Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Entrepreneurial Pianist: 7 Things to Consider When Planning a Career in the Arts

Years ago a piano student asked me what he could do professionally with a degree in music.  I told him he could become a wine maker. 

After I elicited a startled laugh from him, I went on to tell him the truth of being a freelance musician: we get paid to do what we love, but no one is going to create the job for us. We have to create it for ourselves from the gifts and resources we’ve been given and from the circumstances of ability, location, age, and life responsibilities.  We have to become experts at creating multiple income streams.  We have to become savvy self-promoters. We have to accept that nothing—not even the biggest dream—comes without a price.

Unfortunately, while most music programs do a great job preparing us to play our instruments, they give us little or no guidance on how to get people to pay us to make music.  We have to figure that all out ourselves, drawing on our own personal abilities and determination.  Some talented and lucky few will have paths paved for them.  This advice is for the rest of us.  

Assess the music industry.  To paraphrase an old advertisement, this isn’t your grandfather’s music industry.  Neither is it your father’s.  I know musicians in their 60s remember a time of plentiful live music gigs, a large network of arts councils who sponsored concerts, recording contracts that paid artists real money, free-flowing grant money, and university career paths that didn’t end in dead-end adjunct servitude.  That world disappeared years ago.  Throw out that old “play book”, erase any hint of nostalgia from your mind, and get to know what’s happening today.  Be aware that the music industry changes as quickly as the rest of society—in other words, make it part of your job to keep up with these changes.  Knowing what is or isn’t viable in today’s marketplace will save you many hours of fruitless effort, not to mention a lot of money. 

Assess yourself.  Soberly and honestly asses your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities.  Don’t lie to yourself.  Don’t pretend.  Make a list of everything you do well.  Make a list of things you don’t do well, or things that don’t interest you.  Decide if you need more training or guidance in a few areas.  Then, through the lens of what you learned about the music industry, begin to hone your options.  My particular strengths led me toward writing, collaborative playing, and teaching.  My weaknesses kept me away from jazz and pop gigs, as well as composition.  Your list needs to be personal to you.  

Assess your community.  Now that you’re aware of the music industry and your place in it, it’s time to look at the resources in your community.  Are there organizations or groups you can join to promote yourself? What performance opportunities exist?  Are there places where you can create concert opportunities for yourself and other musicians?  If you’re planning to teach, research school districts and neighborhoods before you open your studio.  But even while you’re establishing yourself in your own city, don’t forget that thanks to the internet, your community extends far beyond the borders of wherever you live.  You live in your city; you work in the world.  There are musicians everywhere who are creative and innovative “powerhouses.”  Study them, learn from them, and use these good ideas to strengthen your own career.  

Embrace social media.  For all its bad press right now, social media is one of the best effective ways to market yourself, connect with other musicians, learn about the industry, and be alert to all the latest ideas.  In today’s musical world, if you can’t be found on the internet and on social media, you’re effectively invisible.  There’s no need to sign up for all options—just pick one or two commit to it for a certain amount of time each day.  For an excellent break-down of options, I recommend reading this article by Frances Wilson: https://crosseyedpianist.com/2015/04/14/classical-musicians-and-social-media/.  Although written in 2015, Wilson’s points on how classical musicians can benefit from social media remain timeless.  

Have a web presence.  There’s no need to invest in an expensive website—a simple, clean, easy-to-navigate one will do.  And no, a Facebook fan page isn’t enough (although it’s great to have both and to link them to each other).  People who want to pay you for your expertise need to know that you’re a legitimate artist and business person.  It’s almost impossible to do this without a website.  

Whether you design your own or hire someone to do it for you, choose a clean and simple design over anything gimmicky and/or hard to read and navigate.  Make sure everything on your site is cleanly written, professional, and lets visitors know exactly who you are, what you do, what you’re selling, and how to reach you.  For those wishing to build their own, I recommend reading this article in PC Magazine https://www.pcmag.com/roundup/334639/the-best-website-builders.  Important note: if you’re not a writer or if you have no desire to try building your own site, invest in professionals to help you.

Develop a “portfolio career”. Call it a “portfolio career.”  Call it multiple income streams.  I call it job security.  Let me explain: if I work a conventional job, only one person has to fire me before I don’t make an income.  If I work for myself and I have multiple sources of income, many more people have to fire me before I can’t pay my bills.  The trick to making this work involves two things—knowing what people will pay you to do, and having a great deal of personal discipline.

Any self-employed person understands that being great at something isn’t a guarantee of making a living.  Surviving and thriving as a musician means finding the magical intersection between what you’re good at doing and what other people are willing to pay you to do.  Look carefully at your list of abilities and interests.  Now look at what you’ve discovered about your community and about the music industry.  Where do these two things meet?

One of the most inspiring “portfolio” musicians I know is composer and pianist Dr. Joel Pierson.  After he received his doctorate in composition, he grew disillusioned with the idea of teaching in universities and pursued his own path.  Today he teaches piano lessons, authored the infamously hilarious You Suck at Piano teaching method books, and is creator, band lead, and composer for The Queen’s Cartoonists—a jazz band that’s now represented by CAMI and tours all over the country.  Oh, and he continues to compose some pretty amazing contemporary classical music as well.  https://www.therealjoelpierson.com

Never stop learning or innovating. The most dangerous thing a musician can do is become frozen in time.  What’s relevant today is outdated tomorrow.  Leading musicians everywhere are blurring the lines between classical and pop and music and activism.  They’re reimagining concert spaces and recordings, and are keeping classical music alive for future generations.  They’re doing this by embracing change, not by resisting it.  We need to commit to doing the same thing because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves to extinction.  

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Stuff" Happens: 5 Tips for Surviving (and Recovering From) a Bad Performance

No one likes those "Oh, -----!!" moments that can happen on stage, and most performers have one or two horror stories about very public mistakes.  This article, written for Pianist Magazine, offers 5 tips for bouncing back from a bad performance--because it isn't that professional pianists never make mistakes on stage, we just know how to learn from them.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Waco Variations, One Year Later: What I've Learned


A year ago I watched my novel, The Waco Variations, leave the safety of anonymity and set sail on the sea of public opinion.  The launch was a long time coming—since finishing the novel it had gone through several years of edits, a couple of years of seeking an agent, and another couple of years of waiting as the agent attempted to find it a publishing house.  Yet even with so much time between writing it and releasing it, letting go of this book was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Being a performing musician helped a bit.  I play concerts.  I’ve released CDs.  I’ve learned to work through the crippling self-doubt that comes from having my work judged by other people.  That was why my seesawing emotions surprised me.  Many meditation sessions (and a whole lot of journal entries) later, I realized what terrified me the most:  I wasn’t afraid of failing myself.  I was afraid of failing Cassie, the book’s protagonist.  After all, I hadn’t even wanted to write the story and it was only because I felt Cassie’s insistence that I birthed her story, went through all the steps of editing it, and eventually took a risk and released it.  

A year later, I’m glad I did.  Because of this book, I’ve met, communicated with, and become friends with people all over the world.  I’ve found an online home in the music blogging community—a community I’d been reading for years but hadn’t had the nerve to approach until I needed to market my book.  Not only did they provide opportunities to guest post about The Waco Variations, they wrote reviews and have generously promoted it to their readers.  

This past year taught me that the readers who “get” the book belong to one (or more) of these groups:  musicians, former fundamentalists, and people who have suffered trauma.  The deeply personal conversations I’ve had with readers have been humbling and inspiring.  The phrase I’ve heard most often?  “I thought [experienced, lived] this very thing and I thought I was the only one.”

I’ve also learned who doesn’t like my book--generally people who can’t relate to Cassie or her story.  Through those reviews I’ve learned that I can take a punch, get up, and keep going.  

I’ve learned some unsavory things about myself this year:  I thought I could be sangfroid when sales slumped.  I panicked.  Immediately.  And it took me days to work out of that pit.    Another unpleasant truth?  I discovered an internal reservoir of anger toward friends who promised to buy the book and then didn’t—friends who’s CDs or books I dutifully purchased and concerts I attended and promoted.  It took me a month to work through those feelings of betrayal and to realize that my expectations, not their behavior, were wrong.  

Despite ups and downs (and the fact that's it's a "literary novel"--a category that would be better described as "Literary Graveyard"...), the book has been selling fairly well.  Readers ask me if I’ll write another novel.  I tell them, only if I’m compelled to.  Despite having written a couple of teen romances in my early 20s, I consider myself more of a nonfiction writer than a novelist.  But this novel was a story I needed to tell.  Perhaps it is as Ted Hughes once said, that writing is about facing up to what we were too scared to face—about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately needed to share.  

At this one-year mark, I am so grateful to the readers who read Cassie’s story, loved it, and took the time to reach out to me.  I’m grateful to those who have chosen to review and champion in.  Most of all, I’m grateful that through my imperfect yet earnest way, The Waco Variations is out there reminding people that healing can occur and the through the notes of great music we can touch grace.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

An Interview With Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist")

During my recent visit to London, I had the opportunity to sit down and share a drink and a chat with Frances Wilson.  This multi-talented woman has long been one of my blogging heroes who through email and social media has become a friend.  Over the course of an hour, we never stopped talking.  For all her successes, Frances is humble, funny, and warm--a person with whom you want to share a drink and a laugh.   

Frances generously agreed to share her thoughts on the many aspects of her successful career, as well as this video of her sensitive, musical playing.  For more of her wit and wisdom, follow her on social media and through her blog https://crosseyedpianist.com

With over 20,000 visitors per month, and a number of awards/nominations, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, is one of the world’s most widely-read classical music blogs.  What inspired you to launch it, and how has it evolved since you started it in 2010? 

It started initially as a place where I could record thoughts about the music I was playing, studying and enjoying at concerts. I had returned to playing the piano seriously after an absence of 20 years and a blog rather than an old-fashioned pencil and notebook seemed a useful way to track my progress. I’d already had some experience of blogging through my food blog Demon Cook so the initial set up process was easy. I felt the site needed an eye-catching, memorable title but beyond that I didn’t really think about readership/audience or a specific theme or USP. When I started out I never expected it to become as widely-read or recognized as it is now. I write about subjects which interest me and I hope that others might be interested too. But I also realized early on that a good blog takes time and commitment and should not lie fallow. I have always tried to offer varied articles, but with a main focus on the piano and pianists, and I launched the Meet the Artist series in 2012 because I felt it would be interesting for readers to have some insight “beyond the notes” of the lives of classical musicians. This series has in itself developed and evolved (and again, I never expected this!) and now has its own dedicated website (www.meettheartist.site)

You blog, write concert reviews, work as a publicist, host piano lessons on Pianist TV, run an Air BnB, play the piano, and probably three other things I didn’t think to list.  How do you manage it all, and what project excites you the most right now? 

People ask me this quite often! The truth is I’m someone who thrives on activity and plenty of variety, so I’m rarely bored. Routine is also very important (see Mason Currey’s book on the daily rituals of creative people) as it enables me to structure my days to fit in the various strands of my working - and not working - life. I am rather boringly strict about my daily routine and tend to get up at the same time every day. Curiously, this actually allows me to do things spontaneously and I feel able to take on new projects. 

As a freelancer, I am reluctant to turn down work, but I always try and select projects which interest and stimulate me. Everything I do is related to music in some way (except the AirBnB hosting, although I have hosted some musicians!) and I feel that these various activities feed into one big melting pot which informs my writing, my own music making and my teaching.

Recently, I’ve really been enjoying the publicity work I’ve been doing for British cellist Joy Lisney. I first encountered her when she was still a teenager and was very impressed by her mature approach to her music making. She also has a remarkable stage presence, which largely comes from her sound rather than gesture. Drawing attention to her activities (she is also a composer and fledgling conductor) has given me some insights into the workings of the UK classical music world, and also the world of PR. I’ve always been a good administrator (I worked as a PA in a publishing company before I had my son and turned into a musician/writer) and I find the minutiae of managing publicity – contacting press, liaising with venues, producing marketing material like press releases and leaflets – very satisfying. It’s also very interesting to see the industry from another perspective.

As a pianist you know how vulnerable it feels to walk out on stage and play for an audience.  How has this knowledge influenced your work as a concert reviewer?

A number of musicians whom I’ve reviewed and subsequently met have commented upon my sympathetic approach. As a pianist myself, I appreciate the sheer amount of work, attention to detail and careful practising which goes in to preparing for a concert, along with all the other aspects which need to be honed and finessed, and I feel this gives me a deeper understanding of the processes involved in performance. I do think many audiences believe it all magically comes out of the fingers due to natural talent, when in fact it takes many hours, days and weeks of hard graft. 

So when I review, I do not believe it is my job (nor indeed any other reviewer or critic’s) to tell the musicians how to do their job. Instead, I feel a review should be a record of the event, and should attempt to recreate the experience of the live concert for the reader. I would rather not write a review if I am likely to say something overly negative, as I appreciate musicians can be sensitive – and everyone is allowed to have an “off day” for whatever reason.

You’ve been extremely generous and helpful to fellow bloggers and musicians like myself.  Who inspired you when you were new to blogging and reviewing, and how do you think being helpful to other writers and musicians has benefited your work?

I think the blog which inspired me the most when I was first starting out was by Susan Tomes, a British pianist and writer. I also liked Stephen Hough’s blog for the Daily Telegraph (sadly no more). They both write in an honest and accessible way about the myriad exigencies of life as a musician and tend not to make distinctions between the professional and amateur, which is inspiring and supportive. I don’t generally read other people’s reviews, though I have always preferred “long form” reviews on independent review sites and blogs rather than those in the mainstream press (where arts coverage is being squeezed, sadly)

It quickly became apparent that my own blog was a way of connecting with others – fellow bloggers and writers, musicians, concert-goers, and music lovers – and I have always enjoyed the interactions which come from these connections. They can spark new ideas for articles and create the sense of an ongoing conversation which I find very stimulating. I have a rule for internet interaction which is “tweet as you would be tweeted by”: if one is pleasant and generous online it definitely reaps rewards. 

On a more practical level, my blogging has led to a variety of paid roles, including writing for other music websites and magazines, publicity work, and teaching.

What advice would you give to young pianists who are struggling to build sustainable careers?

This is similar to one of the questions on my Meet the Artist interview questionnaire and when I read responses from other musicians there seems to be a common answer to this question which is “Be yourself”, coupled with very down-to-earth advice about working hard, being a good colleague, and finding your own musical identity. It is very very hard, the industry is highly competitive, and often quite cut-throat. Today it is not enough to be good, one has to be exceptional – and not just musically exceptional. You have to be prepared to graft, to market and promote yourself, and do a lot of your own leg work. So my advice, based on my interactions with young people in conservatoire or those just starting out on their careers, is to work hard, don’t look at what others are doing and think “maybe I should be doing that”, try to create your own artistic identity, and be prepared to have a “portfolio career” (teaching, even working outside of music). Oh and don’t accept every gig that’s going just because it’s a gig. Be a little discerning if you can – this can help maintain a sense of your own artistic integrity - and make sure you get paid!

Frances Wilson is a pianist, music reviewer, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Established in 2010, The Cross-Eyed Pianist has become “an important voice in the piano world” (Peter Donohoe, international concert pianist) and enjoys a wide global readership. Frances is also a regular writer for Hong Kong-based classical music site InterludeHK and a content creator for classical music streaming service IDAGIO. She writes an occasional column on aspects of piano playing for Pianist magazine’s online content, and has acted as a syllabus consultant for all three major UK music exam boards. She has also appeared on BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters programme with Tom Service to discuss the effect of the internet on music criticism today.

Frances returned to the piano after a 20-year absence and subsequently completed two professional performance diplomas (both with distinction) in her late 40s. A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, in 2013 she co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group which organizes performance platforms and workshops for adult pianists in and around London. 

Frances lives in Dorset, SW England with her husband, cat and a 1913 Bechstein grand piano, known affectionately as “Bechy”. 

Twitter @crosseyedpiano

Monday, May 13, 2019

An Open Letter to Composers: 6 Reasons Why I Didn't Play Your Piece

Dear Composer:
It’s an accepted fact: most classical pianists prefer to play tried and true masterpieces by famous composers who have been dead for at least 100 years.  It’s frequently what arts presenters want to book us to play, and it’s what audiences understand. The few of us who prefer to play brand new music face daunting challenges—not only do we have the challenge of co-creating a piece of music we’ve never heard before, we must also convince concert presenters and audiences to listen to it and appreciate it too.   And sometimes, no matter how much we may love a composer’s piece, we simply can’t commit to programming it.  Over the years many composers have asked me why I haven’t performed pieces they’ve written; while I can’t speak for all pianists, here are some of my reasons:
The piece is too long. There are several multi-movement works in my music closet that I’d love to play but know I can never convince a concert presenter to allow me to program because they’re just too long.  Most of my audiences are classical music lovers who want a little dash of something new thrown into a musical meal of something they recognize.  If you want me to perform your pieces, send me shorter works.

The piece is too abstract.  This may label me a Philistine, but if the composition doesn’t have a tune and a beat, I don’t connect well with it and (as a result) neither does the audience.

The piece doesn’t fit with the rest of my program. I do most of my concert programming with the idea of creating a seamless experience for the audience because, let’s face it, we’re all in show business.

I’m in a stylistic “phase.” Composers go through compositional “phases”; pianists do as well.  Several years ago I couldn’t play enough tangos.  For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with pieces that blend minimalism and edgy rhythms, as well as stuff that sits on the line between classical and jazz.  Tomorrow? Who knows?

The piece is too hard. I hate admitting to this one, but sometimes the score is so daunting that I can’t muster the enthusiasm to spend a year of my life learning it.  Other times, physical limitations (such as small hands) keep me from being able to do the music justice.

It’s not your best work. Few composers write masterpieces every time they compose.  If the latest piece you’ve sent me doesn’t seem to do you justice as a composer, I simply don’t perform it.  I may be wrong about the piece’s quality, but if I’m not, you’ll thank me for this someday.

This humble pianist wants to “do right” by my composer friends.  I'm grateful for the chance to bring a new composition to life, and I live for those moments when I succeed in catching your vision of the music.  Keep writing, but be patient with my limitations. The next piece just might be that perfect match.

Your biggest fan

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Tango in Edinburgh by Cynthia Stillman Gerdes

Born in Buenos Aires and quickly adopted around the world, the tango was once described as “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.”  Playing it should feel like an improvisation--just the same way that the Argentinian tango is danced.  It's the pianist and the piano and the interplay of notes--sensuous, slinky, unapologetic. Despite the meticulously detailed score, A Tango in Edinburgh needs to be played from the senses, not the brain; instinct, not reason.

Composer  and pianist Cynthia Stillman Gerdes is an experienced tango dancer.  It shows in the lines of this piece.  Propelled by an active bass, the right hand becomes the showy, flamboyant follower—much like the relationship between the male and female dancers.  This tango is a musical memory of a dance she shared with a stranger in Edinburgh and Cynthia’s description of that night is so evocative that I needed to share it, in her own words: 

That May night in Edinburgh, Scotland the music was more sensual, complex and subtle compared to our usual tango scene. Being a composer/musician I loved it.

We were surprised how the dancers warmly welcomed us as distant American “cousins”. The whole evening was fun; however, there was one especially unforgettable, juicy, smooth tanda…  

"A Tango In Edinburgh" is an honoring of those special, fleeting connections with a stranger. Romantic? Well...maybe. My “traveling partner” didn’t seem to mind. He found his own tango pleasures that evening.

To learn more about Cynthia Stillman Gerdes and to purchase a copy: http://www.cynthiastillmangerdes.com