Musicians frequently develop rigid ideas about what they should and can do with their artistic lives. Too often, these priorities are based on “normal” familiar paradigms, rather than burning desires inspired by creative imaginations. Such limited viewpoints often prohibit us from realizing meaningful and productive activities, even though we fool ourselves into believing the opposite.
Are you an artist able to contribute and thrive under any circumstances? Are you aware of your full potential? Below are two questions designed to challenge your convictions and broaden your persective. But before reading on, write down the following:
If it were impossible to build a career through your top two employment preferences, what would you do?
Many musicians consider only a couple career options for themselves. For example, I’ve spoken with hundreds of performers who hope to land an orchestra gig. “If that doesn’t work out, I’ll teach college,” they explain. And beyond that…well…they have no idea. There are no other viable paths imaginable.
Now, for people who want these jobs more than anything, I sincerely hope their aspirations come to fruition. However, both aforementioned fields are extremely competitive, with far more qualified applicants than positions. What if, for some reason, things don’t work out? What options will you have? Are there other meaningful ways to create a career through music? Or what if the “dream job” turns out to be a nightmare, at least for you? What then?
One feature that impresses me about entrepreneurs is their flexibility. If a project fails, they try something else. There are countless stories of seasoned entrepreneurs who lose everything after having it all. But an impressive new empire is erected in their next act. Regardless of environment, these individuals somehow find ways to triumph. Life success (as opposed to a singular enterprise) is the ultimate goal. And they’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Yet another reason for musicians to think like entrepreneurs.
If you were no longer able to utilize your primary musical skill, what roles would you play as an artist?
I was actually faced with this scenario when participating in a residency called Asian Pacific Performance Exchange (APPEX) in 2006. This program hosted 18 musicians and dancers from the United States and Asia for a month and a half, providing an inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural environment. During the first week, I had no access to my instrument (piano). Forced to consider what to contribute without the luxury of hiding behind my ‘axe,’ it was a terrifying but liberating experience. Was I a singer? A percussionist? An actor? A prop? A project coordinator? A leader? One colleague later joked he was glad to know me first as a dancer!!!! (Though I’ve always considered myself a horrible and awkward mover, my first ‘artistic’ engagement was indeed boogieing at a 4th of July block party.) This experience resulted in tremendous personal growth as I re-imagined my artistic worth.
There are artists who have been confronted with this predicament on more serious levels. For example, the jazz musician David Baker was an up-and-coming trombone star when his lip was irreparably injured in a car accident. Not one to give up on his artistic inclinations, he learned cello, and built a career as a composer, string player, teacher, and author. Even without his original primary musical skill, he flourished.
Who are you as a creative artist beyond your main thing? What are you capable of accomplishing? Imagine how many options would open up by embracing your full capacity.
Here’s another variation:
If you found yourself in a room with accomplished performers from across the globe, none of whom read music, what role would you play?
Some classically trained players—products of perhaps the only musical tradition on Earth that doesn’t prioritize improvisation—would be stuck. Don’t let that be you. Are you an artist who adds an important voice to any conversation?
These questions are unexpected and challenging. They might require serious soul-searching. But by identifying creative answers, you may illuminate a world of new and wonderful opportunity.
Go ahead. Open Pandora’s Box. Imagine your full promise as an artist. Sometimes the best way to do this is by eliminating your greatest aspirations and skills (and therefore crutches) from the discussion. At least for a moment.