Your Identity Will Shape Your Career

Originally published as 'Who are you? Your identity will shape your music career' at Musical U

Who we are determines where we are going. Sounds simple, right? But often who we think we are is layered with who our parents, teachers, culture thinks we are—or who we should be. Then we are surprised when we go through intense training as musicians only to find out that we’re not nearly as happy with the results as we thought we would be.

Susan de Weger, founder of Notable Values, knows this dilemma all too well. After setting her horn aside for the corporate world, she returned to music and began the process of fixing her broken musical identity. Now she shares her reinvented paradigm of 21st-century music careers with upcoming conservatory grads and older career-transformers alike with her Notable Values website. Today we spoke about the importance of identity in career choices and artist’s statements.

Q: Hi Susan, and welcome back to Musical U. The issue of identity has been the common thread throughout our conversations What does it look like for a musician to know who they are and what they want?

My dear friend Jeff Nelson, teaches horn at Indiana University. His bio reads something along the lines of, “One of the world’s top magician / horn-playing / pig-farming / son of professional opera singing parents … ” You now have in your mind a picture of what an experience with Jeff is going to be?

Oh yes.

You do. It’s going to be something fun. That’s what an artist’s statement is. It tells the world who you are, how you are unique and makes me curious about wanting to find out more.

The typical musician’s bio is a laundry list of people they’ve studied with and master classes they’ve taken. That says to me, “Those musicians doesn’t know who they are. And they don’t care about me.” That’s really what it says.

Too many bios or artists statements tell me nothing about the artist. I could swap out their name for anybody else’s name and it would look exactly the same. I’m bored by the second sentence in, I don’t bother reading any further.

I would absolutely urge every musician to ditch the laundry list of achievements and establish their credibility through the story of who they are. Why? Because that’s what we want to know. When you’re applying for a job you have to craft your application to the requirements of that position. Well, it should also be so with your bio. Show that you care about the reader.

If we switch it to being a story of who you are, and then it’s unique, then no one has the same one as you. Suddenly, you’re standing out—immediately—and it’s compelling for the readers because you’ve shown some care, to share with them who you are.

Q: When you go down that route of storytelling, it can become so airy-fairy that there’s a risk that the reader may say, “Oh, well, that’s all very nice, but can you actually play the thing.” So how much would you say it should be about what you do and how much about why you do it?

That’s why an artist’s statement needs to have facts that establish your credibility. It needs to have some story of who you are. It needs to be a mix of both.

Now how far you choose to go with either of those things will depend on what the statement is for.  If it’s for a program in a concert, you’ve got, what, between 60 and 200 words maximum? You would craft the version of it for the audience for that performance.

If it’s an application for a Masters study opportunity, or a scholarship, and you’ve got 250 to 400 words, then you’ve got more slope to expand. Who is the audience when you’re applying for a scholarship? They will want to know more about your credibility. An audience in a concert wants to know a little bit more about you and why you’re different. Think about the reader and make it appropriate for that purpose.

Q: What kinds of things do you do at Notable Values to help musicians make sure that the work they’re doing on an artist’s statement is actually leading them to the goals they care about?

”We often find, in that process, that the goals that they said they wanted before turn out to be somebody else’s goals. It’s the goal they’ve been beaten over the head with by their teacher or their parents for 15 years.”

Here’s where we put some prime work. Many of them, particularly young musicians, just have this notion of “success.” There’s no definitional framework about what that really means, so they fail. How can they make good choices today towards success if they don’t know what that looks like for them? 

So we start with a lot of self-reflection. We look at their life as a whole and the activities that they undertake. I’ll ask, “Can you tell me about, over the last week, when were you the most happy? When were you really sad? Who were you with when that happened? What were you doing? What are your favorite foods to eat? What are your favorite movies? What’s your favorite sport?”

Then to really look more deeply, “How do you feel about failure? What does risk mean for you? How comfortable are you with being vulnerable in front of other people? When was the last time you starfished in the park in the sun?”

We’re going to go beyond the stage and find out who you really are. Once we’ve figured that out, we start to do some forward thinking. Where do you see yourself in 12 months and two years and ten years? We start to reflect forward. Let’s say we get to a point where you’ve said, “Okay. In five years time I’d like to have a job in an orchestra.” If that’s what comes out, we work on refining that goal down.

“Okay. Well, which orchestra? Which position? What month of the year? When would you win the trial? When would the audition be? When would you get the excerpts for the audition? Who would you have to study with in order to be prepared to win that job in that orchestra? Then, what can we do today to take a step forward to making that happen?”

It’s a very individual journey about refining and defining personal and professional goals.

We compare the goal with what we found out about your identity. Let’s say that when I asked you earlier about when you were the most unhappy, you said, “Well, I’ve had a couple of really bad rehearsals recently, or a performance that really knocked me about.” You realize, “Well, if I want a job in an orchestra, that’s going to be my daily existence.” This could put you in a position where you’re very unhappy because what you think you want and who you are don’t match up.

We often find, in that process, that the goals that they said they wanted before turn out to be somebody else’s goals. It’s the goal they’ve been beaten over the head with by their teacher or their parents for 15 years.

Q: How do you help them think independently and detach from the inherited sense of what success looks like?

It’s challenging. There’s a young musician here I’ve been working with who won all of the top training opportunities that this country has to offer. And only last week he said to me, “I’m going to give up playing because it’s not making me happy and I can’t see how I can be happy on this trajectory.”

I’m okay with that. It really comes from knowing yourself and that just takes time and it takes attention to getting your head out of the practice room. In a conservatory model, we’re just told, “Well, you just need to practice eight hours a day and everything will be okay.” But, it won’t. For some people it might be and that’s all well and good and fortunate.

For most of us, the statistics show us that talent is not enough.

Within my program at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, I’ve got some early adopters who are doing fantastic things with our life-planning strategies

But we’ve still got a whole cohort of students for whose teachers tell them they just need to play their piccolo, or their saxophone, well enough. I can’t change their minds. It doesn’t matter what I say. But I’m not in the business of changing anybody’s mind.

I’m in the business of being there for those who have an inkling that there needs to be more—the ones who are ready to widen their view to the range of potential outcomes that their qualifications can prepare them for—and to help them understand who they are, so they can define what it is they want.

Thank you so much, Susan. You continue to amaze me with the clarity of your insights about what it means to be a musician in the 21st century. And now you have me curious about your program at Melbourne Conservatorium. I’m looking forward to next time when we can dig deeper into what you’re doing there.

What a wake-up call! For anyone who really cares about where they are going, Susan de Weger’s techniques of self-examination are a great place to start. Read more about Susan and her wonderfully straight-shooting views at Notable Values until next time, when we’ll learn more about her IgniteLab program.