The Great Reframing: or, why I am suddenly grateful that all of my concerts this year have been canceled due to COVID-19.

 

One of the teaching jobs I had, while I was a freelancing cellist, was at a private school. I conducted the orchestra and string ensembles, ran the chamber music program, and taught cello lessons.

After a few years of my poking my nose in the Admissions office trying to see if there were any talented young musicians applying, they finally just invited me to stay–they gave me an office, a title, and I was sent in to see the boss and renegotiate my contract. He wanted to give me 75% of a full-time contract. I wanted 80%. 80% would give me full-time benefits, which in this school’s case, were extremely generous. I thought he would freak out about that steep financial boost, but instead, he came at me with:

“But that would put you on the Sabbatical list, and that is a HUGE deal”.

I almost laughed out loud.  First of all, I knew the truth of that sabbatical list: The school had grown immensely over the last couple of decades, but the number of sabbaticals they gave out each year had not.

I countered with: “Please, with all due respect, I’ll be long dead before my name ever comes up on that list”.

But really, what I was thinking was: “Silly Rabbit! Musicians don’t TAKE sabbaticals!”  I mean, am I just supposed to not practice or play concerts for a year and…what… travel? Learn how to make pottery? Go fishing?

But it got me thinking….

 

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Wouldn’t that be nice? Most people get to take some time off now and again, and often, when they switch jobs, they are doing something wildly different anyway.  they get that chance to refresh their ideas and re-negotiate the terms of their life. I started to feel a little bit jealous of anyone who had that luxury.

 

And then it happened.

 

I was chatting with a colleague of mine during a rehearsal break last year (long before the world was tanked by a virus) and she told me of her and her husband’s plan to take a year’s sabbatical from their work, and spend that time living closer to their families.  They had been saving for a while and were excited to have some downtime to recharge, reconnect, and let their creative juices flow to see what new projects they were inspired to take on.

 

How bold!  How enlightened!  I loved how they weren’t at all concerned with how they would be received upon their return and were doing something FOR THEMSELVES, and not for this weird covenant freelancers seem to think they’ve all agreed to: “I will be available to play anything at any time, anywhere, as long as you promise to call me for the next gig too”.

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And so I have decided that there has never been a better time to follow suit. While I join the world in mourning the temporary loss of live concerts and I truly feel for the millions of people in the art world about to lose their unemployment checks, with no end in sight for said unemployment,  I’m taking full advantage of the fact that I have a fairly empty calendar anyway, and I’m toying with the idea of keeping it empty (of concerts) on purpose for this entire upcoming concert season.

The idea of not feeling stressed out about what I’m NOT doing, wondering just how motivated I’m supposed to be to practice, and feeling guilty for not live-streaming a different solo cello recital program from my living room every freaking week, fills me with immense amounts of joy and feelings of absolute freedom.

I have other skills that I can employ to keep money coming in. Hell, I single-handedly conceived of and ran a 7-week virtual international cello festival that I put together in 2.5 months’ time.  If I can figure that shit out, I’m pretty confident I can figure pretty much anything out.

I also teach, and I write, and I coach. And honestly? I’m kind of excited to see what it feels like to ONLY do those things for a little while, and let the playing happen as it wants to.

 

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I might even let my fingernails grow past the flesh. (GASP!)

 

And so, the great reframing goes like this:

 

Option A: OMG, this is horrible. Completely unfair. All of my work has vanished. I’m barely existing on my unemployment checks, eating can after can of tomato soup until I can get back on stage because I AM MY ART!

Option B: OMG, this could be a great opportunity for me.  I needed a break, and I’ve been wishing I had more time to dig into some new repertoire and dream up some new projects. I can use the skills I have to create some revenue while I take this time and use it to my advantage.  Instead of waking up every morning counting how many days it’s been since I’ve played a concert, I’ll wake up knowing I have the whole day ahead of me to work on new projects and ideas and see how else I can earn an income. What a gift!

Now, full discloser/disclaimer, I realize that I write this from my VERY privileged circumstances. My husband still has his job teaching HS Physics, and we don’t have young kids at home who require homeschooling or general entertainment/keeping alive. I also don’t have any student loans or credit card debt hanging around me like a noose.  If I didn’t earn a single cent in this coming year, it would be a struggle, but we would survive.

But if the circumstances were different?  If I was single, or if my husband HAD lost his job? Or if we DID have kids?  Of if we DID have debts weighing us down? All the more reason to buckle down and reframe this into something less dire, act accordingly, and get some money coming in. FAST.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, crying into the half a glass of sauvignon blanc you’ve rationed yourself isn’t going to do a damned thing to help put you back on stage any time soon.

We can complain and write long posts on FB about how sad and unfair it is to us, begging other people to give us their hard-earned money so that we can buy groceries and wait, or we can reframe this situation, and try to turn it into something positive. And as unpopular as it might make me amongst some of my colleagues,

I choose the latter.  For myself, and for the future of my career.  Wanna go fishing with me?

Permission Granted

Not that you need it, but you seem to be asking for it anyway.

I see you, my friend. You’re an incredible musician. Thoughtful, dedicated. You went to the right schools and survived the years of practicing 6-8 hours a day in order to be as good as you are. You were the star student in your teacher’s studio, and then became a darling of the classical music world. You won competitions, auditions, everyone wanted to play chamber music with you. You were always kind, always prepared, and hell-you even played in tune!

And you were so happy. Your career was in full swing, doing exactly that thing that makes your heart sing. Traveling, performing, meeting new people. And between the concert fees and the masterclasses and the teaching you did here and there, you were making a decent income.

I mean, not an “I’m about to buy a summer house on the Cape” kind of income, but hey, you haven’t had to eat instant ramen for dinner in years! (I mean let’s be honest, you buy it sometimes because nostalgia. Instant ramen being the Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese of conservatory students the world over!)

 

But now….

 

Yeah. This sucks, right?  All of your concerts are canceled, and orchestras are folding.  The ones that are standing? Not going to have much of a budget for soloists any time soon.  And chamber music festivals? The donors are too busy refreshing the tab on their IRA’s to write checks for Brahms Piano Trios right now.

Maybe you were actually one of the more motivated ones, kept practicing, and decided to do some free live-streamed concerts. You know, because LIVE MUSIC IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE! And because it felt horrible to not perform for people. But what really felt horrible was doing all of that work, researching the tech, figuring it all out, practicing, promoting it, and then seeing your still empty bank account.

It was fun for maybe the first couple of times, and perhaps you even have a few dedicated Patreon Patrons, but those bucks aren’t going to pay the bills. Unemployment isn’t going to continue much longer, and everyone you know is talking about a plan B.

It’s downright depressing. All those years of hard work, and now you have no choice but to go and get a real estate license? (Actually, I have a lot of musician/artist friends who moonlight (sunlight?) as realtors, and they LOVE it, but that’s for another post.)

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I get it.  Your entire identity is built around being a performing musician, and you’re not going down without a fight. The idea of giving up and going into a different career is just too much to bear.

At the same time, though, it would be nice to not wake up in the middle of the night EVERY night worried about how you’re going to make ends meet.

 

So, here’s that permission slip that you don’t need but seem to be asking for anyway…

 

You have my permission (and the world’s permission, for that matter) to figure out a way to make money come your way while you are not performing.  AND I give you permission to retain the identity of “PERFORMER” while figuring out some other ways to bring in said money even if you are not PERFORMING.  This can be temporary.

No one will think less of you.  Take it from me, they will call you a lot of things, but none of them are mean.  Some of them are quite nice, actually! “Entrepreneurial”, “Forward-thinking”, ” Business-minded” and my favorite: “Smart”.

Because it is smart to take care of yourself.  It’s smart to make sure that you can keep living in your home, that you can put food on the table, and that you can continue to save for your retirement–even during a pandemic.

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What is not smart is allowing your talented-self to crumble into oblivion because you are afraid of being seen as “not having enough concerts and being forced to make money another way.”  Guess what…no one is ever thinking about anyone long enough to have that thought, and even if they had loads of time to obsess over your life? They’re still not thinking that.

So, whatever it is…I’m sure you’ve got secret superpowers.  Just think back to those first-day-of-festival orientations when you had to tell everyone what your non-musical talent was.  I hear that guy with the Rubik’s Cube is Killin’ it!

I mean, look, it doesn’t have to be forever. It could just tide you over until the concerts come back.  It could also be really fun and satisfying and turn into something that you want to continue doing. Who knows…

It could buy you that house on the Cape.

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Do it!  Permission granted.

Kate

P.S. If you’re thinking “Gee, Kate, I’d LOVE to have some monies coming my way right now, but I have NO IDEA what to do, or where to start because the only thing I know how to do is play my instrument” let’s hop on a quick call and I’ll help you brainstorm a bit. We’ll have a coffee, we’ll chat, it’ll be fun. You can pick a time right here.

P.P.S You might also want to check out my “Build Your Best Life Blueprint”.  It’s a (very pretty, I think!) PDF that will help you unearth those super-secret superpowers that have been hidden since the first day of Aspen ‘96.

Lacking the Motivation to Practice?  Focus on Your Systems, Not Your Goals.

I’ve been talking to a lot of colleagues and conservatory students about how they have been spending these weeks (months!) of “Pandemic Time”.   Most of them feel a sense of overwhelming loss and confusion when it comes to their current and future careers and aren’t quite sure what to do. These are the things I have been hearing:

 • “It’s hard to motivate myself to practice when I don’t know when I will be able to perform again.”

• “Why should I bother preparing for grad school auditions when I don’t know if or when they will happen?”

• “How am I supposed to plan my teaching schedule for next year when I don’t know if we’ll be in-person, online, or whatever?”

I hear you.  It’s scary to see an uncertain future and not know where or how the goals you set out for yourself this past January 1st fit into it. Was your goal to increase the number of concerts you booked from the previous year? Yeah, good luck with that (in the traditional sense, anyway.)

But what if you reframe your thinking, and shift from thinking about the Goal itself (which, really, is just one moment anyway) and start focusing on the Systems you can create to meet the goal?

I can honestly say that my results are far better when I do this at ANY time. Not just during global pandemics.

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What’s a system, you ask?

 

Well, if a goal is to book more concerts, then the system is the act of sending concert proposals to presenters each week or regularly updating your website and promotional materials, or building fanbase via social media or your email list. The system is the set of ACTIONS you take in order to meet the goal.

Here’s a quote from James Clear’s Atomic Habits that might help put it into context for you:

“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.  Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

Goals are important in certain ways.  Goals offer us direction, and they provide our systems with a WHY.

To take it a step further, look at your goal, and find the core value in it.

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What is the core value around taking grad school auditions?  Getting your playing to a high enough level where you are in the top percentage of your peers and have more opportunities to choose from? Well, then the real goal in that goal is to improve your playing as much as possible. It’s not really JUST about taking the auditions.  Because if you find out that the auditions aren’t going to happen and you stop practicing, your playing goes to hell.

But if you’re focusing on your system of actions that will improve your playing and make you a top player, then you’ve met your goal whether you take the audition this year, next year, or not at all.

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What is the value behind setting up your teaching studio for next year? You want to be an amazing teacher, right? You want to provide your students with the dedication, attention, and opportunities for growth that they deserve, correct?

So…what does that have to do with your exact schedule of in-person, online, offline.  All you need is a start date and lesson times.  You bring the motivation, dedication, attention, and opportunities, and the rest (recitals, group classes, studio pot-luck, etc.) can be figured out as you go.

What is the system? Signing students up, providing them with materials, creating a strong and trustworthy communication path with the parent.

What is the value behind wanting to book more concerts? To reach a wider audience? To grow your fan base? To gain experience? Is it really just to get on an airplane and hear the thunderous applause from an appreciative audience (I mean, that’s nice, too…).  But in today’s current predicament, the world of live streaming and YouTube performances is your oyster.

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So, go ahead and set your goals.  We all need them, and no one loves a goal more than I do! But when planning the rest of this uncertain year, focus instead on the systems that will get you to that goal.  It’s the actions that define you, and the actions that get you results, and those results are what makes you ready for amazing opportunities–whatever and whenever they might arrive.

P.S. If you’re a cellist (student, professional, adult amateur) interested in learning how you can ensure a successful and productive summer in the practice room, join me for a FREE 3-part training I’ll be doing on June 10, 11, and 12, at 12pm EDT.  We’ll be talking about the Systems and Habits that I have been tweaking over the years, and how to make sure you don’t let the next 3 months pass you by!

If you liked the January Practice Cure, you’ll LOVE this! You can sign up HERE to reserve your spot.

 

Life: Online (My Spring Newsletter)

Hello Friends, Greetings from Sunny (but Locked down) Bermuda.

It’s been a while since my last article. Since then, the world got turned upside-down, and everyone has been hurriedly adjusting to this “new normal” as they call it.  I do have some posts rolling about in my head that will make their way to this page in the coming days and weeks, but for now, I thought I would give you all a bit of an update on what has been going on here.  This was the Spring edition of a quarterly update I send out to my private mailing list.  I hope you’ll check out the links below, and join me for some of these events!  All the best! -Kate

We join the rest of the world in a stay-at-home order, though as of yesterday, the parks and beaches have opened, and some of the restaurants have re-opened for curbside pick-up. It’s been 4 solid weeks of cooking over here, and I’m beyond ready for some House of India curry tonight!

Other than needing to travel for concerts, my career (practicing, teaching, writing and coaching) is primarily based online so this whole change to the virtual world hasn’t been as painful as it could have been. In a lot of ways, it’s business as usual over here (except that my husband has turned the living room into his Physics Classroom!) My wonderful Bermuda School of Music students and their parents have handled the switch to online lessons like champs, however, and I am grateful for their enthusiasm and grace through all of this.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the past 6 weeks have been some of the busiest I have had in a long time.  Here are a few things that I have coming up that you might be interested in checking out:

Monday, May 4th:

I’ll be doing a guest interview on “Teaching students online and Creating a 3-Way Relationship Between Teacher, Student and Parents” as a part of the  Expand Online Summit for Artists.  Hosted by Tech wizard and online business creator Jaime Slutzky, this 5-day event has tons of fantastic interviews with various artists who have taken their teaching and courses online. There is no charge to register to watch.  If you’ve been thinking about taking more of your career or business online, be sure to check this one out. My interview will be viewable for 48 hours.

Friday, May 8th at 12 pm EDT:

I’ll be Interviewed on the “Own Your Voice” Series in the Facebook Group, Make Music Your Own., hosted by Stani Dimitrova. We’ll be talking about ways to shape your career to better fit your ideal lifestyle, and about my latest venture (keep reading….)

Monday, May 11th:

An Online Book Release Event with Novelist Karen Osborn to discuss her new release, The Music Book, about a young female cellist in the 1950’s. The author will be reading some excerpts, I’ll be performing music by J.S. Bach and George Crumb, and we’ll be discussing various aspects of the story (which I absolutely loved, by the way!) Platform TBD. Keep an eye on my Personal and Professional FaceBook Pages for more details!

And now, the BIG NEWS….(drumroll, please….)

The Virtual Summer Cello Festival

The Virtual Summer Cello Festival (VSCF) is a project that has become a labor of love for me. As news of the cancelations of most of the big summer festivals started to flood my inbox, my heart broke for all of the talented students who would be left without a program for summer study.

These summer months are incredibly important for young pre-professional students, for both musical and instrumental growth as well as the widening of their networking circle and the lifelong friendships that are forged. As a professional musician, it was devastating to think that this year, thousands of students might be denied those opportunities.

I wondered if there was a way I could combine my knowledge and experience in online teaching with my years spent both studying and teaching at summer festivals and directing various programs to create an online version of a summer festival.

Applications are now open for the Virtual Summer Cello Festival, which will be an intensive 7-week program geared for a limited number of advanced cellists, ages 15-23.  The faculty list is world-class, and I am so excited for these lucky students. I am particularly fascinated with all of the new advances in the world of audio and conferencing software that are coming out almost daily!  I can’t wait to see what we end up with by June!

The best part is that, because it is all being held online, there is an incredible opportunity for cellists of other ages and levels to take part as auditors. The workshops and masterclasses will be recorded and available for replay at the auditors’ convenience, and there will be private Facebook groups set up for both the participants and the auditors to get to know one another, exchange ideas, and help each other stay motivated. So whether you are an intermediate level player, or an adult amateur, or simply want the benefit of the knowledge without the 7-week commitment, you can register to be an auditor.

With all of the bad news that we are bombarded with on a daily basis right now, I wanted to provide an experience of a lifetime for these cellists. The idea being: Is it possible to create something online that is EVEN BETTER than an in-person festival could offer? Some aspects will be different, of course, but there are surprise guests, and extra bonus sessions planned to delight the participants and auditors all summer long.

Please take a look, and pass along the information to any cello players in your life!

https://virtualsummercellofestival.wordpress.com/

Other than that…
I’ve been enjoying time working in my garden (I might have gone a bit overboard in my enthusiasm for pesto, and I’m growing what basically amounts to a Basil Farm!) and having the time to spend catching up with friends and family over Facetime and Zoom. I am looking forward to a (slow and cautious) return to our past freedoms, but for now, we are simply grateful for good health and sunny days.

Take care, and stay healthy!

Sincerely,

Kate 

P.S.  My favorite thing about sending these quarterly newsletters is when you all write me back and tell me how you are, what you’ve been up to, etc.  Especially now, I’d love to know that you are well and safe and happy, so I hope you’ll leave a comment and say hello!

P.P.S. You can also find me on social media:
Facebook • VSCF Facebook • Instagram • VSCF Instagram • Website • Blog

Canceled by Coronavirus: Will the Show Go On?

What do we musicians do when public health concerns shutter our performances and make travel risky?

As I write this, the concern over contracting the COVID-19 virus has gone from “If you or someone close to you have traveled recently to China” to a world-wide community transmission so quick that people are doing whatever they can to avoid further spread.

My corporate friends who work for global companies are telling me that all work-related travel has been suspended and that even personal travel must be cleared by managers.  Here in Bermuda, we have been told that arriving from a “hot zone” might land you a 14-day quarantine sentence.

In the 9-5 world, those work-trips are being converted to video conference meetings and for the most part, life continues as normal. The biggest concern, from what I am hearing, is that people won’t be able to rack up quite as many business class frequent flyer miles to “fund” their family trips this summer.

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For us musicians, though, this is a whole new ball-game.

For instance, Teaching:

For my in-person private lessons, between students, I wash my hands (Fun Fact: it takes about the recommended 20 seconds to hum the Imperial March Theme from Star Wars) and wipe down the chair, stand, and pencil, then I burn some sage and garlic and hope for the best.

(I’m kidding about that last part)

For folks who live in areas of concern, one can always teach online. Between Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime, online lessons are a great way to keep things going without having to be in the same room. I hope that music school administrators will be supportive of this method and that parents and teachers will take advantage of the option.

Concerts:

What happens to our concerts when venues close their doors? And if they don’t cancel our concert, but it requires us to travel in what might not be the safest circumstances?  Do we cancel?

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s long-awaited and much-publicized tour to China was canceled in the earliest days of the outbreak–well before travel to Asia was restricted.  It seemed like a thoughtful precaution at the time.  In hindsight? Very. Good. Decision.

And the Prime Minister of Japan canceled all public events 2 hours after the Gothenburg Symphony arrived at their Tokyo hotel, ready to kick off their 10-day concert tour.  A Very disappointed orchestra was loaded up on airplanes and flown back to Sweden the next day.

So far, I have heard that Sanders Theater in Boston and Davies Hall in San Francisco have canceled all performances until late March.  Interestingly though, Benaroya Hall in Seattle (one of the current “hot zones”) is still open for business. The Seattle Symphony is offering free ticket exchanges to anyone who would prefer to stay home, but the concerts are going on as planned.

Harvard University is taking a more modern approach. Tonight’s performance of Mozart’s  Requiem is still happening, in spite of Sanders Theater being shuttered. While there will be no audience admitted into the hall, the concert will be live-streamed for anyone wishing to enjoy it from the comfort of their own home.

What about Freelancers?

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Photo by Mat Reding for Unsplash

Obviously, the orchestra players of Boston and Gothenberg still received their normal paychecks, tour or no tour, but what about someone who is presenting their own concert? The smaller organizations that maybe don’t have iron-clad cancelation clauses–what do they do? There are “Act of God” clauses in a freelance contract, but what about a “public health threat.”?

Do you go ahead with the concert– potentially putting musicians and audience members at risk? Or do you cancel, possibly losing out on income you were depending on, and possibly only adding to an unnecessary level of panic?

I am due to head out on a two-week recital tour on the West Coast at the end of this month.  I have concerts up and down the states of California, Oregon and in Seattle, WA.  For some of the performances, it will be up to me whether they happen or not.  For the University and School visits, they might be canceled for me as more and more administrations try to limit campus access to visitors.

Photo by Lai Man Nung for Unsplash

In the time it took me to write this blog post, I received an email from another presenter asking whether I will be canceling my mid- April performance.  That’s over a month away, folks!

My answer? I’m going to wait and see.  I’ll have to weigh the positives and the negatives of both options.  And we’ll need to see if this whole thing starts to get worse or better. It’s that darned domino effect. Even if I decide that it’s safe for me to go ahead with concerts in the PNW, will my home country let me back in as a person of free will?  By staying true to 1 week of commitments, I may be forced to renege on 2 other weeks of work if I’m forced to quarantine myself.

At the end of the day, we all need to just make whatever decision feels like the best one at the time, and then live with it, In hindsight, it might seem silly to have canceled, but then again, with hindsight, we might wish we had.

I know I’m not the only one faced with these decisions.  How are YOU handling it?  What criteria is going into your decision making?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic. I fear it’s a situation we might be finding ourselves in again in the not-too-distant future. But I’m also thinking that this might be a great time to come up with some creative solutions.

Because we can’t just stop having concerts.  The show really must go on, one way or another.

 

 

Why You Need to Stop Waiting for the Phone to Ring

When I was a 5-year-old Suzuki student, I dutifully listened to my book 1 recording every night. I suppose I didn’t really have a choice. My mom would plunk me in the bathtub and press “play” on the old beat-up tape player that sat on the bathroom counter and walk out. I was held hostage in the tub until the last song was over, but I loved listening to those songs. They were a familiar comfort to me at the end of each epic day full of all of the new and unknown things kindergarten had to offer.

One day, while I was practicing, I glanced over to the next in my book. “O Come, Little Children”.  I couldn’t really read the words, and I certainly hadn’t learned how to read the notes (we learned everything from memory and imitation in the first year). But I knew that I could figure it out from having heard it a hundred times. I thought I might impress my teacher by sitting down in my next lesson and playing it for her.

Let’s just say Mrs. Barston was not impressed. The kind but firm scolding that ensued came from her heart of hearts and the fact that she was such an incredible pedagogue. She made it quite clear: There were things she needed to show me how to do before I was able to play O Come Little Children correctly.

I was doing the bowings all wrong, and by trying it on my own, I had instilled mistakes that would be difficult to fix. Both my mother and I left that lesson promising to never more forward without instruction again.

Super Cute Kate
Evidence that I was once SUPER adorable.

And so it continues. In youth orchestra, in high school, summer festivals and at music school, Everything from what we play, who we play it with, how we play it, when our rehearsals will be, and when and where we will perform it is dictated to us from on high.

Certain students are chosen by the teachers to participate in competitions, and people are “invited” to audition for certain summer festivals.  We all understand that “invited to audition” means you are being given a spot, and you will be going.  If you’re the one given the opportunity, you smile, say thank you, and do it.  If they didn’t ask you? just stay out of the way and don’t bring it up.

And so years later, there I was. A newly graduated, “capital P” Professional Musician.  I was given gigs, called to play with certain groups, and it all felt strangely the same.  Now I was allowed to say no, of course, but why would anyone say no to a gig? and the pattern continued.  I sat at home and practiced, and eventually, the phone would ring or my notifications would ding and I would find out what was next for me.

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It was after an embarrassingly long number of years that I suddenly wondered what would happen if I was the one to pick up the phone and create a concert.  If I became, as Walter White famously said: “ The one who knocks” but, hopefully, with less disastrous consequences.

It was that day that I stopped waiting for “someone” to call me up and ask to be my manager and find concerts for me, and I just started finding my own concerts.  I researched them, I created them, I made them happen.  And they were (mostly) fun and my collaborations were (mostly) fulfilling.  Did I make mistakes along the way? Of course.  Did I learn a lot about how to do it? Of course.  That’s how it works.

From musical decisions like programming, ideal length and structure, to logistical things like chairs and programs and tickets, I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I started. Luckily–because if I had known, I’m not sure I would have started.

My actions were taken by some of my colleagues as wild, daring, Super Bold.  How dare I just decide to play a concert without having been asked to play a concert? And then, a message would slide into my inbox “hey Kate, could you teach me how to do that myself?”

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I think Music Schools need to do a better job of preparing us for what happens after graduation. I know I’m not the first musician to say that, but it’s true. Students need to be taught how NOT to be students anymore; how to make their own decisions both musically and in terms of their career.

I’m going to go ahead and trust that Mrs. Barston wouldn’t scold me for my boldness this time. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me.  As long as I’m doing the right bowings.

What would you do if you didn’t have to wait to be asked?  Where and what would you play?

Are You on the Wrong Train?

“Have you ever had a conversation that seemed innocent enough at the time, but with hindsight you realize was one of the most monumental moments of your life?”

Years ago, when I was still living in Boston, I was living a double life. I was 100% cellist-performing recitals, playing with a few big orchestras and contemporary ensembles in town and teaching a roster of private students. I also had what was, on paper, a part-time, but in reality, a full-time job as director of strings, orchestra and chamber music, and an admissions officer at a prestigious private school outside of the city.

I loved it there.  The faculty, the students, my office (oh, can we talk about my office? Because seriously, what musician has an office that large, with so many windows, a DOOR, and a coffee machine?)

It was a fairly straightforward job. Running the orchestras and the chamber music program I could pretty much do in my sleep, and the admissions work I found extremely enjoyable. Recruitment came naturally to me through my network of local teachers, and I loved interviewing families. The only challenge was having a limit to the number of incredible applicants we could admit.

As a classical musician, I had spent the previous 25 years in a constant state of intensity. Between the competition, rejections, practice hours, and constant need for betterment, the ease of my school job was a welcome respite. I could arrive in the morning, make myself a (free) coffee, chat with my lovely and unneurotic colleagues and do my work. The work took up time, but it wasn’t difficult. And I loved that.

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But there was one morning I will never forget. One of the senior faculty members was retiring and the school was planning their retirement surprise (a school tradition). My colleague turned to me and said “oh, Your retirement is going to be so much fun!” and started tossing out ideas about bringing alums back to perform, etc. etc.

I say etc. etc. because honestly, shortly after she started talking about my retirement I felt myself having a mild panic attack. I felt short of breath, slightly dizzy, and like I needed to get outside and into some fresh air immediately.

It wasn’t the idea of retirement, per se. I’ve never ever been one of those people who wanted to “perform to the bitter end.”  I like the idea of slowing down and spending days on end reading and sailing and gardening, without the pressure of practice or performing.

It was the idea that in 30 years, I might still be there, doing that job. The one that however much I loved it, was never going to be a catalyst for growth, and in my heart, was never going to be #1. It was always going to be my side hustle. It wasn’t fulfilling in that “My work is aligned with my soul’s purpose” kinda way. It wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go.

I had somehow gotten on the wrong train.

And if I was already heading in the wrong direction, where was that train going to end up 30 years from now? I was too afraid to find out. It was a great job, and it deserved to be held by someone whose soul’s purpose was to be doing THAT job. Someone who wanted to be on that train. As for me? Well, I needed to go find a different station.

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So I did.

And now, a few years later, I am living what is pretty much my dream life here in Bermuda. I have pivoted away from certain jobs and leaned into others, shifted the balances of my performing (more solo and chamber music) and teaching (fewer, but more dedicated students) lives, and started working with other musicians and artists as a coach to help them pivot towards what they truly want to do.

I do work that not only matters to me (because working with my awesome students at that school mattered a lot!) but feels like work I was meant to do.  Every day feels like a freaking gift (okay, maybe not those really damp, cold, rainy winter days) and I am so grateful that I made the change when I did, while I still had time.

So, how do I want my career to end? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.  Life has a funny way of presenting opportunities and growth that I can’t even imagine right now.  But I’d be happy if I was doing what I’m doing right now. I’d have no regrets, and that is a very good start.

What about you?  Would you be content to continue doing what you do until you retire, or did you always assume you’d eventually do something else? Start your own home teaching studio? Record a few CDs? Start a music festival? If it’s the latter, why not start doing that “something else” right now? What are you waiting for?

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Bloom Where You’re Planted

Last week, we talked about figuring out the kind of location that best suits our individual nature and the idea that as classical musicians, we often just let inertia decide where we are going to live our lives.  How we often end up either in the town we graduated in or leaped at the first orchestra or teaching job we won, without thinking about what kind of environment we would be putting ourselves in.

And while I DO feel (strongly) that musicians need to take back a little more control over their work circumstances and create the most amazing, true to themselves life they can, there ARE circumstances that call for us to go somewhere we might consider “less-than-ideal”.

A spouse gets offered their dream job, and it involves a big move, or you need to be closer to an ailing family member, or you yourself get offered a dream position, in a less than dreamy spot.

Enter a phrase that has always evoked a spirit of adventure for me:

“Bloom Where You’re Planted”

Like a seed blowing in the wind, sometimes life just lands us somewhere we never would have expected (or asked for!).  What then?

 

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We’ve all seen people who complain constantly about how miserable they are, and how they are “stuck” somewhere because of external circumstances.  And we’ve all seen people who found themselves in new places without friends or contacts and then, the next thing we know, they’ve started community programs, or a new chamber ensemble, or are winning a Nobel Peace Prize or something amazing.

There is something to be said for being resourceful, and figuring out how to find happiness and fulfillment anywhere.  This isn’t a dress rehearsal, folks.  So, wherever you are, it would behoove you figure it out as soon as possible and start living that best life.

If you aren’t currently living in your ideal place and you can move, then move.  If you aren’t living in your ideal place, and you can’t move, then here are 10  things you can try doing to increase the joy. I thought of these in about 5 minutes and I’m sure you could add another 10 to the list if you wanted to.

  1. Find some other players nearby and have a weekly Sunday night chamber music reading/potluck evening.

 

  1. Start a Music Festival.

 

  1. Teach online lessons

 

  1. Curate a concert series at a local art gallery-even if you’re the only one around who can play. (maybe especially if you’re the only one around who can play!).

 

  1. Write concert reviews for local performances and if the local paper doesn’t want them, just publish them on social media anyway

 

  1. Start a blog

 

  1. Take the time to learn music you haven’t had the time to learn before.

 

  1. Start a new hobby

 

  1. Book concerts for yourself-anywhere you can-retirement homes, libraries.

 

  1. If you have access to space and you’re in a beautiful place: start a musicians’ retreat.

 

I love to hear stories of people who moved somewhere unexpectedly and did incredible things.  It doesn’t matter if it was due to inspiration or boredom.  It’s the action that matters.  So, if you ever had to move somewhere that you weren’t initially pleased about, and then figured out how to find a way to bloom there regardless, tell us all about it in the comments!

Cheers!

Kate

Are You a City Mouse or Country Mouse At Heart?

The question of where one prefers to live is as old as Aesop himself. The City mouse scoffs at the simplicity of Country Mouse’s life but the Country Mouse prefers the safety of his quiet life (rather than be attacked by dogs in the city). Somehow though, this question doesn’t seem to come into play in the music world. We musicians don’t always put much thought into where we are going. We go after the gig first, figure out our surroundings later.

When I was a fellow at the New World Symphony, I was surrounded by colleagues who dreamed of playing in a major orchestra and living in a major city. We were encouraged to take every audition that came up so that we could get more and more experience, and at virtually every audition, a NWS fellow would win.

Off they went to places like Nashville, Savannah, Naples, and San Diego. They were excited to be moving to “their first job”. You know, they one they’d have BEFORE they won their spot in New York, Chicago, Philly, or LA.  Off to gain some experience and carry on auditioning.

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Photo by Nick Fewings for Unsplash

And some of them DID eventually land a job in the city of their dreams. Others found that it was difficult to maintain their new full-time position AND continue to prepare for auditions, or get the time off needed to take the audition in the first place.

10+ years later, many of them are still in those places.  They’ve fallen in love, settled in, made a life there.  And some of them wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Others are miserable and wondering why they’re not in New York City like they planned. But on the other hand, some of my colleagues who landed jobs in New York are finding the energy blinding, too much, over-stimulating.

I myself left New World with only a couple of auditions under my belt.  Deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to be an orchestral player, but I remember flying into Minneapolis for my first audition.  It was April and it was snowing.  Before my plane even landed I remember thinking “I do NOT want to be living in a place where an April snowstorm is considered normal”.  Needless to say, I left Minneapolis without a job. But I also decided to leave NWS to head back to Boston, telling my boss that I’d rather be a struggling freelancer in a city I loved than have a steady job in a place I didn’t.  He smiled and gave me his blessing and told me to call him when I needed rent money (lol).

This geographic misalignment is something I see time and time again in the music world.  Yes, of course, there are musicians living in NYC who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They thrive on the stimulation, the option of seeing one of 1000 different concerts any time of day, any day of the week. And there are those who landed a seat in a small town orchestra, or in a rural university town, who have found that the slower pace suits them perfectly.

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But I have all to often run into colleagues who are in the wrong place (at least at the wrong time).  The country mouse who stayed in a big city after college and is unhappily living a frantic freelance life, or a city mouse heading daily to an orchestra job that doesn’t fulfill them and leaves them wondering, day after day, how it is that they’re still there.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to choose the kind of place we wanted to live and shape our career around THAT, rather than the other way around?

What if we were encouraged in music school to consider what kind of environment makes us truly happy and feel most alive?  Because that might make it clear that you’d prefer to freelance in Boston, or that you’d be living your best life in a craftsman style home in Kentucky.

I never would have guessed that the man I would fall in love with and marry would be living in Bermuda, but I will say that when I was principal cellist of the Key West Symphony, flying in from Boston 4-5 times a year for concerts, something felt “right”.  I knew that I felt most at home and most creative in a quirky island environment.  So to me, Bermuda made perfect sense.  It was meant to be.

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And as soon as I moved here, my career started falling into place in ways that I had previously struggled to make happen.  I started playing the kinds of concerts I wanted to play, with the people I wanted to play with and opportunities started falling into place. I realized that all I really need is time to practice and access to an international airport.  Bermuda gives me both.

What about you?  Are you living in the right place?  Are you living the right career? Or are you in a place that you landed in by default, with a career that you fell into by accident?  How can you start to put things together in a way that makes sense for YOU?

The January Practice Cure

There is something about the New Year that gets us excited about the idea of a fresh start.  For us musicians, the fact that January is like a concert graveyard–especially compared to the craziness of the previous few months means that there’s no better time to reassess our goals and make some plans. And…because I am slightly obsessed with the topic, I thought it would be a great time to give our practice habits a little refresh as well!

Imagine this: You wake up in the morning and you can’t wait to get into your studio.  It’s your safe haven, set up exactly how you want it, with easy access to the tools and resources you need.  Your music is organized, and you have a great plan set out to tackle your musical goals for the year.  You know what you need to work on, when you need to have it ready, and how you’re going to tackle it.

How is this magic going to occur? Are little unicorns going to arrive at your house and take care of it all? Nope!  You’re going to do it.  Well, WE’RE going to do it. Bit by bit, each day throughout the month of January.

Ladies and Gentlemen, students, colleagues, music aficionados, I introduce to you…

The January Practice Cure

When you register (it’s all free, btw) via the link below, you’ll get one email a day sent to you first thing in the morning each Monday–Saturday during the month of January (starting on Monday, January 6th).

Each day will have an easy-to-achieve task for you to do.  Some examples might be to deal with your pencil situation, or Windex and clean the mirror and windows in your practice room/space. The weekends will have slightly larger tasks like “organize your music collection” etc, with some tips and tricks to help you get it done. Some tasks will be focused on your space, and some will be focused on your own specific practice habits.

The idea is that each day’s task is too easy not to do, and will only take 10-20 minutes.  Adding them all up through the entire month, however, will completely transform both your practice space and your practice habits.  You’ll be on the right track for the rest of the year.

Besides, it’s going to be a blast to see the before and after photos that people post to Instagram! #januarypracticecure

For those of you who will be away on vacation at the beginning of January? not to worry!  We’ll be kicking things off with the first email on Monday, January 6th, but there will be a handy pdf calendar with all of the tasks emailed to those who have registered. You can join us at any point in the month, and make up the tasks as you have time.

Register here to join The Cure