective board of directors. Boards need committed, diversely talented, enthusiastic, hard working board members. Leadership at the top is critical, however. A great board needs an inspiring, organized, directive, and well-connected director.
  2. Grant writing and fund raising are the alpha and omega of all non-profits. We live in an extraordinarily wealthy country. There is an abundance of money for the arts. BUT you have to have someone who knows how to find the grant sources, and how to write persuasive proposals in order to garner that support. Then there is the issue of asking others for money: fundraising galas, the proverbial “silent auction,” corporate entities in your community, individual donors, even the ubiquitous bake sale, family members! Everyone should be fair game for that “ask.” Funders want to know that you rolled up your sleeves and did the heavy lifting.
  3. Efficiency and focus in all presentations and projects that emerge from your non-profit. You only get one “first impression.” It has to be your very best work.

Your book, The Musician’s Journey—Crafting Your Career Vision and Plan was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. In it you combine practical business advice, brain science, and client stories.  Why do you think it has been so successful with readers?

I like to think that my book challenges the wilting status quo in this country regarding the life of an artist. In order for artists to thrive in the music industry, they must first have the courage to own their artistic vision—what defines them, their passion, their prowess, and the ability to envision their place in the cosmos.  From there, they can, through study, research, and guidance, make a plan to support that artistic vision. Of course it is much more complicated that a brief answer, but if one has the courage to live their vision and make a concrete plan to realize it, they may, paradoxically enough, build the road as they go…. As for the brain, it’s marvelous neuroplastic properties allow us to continually change our belief patterns, and offer us yet unexplored forays into new futures.

ArtsMentor provides the detailed career advice that most university programs fail to teach their students.  How did your long career in academia help you identify the need for this sort of coaching?

My career in academia spanned some 30 years. I still consult and put a toe in the water in that environment from time to time. I have always loved teaching, and to the extent that I can, bringing students to a deeper understanding of themselves, their craft, their unique contribution to the world of music, and in the larger arena, doing something to move the human collective forward. These days, I work with clients (students if you will) ranging in age from high school juniors to elder artists, and everyone in between. The focus, however, is primarily artists either well ensconced in the profession or emerging artists.

In a world that frequently demands specialization, you’ve achieved success as a concert pianist, recording artist, artist-in-residence, university professor, author, and career coach.  How did you balance all of this, and what advice do you offer to clients who wish to create multi-faceted careers?

It’s true, I have, and continue to pursue, a varied career path. Honestly. I pay attention to what interests me, what serendipitous opportunities come to me, what sounds like fun! I also had a remarkable college president early in my career that awarded me an “artist-in-residence” position in tandem to my tenure track professorship. Charlie Walker was the kind of administrator that if he said, “jump,” I said, “how high?” He loved music and because of his enthusiasm and support, I was able to bring the professional world to the college. I loved connecting my students with all manner of performing artists and arts organizations. I also used my touring experience to guide them in developing their own careers. In looking back, I realize that I was living most of my academic career on a kind of fence—a border between the world of teaching and research, and the professional world of performance. I also didn’t do ALL the things I love at the same time! As it is now, every year is different. One sorts through opportunities, you look for what excites you and draws your interest; you check in with yourself (I do annually) to see if you are on track with what has meaning in your work, you do your best to be graceful with the inevitable viscissitudes of life, you look to how you can enrich the lives of others, and somehow in your own way leave the world a bit better than you found it. What better vehicle for this than music?

What projects are you currently most excited about?

I am lucky. With one of my dearest friends, I have an opportunity to perform the Goldberg Variations accompanied by her in baroque dance. Ludovica Mosca is well-known to European audiences as a consummate concert pianist. She is also, however, a trained baroque dancer. Two years ago she proposed a collaborative project combining the Goldberg performance with her historically-informed choreography to 12 of the baroque dances embedded in this iconic work. We have begun touring with this program, offering a short historic overview as well. Next year, if the Coronavirus is not prohibitive, we will perform throughout the US at all 7 Classic Pianos locations, then on to Spain and Belgium. 

In the realm of writing, The Musician’s Journey is in preparation for a second edition. I am particularly excited about this because I want to expand the narrative on grant writing! 

Other than that, I continue with my wonderful clients, I offer workshops on a variety of subjects, and I have my eye on another program that will feature the piano quartet.

What advice would you give young musicians just building careers?

First and foremost, be yourself. As Oscar Wilde said, “Everyone else is taken.” It’s a simple idea, but it does, I think, take courage and confidence, and yes, a sense of humor. Life is short. What are you waiting for? Go out and play, play, play. Search for the best teacher/mentor you can find for YOU. Learn everything you can. Be curious and humble about learning. Be open to advice and guidance from someone you trust, especially when it is sometimes difficult to accept. Act like a sponge. Share knowledge with other musicians and develop your networking friendships. Reach out to underserved audiences and share the beauty and richness of what you know. Most of us begin our training in early childhood. It’s a marvelous thing we can offer to others. Don’t stop. I am often reminded of something my dear teacher Gyorgy Sebok said to me when he was 75. “Well, I am finally playing the way I want to….” As one of the great piano luminaries of the 20th century, he offered a precious word of inspiration to all of us. As you complete your professional training, begin developing a 5-year plan to achieve your goals, knowing, of course, that it may morph (into something better) as you “build the road.”

Jill Timmons performs internationally as both a solo pianist and ensemble artist, and has offered performances and educational residencies on three continents ( Timmons, has been a featured artist on National Public Radio, has performed under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts and has recorded on the Laurel, Centaur, and Capstone labels. Ken Burns chose music from her Amy Beach recording, with Laura Klugherz, for the soundtrack to his PBS documentary, The War. As an NEA fellow, she recorded the complete works for solo piano by American composer, William Bergsma. An award-winning author, Timmons has written on topics that include entrepreneurship, and volunteerism within the arts and humanities. She, along with co-author Sylvain Frémaux, received the Wilk International Literary Prize from the University of Southern California for their seminal publication on Polish composer, Alexandre Tansman. In 2013, Oxford University Press published her groundbreaking career guidebook: The Musician’s Journey: Crafting Your Career Vision and Plan. A second edition of this publication will be forthcoming. Timmons holds the DMA degree from the University of Washington and her masters from Boston University. Since 2012, Timmons has served as the Artist/Teacher Affiliate with Classic Pianos in their seven locations throughout the US, and as a consultant to the Yamaha Corporation of America.

“She is a sensitive musician…Her playing is graceful, lyrical, detailed and intimate.” 
Tim Page, The New York Times

“Timmons soars with the eagles. She plays with vitality and élan.”
Fanfare Magazine

“A fitting memorial to Bergsma’s enduring affection for the piano. Crisp, lively and colorful playing.” 
Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times

 “In Timmons’ hands, all the colors Liszt splashed through his piano writing were there in full rainbow strength. Gorgeously controlled with passionate technique…” 
The Oregonian

“Exceptional brilliance. Sensitive and convincingly clear in her musical statement.” 
Neue Tiroler Zeitung, Innsbruck, Austria

 “The decisiveness of the bow [Laura Klugherz] and vitality of the keyboard were memorable. The performers made a grand display of technique and wonderful sound.” 
El Mercurio, Santiago, Chile

 “Timmons’ virtuosity and emotion give her performance a special quality. Quality, not incidentally, is the keynote of a Timmons’ performance.” 
The Wickenburg Sun, Wickenburg, Arizona