music career

Connecting at the MN Music Coalition Summit

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My word for 2018 is CONNECT, and it’s been in full force so far (setting an intention makes a difference!) I’m open to connecting with any interesting people, but I especially wanted to form and strengthen relationships with women musicians, both locally, and via social media.

Since the beginning of 2018, I have:

  • started a Sunday shout-out series on Instagram where I highlight women creatives doing awesome work
  • kept up with Binders of Women in Minnesota Music, a very supportive private Facebook group
  • performed my music with Jenny Klukken at a MacPhail Faculty Recital in February (video here)
  • met more local women musicians through friends and through hosting another local women musicians happy hour with Lauren Husting
  • made plans to play shows with Susan Shehata (accompanying her in a cabaret performance called “What’s Your Story”) and Jen Bluhm (an all-waltz show - she goes by the name Waltzing on Waves) in May
  • made friends with more musicians on Instagram that seem to align with my values
  • finally figured out that I like networking, as long as it’s in smaller doses, and in a scenario where I’m surrounded by interesting people, like Giant Steps last October, and the Minnesota Music Coalition Summit, which just happened last weekend.

I wasn’t able to attend all of the events over the 3 days of the Summit, but everything I went to was excellent, and I even just realized that all of the panelists/speakers that I saw on Friday afternoon were women:

Andrea Swensson in conversation with Lori Barbero

I loved this conversation - Lori seems very down-to-earth and sounds just like your Minnesotan aunt (if you didn't know, she co-founded the punk band Babes in Toyland. She told lots of great stories about famous musicians of the 90s, and talked about her amazing-sounding project with local artist Chris Larson: MN All-Girls Music Studio, for girls ages 6-15 to come and form bands and make recordings, for free!

Gig Gear w/Molly Maher

This presentation was geared toward guitarists (as Molly Maher is a guitar tech), but I still found it super interesting. She went through her guitar tech gig bag, which has literally eveything someone might need on stage (and I learned that steel wool near a 9 volt battery can start a fire, some solid MacGyver-ish info!) I also learned a bit about sound, how to diagnose troubles on stage (my keyboard setup is super simple but I would feel lost branching outside of that), and some of her opinions on what kinds of cables are the highest quality (American-made, with lifetime warranty).

Looping for vocals with Lynn O’Brien

Lynn talked about her setup and process for creating songs with vocal loops. She values the spontaneity of doing this on the spot, but plenty of people also pre-record loops and just play them back live. She uses a Boss loop station that allows her more flexibility with layering and saving more tracks than the previous pedals she’d used.

Behind the Board with Holly Hansen

Holly answered questions about running your own sound at shows, something that I know very little about. She affirmed that the best tool you have is to trust your own ears - no one knows your sound better than you, and don’t let sound people convince you otherwise (especially if you’re a woman, being mansplained.) She also had lots of great advice about recording in studio, such as giving reference tracks to the engineer ahead of time, pacing yourself by not recording too many hours each day, and being extremely prepared (plenty of rehearsal, and good physical condition - eating well, getting enough sleep, etc.) Lastly, she recommended that everyone sign up for a (free!) subscription to Tape Op magazine to learn more about engineering.

Panel on Crowdfunding

This panel was led by local musicians Vicky Emerson and 2 others (a father/son duo whose names I unfortunately didn’t write down), and was one of the most helpful for me, since my Kickstarter is launching on May 29! They talked about the importance of knowing your fan base and what they like (by tracking attendance and sales at shows), making people part of the journey by having a compelling, concise story and a video that grabs people’s attention quickly, and using the psychology of momentum (joiner effect) to your advantage, possibly by doing a campaign that’s shorter than a month (for your sanity, too!) Since Vicky has done a few Kickstarters already, and has one underway right now, she also had some great promotion ideas (release a new track, do a live video, have a giveaway), and tips for reward incentives (watch out for expenses, especially postage, and putting good rewards in the $25-50 range where the most people will give).

Getting to Know the Jerome Foundation

Jerome Foundation president Ben Cameron and Kris Kautzman, Manager of Community Partnerships at American Composers Forum outlined the Jerome Fellowship criteria and typical winners, since the deadline is coming up on May 8. I had to leave this one early, but they gave some good advice about grant writing, such as considering where the funder is listening for (what do they care about?)

Mentor session with composer Will Van De Crommert

I signed up for a 15-minute conversation with Will to learn more about film and TV composing. He suggested that the first step is to become comfortable with self-producing my own music, and gave me a list of the gear and software that would enable me to do that. He also mentioned that some places to connect with filmmakers would be MN Film Board meetings, or looking on campuses like MCTC or MCAD for film students.

Being Your Authentic Self with PaviElle (interviewed by Janis Lane-Ewart)

I always love anything that affirms our ability to show up and be our authentic selves, so, of course, I loved this conversation. They talked a lot about how PaviElle manifests her personal authenticity - by putting her own values first, creating change in her community, and “doing things from the heart” from a young age, though she was different than her peers in many ways. I liked her answer to a question about how to collect inspiration when the opportunity strikes (since she works a day job) - she takes a quick break and goes to a little-used bathroom and sings into her voice recorder, and keeps a text file open for lyric ideas. My favorite part, though, was her quote, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.” That’s what we all have to do as creative people on our own paths that reveal themselves one step at a time, and PaviElle is such an inspiring example of following your own path!

There were also more great-sounding sessions that I unfortunately didn’t get to attend, like Racism in the Music Industry, Creating Safe Spaces for Artists, Protecting Artists in Music Transactions and Against Inappropriate Behavior Toward Women, How To Get Asked Back (about booking etiquette), and a keynote by Venus DeMars, sharing her story as a transgender artist. Music business-related events like this could easily trend toward being very white male-centric, but it was great to see the effort that Minnesota Music Coalition made toward inclusion of a much more diverse group of presenters.

Overall, this was an awesome event, and I’m really glad that I braved the beginning of a blizzard to go (luckily I live under 15 minutes away on city streets). It was great to connect with more local musicians, and being inspired always helps me connect internally with my goals and my overall direction as a musician. I have attended lots of professional development events as a piano teacher, but it was really nice to attend something that supports my own music career as a performer.

Speaking of which, my Kickstarter for my upcoming Brazilian album officially has a launch date!

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If you want to stay in the loop on the Kickstarter and upcoming gigs, be sure to hop on my mailing list here!

What’s the best networking or professional development event you’ve attended? Let me know in the comments!

How I Became A Composer

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My path to becoming a composer has been roundabout, but I thought I’d share a bit about how I got to the work I’m doing today - and it’s not through a whole lot of training specifically in composition!

Much to my regret, I don’t remember many opportunities to be creative in my piano lessons as a child - improvisation and composition weren’t part of my experience. (That’s why I have all of my students do both, and even improvise at the very first lesson!) Looking back, I remember more of a perspective of right notes vs. wrong notes. I can’t remember my early piano education fully, but I know that I was a very shy kid, and could have used more encouragement to create my own music, instead of just playing others’ music (although, that is great, too).

My first experience was an elective music theory/composition class in high school, in which we were given very little guidance - the class was basically spent going through modules of music theory software (most of which I’d learned already in piano lessons), and working independently on our pieces. I don’t remember any criticism that I received on my writing, constructive or otherwise (and I would remember that, since I was such a perfectionist back then), so I assume that we just got a few comments on our final projects. I learned something from trying to write, but didn’t get to develop my skills like I would have if there were feedback throughout the whole semester.

My path to becoming a professional musician had some fits and starts, too - I actually quit piano lessons with my longtime teacher after 11th grade, with the idea that I was going to switch to a jazz piano teacher, but I never followed through on that, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I didn’t consider majoring in music because I didn’t believe that I could do it. Back then I had a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (read Mindset by Carol Dweck!) - despite years of practice and learning on the piano, I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to grow. I eventually decided to audition to be a music minor at Ithaca College, started with the required theory, sightsinging, and lessons, while trying out other types of classes, too. Toward the end of my freshman year, my advisor had commented to me that she thought I had too many classes in my minor, which then solidified my feeling that music was indeed supposed to be my focus. I decided to audition to be a music major soon afterward, was officially admitted into the program, and still managed to graduate in 4 years! So, even though I didn’t initially choose music, it kind of chose me.

My lack of confidence about my playing abilities at that time also extended to my composing abilities. I didn’t do much more writing, if any, after that high school class because I still didn’t feel “qualified” - I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the idea that you have to do something more (and more!) to become better at it and gain confidence. During my last semester of college in 2005, I decided to sign up for another composition class, which was (unsurprisingly) much more helpful, since we wrote weekly assignments, and got useful feedback. (I was going to show an example here, but sadly, I think that those files are lost, and my office closet is too scary to dig through and maybe find a paper copy!) I do remember that my style back then was to overcomplicate things because I didn’t want it to be TOO EASY - I used some interesting rhythms and melodies, but things often got too clunky because I tried to cram too many ideas in - I was using my brain too much, and not trusting my ears enough.

I still didn’t continue the habit of composing after college, but every so often, I would write down a snippet of something. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of writing something for real, so this felt like a safe way to collect ideas.

Then, about 5 years ago, I applied to play at a faculty recital at one of the schools where I teach, with the proposal that I would write a couple solo piano arrangements of Brazilian choros. Before that, I’d written many arrangements for my students (mostly simplifications), but it was the biggest arranging project I’d taken on thus far, with a deadline to motivate me to finish (let’s be real)! Over the next few years, I wrote more arrangements of Brazilian songs for these recitals - this felt like a safe entry point because arranging gives you a sort of template - and began to take on other arranging projects. Each year I got more and more adventurous with my writing, while in the meantime, I would still write down original snippets of things occasionally, but rarely do anything more with them.

In October 2015, I was tired of not taking myself seriously enough, and decided to give myself a personal challenge to write a little bit every day in the month. Although I wasn’t brave enough to share my work at the time, one of these snippets eventually turned into my Brazilian choro Anelante!

That December, my trio played a composition by our cellist Aaron Kerr at the New Ruckus Composer Night, a monthly event for sharing original music (of any kind) here in St. Paul. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I don’t have anything written, but I should get in line anyway - a deadline will be motivating.” (Are you seeing a theme here?) I eventually got programmed on a July 2016 date, and had finished the first section of what is now Anelante to perform, as well as another contrapuntal mini-piece for piano. Performing my music was really scary at first, since I didn’t quite believe that I was officially a composer, but it was a great experience, and to my delight, I got lots of positive feedback.

Showing up in public to share my work was the push I needed to write more - I began to actually feel like a composer, and decided to start calling myself one, which felt like a big deal. I also started to notice my self-critical brain’s grip loosening - less often asking “is this good?” than “do I like how this sounds?” (Still a work in progress, but I do believe in growth mindset - anything can improve if we give it our attention.) I had finished the B section of Anelante over the winter (Brazilian choros typically have 3 major sections), and signed up for another New Ruckus date in April 2017 to force myself to finish it.

The real turning point that increased my output and commitment to the creative process of composing was signing up for the 100 Day Project in 2017 (which I wrote about a lot here), a global art project in which people do a project of their choice for 100 days in a row, and post it to Instagram. I decided that I would write 8 measures of music each day, of any type - the main point was to show up every day and do it.

Showing my work daily was also scary at first, but I quickly became desensitized to it, so it became much more fun. After the 100 days ended in mid-July, I found that I actually missed this daily habit of writing music, so I did another 100 days at the end of 2018, too! (Thoughts on that here.) 

I’ve now shared a lot about how I became a composer, but not yet why - I’ve known for a while that it’s not enough for me just to interpret others’ music (which I also have great respect for). Also, as a recovering perfectionist, I was most often in a right vs. wrong mindset when playing classical music, which felt unhealthy for me. I remember moments of practicing for a concert or audition, playing a “wrong” note or chord, thinking, “Ooh, that sounded cool,” then shutting down that creative spark because I was supposed to be learning that piece, not making up my own stuff (which sounds super sad to me now!) All aspects of solving the creative puzzle that is writing a piece of music are engaging for my brain, and most importantly, it just feels like fulfilling a deep need (that maybe I can’t exactly explain - how do you explain anything that you fall in love with?)

Even though I did go to music school, a traditional path, my path to composing was not academically traditional at all - when I was in school, it didn’t even occur to me that majoring in composition was something that I could have done. Sometimes I wish that I had done it back then, but all I can do is accept where I am right now, and go from there, which is actually kind of liberating - just move forward, whatever that looks like.

It’s a little scary for me to admit that I don’t have a long history with being a composer, but I don’t really think that matters. What matters is that I like the work I’m producing (and hopefully others do too), and that I’m committed to continuing to work on it, and to the experience of the creative process. The way that we build skills is to keep composing, keep improving, look for feedback from trusted sources, and get people to play our music. Anyone can do this - you just have to decide that you will.

If you're a musician who has thought about writing but didn't know where to start, if you're looking for some idea generation, or camaraderie with other creative musicians, I have just the thing - if you're interested, sign up below and join us! Don't wait for years, like I did!

If you're a composer, musician, or creator of any kind, when did you feel like you could call yourself that title? How did it feel when you did? 

11 of My Favorite Books On Creativity

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Today I’m sharing some of my favorite books related to creativity. I’m always reading at least one book at any given time, maybe more, if I accidentally reserve too many library books at the time, so I’ve discovered a lot of good ones, but am always on the lookout for more. (Obsessive library patron for 30 years here!)

You may notice that very few of these books are geared specifically toward musicians, but there aren’t that many of those out there for the casual reader (a search for “music creativity books” returns almost entirely academic titles). No matter, creativity is creativity - all of this advice can be adapted across disciplines, and I sometimes find it more interesting to get new perspectives from people in other disciplines, anyway!

The subtitle of this one is: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which really gets to the heart of what makes being a creative person difficult (inner critics, The Resistance, roadblocks of all types), with a good dose of kick-in-the-pants (don’t worry, it’s not too harsh). Totally essential reading for all people in creative fields.

This one has been around for a long time (over 25 years), for good reason - the 12 weeks of exercises in the book are really helpful in getting through creative blocks. I confess that I've never made it all the way through (yet!), but the concepts of Artist Date (taking your inner artist out for a weekly intriguing date) and Morning Pages (3 pages of morning freewriting, preferably before you’re awake enough to think too hard about it) are things I have come back to again and again. (One caveat: some people find it overly spiritual, but if that annoys you, just skip over that stuff, it’s still worthwhile.)

This one is full of nuggets of truth about the creative process, and how it can be scary to own your identity as a writer/artist/musician/whatever it may be. Even though a lot of the stuff in here was familiar to me, there are so many great stories from specific people about how the magic happens (or doesn’t happen) when they’re creating, and who can’t use some extra encouragement to keep your creative habit going

Bonus: check out her podcast, Magic Lessons - each episode features a writer who’s stuck and gets connected with a famous person in their field for advice - super inspiring!

Based on a speech that consisted of 10 things Austin Kleon wished he’d known when starting out, this is a quick read with a cool aesthetic, by a visual artist who is known for doing blackout poems (pages from newspapers or books with all but a handful of words blacked out). The title refers to embracing your influences - we all internalize a mishmash of things and mix them up, so don’t worry so much about originality. He also addresses the importance of connecting to others and getting to know them in a genuine way (which is a bigger part of an artist’s job that we sometimes admit).

This book isn’t exactly about creativity, but centers around “creating goals with soul”, which is the underpinning of everything - most of us create art because we want to do work that feels meaningful. The heart of it is the question, “How do you want to feel?”, guiding you through a bunch of writing, which ultimately gets distilled down to a few core desired feelings that can act as your North Star. That has really changed the way I think about my life and work.

This one maybe isn’t for everyone (depends on your tolerance for the conceptual and bizarre), but I think it’s pretty delightful. I love getting a glimpse into Yoko Ono’s mind and totally new ways to think about the world. Each page is a different piece, most with an instruction like “Send the sound of a smile,” “Stand in the evening light until you become transparent,” or simply, “Touch each other.”

Well, technically, it is a book, but it’s more of an experience (or, you decide what it is!) It’s filled with prompts that encourage you to use it in different ways - as a voyage (tear out the page and fold it into a boat), a musical instrument (flip the pages quickly), a recording device (writing names down), a secret message to leave for someone, a scrapbook, a photo album, etc. It’s all handwritten, with plenty of cool visuals and space to create each exercise - really fun.

I first discovered Katie through her podcast (also called Let It Out) that centers around wellness and deep conversations, then discovered her book on journaling. I’ve always wanted to be a regular journaler (not just a moody one, hah!), because when I write, it helps me sort out my thoughts like nothing else does. This book is filled with helpful prompts for different situations: productivity, organization, enjoying the moment, abundance, health, and, of course, feelings! It’s really helped me when I didn’t know where to get started writing, and writing more often has helped me clarify the direction of my career - invaluable!

I always love reading about the routines of other creative people (and I love Twyla Tharp’s method of making a physical box for each project, to dump everything into), but this book is much more than that - it has many exercises to support having good work habits (not exciting as the thought of conjuring magical ideas, but so necessary!), as well as honest advice to kick you out of being stuck.

Here’s one that’s actually specifically about music! My strongest memory of this book is of lying in bed on the day of my senior recital in college, looking for some inspiration that would make me less nervous about the looming performance. I discovered this book (and Kenny Werner’s music) earlier that year when he came to do a masterclass at Ithaca College, where I was studying at the time, and the ideas about mindset, the normalcy of struggle in the pursuit toward mastery, and mindfulness have stuck with me since.

I think that a lot of us can relate to the feeling that we’re drawn to creating music/art/whatever it may be, almost like it chose us instead of the other way around. Even so, there are so many potential obstacles that may diffuse this passion, or we might convince ourselves that other (more practical?) things are more important (the Shoulds), and this book empowers us to choose Must (our true desire, the work that gives us purpose) instead of Should. Also, Elle Luna is a co-creator of the 100 Day Project, the global daily art project that I participated in last year, which I’m so grateful I committed to!

* Heads up: these are affiliate links. 

If you have other favorites, share them below - I’m always looking to add to my stash of books to recommend!

Self-Care for Musicians Caught in the Holiday Hustle

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December is a notoriously busy month, especially for musicians. For me, the beginning of the month was pretty busy, with two big concerts that included pretty demanding repertoire, but now my obligations (involving others) are winding down. Compared to many musicians I know, I don’t have a lot going on this December (I don’t have a church gig or many holiday gigs), which in theory feels good, but then the thoughts pop in: “I could use more money,” or “Shouldn’t I be doing all of that stuff, too?”

The problem is in those two little words: “compared to.” Way back in music school, it felt like we always had a never-ending parade of things to do, which, of course, led to complaining about how many hours you spent in the practice room, how many credits you were taking, how little sleep you got last night, etc., which is kind of a series of unrewarding humblebrags that say, “LOOK, I AM DOING SO MUCH!” (Ugh.) These habits get ingrained, though, so this is the culture we still find ourselves in, often ending up in survival mode rather than thriving. First of all, I definitely don’t have the energy I had 15 years ago, and most importantly, I don’t want to live like that!

It’s so easy to get sucked into the feeling that we need to do ALL THE THINGS, in terms of teaching, gigs, promotion, creative projects, and even our personal holiday preparation, parties, etc. This is the point where you’re probably thinking, “I thought this was about self-care. When is she going to start talking about epsom salt baths?” Don’t get me wrong, I love those, and they play a helpful part in my self-care, but we need to go deeper.

What’s stressing you out?

Besides the general feeling of overwhelm (I hear you!), step back and figure out what specifically is stressing you out: Is it money? Too many gigs? Not enough gigs? (That balance of time vs. money is always a work in progress.) The wrong kind of gigs? Students that don’t seem motivated? It feels like we have to take all of the students and all of the gigs (and believe me, I’ve been there), but if you really hate some aspect of your work life, you don’t have to do it anymore, or you can do less of it.

If you’re an introvert who teaches way too much, think about dropping a day of teaching and find some other work to fill in that gap, or, for something you can do right away, take a couple extra bathroom breaks that allow you to take some deep breaths.

If you hate driving to far-flung gigs, set a personal radius that you will no longer take gigs outside of.

If you’re financially stressed, look at what you’re spending money on that doesn’t make you happy. (Sarah Von Bargen has a great free bootcamp about this! )  

If you’re teaching/gigging/whatever-ing too much, you could consider getting a part-time non-music related job (that takes less energy) to fill in the gaps.

Realistically, we can’t always make changes as quickly or drastically as we dream about. Maybe that looks like doing a little bit less of that thing and decreasing it over time, but there are always other options to shift the mosaic of jobs that most of us have.

Hit delete!

So, in the short term, what can you delete that’s not that important? We have so many expectations on ourselves this time of year (and all of the time) - what can you let go of? For example, I traditionally have made holiday ornaments for my students, but this year I made prints of a piano drawing that was already done, and didn’t make holiday cards, but just cut up red paper to write on. Easy. It’s amazing what I do without thinking about it, because I’ve assumed that I HAVE TO.

When all of those “requirements” pile up, you’re headed toward the land of burnout. For me, it was the worst when I continued to be busy for the sake of being busy, without questioning why I was doing all of that. (Because it’s way easier to distract yourself from big questions by being so busy!) Megan Ihnen wrote a great article about avoiding burnout by taking time to set really meaningful career goals, including a really actionable goal-setting exercise. Take a look at the article, and schedule some time to think about your big goals, the work that makes you feel the best. (Seriously, put it on your calendar right now.)

Resources!

But, you probably don’t have time for deep thinking right now - it’s December! So, back to self-care in the traditional sense. If you’re in the trenches trying to survive the next couple weeks, you might be looking for some actual (and quick) self-care strategies. I have 10 survival strategies for busy times right over here, some inspiration for when you’re feeling unmotivated here, and some wellness resources for musicians here.  

Self-care isn’t all about bubble baths and spa days (although it could be if you want it to) - it’s about doing things that make you feel better, and it’s incredibly personal, so you have to figure out what works for you. For some excellent resources in this department, check out Christy Tending’s offerings. 

So today I invite you to take 10 minutes (or more, but we can all find 10 minutes), and decide what one little action you can take to lighten your load and make things feel a bit easier. Do something, anything that FEELS GOOD. If even figuring that out takes more mental bandwidth than you have, pause for just 2 minutes, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths - I guarantee you’ll feel better, and you’re going to make it through December, too!

What’s your biggest challenge during this busy month? Let me know in the comments!