5 Ways College Students Can Jumpstart Their Career In The Arts

I love this post by Ivan Trevino.  He raises questions many of us are asking at institutions of higher learning across the country.  The arts entrepreneurship  movement from the past few years has helped and many schools are working diligently behind the scenes to address the new needs of the 21st century artist, however, change is hard at the institutional level.

While I agree with Ivan whole-heartedly, the curriculum he desires in his post represents a shift in the entire higher-education system.  That is, a shift from the traditional, lecture-based, skill and drill type curriculum to a curriculum rooted in experiential learning, critical thinking and real world skills building.

What if you’re attending a music school that offers a great – but traditional – education?  You have to do more in today’s marketplace. No longer can you simply put in 100% effort into your degree and expect to be successful in your field upon graduation.  (This goes for just about every degree out there, not just music) That said, there has never been a better time to jumpstart your career while still in school.  Here are a few suggestions that you might find helpful as you navigate the college experience:

Know the industry.  Read and be curious about what is trending in the professional music world.  You will be there in less than four years.  College is the optimal time to become an expert in your field, but it’s also a time to figure out how you will contribute to your chosen field after you graduate.  Here are some suggested activities to get you started:

  • Find at least one trade magazine relevant to your chosen career path and read it every month for a year.
  • Find one local person in your chosen field, ask to shadow them, and take them out to coffee to see what their life is all about (don’t ask your professor, that’s too easy).
  • Set up a series of Google alerts (takes 5 min) for the topics you find most interesting.
  • Pick one social media source (I like twitter) and follow all the big thinkers (people and organizations) in the field.  Read your feed for 10-15 min every day. Here’s my feed.

Learn how to teach.  Regardless of where you see your career headed, you will teach in one way, shape, or form.  At the Colburn School, we have invested deeply in this idea.  It’s not just about training to be a teacher in the public schools anymore, it’s about being an artist who can teach.  K-12 education is changing before our eyes to the point that many schools aren’t able to offer arts in the same way we experienced growing up.  A lack of sequential arts learning in the public schools opens a huge learning gap that can be capitalized upon by you.  Invest the time and learn now.  Need help getting started? Read below:

  • Read this! The article should give you ample inspiration to dive into teaching.  
  • Set up a studio.  You’ll learn more about teaching-and about your own life as an artist-faster than just about anything else.  Need a way to build your studio? Approach five local middle schools and offer to start a group of students over the summer.  
  • Set up a week-long, mini-camp for kids.  Upon completion of the camp, offer weekly lessons (30 min) to each of the kids and their families.  I grew my bassoon studio from 3-17 in one year using the above method.  
  • Shadow your teacher. You can learn SO much from your studio teacher, especially when it’s not you shs diagnosing.  Sit in, listen, and take a ton of notes.  

Know your competition.  In the arts, your competition is usually pretty easy to suss out.  I’m not talking about competition on a personal level, I’m talking about how do you stack up against the competition nationally.  Generally speaking, you gauge yourself against others in your studio based on placement, and the type of feedback you receive from your teachers.  Regardless of your chosen place of study, you gauge yourself against others nationally by applying for competitions, summer festivals, and fellowships.  If you’re going to be competitive in your chosen career path, not only must you be at the very top of your studio and school, but you’ve got to be getting into national competitions, festivals, and receiving fellowships for further study.

  • Work with your studio teacher to identify 2-3 summer festivals and competitions and apply.  
  • Attend the international conference for your specific instrument.  Not only are they a lot of fun, they’re also a way to meet other great performers and teachers.
  • Be real, have an open mind, and listen to the feedback you receive.  Objective feedback from your studio teacher, summer festivals, competitions will give you a very real picture of how you stack up against competition.  If you aren’t getting into the competitions, festivals, or even rising up to the top of the studio, it’s ok.  Just keep the big picture in mind and make sure you’re focusing on the best next steps for you.  Try the 50 cups of coffee method to give you clarity.  

Be passionate.  I can’t stress this enough.  Love what you do.  It is so important, not just in your ability to be successful personally, but also in your professional career.  21st century employers are looking for people with passion.  Finally—this is important—take the time to identify what you’re passionate about.  So often I find people who say they’re passionate about one thing—for example, music—only to find that they’re really passionate about something else—for example, interacting with people.  Not a problem, just helps to define the direction you’ll go. Take a bit of time and explore the following two career development tools:

  • At Colburn, my colleague Laura Liepins and I use this values test to help our students identify what matters most to them.  Take 30 minutes to figure out what matters most to you.  You might be surprised.  
  • After you complete the values test, answer the following three questions:  What are you passionate about? (Your art form….and what else?) What can you do better than anyone else? (Your art….and what else?)  Can you name a time when questions one and two smashed together?  NOTE: The goal with this assignment is to explore ALL things you’re interested in pursuing.  A true self-study may surprise you!  This exercise comes from Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.”  Here’s a little blog post that may help.

YOU control your future. Most importantly, you are in control of your destiny.  Never before have there been so many opportunities for recent college grads.  Pick a path and go for it.  Take some time and identify your goals:

  • Develop a list of things you could see yourself doing upon graduation and explore them deeply.  No longer should you wait for someone to tell you which direction you should go.

Institutions of higher learning are working to create the “dream school” Ivan speaks about and most of us are on the same page when it comes to the development of creating experiences that mirror the life of a 21st century musician.  This won’t happen over night.  While we’re working on a solution, take control of your own career and let me know how your exploration goes!

Check out my latest post here. 

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

5 thoughts on “5 Ways College Students Can Jumpstart Their Career In The Arts

  1. Yeah Nate! I especially love your ideas on teaching; mini camps with students are a great way to learn things about your teaching skills, organizational skills, and people skills (including dealing with parents!) My band has done a few summer camps and the experience has been invaluable to my teaching / outreach career. Great read man!

    1. Thanks Ivan! Feelings are mutual and I’m lovin’ the dialogue you’ve created over the past few days with your post. Keep up the good fight!

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