Why haven’t you started your own music group?

I was having a conversation with composer, Kevin James, a few days ago about our Alma Mater, DePauw University and he mentioned that one of the things he hadn’t seen there while he was on an advisory committee for the direction of the music school is students playing in ensembles that they weren’t required to be in for a class or ensemble/chamber music credit. A couple weeks ago,  Sugar Vendil wrote a piece for NewMusicBox asking the question, “Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?”

While I mentioned, in my piece about the 21st century musician initiative at DePauw that I’d been a member of a student formed new music group and would eventually create my own concert/presentation series there (amongst other things I’d listed in that post), I didn’t really say much about some of the smaller chamber ensembles I’d attempted to get off the ground which ended up being very short lived affairs.  Sometimes they didn’t even last a semester or up to the first performance.

And many of the groups I’ve formed, or joined over the years, were also short lived. Examples, my T.E.C. (Turntables, Electronics, Cello) duo was only active from 2003-2006; Ahel El Nagam, a classical Arabic band which formed in 2007 and which I started to regularly play with in 2008 has been relatively inactive since 2012; Kermes, the Balkan band I often performed with in Bloomington, Indiana was really only active from 2010-2011 (some of the members have since formed the Eastern European Ensemble).

While I’m currently performing with some 17 or so groups, each one has a different level of performance activity. The longest group I’ve been with (and that I co-founded), il Troubadore, recently had the lengthiest hiatus in our ten year career (three months) earlier this year. Other groups I just fill in for or am simply on a roster of musicians for select special events. I know that I’ve said something like this in various contexts online and offline–in the nearly 20 years I’ve been playing out in clubs and non-classical venues I’ve probably played with several hundred bands and solo artists. I can safely say that the majority of them are no longer active (which is not to say the musicians involved haven’t formed other bands or acts).

This brings up two points in relation to the world of entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses:

1) Most businesses fail within the first few years, and

2) We usually only remember the businesses that succeed

While there are a variety of statistics for various business entities, the biggest attrition rate happens within the first few years. And Survivorship bias allows us to ignore those failures and paint a rosy picture that we use to model for success (as I’ve said this is part of the thrust for many of the new models for Classical Music by Classical Music Crisis folks).

I do have reservations about all the entrepreneurial programs/curricula being developed by music schools, but I think the most practical training a music student could get is to form her own ensemble.  For the longest time I’ve said Classical Musicians should have to play in a band for a while as part of their music training–and part of that training can be to learn what it means to fail.  And failure, in this context, isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially if you’re in a relatively insulated environment such as a university).  We all can learn an awful lot about what it actually takes to run a “small business” such as a band or chamber ensemble even if the group doesn’t last beyond those first couple of years.

Though I’m not aware of what’s currently happening at my Alma mater given the new direction it’s taking, I think the answer to Sugar Vendil’s question, “Should I Start a New Music (or any music) Ensemble?” should be a resounding yes!  Especially during the time you have a safety net of the University to cushion you from the harsh realities of having to make a living with your ensemble.  You can learn to work out the non-economic kinks during that period so that you can focus on the financial ones when it matters most.

This video is only tangentially related, but a hoot!


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