Collaboration and the Arts: an Interview With Dr. Christopher Foley of Foley Music and Arts

One of the biggest surprises of my foray into the blogosphere has been the creativity, depth of knowledge, and generosity of fellow blogging musicians.  A passionate collaborative pianist (and founder of  Foley Music and Arts and The Collaborative Piano Blog, Chris Foley has created a multi-faceted career for himself that goes way beyond the confines of a "typical" job description.  Here are some of his secrets on how he put it all together. 

You’re a pianist, a teacher, an adjudicator, a writer, and an extremely successful blogger.  What made you decide to pursue so many career paths and how to juggle them all?

One aspect of working in the arts is that it can be a challenge to focus on any one activity and make enough money doing it to survive financially.  Therefore, it becomes necessary for many of us to pursue multiple streams of activities. 

When I started out in Toronto in the middle of 2002, my work was exclusively playing: coaching singers and instrumentalists, playing recitals, auditions, and opera contracts. That was great as long as I had steady paychecks coming in. When the gigs were slow, money was tight. But at the same time, that allowed me time to pursue other avenues, with the anticipation that there might be the possibility of employment with these down the road. 

That's what directly led me to starting the Collaborative Piano Blog - I had nearly two weeks in late 2005 with no work! The startup process and the thinking it generated led me to an interest in teaching piano, which in turn led to examining, adjudicating, giving workshops, and a host of other career possibilities down the road. It all started with the cognitive avenues that opened up from the process of starting a blog. 

Your first blog, The Collaborative Piano Blog, has an an international readership and is extremely successful and long-running.  How do you feel it has contributed to helping people see collaborative pianists as musical co-creators, not just “accompanists”?

One of the early decisions I made with the Collaborative Piano Blog was to put the focus not just on myself, but on the entire profession. 2005 was a time when there wasn't much information available on the internet about the field of collaborative piano. It was difficult for many people to discover what collaborative piano actually is, what specific skills are needed, what the field of work comprises, or how to succeed at it as a freelancer in an urban area. In the first few years, I attempted to create resources to address those needs, and I'm continually blown away that so many people have found those resources useful, even with the passing of years. 

At the same time, I'm concerned that many of the challenges I faced as a full-time collaborative pianist are still major issues that people are facing today. These include fundamental things such as knowing how to negotiate fees, getting paid fairly for performing engagements, being mentioned on programs, and getting the basic level of respect that they deserve as a musician in professional situations. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Foley Music and Arts, your newest blog, is about “music, creativity, and productivity in the arts, and how they fit together.”  Please elaborate.

A by-product of spending massive amounts of time on the internet writing a blog is that I discovered other areas of interest that filled needs I identified with my own professional development. 

One of these was productivity and time management. I've been managing multiple projects for as long as I can remember, but I never really had the infrastructure to successfully juggle working on separate projects in multiple contexts while dealing with a large variety of inputs (voicemail, email, paper, etc.) until I discovered the Getting Things Done system of David Allen around 2007. Learning GTD allowed me to genuinely get a handle on the disparate elements of my work with a view towards better understanding my long-term goals and how to fit them into the runway of day-to-day operations. 

Another issue that tended to grow in urgency over time is that musicians in university programs are generally not taught the career tools that they actually need when they enter the profession. That includes things such as marketing skills, managing their productivity (especially email), leveraging technology, building a fan base, or how to manage career transitions over the course of their working life. 

These interests have become a defining element in my writing, and were the reason I decided to start Foley Music and Arts as a separate blog. Since starting this project in late February, things changed for me very quickly.  New contacts and friendships have arisen from the new blog have already resulted in a completely new outlook on my work and creative process. And I'm in the process of setting up availability as a career/life coach for musicians in the coming months.

Practicing is a pianist’s job description and you’ve written two free e-books on this important topic. Would you mind sharing a few tips from those books?

31 Days to Better Practicing was my first ebook and arose from a month-long series of blog posts on how to renew your practice routine. Some of the themes from 31 Days include the importance of setting up a regular practice schedule, setting goals for yourself in multiple horizons, warming up safely, the importance of finding repertoire you love, and finding a way to work through music in a genuine way at every stage of the learning process.

On the other hand, 5 Deep Breaths and a Pencil Behind the Ear was entirely student-driven. I put out a call for my students to submit their own best practice tips, and the responses were astonishing! Responses were divided into successful and unsuccessful ways to practice, including practical tips ("Keep your music organized in your practice space"), humorous things to avoid ("Check messages/email on your phone in between changing tempo on your metronome app"), and perceptive insights ("Find the passion that informs what you do at the piano"). 

As a fellow pianist/blogger, I’ve been impressed by your generosity towards other bloggers and myself.  How has this collaborative, cooperative approach enhanced your endeavors?

The most important thing anyone needs to know about starting a new project is that the ultimate focus needs to be not on the money, future employment opportunities, or hustling side gigs. Instead, the focus needs to be on creating genuine connections with other people. That is the fire that ignites an initiative, gets other people interested in your work, builds community, and leads to creating a long-lasting impact in the world. 

I'm humbled to an incredible extent by how people have responded to my work over the years and how my articles have resonated with them. Many of my readers have reached out to me over the years and I'm always more than glad to give them meaningful advice. At the same time, I use these expanded relationships to ask questions of those whose experience I respect and can learn from. Their input has been highly valuable to my own growth. 

What advice do you have for young pianists who are still building their careers?

The next 10 years will be a period of immense change for a number of reasons. The arts community is becoming much more diverse and inclusive, and opportunities are opening up like never before. The Baby Boomer generation will be largely retiring over the next 10 years, and both Millennials and Generation Z will be rising into positions of prominence in the workplace, boards, and volunteer organizations. 

The scarcity model of the profession (where an increasing number of highly qualified young graduates compete for an ever-shrinking number of positions in universities, orchestras, and opera companies) is becoming tougher than ever and might not be viable for much longer. At the same time, the entrepreneurial model of the profession (where enterprising performing artists with a wealth of skills in performing, administration, marketing, and related fields create growth in the industry through new projects) is becoming more attractive year by year. I feel strongly that the arts can be a place of tremendous growth in the new economy, and musicians need to be positioned to take advantage of these opportunities in the coming years. As a teacher and coach, I aim to equip musicians with the skills they need (musical or otherwise) in order that they can be a part of this growth. 


About Chris Foley: Based in Toronto, Canada, I'm a pianist, teacher, vocal coach, and blogger.  I teach piano in Oakville in my home studio and in Toronto at The Royal Conservatory.  As a Senior Examiner for The Royal Conservatory, I have the honor of traveling across Canada and the US to hear many talented musicians of all levels.  After many years of study, I received a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Piano Accompanying and Chamber Music from the Eastman School of Music in 1994.

Over the past few years, I've adjudicated numerous festivals, including the BCRMTA Competition, the ORMTA Provincial Competition, the Vancouver Academy of Music's Senior Secondary Competition, the Davenport Festival, the Windsor Kiwanis Festival, the Royal Conservatory Festival, the Davenport Festival, and the Rotary Music Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon.