While working at Shine Registry I’ve been exposed to the fascinating world of female founders. They’re all focused, smart, innovative, and groundbreaking. As someone who loves seeing into the minds of brilliant, creative people, I figured, why not let them speak for themselves?
First up is Zoe Sorrell.
Zoe is a multidisciplinary flutist, director, teacher, and entrepreneur currently based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her ensemble, NAT 28, is the premiere Pittsburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble. NAT 28’s mission is to “strive to champion the work that will shape the next phase of musical and artistic evolution.” Beyond NAT 28, Zoe is an adjunct flute professor at Westminster College, teaches at her own music studio, and has participated in a number of projects involving interdisciplinary art like The Syrinx Project. She’s preparing to release an album, and is launching a series of musician entrepreneurship classes online. I got the awesome pleasure of picking her brain about goals, motivations, and process.
Can you tell us about who’s on your team? Where did you all meet and how do you all work together?
The leadership team for NAT 28 all met as graduate students at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music. We were all lucky enough to play in CMU’s Contemporary Ensemble, under the leadership of Daniel Nesta Curtis, who is actually a member of NAT 28 now! I work most closely with Allyson Huneycutt, our executive director and clarinetist, and Brian Gilling, our music director and pianist. As artistic director, I oversee the internal operations of the organization, from event planning, to development, grant writing, and fundraising, to marketing and PR, to logistical tasks such as training our interns and making sure we have enough music stands. Allyson oversees our financial and external operations, everything from filing our taxes and paying our musicians to managing our Board; she’s also an incredible graphic designer and creates all of our posters and programs. Brian is both our music librarian and our “quality control.” He organizes our rehearsals and makes sure that every piece is prepared to its highest level before being revealed to the public. He’s exceptionally talented at looking at a score and knowing exactly how many rehearsals that piece needs and where the “problem spots” will be. I’m also perpetually indebted to Nick Huneycutt, our equipment manager and percussionist, who can make one hundred percussion pieces show up at a rehearsal space without me being any the wiser.
What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I think people sometimes see the entrepreneur life or freelance life as glamorous, full of sleeping in and working 25 hours a week in your pajamas. And while I totally write grants in sweatpants with Queer Eye playing in the background, I also regularly work 60–70 hours a week, wake up before 5 AM, and do work while running on the treadmill. I would say that the biggest sacrifice successful entrepreneurs make is stability. When you run your own business, you and Chance are the only ones responsible for your success. I believe the expression is feast or famine. Some months you barely work and the money and the reviews and the success rolls in, while other months you hustle your butt off for very little ROI. I’m lucky in that I have a very understanding partner and I don’t have children. My partner knows that sometimes while we’re watching Black Mirror together, I’m also going to be responding to emails, and my puppy doesn’t mind too much if I’m on a conference call while we’re on walkies. I also feel incredibly lucky that my hobbies and my passions are the same things that I get paid for; I think that’s really the key to being an entrepreneur. If you believe in your “product” and it aligns with your own personal values and passions, you will be more willing to be consumed by the pursuit of that product. In my case, music performance, music entrepreneurship, and music education are my be-all-and-end-all, my personal service to the community that has been everything to me.
Has anyone underestimated you as a female entrepreneur? If yes, how have you handled it?
Oh, absolutely. Every day. For example, I’m asked questions about being a “female entrepreneur” or a “female director” every time I make a media appearance. I’m asked to speak for my entire gender. I’m not sure a man has ever been asked to represent his entire gender. NAT 28, for example, plays incredible music by modern composers. As a result, we play music by men, women, and non binary composers. We are frequently asked about our emphasis on female composers, something we’ve never claimed as a part of our mission. As it turns out, women write great music too.
That said, I’m proud to be a badass woman entrepreneur and I don’t shy away from my gender identity. In fact, my forthcoming solo album, My Own Route, specifically explores music by and about women, and my Syrinx Project tells the stories of mythological women through lenses of contemporary feminism. Society decided early on that my womanhood was going to be an important part of my success and my identity and I’ve fully embraced and run with that decision. Throughout my career, people have made decisions about me based on appearance, felt that they can take ownership of me based on my gender, and claimed superiority over me because of my identity. If I can turn that on its head and make my feminist pride the subject of my most successful art, that will be pretty satisfying.
What are you asking for on your Shine Registry profile that would mean the most for people to fulfill?
While I’m excited that the Shine Registry allows people to make significant non-monetary contributions to nonprofits such as joining our mailing list or subscribing to our YouTube channel, the item that I’m most excited about is “Sponsor A/V Capture for One Concert.” This is one of those items that almost becomes an afterthought in NAT 28’s operations flow but is actually the most important thing that we do. We put months — sometimes years — into planning and preparing our concerts and then they’re done after 90 minutes of playing. The most important thing we can do to increase the impact of our events is to capture the audio and video and then share it far and wide. This is what allows us to reach audiences outside of Pittsburgh, audiences that might not be able to afford our ticket price or commute to our venues, or audiences that might not know about us yet. This A/V material also allows us to apply for grants for future residencies, series, and concerts, and in the case of our Pittsburgh Composers’ Project for emerging local composers, helps us to create promotional material to encourage other composers to participate in our programming.
Want to support Zoe’s profile? Click here!
“In my case, music performance, music entrepreneurship, and music education are my be-all-and-end-all, my personal service to the community that has been everything to me.”
Outside of NAT 28, what are some of the other projects you’re getting ready to launch?
As I mentioned, I’m currently recording my first solo album, My Own Route, which features six pieces written by and about women. Three of the pieces are precomposed works by women throughout history who have been traditionally overlooked due to their gender identity. The other three pieces are works that I’ve commissioned by living composers that tell the stories of fictional women. I’m going to be premiering the album on September 14th at Carnegie Stage in Carnegie, PA and am really excited for people to hear these incredible works. People can buy tickets here.
I also work as a business and entrepreneurship coach for classical musician, helping others in my community to have more ownership of their careers and lead more wholehearted lives in and out of the practice room. I’m excited to be launching my first online group class, Idea Incubation, in late July. This class will help other classical musicians to take their brilliant ideas — for new ensembles, concert series, businesses, etc. — and turn them into reality. I’ve been running one-on-one versions of this process for years and I’m looking forward to bringing it to an online group.
How do you stay organized while wearing so many different hats in so many different spaces?
My personal values come into play here too. I’m only willing to justify wearing “many different hats” if they all align with my own values and goals. While I might be participating in many different activities, these activities are all just different ways of looking at one central mission: using music to help others lead fulfilling, wholehearted lives. As far as traditional organization, there are so many technological tools available now to help people stay organized. I use plug-ins to add notes to my gmail conversations and I force myself to reach Inbox Zero at least twice a month. I use Slack and Facebook to communicate with my coaching clients and I have an obsessive amount of subfolders in Pinterest to keep my marketing and branding work organized. I keep a very clear calendar on iCal and update it several times a day. I’m also a big fan of ToDoist for keeping track of daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. In addition, my partner can attest that there are frequently hot pink sticky notes around our house reminding me to do certain things or keep certain values in mind. I’m a big fan of keeping organizational systems, otherwise everything piles up and traffic jams in your head and that’s no fun for anyone.
“I’m only willing to justify wearing “many different hats” if they all align with my own values and goals.”
How do you pitch the idea of new music to people who aren’t musicians, or aren’t in the “classical” music scene?
All music was at some point “new music.” Beethoven was considered completely crazy. Stravinsky caused riots. Art history is a series of rejection, confusion, and ultimately acceptance of new movements. My favourite music performance ever took place at a retirement home in Oberlin, OH. My colleague Aaron Butler and I played an incredible new duet by Aaron Helgeson and then talked to retirees about the piece and contemporary music in general. At one point, one retiree spoke up and mentioned how they’ve heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony forty odd times but only had a chance to hear our duet once. She was right. People have grown up learning how to listen to Beethoven. They simply haven’t been taught how to listen to new music. It’s brand new. So what did we do? We played it again, after having talked about the inspiration for the piece and the process for its composition. The audience reaction the second time through was already much warmer than the first time. I think contemporary musicians make a mistake in placing so much emphasis on world premieres. If we truly want new music to enter the canon, we need to champion that music, performing it over and over again until it becomes an audience favourite. If world-class symphonies can play Tchaikovsky every season for 100 years, surely we can play John Cage more than once.
I actually find that audiences at the outskirts of the classical music scene are often much more amenable to “new music.” One of the exciting things happening in contemporary music practice is genre-blurring. Composers are now using practices from rock music, from jazz, from Eastern music traditions. The things that we call “extended techniques” would be more aptly named “borrowed techniques” because they can all be found in other genres or other parts of the world! They’re only extensions insofar as we’re looking at the canon of Traditional Western Classical Music. As a contemporary flutist, for example, a lot of what I’m asked to do comes from ancient Japanese shō or shakuhachi techniques, or seems more akin to the style of Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull. I even saw Lizzo recently perform at the BET Awards and use microtonal trills in her flute solo! These sounds are not some highly academic practice restricted to contemporary music specialists; they are simply musical sounds being used in contexts we’re not used to.
How does what you’re doing differ from what you thought you’d be doing when you entered your undergrad for music?
When I started my undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and Conservatory, I thought I was on a straight path towards being principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra. That was my dream job. I was 18 years old and actively telling people I hated “new music” and only liked Tchaikovsky and Brahms. I’m so grateful that my conception of great music as well as my understanding of success have expanded so much in the past ten years. I feel incredibly privileged to have met so many incredible mentors and colleagues in the past decade who have helped to clarify my values and expand my strengths and interests. While being principal flute of the LSO would still be pretty dang cool, I’ve been able to recognize and come to terms with the fact that I would probably never be satisfied as a traditional orchestral musician. I’m so happy that my current lifestyle allows me to teach students as young as 4 and as old as 90, to coach rock bands and string quartets, to help brilliant minds to create new businesses and ensembles, and to work alongside composers and artists to present new art.
To support Zoe and NAT 28, go check out her Shine Registry profile linked here. If you’re a Pittsburgher, follow both @zsorrell and @nat28newmusic for upcoming performances, and consider attending one! And, if you’re a female entrepreneur like Zoe, visit www.shineregistry.com to create a profile where you can ask for what you need when starting a business.