Seeing the forest instead of the tree

This is a re-post of an entry I made in response to a post on Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog.  The specific entry that I was responding to regarded building a career as an artist.  That post can be found here.  It gave some advice to people who wanted to be artists and included the following bolded points:


  1. You cannot do art if you are starving.
  2. Art emanating from a black hole is a choice.
  3. Real artists will make art no matter what.
  4. You do not need to quit your day job.
  5. You are not a better artist if you can do it full time.


The bullet points don’t really do the post justice.  I think Penelope had a lot of good reasoning behind what she posted and I’d recommend that you check it out.  As you might imagine, there was a lot of controversy in the comments following her post with some people were very supportive and some were very resistant.

This post is ultimately about focus and about working through short and long terms goals and setting priorities.

Currently, I don’t perform music as a full-time gig because the music that I want to play traditionally does not make a lot of money and music is too important to me to play in situations I don’t want to play in ONLY for money.  If the right gig came along – or the right circumstances allowed me to do what I do on guitar full-time – then I would certainly do so.  I’m sure that I can position myself into that place ultimately but, in the meantime, there are other things that I’m not willing to compromise on in regards to my music or my life (like healthcare which would be impossible to swing on a $50/night gig) in the short-term.


By being a little selective in gigs and playing situations – I can bring a lot more to the table when I play.  By being selective in lessons, I can fully engage myself in helping someone rather than just trying to herd as many people through as possible just to make rent.

I’ve edited the post to fit the context of this blog better but have kept the majority of the content intact.


Re: How to build a career as an artist


“I’m not sure what the median age of the reader of this specific post is. Outside of regular readers,  I would guess that the primary readers are a). people who are out of undergrad , working a day job and are here because someone forwarded a link of encouragement or b). people who have artistic pasts (and presents) and balance that with another income. This post is more for those of you who are recently out of college and facing both massive debt and doubt – because I’ve been there myself.

This will probably be a long post, but I am putting it here because this is information that would have helped me immensely after school and perhaps it will help you.


Kafka and Ives

In balancing art and non-artistic work, there are many historical precedents with a fomous one being Franz Kafka – who balanced his writing with working in an insurance company. (Kafka would also read bits of “The Trial” at parties and laugh uncontrollably, so you can take that and some of the biggest daddy issues ever committed to print and ask how well that’s truly balanced.  To be fair, this was more of a question of Kafka’s balance as a person and not his balance of white collar and white knuckle work.)

In music, the specific example that is often given of this balance is the American composer Charles Ives.  Ives lived in musical obscurity at the beginning of the 20th century and wrote some of the most challenging music imaginable. While little of it was played in his lifetime, Ives would go on to become one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.  Aside from his musical work, he was also the vice president of an insurance agency and continued to write and work for much of his life. Add the fact that very few people recognized the genius of his work and that much of his music was never played during his lifetime and you have a classic story of artistic struggle.  

This is typically heralded as an example of how to balance art and non-art work.  That is until you read any one of his biographies and get to the part of his life where one night he came down the stairs of his home crying and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’  For the last 20 years of his life, he never wrote another note of music.

While this (the Brazen Careerist) post has some really solid advice, the one thing that is inferred, but not said explicitly, is that art takes time. There are technical skills required to create any kind of art – and the maintenance and advancement of those skills takes concentrated and focused time. The core question at work here seems to be, ‘What are my priorities?’

I’ll insert a temporary diversion here: one thing to consider in an arts education – formal or informal – is that many artists focus on the ‘how’ of their art but not the ‘why’. The importance of this issue can not be overstated.


If you have a solid understanding of why you do the things you do, then the question of how will be more easily resolved.

As an example of priorities, if you find that you’re spending more time at the bar with friends then you are working on your art – your priorities are telling you something. For some people, this is merely an issue of time management. But for others, their priorities are out of whack with their perception of reality.

If your concept of why you create art is clear, then a day job is nothing more than a vehicle for income while you work on your art and the challenge is in utilizing the elements of the day job that work for you.

I will use a personal example. A while back, I was several years out of my undergrad school and playing a GB (General Business – like a cover band) gig. You see, the thing about making money playing music is that most of the gigs that pay are gigs like this one. While you will run in circles with people who can’t play their way out of a paper bag, you will also find extraordinary musicians with major credentials playing at the same crappy bar as you because – it’s a paying gig.

So in this story –  I was playing cheesy music I loathed in a strange trio (the person who got me the gig said, ‘some of their tunes are dangerously close to grooving’) in some dive restaurant in the middle of nowhere for people who didn’t care.  At this point in my life, I was completely despondent.  I was working a day job for benefits and to pay off my school loan, and doing this gig on weekends to keep my chops up and I just felt awful.  It suddenly occurred to me, ‘Wait a minute. Why do I feel this way?  The whole reason I started playing music was because it felt good, and now every time I pick up my instrument I just feel bad.  I don’t EVER want to feel this way when I play music.’

And so I quit. I figured that I would work hard, pay off my school debt and do something else with my life.


But the things in life that are important to you stay inside of you, even in their absence.

It took a while, but I started realizing that it was the loss of my connection to my instrument that caused me such pain . I couldn’t quit music – because music had become an integral part of who I was.  I couldn’t get rid of music any more than I could get rid of my skin.

So I kept my job.  And then got one that paid better.  I played in a lot of local bands that paid nothing, but because I had a day job IT DIDN’T MATTER that it paid nothing.  I played the music, because I enjoyed the music.  In looking at the club scene in Boston and weighing my options, I decided that, for me, the best balance would be teaching music in a college environment. Teaching was something that I did well. It allowed me to give back to beginning musicians and it would give me the flexibility to pursue my music on my own terms. To do this, I needed a master’s degree. I worked hard and got a scholarship to a well regarded school on the opposite coast of where I lived.  I got my degree,  got another gig and another day job to pay bills and now am working towards that goal. Was going to grad school in my 30’s an easy thing to do? Not at all.  It was a culture shock and a calculated gamble.  But it was necessary for what I wanted to do in the long run.

Some people (on the post replies) have suggested that going to grad school is a waste of money and time.  So I can’t say, ‘don’t waste your money on grad school’.  Even though I had a scholarship and was working – I still had to take out loans to cover the difference.  My advice is if you DO go to grad school have a VERY clear idea of what it is you want to do with that degree.  Also have a very clear idea of what the expenses behind school mean to you in the short and long-term as well.


Many of the paying opportunities that come to an artist will require doing things that you might not want to do. If you understand the WHY of what you do, those issues will be easier for you to resolve.

I’m married so also realize that my priorities are different from what they were 20 years ago. If someone came up to me at 17 and said, ‘Hey we have a rock band and we’re going on tour. We have no idea about money or food or where we’ll sleep but you will be able to play in front of people every night for the next couple of months.’ there’s no question I would have gone (this happened at 25 and I was promised some money but the result was actually the same).

But once you start working with issues like rent and bills – money becomes an issue.  Once you start waking up on strange people’s floors to the house pet eating its own vomit several inches away from your face – accommodations start to become more of an issue.

One final observation along this issue of why:


It’s important to realize that some people are artists and some are artisans.

To me, an artisan is a person with a high technical skill set who enjoys the physical activity associated with that skill. For example, my mom is a tolle painter. She would be perfectly happy to paint the same items over and over again – because she enjoys the act of painting. As a musician friend of mine once said, “I don’t care what I play – I just want to play the guitar.”

An artist by contrast is someone who enjoys the physical activity associated with creation. To the artist, painting the same flower over and over is an anathema to their existence. The WHY of their art is based in discovery.

And it’s important to know which one of these you are.  In recognizing what you want to do – you can make decisions that support those goals.

I don’t know if this helps any of you. I have strong feelings about this because I’ve been able to do both for a while and am finally moving towards being able to synthesize the two.

If you can walk away from this post with only one piece of advice – try this one: Life is a marathon and not a 50 yard dash. There will be times that you want to give up, times that is goes easy and times of incredible difficulty – but know that if you have the long-term goals in sight – that will be what keeps you going.  If you go into a marathon with a 50 yard dash mentality you’re going to crack at the first real hardship.  As Bukowski once said, ‘Endurance is more important than the truth.’

Good luck.  Expect to be your own critic and your own cheering section.”


Be aware when your perception is myopic and never give up.

As it says in the Hagakure, “7 times down – 8 times up”.


I hope this helps!



3 thoughts on “Seeing the forest instead of the tree

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