Musicians Should Learn Career Skills Just Like They Learn Music by Chris Foley

Part of working as an emerging musician today is developing the skill-set that can help you to gain a foothold in the profession at a time when there have never been so many people trying to do exactly the same thing, and the standards have never been higher. If you’re already established in the profession, keeping up with the relentless pace of present reality will require a continual growth and broadening of your professional horizons, even in the final decades of your career. So many of these critical skills are non-musical:

  • self-care and mental health

  • marketing yourself on social media

  • email management

  • project management

  • grant writing

  • financial skills

These may seem like things that are completely apart from playing an instrument, but the kind of careful daily preparation that can get you there is more than familiar to musicians. David Perrell in Learn Like an Athlete talks about how many of these elite learning abilities of athletes and musicians need to be applied to knowledge work.

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

Being a musician no different from being a knowledge worker. You may have already developed your elite musical skills, but in order to get the chance to actually use them, you need to be able to create a situation where you can either get hired or create your own work. Music teachers need to be able to sell a high-priced product within specific communities. Performers need to market themselves to their audience and build a fan base.

Here’s David’s plan:

Learn in three-month sprints and commit to a new learning project every quarter.

Even the longest projects are simply a collection of short term tasks. Knowing that, you should break down the project into daily increments, and create a series of daily and weekly goals to learn the skills required to complete the project on time. 

The end goal should be clear. Start by writing down a positive vision for your future. Focus on the end goal, not the skill itself. For example, rather than saying “I want to learn how to draw,” I focused on the end goal: “moving forward, all the charts, graphs, and images on my website will be hand-drawn.” 

Just like learning music! David also has a template that helps you put this type of learning program into practice.

What are your non-musical learning goals and challenges? Leave a comment below.

(Via Marginal Revolution. Image courtesy of Providence Doucet on Unsplash.)

Experiments in Rejection and Failure by Chris Foley

Most of the things that I’ve done have taken me quite a long time to realize any sense of real visibility in doing them. That’s just always been the arc of my life in anything that I was doing. I didn’t really get any traction with my career for about the first decade. I now look back and call that first decade experiments in rejection and failure.

The quote above is from Debbie Millman, the guest on Jocelyn Glei’s latest episode of Hurry Slowly, who talks about how the most important projects in life take time and simply cannot be realized in short timespans. Another quote from Debbie on her conversation with David Lee Roth (of Van Halen fame):

“We were talking about the arc of a career and what he [David Lee Roth] said was, ‘You don’t really ever want to reach the peak because when you reach the peak you’re often alone, and it’s always cold. The only direction is down.’ I thought, ‘My, God, that’s got to be one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard.’”

Debbie’s way of looking at the trajectory of long-term creative projects is useful in plotting your own path, and I like her idea of the 10-year creative plan. The long roads are often the ones with the most potential.

Debbie Millman: The Speed of Achievement (Apple Podcasts, Spotify)

(Photo courtesy of Diego Jimenez on Unsplash)

A Life of Total Work? by Chris Foley

What if our entire lives were taken up with work? Andrew Taggart looks at what such a scenario might look like in his recent article for Aeon:

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

More about how Total Work plays out:

Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.

Hey, that sounds really professional, and not unlike the lives of many people I know, including myself at various times over the last 30 years.

Taggart’s article is highly disquieting and raises more questions than it answers. But perhaps what these questions teach us is that even if (to quote Nicholas Bate) the purpose of work is purpose itself, we need to find contemplation, friendships, and cool things to do quite apart from that purpose.

(Image courtesy of Bethany Legg on Unsplash)

From Brainstorm to Project in One Evening by Chris Foley


A little bit of brainstorming can go a long way when you’re starting something new. Pictured above is the one-page project plan I wrote out in my Leuchtturm notebook one evening in late February when yet another winter storm caused the cancellation of a concert that several of my students were to perform at.

This small glitch in my schedule gave me the opening I needed to jump-start a project that I intended to eventually get to over the coming weeks in a leisurely manner, and moved up the launch from weeks to days. The plan I came up with was only a bare-bones sketch, but provided the framework for the actions that followed with a lot of subsequent review and adjustment. And in hindsight, once I had taken the initial steps, it felt really easy.

That project plan above led to the the blog that you’re reading right now.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people over the last few weeks about how the musical profession, both with performing and teaching, is moving more quickly than ever into an entrepreneurial model. The scarcity model, where an ever-growing pool of highly educated professionals apply for a limited number of academic and performing positions, is is a zero-sum game that seems to be shrinking every year*.

But through the ability to generate new ideas and projects, we’re able to create genuine growth in the arts. Understanding a few basics of product creation and marketing, we’ll be able to find those who are genuinely interested in our projects, develop the personal connections, create, and sell a product, whether it be our expertise, a concert series, or something entirely new.

Musicians need to be able to do this.

Since I started this blog in early February, here are some of the things that have transpired:

  • I’ve come into contact and development friendships with many amazing people in the fields of music, productivity, and business development.

  • I learned a new platform (Squarespace).

  • An entirely new audience for my writing.

  • I landed my first clients in an entirely new field for me (life coaching for musicians), and intend to pursue this line of work in the coming months.

  • My teaching has been transformed through contact with a host of new ideas related to life coaching and personal productivity.

Above all, it’s the friendships and conversations arising from this project that I value the most. New ideas and connections lead to more of the same, and this is the greatest advantage of the entrepreneurial model once you tap into its vast potential.

And it all started with a few basic ideas written out in a notebook that coalesced into a simple project plan hatched over the course of an evening.

* I’m indebted to Jennifer Rosenfeld of iCadenza, whose explanations of the entrepreneurial and scarcity models have helped me to understand a lot of the trends that are currently going on in the profession.

Get Into the Studio by Chris Foley

Steven Pressfield on the importance of showing up and starting:

Shut up and get into the studio. Once your physical envelope is standing before the easel, your heart and mind will follow.

If you want to write, plant your backside in front of the typewriter. Don’t get up from the chair, no matter how many brilliantly-plausible reasons your Resistance-churning brain presents to you. Sooner or later your fingers will settle onto the keys. Not long after that, I promise, the goddess will slip invisibly but powerfully into the room.

Technology vs. Business Models by Chris Foley

The development of business models behind technological innovation is what will fuel growth, argues Irving Wladawsky-Berger:

New technology alone, - no matter how transformative, - is not enough to propel a business into the future.  The business model wrapped around the technology is the key to its success or failure…

…Business model innovation has long been the domain of disruptive startups looking to compete against established companies by changing the rules of the game, - and, hopefully, creating new markets and reshaping entire industries.  But, it’s no longer enough for established companies to just roll out improved products and services based on their once-reliable business models.

This is something that I’ve emphasized in my workshops on technology in the music studio - having devices and apps won’t make a big difference in your teaching. It’s the agenda behind it (both core pedagogical process and business model) that will provide the impetus for making technology genuinely useful.

(Via Wally Bock)

The Quick Start Guide to Starting Projects in the Performing Arts by Chris Foley

I’m always inspired by stories of people in the performing arts who create new initiatives that serve the needs of their communities. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone has an idea, builds it into a project, makes it viable, and serves the community, creating a sustainable initiative that also provides employment for its creator and others. These are the types of initiatives that build genuine growth in the arts.

At the same time, I’m concerned by the number of people I meet who have great ideas that never get off the ground. What follows is a way to get from idea to action in a minimum of time so you can take advantage of the larger pool of outcomes that arise from being able to launch new initiatives, whether it be a new concert series, your first play, learning to create in a new medium, or simply upgrading your skills.

  1. Visualize yourself immersed in the process of what you want to do. No, I didn’t say visualize yourself enjoying the trappings of success on a beach in Hawaii or driving a McLaren down the street. You have to visualize yourself in the trenches, with your hands doing the actual work. Because if you’re going to make a go of your project, you’re going to have to show up to do the work, day after day, year after year, making something that will be viable and sustainable. What you discover in this step will determine whether you decide to go onward or choose another course of action.

  2. Take advantage of downtime. Life in the performing arts (and the entire freelance job market) often takes the form of feast or famine. Utilizing the spaces in your schedule is a strong starting point for any future endeavours. Time can be an asset if you’re motivated to create new work.

  3. Brainstorm. Pen and paper are the best for this. The free flow of ideas can unlock the vast realm of possibility, complete with ideas and connections between them. Research on the brain’s default mode has shown that the mental processes unlocked by daydreaming or taking walks is in fact what unlocks the full range of seeing possible future outcomes.

  4. Write a list of actions from start to finish. Your list can consist of either parallel or sequential actions. Your most important resources are money and time. Budget for both. Revise as you move through #5, 6, and 7.

  5. Leverage pre-existing skills, networks, and infrastructure. When I created the Tapestry Songbook/New Opera 101 program at Tapestry Opera in 2010, I took advantage of 20 years of new opera commissions from the company to compile a list of Canadian repertory arias that could be utilized to teach young singers and pianists about the new opera process. You have stuff lying around that can be repurposed. You have many skills, some of which are left dormant for years. You have social media and real-life communities all around you. Use them to create something new.

  6. Learn new skills as needed. Everyone’s education has gaps. In order to succeed, we need to fill them in. Skill acquisition can be a path towards a larger goal, or even the goal itself.

  7. Ask for help (or hire) as needed. Those around us have the answers to many of the questions we pose. Often a conversation with someone that knows the ropes can help. At other times, it’s best to hire someone, whether for services, consulting, coaching/teaching, or employment. Budgeting will be required in step 4.

  8. Work swiftly and mercilessly through your action list. Once you’ve got the steps mapped out, start executing. Taking action quickly can create an energy and momentum that is highly motivating.

  9. Launch your preliminary work quickly, then refine. Here your advantage is to move fast, and this is an asset that individuals and small organizations will always have over slower, more systematic large organizations. When you’re small, the principles of Agile philosophy become apparent: delivery a satisfying product early, and iterate quickly as it develops. A successful bootstrapped one-off concert can develop into a viable series as it gains an audience and funding.

  10. Commit for the long haul. After I made a mid-career decision to move full-time into piano teaching, it was still 6-7 years before I had a full schedule. In the interim, I was learning about piano pedagogy, apprenticing as an RCM examiner, learning the ropes of advertising, and building a teaching repertoire. If you’ve been honest with yourself in step 1, you can make it all the way to creating something viable and sustainable. The process at its end is transformative.

What are your recent success stories? What success stories inspire you? What have I left out? Leave a comment below and let’s talk.

(Image courtesy of Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash)

One Productivity Tip to Rule Them All by Chris Foley

Vince Coley’s Productive With a Purpose is developing into one of the most unconventional and useful new productivity blogs I’ve seen in a while. His most recent post arises from a project to encapsulate the entirety of productivity information from the internet (anyone else been down that rabbit hole?) into simple categories:

My first big ah ha moment struck when I realized that every Productivity Tip I came across fell into one of three buckets.  I call these “The Three Buckets of Productivity”:

- Care for your MIND & BODY (… so you can experience intense Clarity)

- Establish a TRUSTED PRODUCTIVITY SYSTEM (… so you can enjoy endless Focus)

- Prioritize what’s TRULY IMPORTANT (… so you can make a lasting Impact)

Vince’s next step was to encapsulate all three buckets into one über-statement:

When you wake up in the morning: drink a glass of water (clarity), plan your day (focus) and do the most important thing first (impact).

What I find particularly notable (and trustworthy!) about Productive With a Purpose is that Vince doesn’t appear to be selling a product, but merely documenting his productivity journey and systems. My favorite post is Be a Pebble Snatching, Productivity Fu Master, which outlines the best GTD implementation of Things 3 that I’ve seen.

What To Do When the Creative Process Isn't Happening by Chris Foley

Julia Cameron on how to get back on track when you don’t feel like creating:

It is only by courting humility that we stand a chance as artists. When we choose to join the human condition rather than set ourselves apart from it, we begin at once to experience relief. If we stop calling our writer’s block “writer’s block” and begin using words like “resistance” and “procrastination” we are suddenly no longer in rarefied territory.

One of the greatest disservices we can do to ourselves as artists is to make our work too special and too different from everybody else’s work. To the degree to which we can normalize our day, we have a chance to be both productive and happy. Let us say, as is often the case, we are resistant to getting down to work. We have a choice. We can buy into our resistance—Writer’s block! Painter’s block!—or we can simply say, “I don’t feel like working today, and I’ll bet an awful lot of other people are in the same boat.”

The minute we identify with the rest of humankind, we are on the right track. The minute we set ourselves apart, we are in trouble. When we start thinking that as artists we are very different from other people, we start to feel marginalized and hopeless. When we realize that we are probably in pretty much the same boat as everyone else, we begin to edge toward solution. Our shared humanity is the solution. Our “specialness” is the problem.

I’ve used Julia’s Morning Pages method for several years now - this process has helped me to understand myself better, realize what types of projects I really want to be doing, and how I can work at my best. Julia’s The Artist’s Way is what I recommend as an entry point into Morning Pages, and she also has a workbook that helps you to get more deeply into the practice.

(The magnificent image above is from Pedro da Silva on Unsplash)