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Musician: Master of Many Trades

many hats

Most musicians know that a career in music rarely consists of one “job,” complete with your name on the door and regular hours. Even if their primary source of income comes from a consistent teaching or performing gig, most musicians wear many hats and juggle several positions at once.

So…how do you do that?

Phillip Bush, pianist (and soloist, chamber musician, professor, recording artist, grant writer, award winner, commissioner, festival founder/director, consortium director…get the idea?) is coming to the Road of Creativity’s Music Entrepreneurship Retreat to share the experiences of his multifarious musical career and the steps he’s taken to build it. Here’s a sneak peek!

ROC: Your performance career is remarkably vast, ranging from appearing with the London Sinfonietta and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to the Bang On a Can All-Stars and the Phillip Glass Ensemble.  For those who aspire to a similar performing career, can you share three ways you’ve managed to forge such diverse connections across the music world?

PB: I was fascinated by so many different facets of classical music that I simply couldn’t comprehend limiting myself to one narrow path (plus I had teachers who encouraged this diversity of interest and led by example themselves)

In my earliest professional years, when I moved to New York and just decided to “go for it” with very few pre-established connections, I took a bit of a “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” approach to my career. That is, I took most every gig I could to cast the widest possible net.

By building and maintaining diverse musical skills, I did increase my “hire-a-bility” and really did build strong networks in two very distinct areas, the more standard chamber music realm as well as the newer music scene.

ROC: You have been described as a “fierce advocate for contemporary music.” What are two entrepreneurial concepts that have served you in your contemporary music performing and recording ventures?”

PB: 1. Finding and creating projects that have attention-grabbing possibilities (as well as being musically valid and interesting). That was definitely the case with my association with re-tuned piano repertoire, such as the works of Ben Johnston which I recorded, and linking that to older music done in period tunings.

2. Seeking out opportunities to work with young composers in whose work I believed.  In the new music world, where the focus is on the composer, they can be your best link to performing opportunities. Ideally it’s a symbiotic and complementary relationship, where you as a performer can help build a composer’s following, and then the composer may have the opportunity to ask you to perform in events that they are either producing or have been asked to curate.

ROC: What were two of your biggest struggles as you built your career in the music world, and how did you overcome them?

PB: The flip side of having diverse musical interests is that you risk failing to build enormous momentum in one facet of the field or another. Sometimes I felt that chamber music people thought of me as a new music guy, while new music people sometimes didn’t think of me as REALLY one of them because too often I showed up playing Schumann or Brahms at various festivals.

The other big challenge for all musicians I think is time management. When I was younger I was not nearly as good at it as I became (and was forced to become) later in life when I had even MORE to juggle (academic positions, a child, etc.) I get more done in less time today than I did in my twenties, and sometimes wonder what more I might have accomplished had I been better at time management at that earlier stage in my career.

ROC: You are the Artistic Director of the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, which is dedicated to amateur instrumentalists who are passionate about music, seek to develop as chamber musicians, and believe that music offers infinite possibilities for learning and growth.  Can you describe the uniqueness of this setting and share your thoughts on the critical role that music plays in the professional and personal lives of these amateur musicians?  What are three things that professional musicians can learn from amateur musicians?

PB: All of the professional musicians who coach the amateur players at Bennington are tremendously inspired by those amateurs. The main reason is because these amateurs have such a tremendous love for the art form that they are willing to take their one or two weeks’ vacation time to live in a dorm, eat cafeteria food and play chamber music from morning till the wee hours, and take lots of constructive criticism from the faculty in order to get better and learn new repertoire, year after year. So much of our time as professionals is spent on the less savory sides of the art form, i.e., the business, worrying about making a living and dealing with the politics of the business. But being around the passion of these amateurs reminds us of why we got into music in the first place. And that’s always helpful.

It’s also validating because many of these amateurs are VERY high-achieving individuals in fields like medicine, law, academia, science; yet, they have such a reverence and respect for what professional musicians do and have accomplished as artists. We’re reminded, then, to also respect ourselves and value what we have to offer in a culture that doesn’t always understand what we do.

Working with dedicated amateurs also reminds us that music is such a profound connection between humans, especially chamber music, which is never the same between any two individuals. After all, what drives these players to come back to Bennington year after year is not to improve on their instruments in an abstract sort of “vacuum.” Rather, it is to experience the joy of making music with friends and making new friends THROUGH the medium of music. It’s a reminder to those of us on “the inside” of the business to always remember (which is sometimes difficult in the solitude of the practice room) that music is an art form of connection and intimate communication between humans, SO vital in our atomized society of today.

Have more questions for Phillip about building a many-faceted career in music? Ask him in person at the Road of Creativity’s June 2012 Music Entrepreneurship Retreat. Register now with the Early Bird Discount to receive as much as $250 off your tuition!

2 Responses to Musician: Master of Many Trades

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