Perhaps all of this
talk about our students knowing how to do something is moot–after all, I’ve
heard the argument that “our students learn what they need to despite what
we teach them,” and this is largely true. Most musicians I know (myself included)
haven’t had much in terms of entrepreneurship training, and yet we figure out
how to get our music performed or how to find performances.
An assignment I’ve
put into my music entrepreneurship class is a travel funding assignment. It’s
pretty open ended–Assume that you’re going to a professional conference and
you’d like to ask for funding. How do you construct a budget, and how do you
present a case for how much funding you need?
It’s a fairly
straightforward assignment: Look up airfare or mileage, look up hotels, list
your fixed costs like registration, and figure out a way to ask for per diem.
These are all very obvious things–if you already know how to do them.
Some assumptions we
operate under, and some mistakes my students have made on this assignment:
Flights are usually listed round-trip, as a total. Hotels are usually listed per-night. I’ve had students not realize that they have a 5-day conference and they have a one-night hotel stay.
There is a federal mileage reimbursement rate that many organizations use. If you claim mileage, or if you estimate your gas costs, make sure you calculate mileage there AND back.
If your hotel doesn’t offer a shuttle, then you have to get from the airport to the hotel somehow.
If you have oversize luggage (say, an instrument) then that’s another cost.
Trivial mistakes to
make on a class assignment. Disastrous if you’re on an actual trip. Compounded
even more so if the trip is international.
I’m writing a piece
for the NDSU Clarinet Choir, which they’ll perform at ClarinetFest 2020 in
Reno, Nevada. Well, I mean, I’m not actually writing it this very minute, I’m
writing this blog post. But I have been writing it. Except when I haven’t been.
Which has been a lot.
This post isn’t so
much a list of excuses so much as it is an exploration into the creative
procrastination that goes into writing.
I didn’t want to
start the piece until January–I finished the percussion quartet in
mid-December, and wanted to take a break. By the time I ended up getting back
to Fargo and got settled in, it was already the 10th, with classes starting the
I had no idea what
the clarinet choir piece was going to look like, so the first several days of
writing were just bouncing ideas around. I ended up with this weird musical
line in my head, which reminded me of some song I heard in college, and I
wanted to make sure I wasn’t ripping it off. That resulted in several days of
trying to remember what that song was.
It ended up being
Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. And the line stuck in my head ended up
resembling this not at all. Score one for me.
So that line I
heard, I still haven’t worked into the piece, because every time I start
thinking about where it could fit in, it merges with MacArthur Park. I had
never actually listened to the lyrics of MacArthur park until I listened
through trying to figure out where it fit in.
Part of this time
has been spent looking for other clarinet choir pieces.
There’s a lot of
transcriptions, but not a lot of pieces originally for clarinet choir. So
inspiration is scarce. The NDSU Clarinet Choir will be playing Schickele’s
Monochrome III and Curtis’s Klezmer Triptych, so I know what else is on the
And I almost know
how this piece is going to go too.
All throughout my college career and the beginning of my teaching career, I never had a good system for keeping track of research–after all, my experience was in composing instead of research.
Within the past couple of years, I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me: Index cards.
As I read through books, I mark particularly interesting passages by earmarking pages and margin notes. Getting over the idea of writing in books took a while. When finished, I copy the passages onto index cards, note the author/title/page number, and give the card a sequential number.
Back to music projects. Some of the things we do in the music curriculum are essential operational knowledge, such as theory, history, and aural skills. While we can (and often do) put together projects as assignments, the importance is primarily the underlying knowledge, not the “how to” part. Working musicians need theoretical, aural, and historical knowledge as a skill, not necessarily as a project in itself. As such, the business suggestions mentioned earlier don’t necessarily track.
Lessons, Concerts, and Compositions are all musical projects where the process is repeated: the work is never done. Composers don’t write one piece and quit, performers don’t just give one recital. These are (usually) discrete events that must be repeated to make a musician’s career.
And yet, this is the part that it appears we don’t teach. We have students give recitals, but are we teaching students how to give recitals?
I say appears, because all I see is the result. Perhaps our students are being taught a project-based view of the music curriculum, but they’re not internalizing it, and by extension they’re not displaying it.
One of the things that I like about my job (and I mentioned this earlier) is that I get to have ideas that other people don’t, by virtue of being a composer in a music department. Since most of my job is creating things, I get to think about things in a different way. Often I refer to this as throwing “smoke bombs.”
You think you know how things work, and then someone makes a
suggestion and it reframes your idea of how things work. That’s a smoke bomb.
I got to try this out recently in a committee meeting. We
were discussing general education requirements and how we could rework an undergraduate
certificate. The idea came up of how we structure the program, and how to get
faculty buy-in for keeping track of another list of classes, and different
hoops to jump through.
After sitting for a while, I suggested the idea that we make
the certificate student directed. What if the students put together their
curriculum and we approved it on an individual basis, rather than doing all of
the work to create a unified standardized curriculum. This was not a terrific idea,
but the conversation that happened after I made the suggestion was
substantially different. The smoke bomb that I threw changed the nature of how
we thought about the problem and how we might find a solution.
This isn’t all that different from the work that I do in
composition. Students bring in different ideas, and by and large it is my job
to give them other ideas that might interact with the ideas they have. Often
the ideas that I suggest are painfully obvious to the student once I say them.
It’s not that they would not would not have come up with the
idea on their own, but they needed a second set of eyes, a second pair of ears,
or a second brain to make that obviousness known to them.
I never had the chance to take a music entrepreneurship class or a music business class in college. Drury was too small, and Oklahoma at the time wasn’t interested in such things. And with a school the size of OU, there’s a diversity of thought, and unfortunately a fair amount of thought I saw rejected music as a commercial enterprise. If you wanted to do commercial music, there was the Academy of Contemporary Music in OKC, if you want to find out how to make money with your art, well, we don’t really do that here.
This wasn’t stated, and it may even have been a minority view, but it was my perception. And I think I understand the idea. I made a conscious decision early on that I wouldn’t pursue algorithmic composition, despite my interests in both music composition and programming. My reasoning was that I wanted my art–the creative process itself–to be as organic as possible, and all the other parts of being a composer (marketing, self-promotion, deciding what to compose, etc.) should be as systematized as possible.
I happened upon–and quickly integrated–a quote by Gustave Flaubet: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
The question, it would appear, is where to draw the line between work and life.
After two and a half years, I’m finally giving my first faculty recital at NDSU, featuring all music written in North Dakota.
The planned program is:
The Notes Between The Notes – My song cycle featuring poems by Jamie Parsley. Michelle Gelinske (who premiered the cycle nearly a year ago) wasn’t able to perform in February, so Dr. Kelly Burns, our new voice faculty member, will be performing the cycle with Dr. Amy Mercer.
Next up is the world premiere of Tape Piece, a tape piece featuring…tape sounds.
We’ll round out the evening with the world premiere of Calibrating the Moon, commissioned and premiered by Connor Challey, and featuring Dr. Tyler Wottrich on piano.
The recital poster also features North Dakota:
I hope to see you at Beckwith Recital Hall at NDSU, on February 10 at 7:30 PM!
I don’t want to give the impression that we should blow up the music curriculum. There’s a lot we have to go through in not a lot of time.
Some of the things we have to address in the music curriculum: Grammar and/or Math (Music Theory), Fluency (Aural Skills), History (Musicology), Individual Technical and Artistic ability (Lessons), small group work (chamber music), large group work (ensembles), performance practice (recitals), and then for music education majors there’s a universe of ed classes.
Engineering doesn’t necessarily include history of science. Communication doesn’t go all the way back to grammar. We cover a lot of ground in a four-year music degree–we assume that all students read music starting out, but it’s not an absolute requirement.
But even with these challenges, there are still opportunities for entrepreneurial music teaching. There’s another problem.
Thinking back to the
list of things from the College of Business, they’re all project- or
product-driven. You don’t need Idea Generation for existing, you need Idea
Generation for improvement or for something new.
In Music, every new
composition is a project that requires Idea Generation, Business Model
creation, Audience identification, and so on.
In Music, every
concert is a project that requires the same or more.
In Music, every
ensemble is a project that requires the same or more.
In Music, every
lesson is a project that requires the same or more.
Some of the suggestions that the College of Business suggested we change or include in Music Entrepreneurship involve the following topics:
Creation, and Evolution.
As I mentioned, my
knee-jerk reaction was “But we don’t DO this in music!” And that
tapped in to the issue I have with a lot of books on music
entrepreneurship–several that I’ve read are along the lines of “You’re a
musician already! Here’s how to write a business plan!” (more on this
Getting this list
from the College of Business (and to be clear, the list was far more detailed
and informative than what I’ve included–I’ve excerpted to protect their ideas
and mine) forced me to question why we don’t do some of those things, and it started
becoming clear that we should.