Why Music Students Have Trouble with Idea Generation

This article appeared in Arts Journal, on the State of The Art blog. It was written by James Undercofler on  June 6, 2010. I totally agree with James assessment of the problems musicians have with idea formation and why they happen.  Nice to see the issues being exposed. Now we need to address them.

Arts Entrepreneurship — The Idea Formation Conundrum

At Eastman, when we were building the Institute for Music Leadership’s capacity in music entrepreneurship, we created a prize to encourage idea formation, the New Venture Challenge (  In the first round we received only one idea that could be described as innovative and addressing a need or potential market.  Although since then the New Venture Challenge has engendered many good ideas and plans, after that first round we questioned why this had happened.  Our answers centered around the fact that music students, especially those studying classical forms, in their experience had rarely been asked to produce anything creative, or even think about how they, through their art form, could invent something new, and useful.  It became clear to us that in order to teach entrepreneurship to music students, we would need to focus heavily on idea formation.

There’s not a lot out there in literature, or on the web about the idea formation process in entrepreneurship, especially in the arts.  There’s an assumption that the entrepreneur comes to the process with the idea and zip to proceed with its development.  As I believe we may need to ignite the zip with students and young people in the arts, I have delved into idea formation in arts and arts-related ventures.  I invite input and comments, please!

Much of entrepreneurship in the arts has been ego-centric.  Woodwind quintets that love playing together and who have achieved success while in college want to continue, so incorporate as a NFP, 501 (c) 3 organization, appoint themselves and close relations to their board, and set off in one of their home communities to make a go of it.  I could paint the same picture for dancers, and actor/directors.  In these instances, yes, there is an entrepreneurial spirit, but there is no concept of market demand, or community need.  Rarely is any sort of ecological study done of what already exists of similar organizations providing cultural resources.  The idea was not tested and the enterprise either fails, or dies a long and painful death.

A first step away from ego-centric idea formation centers on enterprises that provide services and benefits to the arts fields themselves.  These enterprises can provide genuine value to artistic communities, as by extension to wider communities.  A fine example exists here in Philadelphia.  Noted photographic artist, Sarah Stolfa, noticed that the advanced equipment made available to her when in college (Drexel and Yale) was not available to her or her colleagues, except at a very high cost, in “the real world.”  She formed the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (, which among its many services, offers low and reduced cost use of high-end equipment to photographic professionals.  One of my former students, an oboist, created an online reed making and distribution business that is quite successful.  Its primary market is to school-age players and teachers of these players, who do not make their own reeds.  Her idea formation process stemmed from identifying a need from her many private oboe students who needed quality, low cost reeds.

What’s of primary interest to me are those enterprises that combine the power of the arts with a community and/or social need.  I will take up this area of idea formation in my next blog entry.

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