Rising Music Star Tom Knight On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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Create a life where your cost of living is low, so you don’t have to be too stressed out trying to pay bills. When I started taking music seriously, I had a part time job working at an after-school program for 15 hours a week. I ran around the schoolyard with kids and played games. When I combined that with the gigs I was getting, I was able to pay my rent, but still have time to write and perform.

As a part of our interview series with leaders, stars, and rising stars in the music industry, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tom Knight.

A creative at work and an entertainer at heart, Western Massachusetts-based children’s musician and puppeteer Tom Knight brings fun, whimsy, and personality to the center stage. A pinch of puppetry, a dash of music, and a sprinkling of educational classes for young children have been baking for more than 30 years to create an engaging persona that has charmed audiences around the world. Since 1988, Tom has delighted children and their grown-ups with his interactive, musical puppet shows featuring hand-made puppets, catchy songs, and lots of audience participation. After three decades spent honing his art via live shows, Tom Knight announces the November 18 release of his 6th album for kids, Look Both Ways.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit about your “origin story”. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I played violin in elementary school, and trombone in high school in Cupertino, California. Music was always in my head, and I always listened intently to whatever music was around me. When I was in sixth grade, I started trying to figure out how songs were constructed — with verses and choruses, instrumentals. And what was that other part of the song that didn’t fit into any category? Later I learned it was “the bridge.” In college at UC Santa Cruz, I picked up the mountain dulcimer and started writing simple songs. The highlight of my college days was writing and performing an original rom-com musical, with all the music played on the dulcimer!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

After college, I didn’t think I could make a living as a musician, so I started training to be an elementary school teacher, but it didn’t work out. I had too much trouble with “classroom management.” My hat goes off to all those teachers who know how to do that! When my brief teaching career fizzled in my 20s, I decided to focus on figuring out how to make money as a musician — busking at a farmer’s market, playing guitar in a pick-up contra dance band, singing original songs in a café. The café ended up being the best paid gig, because I got dinner out of it! The “a-ha moment” came when I was invited to play music for a puppet troop and 200 people showed up for a gig! We had to schedule a second show. I realized I had some talent as a children’s performer, and I really enjoyed it, and in that moment, I began to see a path forward to making it a real career.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Once I was performing in a school and took some questions from some 2nd graders. One girl asked me for my autograph, and handed me a pencil and paper. I signed my autograph and handed it back. She thought it was too messy, so she erased it and re-wrote it to be more legible.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Once I was working with my puppet partner, and we had a gig at a school, and when we started setting up, we realized we had left the puppet stage at home. There wasn’t time to go home and get it, so we had to improvise. We set up a curtain over some music stands to hide our lower bodies from the audience, but did the show with our faces visible. The teacher who hired us came up afterwards and said that she really liked that she could see our faces! I learned two lessons that day — one is that the most important part of performance is not the gear that you bring, but making a connection with the audience. The other lesson, which is sort of related, is that when working with young children, it’s easier to connect with them when they can see your face.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m working on a music video for my “Wiggly Tooth” song. We’re creating a country line dance for me to do with kids. Also, I made a tooth costume from four pillows. After we do the dance, I’m going to make a smaller wiggly tooth puppet, along with a tooth fairy and figure out a puppet skit to do with the song.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in music, film, and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Unfortunately, white males like myself have dominated the entertainment industry for many years. In music, there has also been a lot of cultural appropriation, with white entertainers getting rich and famous using songs written by Black creators. It’s really high time for non-white creators to get the credit, fame and wealth they deserve. And it’s also important for under-represented audiences to see people who look like themselves in the media, so young children know that those paths are open to them too. And for white children’s entertainers like myself, I think it is also important to do the ongoing work of becoming aware of bias and making songs and performances more inclusive. One thing I’ve done is translate one of my popular songs into a Spanish bi-lingual piece, and hired Argentinian artist Mica Farias Gomez to sing the Spanish parts (“Alligator Jump/¡Salta Caimán!”). In terms of the high-profile recognition and awards, I think old white guys like me need to step aside and make some room for everyone else. I’m really excited to see artists like Joanie Leeds, Falu, and One Tribe Collective get recognized by the Grammys, which I think is a great trend.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1) There are lots of ways to follow your dream. You don’t have to be on TV to have a career in music. As a kid, my only models for success in music were rock stars. But the reality is it’s possible to make a decent living performing in schools, libraries and pre-schools. Or playing in a wedding band. Or teaching music lessons.

2) Practice asking for what you want. Ask venues to hire you. Ask people to come to your show. Ask them to buy your merch. Ask people to donate to your crowd-funding campaign. This is a skill that may be more important than practicing your guitar, and just like learning an instrument, you can gradually improve it and get better. I used to get easily discouraged when I made cold calls. But now I spend 3–5 hours a week asking people to hire me, and guess what? I get a lot more gigs. Many people will turn you down. But you won’t know unless you ask. And if you are feeling shy about it, then take a course or pay someone to do it.

3) Make some terrible things. I’ve written over a thousand songs. Some are just ideas. Some are fragments. About 800 of those songs are either mediocre or plain awful. But I had to write all those songs to get the skills and taste I needed to create the good ones. In the creative life, there’s really no such thing as failure. Every time you try something is a success, even if nobody likes it — even if you don’t like it. So long as you keep trying new things, you are a success.

4) Create a life where your cost of living is low, so you don’t have to be too stressed out trying to pay bills. When I started taking music seriously, I had a part time job working at an after-school program for 15 hours a week. I ran around the schoolyard with kids and played games. When I combined that with the gigs I was getting, I was able to pay my rent, but still have time to write and perform.

5) Find your people. Creativity is often a solo activity, and it can be lonely, so it’s important to connect with other humans who get what you are doing. Other artists are not your competition. They are your community, and everyone rises by supporting each other. In the songwriter’s groups I’ve been in, I’ve gotten some invaluable critical feedback that really improved my songs. But it’s also been great just to hang with other artists who understand my “gig from hell” story, or know what from personal experience what it’s like to balance creativity with paying bills.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

While productivity is important, it’s necessary to sleep and recover too. Make sure there is self-care in your daily life. I like having a daily routine — yoga, walking in nature, doing chores around the house.

Find what it is that recharges you and keeps you going. Also, if you work on the weekends, try to find some time during the week to have your rest.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think everyone is capable of writing a song of some kind, even if it’s only 2 lines. And it’s very easy to record that song on a phone so you can remember it.

Let’s have a National Songwriting Day — where everyone over the age of 5 is encouraged to write a song in 24 hours. When it’s over, everyone gets together in groups of 2–10 and shares what they wrote.

And for this, there should be no awards or competitions. It’s only about creating, sharing and connecting.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My high school Humanities teacher Mr. Pierstorff at Monta Vista High School, Cupertino, CA. He introduced me to history’s greatest works of poetry, painting, and literature, and made everything accessible. I particularly remembered the impressionist painters, which I hadn’t actually noticed before. We learned about why painters like Monet chose that style. Mr. Pierstorff encouraged my writing and thinking about art, and gave me the confidence to create my own stuff.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The limits generate the form.” Attributed to Stravinsky but I think I may be misquoting it. For me, this quote is about celebrating limits, rather than complaining about them. It’s wonderful to have a fine guitar, a camera crew, and an expensive microphone, but it’s possible to make something really amazing with your smartphone and a cheap guitar. Money and time are limited, but creativity is infinite, and nothing can stop us from making something wonderful.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

David Byrne. He had a brilliant career as the leader of Talking Heads, and if he wanted to, he could just go on tour with the old band playing his old hits, and no one would think the worse of him. But instead, he keeps writing new things, and creating new ways of sharing music — like a Broadway show where all the musicians can move freely around stage or into the audience and dance barefoot. He never stops being creative, and I find that incredibly inspiring.

How can our readers follow you online?

http://www.tomknight.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

It’s been a pleasure chatting with you! Thanks for the opportunity!

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.