Giving musicians a Running Start into entrepreneurism

The Running Start program is a three-part elective at the MSU College of Music that incorporates classes, workshops and an annual competition. As explained by Rhonda Buckley and David Rayl – associate deans at Michigan State University – the innovative program at MSU’s College of Music is designed to give musicians a business-minded jump into their future endeavors, developing the skill-set to work as career-driven performers. Buckley says, “Higher level thinking is required in these classes [and] students come out with a business plan.”

Students who participate in Running Start gain imperative knowledge during classroom exercises and workshops that will help them succeed in a musical life. Outreach is part of the program’s experience and it's a requirement for students to perform concerts.

Just about any time during the semester, you can walk in and listen to a concert. The students perform around 400 times a year in the music department’s beautiful auditorium. As part of their community outreach, students also perform at Pleasant View Elementary, The People’s Church, Independence Village and many other places around the community.

The Running Start program has incorporated this to help students develop skill-sets needed to be in front of the public, performing and speaking to crowds. One of the only ways to know if you can really make it as a musician is to get on stage and see if you still love it.

Beyond the vision

Past alumni of Running Start are living and working in the Capital region, and have been paving successful musical career paths for themselves. Igor Houwat took a class called Your Music Business the first time that it was offered. In the class, students were required to create and propose a business plan. His plan revolved around a band called Wisaal.

Houwat has been able to incorporate some of the knowledge he gained in that class to build a successful and well known band that plays locally as well as regionally. “It helped tremendously with developing my thought around business practice and long-term thinking," says Houwat. "Before that class, my idea of business was tactics: business cards, website, etc. After the class, my thoughts started becoming more strategic.”

He says he often returns to the class material to regain his perspective. As the band leader of Wisaal, Houwat does the booking and marketing. He also plays the oud, a Middle Eastern lute.

Wisaal plays a Mediterranean fusion, incorporating Arabic, Klezmer, Indian and American music. The band's next gig in the area is at the East Lansing Art Festival on May 18. Houwat's success can be attributed to his time in the Running Start program, and he's implementing these skills into his career, which has given him the ability to take his band to the next level.

The business side of music

Ben Fuhrman is a composer and performer, teaches and plays the mandolin, has a degree in composition and runs the control room at the MSU Community Music School. He also plays the ukulele and violin. Fuhrman is a multifaceted musician and instructor at the MSU Community Music School. "I graduated before the Running Start program actually took off. Yes, pun intended,” says Fuhrman.

He suggests that musicians who are serious about making a career out of music take the business classes that are offered.
“I’d strongly encourage current students to take advantage of it. [I learned a lot on my own] like promotion, distribution, demographic research, writing press releases, grant writing, preparing taxes with multiple revenue streams, etc.” This is all something This program will help prepare musicians to do all of these things.

Ready, set, play!

The Running Start Competition has students thinking like entrepreneurs in hopes to win a $2,500 grant, sponsored by the MSU Federal Credit Union. The College of Music puts out a request for proposals, and students can then submit their written applications and come present a narrative to the committee.

This year is the college’s second Annual competition and the criterion is based on proposals that will enhance the student’s career possibilities – it also needs to include a detailed budget, be innovative and consider community impact. After receiving numerous applications, they have whittled it down to three proposals and the winner will be announced this month. The three are currently revising their proposals, with Buckley mentoring them through this as a final process in the application. Then they will present and interview with the committee.

The Running Start program is dedicated to educating MSU’s talented music students to sustain a career in the musical profession or freelance in other ways. It is attractive on an international level to students for its recognizable entrepreneurial qualities. Students exit the program with a modern business plan, performance skills and of course, a maturity in their chosen musical path.  The passion is evident in the eyes of those that teach and want their students to succeed, and the program is a catalyst for more musicians to become entrepreneurs, follow their dreams and create music for communities everywhere.

Sommer Young is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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