Why Anyone Would Share Their Failures Online

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the thoughtful and accomplished percussionist Doug Perkins for his podcast, Five Days With Doug. We talked for almost two hours. I confessed to Doug that while I’m in a pretty good place right now, I’d spent a decent percentage of my late twenties struggling with depression, career confusion, self-doubt, burnout, and financial instability. (Doug referred to this as my “turning thirty freak-out,” which is definitely part of it.)

This week online,  I discussed my attempt to quit eating sugar.

This week online,  I discussed my attempt to quit eating sugar.

At some point, Doug said: “So, you’re pretty open about the fact that you’re searching, you’re seeking, you don’t have it all figured out. But you’re also saying to other people, I can help you with your career stuff.”

“It’s true,” I replied. “It might seem counter-intuitive. But I think there are some things that you can only help people through if you’ve been there.”

Everyone’s had that instrumental teacher who doesn’t quite know how to break things down, because they learned the technique so long ago that they’ve forgotten. Or perhaps the skill came relatively easily to them, and they can’t get inside the head of someone whose process is different. When it comes to working through life's thorniest problems, sometimes it's helpful to talk to someone who's very recently come through them. So I often choose to "out" myself, so that I can be "found" by friends, colleagues, and even near-strangers who may share my struggle and can benefit from what I've learned.

It's a tricky balance, this dance between private life and public statement. It's possible to share too much, to open a wound before you're truly ready, to expose yourself to criticism or public debate when what you really need is privacy, silence, and time. 

Still, the fact remains that this process of sharing is second nature to me. Recently, my friend Deidre was asking me about why I choose to write about my life and ideas online. Deidre, a more private person than me by nature, didn’t really understand sharing in the way that I do. “What do you get out of it?” she asked.

As I was talking to her, I realized is that I have a Circle of Life, which looks like this:

II:  Have an experience → Reflect on it → Gain insight → Share what I’ve learned  :II

Repeat ad nauseam. I'm calling it a Circle of Life because I swear, it just happens regardless of whether or not I plan it, or think it’s cool or strategic or useful. I can declare to myself,

No more blogging! I’m only going to be literary or

I’m going to go on meditation retreat for three months or

I’m going to take a damn orchestra audition. No really, I am.

Sooner or later, I will be back, pecking my most recent life experience out onto a keyboard, trying to make sense of it. Part of how I make sense of life is by sharing it.

The perils and triumphs of of online navel-gazing.

The perils and triumphs of of online navel-gazing.

And of course, the magical thing that happens once you’ve shared your own story is that you discover you’re not alone. People come out of the woodwork. They email you and share their experiences. They take you aside at parties and mention something they never otherwise would’ve mentioned. And suddenly you have a sense of tribe, a sense of shared experience, and the world is a less lonely place.

So a lot of what I choose to do -- writing, coaching, consulting -- falls under the “share what I’ve learned” piece. Not because it has some particular benefit, but simply because it's in my DNA, for better or for worse.

I’m super curious. Do you, my dear readers, also have a “circle of life” that you constantly find yourself engaged in?  A pattern, a process, a way of being in the world that’s deeply ingrained and unique to you? (Mine is pretty typical for an ENFJ, by the way, and I find it fascinating how different personalities approach and process the world.) Let me know in the comments.

What do artists feel when we're surrounded by wealth?

Dear fellow-traveler, 

I spent this past weekend in Philadelphia, where I was lucky enough to be one of four musicians touring with Manual Cinema. We performed their beautiful show, My Soul’s Shadow, at the Barnes Foundation, a stunning architectural gem of a museum.

The Barnes Foundation is the kind of place that oozes money—and beauty, and design sense, and artwork, yes—but primarily, money. It’s the kind of place where, as a working artist, I personally feel (a) deeply grateful for the privilege of working there, (b) ambivalent about where all this money may have come from, and (c) uncomfortably out of place.

It’s funny how, from time to time, artists find themselves very, very close to a lot of money. We don’t really belong among the wealthy, yet sometimes we end up there, trotted out for enjoyment and entertainment and edification. I’ve had experiences where I’m playing a brief concert for a bunch of wealthy donors: taking a train and a bus to get to the venue with homemade leftovers in my backpack; changing into concert black in the bathroom; getting onstage and playing; schmoozing with a bunch of people whose lives are very different from my own. Acting as if I belong; trying not to eat all the shrimp cocktail myself.

During our time at the Barnes Foundation, we were spoiled with particularly fancy catered lunches and dinners. We marveled at the gluten-free wraps filled with kale and curried carrot salad. We gazed at the bottles of orange-ginger-pineapple juice in wonder, and then quickly drank them. We laughed about how well we were being treated. “Is it weird that being in places this nice makes me uncomfortable?” one of my colleagues asked. I felt precisely the same way.

And I think we all know, intuitively, that our discomfort with wealth may in some ways be holding us back. It may be keeping us in starving-artist mode. We may need to get comfortable with money in order to free ourselves from the bonds of financial instability. That’s been part of my journey lately, but my experience at the Barnes showed me how far I still have to go.

It didn’t occur to me while I was in Philadelphia, but for advice on this topic, I could have consulted the Suze Orman personal finance book I recently bought for ninety-nine cents at a used bookstore. Its title, The Courage to be Rich, makes me squirm. I literally removed the dust jacket so that I could read it on the train without feeling like a complete hack.

Right in the very beginning of the book, Orman writes:

I want you to take a few minutes to consider how you feel about your financial situation today. Don’t think in terms of numbers, the bills, how much you owe, how much you’ve saved. Think instead about how you truly feel about your finances. Is money—the money you’ve spent, the money you have, the money you need—a source of constant worry for you? Do you feel that you’re not good enough to get what you want or that you don’t deserve what you have? Are you embarrassed by how much you have? Envious of what others have, angry that you don’t have such things? … You might surprise yourself by uncovering emotions that have been long buried.

When I got home from Philadelphia, it felt good to buy groceries, to cook my own food, to dwell in an environment built for comfort and not for status. And yet, the beauty and luxury of that arts institution supported the work and livelihood of twelve working artists for four days. There is no question that all that money was a force for good.

So here I am, admitting that wealth both frightens and interests me—mostly because of the power it has to sustain our art practice.

Here’s to getting a little less uncomfortable with money each day. God knows that if we can get it, it won't go to waste.




Composer/performer dating advice: no, they're not rejecting you

This post is dedicated to:

  • anyone who's ever felt sheepish about self-promoting
  • anyone who shudders at the thought of sending a cold e-mail
  • composers who want more performances of their music 
  • composers who are the shy, retiring, and/or polite.  

Okay. So you've got some really fantastic pieces that aren't being performed. You're trying to get that performance train a-rolling, but it feels stuck in the station. Don't lose heart! Before you get discouraged that performers are not all throwing their panties (and commissions) at you, here are some important things to remember about them. 

1. They're extremely busy. This one is obvious, but it's important to keep in mind, so that you don't take it personally if you're being "ignored" by performers. Most performers have to turn over an extremely high volume of gigs just to survive. Their work rhythm can be frantic, with back-to-back rehearsals and a lot of driving. (For a sobering take on what it's like to be, say, a regional orchestral freelancer, check out Jason Heath's Road Warrior Without an Expense Account.) Don't be sad that they haven't commissioned you or programmed your work yet. It's mostly because they haven't had time to think about it. 

Takeaway: don't interpret performers' silence as a lack of interest. 

2. Most performers operate on an "inbound request" model. Sure, some players are go-getters who start their own ensembles and series. But most players wait for the proverbial phone to ring, check their calendars, and say yes or no. They're used to people reaching out to them -- and it's not necessarily a bad sign that they haven't yet reached out to you. 

Takeaway: be proactive in setting up performances and opportunities. 

3. Performers genuinely need help finding good music to play. Many players would be excited to be part of a premiere, or to discover your awesome duet for two alto flutes at precisely the moment they need it. The problem is that (a) they don't always know where to look for new repertoire, (b) they don't spontaneously think of you in their moment of need. In order for them to find you and your music, you must be profoundly discoverable. You must be visible. You must place yourself in front of them and say, "Hello! I may have some music that you would like." 

Takeaway: Whether online, in person, or a combination of both, you must show your face often and remind performers of your existence. Also, reaching out to performers about your music, done right, is not harassment. It might even be helpful!

4. Performers want to feel seen and appreciated. It's amazing how rare it is that a composer takes the time to say to a performer, "I really admire your work for ________ reasons. I attended the _______ thing you recently launched, and it seems really exciting. I'd love to work with you!" This simple sentiment — I admire you, I have an interest in your work, and I'd love to work together — goes a long way. Especially if it's spoken from a genuine, collegial place.  

Takeaway: Pay attention to what performers are doing. Keep your ears perked up for shared interests and opportunities to connect. Develop an understanding of who they are, and take the time to express why you think a collaboration would be fruitful. (This is also known as "striking up a professional friendship.")

5. Performers want to feel engaged in the creative process. Making one's way in the world as an instrumentalist can sometimes feel like being a hamster on a wheel, churning out performances and moving on to the next. Performing a living artist's work is, at its best, a chance to step out of that monotony and be part of creation. The first time I prepared and premiered a new work, in the presence of a living composer, changed my life. (Thanks, Dr. Slayton!) It was so exciting to hear his insights, see his face light up when something went well, and know that I was bringing his creation to life. Ultimately, this is still one of the biggest things motivating my participation in contemporary music. 

Takeaway: bring performers into the creative fold, early in your process. If you've got some sketches for a new idea, share them with the person whom you'd love to give the premiere. If you'd like feedback on a draft, take your favorite saxophonist out to lunch. Treat performers as the smart, generous experts they can be, and you may see them turn into allies, advocates, and friends.

How Our Concept of the “Genius Composer” Is Hurting Everyone (Especially Women)

Many people bemoan the fact that women remain a small minority in the field of music composition. This has changed, and continues to change, for the better, but we have a long way to go. In this blog post, I’m going to make a concrete suggestion about how we might engage more young women, especially teenagers and college students, in the field. 

In this post, I will argue that if we actually want greater diversity in the composition of contemporary music, we may need to change the way we talk about composition. In particular, we may need to give up some of our ideas about genius composers.

I’ll start with a brief story. Two weeks ago, I was part of a residency with AnyWhen Ensemble at Oregon State University. My colleagues worked with jazz students and ensembles, while I taught a career workshop and … wait for it … guest-lectured at a composition seminar.

Two of my awesome career workshop participants. 

Two of my awesome career workshop participants. 

To find myself standing in front of a composition class (with my friend Doug, a legitimate professional composer) was startling, to say the least. After all, I purchased Finale just six months ago, and recently wrote my first fully notated works for ensemble. I primarily think of myself as a violinist and songwriter, not a composer. Yet there I was, standing before a group of eager and open-minded undergraduates.

While I was delighted to talk to them, what I really wanted to do was sneak around to other classrooms -- the violin studios, the choir sectionals, the music education seminars -- and whisper: Psst! Have you ever thought about making your own music? Want to talk about it? I wanted to talk to everyone at Oregon State who, like me, doesn’t identify as a composer, but who creates, or aspires to create, original music.

I believe there is a great deal of untapped musical creativity in these “non-composer” spaces at our schools of music. Why? Because for a very long time in classical music, labeling yourself as a composer has meant entering an intimidating and highly gendered (masculinized) space*. Looking around at the composition seminar at Oregon -- which is taught by a woman, but had only 1 woman out of 10 students -- I wondered about all the people who weren’t in the room, simply because of preconceived notions about what composition is or must be.

Here are some of the notions I had about composition throughout my twenties:

  • It is inherently complex, theoretical, and mathematical

  • It requires rare brilliance and genius

  • It involves technology and software and stuff that is over my head

  • Being a composer requires engagement in philosophical and aesthetic pissing matches

  • If you write easy or pretty music, you are a wimp/probably a girl

  • … therefore, it is not for me, because I am a woman and a Pisces and an ENFJ and I have a lot of feelings and I don’t know how to use Max MSP.

As you can see, these preconceived notions echo the hesitations of many intelligent young women who feel unwelcome in male-dominated fields like technology and philosophy*. Because of gender socialization, young women in particular may have a difficult time embracing the identity that classical music has historically constructed around “the composer.”

A 2015 study, done by an interdisciplinary team from Princeton and Urbana-Champaign, found that a field’s “perceived importance of brilliance or genius” was the single biggest factor that lowered women’s involvement in said field. “The argument is about the culture of the field,” one study author explained. “In our current cultural climate, where women are stereotypically seen as less likely to possess these special intellectual gifts, emphasizing that those gifts are required for success is going to have a differential effect on men and women.

Translation: if we want to get more women involved in composition, we may have to stop acting like composing requires particular genius or brilliance, and instead invite a wide variety of musicians to learn, work hard, and get their hands dirty in order to improve.

I imagine many people would resist this idea of demystifying (even democratizing?) composition. When I look at how composition is taught, and the division of labor in schools of music, it’s almost like we’re making composition seem super hard, remote, and specialized on purpose. It’s almost like we have a need to justify the continued existence of composition departments, in an increasingly corporatized university system that is hostile to the arts ... 

This is why it feels like sacrilege for me to write a post saying, “We need to stop acting like composing is this special thing, only reserved for certain people.” Because when I say that, it may sound like I am threatening one of the last remaining bastions of respect and financial stability and support for the creation of new music, which I totally don’t want to do! But I do want to acknowledge how, by protecting notions of genius and difficulty around composition, we are keeping a lot of people away from the field.

Let me clarify what I am NOT saying:

  • I am not saying that composing is easy.

  • I am not saying that composers are not brilliant.

  • I am not saying “everyone can do it” equally well.

  • I am not saying we should dismantle composition departments because they are elitist and patriarchal … although they often are.

What I AM saying is simply that our field should acknowledge ways in which the traditional definition of “composer” may exclude, intimidate, and alienate. What I am saying is that we would benefit from talking about composition in a way that explicitly welcomes those the field has traditionally left out.

The de-mystification of composing could have a ton of positive ripple effects. Chief among them, of course, is that more women, people of color, and self-trained/outsider musicians might actually consider walking into a composition seminar room.

Another big potential benefit? If composing was something everyone did (or at least tried), performers would have a better attitude about playing new music. This is a big one. I really think, if we made composition study more commonplace, we’d see a big reduction in anti-composer snark. Part of (some) performers’ bad attitudes towards composers is actually a reaction against this idea of superiority and genius. Performers are all like, “You think you’re Beethoven!? Well then, why did you write XYZ dumb thing?” It’s not pretty.

All performers should experience the difficulty of conceiving a musical idea, putting it on paper, and watching another human being grapple with it. It is hard, humbling, and exhilarating, and they’ll never look at scores the same way again.

What do you think? Could a deliberate de-mystification of composing help our field?


* Anytime anyone says anything about women in any field, the following disclaimer is often required: Yes, there are tons of accomplished women in science, technology, philosophy, and music composition. Even so, women remain in the minority. My operating assumption here is that women successfully enter the field in spite of these challenges and barriers, and that more women would participate (i.e., women would no longer be such a small minority) if said barriers were removed.

How to become an unstoppable job candidate (so you can build the career you really want)


Dear Ellen, 

I am a baritone in Chicago studying vocal performance.  I recently came across your blog about working in arts administration while still aspiring towards a performing career. This is something that resonates with me - for I would love to have a part time job with steady pay that is related to the arts, yet doesn't inhibit thing such things as rehearsals or auditions. However, in undergrad, these types of concepts are never taught. Because of such,  I have very limited resources related to arts administration. Would you have any suggestions of where to start as a performer who is looking find a position in this field?

Thank you for your time.


Businesslike Baritone

Dear Businesslike Baritone (B.B. for short),

When I first read your letter, I felt totally frustrated on your behalf. It’s such a shame that many music schools aren’t talking to their undergrads about very real and pressing concerns. The most important of which is: Um, how the hell am I going to pay my rent after I get out of here??

Then I started thinking about what advice to give you, and I immediately froze up. If I give B.B. advice about a day job, does that sound like I’m giving up on him?! I wondered. I don’t WANT B.B. to sit at a desk! I want him to keep SINGING!

This is how I feel, and I don’t even know you. So imagine how all your professors feel! Suddenly, I understand why our musical mentors stick their fingers in their ears and go “LA LA LA YOU’LL NEVER NEED A DAY JOB LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU. Students loans, what student loans? Now let’s sing some Wolff lieder.”

It doesn’t excuse it, but it’s true. They love you so much, they don’t want you to have to struggle or compromise. They don’t really want to imagine how tough it’s going to be out there.

Anyway, B.B., here are a few ideas. I hope these will make you a stronger candidate when you set out to land an awesome, part-time day job that supports your artistic career. Here’s what I’m going to advise you to think about:


First, take a hard look at what relevant experience you already have. You may think you don’t have any, but look closer. Have you ever worked a service job of any kind? Ever earned work-study money on a stage crew or behind a reception desk? Did you do a community service project required for a class? Brainstorm on this with trusted teachers, friends, even your parents. Write everything down. This is the raw material that your career center or job placement office can help you shape into a resume. Also, while you’re at it, jot down which work experiences you enjoyed the most. This will be important information when you decide what skill-building opportunities to pursue. (More on that later.)

If you’ve really never worked a day in your life, you’re going to need to start. Before you do that, though ...


Assess your natural strengths. You know yourself and what you’re naturally good at. Are you super detail oriented, always responding to emails quickly and keeping track of logistics? Are you a great writer who loves to tell stories in words? Are you a natural “people person,” persuasive and charming? Ask a few trusted friends and mentors for an honest assessment of your natural strengths. There’s also a great little book called StrengthsFinder 2.0 which might help. I borrowed my copy from the Chicago Public Library -- one of the most amazing free career resources in the world. Your university library probably has it, too.

Employers want to know about your skills and strengths, but you need a clear idea about them, too. It will help you choose what jobs, internships, and skill-building opportunities you should go for, so that you can build more experience in the areas where you’re already naturally strong.


Next, hone in on the jobs) you’re interested in. Now that you’ve looked closely at your past work experience, assessed what you enjoyed, and spent time thinking about your natural strengths, you’re probably getting some ideas about the areas of work you want to focus on. Just to brainstorm a few possibilities, maybe you’re interested in:

  • development: fundraising, grant-writing, donor relations, asking people for money

  • marketing: building sales, audience, and reputation through print, web, social media, etc.

  • operations: getting the rehearsal space, chairs, stands, instruments, and humans organized so that rehearsals and concerts run smoothly

  • audio and video documentation: using sound and video equipment, taking photographs, editing audio

  • library work: preparing sheet music for conductors and performers

  • reception work: greeting people, answering phones, record-keeping, assisting your colleagues, helping an office or school run smoothly


Once you've chosen a job or two, check out the relevant job listings on Chicago Artists Resource.

What skills and experience are the employers looking for?

Which of those skills do you already have? (Celebrate!)

Which ones don’t you have?

How can you get them?

This last one is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you start taking action! You’ve got to think hard about the opportunities you have, right now, to start building knowledge and skill in the areas where you are weak.


Here are some knowledge-building and skill-building steps you could take:

  • Identify 5 people who know more than you about the field you’re trying to work in. Take them out for coffee, and ask them for a little help. You’ve got a friend who’s a PhotoShop whiz? See if he would tutor you for cheap. Your friend works in the Admissions office? Ask for an introduction to her boss.

  • Identify 3 skills you need to be competitive on the job market. Find out how you can build those skills. Is there an affordable class you can take on Coursera, Udemy, or even at your very own school? Is there an online YouTube tutorial to help you get started?


At last, you’re ready to make your skill-building mission statement!


1. When I graduate, I’d love to get a part time job in ______________ field, or maybe _____________ field, to support my singing career.

2. In order to be a good candidate, I need more experience with ______________ and I need to learn how to ______________ and _______________.

3. I’m going to talk to the following 5 people about next steps: _________________, _________________, __________________, ___________________, and ____________________.

4. I’m going to build skills on my own by pursuing the following 3 avenues already available to me:





Good luck, B.B. You're the greatest. And keep me posted on how it’s going!



If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends! 

Got a question for Ellen McSweeney, the founder of Artist's Huddle? Send your question to ellen.mcsweeney [at] gmail.com. 

Why I Quit Playing and Got a Desk Job (And Why You Should, Too)

This past July, after one of the busiest concert seasons of my life, I got really burned out on being an entrepreneurial violinist/writer. Desperate for some kind of change, I started applying for full-time day jobs.

I was really tired of:

  • not knowing where my next check was coming from

  • struggling to birth projects in the jungle of other people’s schedules and priorities

  • fighting for press, attention, attendance, and funding

  • cramming anxiously for my next gig

  • getting onstage with too little rehearsal    

  • … did I mention not knowing where my next check was coming from?

Maybe you’re familiar with some of the above struggles. Taken together, they paint a picture of how tough it can be to stay in good spirits, good health, and good financial shape as a creative musician in a big city. These are the complaints we hear from our fellow musicians so often, usually followed by a heavy sigh. These are the difficulties that sometimes send us looking for greener pastures.

Well, I found those pastures. After applying for a few positions, I was lucky enough to land a full-time, salaried job with a Chicago arts organization. I had great co-workers, a nice office, and work that played to my strengths  I felt like an orphan who had suddenly been offered a place at someone’s table.

Six months later, I sing a very different tune. I’ve transitioned to a part-time role at my office, and my perspective has dramatically shifted. I’m completely reinvested in being a musician, and I have a clear-eyed appreciation for the challenges and privileges of building a musical career. It’s not that my complaints weren’t valid -- they were -- but now I understand that they are the price of admission for the privilege of living a life in music.  

Hooray! Attitude has been adjusted in a positive direction!

Hooray! Attitude has been adjusted in a positive direction!

I was thirty years old by the time I took my first full-time “job job,” and its lessons have been invaluable. If you’ve ever longed for the comfort of a steady arts admin paycheck, you should absolutely go for it. Let me give you five reasons why:

1. You will find out very quickly how important your art-making is to you. What happens when forty hours of your life each week are eaten by nonmusical activities? Do yourself a favor and find out. Personally, my “ah-ha” moment was the week that I set my alarm for five-thirty every day so I could hustle to a downtown practice room and squeeze in 40 minutes of playing time before I got to my office. I thought I didn’t want to be a player anymore. The evidence suggested otherwise.

My kitchen usually looked like this during the "wake up at 5:30 a.m." era.

My kitchen usually looked like this during the "wake up at 5:30 a.m." era.

2. You will develop a deep appreciation for the people who work behind the scenes to make your gigs possible. At my organization, seven smart, wonderful people work full-time ensuring that rehearsal space gets booked, tickets get bought, seasons get planned, taxes get paid, and paychecks get mailed on time. They work tirelessly behind the scenes, and do not receive the standing ovations that the musicians do. If you watch a great admin team at work for any length of time, you’ll never see your gigs the same way again. Many musicians -- myself included -- could use a dose of gratitude and humility towards the people who enable their work to take place.

3. You may realize that “easy” isn’t what you want. Trying to assemble a rewarding, financially solvent living as a musician takes tremendous ingenuity, skill, and persistence. It’s totally natural to be exhausted, or need a break, or want to throw in the towel and do something easier. So go ahead, take a job that feels “easy” to you and see how long you can go before you brain starts asking for the old challenges again.  

We drove to Omaha for a low-paying gig -- one of the highlights of my year. #hardisgood

We drove to Omaha for a low-paying gig -- one of the highlights of my year. #hardisgood

4. The freedom-versus-security question will become crystal clear to you. There is a reason that full-time jobs pay you a reasonable salary. It’s because they take all of your time. The ability to choose gigs and projects, take unpaid time off for passion projects, and decide how your day is going to go, is a privilege that has both costs and benefits.

5. You’ll either get your ass in gear, or you won’t. I thought I might be someone who made a permanent, meaningful career move away from performance and into something different. Turns out, the hunger is still there for me. But the other outcome -- realizing that I’m happier in an office -- would’ve been okay, too. There’s only one way to find out.

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The reason you're having trouble figuring your career out

The reason you are having trouble figuring your career out is this: 

Making it in this world as an artist is ACTUALLY REALLY HARD. 

It's not because you are weak-willed, or naive, not smart enough or not talented enough. It's not because you are a self-involved millennial. (Don't get me started on that whole line of thinking.) You might be any or all of these things, but that still wouldn't explain why this stuff is so tough. 

You're in between various rocks and hard places. Their names are Time, Money, Supply, Demand, Labor, Culture, Competition, and Wages, among other things. You aren't in charge of any of that stuff, as I'm sure you've noticed by now. You're subject to these forces and they are shaping your life.

I say this not to discourage you, but to liberate you from the illusion that the difficulty of your life is somehow yours alone to solve. It isn't. The survival of artists in the 21st century will be a team effort involving universal health care, less student loan debt, affordable housing, and the prioritizing of culture in our schools and cities. Among other things. (It's no coincidence that these are the precise issues affecting not just artists, but everyone who is economically marginalized in our society.)

If you put all of this on your own shoulders, you will crumble. So, what should you focus on instead?

Instead of viewing yourself like Hercules, trying to muscle your way through with maximum effort, I invite you to think about your career as a series of experiments. I invite you to imagine yourself as a scientist, examining variables, hypotheses, methods, and results with a cool head and a keen eye. 

There are two main laboratory spaces in which you will work.

LAB 1: Yourself. As you try different things in your career, keep an ear cocked towards what your inner voice is telling you. Is your work creating feelings of joy, curiosity, community, warmth, possibility, growth? Is it creating fear, anxiety, challenge, boredom, numbness, or moral anguish? Where is your "edge" in terms of comfort versus challenge? What kind of pain has proved valuable for you? What kind of pain hasn't? Let the answers to these questions steer you a bit.

Career experiment #574829: improvising with butoh dancers. Self-lab results: positive. 

Career experiment #574829: improvising with butoh dancers. Self-lab results: positive. 

A word of caution about this lab: Your results can easily be thrown off by things like anxiety, depression, recent loss, and life turmoil. Trust your gut, but know when it may be off-kilter. Check in with people who know you well. Seek hugs. It's not easy, what you're trying to do.  


LAB 2: The world. As you try different things in your career, watch carefully for how your community responds. This information can come in many forms: what concerts people show up for (and don't), which Facebook threads get people talking, which project is funded with ease, which paychecks come on time. As you survey your work in recent years, ask yourself: What do I do that seems to be most interesting and useful to people? Let the answer to this question steer you a bit. 

Sometimes the world asks you to play in Millennium Park with someone more famous than you.

Sometimes the world asks you to play in Millennium Park with someone more famous than you.

A word of caution about this lab: Sometimes, you may find out what the world finds interesting about you, but you won't like the answer. For example, the world has often found my writing interesting — a privilege, and a good career opportunity to boot. However,  I was still fervently wishing that the world would find my performing more interesting, and I downplayed my writing abilities for years. Ignore the world at your peril; don't argue with God, etc. 

To sum up: Paying careful attention to the results of your experiments, in both of these laboratories, can be a refuge when "figuring your career out" feels absolutely daunting. Focus on what's in front of you. Know that the process is continuously unfolding. Keep chiseling, digging, and tinkering away. 

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Career Advice That Might Actually Apply To Musicians, Volume 1

I’m on a quest to find out if so-called “great career books” can help us musicians at all. Here we go.  

I’m about halfway through Cal Newport’s fascinating book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: How Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. But I can’t wait until the book is done to start writing about it. There’s some stuff in here we’ve GOT to talk about.

Part 1: Passion vs. Craftsman Mindset

Newport’s book is a takedown of what he calls the passion mindset, also known as the “do what you love and the money will follow” hypothesis. Instead, he lifts up the craftsman mindset. The craftsman focuses on developing unique and valuable skills — which he calls career capital — and offering them to the world. “No one owes you a great career,” Newport summarizes. “You need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”

Whom does he lift up as the shining example of this hardworking craftsman mindset? Uh, musicians. He visits a successful bluegrass guitarist, observes his obsessive and careful practice, and concludes that more working people need to be like musicians. It’s one of the book’s pivotal moments.

In so many ways, he’s right. Musicians are not afraid of hard work. We know how to get really good at something. We understand what Newport calls deliberate practice, i.e. how to constantly “stretch” and master new skills. This is something that many people in other professions have less experience doing.

Pat yourself on the back, sure. But keep in mind that 50 pages later, Newport will introduce his so-called “law of financial viability”: Do what people are willing to pay for.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

The conundrum here? As every musician knows, it's making the connection between craftsmanship and money that is our greatest challenge. 

Part 2: Winner-take-all Markets vs. Auction Markets

Later in the book, Newport makes the distinction between two types of job markets in which people “spend” career capital. There’s the winner-take-all market, in which one very specific type of capital is valuable, with many people competing. And there’s the auction market, in which many different types of capital are valuable, and each person might generate a unique collection.

You can probably guess that Newport places musicians in the winner-take-all category. (He puts Hollywood script writers and lifestyle bloggers there, too.) To stand a chance in hell of surviving, we’ve got to be really good. Better than everyone else, in fact.

Of course, this is the premise on which traditional conservatory education is based. For performers, the level of our instrumental skill is of paramount importance. 200 people show up for one orchestral job; we’ve got to just be better than everyone else, right? And that means more deliberate practice, right? The craftsman mentality will work … right?!

I just don't know anymore.

I just don't know anymore.

Newport isn't an arts education expert, so he doesn't deal with this next topic. But this made me think immediately about arts entrepreneurship, which in some ways is the musical establishment's acknowledgment that the craftsman mindset has its limitations. “You do you,” arts entrepreneurship says (in part). “Every musician is a unique snowflake and there’s room for most of us at the table if we can find our niche.”

So, my questions are these:

  • are we seeing music education reconceptualize the arts economy, which they used to see as a winner-take-all market, as an auction market instead?
  • by applying the “unique snowflake” theory of entrepreneurship, are we attempting to sidestep the craftsman mindset?

  • in music, is there really only room for “the best”? And what does that even mean?

TALK TO ME: I read a lot of this career literature nonsense, and this is one of th most thought-provoking books I’ve picked up on the topic. Readers, what are your thoughts? Leave a comment or tweet @ellen_mcsweeney. Also, be sure you're signed up for the Email Huddle! to continue the conversation. 


Why instrumentalists are "so over" their instruments

There's a trend emerging right now in contemporary music circles: instrumentalists wanting to transcend, or even abandon altogether, their traditional orchestral instruments. This isn't a new idea, necessarily -- after all, fifty years ago, John Cage was writing instructions for bowing a cactus. But in our contemporary moment, I think it's an interesting impulse to examine. What is it about conservatory training for instrumentalists that has some of us dying to escape the instrument's confines? Why do some of us feel that our agency and creativity is limited when we pick up the instrument we've been playing for decades? After a recent performance by the exciting Chicago ensemble Mocrep, in which no standard instruments were used, I overheard one member joke to another: "Instruments are so over, man." 

In the coming weeks, I'm going to be tackling this question from a few different angles. I'll make it the subject of an upcoming episode of my podcast, and in late February, I'll have an article coming out in NewMusicBox on the topic. (Speaking of Mocrep: just after pitching the topic to my editor, they announced their workshop in Darmstadt. The title? "Just Beyond Our Instruments Is The World.") For an example of the fascinating work the group is presenting without instruments, check out this video. 

Last but not least, I'm trying to address this question directly through my own practice as a violinist. After all, I'm the person whose classical string trio experimented with devised movement and theatrical adaptation. I myself have often felt constricted and limited when my violin is up on my shoulder. And yet the violin is one of the most powerful creative tools I have. I'd like to find a way to marry the rigor and beauty of my classical string training with the poetry, freedom, and sense of experimentation that's important to me now. One of my goals for 2016 is to heal and redefine my relationship with the violin: making sure that, while I venture into new creative territory, I don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. (The baby being the violin.) I think this is a concern that many of my peers share, and I'm excited to share what I learn here on Artist's Huddle.       

Things to let go of, things to cultivate in the New Year

I've come to realize that the arrival of the New Year is truly one of my favorite holidays. It's a time for reflection, for gratitude, and for the simple excitement of making a new start. And it's the one day of the year when writing in your journal truly feels like a national pastime. I love it!

As artists, we are so fortunate. We have a great deal of choice and agency as we shape our daily reality, pivoting to new projects and challenges when the moment is right. However, this also places a huge amount of pressure on us to make decisions constantly. We can't go on auto-pilot. We have to be centered and clearly aligned in order to create the lives we want. That's where intention becomes so important. 

This year, I was lucky to spend a quiet New Year's Day weekend with my partner, Susan. We went on some wonderful winter walks, drank some fabulous coffee, and enjoyed each other's company in the quiet of Madison, Wisconsin. I spent a good amount of time writing in my journal, thinking about what I want to cultivate in 2016 and what I want to let go. 

I hope you'll share some of your own reflections, and link me to your own blog posts, in the comments. 

In the "letting go" category:

  • Needing things to be perfect.
  • Needing things to be perfect, RIGHT NOW.
  • Comparing myself to others.
  • Searching for answers outside myself. 

In the "cultivating" category: 

  • Letting my body lead.
  • The courage to dream, and then to act.
  • Asking for help and support. 

They don't look like a whole lot on paper, but I believe if I can keep these gentle resolutions in mind, my life and art will be truly transformed. 

So looking forward to hearing what you've got cooking in 2016. Be sure to sign up for Email Huddle, our weekly round-up of news, inspiration, and resources. You might also enjoy my personal weekly letter, The Pearl

May all your coffee drinks be this adorable in the New Year.

The State of Music Criticism, vol. 1: Can performers be critics?

A small hubbub recently arose on Facebook when my friend, the composer Shawn Allison, posed a question. 

As it turns out, Chicago's most prominent music critic had taken the Spahlinger Festival to task for what he viewed as poor marketing. Ouch! A good-natured discussion among members of the Chicago new music community ensued. Meanwhile, the folks who had slaved over the Festival probably had a bit of steam coming out of their ears. Putting together a massive event like that is not easy, and to be publicly scolded for not promoting it well enough is not pleasant. Also, although von Rhein perceived the University of Chicago as spearheading the festival, the reality (as with most grassroots project) was more complex and less ... well-funded.

As the Facebook discussion unfolded, a familiar point arose: the lack of informed, sympathetic journalists covering new music in Chicago.

Of course, this was of interest to me, so I chimed in: 

Nomi brings up an important point: if a performer is writing about the work of other performers, is that a conflict of interest? It's a worry that I've had myself, in my years of writing about music. But I believe this concern is rooted in a vision of music criticism that no longer serves us. In this "old way" of seeing music criticism: 

  • the critic is objective, and is not swayed by personal relationships with anyone onstage;
  • the critic is an expert, whose knowledge means they can weigh in about what is good or bad;
  • the critic assesses value, thus affecting the prestige, popularity, and financial success of an artistic endeavor. 
  • the critic might give the project a public thrashing (i.e., a terrible review).

This is the opposite of how I have always approached writing about music. In my personal vision of engaging in criticism, 

  • I am approach the performance from within the artistic community, and I am fundamentally sympathetic to the existence of the work;
  • I understand my perspective to be subjective. Some of the most interesting writing in the world is highly subjective, and objectivity is probably an illusion anyway.
  • I work to understand the work on its own terms, and to place the work in dialogue with other works of art that feel relevant to me. My job is not to assess value, but to understand and connect. 
  • If I cannot sympathize with or connect to the work, I simply do not write about it. (Composer Dave Reminick, whose mother was a food critic for 25 years, described it this way: "She tells people where to eat. She doesn't tell them where not to eat.") 

What do you think, dear readers? Is such a vision of criticism naive? 

How can music be a part of healing trauma?

I'm in the midst of reading The Body Keeps The Score, an incredible book about trauma. Its author, Bessel van der Kolk, has been on the front lines of research about psychological trauma for several decades. As someone who worked with traumatized Vietnam veterans early in his career, he led a major wave of treatment and research about PTSD. He has also worked extensively with victims of sexual assault, natural disasters, and child abuse (a phenomenon which is a lot more "normal" than we might like to think).

Here is Dr. van der Kolk. Healing the world, one video at a time.

Here is Dr. van der Kolk. Healing the world, one video at a time.

The book paints a picture of our world that is difficult to bear, but one that we must come to grips with. A large percentage of our society has experienced major trauma. And, as van der Kolk masterfully demonstrates, trauma creates a complex constellation of physical and emotional symptoms that haunt victims for the rest of their lives. Unprocessed, trauma can inhibit our most basic functioning as human beings, leaving us to repeat and replicate it. Trauma victims do not fit neatly into traditional diagnoses, and their symptoms can be stubbornly unresponsive to drugs. 

At the end of 2015 -- a year that left us asking, "What the hell is wrong with our world?!" -- this is an important book to read. The pain of unprocessed trauma is, at least in part, what's wrong with our world.

In the final section of the book, van der Kolk discusses some of the treatment pathways and healing practices that are effective in treating trauma. He names several things that are important for us musicians to consider. 

1. Communal singing, rhythm-making, dancing, improvisation, and play have a demonstrably healing effect on trauma victims. (Keep in mind, here, that trauma victims are not some tiny part of the population. They are everywhere.) He is not speaking only of music therapy, but of active engagement with a communal musical practice of some kind.

2. Humans cannot heal from trauma without establishing a network of supportive, healing human relationships -- the very kind of relationships often forged through creative practices. 

Although I haven't finished the book yet, I can't help but think of what a powerful discipline and art we've chosen as musicians. Not only are we equipped to help ourselves heal from the inevitable traumas we might face, we are uniquely able to be part of others' healing, too. How can we use the tool of music to help heal the wounds of our world?

As I continue to move through the book and seek out additional resources, I will keep you posted on what further things I find on the topic.  

Welcome to the Artist's Huddle blog!

Greetings, friends new and old! 

Welcome to the Artist's Huddle blog, the space where I'll explore some of the questions and topics that I find most exciting, perplexing, and important for us as 21st century artists and human beings. These are the questions that I ask myself, and also the questions I hear my friends, colleagues, and clients asking. I hope this blog will give you a sense of who I am, what interests me, and the sensibilities and priorities I bring to my work as a performer, teacher, writer, coach ... and whatever else I find myself doing at the moment.

One of the reason I started Artist's Huddle is to build a very broad platform for my research and ideas, so that I could invite others into the conversation. One of my passions is to make connections between disciplines and ideas that we might not ordinarily connect. You'll see me talking about topics like depression, burnout, and trauma; meditation and yoga; financial well-being and relationship development; and of course, how these affect creative people in particular. I'm constantly reading, researching, and learning; sharing my findings with others is a natural outgrowth of my own learning process. 

Thank you for reading and for joining me! And don't forget to join the Email Huddle, so you won't miss a bit of what's happening both online and in person.

Old friends (Chicago Q Ensemble) meet new (Stranded Silver) at the Savvy Musician in Action conference in 2015. This conference was one of my favorite-ever "huddles of artists". :) 

Old friends (Chicago Q Ensemble) meet new (Stranded Silver) at the Savvy Musician in Action conference in 2015. This conference was one of my favorite-ever "huddles of artists". :)