Entrepreneurship by Dawson White

I entered the “real” world after my Master’s at Rice only a couple of years ago. I remember feeling anxious, scared, and excited to get out of college and put my skills to work. Since high school I have been on the orchestral path, dreaming of an orchestral career every day, but what I eventually realized was that there are very few classical musicians who focused their energy on only one facet of the musical world. I took a class at Rice called Professional Development, which solidified this thought, as it focused on entrepreneurship and diversification of your musical career. This class had a huge impact on my career thoughts and was the impetus for several programs around Houston including the Cypress Symphony, which I helped to start. In essence, my scope broadened over time to the point that I graduated from Rice with a new mindset.

In 2013, orchestral auditions are extremely competitive, and teaching jobs are scarce, so how do we survive? We get business savvy. These are no longer the times of a bygone era of polished performance skills and no interpersonal skills; today you can craft your own professional image, network, and run a successful classical musician business, all from your computer or tablet.

Here are some pointers to get you started:

Mission Statement

Remember the first few years on your viola? It was invigorating to make a good sound, to nail that shift, to play with friends and to learn about this amazing wooden box. What drove us at that age was fun; what drives us as we grow older is usually money and success. The great thing about a music career is that you can make a living from your passion, but remembering why you started (or kept) playing is essential to drafting your mission statement. Simply, it’s a one-sentence description of your purpose in the music world. Think of what skills you can bring to the table and what you want to get out of it. When you’re at your lowest level of inspiration, think back on this mission statement, and it will get you back on your feet.

My mission statement:

To contribute beautiful and thoughtful ideas to the world through music and use those ideas to capture lasting, positive effects on the people I perform for and the students I teach.

Perform at the Highest Level, Always

Hone your craft, perfect your technique, and learn how to teach it. With competition in every corner of our musical world, performing at the highest level is a given and is expected. Whether you are performing at Carnegie Hall or a wedding, the connections you meet in those situations could help further your career in some way. Instilling optimal performance at every gig will ensure that you are known as a good violist and that you’ll get work in the future.

Cultivate a Professional Image

When I moved to Houston I was asked by five people for a business card in the first couple of months; when I didn’t have one to give them, I quickly realized that my professional image was lacking. In the following months I crafted a professional website, updated my bio with help from teachers, reorganized my resume, and created a memorable business card. All of these things helped create a professional image to potential contractors, audience members, and parents of potential students. The success of this improved professional image led to contracts with a number of the organizations around town and a quick surge up the higher education ladder in a very short time.

An even more important item is realizing what your personality strengths and weaknesses are.

As a very introverted person, I realized my musical ideas didn’t shine through as well as they could, so with the help of teachers and years of practice, I became a much more confident teacher, performer, and person. One of my strengths is that I have an easy-going and generally optimistic attitude, which lends to being easy to work with. Consider what your own strengths and weaknesses are and realize how they might help/hinder your job opportunities and professional image.


The act of obtaining and retaining valuable job connections is absolutely essential to the cultivation of a successful music career. You’ve just moved to a new town or graduated from college, first step—get in contact with local violists and musicians. If possible, try to play for them and ask for feedback, or if you have an audition coming up soon, have them listen to you.

Not only are you gaining insightful information about your playing, you are also creating a relationship with that person that could lead to work down the road. If they are not able to hear you play, an informational interview is helpful to gain other leads in seeking out jobs. All of this could be done via in-person meeting, phone call, or even Skype. And as a reminder, when contacting very influential and respected teachers/performers around the area, be prepared to pay a lesson fee; you can write it off on your taxes as a business expense later.

In some situations, networking may come across as using others for your own benefit . . . this is the last thing you want your contact to feel about your relationship. A way to help with this problem is to offer them something in return for giving you information or listening to your playing. It could mean that you refer to them a private student or a gig down the road when you’re unable to take them on. It’s the gesture that counts, and it’s also a great way to remind them you’re working hard and making progress.

Lastly, never burn a bridge! The musical world is outrageously small, and those burned bridges could have helped you move further up the classical musician ladder.

Long-Term Thinking

Long-term thinking is a constant evaluation of how each decision you make will affect the future, and it is a mindset that will pay huge dividends if implemented successfully. Think 1, 5, and 10 years in the future: Where do you want to be? What will it take to get there? Who will you need to meet that could help propel you in that direction? If you make the decision to answer these questions today, think of how much closer you’ll be to reaching your goals. Make a habit of calculating decisions with a forward and long-term focus throughout your professional life, keep an open mind, treat every person with respect, and enjoy what you do. That’s the key to a successful entrepreneur.

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