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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Fear...and entrepreneurship

Last week I attended the Network of Music Career Development Officers which, despite its somewhat inelegant name, is the best conference I attend all year.  (NET-MC-DO, as it is called, is really more like a retreat, and never fails to result in concrete things to implement, ponder, and explore. I highly recommend it to all interested parties in the field of professional development for musicians.)

Since the conference is held at the Manhattan School of Music, this year the organizers decided we should break up into small groups and talk directly with students about what they feel they need to get from their education in terms of preparation for their professional life after school. What came out of these discussions was interesting, not so much because there was new information but because it reinforced and confirmed what I’ve observed and heard from students here at CU and at music schools I visit across the country. While my evidence is anecdotal, I’ve been able to amass an awful lot of such evidence over the last 4-1/2 years, enough to draw what I think are some pretty reliable conclusions about how students view the topic of professional preparation (broadly defined as any and all combinations of career skills, baseline business knowledge, and entrepreneurial thinking). It’s important information to have for those faculty and institutions wanting to launch entrepreneurship programs or enhance the ones they already have.

Here’s how it shakes down. The vast majority of students I’ve encountered (or whom my colleagues have encountered) recognize that career skills and entrepreneurship are important things for them to learn, but nevertheless don’t avail themselves of the resources at their school. The two main reasons for this that we hear repeatedly are: 1) they are already so busy practicing and attending to their degree requirements that they just don’t feel they have the time, and/or 2) they figure they’ll learn these skills “later” (this attitude is especially prevalent amongst undergraduates, for whom continued school is usually a given). As you can see from the pie chart below, this is roughly 50% of students.

The other 50% of students divides more or less equally between the approximately 25% who are motivated to acquire these skills now while they are in school (and thus engage with programs & course offerings) and those who are actively hostile to the notion of engaging in study of anything other than music.

It’s this last group – the “fear group” – that intrigues me (and grieves me) the most. After all, the central 50% group can be reached through outreach, requiring courses, and partnering with studio teachers to encourage their students not to put off their professional development. And the 25% (give or take) that are already engaged can also be extremely helpful ambassadors in reaching their peers. But what do we do with the fear group?

I met one such student in my focus group at the Manhattan School. We had four students in our circle, three of whom conceded that this was important but just didn’t feel they had the time and “brain-width” to think about this “extra thing.” The fourth student had been quiet since we had gone around and introduced ourselves, and I noted that he seemed uncomfortable during the discussion. So I asked him what he thought about all this.

He shifted around for a moment and then said, “I don’t think we should study this stuff.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I just want to be able to make music and not worry about anything else. I’m here to study music, not learn about all these other things. I didn’t come here to study business.”

I was suddenly aware that everyone else in the circle – students and career development colleagues alike – was keenly listening to our conversation. It was like everyone was holding their breath: we had engaged the elephant in the room, as it were.

“What would you like to do with your career?" I asked.

“I’m a performer and a composer, so I want to write and perform my own music.”

“Okay, good!” I then made sure I asked this next question in a quiet and non-threatening way. “Have you given any thought to how you’ll accomplish that?”

He sort of scowled and said, “I shouldn’t have to worry about that.”

“Why is that?”

“Because then I’ll be making music just to make a buck and I’ll end up having to sell out.”

And there it was, the two most dreaded words in music school: sell out. When students use that word I press them to define what they mean by that, and after some digging we usually discover that many students believe that the only way to have a successful career is to compromise their art. The assumption underlying this belief is that there is no market for what they want to do, and therefore they must do something else if they are to reach a market large enough to sustain them financially. I then ask them to name great artists in their field whom they admire and if those artists have “sold out,” which in turn helps them see that they’ve made a false assumption about what it takes to have “success.” (This conversation can also lead into an equally important dialogue about the meaning of “success” overall, but that’s another post.)

In this case, however, no sooner had we gotten to the core issue than our moderator rang the bell and announced that the students were going to have to go to their next class. As we stood up and the students gathered their backpacks and instruments, I went up to this young man and said this:

“Hi. I realize you don’t know me from Adam, and I hope I didn’t put you on the spot back there, but I want to suggest a different way of looking at this issue. What if you looked at your art and connecting that art to an audience as one thing? Rather than looking at your art over here,” I stretched out my right hand, “And ‘business stuff’ over here…” I stretched out my left. “Why not look at all of it as a single creative endeavor?” I brought my hands together and interlinked my fingers. “What if building your career was just another creative challenge, instead of something that will work against the art you want to create? Creating a career is just a creative extension of the art itself, not some opposing, corrupting force. I’d like to challenge you to think about that.”

“Okay,” he said, albeit a bit reluctantly.

“And please, if nothing else, always remember this: your artistic integrity, your best, most uniquely-YOU work, is both your most valuable artistic asset and your most valuable business asset. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. I hope you’ll remember that.”

“I will,” he said.

“Good!” I clapped him on the shoulder and wished him luck.

This encounter has stuck with me in the days following the conference. If I believed this student was an outlier I might have an easier time letting go of it, but I’ve encountered this attitude countless times before. And it truly grieves my heart to think students like him are going to go out into the world and run face-first into a very rude, very painful reality.

It also grieves me because all too often we’re not doing enough as educators to address this fear – for fear it most certainly is. During another session of the conference we were asked to identify the top needs we encounter amongst our students. I called out, “Relieve anxiety” and noises of assent rippled across the room. Our students are filled with anxiety, filled with fear about what their future holds. Some of that is common to all kids of their generation – certainly the state of our economy and the alarming statistics regarding the high percentage of college grads unemployed and living back home provide more than enough fuel for anxiety about the future. But for musicians the anxiety is ramped up by the double whammy of entering a career with comparatively fewer jobs – coupled with the belief that the only way to succeed is to compromise the thing they hold most dear.

While I’m not a psychologist, I’ve observed that people tend to respond to fear in one of three ways:

Denial (the “Head in the Sand” approach) These are the students who will focus exclusively on their studies and other activities until the last semester of school, at which point they visit their career/entrepreneurship center expecting to push some metaphorical button on what I call “The Magic Career Vending Machine” and out will pop The Answer. (You’d be amazed how common this is! Unfortunately, I dole out a lot of disappointment during March and April when I explain that it’s not that easy.)

Address the fear head-on (the “Bring it On” approach) These students recognize the challenge and use their anxiety as a motivating factor to do something about it. These are the First Year students who visit right after Orientation wanting to know, “When can I get started?” These are the students who stop in and ask, “So what’s this Venture Challenge thing and how can I get involved?” or who want to do a different internship every semester so they can explore and gain experience in a wide range of careers before they graduate. It’s not that these students don’t experience anxiety, it’s that they’re gifted with the confidence and drive to address that fear through action.

Resistance/Hostility (the “Drowning Man” approach) I remember from lifesaving class as a kid that many people, when drowning, are so panicked that they will attack the person trying to save them. Having pondered the “fear group” for nearly five years now, I’m convinced their strong resistance to engaging on any level with entrepreneurship is driven by fear: sometimes the more we fear something, the more we resist the thing that could be our liberation. It’s counterintuitive, but so is punching and kicking the person trying to rescue us as we slip beneath the water’s surface: fear is visceral, and our responses are primal. In the case of these music students, they build a wall around their art and tell themselves they have to defend their artistic castle at all costs. Within this mental construct, entrepreneurship and anything having to do with “the business stuff” is seen as a threat. The problem is, they’re likely deluding themselves if they think they can connect with a market and support themselves from the confines of the walls they have constructed. These are the students most at risk of chucking it all in out of bitterness and frustration, and it doesn’t have to turn out that way.

So how do we as educators address this? Assuming that we have an ethical obligation to do everything we can to equip all students for lives after school (not just the self-motivated ones), then how do we reach the approximately 75% of students who are not engaged with professional development on any level? I think there are four things that are required:

Empathy This is something that came into sharp focus for me this year at NETMCDO, as we learned about Design Thinking and how it begins with empathy for the people we are trying to reach. We have to start by recognizing the fact that our students have a lot more fear and anxiety than perhaps is immediately apparent or that we as their teachers want to accept. We have to provide a safe place for our students to express these feelings, and engage with them in a sympathetic and constructive way. Most good teachers already do this of course, but I think it’s a critical enough step to be identified and not taken for granted: it’s foundational to everything else.

Communication/Access Some of the students in our focus group at the Manhattan School had barely heard of MSM’s Center for Musical Entrepreneurship, and others had no idea what it was about. This is a common theme at schools I visit across the spectrum, from small private conservatories to large music schools within public universities: students get so busy and wrapped up in their daily routines that it takes a lot of intentional effort to get on their radar. Constant communication and visibility are critical, as is the marketing concept of Redundancy: providing multiple points of interaction multiple times. In addition, there must be multiple avenues of participation: courses for credit, workshops, special guests, internships, one-on-one counseling, alumni mentoring, etc. Most students won’t engage in all of these things, but if we can get all students to engage in some of them we’ll have taken a huge step forward.

Integration across the curriculum While requiring courses in career development remains the best way to ensure that all students gain a baseline of professional skills, this idea continues to meet enormous resistance in music schools nationwide. One way to address this is to introduce important skills (such as public speaking, effective writing, audience engagement, social media, etc.) throughout the curriculum (i.e., in courses they’re already taking and/or are already required). There isn’t a single area of the music curriculum that doesn’t possess opportunities to develop skills that are critical to students’ preparation for life after school. And of course much of this is already going on; what’s missing is an intentional and comprehensive approach that identifies core competencies that every music student should possess and maps out an integrated plan to address these competencies across the curriculum. Which leads me to…

Teamwork None of this is attainable without a unified and coherent effort on the part of the entire school. We cannot tell ourselves that it’s solely the career/entrepreneurship center’s job to equip our students for success in life (particularly when the vast majority of students aren’t seeking out those centers). It’s the job of our institutions as a whole. We need a unified, team approach in order to create a culture in which students avail themselves of the professional development resources of their institution – of which the entrepreneurship/career center is of course the central, coordinating hub – and where they see these resources as an integral and essential part of their education. Without this team approach the career center is just another peripheral thing: optional, extracurricular, and, for a majority of students, “Not for me.”

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Last week as we sat together in the rehearsal hall of the Manhattan School, with students and teachers and administrators all speaking together, I was struck by the incredibly deep well of talent in the room. Here are some of the most gifted music students around, some of whom had come from the other side of the world to study here. Here also are conference participants from a huge range of backgrounds representing scores of decades of professional experience. And as I pondered the incredible talent, intelligence, and wisdom in this one place I wondered why these issues still seem so intractable. Why do students continue to resist the very thing they so desperately need in order to achieve their dreams?

Why do career development officers, despite their very best efforts, continue to reach only a small percent of the students they serve, causing them to sometimes wonder if they’re doing any good at all? And why do so many institutions continue to resist full-scale integration of professional skills into the fabric of the educational experience, depriving career centers the resources they need to serve all students well and dismissing the notion of requirements in this area? The answers to these questions are complex and multi-faceted, and are further complicated by the particular political and ideological landscape of each institution. But surely we can find the answers, and I’m pretty sure that an important first step is addressing fear. Perhaps students are not the only ones experiencing it?

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