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The problem with telling music school grads to ‘be entrepreneurial’

College me all day (GIPHY)

I lived in a box for four years.

In the chaos of this world, a little practice room with stained carpet and decades-old curtains and unflattering light was my haven. The is where I had my most magical learning moments. My friends and I spent hours in these things, relishing and struggling in the process of learning to play our instruments.

I found most of my academic classes to be vaguely interesting at best, more often inapplicable to a profession as a performer. But I was totally ready to play the Mozart concerto at a moment’s notice. If I would ever get to Carnegie Hall, I knew what it took.

When graduation day was upon me, I started to notice a very distinct message flying at us from all over–be entrepreneurial.

real college me

Excuse me?

I knew Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur and Elon Musk and Oprah, even Henry Ford. But music isn’t a businessy thing and I didn’t like talking about it that way. I liked the idea of thinking outside the box and making real change in classical music, but I didn’t even know where to start…I had spent so much time inside my little box.

I went to New World Symphony to become an orchestral clarinetist and forgot about the entrepreneur thing for a year, but through a combination of the progressive mindset of New World and my own volition, the desire to do something different kept bubbling up in the back of my mind. So I applied for and received a large grant from New World to produce a new kind of concert during my second season with fairly free range to explore my ideas.

The question

When I met with my mentor for the project on day one, she asked a question that forever changed me:

“Who is your audience?”

I leaned forward, ready to tackle the question. Then I sat back in my chair, paused, and fumbled through an answer. Nobody in music school had ever asked me to think about an audience. But then I looked at these great entrepreneurs…they were designing solutions to other people’s problems. Steve Jobs designed a product that made computers accessible to everybody. Elon Musk designed a solution to depleting fossil fuel resources. Oprah designed ways to bring empowerment to people who were overlooked. Henry Ford designed a solution to horses being too slow.

They understood their audience, found a need, and designed a solution to fill it. If I was going to create something new and of value, I needed to think like a designer.

Design elevates art

Meryl says hold up (GIPHY)

Hold up. Art is about expressing my thoughts, feelings, and interpretations. Design is about solving your problem. If art’s only good was to be self-expressive, then why would we share it? If other people are willing to listen, there must be some good they access through hearing music.

In a traditional concert, you are expected to sit down and revel in the greatest musical masterpieces known to man. However, the world has changed drastically since the concert came around and great orchestral music is no longer exclusive to live orchestras. If it’s just about hearing music, many people find the experience at home with Spotify and great speakers to be better for them.

Fortunately, the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

Becoming designer

SO. In order to be musician-entrepreneurs, we need to understand our audience. In order to understand our audience, we need to be designers. In order to be designers, we need to be empathetic problem solvers.

Eleven knows how to feel (GIPHY)

Music is an art form that communicates complex human emotions, unites people under one cause, and helps people from different backgrounds understand one another. Generally classical music just makes people feel all the feelings…it holds the capacity to move people. The problem we are solving is for people who need to be moved but are not yet being moved. Music is a unique resource that can solve this problem, and musicians are the craftspeople who can shape that resource into new forms–new kinds of concert formats, educational programs, community-embedded projects, venues, ensembles, and other unexplored possibilities.

In the precious time they have outside the practice room, music students should be immersed in working with tools that will truly help them shape the future by getting out of their own heads and empathizing with people who need music. We can put this into action by working with a codified method that is helping organizations across industries build experiences that truly speak to people.

The method

Design thinking is a process that starts with a person or people with a problem in mind and generates a solution. The process generally incorporates five stages: (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test. You’ll find it at the center of almost every revolutionary product and experience, like those of Apple and Airbnb (check out this article I wrote on the subject). We can use DT to discover how to move all kinds of people through music.

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them. Maybe we end up designing an after-hours concert in a local bookstore that involves the poets writing crowdsourced poems in response to particular movements of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. But I must talk to them first to know where to start. Check out the concert I created with NWS to see how we used DT to create in-concert audience engagement.

design thinking stages

DT is being picked up by other fields too––The New School, in partnership with Knight Foundation, has established a Journalism + Design undergraduate program that gives students practical tools to create new solutions for the changing landscape of media. Professionals in business, health, and education are using design thinking to solve new problems. (This would also be immensely beneficial for orchestra administrations to explore).

Next steps

We, the musicians, must be the ones leading this charge because we understand the value of music from the inside out. Compared to companies like Apple and Nike, who spend $$$ understanding their audience, we have far fewer resources, but we can change the way we think as a collective, which could be more powerful than any amount of money.

To music students: I’ve spent the last 6+ years in intensive orchestral training and love this kind of work. But I talk to many young musicians (perhaps you included) who tell me they want to pursue an alternative career or create their own projects but feel it’s not viable. So if your school has at any point encouraged you to be creative or entrepreneurial, you should ask how they plan to equip you with the tools to do so. A few schools are establishing instutites like the Marks Center at Juilliard, which are opening great pathways to put creative courses at the center of an education in music.

NWS Creative Director, Siggi Bachmann, and I are currently developing a course called “Design Thinking for Musicians,” which we will be bringing to music schools starting in the fall of 2018 (click here to sign up for our email list and receive info as soon as it’s available!).

The moment we embrace the mindset of the designer will be the moment we begin to see paths to moving new people with music.

groove (GIPHY)


To learn more about design thinking, check out resources from Stanford’s, design firm IDEO, and LUMA Institute.

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Zach Manzi

Zach Manzi

classically-trained, future-oriented | Service Designer at GoDaddy | former Knight Foundation fellow | alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony

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