The Entrepreneurial Career : Everything I Needed to Know about Making Music I Learned from Parenting

Hang on there, pal. Don’t run away. I know what you’re thinking. “But I’m not a parent or an entrepreneur—what does this article have to do with me?” Well, I’ve got some news for you. Chances are high that even if you aren’t a parent yourself, you have parents of your own, so you have a general idea of how parenting works.

And believe me, you are an entrepreneur. Whether you are building a business as a soloist or bringing other people together and calling yourselves a company, you are a small business entrepreneur. A growing business and a growing child have a lot in common.

Here are my notes from the trenches of both endeavors. I promise no potty training talk.

You’re the One in Charge
It may not feel like it all the time, but you are the leader in the room, whether you are being looked to for leadership by a toddler or a roomful of musicians. If you alone or with a group have brought people together to make music, they will look to you to understand how professional the standards are going to be (e.g., starting on time, high-level participants, and reasonable schedule), and for important decisions about personnel, logistics, public image and, last but not least, the art itself.

Even when things get hectic and you feel like you are learning on the fly—this sensation pretty much defines parenthood—you are the only leader this thing has, so own it and enjoy it.

Shared Leadership
This idea may seem like it contradicts the last one, but it actually builds on it. A good way to get a small child to do what you want is to give her choices. “Eat your peas” will go only so far, but “Pick whichever you’d like, peas or carrots” gives her some authority, even if you are still the one setting the parameters.
If an artistic project is your idea, you can call the big picture shots, like having a final say in the repertoire and setting a general theme for the production. But after that, step back and watch someone else lead. Your music director might have terrific suggestions for repertoire, and your stage director will create scenic worlds beyond your imagination. In other words, don’t micromanage, but feel good about being the one who sets the rules.

Gentle but Firm
Be a benevolent dictator, as my sixth grade teacher called herself. Listen to different points of view, make a decision that you and anyone else involved will follow through with, communicate that decision respectfully, and move on. Whether this means resolving a fight between two youngsters or two songsters, it’s the same.

As a musician leader, you will be called on to settle disputes, weigh production options, decide where to allocate resources and, most importantly, choose your artistic team to begin with—which can entail some bruised feelings if you are recruiting from among friends. It pays to be considerate of other people’s feelings, but after that, do not readily back away from the direction you’ve chosen. Setting rules and then allowing them to be broken—usually after a great deal of whining—is the surest path to temper tantrums. This maxim applies to children of all ages.

The Simplest Solution Is Often the Best
It’s 6:00 p.m. and you’re just getting home and the kids are getting hungry and you had planned on making them a meal of organic vegetables and pole-caught tuna and read to them in French but . . . it’s just too late, and you order take out. And it’s OK. Chances are that faster food and an unstressed mother were better for them, too.

While you’re building up an artistic project, make a quick choice with what you have and call yourself victorious. Yes, you might be able to dream up a fancier website, a better name for your group, or a zippier tweet—but at the end of the day, getting it done simply is better than not getting it done at all.

Enlist Help and Drop Whatever You Don’t Need to Do
In the baby business, there is a profession known as the post-partum doula. It’s sort of like a grandmother you hire: she does the laundry, tidies up, helps you feel confident that you’re not going to break your newborn. When you have a baby, you want this person in your house. When you’re birthing a musical endeavor, you do too.

Find a buddy to help you set artistic or personal goals and stick to them. Use TaskRabbit, Fiverr, or any fixes you can find to outsource tasks that don’t need to be done by you. And ask for different kinds of help from anyone you can. Even if you’re ambivalent about the long-term potential of whatever you’re doing—building up a solo career or launching an opera company—you will accomplish more with support than on your own.

Work with What You Have
Other mothers feed their babies better food than I do. Other mothers can get their kids to behave. Other mothers are never flustered for a moment and are raising super-children who have already beaten mine to the Ivy League. Yeah, right.

One of the blessings of parenthood is that you quickly stop comparing yourself to everyone else because you’re too busy taking care of your own. So even if it seems that everyone else has better chops than you do, rest assured that they have their own challenges, anxieties, jealousies, and flaws. It’s one thing to look at other singers or musical leaders for ideas; it’s another to wish that you had thought of those things first.

Take an inventory of your strengths and capitalize on them. Wagnerian voice with graphic design skills? Create a snazzy social media campaign and some pop-up performances. Musical polyglot with a knack for organization? Start a “Make Music” day in your city, joining hundreds across the world for a day-long festival on the summer solstice. As a musician—or a parent—you have a combination of talent and knowledge that nobody else does. Focus on that, not on what you don’t have.

Do What’s Important, Not Just Urgent
This bit of wisdom has applications far outside of parenting or music. It is the time management advice from Stephen Covey, the author of the famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is that we spend too much of our time addressing crises and looming deadlines and not enough time planning or being creative.

Fortunately, children are always inclined to be creative and can teach us a lot about stepping away from a “crisis” in order to do so. Yes, dishes need to be washed, but reading books together is far more important. In the deadline-driven timeline of a production, try to build in some small amount of time to plan your next season or think of new marketing ideas. Big picture work pays off in the long term and results in fewer fires to put out.

Trust Your Instincts
Before you have kids, you look at other families and think such things to yourself as “I’d never swing my baby upside down.” Then you have your own and you realize that anything goes. Maybe upside-down swinging is the only way to get that child to stop crying at that moment—it’s possible! And, besides, you just walked your kid screaming all the way home from the park. You’re willing to try anything!
Similarly, the complex socio-emotional systems at play when you are managing a group of people toward a shared goal call for gut decisions. Be bold. Remember that you are the one in charge and that even if others may second guess you, you are the only one with enough knowledge across your entire project to make leadership decisions.

Acknowledge Mistakes
They’re gonna happen. There was a time when it was thought best if junior believed his parents were infallible. Turns out that junior will trust his parents more and behave better if his parents own up to failings. Same thing with colleagues. If you don’t follow through on a promise, change course insensitively, or just have a moment of bad judgment, apologize and make it right. Otherwise, in both cases, be prepared for some justified anger and resentment.

What Else Did You Expect?
When we decide to embark on a great journey, we do so out of a rosy view of the destination. Soaking in the applause at our curtain call at the Met. Snuggling our laughing child. We willfully ignore the other 90 percent of the job, consumed with hard work, disappointment, fear, chores, logistics, and mistakes. When you find yourself feeling down about what you’ve chosen, ask yourself if what you’re experiencing is entirely out of line with what you set out to accomplish. I once heard the expression “When you play with babies, you’re going to wind up changing diapers.” Take the good with the bad, knowing that you can’t have one without the other—and that neither last all that long.

Of course, there are many differences between launching a musical endeavor and raising a child. For example, you can’t choose what kind of human baby you have, but you can choose your musical baby. In that respect, your artistic project is entirely up to you. You can devote your resources strictly to your own solo career, applying these principles to the team of artists you hire to help you. Or you can start a new company, performance series, education program, or artist collective—you name it. Figure out how you can best use your skills and talents and create a project around them.

But don’t think for a minute that it will be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.

Amanda Keil

Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.