Are you relevant? Do you define your artistic work based on its practical, economic and social applicability to satisfy the needs of those who experience what you do? And if not, then I cannot help but ask the question, why not?
I realize that we all have a need to create and experiment in life. By doing so we are offered extraordinary opportunities to not only affirm who we are but get to know ourselves better. We learn from what works and, more often, learn the most from what does not work for us– which often allows us to find new more meaningful paths to explore.
But at what point in life do we need to become more practical, more disciplined? Is it ever to early (or late) in life to do this? And when you do, or find the help to, what are the benefits you receive for doing so?
The other day I had a young talented clarinetist– a sophomore in college- in the shop. We were discussing his future career aspirations and performing was right at the top of his list- like most of my clients. When I asked him what about performing was so motivating for him, his answer was ” Well, for a long time I was not sure I could rise to the occasion and play well enough to become an orchestral musician. It is only recently that I am starting to feel I can. Now the question I am asking myself is, do I want to do this?”
I realize that as a young adult- and even as an aging adult- coming to know who we are is a very important part of our educational journey. And alongside this process of growth and development routinely we must be challenged to answer questions like: “And if you do want to perform who specifically will want what you have to offer?”
I cannot help but wonder what we are really learning about the meaning of art, not to mention effectively reaching an audience who cares about what we have to offer from our chosen artistic field of study, if we are not challenged to explore questions like these. If you excel at Music Theory from the Middle Ages, even if you get a PHD in it and can teach it at the college level– who is it relevant to– besides you?
Take a look at my dear friend Gary Beckman- Arts Entrepreneurship Educator’s Network founder. His received his PHD in musicology in 2007 from The University of Texas at Austin. During his doctoral course work, Gary realized that his course of study was not really all that relevant and went on to pursue something that he felt was not only more relevant, but also deeply motivating for him– developing arts entrepreneurship curriculum. Now don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot from my musicology courses and loved my professors who taught them. I also think it is GREAT that Gary has vision for the growth and evolution of arts entrepreneurship curriculum, but think of what he could have accomplished, and how much happier and entrepreneurial he might have become sooner, if he had been challenged to think about how relevant his field of study was, to him and for others, at an earlier point in life?
Questioning and experimenting with our relevancy through action is at the heart of WHY the arts must become a field of entrepreneurial study in addition to traditional skill building. THE ONLY WAY artists can create sustainable happy career paths for themselves is to learn how to produce a product– relevancy.
As a young clarinetist I too asked myself the same questions my young client shared with me. I remember wondering if I could become good enough, play perfectly enough, musically enough and in tune enough to win an orchestral audition and be at the top of the heap. I challenged myself to get there with no other focus than to succeed. ( And of course, without a course or educational guidance to help me think about my goals differently.)
I started out almost last chair my freshman year at Northwestern. By my sophomore year I was at the top of my class– beating out all the masters and doctorate students, some of whom were finalists at regional orchestra auditions around the country. And when I reached that goal, all of a sudden I realize I had no idea what was next. It was not the feeling of eternal bliss I thought I would have, nor was anyone beating down my doors asking me to audition for any major orchestra. Instead it was in the middle of my senior year that I realized that I did not feel relevant. I did not feel that what skills I had developed really mattered to anyone significantly, except for me.
So it was then that I asked myself “how can I use the skills I do have to be relevant?” and from that thought I tested my ideas by putting my solution into action- by opening up a clarinet shop and helping others develop their career paths by helping them find the perfect instrument for their “relevant” music making. It was only then that I actually understood what truly it felt like to become relevant. It’s kind of funny to me, right now, that I am back where I started- after a 20 year adventure building a large business- but life is funny like that. I am being given a second chance to look at how I am relevant and I, again, am figuring it out.
But you see what I realized the first time, at 17, was that what I did have that was relevant was a gift to help and connect to others. I also had a gift to play the clarinet well. I also knew that artists needed to feel better about who they are and find their own confidence, through finding their own relevance, to become kinder to themselves and to others and strong enough to trust themselves that they could actually change the world.
Don’t ask me how exactly I knew this then– call it my God given vision- other than I did not then, and often still do not now, see the kind of inspirational collaboration or connectivity amongst others I crave in the world to see. Of all places- the arts should be outstanding examples for others of both.
Finding my relevancy at 17 gave me my first glimpse into what it meant to make a difference in life. Is it ever too early or too late to find your own? (It’s ok too, btw, if you need a school and a mentor to help you. You don’t have to find your relevancy, like I did, alone.)
Finding your relevancy will give you vision to lead. It will temper your being into a refined piece of artwork that the world wants and that you will be happy to share.
Finding your relevancy means you will feel at peace- because you are valued. You are payed- because you are needed. And that you will feel confident- because when we feel connected to ourselves and to others simultaneously, life does not get any better.
“Are you relevant,” I ask? If not– it is time to learn how you can be….