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The musician’s journey: preparing our students as entrepreneurs

Today, our college and university music students are facing a rapidly changing global marketplace. There are new technologies, career options, virtual education, and so forth. As educators, we continue to focus on the highest standards of pedagogy. However, we need to also expand our curricula to include the necessary preparatory training in skills that will transcend a dizzying rate of change. We are preparing our music students in some cases for jobs that may not yet exist! At the very least, our students are unlikely to simply inherit our careers. Rather, their careers are in their hands. And with entrepreneurship training they have the greatest advantage in developing thriving careers in today’s marketplace.

As we prepare our students for an entrepreneurial world, we must do so within the context of musical and intellectual rigor as well. Tradition and excellence meet innovation and imagination. The good news is that artists can indeed create thriving careers. If you need evidence, I direct you to two landmark research projects, both published in 2011. These groundbreaking studies came from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) out of Indiana University, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The SNAAP study constitutes to date the largest dataset gathered about the lives and careers of arts graduates, including 13,851 alumni from 154 different arts programs. They found that arts grads were putting together diverse career options with strong indications of personal satisfaction, and that most of the thriving artists tended to be highly entrepreneurial with similar levels of employment as other college graduates. The NEA’s study, “Artist Employment Projections Through 2018,” found that the projected growth rate for artists by 2018 was at 11%, with the overall labor force growing by 10%. Clearly, the notion of the starving artist is far from accurate.

While it may seem daunting, there are several innovative strategies that can incorporate entrepreneurship training within an undergraduate music degree program, requiring few if any additional budgetary resources or additional faculty time. The applied-lesson studio is the ideal setting for this since it is already home to academic advising, senior capstone projects, internships, professional networking, audition preparation, and the crafting of applications for postgraduate employment or advanced study.

A model for developing effective entrepreneurial training can be found in what I call “curricular cells.” For over twenty years, I have used this idea effectively with college students. These self-contained curricular cells function as units of instruction, as opposed to having one course for “music entrepreneurship,” or even a bona fide degree in this area. They are: Entrepreneurial Advising, Experiential Learning, and Entrepreneurship Instruction. These cells are sewn into the fiber of the applied-lesson studio. Depending upon the individual needs of the student, they can be swiftly adapted and developed to suit any emerging music entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurial Advising can begin at the end of the sophomore year. By then, students are usually ready to consider a deeper exploration regarding career preparation and to consider more profound questions such as: What is my personal vision as a musician? Why am I drawn to study music? What are my nascent career goals? What is needed to realize those dreams? At this juncture, one of my standard questions to my students is, “What would your perfect life look like ten years from now?” This prompts a host of responses that go far beyond what’s received in response to the more frequently asked question, “What will you major in at the university?”

At the heart of all thriving entrepreneurs is the understanding that first one must have a vision of what they wish to accomplish. This is followed by a concrete plan to achieve that vision. Successful teachers know this and can impart that wisdom to their students. Moreover, the music industry contains a diverse array of professional paths.

The second curricular cell I utilize is Experiential Learning. Students need hands-on marketplace experiences before they leave the protective cloister of our studios. I require my students to consider their senior capstone project as early as their sophomore year. By the junior year, students design their project and create a doable plan with the necessary timelines, all within the degree requirements of the major they have chosen. These professional projects may encompass performance, internship/thesis, job shadowing, a foray into music publishing, recording, journalism, financial development and fundraising, artist management, music technology, arts administration, and so forth. Through these professional projects, students also benefit from networking in an area they wish to explore, perhaps leading to a job. Furthermore, they acquire real world experience.

The third curricular cell that I include is that of Entrepreneurship Instruction. What this cell looks like can vary, as it requires using the resources at hand. For example, a weekly studio performance seminar is a great place to expose our students to new ideas. At least once a semester, I invite an industry professional to lecture on a topic of their choosing. I often organize exchanges with my colleagues. With professional bartering, numerous resources are available. A colleague in the music industry might be a great resource for students to hear about the vast array of jobs in our profession. On campus visiting artists are also an excellent resource, and they usually enjoy sharing career advice with students.

What can you add? Maybe a weekend retreat for exploring the idea of a professional vision. Create collaborative projects between students: a model for building an arts consortium. Discover volunteer opportunities for your students. Source an internship suited to your student that directly corresponds to their career aspirations. There is much more to say about this topic. Fundamentally, however, we want to teach our students that their careers are in their hands, that they must work creatively to develop opportunities, acquire the necessary skills for their careers, and be flexible, engaging in lifelong learning. In nurturing entrepreneurial skills alongside students’ artistic journeys, we empower them to find fulfilling careers—and lives.

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