Kalamazoo

The Gilmore Festival Fellows Program teaches young artists what it takes to build a music career

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

A great musician -- or writer, or actor, or any person whose work depends on gaining the attention of the world -- spends their life on their craft. 
 
They might assume that, surely, if they're good enough, someone will notice. If a musician wins a few competitions, they'll be booked for concerts and recording sessions. They'll make a living and a career out of doing what they love. 
 
Rarely do they think of themselves as needing to be entrepreneurs. 
 
The Gilmore Festival Fellows Program has been created to help pianists 18 or older. They have some big names lined up to coach young pianists not only in music but in navigating the business side of their hoped-for careers.
 
"Competition victories no longer guarantee a career," Pierre van der Westhuizen says on The Gilmore Fellows page. "Today's most successful artists know much more than the music. They know how to navigate the industry, build their own audiences, take more programming risks, and cultivate an extensive network of peers and collaborators."
 
Festival Fellows speakers will also give public talks on careers in the arts, to happen during the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival this spring. We spoke with two, Aaron Dworkin, Professor of Arts Leadership and Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, and Eunbi Kim, pianist, and co-founder of the women-in-music mentorship program bespoken.
 
Skillsets outside of your instrument
 
Since graduating in 2012 with a master's in music from the Manhattan School of Music, Pianist Eunbi Kim has become a sought-after musician, working with living composers, touring the world, and recording. Her 2017 debut album, "A House of Many Rooms: New Concert Music by Fred Hersch," earned rave reviews.
 
Pianist Eunbi Kim will be a Gilmore Festival Fellows speaker offering insights for young musians.But she sounds a little disappointed when she says, "The most playing I ever did was when I was in school, and I took it for granted. I thought that would be similar to what my life would be after school, that I would be able to devote most of my time towards practicing. I really thought that when I was in school, 'Oh, when I graduate it will be even better because I'd have the day to myself and I won't have these other classes.' But it doesn't work like that!" She laughs.
 
Music students, before and after graduation, have many misconceptions, she's seen. Ten years after entering the real world, Kim wants younger musicians to know, "what you decide to do with the first few years after you graduate, are really important, and that can determine a lot for a musician." 
 
The real world is unforgiving. Musicians find they need an income, plus they need others to recognize their talents, others to validate their worth. To get a career as a performer, "you have to look for opportunities, be able to pitch yourself, be able to market yourself, create interesting projects to pitch, network, go to conferences," she says.
 
And the reality is, a musician will need to earn money with jobs that have little to do with their instrument.
 
When she speaks in Kalamazoo, Kim will focus on the pressures during the first few years of graduation.
 
"When I graduated, one of the first things I did because I was worried about making money, was I set up my teaching business. I taught really successfully in New York, ended up having a waiting list for students. Learning how to run a small business, market myself and build my teaching studio, that was a good opportunity for me in learning how to manage a business," she says.
 
One can "make a living largely through having access to several different avenues and having skillsets outside of just their instruments." 
 
Networking, creating unique projects, helped Kim do more than just teach. "Over time I also found other opportunities. I was very fortunate to work with some incredible composers, Fred Hersch is one of them." Kim is now working on her second album, with Daniel Bernard Roumain, who, like Gilmore artist Hersch, melds classical and jazz in his compositions. 
 
She also does mentoring and "a lot of administrative work" running the nonprofit for women in music that she co-founded, bespoken.
 
Musicians should follow their passions, she says, even if the path that takes them doesn't lead directly to the piano bench. "It sounds too simple to be true." 
 
The problem is when the job doesn't have anything to do with their passions. Kim feels the biggest mistake she saw in her fellow graduates "was, they took the first job that was available to them. It didn't matter if it was a low-paying job, or it was a dead-end job, a job that had very little to do with what they had trained in, not even related to music. They took the job because they were very anxious about wanting to have some kind of steady, stable position."
 
"And I think that's a big mistake for a lot of people. Because there are studies that show if you take a job that's not related to what your field is, or if it's just a job that has very little growth possibilities or opportunities, research shows that you're very likely to be in that job for more than five years. And it's very difficult to leave once you are stuck in that position." 
 
If you need a job to pay the rent, "it's very important to have a plan in terms of how long you're going to stay, what you're hoping to get out of it," she says. Keep searching for opportunities for growth, learning, and networking. 
 
There is a maybe-not-dirty-secret to success, but something that isn't talked about much -- privilege. Some musicians need that day job, others have safety nets. 
 
"The reason why it's such a mystery how people are able to make a living, is because for most musicians, and very successful musicians, they're not so transparent about how they are making a living," Kim says. "The truth is, that I think there's a lot of privilege that's involved in how some musicians build their careers, and it's true all over the creative field."
 
Kim acknowledges that she had some luck with her family. "I went to Manhattan School of Music, and my parents supported me through my masters. I was in a fortunate position to have that opportunity.... These things are not discussed as much."
 
Others don't talk about the jobs waiting tables or driving Uber. "There are so many musicians who have a day job for example, and they don't share that information. There are people who do all kinds of different work, but they don't talk about it."
 
Kim says that her colleagues have to be open about, "firstly, having a career in music is very difficult, very challenging anyways. But also, most musicians have to do many different types of work to make a living in the arts."
 
'The Entrepreneurial Artist'
 
When Dworkin became Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in 2015, he made sure to include in the curriculum the subject of gaining a career in the arts, in addition to performance.
 
"It is critically important," Dworkin says. "It was something we were really focusing on because historically it was something we didn't do much at the school. Looking at how are we preparing our students for, not just the craft of playing their instruments or whatever their artistic discipline, but how do they get the opportunity to spend their lives doing it." 
 
Aaron Dworkin, Professor of Arts Leadership and Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, will will be a Gilmore Festival Fellows speaker offering insights for young musians.He earned his master's in violin in 1998 from the school. He saw that "so many of my colleagues from school, who were phenomenal musicians, ended up leaving the field. The big orchestra job didn't come, the big college teaching job didn't come." 
 
Dworkin sensed that they thought, after not quickly getting the big jobs, "'oh, that's it.' In other words, it was just, 'okay, it's those or nothing,' without understanding the vast array of ways to build an extraordinary fulfilling life in the arts."
 
He recommends that young artists focus on ways to build their careers -- but Dworkin admits that his own process was "in some ways, maybe unintentional." 
 
He was focused on violin, assuming his life would be mostly one of performance. 
 
"For me, the transformation took place in Michigan, where I began to explore these issues of diversity, music by composers of color, also cross-disciplinary work. And it was those experiences that lead me to ask questions or see problems in the field, and want to take some steps to hopefully try to address those issues that I was seeing."
 
Many have an impression of the classical field as being a difficult area to take risks, where one wouldn't want to want to rock the boat. But it sounds like Dworkin rocked the boat a bit.
 
He laughs. "I did, and it's interesting because I'd say, originally coming up I very unintentionally rocked the boat. I rocked the boat just by my presence, in that I was the only Black violinist, or one of a less than a handful in almost all of the situations I was in. So that alone created an odd set of circumstances, being the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony or winning the Harrisburg Youth Soloists competition (while a student at Penn State), the first African American to do so.... Unintentionally and undesired I was rocking the boat," he says.
 
At U of M, a teacher asked him if he was interested in the music of Black composers, "and I was surprised and did not know that there were Black classical composers, and then started getting exposed to the works."
 
Aaron Dworkin, Professor of Arts Leadership and Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, will will be a Gilmore Festival Fellows speaker offering insights for young musians.He became the first student in the program to play music from Black composers for his degree recital, which put him in the position where he had to prove the music was on the same technical levels as Brahms, Beethoven -- what he was doing at the time, the mid-to-late-'90s, was "not normal," he says.
 
This experience led him to become an advocate for diversity in the arts. He formed the Sphinx Organization in 1997, to increase the representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music. 
 
After school, Dworkin not only performed in concert and on record, he also performed spoken-word, wrote fiction and non-fiction, and was selected to be a member of President Obama's National Arts Policy Committee.
 
In 2019, he released "The Entrepreneurial Artist: Lessons from Highly Successful Creatives." For the book, he interviewed jazz great Wynton Marsalis, "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreographer Bill T. Jones, actor Jeff Daniels and others about how they achieved success.
 
What he learned was, there is no one way, nor any simple set of rules, to earn a living in the arts. "I wanted to get a breadth across a host of disciplines, and a breadth of the style of leadership, so especially younger people can understand and see that there isn't only one set way. 'I have to do this, I have to have the dynamism of Lin-Manuel or something like that.' There are many ways to do this," he says.
 
Dworkin did see commonalities in his interview subjects, "certainly this commitment to excellence, you see a persistence in overcoming obstacles, you see an authenticity... adaptability -- things happen, I don't just press blindly, but I look at what's happening, I look at these obstacles, and I'm able to adapt. Resilience --that comes up so strong with someone like Bill T (Jones), just the ability to deal with tragedy in life, personally or professionally."
 
Dworkin will be talking about this in Kalamazoo, that "you have to understand what is the value that you bring. In other words, you could be the technically best artist of a particular discipline, but if nobody values either your excellent artistry in it or values that discipline, it's kind of not going to matter for your career. You will have no value and no one will pay you for what you have to offer. So you will be just alone, playing in a room."
 
He continues, "Which is fine if you happen to be able to afford to do that, and you actually don't want to share your art with anyone. But if you want to share your art with other people, and impact them, and you want to hopefully be able to earn a living from your art-making, then you need to bring value, you need to understand the value that you are bringing as an artist."
 
Also, "You have to realize that as an artist you must compete for people's time. So if you say, I want someone to be at my concert on a Friday night, well then you are competing.... with Netflix, with sports, you're competing with other musical genres. Very important as artists to understand that competition, so that we do things that demonstrate, that market our art-form. The idea of, 'all I have to do is focus on the notes,' I think is, unfortunately, a leisure that no artist can afford in today's world." 
 
An artist should actively promote the genre they're in, Dworkin says, "to be an advocate.... You have a responsibility for our art-form, to engage with the audience, to make the case, to think about how am I bringing value to our art-form, to classical music, furthering it so that it not only can survive but ideally thrive moving forward."
 
The details 
 

Eunbi Kim (April 29, 4 p.m.) and Aaron Dworkin (May 9, 4 p.m.) will be among others in the Gilmore Festival Fellows Lecture series. 
 
For the full Gilmore International Keyboard Festival lineup, announced Jan. 9, go here. 
 
Dworkin's annual Sphinx Connect, held in Detroit to engage in issues of diversity in the arts and classical music, will be online Jan. 26-29. To view, go here.  
 

 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.