Interview on A Musical Life Podcast

I was recently interviewed for a classical music podcast called "A Musical Life," with Hugh Sung. You can listen to it on your favorite podcast app, at Hugh's website, or right here in this YouTube version (it's an audio only podcast):

In the interview, I share with him all of my latest thinking about how you—a musician trying to build a consistent career—can learn from stories of the great musicians of the past. 

In this extended interview, we discuss many things, such as:

  • the role that difference and distinction play in your career success
  • what we can learn from Haydn's ability to adapt his writing style based on a changing marketplace
  • how P. T. Barnum went about exploiting modern technology and branding to promote Jenny Lind, netting the largest payday for a touring artist ever...and how you might do the same today.

I also tell several stories from history, and discuss some of the performing ensembles that are getting it right with regard to promotion these days.

Fight Against Perfectionism by Using an 80/20 Analysis: Productivity Deep-Hacks for Musicians, Part 2

Photo by John Cobb

Photo by John Cobb

In this post, I'm going to show you a tested strategy to get realistic about what actions really matter, and how to eliminate the ones that don't. This is the second post in a series of four, in which I will share with you one productivity hack that has helped me to bypass all of the distractions and really increase my productivity this summer.

These are not surface tricks, but deep strategies for deep work.

If you haven't already, read my first post in this series, where I share with you how to design your primary workflow to remove friction and stay in a state of flow.

Musicians? Perfectionists? Nah, couldn't be.

You're picking up on my sarcasm.

Musicians are notorious for being perfectionists; professional scholars are also notorious perfectionists. That means I have a double-case.

For a long time I didn't even realize that my perfectionism was severely hampering my productivity. I'm reminded of the story about the old fish who says to the young fish: "How's the water today?" The young fish looks around and replies: "What water?" I was swimming so deeply in a world of perfectionism that I couldn't even see its effects on me.

And no, this is not humble bragging—I'm not saying that I produce perfect articles, lectures, or workshops. Nothing I've ever released has been perfect. What I'm saying is this: 

I have failed to produce many potentially valuable services because my invisible scripts of perfectionism have held me back.

Has this ever happened to you as well? You have ideas about performances, products, or recitals, and have even worked dozens or even hundreds of hours on these projects. But do you feel like something is holding you back from sharing them with the world? 

You might ask yourself if that voice of doubt is the villain of perfectionism, whispering in your ear. 

Realize You're Swimming in Water

Like the fish who wants to notice the water it's swimming in, the first step to getting around the obstacle of perfectionism is noticing it is there. 

Before you write this idea off completely, it's crucial that you understand one thing: I am not suggesting that what you produce should not be excellent. You should make every effort to deliver a product, service, or piece of scholarship (in my case) that is world-class.

But even world-class does not mean "perfect."

Instead, you need to identify the parts of your work that will give you and your audience the most value, those few actions that will get you most of the way to the finish line. That's where an 80/20 analysis comes in.

What Is the 80/20 Principle?

The 80/20 principle has been around for a long time, and is already well known in entrepreneurial circles (see here for more on the principle). But few musicians and scholars I've talked to know of it. Here is a brief primer:

The 80/20 analysis is a lens through which to evaluate actions to discover which ones yield the most value to a particular desired outcome. It is based on the principle that not all actions yield the same value. It is sometimes called the "Pareto Principle" for Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist who discovered it over 100 years ago. It says this:

The 80/20 principle says that 80% of your results comes from 20% of your actions.

How to Do an 80/20 Analysis

It's simple: take a set of data and evaluate it, looking for the 20% of items that give 80% of the result. Then work on those in the 20% first, and don't stop until they are completed.

Here's a classic to-do list example: if you write out a list of ten things you want to do tomorrow, about two of them will give you 80% of the potential value of the day's work, and the remaining 80% of tasks will only give you 20% additional value. 

Think about that. Two tasks only will give you most of the desired result.

Try it now: look at your to-do list for today and ask yourself which are in the 20%. Have you completed them, or are you working on them now? Or have you been working on the 80%?

Here's the catch: the 20% of actions you need to be doing are also the actions that are the most difficult. They are therefore the ones we avoid.

Let's test this principle against broader criteria (remember that 80/20 is a principle, not a law; your numbers might vary a bit): 

  • Professional musicians: does 80% of your revenue come from 20% of your gigs?
  • Composers: do 80% of your performances come from 20% of your compositions?
  • Arts Entrepreneurs: does 80% of your business come from 20% of your products and services?
  • Scholars: do 80% of your citations come from 20% of your scholarship?

It may work in the reverse as well: 80% of your hassle probably comes from 20% of your vendors, students, or even band members (!). 

Cultivate the 80/20 Habit

What to do in response? Well I can't give you a perfect answer, but I can say that if you start practicing the 80/20 analysis, you just might change your mind about aiming for perfectionism. Instead, aim for the few actions that deliver the most value, and then press for completion. If you've done the 80/20 analysis, you know that the remainder of possible actions will only make the result incrementally better.

It's always better to deliver 80% of value than 0% of perfection.

Now it's your turn: What do you think of the 80/20 analysis? Is it a revelation? Hogwash? Let me know in the comments. Also in the comments, tell me where in your life or career might an 80/20 analysis be useful?

 

Posted on September 11, 2016 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Productivity, Writing.

Designing Your Primary Workflow: Productivity Deep-Hacks for Musicians, Part 1

Photo by: Alex Ruban

This post is the first in a series of four about productivity. In this and each the next four posts, I will share with you one productivity hack that has helped me to bypass all of the distractions and really increase my productivity this summer.

Introduction: Deep Work

I just came out of a long summer of being in "monk mode" writing a research article.

I am at the tail end of writing a scholarly article telling the story of how P. T. Barnum helped Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, become the biggest musical touring success of the 19th century—through branding her for American reception (more on that in another post). 

The work was long and hard, and it pushed my productivity skills to the limit. There were three special characteristics to this kind of work that made it very challenging:

  1. I was managing myself—no one was waiting on me to do my daily work.
  2. The work took deep and intense concentration for long periods of time.
  3. The goal could not be accomplished in a day, but took consistent work to progress over time.

As I reflect back on the summer, I have realized that this type of long, consistent, challenging scholarship work is very similar to what we do as musicians and entrepreneurs. We spend day after day in the practice room, perfecting our skill, or day after day working on our business, getting gigs and clients. Day after day cultivating inspiration. It's deep work.

As Cal Newport has recently argued, our most valuable work is often the deep work that is becoming so rare in this distracted world. This book is a must-read, and I highly recommend it.

Ask yourself: are you doing the most valuable work that you should be doing, today? Don't judge, just notice. Consider your list of things to do today. How does it stack up against the three characteristics I listed above?

  1. Are you managing yourself, or reacting to the agendas of others?
  2. Are you prioritizing work that takes long stretches of deep concentration and skill?
  3. Are you working toward your most important long-term goals?

Maybe you could use a reboot, just like I needed at the beginning of the summer. I want to tell you about four productivity strategies over my next four posts—not surface tips or tricks, but real strategies—that have really helped me. 

You too can tame the chaos and spend more time in a deep state of flow adopting and adapting these same strategies.

Deep-Hack #1: Design Your Primary Workflow, Then Build an Infrastructure Around It

The first way to aid flow is to design your workflow and remove predictable friction points. Think of the activity you do when you are doing your most valuable work. Perhaps that is woodshedding the pieces for your next recital or gig. Perhaps it is writing marketing copy for your music studio or your upcoming album release. Perhaps it is clearing space to do the most difficult and necessary work of all: surrendering your will and being caught up in making art

For me, this summer, it was deep-diving into the pool of ideas, research, and argument. But I found that my tools were getting in the way. My research was scattered across several applications, plus 3x5 note cards. My writing was captured in several different apps: Scrivener to draft, Pages to fine tune, and Microsoft Word to share with colleagues.

I felt like I spent more time hassling with software than actually organizing and composing my thoughts. So I called a time out and designed my workflow. That is, I created a process to apply to my most valuable activity, and then I created an infrastructure around it. The freedom it brought, and friction it removed, was amazing, given the short time it took to set up.

Here's how to design your own primary workflow. I'll use my activity of writing an article as an example.

1. Determine the phases you typically go through during your primary activity.

For my writing project, here is what I came up with:

  • scheduling my time
  • capturing and managing action steps (task management)
  • taking notes and capturing ideas on the fly
  • research collection, evaluation, and organization
  • organizing my argument (outlining)
  • drafting the article
  • revising the article

2. Put the phases in order, following the natural flow of your work. 

Note that the order of these steps is not random, but follows the natural flow of work:

Scheduling time: Everything starts here. Be sure to schedule large blocks of time in your calendar and treat them as sacred. Blocks of 1 to 2 hours are ideal. Shut off all distractions during this time, and don't check email or social media.

Task management: This must allow me at any time to capture a task that I realize I need to accomplish. This section of the workflow must be accessible at any point in the activity, not just at the beginning.

Capturing notes: In contrast to tasks, this phase is for capturing ideas on the fly in a way that is immediate and effortless. I have had too many ideas dissolve into the ether because I didn't have a place to put them when I needed to.

Research: This, and the tasks below, are more specific to my task of writing. This phase handles the searching, acquisition, and organization of all research materials I will need for the project.

Organizing my argument: This is the beginning of the actual writing phase. Organizing an argument, pulling resources together, and crafting a new contribution is perhaps where the deepest work occurs.

For composers, this is where the concept of a piece is born and kindled. For performers, this is where the true message of your performance is determined. For teachers, this is where your teaching philosophy grows and develops.

Drafting the article: Once the hard work of organizing an argument is finished, this is the long slog of getting a first, complete draft of the article.

For composers, this might mean drafting a version of a composition. For performers, this would be putting together and trying out the contours of your interpretation in performance. For teachers, this would be translating teaching philosophy into instruction design.

Revising the article: In this stage, I'm not only revising, but I'm also engaging with colleagues to get feedback. Feedback is crucial when what we are trying to accomplish is ultimately communication. This is true of an article, composition, performance, or lesson.

3. Choose dedicated tools for each phase.

Your next step is to choose a tool for each phase, and use it consistently. Here are the tools I chose:

For scheduling time: Google Calendar

For capturing my tasks: Asana

For capturing my notes: Evernote

For managing my research: Sente

For the entire writing process (organizing argument, drafting, and revising), I chose one single app: Scrivener

If you're interested in knowing my rationale for choosing each of these, let me know in the comments—I'm happy to elaborate. But the main thing here is not what tool you choose, but that you choose the tool that's best for you and stick with it. This choice will really produce dividends over time, when you can reliably know where to find any aspect of the project you are looking for, in any phase.

4. Build an infrastructure around your workflow.

Once you have designed your workflow and chosen your tools, you are ready to build an infrastructure around your workflow. This summer, I decided to completely reorganize my phone screen and computer desktop around the workflow I outlined above. Here's why: 

I've always used the dock in the way that Apple suggested by default, that is, to house the phone and messages and email and other "connected" apps.

But guess what I realized: those are exactly the apps that distract me and keep me from doing deep work! Why would I want to make them easily accessible?

I needed to get those apps out of my dock, and fast. But what should go in their place? Well, exactly the apps that I chose in the previous step, of course.

iPhone Setup: As you can see from the two screen shots below, I placed the four apps that I will use most in my workflow on the iPhone in the dock. From left to right, they correspond to my workflow: Google Calendar, Asana, Evernote, Sente. Because I do little true drafting on the phone, I left the Scrivener app out of the dock. But it's nearby if I absolutely need it.

Macbook Pro Desktop Setup: Before reorganizing, I had over twice as many apps in my dock. Now I've removed all of those that aren't in my workflow to make them just a bit harder to get to. It's not perfect, but in general the apps move along the workflow, with a couple of extras: Finder, Calendar (it's linked to my Google Calendar), Spotify for writing music, Evernote, Sente, Scrivener, and Safari. Asana is a web app only, so I linked it just on the other side of the divider (the globe icon). Then I have my master Scrivener file ("All Academic Writing"), downloads, and trash.

My iPhone home screen, with workflow design in the dock.

My iPhone home screen, with workflow design in the dock.

My Macbook Pro desktop, with workflow design in the dock.

My Macbook Pro desktop, with workflow design in the dock.

Taking the time to sort out your workflow will bring you a sense of control and trust in your own system. There is nothing like it for getting into a state of deep work flow. 

Now it's your turn: In the comments, share your most valuable action, and the typical phases you go through to complete it. What tools can you not live without?

Posted on September 8, 2016 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Productivity, Writing.

Career Models Through Music History: CMS Summit Presentation

Jenny Lind is just one of the performers from history that today's students can learn from.

On June 4, I will be giving a TED-style presentation at the CMS Summit: 21st-Century Music School Design, on the topic, "Career Models Through Music History." There are so many other wonderful presenters and attendees, I am honored to be able to speak for a short time about my two passions: music history and music entrepreneurship. Keep an eye out for resources produced by the summit team, which is directed by David Cutler at the University of South Carolina. After the event, they will be producing a content-packed pdf booklet as well as videos of all the presentations. Here is the summary of my contribution to the summit.

Career Models Through Music History

The music history classroom can be a place where music students learn not only about the history of genres, styles, and composers, but how to design their career philosophies, connecting liberal arts learning to the development of professional skills. One key way to do this is to study music career models and their development through history, especially after the French Revolution of 1789.

Studying music career models in the music history classroom:

  • Allows students to become “unstuck” from the tyranny of the present and apply to their own careers the knowledge, experiences, and reflective insights of professional musicians throughout history.
  • Prepares students for the reality of a career in music by realizing that every significant composer or performer in history was either a great self-promoter (think: Wagner, Liszt, or Stravinsky), or had champions (think: Musorgsky or Jenny Lind).
  • Makes the study of history more relevant to today’s students, and leverages a course that is already on the books, rather than adding new credits.

A look at music history will show that musicians have been successful entrepreneurs in a field that has been historically suspicious or even outright hostile to commercialism. More importantly, it will show our students that they too can succeed in their music careers. This is true not only for composers, but all primary music degree areas, including performers, music educators, and arts administrators.

Here are three ways you can begin emphasizing career models in your music history classroom. Each of the following ways is positioned to lead from analysis of an example to personal reflection.

1.    Foreground the history of performers. Start with a few well-known examples such as Jenny Lind or the Kronos Quartet. Have students project what kind of performance career will be relevant in five, ten, and fifty years.

2.    Convert your preexisting lectures by adding a question: “What is the value proposition of this composer/performer?” Have students reflect by imagining they have to apply the composer’s career model to their own careers.

3.    Study the cultural values commonly used to promote composers and performers. Some common artistic values: innovation, tradition, spirituality, fearless exploration, anti-commercialism. Ask students to describe which values align with their own artistic goals.

Branding for Musicians in Eugene

Branding for Musicians workshop at the University of Oregon. Photo by Erin Zysett.

Branding for Musicians workshop at the University of Oregon. Photo by Erin Zysett.

What a great feeling it was to be back in Eugene! I got to meet and work with students at the University of Oregon and NHCC, gave two music branding workshops and one guest lecture on South African pop and Graceland, got to reconnect with great friends, and even had a big bow of Thai food. It doesn't get much better than that! Thanks to Lori Kruckenberg at the UO for bringing me down, and a huge thanks to Eliot Grasso for organizing and publicizing the whole thing so expertly!

At the University of Oregon, the audience contained musicians, but also students from the journalism school, business school, advertising program, and even interior architecture! Plus recent grads and businesspeople from the community. At NHCC, we had musicians, actors, and photographers. What a rare gathering.

Mark Samples Branding for Musicians
Mark Samples Global Pop


Posted on February 3, 2016 .

Branding for Musicians Workshop at University of Oregon

In this short introductory video, I will teach you the four most important qualities to consider when shaping your artistic brand. In the workshop on Feb. 1, 2016, I will go into each of these qualities in detail, and show you how you can apply them to your career. Details about the workshop are below the video.

Posted on January 22, 2016 .

5 Fatal Mistakes Students Make When Taking a Gen Ed Course and How to Avoid Them

I'm teaching a gen ed course at Central Washington University this term, called History of Jazz. As I was preparing for the course, I thought back on all of the mistakes I've made in taking courses like these, and mistakes that I've seen my own students make over the years. So I thought I would put together a video for my future students to help them avoid making the kinds of mistakes that can derail their progress early. Are you a student who has struggled with gen ed courses in the past? Are you a teacher and wish someone would advise your students on the unspoken expectations of your class? If so you might find this video beneficial to you. Inside I'll tell you:

  • How not all slacking creates equal consequences—I’ll tell you the worst possible time to slack off in a new class.
  • The one technique that will help you avoid distraction and be twice as productive as a student.
  • An exercise that you can do right now to fight boredom and make any class interesting.
  • The truth about how your mindset can lead to failure… or put you on the path to an "A."

PDF Summary of 5 Fatal Mistakes Students Make When Taking a Gen Ed Course and How to Avoid Them.

Learn one new high-value skill this term in each of the following areas: reading, note-taking, and studying. Here are some resources to do this, as promised:

Reading

  • Level-Up! Reading Course. You can watch the first session of my video course, "Level-Up! Reading" here. I made this for my music history students specifically, but everything applies to college reading in general. This session teaches you the myths, mindsets, and techniques to complete your reading assignments in half the time, while understanding more than you ever have before.

Note-Taking

Studying

Posted on September 17, 2015 and filed under Teaching.

Distraction: The Villain of the Internet Age

A couple years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He argues that the Internet is changing the way we think, making us more distracted and in fact making it more and more difficult to read, think, and create for extended periods of time.

Though at times sounding the alarm too loudly, Carr paints a clear picture of a world in which all contemplative and focused thinking is crowded out of our minds by the constant white noise of technology.

You should really read this book. But if you've been spending too much time on the internet lately, don't worry, Epipheo made a video of the book's main points, so you don't have to read it after all... 

h/t DIYGenius

Posted on July 13, 2015 and filed under Productivity, Reading.

Crowdsourcing the Perfect Morning Success Ritual—Share Yours Here

Do you want to be more productive and focused on what matters most?

If so, one of the best practices you can set up for yourself to do this is to create a morning routine, or morning ritual, that sets your whole day up for success. Everyone’s morning success ritual will be a little different, and part of the benefit of such a ritual comes from discovering your unique algorithm. But if you’re like me, it helps to hear what others do, to get ideas that you can use.

The purpose of this post is to provide a place for people to share their morning productivity rituals, and to get ideas from what others do. So you can skip now to the comments to share yours or get ideas, or you can read on for a quick primer about what a morning ritual is and why it can be helpful for you.

The Morning Ritual—A Durable Concept

You can proactively create habits in the morning that lead to greater focus on what matters most, and greater productivity on your most important contribution.

I see this concept all over the place these days in the personal productivity literature, such as in Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch and Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. Some big names in the online entrepreneurship community are also talking about it, like Jeff Walker and Eben Pagan. Eben Pagan likes to say that we only have so much willpower in a day, and that by setting up a routine to be habitual over time, we can relieve some of the cognitive heavy lifting by making productivity habitual. This is backed up by recent scientific discussions of habit, such as in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

But the morning ritual is not a new concept, of course. Stephen Covey, of 7 Habits fame talks about it in the seventh habit, Sharpening the Saw. Then there’s the famous story of the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope claiming that he never would have written his novels if not for his porter bringing him coffee every morning. We are fascinated by the rituals of creative people, so much so that we have extended blog posts and even entire books based on sharing them. Then there is Erik Satie, the early 20th-century modernist composer, who brilliantly lampoons the idea of the artist's routine, reminding us not to take the routine too seriously.

If there’s one thing The Lego Movie taught us, it’s that sometimes it’s okay to follow instructions.

If there’s one thing The Lego Movie taught us, it’s that sometimes it’s okay to follow instructions.

Morning Ritual—Principles for Success

Here’s the idea again in short: If you build a morning routine that leads strategically up to your main work—writing, research, creating—it will become easer and natural, even habitual, to do that work more consistently.

Here are some principles for crafting your morning ritual:

1. Work from the inside out, not the outside in.

Don’t let the world in until you choose to do so. That means checking your email should not be the first task in your routine. Take care of yourself first, grow yourself, then radiate your strength outward. Furthermore, don’t jump from yourself straight to the “world out there” (social media, work emails, etc.). Tend to your close relationships (family, close friends) before you open yourself to the working world.

2. Care for your whole self: your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Include exercise, reading inspiring books, prayer/meditation, visualization, journaling, and other uplifting activities in your morning routine.

3. Build in a system to capture flashes of brilliance while also not derailing the routine.

This one is important. Here’s the deal: when you start doing this, you are going to experience onrushes of ideas, tasks, projects, things to write, things to create. It is crucial that you have a way to capture these ideas in a consistent way, so that you know you won’t lose that thought forever, but you don’t derail the system. The note-cards system that has been used for years, and has recently been described in Daniel J. Levitin’s recent book The Organized Mind, is what I use. This topic could get a post all its own, but these are the basics. Get a stack of 3x5 notecards and keep them with you at all times. When you think of a task or an idea, offload it from your brain to the card—but only put one task or idea per card. Collect these ideas and tasks for later review. When you review them, the notecards can easily be rearranged and sorted, which is perhaps the most powerful part of this system.

4. It’s not a ritual if it changes every day.

Be the bouncer of your own morning. Imagine a bouncer guarding the door to the VIP room of an exclusive night club. Burly, scowling, scary. You can bet that everyone who is let in will be scrutinized. Do the same thing with your morning routine. It’s not a ritual if it changes every day. Set your ritual and stick to it. Do a quarterly review of your morning ritual to approve changes and discontinue tasks that have lost their value.

5. Begin your morning ritual the night before.

I also have a nighttime routine that is designed to remove barriers for the morning. Before I go to bed, I do the following:

  • tidy up my workspace
  • open the file of the project that I will be working on the next morning
  • program the coffee maker
  • set out clothes for the next day at the foot of the bed
  • set my alarm manually (I don’t have it on repeat)

I truly believe that this nighttime ritual has been crucial to the sustained success of my morning ritual. When I wake up, everything has been prepared, and this makes it almost effortless to fall back into my healthy and productive routine the next morning.

Alright, Already, Let’s Get the Details!

I find that when people teach the concept of the morning ritual, they usually talk in the abstract. The details—such as a suggested sequence of activities—are either not a part of the content, or they are behind a paywall. Don’t you wish you had a group of like-minded people to trade ideas with, share what works for you, and get ideas of what works from them? If you already have that, then you’re lucky. But if you don’t, please use the comments section of this post to share what you do, or to get ideas from others.

Two Caveats

  1. This post is meant as a resource, but it will only work if you give as well as take. Be brave and share your process, even if it is not perfect.
  2. Though you might want to ask follow-up questions of commenters, please keep comments positive and free of judgment.

Let’s crowdsource ideas for morning productivity routines. Share yours in the comments below, then come back to see what others do. I’ll get the comments started with my own morning ritual…