'Lessons From A Street-Wise Professor'

January 24, 2011

Landing a job in today’s economy is tough for most college graduates. For those seeking a career in the fine arts, it’s even tougher.

In response to the changing landscape of professional music, which often requires that musicians work multiple jobs to make a living, some music schools are embedding entrepreneurship in their traditional curriculums in hopes of making their students more business-savvy.

Ramon Ricker, saxophone professor and senior associate dean for professional studies at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, helped shape the conservatory’s arts leadership curriculum, which includes courses on entrepreneurship and careers. Drawing on his experience as both an educator and professional musician, Ricker wrote Lessons from a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools (Soundown).

In anticipation of the book’s upcoming release, Ricker answered a few questions via e-mail from Inside Higher Ed about his work and what it means for music schools, their instructors and aspiring musicians everywhere.

Q: You write in your book that there's something that every successful musician knows that most music schools don't teach. What is it? And why do most music schools not teach it?

A: A musician needs more than excellent performing skills and artistry to be a successful professional. Musicians can’t wait for opportunities to come to them. They have to make things happen and they can be successful at that by having entrepreneurial savvy, strong communication skills, fluency with emerging technologies, commitment to audience education, and public advocacy for music and the arts, just to name a few. Music schools don’t often offer these courses because the curriculum is so prescribed. It’s already filled to the brim. Music students are busy. You can’t just load on more credits. If you add something you usually have to take something out, and it’s deciding what to take out that becomes tricky.

Q: You've been a full-time faculty member at Eastman since 1972. How has the professional advice that you've given your students changed through the years?

A: My advice has more or less been the same throughout my career and that is:

  • Separate yourself from the pack — be noticed.
  • Take charge of your career — be proactive.
  • Build your brand.
  • Take advantage of your unique strengths and abilities.
  • Ask yourself why you play music.
  • Make a plan. You’re at point A; how do you get to point B?
  • Set some goals and don’t be timid about them.
  • Get some business chops — taxes, lawyers, royalties, getting gigs, grants, dealing with people, etc.
  • Be the best at what you do.
  • Keep your art at a high level.
  • Don’t give up on yourself.

Q: Your book is primarily written for music school students. What can music school instructors learn from what you've written?

A: Actually the book is primarily written for college-age and young professionals just embarking on their careers, but more than one reader already in business told me that the book reminded them of why they went into music to begin with. And as I point out in the book, it’s not always easy to keep sight of that. For instructors, it may remind them of the real world that awaits their students, and hopefully will give them ideas to help their students make the transition from the Ivory Tower to the real world.

Q: You teach a class at Eastman on "Entrepreneurial Thinking." Do you think all music schools should offer their students courses like this? Also, should they require their students to take them?

A: At Eastman we decided early on that the courses in our Arts Leadership Program (ALP) would be electives. We wanted our students to vote with their feet and now, coming up on our fifteenth anniversary we offer about 25 different courses each year that address these “real-world issues.” Approximately one-third of all Eastman juniors, seniors and graduate students take at least one ALP course. So yes. I think that courses that incorporate real-world information are essential in preparing students for the musical environment in which they will be working. As a professor at Eastman it allows me to sleep very well at night knowing that in addition to an emphasis on performance and scholarship we are also providing leadership skills to our students. It’s a powerful combination.

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