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Say Yes

One key aspect of building a sustainable music career is a willingness to adapt. Multiple research participants in my study on music entrepreneurship cited this as an important mindset. Bottom line: you will sometimes have to take music or music-related work that is inconsistent with your artistic vision, or (gasp) you may have to take non-music work. For some, this may seem unbearable. And it's understandable, as musicians invest years to hone their artistic skills, only to find that as they enter the professional world, there may be a paucity of work in their specialty. The ensuing frustration may lead some to abandon music altogether. This is unfortunate.

But I also think it’s avoidable.


Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People uses the term “paradigm shift.” A paradigm shift is a new way of seeing things that may be brought about by an event or thought that triggers a newfound understanding. Essentially, it’s an epiphany that causes you to re-think your paradigm (or model) of how you conceptualize things. Once the paradigm shift takes place, you tend to see the world through new eyes, and you can imagine possibilities unseen in your previous worldview.

So what’s the paradigm shift here?

Say yes.

Say yes. That’s it. What I mean is, when you’re asked to do something, say yes to it. This may seem like a simplistic concept, but it lies outside some people's paradigms.

Take for example the fictitious scenario of you as a cellist who specializes in music of the Baroque era. You only want to play Baroque music. Nothing else will do. One day, you receive a call to perform as part of a certain orchestra. The music will definitely not be of the Baroque era but will instead be a backing track for the stylings of a pop vocalist. You may perceive this to be an insult to your musical intelligence, so you turn it down. What you don’t know, however, is that in that orchestra will be a violinist who leads a baroque orchestra a couple of cities away. One of her cellists recently moved, and she is in need of a new one. You would have been perfect. But you weren’t there. What you also don’t know is that you would have actually enjoyed backing up the pop vocalist, and that it would have led to more offers for similar work. And with all the cash flow from your high-paying “commercial” work, it would help you finance that Baroque chamber ensemble recording project you've been dreaming about. But you weren’t there.

See how it works?

These examples may seem oversimplified, but the point is that you don't know what positive career turn saying yes may lead to. And really, as musicians must make their own careers, a critical way to do so is to say yes. Sometimes it's easy to say yes, because it meshes with your personal aesthetic. Other times, it doesn’t exactly fit, but it seems intriguing, so you can justify saying yes. And then there may be times when you don't like the offer and want to say no, but you say yes, because you need to pay the rent and put food on the table. The flip side is that if you say no, you may restrict your career growth (not to mention your ability to live). In short, saying no can lead to missed opportunities.

Yet sometimes we say no out of fear. We fear we aren’t up to the task. I suspect we all feel this way at times. But I have found that if I am afraid to do something, then that is the very thing I need to do, because it is what I need to grow. In most cases, saying yes, even when-- because--it took me out of my comfort zone, taught me something valuable.

I have tried to envision each yes as a stepping stone on the path of my career. In a way, it has been fun, because I never know exactly where my career will take me. Though I had certain goals I wished to accomplish early on in my career, I have also accomplished many other things I didn’t plan on because I said yes.

For example, in the late 90’s, I worked for Jaguar Cars corporate headquarters, a decidedly non-music job. Yet it was a unique position in which I interacted with dealer, regional, and national Jaguar personnel along with customers to troubleshoot and resolve issues. I was surprised how much I learned on that job and equally surprised how much transferred to music— organization, time management, communication, funds allocation, multi-tasking, image, etc. Any of these sound like they could apply to an independent music career? All of them. The communication and organization pieces were particularly helpful for my private lessons studio in the early 2000’s, as I had to keep track of the payment schedule of 30-40 students and interact with a range of parental personalities. My “corporate” job also provided insight into the business world, which later gave me ideas for how to create music performance opportunities.

In another example, when I was a teenager, an adult who heard me play guitar asked if I would give him lessons. I felt unqualified to teach someone older, and anyway, I hadn’t even considered teaching. But he was persuasive. “It will be good for both of us, “ he said. “I’ll learn something from you, and you can earn some money. Plus it will give you a start on teaching.” Those were prophetic words, because after giving him lessons, I have continued to teach, and I truly came to love it. Eventually, I earned a doctorate in education.

For musicians, saying yes applies to a range of opportunities— performing, teaching, composing, writing, organizing, adjudicating, and on and on. No matter how unrelated or odd it may seem, say yes. Take that leap of faith.

Because if you are open-minded, you can find value in anything you do and connect it in positive ways to your music career. This paradigm shift of saying yes will likely take you on twists and turns you could not have imagined that can enrich and may even define your career.

Thus, I can say that my career is the sum of my yes-es. Similarly, as you say yes, your career will be the sum of your yes-es.

What will you say yes to?

I can hardly wait for you to find out.

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