Reality Check: Professionalism and Entrepreneurship

October 31, 2004

As a freelance trombonist in Los Angeles, I have observed many musicians recently graduated from university programs. Many have abundant skills and are perfectly qualified to be .... music students. A substantially smaller number possess a professional mindset. Are we, in higher education, doing all that we can to prepare our new graduates to be young professionals, not just perfect students? I believe that we can give our students a great gift by fostering an awareness of the reality of the professional worldboth its challenges and its opportunities.

The first challenge awaiting new graduates is that they will now be competing with professionals, not their fellow students. Professionals are passionate about their art and the pursuit of excellence, are experienced in the delivery of musical services, have a network of fellow pros, and are highly motivated by the need to pay their bills. How does one begin to enter this world? Bass trombone legend George Roberts once gave me this marvelous advice: Shut your mouth; Play great; Smile a lot; and Listen. One cannot overemphasize the need to have a good attitude, to be a flexible and consistent performer, and to be the kind of person that people want to be around. Listening and observing are key skills as we learn how to place our individual talents into a group context. The most successful professionals are those who value the knowledge of the older generations and who have found a variety of ways to tap into that expertise as they further their own development.

A second challenge is to develop the capacity to serve others. In higher education, students are in an environment that has been designed to serve them and their needs. Following graduation, nobody will be serving themtheir ability to make a living will depend on what they can do for others. As interim Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado in 2002-03, and more recently, teaching in the Music Business program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, I have frequently used the Five Questions posed by my teacher and mentor Peter Drucker in The Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool as a means of helping students to think systematically about personal and organizational effectiveness. The questions are: What is my mission? Who is my customer? What does my customer value? What are my results? What is my plan?

In discussing the two questions above related to the customer, I ask students and workshop participants to define customers as those persons (or concepts) whom we serve. I use myself as an example. Playing bass trombone in an orchestra, I serve: the principal trombonist, the trombone section, other principal players, the brass section, the orchestra, the conductor, the audience, the composer, the music itself, my personal artistic vision, the promoter, the contractor who hired me, etc. Once the customers are identified, it is necessary to ask, What do these people expect from me as a professional? Am I giving them what they want and what they need? What information do I need to serve them effectively? What are my priorities in serving a number of people and their needs (as well as my artistic integrity) in a balanced way? Whether performing for an audience, recording, teaching students, defending a dissertation, presenting a workshop, auditioning for an orchestra committee, composing, conducting, writing a grant, or meeting with prospective employers, parents, faculty committees, alumni, or community members, one must thoughtfully consider those who are being served and what it is that they value.

To entrepreneurs, a reality check is a good thingthey see the changing marketplace as an opportunity rather than a threat. Of this we can be certain: the world of the music professional will be different in ten years (or in five years, or in one) than it is now. Increasingly, therefore, those who succeed as entrepreneurs will be those who are able to adapt and to thrive in the face of change. Peter Drucker states that The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity. He notes that Entrepreneurs will have to practice systematic innovation, and he defines innovation as change that creates a new dimension of performance. Our students will benefit if we ask them to think like entrepreneurs. They should know their strengths, define their values, and discover the areas where they can combine expertise and passion. They should understand the marketplace and their competition. Then, they can find their uniqueness and their niche. Of course, they will have to make a plan, actually give something a try, and learn from the results!

Great musicians are great listeners. So are successful entrepreneurs. Just as we listen and learn when we hear an exquisite musical phrase, we should also be listening for opportunity. We should always pay attention when we hear the words: Someone ought to and then ask ourselves, Could I do that? We should learn career lessons from successful musicians and, in fact, from anyone who is good at what they do. Successful musical entrepreneurs are all around us; we just need to be observant.

Programs in professional development and entrepreneurship benefit all who are involved. When students have prepared themselves for the professional world, their success will contribute to the arts and society. Successful alumni add to the prestige, relevance, and viability of the music programs from which they graduated, thereby enhancing recruitment opportunities. While at the University of Colorado, I found prospective students and their parents to be keenly interested in the services of the Entrepreneurship Center, and many were quick to note that they had not found similar programs when they visited other universities.

How can music programs help students to begin defining themselves as professionals? They can do so through:

  • Courses in professional development and entrepreneurship.
  • Guest speakers and workshops.
  • Advising.
  • Providing resources for job searches and other career information.
  • Entrepreneurship and grant-writing competitions.

Whether or not your music program has an entrepreneurship or career center, there are cost-effective ways to get students thinking about professionalism. Music faculties have many multifaceted entrepreneurs who can be enlisted for presentations. Alumni are often willing to speak. Ask your guest artists to describe how they made the journey from college to where they are today.

An excellent place to learn more about these issues is the conference of the Network of Music Career Development Officers. Manhattan School of Musics John Blanchard and New England Conservatorys Angela Beeching will co-host the event at the Manhattan School on January 11-12, 2005.

We musicians are experts at developing our talent. We hone a complex set of individual skills and place those skills into a variety of organizational contexts every day. We possess the abilities required to become entrepreneurs who excel in the professional world. We just need to think about it and to pay attention to the challenges and the opportunities ahead of us. Do our new graduates still want to be students? Or professionals? Lets help them to make the transition.

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