Sunday, December 29, 2013

Your Personal Mission Statement

It helps a business define its core purpose and goals. It is the guiding principle of an organization. What is it?  A mission statement.  Businesses typically have these to delineate their range of activities as well as to guide future decisions.  You can usually find an organization’s mission statements on its website listed under their “About” or “Mission” header.

What does a mission statement have to do with being a composer or musician?  Everything!  Just like an organization, we too have activities that comprise our core purpose (be it composing or music-making), as well as goals for our future (such as composing an opera or winning an audition for a professional orchestra).  And similar to companies, we should have a mission statement to keep us focused on our current activities while also taking steps now to ensure the realization of our future goals.

The first step to writing your personal mission statement is to research how companies write theirs.  What kind of activities does each organization cover?  How general or specific do they get in defining these activities?  Here are three great examples of mission statements from Chicago organizations, each of which has approached their statement in a slightly different manner (click on each header to view their webpages):

Chicago a cappella is a creative enterprise devoted to furthering the art of singing together without instruments.”  Chicago a cappella follows this with their ensemble biography.

“Fifth House Ensemble taps the collaborative spirit of chamber music to create engaging performances and interactive educational programs, forging meaningful partnerships with unexpected venues, artists of other disciplines, educational institutions, and audiences of every type.”  Fifth House then lists their five core values that support their mission statement.

“Cedille Chicago is dedicated to producing classical recordings of the highest quality featuring outstanding musicians from Chicago. Our purpose is to enhance the world’s catalog of recorded music by exploring new and under-represented compositions and documenting important interpretations of standard repertoire. The extensive dissemination of these recordings is designed to bring these artists to a worldwide audience, thus enhancing their reputations and careers, and to benefit as great a listening public as possible.”  Notice how Cedille’s mission statement starts with a broad sentence, then fleshes out its mission in the second and third sentences.  Cedille follows this with a section on their history.

Once you’ve researched a few organizations, make a list of what kind(s) of music you’re creating and/or performing, as well as the your range of musical activities.  Add your goals to this list, both short- and long-term (think of this in terms of projects that you want to do in the next 12 months, in the next 5 years, and in your lifetime).  Now that you’ve got a list, figure out what are the most salient details that comprise what you do and use these to craft your mission statement. Revisit your mission statement every so often to see if you still agree with it; tweak it as your goals shift over the course of your career.

Your personal mission statement is something that you can keep private, or can be incorporated in part or full into your official biography that you post on your website, in concert programs, etc. Ultimately, think of your personal mission statement as a rudder that can help navigate the course of your musical career, keeping you focused on your short- and long-term goals as you go.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is all self-promotion shameless?

When I was an undergraduate composition student at the University of Michigan, I observed two composers who were masters of self-promotion: Michael Daugherty, my composition teacher, and Derek Bermel, a graduate composition student.  Both had the confidence and ability to walk up to just about anyone and engage them in a conversation about their music.  Both composers’ promotional abilities were amazing to watch, and very difficult for me to emulate.  Granted, I hadn’t been composing as long as either Daugherty or Bermel to have much experience in promotion, nor did I have as many pieces to peddle.  But it was more than this – I was very shy and found it painfully hard to talk up my music to others.  Over the years, I came to terms with my shyness, and have found my own groove for promotion given my personal strengths and limitations: I employ a mix of email cold calls, monthly newsletters, meetings over coffee, and good, old-fashioned concert-going and hand-shaking.

Exploring my own past makes me wonder, what constitutes “shameless” self-promotion?  Are all forms of self-promotion shameless?  What’s non-shameless?  And by whose measurement?  Let’s consider an example.  A fictitious composer writes several new works.  No one knows the music exists except for a few of the composer’s friends and family.  He decides to program the works at a local venue that he rents for an evening.  He then starts a social media campaign via Facebook, Twitter, and emails with an increase in announcements during the weeks leading up to the concert.  He purchases advertising time on a local classical music station, hangs posters at some local universities and stores, and sends out personal invites to music critics and supporters.  Is anything that I’ve listed shameless, or just good business?  Or is shameless doing something beyond what I’ve described? 

Over the years, I have met several individuals that expressed the opinion that if someone is a composer, then this must mean that he/she shamelessly self-promotes.  There are certainly people out there (and not just composers) who many would feel go over the line; for instance, they hound concert presenters via emails and phone calls to be programmed on a concert series, sometimes multiple times per year (or even per month).  While it is important to get one’s name in front of presenters so they remember you when they make their programming decisions, at what moment do your actions cross the line?   

Each of us should occasionally assess how much self-promotion we’re doing, and how people are responding to it.  If you are very aggressive in your promotion, but find your attempts aren’t turning into that many performances, then perhaps you need to tone it down.  Alternately, if you aren’t getting a lot of performances and aren’t promoting your work at all, then you need to step it up.  Ultimately, we all need to find our own self-promotion groove that not only works for us, but also for those we are trying to interest in our music.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hey Jealousy: Learning from our perceived rivals

The Gin Blossoms, Black Crowes, and John Lennon have sung about it.  Ross and Rachel’s relationship on the popular 1990s TV show “Friends” was constantly thrown into turmoil over it.  Siblings struggle with it daily.  We have all experienced it, but often have a hard time acknowledging it – jealousy.  In the professional world, this occurs in a variety of manners, but can be more or less distilled into a single thought: why is he (or she) getting that opportunity instead of me?

I first experienced this thought when I came face-to-face with other young composers in college (it is easy to be a big fish in the “little pond” of high school when you’re the only composer in town… until you move to a much bigger pond).  On the surface, it looked to me like my peers weren’t doing anything different than what I was doing, and yet they and their music were getting a lot more attention.  I failed to realize two important points: 1. Those composers undoubtedly worked A LOT behind the scenes to promote their music; and 2. I could learn from these people and make their opportunities become mine too.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a strategy for getting past jealousy: research the composer who’s getting the opportunities.  Check out his biography.  Do you recognize all of the competitions he’s won?  Are there ensembles or musicians that you’ve not heard of?  Do you see any connections from one achievement to the next, such as a conductor who performed the piece with a few ensembles?  Try listening to the composer’s music.  Does it do something unique that you find interesting?  Then turn your research into action: do internet searches on anything you don’t know; enter all competitions you qualify for; find out if those ensembles program new music on a regular basis and might be open to getting materials from you.  Even try composing using musical parameters gleamed from the music and see if this leads you to compose in a new direction.

Like Ross repeatedly experienced on “Friends,” no good can come from jealousy.  I’d also suggest the same is true about passive behavior.  So try taking a proactive approach.  Congratulate your colleagues when they win a prestigious award or receive a notable commission. Then learn how they got the opportunity.  Ultimately, careers are a mixture of great composition skills, a strong business sense, a healthy amount of networking and concert-going, and research.  Jealousy has no place in this mix.