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"Ask Laura"

By Laura Kessler

Have a question about art and music careers in the entertainment industry?

Submit a question or suggest a newsletter topic for Laura to write about.
Be sure to indicate how you would like your name to be listed, or whether you prefer to be anonymous, and your wishes will gladly be honored.
"Ask Laura" is now also published by the Chicago Music Guide.

How to Move From Classical to Rock

Networking vs. Schmoozing

How to Move From Classical to Rock


Do you have any advice for a classically trained musician trying to break into more popular commercial formats? I have 20 years of experience, a Bachelor of Music, and am a very good sight reader and ensemble member, but I feel less competent and stiff trying to improvise on rock and pop. Any suggestions?

-Classical but Cool


This is such a common scenario, and one I even went through myself at one time long ago. You didn't mention what instrument you play, however the strategy would still be the same for all instruments.

First, recognize and appreciate the many advantages you have hailing from your classical background rather than focusing only on your weaknesses. The benefit of a classical background is that what many non-classically trained musicians consider to be unglamorous, tedious staples of good musicianship are already firmly intact for you: counting, sight-reading, ear training, theory, and form. You‘ve paid your dues and conquered the most difficult challenges already. Now it’s time to focus on the fun part: unique creative expression! (They have the reverse challenge, by the way, which is certainly surmountable but requires more discipline.)

By nature, classical environments train musicians to emphasize conformity for the sake of the group ensemble as well as stage picture. This is seen time and again when choirs and band members are instructed to sit or stand in the same nondescript way in order to avoid garnering individual attention for any one member. (Think of Cassie in "A Chorus Line" getting yelled at by Michael Douglas for having too much flair!)

In classical music, the conductor and even the score alone is present to direct every nuance from dynamic range to overall expression to achieve a pre-determined aesthetic based on the composer’s score and music director’s interpretation. However, with rock and pop, each band member must be the interpreter and section leader for their own solo instrument. And that is the real issue – your classical training has probably trained you to be an obedient follower in music rather than a gregarious, irreverent leader, and wouldn’t you agree that rock is about anything but conformity!

So how do you tackle the issue? Usually I find that each client has one primary obstacle in their way as well as a preferred learning approach that works best for them. For classically trained clients, master classes in composition, jazz and/or improvisation can be an ideal bridge in the very beginning because they are already accustomed to a formal left-brained approach to studying music and this builds upon their existing matrix and musical vocabulary. Often I’ve witnessed classical musicians transfer their own personal intellectual snobbism onto themselves, and not feel confident with a new genre until they think they have mastered it "academically" by conservatory standards. This is such a shame in my opinion, because at some point emotional interpretation must take over in a more right-brained view toward performance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of the best trained musicians are those who can "fake" new genres by nailing the emotional flavor spot on.

Audiences will always be impressed by technical prowess, but what really touches their soul and makes an artist beloved is when a performance conjures up an emotion, regardless of however simple, awkward or imperfect it is delivered. After all, the 20th Century was really all about erasing the line between high and low art. From Liberace’s virtuoso rendition of "Chopsticks" to Rap samples of Fur Elise and Carmina Burana by Nas and Puff Daddy, what really matters to modern ears is that the music is entertaining. Absent that, you run the risk of being merely another skilled craftsman.

For a lot of artists, simple psychological social inhibitions are the primary obstacle much more than a lack of well-rounded musicianship. For these musicians, I’ve found that gently exposing them to basic theater and comedy improv exercises often achieves the end musical result much faster than formal musical genre-building alone. Sometimes thinking outside the box and cross-training in other artistic mediums can really open up your creative process in new and refreshing ways that music no longer holds for you because you’ve simply been doing it for so long and may have "forgotten" how to learn. Musically speaking, don’t be afraid of the extremes. Make your louds louder and your softs softer. Go for the spikes! Create 10 new shades of grey mezzo forte and mezzo piano! If you’re having fun and feeling the music deeply, chances are so will your audience.

Ultimately, being a classically trained rock musician can be one of the very best talent combinations in music. (Of course I may be biased here…) Keep working on your blues, improvisation, composition and ear training and you should be jamming confidently in no time. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s still only music after all. Good luck!

Networking vs. Schmoozing

Hi Laura-
My question is this: I realize success in every industry requires networking but (a) I hate schmoozing and (b) isn't that tacky for an artist to do? Is there some sort of balanced combination I'm missing? Help!

-Career in Nowhereville


You're right - networking is a necessary evil for major success in any industry, including (some would say especially) entertainment. While there are certainly those who have given it a bad name with their manipulative, smarmy tactics, there are also many 'good guys' around who likewise are seeking to find the gems among the stones. The fastest way to make these types of connections is generally through formal or informal networking of some kind - informal being the best kind usually.

First, start with the obvious: memberships and affiliations that enhance your professional credibility as well as continually introduce you to new people in the field. Join ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and go to their events. Also check out NARAS, the Songwriters Guild and Billboard Events. Even if you are not a member, these organizations offer unique weekend conventions in different cities around the country specializing in various topics across the entertainment industry.

I personally love industry conventions that are out of town. You get to travel, it's a tax write-off, and you meet people from all over the country who are just as passionate and committed to their careers as you, otherwise they wouldn't be there. They are also usually in one of the major entertainment hubs which is an excellent way to make connections in other cities. Furthermore, you are completely immersed in your creative career for 48-72 hours which helps you focus better on your specific goals, unlike a weekly class in your hometown which you may rush to get to after a hectic day at work or occasionally miss and feel behind. In particular, I highly recommend checking out ASCAP and Billboard, who both have some great conventions coming up this Fall.

Keep in mind that it's smart, not tacky, to do things to further your career and improve your knowledge of the industry. What's tacky is the way some people do it, a.k.a. working the room constantly with their eyes instead of making eye contact while they talk to a sweaty business card or demo to everybody in the room (which is a waste of money) ...pretending to send a personalized email which is just a spammed copy and paste job most people can see through... Don't be that guy!

Social networking sites like Myspace, Facebook and LinkedIn offer mostly superficial networking opportunities on a massive scale, but are great tools for maintaining contact with people you already know but might otherwise lose contact with over time. Craigslist is hit or miss depending on the city and its saturation level, but there are many gems among the stones there too. Most successful artists have found that a small minority of connections have done more for them than the majority combined. A few powerful individuals or experienced mentors are far more valuable than 10,000 virtual "friends," which, unless you're famous already, is really more of an egotrip, don't you think?

Finally, exploit your local scene to the fullest if you haven't already. Go to free workshops in your city, take classes and support other artists. In Chicago, the Chicago Music Commission regularly sponsors free panels on music business topics with plenty of time for networking and business card trading afterwards. Just be a genuine person who is helpful to other artists on some level, and you will attract the same in return. Ultimately, the highest tier of any industry is still accessed exclusively through networking alone. So try to find a style of networking you can be comfortable and sincere about. Remember, it's still "who you know."

Best of luck-



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