“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes: Cultivate these Entrepreneurial Strategies that work!” (Part 3)

In my previous posts in this series, I’ve highlighted why we musicians must become more entrepreneurial to achieve greater success. In this final post in the series, I want to highlight three practical recommendations that can become winning strategies for you.

No. 1 Use Computers and the Internet

MIT economists McAfee and Brynjolfsson have focused on the economic impact of developments in computers since the 1960s. In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that computer processor speed would double every 18 months. He has been proven essentially correct, and as computer processing speeds increase, computers are able to mimic more and more human cognitive abilities. This is cutting ever more deeply into markets for mid-level, non-physical skilled labor.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson predict that as processing speed continues to increase, each of us will need to find ways to use technology to enhance our abilities to perform our professional tasks (pp. 17ff). They describe this as “racing with machines”—learning to use machines as partners to create new combinations and re-combinations of applications, products, and distribution networks (p. 59).

Here’s the complication: McAfee and Brynjolfson acknowledge that the internet enables “superstars” to outperform everyone else and bypass local talent in the marketplace (pp. 39ff). At the same time, in The Savvy Musician, David Cutler argues that the internet frees musicians from central control by record labels and other vested economic and entertainment interests. So the internet can help us musicians break free of institutional control of markets and distribution channels, yet it can also richly reward a handful of individuals anywhere in the world whose success then drowns out our more local voices.

What should you and I do? Well, if we do not at least try to break into the digital marketplace, we may no chance to compete successfully. Every musician should strive to became (increasingly) savvy using computer-based technology and the internet to extend their reach, market themselves beyond their local, physical landscape, and expand their audiences. Indeed, using technology to eliminate distances between ourselves and potential audiences may be the most important thing we can do. Furthermore, to “race with machines” means developing efficiencies in daily professional operations; this can free up time to reinvest in our performing, teaching, or scholars activities.

No. 2 Cultivate Your Soft Skills and Customer Service Approach

The American economy has been shifting toward a service-dominated economy for several decades. If economic predictions are correct, it will not be enough to be professionally competent.

McAfee and Brynjolfsonn argue “the best therapists, managers, and salespeople excel at interacting and communicating with others” (p. 23). Those are critical “soft skills” that can help us improve our performance in the marketplace and our role in the community.

Likewise, on July 15, 2014, the PBS NewsHour featured a report by Paul Solomon about the importance of the emerging “artisanal” economy among many recent liberal arts graduates. The service-based start-ups he explored consistently focus on the experience and delight of customers within niche markets.

Furthermore, Cowen argues that we have to go beyond making “marginal improvements” to existing products, practices, and services (pp. 66-67). Therefore, Cutler may be absolutely right that successful musicians will have to focus on creating new musical experiences, and lots of new music. Re-interpreting, re-performing, and re-recording established repertories will probably become less central to music making and music careers as we move further into the 21st century.

For all of these reasons, performers, composers, and ensemble conductors should strive to develop the soft skills necessary to create live musical experiences that are “high touch,” customer-oriented, and “delightful,” and that clearly add value to all who participate.

No. 3 Cultivate your Distinctives … and then Market Them

On March 4, 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article, “The Employment Mismatch,” that summarized survey data from employers regarding the characteristics they are most looking for in employees. These included effective communication, adaptability, and the ability to think, solve problems, and make decisions.

Good musicians possess those characteristics! The good musician “problem solves” her way through a tough score, figuring out how to master difficult passages for performance; she makes decision about repertory to include on programs, which role to pursue in an audition, whether to practice an additional hour or study for a test. The very notion of analysis, whether in a formal music history or music theory project, one’s own work in the practice room, or one’s analytical discussions during lessons, embodies these kinds of fundamental questions: “Has this musical event or pattern happened before? What was different then and now?” Those kinds of questions about patterns within information or situations are at the heart of workplace success generally.

For the musician who may need to supplement his or her income while pursuing his or her core dream, being able to “translate” real skills into the workplace is essential. Musicians should build a vocabulary for explaining how their strengths translate across the marketplace, whether or not the particular opportunity they are pursuing at that moment is music related or not. If you are a good communicator, become even better – and market this skill. Are you a great problem solver? Do the same.

Here is another list of real-life workplace skills and characteristics that are essential for career success. I have culled them from a number of sources and have been pleased to hear them echoed in conversations among panelists I have hosted on campus regarding workplace readiness:

  1. Be able to foresee and manage change.
  2. Possess quantitative literacy and be able to engage in analysis.
  3. Be able to use primary sources. (Music majors, you know how to do this; you took music history classes!)
  4. Be able to organize information into a “work of art”: create composites that unite facts with a “story that people understand.”
  5. Be gifted at writing for a variety of media and communicating to varied audiences!
  6. Be able to articulate a vision and “enlist others to the cause.”
  7. Develop greater understanding of human nature and
  8. Develop greater understanding of organizational dynamics and management.
  9. Be collaborative and be able to manage projects. (This should be easy for music majors trained in conducting and nurtured as ensemble performers!)
  10. Be intellectually confident by engaging in life-long-learning; this will enable you to rapidly mastery new material and to “pivot” between or to new subjects. (1)

Mastering even just a few of these skills will strengthen your career no matter its particular shape, its balance between teaching, performing, or other activities, or whether it is more freelance or institutionally bound. Mastering even just a few will help you to stand out when you apply, audition, or interview for jobs, gigs, grants, or other forms of support. Mastering even just a few will improve your workplace interactions. These kinds of skills open doors and create additional opportunities.

Remember, professional competencies are no longer enough! Being a great singer, instrumentalist, composer, music teacher—these are table stakes. More is needed to “close the deal.” Entrepreneurship… excellence… leadership… these are keys to building a vibrant, meaningful career that adds value to the community.


(1) Chris McNickel, “A Historian in the World of Investments: How Historical Thinking Resonates in Business,” Perspectives on History (March 2014): 34–35; Clifford Adelman, “The Edges of History,” Perspectives on History (September 2014): 40-41; Emily Swafford, “Career Diversity for Historians,” Perspectives on History (November 2014): 18-19; Jack Cumming, “History as Preparation for a Career in Business,” Perspectives on History (November 2014): 32-33.

Live music making will be key… and new music at that.

Thinking About Star Wars Music

I only occasionally read “top 10” type posts on Facebook, but I could not resist writing a little along that line tonight.

I drove to Sarasota today from Tallahassee. It’s about a 5-hour drive south (for all of you readers who live outside of Florida)—barring traffic jams around Tampa! I was asked to attend a College of Music event “on the road” tomorrow, and I folded into the trip an additional meeting this afternoon at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota. The Museum is situated on the (western) Gulf Coast, and the view this afternoon was gorgeous. (Check out a couple of photographs I took and have posted at the end of this blog.)

Knowing that I’d have a long drive by myself today, I decided to bring along and listen to some of my older CDs of film music. Among those CDs was the soundtrack to Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

We are surrounded right now by Star Wars hype, what with the December 18th premier of the seventh movie (which I have been waiting for since 1980, when I used to listen to my two-LP set of music from The Empire Strikes Back).

I’ve been trying to cite many of my sources of information in my blogs … but is it even necessary to corroborate my reference to Star Wars hype right now? Is my Facebook feed the only Star Wars-saturated feed right now? 

I have been trying to avoid learning too much about the new movie ahead of time. I would like some surprises with this new trilogy. But the hype has motivated me to think about my own 38-year love of all things Star Wars… and especially John Williams’s six Star Wars soundtracks.

So here’s my horrible Star Wars secret: I LIKED Episode 1 – and particularly its music. Yes, I know, Jar Jar Binks…. But put him aside: the dramatic scenes with a young Obi-Wan, his master Qui-Gon Jinn, and the energetic Sith Lord, Darth Maul, more than make up for Jar Jar. And be honest with me: Episode 1 is at least as entertaining as Return of the Jedi, and more so than the original Star Wars (you know, “A New Hope”).

But it’s the music…. I still love the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back best, but in my opinion, Episode 1 is Williams’s second best Star Wars soundtrack. Williams was at the height of his power when he composed it; he had an established mythology to work with and an established body of musical themes to reference, reuse, and add to. Granted, there would be few surprises in the new trilogy—the main outline was set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that means there were also no “retrospective omissions” (compositionally speaking). Empire’s soundtrack is amazing in part because of the significant new themes it introduced to what was then only a two-film series: “Yoda’s Theme,” the new theme for Leia and Han, the “City in the Clouds,” and most importantly, “Darth Vader’s Theme.” I mean really – doesn’t it bother you to watch the original Star Wars and NOT hear Vader’s theme? And the cues “The Battle in the Snow,” “The Asteroid Field,” “The Magic Tree,” “The Duel,” and “Hyperspace” from Empire are simply amazing for their energy, their moods, and their orchestrations. In my opinion, nothing quite rises to their level in Return of the Jedi, not even the long accompaniment to the battle on Endor.
So what about Episode 1? “Duel of the Fates.” Enough said.

Not convinced: “Anakin’s Theme.” Not only is that a gorgeous track in its own right, it is Williams at his best without the brassy bombast of his many march-based tracks. Furthermore, the manner in which he subtly alters the cadences of the theme’s opening phrases so that later iterations mimic the cadences of Darth Vader’s theme is musical magic. Go back and listen to “Anakin’s Theme.” Note the cadences at 0:34 and 0:44, then compare how Williams begins to reshape them for the cadence at 1:56, before allowing Vader’s cadence to (softly) sound at the most significant formal moment up to that point: the conclusion of the B section and the return to the (modified) opening materials. And then Williams simply allows Vader’s cadence to extend and repeat from 2:30 to the end of the track. It is so easy for people to refer to Williams’s “leitmotifs,” but this is a real example of subtle thematic transformation that truly add to our perception of the object or person. Can we ever see or hear Vader or Anakin the same way again as his/their two themes and all associated meanings coalesce in our inner ear and mind’s eye?

So I will grant that George Lucas may not have gotten it all right in Episode 1 (or Episodes 2 and 3), but Williams’s music suggests that the composer understand the tragedy inherent in the series as a whole. His music for the boy from Tatooine is a study in musical anguish. Indeed, listen for all the iterations of the “Force” theme in Episode 1: they simply add to the anguished quality of the whole. There is virtually nothing triumphant, as least not lastingly so, about Episode 1’s music: even the “Star Wars” heroic theme is almost—almost!—mute. And yet the soundtrack is outstanding Star Wars music. It is outstanding film music.

And I could go on. The opening moments of “Sith Spacecraft” are brilliant. If you prefer a brassy Williams march, there’s “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors.” (I cannot listen to that track just once!) And I love the way in which Williams uses so much familiar material to maximize the sense of both sentimentality and sadness in the cue “The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral.”

Here’s my bottom line: What Episode 1’s dialogue lacks, its music makes up for. Common on, this is space opera! And in opera, music often does cover over a multitude of textual deficits!

So to conclude, here’s my list of the Star Wars movies in (descending) order of great to not-so-great. My assessment of their soundtracks inevitably plays into this list (but my assessment of the merits of the soundtracks and of the films do not completely overlap).

  1. The Empire Strikes Back (episode 5)
  2. Revenge of the Sith (episode 3)
  3. Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (episode 1)
  4. Return of the Jedi (episode 6)
  5. Star Wars (you know, the original 1) (episode 4)
  6. that other one (episode 2)

And just for some more fun, here are a few more of my ranked media lists:

“Original” Star Trek Movies in descending order: 6 4 2 3 5 1

Seasons of Dexter: 4 2 1 3 5 {Are the last three even worth ranking?}

Seasons of the revived Doctor Who: 4 5 6 2 9 1 7 8 3

Please feel free to offer your counter lists.

One more thing: if you love John Williams, consider checking out his soundtrack to The Cowboys (1972). It is one of my favorite film soundtracks, certainly one of my favorites to a Western. The film itself is one of my favorite Westerns, and one of my favorite John Wayne movies.

Oh…. And see you on or around December 18 for my review of the new music for Episode 7!

[NB: As I have been writing, I’ve been listening to the recordings included in Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology Box Set, which was released in 1993. The fourth disc – with alternate tracks – remains one of my favorite film music finds. The box set can still be purchased online.]

(November 20, 2015)

Two views at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Taken by Stan Pelkey, November 20, 2015.


A Tribute to My Musical Mother

{Welcome to this expanded post, “A Tribute to My Musical Mother.” I added the original version of this tribute to my blog in November 2015. The expanded version includes additional photographs and several musical selections performed by my mother, Jean Pelkey. Enjoy!  scp August 10, 2016}

Many of you enjoyed reading my tribute to my musical father, and several of you asked to read a tribute to my musical mother. So with notes from Mom, an extended conversation for some follow up questions, and a sprinkling of my own memories, here we go….

Among my earliest musical memories are impressions of standing with Mom in the Reformed Church in Syracuse, New York, during the singing of Sunday morning hymns. I can distinctly remember listening to her sing words that moved by too quickly for my early reading skills to decipher in time with the music. Yet I can also remember that as I stood beside her, I knew that one day, I would be able to read and sing along, too. Years later, when that had become a reality, I’d join Mom in reading the alto lines in the hymnal—before my voice changed. My wife (Heidi) teases me that I still extemporaneously harmonize tunes with alto lines (albeit in my baritone range).


A family photo from ca. 1973. Left to right: Doris Foss (the author’s grandmother); Stan Pelkey (seated on Grandma Foss’s lap); Tana Pelkey (the author’s sister); Lyman Pelkey (the author’s father); Jean Pelkey (the author’s mother). Photo taken in the living room of my parents’ home, 116 Rugby Road, Syracuse, New York.  

It is fitting that hymns and hymn singing are central to my experience of my mother as a musician, because from the time Mom and her sisters could read, they, too, followed the words in the hymnbooks of their childhood Free Methodist Church. At that time, in the 1930s and 1940s, Free Methodist congregations often did not use musical instruments in worship. Mom notes that she and her sisters learned quickly to read music because of all the vocal music they sang at church.

My grandmother arranged for Mom to take piano lessons from Lovely McCleery, the wife of their pastor. Mrs. McCleery was a graduate of the music program at Houghton College, a small Wesleyan school in the southern tier of New York State. (My mother and a number of her uncles, cousins, and sisters attended Houghton College.) At the time of those piano lessons with Mrs. McCleery, however, Mom balked at scales and classical music! She just wanted to play church songs, and she always hoped that some day they would have an instrument in church. In the meantime, she occasionally got to play the organ at the local Baptist church, and Mom and her sisters would harmonize songs, which they’d sing without accompaniment. Sometimes they’d sing together at district-wide gatherings of the Free Methodist congregations.

Mom remembers singing Haydn’s chorus, “The Heavens are Telling,” while in high school, and that her choir also sang Messiah in a special concert in Buffalo. I’ve pressed Mom about her other musical experiences as a child because I have tried to understand what influenced her to develop her particular approach to playing hymns. You see, Mom’s style of hymn playing on the piano has probably been her greatest musical influence on my development as a musician. In her approach, I hear echoes of early gospel and old time music, and even elements of boogie-woogie. Her style has been a part of my soundscape since before I was born, and it is a sound I have tried to capture (for years) in my own improvisations and compositions. Mom remembers her family did listen to Christian gospel music on the radio during her childhood (I can see an image something like the Waltons gathered around the radio in their living room, with Grandma Walton preferring the hymns over the fiddle tunes!). I’d love to hear some of those old programs and to listen for tell-tale influences seeping from Thomas Dorsey, for example, into rural, white Protestant Christian hymn playing in the northeast in those years.

Jean Pelkey playing “There’s Within My Heart a Melody,” one of the hymn tunes I remember her playing the most when I was a child. Recorded in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, August 9, 2016. Please scroll to the end for an additional recording.

For a time in the early 1960s, before she moved to Syracuse and met Dad, Mom moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to work for the publishing house of the Church of the Nazarene. For a while, she was organist at St Paul’s Nazarene in Kansas City. Mom writes, “There was also a pianist and she covered for my mistakes, bless her heart! At that time I did take some lessons for the Hammond organ. I really don’t know how I paid for them, because my salary was very minimum as Assistant VBS Editor.” Mom also served two brief stints as a lay pastor, which led her to play the keyboard instrument available, serve as song leader, and preach a sermon. A few years later, after marrying Dad, my parents provided the music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Clay, New York, and they would play piano and organ together on hymns, something people really liked to hear. That was a very common approach to hymn accompaniment in the United Methodist Churches in Kentucky when Heidi and I first met. I’ve enjoyed those times—actually fewer than I would have expected—when she and I have been able to play hymns on the piano and organ together.

After he retired from teaching, Dad returned to seminary to pursue his M.Div. Mom took the reigns at Trinity to accompany the choir, and she says she became very “conscientious practicing the accompaniment…, and I really did improve at sight reading.” In the past few years, with eyesight weakening, she has discovered she can “play from memory after seeing the printed hymns and gospel songs for so many decades.”


My parents celebrating their anniversary in August 2011. Both Jean and Lyman Pelkey have had a profound impact upon me as a musician, a parent, a teacher, and a person.

I’ve mentioned Mom’s singing and her piano playing. She has also always been a person who hums along with her daily tasks. I think that’s a habit I picked up from her. I hum a lot. I whistle a lot. I make up tunes to brighten my day.

Sometimes, Nate and Maddie tease me about that, or about the handful of recurring ditties I’ll whistle that they’ve come to expect to hear on a regular basis. They’ve heard those musical gestures so many times now, they can repeat them back to me. Yes, I know it’s quirky, but it’s all OK. No, it’s actually all very and most truly wonderful: music continues to bind parents and children among the Pelkeys.

I would not trade that musical bond for anything, not even when my kids—still—make up incredibly ridiculous dances to accompany some of my favorite piano pieces that I have obviously practiced too many times for too many years. The smiles we share and the laughter that rings through the house are the best music of all.

The world needs music… a lot more of it.

(Originally posted on November 17, 2015.)


Jean Pelkey and Stan Pelkey, ca. 1979.

StanMom.August2016Jean Pelkey and Stan Pelkey. Photo taken by Madison Pelkey on August 9, 2016, in the living room of my mother’s apartment in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. 



Jean Pelkey playing the hymn tuns “He Touched Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” on August 9, 2016, in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. These renditions are part of a longer medley that my mother played recently for the service at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church. I am so pleased that she is still making music and putting a smile on my face and a tune in my heart. Thanks, Mom! I love you very, very much.   scp  August 10, 2016

November 2015 Viewing

I started to re-watch David Lynch’s 1984 film version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, Dune, this evening. I’ve watched this film from beginning to end at least two times during the past twenty years. I couldn’t bear to do it again tonight. I dropped out after about an hour.

Have you read this amazing book? Have you viewed any adaptations?

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Are you a professional musician? Please take my poll.

Hello, Reader!

I am very interested in learning more about how my visitors who may be musicians have been trained and how they engage in musical activities as a source of income. Would you please consider taking this poll? The results may help me better understand how to support college musicians in their professional development and career planning.



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“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes, especially if you think like a music entrepreneur!” (Part 2)

{Please note that this is a continuation of an earlier post on music entrepreneurship.}

In my first post in this series, I noted that some of the best music schools, colleges, and conservatories in the United States are getting serious about training students as musical entrepreneurs. But what is driving all of the entrepreneurship talk (and action) on college and university campuses?

Conversations about music entrepreneurship emerged on campuses before the Great Recession. Nevertheless, the economic anxieties of the past seven years and the broader economic situation of which the Great Recession was one—albeit large—part have helped to intensify the conversations.

Over long stretches of economic history in the West, when businesses grew, they hired workers. The Great Recession, however, was the worst in a recent series of business cycles whose periods of recovery were essentially jobless (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, Race With Machines [2011], p. 3; Cowen, The Great Stagnation [2011], p. 5).

Modern concert life began about 300 years ago.

Economist Taylor Cowen argues that current trends toward declining wages and declining rates of employment are symptomatic of a large-scale, multi-century process that began about 300 years ago.

For much of its history, the United States benefited from and built its social and economic institutions on the expectation of the availability of “low-hanging fruit”: free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies (Cowen, The Great Stagnation, pp. 6-7). But this economic “low-hanging fruit” is disappearing, and we are entering a period Cowen calls the “Great Stagnation.”

He points to the following as evidence of this change:

  • stagnant wages since the 1970s (p. 5);
  • declining high school and college completion rates since the 1960s (pp. 10-11);
  • test scores have not improved even though funding to K-12 schools has increased since the 1970s (pp. 38-39).

Those symptoms of structural problems go back to the 1960s. Indeed, my research on American social and cultural thought in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s for my publications on the history of film and television demonstrates that American social historians and social critics were voicing concerns about the long-term health of the economy in the first half of the twentieth century. They believed economic decline was the likely outcome of the so-called “Closing of the Frontier” and of the increasing importance of machines in the economy and the machine-like organization of workers. (You can read more about this in the first chapter of my book, Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age.) But remember: Cowen says elements of these problems are rooted in economic processes at play for centuries!

Furthermore, since the 1940s and 1950s, we have made only “marginal improvements” to existing technology and social systems. Much of our consumer technology, such as cars, TVs, and refrigerators, was in place by the middle of the last century. For decades, there have been no new developments comparable to the train or automobile that have transformed American social and business life and caused significant, net economic growth and led to sustained job growth. The internet is transforming our social and cultural lives, but it has potentially driven net job loss across the economy as a whole. It remains to be seen if the content available on the internet will stimulate substantial economic growth (Cowen, pp. 9-10).

New technology tends to displace human labor (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, p. 7). The good news is that since the Industrial Revolution, the Western economy has been able to redeploy many of the workers displaced by new technologies (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, p. 51). The acceleration of technological change in the past 40 years, however, is unprecedented; labor redeployment within the economic system is falling behind.

TV, video games, and portable playback systems have created “digital outsiders” less likely to sing (Winstead, pp. 234-235).

Let’s take an example from the world of music. In his book, When Colleges Sang: The Story of Singing in American College Life (2013), J. Lloyd Winstead addresses “the loss of casual singing” on college campuses (p. 211). Campus musical cultures declined with the social transformation following two World Wars, the rise of the automobile, and changes to ritual life (such as the elimination of required chapel attendance). But new recording and playback technologies went further: they turned Americans, including college students, into listeners to (rather than makers of) music.

Here’s the thing: college students and observers of campus life in the 1920s were already identifying the negative toll that recordings, radio, and film were having on singing on campus!

Robert Putnam also argued in Bowling Alone (2000) that TV and cars “hollowed out” direct, personal participation in American civic life.

OK… so you get the point:

Bad Economy = the rise of Entrepreneurial thinking (at least in part).

“But Pelkey, the economic news has improved since 2011, when McAfee, Brynjolfsson, and Cowen wrote their books!”

You are correct on that point, fearless reader!

Reports late last week (November 6, 2015) indicated that the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 5%. Even the broader measure that includes the underemployed and those who have given up searching for work dropped to 9.8%. Growth slowed in the third quarter of 2015 to 1.5%, but the general economic outlook is much improved since 2011, let alone since the height of the Great Recession! And even though the Labor Participation Rate is currently at its lowest since 1978, this decline was anticipated all the way back in 2000—years before President Obama was at the helm or Obamacare became the law. (http://www.factcheck.org/2015/03/declining-labor-participation-rates/)

Does this mean musicians can stop talking about entrepreneurship?


The relatively good economic news during the past twelve months changes nothing regarding the manner in which technology is transforming and will continue to transform the economy and the means by which most Americans access music. Musicians must take those two factors into account when considering the shape of their lives and careers.

More importantly, despite the improved economy, participation in and live exposure to the arts remains woefully low.

The National Endowment for the Art’s report, “How A Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” is sobering! According to that report, only 12.1% of adults (those over 18) plays a musical instrument; only 3.2% sings in a choral groups; only 0.8% participates in musicals. Numbers are only a little better for attendance at live musical performances.

Contrarily, when asked if they had attended a movie at least once in 2012, 59.4% adults answered affirmatively. When asked if they had had some sort of experience with the arts through electronic media, affirmative responses jumped to 71%!

Yet only 8.8% of adults attended a live performance of classical music at least once in 2012! And that was down from 11.6% in 2002. (Jazz fared no better, with only 8.1%.)

Only 2.1% of Americans attended a live opera performance in 2012.

And these are the numbers despite the fact that colleges and universities all over the country—including my beloved Florida State University—offer free concerts and recitals nearly year round!

Those sobering statistics are the reason musicians need to become more entrepreneurial: we must rethink how we engage audiences, share our music through both live and technologically mediated means, and create new kinds of musical experiences that will fit (perhaps unexpectedly) into people’s established patterns of social and cultural life.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share some specific ideas you might consider adopting to become a more entrepreneurial musician.

(Originally posted on November 9, 2015.)


A Tribute to My Musical Father

November 8, 2015

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’ve been increasingly aware of theIMG_0048 truth of that old saw as I have pushed into middle age. Every time I get a hair cut, I swear my father is looking back at me in the mirror! That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. I have had a very positive relationship with my father, especially during my adult years, and this is something for which I am deeply grateful as more and more of Dad has been lost in recent years to dementia. It’s just that I do not like being reminded that I am middle aged, nor that my life-long tug-of-war with weight gain has become decidedly more challenging in the past five years!

But let’s face it: sons often want to create points of distinction from their fathers. I’ve certainly felt that way over the years, despite my good relationship with Dad. At the same time, that did not stop me as a teen from practicing how I answered the phone so that I sounded exactly like Dad! Nor did it stop me from developing a legible but fairly distinctive handwriting style inspired by Dad’s penmanship. Nor has it stopped me in more recent years from taking a page from Dad’s playbook as I try to dress professionally for work. I’ve even appropriated a few of his ties (’though not all of them – our tastes are similar but not the same!) and old watches, which I occasionally wear for good luck, or to keep him close to me. And of course, at the very root of my professional life, I became a musician, and an organist to boot, in large part because being a musician ran in the family!


(Photo above: Lyman Pelkey playing the pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, New York, January 1994. Photo on right: Stan playing the in Scone Palace in Scotland, Summer 1997.)

Still I was surprised recently when I watched a video of myself playing the organ and realized that even some of my performance mannerisms reflect those of Dad. HA! And I had thought I had avoided developing those! And then there was recently a photo of me talking to a guest at the Florida State University, and it could have been Dad in that photo. The apple… well you get the point.

So in the spirit of gratefulness to Dad (and quiet resignation that genetics, environment, and probably unconscious mimicry are winning out over overconfident free will each time I perform and in many of my daily quirks), I wanted to share a bit about my father’s musical background and that of his father, too, as a tribute to the power of family in the construction of our musical selves. (I could also write about my mother’s influence on my musical life: I have spent years trying to emulate her gospel piano playing! But that will have to wait for another blog post!)

My father had a habit of recording family history and self-reflections in his books and musical scores. I have inherited many of these items, and I have drawn on their notes for the following summary.


In July 2003, my father wrote across the cover of a signed copy of a violin method book by Claude Case (Carl Fischer, 1910) that it had belonged to his father, Stanley C. Pelkey I (April 14, 1901—January 1, 1976). Grandpa grew up in a tiny farming community (Jay, New York) in the Adirondack Park. In those days, many rural youth of my grandparents’ generation did not attend high school. As my father notes, Grandpa’s parents were urged to send him to high school by his grammar teacher, but that would have required rooming and boarding some distance away in Au Sable Forks, New York. This proved impossible. My father—who also spent his early childhood in the Adirondacks—remembers that before World War II, the “extremely hilly and narrow” roads in the mountains were often impassible throughout the winter and sometimes even into May. Although he did not finish high school, Grandpa Pelkey was foresighted enough to move his own family (ca. 1949) out of the mountains and to Massena, New York, where there were more job opportunities. He was also naturally gifted as a salesman, and ultimately he and my grandmother were able to send their three children to college.


(Photo above: my grandfather, Stanley Pelkey, and one of my great uncles, Philip Strong. Photo on right: my paternal grandparents, Stanley and Lyma Pelkey.)

Grandpa played fiddle in his youth. It must have been important to him because even after he stopped actively playing, he kept his old violins. My parents owned them afterwards for a number of years. I never heard my grandfather make music, and he died when I was 3 years old, so I only have one or two memories of him. But there was always a piano in my grandparents’ house in Massena (it is now in my mother’s apartment), and they had an old pump organ in their summer camp along the St. Lawrence River. Grandpa’s fiddling laid a foundation upon which three generations of musical lives were built and continue to be built. (I count my own children’s musical lives among these three generations.)

I am now in possession of a small music manuscript book in which Dad wrote down an arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 that he prepared for organ for his use at the Congregational Church in Massena. In that little manuscript book, Dad recorded much of his own musical history. He spent his first years of life in Burke, New York, and he began taking piano lessons (as he recalled) in 1945 with Mrs. Sadie Mason, the organist at the Burke Methodist Church. After the family moved to Massena, Dad studied piano with Mrs. Ivah Church from 1949-1955. He must have made reasonably good progress, because he started playing the organ for the Methodist Church in Massena in February 1953 and continued to do so until he graduated from high school in 1955. He then went to Syracuse University to continue his musical training, but he returned home each summer to serve as organist at the Congregational Church in Massena until 1959.

During his first year at Syracuse University (1955–1956), Dad was an organ student of David N. Johnson, a piano student of Ada Shinaman Crouse, and a tenor in the Chapel Choir of Arthur Poister. Dad’s freshman theory professor, Franklin Morris, had been a pupil of famed composer Paul Hindemith (one of my personal favorites), while Poister had been a pupil of Marcel Dupré in Paris. Dad later transferred out of music and became an English major and spent his career as an English teacher in the Syracuse City Schools. He second-guessed the decision to change his major for most of his adult life. But Dad continued to be active as a parish organist into his 70s, and he even took organ lessons again for a time after he retired and before he went back to school for another master’s degree, his M.Div. from the Colgate Rochester Divinity School (1994–2000).


(Photo: Three generations of Pelkey men: Lyman, Stanley, and Nate, with Heidi Pelkey, at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, where my father completed his M.Div. during the 1990s.)

My parents met while they were both teachers in Syracuse, and after marrying, they remained in the City. I grew up—musically and otherwise—in the shadow of Syracuse University. Although Dad spent his career as an English teacher, he continued to nurture his musical interests, as well as my sister’s and mine, in part through the musical opportunities made available to the community by the University. I have very fond memories of attending organ concerts by Will Headlee and ever-popular piano recitals by Frederick Marvin at Syracuse University with Dad and my sister while I was in high school. Another especially powerful memory for me is playing in a master class with famed Eastman School of Music organ professor Russell Saunders during a regional conference of the American Guild of Organists held on Syracuse University’s campus. Dad was there with me.

Music and music making were just natural activities in my home while I was growing up. I was playing piano and teaching myself to read music before I was 5. We lived and breathed music. I am grateful for the many times in my life that I was able to talk about music with my father and for the times we were able to play for each other after I began my own journey as an organist. Indeed, I wish I could have more of those conversations with him now. But I am also very grateful for the musical conversations I can now have with my own daughter and son.

I would love to hear some of your stories about how you and your parents or you and your children have shared music together in your personal and/or professional lives. Please feel free to comment.


“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes, especially if you think like a music entrepreneur!” (Part 1)

Some of the best music schools, colleges, and conservatories in the United States are getting serious about training students as musical entrepreneurs. A few have been in this business for over a decade.

Career development and entrepreneurship for music majors and recent graduates is very important to me, and not just because my current job title is “Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Entrepreneurship.” So I am going to share some of my thoughts on the topic in a series of blog posts. Hopefully recent music graduates, current music majors, and young people considering becoming music majors when they enroll in college will find these valuable. (Parents are welcome to read, too!)

In this first post, I want to get started with some definitions. In future posts, I will summarize the changes in our economy and higher education that warrant thinking about musical entrepreneurship. I will also offer some very practical suggestions on how you can become an effective entrepreneurial musician.

So what do I mean by “musical entrepreneurship?” Based on my professional and artistic experiences, the conversations I have had with business and academic leaders, and my reading across several fields, here’s how I define musical entrepreneurship: “Taking the initiative (and necessary risks) to build a strong career by making intentional tactical and strategic decisions that create new possibilities for deeper and more rewarding investment in the musical life of a community.”

My definition of the entrepreneurial in music is not too far from David Cutler’s in The Savvy Musician (2010). To become a musician who pursues “vibrant and varied” work, achieves “personal satisfaction,” and “adds something of value to society” (p. 2), one must “create opportunities, think outside the box, get the ‘big picture,’ and not be afraid to question conventional wisdom.” (p. 10)

Nor are we far from the characteristics of musical entrepreneurship offered by Angela Myles Beeching in her book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music (2010): “talent plus hard work; winning attitude; sales skills; support systems; strategy.” (p. 8)

I appreciate that both Cutler and Beeching (p. vii) focus on personal satisfaction and adding value to the community. Furthermore, they acknowledge that we’ll need to cultivate broader conceptions of “musical success” (Beeching, p. 6). In other words, musicians and those of us in the institutions that train them need to be open to many kinds of career paths as legitimate outcomes for the training in the ideas, repertories, and scholarly systems that we hold dear.

Often on college campuses, as discussions of “entrepreneurship” and its cousin “innovation” unfold, these two terms come to function merely as buzz words masking “product development” and “marketing.” Conversations may turn too rapidly toward anticipating the next new technology, creating “maker spaces,” or building business incubators before the broader world of entrepreneurship and innovation – including “social entrepreneurship” – is thoroughly considered. I’ve watched this happen on campuses were I have worked. (If you’d like additional anecdotes beyond mine, read Beth McMurtrie’s thoughtful article, “Inside Startup U: How Stanford Develops Entrepreneurial Students,” which was posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education website on October 25, 2015.)

But complexity and conflict around the idea of entrepreneurship should not discourage us as musicians from cultivating an entrepreneurial attitude.

In my next blog in this series, I’ll write about what’s happened to our economy and how musical entrepreneurship can help you to succeed in the new economy.

Boost your productivity with four simple strategies

Whether you are a college/university faculty member expected to achieve a certain level of productivity before tenure and promotion review, a scholar with a non-teaching role on campus, an adjunct scholar-teacher, or an independent scholar, you probably want to be a productive researcher or creative artist. After all, you pursued graduate training because you loved carrying out research or doing creative work, and you also want to make a contribution to your discipline and community.

So given the importance of research and creative activity, both personally and professionally, it is frustrating that we often feel we have insufficient time to research and write well, or to engage substantively in creative work. Maybe you keep looking forward to a “big block of time” when you can finally be productive. The problem is, “big blocks of time” rarely materialize, and too often we put off our important writing or creative work until “tomorrow.” … And then tomorrow never comes.

After spending too many years waiting for the “big blocks of time,” I realized I had to completely transform how I approach the first part of my day. I’d like to share a few simple strategies that may help you to capture more time to research and write or to engage in creative activities. They have helped me to complete much more writing than I did in the old days of waiting for the weekends or school vacations, and I think they can help you, too.

  1. Practice an incremental but consistent approach to being productive. If you have found that the “big blocks of time” approach has failed you, try the opposite approach: commit to working a few minutes every day on your major project. Set small goals and complete them, whether that’s two hundred new words, several more footnotes, another phrase of music, several more lines of poetry, or fine tuning a paragraph you wrote yesterday. I know such small goals do not seem like much, but two hundred words per day adds up quickly, and it’s more than no words per day! Be honest: haven’t you logged too many days when all you had at the end of the day in terms of your latest research project or composition were just good intentions? Two hundred words would be an improvement over those nonproductive days. Furthermore, by working a little every day on your major project, you will not lose your momentum as often happens between the “big blocks of time.”

2. Work on your research or creative work first. There’s simply no way around this. For years, I worked busily all day on everything except my writing and composing. I was convinced that I’d finally get to the important stuff after I finished everything else. The problem is that the “everything else” is never done, and by the end of the day, I was too tired to concentrate on the important work—my writing and composing. So flip your day! Commit to an incremental but consistent approach to being productive and set aside your first 30 minutes each day to work on your research or creative activity.


3. I can hear the push-back: “I cannot write for the first 30 minutes, I have to teach a class first thing in the morning!” But that’s simply not true. Even if your first class or your first meeting or your first deadline of the day is scheduled at 8:00 AM, you can work from 7:00 to 7:30 on the really important stuff! You just have to commit to go to campus earlier! I know, that sounds awful, but it works. I am not a morning person, but when I moved to Tallahassee, I decided to get up (consistently) much earlier than I had since the last time I taught 8:00 AM freshman music theory. I have been arriving on campus most mornings between 7:30 AM and 7:45 AM. On mornings I practice first, I arrive on campus by 7:15. The impact on my productivity has been amazing. How? Well, fewer people are on the road at 6:50 AM, and I am saving 10 to 15 minutes on my morning commute because of that. Yes, I am leaving an hour earlier than I would really like or really have to, but it is worth it. Second, by arriving earlier, I start my work day before others begin to call me or email me. If you are an independent scholar working from home or commuting to a non-academic job, the principle remains the same: start the day earlier, get a jump on the commute, and get some writing or creative work done before others begin to demand your time.

4. Keep your email application closed until you have completed one or two small, manageable components of your current research or creative project. You know as well as I do that once you start to read email, your daily productivity drops! So consider waiting until 10:00 or 11:00 AM to begin checking email. On days that you arrive early and do not have early morning classes or meetings, waiting to check email until 10:00 AM means you’ve had nearly three hours of uninterrupted productivity. Even if you only spend the first half hour of those three hours on your writing or creative work and the rest of the time on other tasks, such as grading, class preparations, or committee work, you will find that you make a much bigger dent in your daily task list than you normally do when you begin to check email too early in the morning. Once 10:00 or 11:00 AM rolls around, then you can spend the rest of the day answering questions from your students, staff, faculty, or administrators. There is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you actually completed important work before the pressing need to answer emails began to drag down your productivity and transformed your “to do” list for today into your “should have done yesterday” list for tomorrow.
Following these strategies will improve your productivity; 30 minutes each day will move your important writing or creative projects forward. The first step, however, is deciding to stop waiting for the elusive “big block of time” to arrive.

(originally posted on October 26, 2015)