The Art-Career Tango

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

“What we play is life.”
–Louis Armstrong, trumpeter and composer

Would many musicians dispute Louis Armstrong’s words? I doubt it.

With each turn of a phrase, we performers spin out some of the essence of being alive, and we relish every moment.

But we don’t create music for ourselves alone. Music is a social art that peaks in the interaction between performers and listeners.

And through our relationship with the public, we achieve both artistic and financial success. That is, we create music to share, and, by selling tickets, recordings, lessons, and merchandise, we earn income that sustains our art-making.

Art and Career in Partnership
Nonetheless, many aspiring musicians behave as if creativity and career-building were antithetical. They might put off promoting their work or booking concerts, let’s say, and then they suffer economic consequences that cause them to abandon their musical dreams.

But such dismal outcomes are avoidable.

In my view, the artistic and business sides of a musician’s life interact like two partners in a dance.

Creative urges can foster profitable ventures, such as when we make recordings that listeners flock to buy. Similarly, opportunities in the marketplace can drive our creativity, such as when we’re hired to put on concerts and we compose music in response.

What’s more, few of us can keep up our chops unless we stay active within the music industry, so career and entrepreneurial know-how are essential to our long-term creativity.

In fact, over time, our entrepreneurial habits interweave with our musical ones to make us the artists or underachievers that we become.

Harmonizing our Twin Roles
Still, let’s acknowledge how consuming it is to grow musical expertise and forge an artistic career.

Daily practice demands our best. Likewise, launching new ventures, lining up recordings and shows, updating websites, arranging travel, and so forth can eat up bundles of time and energy.

The key to our mastering the art-career tango without burning out lies in our establishing lifestyles in which we dance each role an appropriate amount each day.

In that way, we practice or compose with all our hearts, and we tend to our careers with comparable passion and discipline.

Sure, we’ll typically enjoy the art-making more. But we don’t dance the artist role alone. We honor the partnership between art and entrepreneurship, we work steadily, and we thrive as a result.

Here’s a basic framework for maintaining a vibrant artistic and career-building practice.

Five Steps in the Art-Career Tango
1.  Document your goals and action plans. Create a file, and write down your short, medium, and long-term artistic/career objectives. Concise bullets will do. Short-term goals might span a period of months; medium ones could extend several months to years into the future; long-term objectives would represent top artistic and career attainments. Revisit this file often; perhaps post a printout in your home.
      Next, itemize your daily or weekly action plans – consider using a notebook or practice sheet as described on pages 7-10 of my book The Musician’s Way. A downloadable sheet is freely available on (list career tasks under the Musicianship category). Most of all, connect your daily activities with your artistic/career objectives.

2.  Abide by a schedule. With your goals and tasks clear, devise a schedule in which you tackle a number of musical and career duties every day. Many people note their plans on lists or calendars.
      Bear in mind that, although we should think expansively about the future, we have to work in increments. So set a manageable agenda that fits your level. If you’re new to career development, then, on top of practicing or composing, maybe allocate time for 2 or 3 career-boosting tasks per day such as creating website content or sending emails to prospective presenters. Then, as your confidence increases, add on more tasks each week (see the Music Careers page at

3.  Work efficiently. Steady accomplishment will charge up your motivation and ensure your success. So set up a distraction-free workspace, focus on each artistic or business task, and move from one thing to another. I make lists and check off items as I go.

4.  Pace yourself. Besides taking on a manageable workload, employ healthy practice and computer habits, and slot in regular breaks. For instance, you might pause twice per hour to do restorative movements such as those shown on pages 76-82 of The Musician’s Way.
      Also make room for your inclusive self-care needs. With your goals, schedule, and work habits in place, you can be intensely productive and then relax when you aren’t working, confident that you’re advancing on your path.

5.  Stay open to possibilities. As we evolve, so do our opportunities. It’s vital, therefore, that we pursue lifelong learning and fresh creative avenues. Those avenues might include trying out novel collaborations or expanding our online presence.
      Regardless, by committing to both artistic and career growth, we reap the spiritual and financial rewards of connecting with listeners and giving voice to our musical souls.

Strategies for acquiring comprehensive musical, collaborative, and career skills abound in The Musician’s Way.

Related posts
The abundance mentality
Avoiding avoidance
Music: The practical career?
Optimizing practice time
The self-motivated musician

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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6 Responses to “The Art-Career Tango”

  1. alexandra said:

    Aug 09, 10 at 16:52

    Good reminders; Thanks.

  2. Radio Head said:

    Aug 11, 10 at 21:00

    Sometimes it is a vexing process, if you are passionate about your craft, but the powers that be want it differently than you do. So it’s a dillemma sometimes, but I agree, if you can make it work, make it work. And these are great tips, btw!

  3. Laura Lentz said:

    Mar 25, 11 at 12:38

    Thank you for this post! There is definitely a bi-polar kind of feeling rather than a dancing, balancing and enjoyment of the artist-side along with the entrepreneur-side of ourselves as musicians, and I think some of it may come from how we are trained — with the focus usually being on the artistic side of ourselves as musicians. We must as musicians train and build our skills to the highest level, but this is not enough. Training programs must consider that more musicians are carving their own ways these days, searching for more meaning and different opportunities as musicians…and with this comes a need for developing our entrepreneur-side as equally as our artistic-side. Slowly (some) music departments are embracing the need for this and that is positive. In the meantime, your post is a fantastic reminder that we should enjoy equally both sides of ourselves as a musician, and I love the tango reference! Terrific. thanks as always, Laura Lentz

  4. Laura Lentz said:

    Mar 25, 11 at 12:59

    I’d added a link to this post at our blog, Innovative Ideas in Performance and Pedagogy…thanks again!

  5. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Mar 25, 11 at 14:47

    Thanks for the insights and positive words, Laura, as well as for the link – much appreciated!
    FYI, I propose some ways in which music schools can update their curricula and cultures in my post “Music education and entrepreneurship”

  6. Laura Lentz said:

    Mar 26, 11 at 04:01

    Thanks much for your link, it’s an ongoing discussion I suppose and one that we have to keep pushing on as well. Thanks as always for the great insights that your blog, website and book continue to offer. All best, Laura