Angela Beeching: On the Keys to Developing a Career That’s Totally “You”

My first year in grad school, I ended up connecting with a few friends of friends, and became part of a casual, not-super-serious quartet (evidenced by our name, as we remain the only quartet I’m aware of to have named itself after the violist), which would get together on occasion to play concerts and various gigs.

One day, after a gig, we were all walking down the street to grab something to eat, and talking about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Everyone started off with the customary buy a Strad, Ferrari, loft in Tribeca-type items. But then my colleagues started thinking more seriously and creatively about what they’d do to enhance the career ahead that they foresaw for themselves. Whether it involved founding ensembles with a mission that was personally meaningful, or recording projects, or something else along these lines, each of them seemed to have visions, plans, and ideas for how to amplify their voice or impact.

Which caught me off guard, because I had only the vaguest of visions, no plan, and no idea how to get to a destination I couldn’t really see anyway.

I eventually did stumble upon the path that was the most “me,” but if I could do it again, I think I’d approach some things a little differently. I mean, if nothing else, I could have saved myself from some of those unpleasant panic-stricken “OMG, what am I going to do in 1 year/6 months/2 weeks when I graduate?!!!” moments…

So whether you’re in school right now, or simply looking for ideas on how to cultivate your own personal voice and make a tiny you-shaped dent in the universe, I hope you’ll find something in this episode that will help you take that next step forward.

Meet Angela Beeching

Angela Beeching is the author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, and has been Director of Music Entrepreneurship at Manhattan School of Music and Director of Career Services at the New England Conservatory.

In this 44-min episode, we’ll explore:

  • A few specific things that students who generally have the easiest transition to life after school tend to do. (6:35)
  • How difficult it is to predict which students are going to have the “biggest” careers. That in the same way that coaches and team executives struggle to predict which college athletes are going to have successful pro careers, many of her own predictions about classmates (when she was a student) and students (when she was on faculty) were totally different than how things actually worked out. (9:38)
  • Some of the key things that musicians feel made the most difference in their lives, when they reflect back on their undergraduate experience. (10:12)
  • Tips on how to find a good mentor in college. (12:48)
  • A good question to ask a potential mentor (plus a classic “bad” question to avoid). (16:18)
  • How to find opportunities to start a project and develop your leadership skills, find like-minded collaborators, and create more performance opportunities for yourself. (18:01)
  • The importance of your “secret project” – and the story of how Angela’s own secret project played out in her life. (19:13)
  • How to become “luckier,” and experiencing more serendipitous coincidences that work in your favor. (21:31)
  • A more freeing mindset with which to approach music making and performing (and avoid the fear of judgment). (26:10)
  • The “why’s” exercise, and how this can help boost your motivation to push through difficult times. (31:43)
  • How uncertainty about how to begin building one’s career while in school can “infect” one’s experience and effectiveness in the practice room too. And what you can do to take tiny baby steps every day instead, that will help get the gears in motion. (43:00)

Noa: I don't know if I'm typical or not, but I went into college pretty much without a plan other than thinking that if I practice a lot, the career part would just take care of itself eventually. It wasn't until grad school and I started seeing the end of school coming pretty quickly and started worrying about how I was going to pay the bills and so forth that that's when I really started panicking and thinking about what it might mean to build a career. This isn't to say that we should go in a college with this 4-year or 6-year plan for exactly what to do when we graduate, but I do wonder if there's like a middle ground somewhere and if there are some students who seem to make the most of their college and grad school years and really set themselves up well for interesting and meaningful careers.

Noa: Like if these students are doing something deliberate, that other students can maybe do too, or how much of it is just serendipity and being at the right place at the right time because that seems to be part of the equation too. Those are kind of the things that I'd love to get into and ask you about, but it seems like it might also make sense before we do that for me to ask you to share a little bit about what you do and your own story of how you came to be doing what you do - because if I remember correctly, I think you've said that your career is certainly not something you could have envisioned or expected when you were a freshman in college, so maybe that would be a place to start.

Angela: Sure, but the same is true for your career Noa, right?

Noa: Right, absolutely.

Angela: Yeah, I think everybody figures it as they go along, but yeah, I started out as a cellist. I think it was pretty typical tunnel vision. All I cared about was the instrument and the repertoire, and I just was in love with music. While I was in school, I was busy of focusing on getting a college teaching job. That was really the thing I ended up thinking that would be like heaven if you got one of those jobs, and I just like to say that I'm living proof that sometimes you get exactly what you want, only to find out it's not the way you thought it was going to be. Yeah, I hit of a wall and I thought, "Ugh, this isn't working out. This is my fantasy. I should be happy. Why is this not working?"

Angela: I had to do some real regrouping and rethinking, but as a grad student along the way, I had complained to the music department that there wasn't a career office or at that time, there wasn't any kind of entrepreneurship programs or there will be a like a gig office, but that was about it. I just thought that the school should have resources to help us learn how to write grants, how to raise money for projects, how to book a tour, that kind of stuff. The chair of the department, this was at Stony Brook, he said write us a proposal and I didn't even know what a proposal was, but I wrote something up and I handed it in thinking okay, these people are going to make this happen and they turned around and said, "We're going to make this your teaching assistantship.

Angela: You get to start this thing." Not what I was expecting, but smart on their part. They got super cheap and motivated labor and I learned a lot, but again I was busy just working on being a cellist. I think what was fun about the work with that I got to do something that was interesting for me and it was helpful to others, but I was just focused on I wanted to study in Paris. I did that for a while. I wanted to finish the doctorate and get a job. Yeah.

Angela: When the jobs didn't turn out the way I thought they were going to be, I moved back to Boston and this job opened up at New England Conservatory running their career center and because I had some experience in that area, I got the job and I thought I'll do this for a couple of years till I figure out something that made more sense, but what I found was that I actually love this work. I'm fascinated with helping musicians move forward in their careers because each musician is different and there's this thing about aligning with your real purpose, with what is most rewarding to you in your life, that when people get that focused and they think more holistically, then things start to really happen.

Angela: It's exciting work, but like I said, most people don't have a clear vision when they're in school. The people that I see having the easiest time transitioning to life after school are the ones who are doing a bunch of gigging, are getting started with projects that they aren't just doing what they need to do to get through the degree and the program. There's a different attitude of oh, what can I make happen for myself. Now not everybody has that kind of impulse when they're in school, so it's not to say that you have to be that way. It's just that I think it's easier for people when they get going with that earlier on because then they get this idea that I don't have to wait for someone to pick me, that I can "pick myself" as Seth Godin would say.

Noa: I might be getting some of the details wrong, but I feel like I remember seeing a study somewhere another about higher ed in general, not music, where it seemed like the students who are most successful were the ones who were most engaged and involved in their college experience, I think regardless maybe of where exactly they went to school. Again, I could be getting some of these details wrong, but that seems to resonate with what you were describing and to be honest, what I did in college was I basically instead of saying yes to everything, I tried to say no to as many things as possible thinking that oh, that's me being smart about saving time for practice though of course, my problem is I didn't actually use that time to practice...

Noa: I spent it like on Mario Kart and doing other things that didn't lead to anything, but yeah, does it matter what exactly we get involved in or say yes to? Are there things that seem to be more useful than others or is it just like a personal compass and finding the things that seem most intriguing to us?

Angela: Well, I did a sort of personal completely unscientific study of my own years ago. I just got in the habit of asking people and these were people in their 40s and 50s and older. What they remembered of their undergraduate years, really what made the biggest difference in their lives. Now of course at different stages in your life, you're going to answer that question differently, but it's fascinating to think about what we think is really going to matter when we're in school and what actually ends up mattering later on in our lives. The unfortunate thing is when you're young and you're in school, you can't think any differently than how you're thinking usually.

Angela: When we were in school, we get all caught up in the pecking order and who's got the concerto soloist or whatever, and I remember thinking that I knew exactly where I stood in relation to everybody else and that I knew oh, who was for sure going to have this big, big career. I just had to say I was so, so wrong. I was so wrong on all those accounts and I have to say as a faculty member years later, you can also think you can put your money on like who would you bet on having this and you're going to be wrong. There's so many other factors that go into it, but going back to my little fake study, what people said if I had to reduce this down to the stories that seem to make the biggest difference for people.

Angela: One was having a mentor who really believed in you and I have to say from talking to lots of musicians, I mean it's great if it is your studio teacher, but a lot of times, it's not and the people that can make a really big difference in our lives are not the ones that are just looking after our musicianship skills. It's this other dimension of our Lives that people can really be a role model for us. I've to say I had a work study job. This was when I was in grad school. I had a work study job at the music library and that head librarian, she was amazing. She was just like this role model for the kind of person you wanted to be. Yeah, so that was one thing.

Angela: I think people off and have a great college experience if they have one person who really believes in them and is a shining light in their life. The other thing that people would talk about was getting involved in a project that they took initiative or they took leadership role in. Well, for many people, that took them off campus, that might have nothing to do with the curriculum in the school, but it really helped them grow up in some interesting way and see possibilities for themselves. I think when music is involved, if it can also give you a sense of the value of what you bring to the table as a musician beyond how well you play, right? It's this understanding what music is really about.

Angela: Yeah, those are the two things that I think I would say recipes for having a better college experience, but also recipes for the things that will matter 20 years later.

Noa: Do you have a sense of how these people found their mentors? I mean I'm sure some of it is serendipitous to use that word again, but I do suspect that there are concrete ways so you can go about your experience in college that would increase the likelihood of stumbling across such people.

Angela: Okay, I have a weird theory about mentors. I think this comes from what I'd always heard about mentors especially in a business context. It's like the old boys network where you know some fatherly type takes a young male whippersnapper under his wing and shows him the ropes, and that kind of thing you see in movies about kids on baseball teams. Just like whoa, that was not my experience in life at all. One way to think about mentors or people that you might consider mentors are who are the people whose behavior you find really inspiring, and these maybe people that don't have the time to have sit-down talks with you, but you are watching them.

Angela: You are seeing examples of the kind of person you want to grow into being and that's a way to have a kind of mentor with an actual probably limited contact. I think it's very possible to have mentors or even people who are dead people in literature, but in a way, we all need to see examples of the version of ourselves that we can dare ourselves into becoming, but if there is someone closer to home at the school that you're at, seeking that person out and asking a couple of smart questions is a way to signal that you have interest and spend a little bit of time with that person because as long as that person has time and bandwidth and they see that you're genuinely seeking something, they're going to try to help.

Angela: It's a flattering thing and people want to be helpful. Yeah, I would say don't be shy about this. I think a lot of times, people feel like, "Oh well, that's not the person I'm studying with or they're my chamber music coach, I can't ask for this." My experiences, if someone asked you a great question and you see that they are really seeking something, yeah, why wouldn't you? Of course.

Noa: A couple of things stand out to me. One, I like the word "example" or maybe even "model," not "mentor" necessarily because I think when we hear the word mentor, we think of this apprenticeship model and like you said, they may not have the time or the bandwidth for that level of a relationship, but yeah, so I like that. That opens up the field of possibilities a little bit more and it also seems like your point about time and bandwidth is important because... and I'm not a student anymore, so it's a little hard to remember, but I can even imagine for myself and approaching people now that it can be difficult not to take things personally if someone we look up to doesn't seem that interested in answering the question or whatnot and seems like it would be important to be aware that that might not be something we should take personally.

Angela: I think the question that someone you might have is along the lines of what should I do with my life and that is an impossible question, right? On the other hand if you said to the person, "You know I find myself really fascinated by this particular repertoire or in your class yesterday, when you were talking about this, my head sort of exploded and I'd love to be able to read more, do you have any suggestions for me?" This is a way to get more like boots on the ground in terms of how can I move forward with the thing that I'm fascinated by, but this person touched on that I want to investigate. That's a way of putting yourself in the driver's seat and asking for the kind of input that someone could actually give you.

Noa: Another was very specific questions that take you just a tiny step forward in an area that you're really interested in as opposed to asking for a huge amount of direction at the onset, right?

Angela: Yeah.

Noa: Okay. That makes sense. I'm just keeping a running list if that's okay.

Angela: Sure.

Noa: One, is getting involved in the opportunities that are on school and two, is finding a mentor or models or examples to observe or to seek advice from to advance an interest that you've discovered. Three, is taking on some sort of leadership role in a project which sounds straightforward enough, but do you have examples maybe you could share of what since you've done because I'm wondering if that might be challenging?

Angela: Well, I mean as an example, I don't know any school these days that doesn't have a career office where they're getting requests for people to go and play off campus. If you haven't bothered to register with that service or even just to find out about it, same thing if they do any kind of community engagement, performances at hospitals or nursing homes or shelters or schools, that is such a great way to test what you're doing and to get outside the walls of the school. Most people that I know when they're in school complain that they don't have enough performance opportunities, and so this is how you get more of those opportunities.

Angela: In doing those kind of performances, you get a chance, I would imagine, to play with a variety of no peers and finding the people that you really click with and that you want to do more stuff with is fantastic. I do have to say I have never met a young musician who didn't have an idea for a secret project in the back of their mind, that thing that like, "Oh someday, someday I really want to do this," and they're so often afraid to even admit that they have this secret project idea because sometimes, it's getting involved in a genre of music that they don't think their studio instructor will approve of or they're a performer, but they really are curious about improvising and composing, and so they just put this stuff off to the side.

Angela: I just have to say it's such a shame because decades later, that's what people regret that they didn't go for. I'll give an example. I mean when I was in school, I had a job in the music library and I fell in love with these Harmonia Mundi recordings chamber music with this cellist, and I was talking about it all the time with my friends. They were so sick of hearing about this. They said, "Well, why don't you do something about it? Why don't you write to this guy and see about going and taking lessons with him?" I said, "Oh, come on. What am I supposed to do? Write a fan letter, that's ridiculous," but my friends kept daring me and one of these friends was actually an exchange student on a Fulbright from Paris, and he knew someone who knew this cellist.

Angela: He helped me write the letter and so long story short, I ended up taking a loan out. This is hard to do when you're already in debt, but taking a loan out in between semesters to go and check out this teacher and one other teacher that I'd heard about because I was trying to figure out who would I study with next, and I went ahead a bunch of lessons. While I was there, I found out about this special program, this weird little Harriet Hill Woolley grant sounds like a disease, but it was this small private like family grant kind of a thing and I got the damn thing. It's like you could say yeah serendipitous, like at all these weird little coincidences, but you have to set something in motion at the beginning.

Angela: You have to actually do something to actually get any of that luck to start happening, and I have to say I feel so lucky to this day that I had those friends that kicked my butt because it wouldn't have happened. I didn't think I was someone who could do this. I didn't think I could write a grant and I had such a good time that first year. I came back and I applied for the Fulbright and I didn't get it the first time. Again, I have his friends, "Oh, you should try again, you should try again." Meanwhile, I was demoralized. I thought oh, forget it, forget it and I did apply for it again and I got it. Then I ended up years later at New England Conservatory advising people on how to write grants, so nothing is wasted, right?

Angela: All of these lessons that we learned, but the biggest lesson I had in that besides how important it is to have the right kind of friends, but biggest lesson was that we underestimate ourselves so often. We talk ourselves out of possibilities and meanwhile, I was there like in love with this guy's playing and not doing anything about it, so that's what I mean. Everyone has a secret project. The first thing is dare yourself to talk about it and then dare yourself to take a first action, and then just keep going.

Noa: It sounds like it would actually make more sense to take action towards those secret projects in college as opposed to afterwards because college is when we have this collection resources around us and people and less risk maybe even because we're still in college, we still have something to do.

Angela: Yeah. Yeah, and I think the real advantage of doing it when you're still in school is you get a chance to prove to yourself that you are someone who can make things happen and that knowledge just seeing yourself in that light just makes a huge difference.

Noa: The other aspect of your story that seems to stand out to me is the idea of finding something that seems like it's missing from your world and doing something to fill that need or fill that missing element. I wonder what you've experienced from students as far as internal resistance towards filling those needs and so forth because I think it's that easy especially, and this is maybe why it's hard in college is on the flip side we say well, I'm just a college student or I'm nobody, I haven't done anything, who am I to address this or try to do this thing that nobody has done before and how do I know it's worth doing because nobody else has done it before or nobody has done it this way, who am I right? I mean is something that gets in the way for students?

Angela: Yeah, gets in the way for everybody. Doesn't stop when you're a student. Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. I want to connect this up to this problem about music or maybe it's the way we learn music because I think there somehow these issues are joined at the hip. When we're in school, we're so busy on the craft and trying to play really well and perfectly and get things right, and so that idea of taking any kind of risk. Yeah. I mean less so if you're a jazz player, but yeah that idea of risk, almost it gets like ironed out of us and I see this especially with doctoral candidates. I mean by the time you get done with all of those years of school, it's like all of those entrepreneurial or leadership impulses seemed to be squashed out.

Angela: A lot of people feel defeated at the end, so that's a hard row, but what I want to say is there's another way of looking at all of this and if I had a magic wand to bunk over people's heads, the thing that I would want them to be able to approach their music making with is a sense of generosity, that idea of I want to hear and that this is actually coming from a love, and so that all of those paranoia feelings that we have about being judged and comparing ourselves to others and thinking about the competition or the pecking order, all of that stuff is really just noise.

Angela: It's garbage, but it gets in the way of us thinking about the transaction that we are actually offering something to other people, and that that is actually our jobs. Not just as musicians but as humans to help make the world a better place. The weird thing is if you get used to thinking about things this way, it can change, should change how you network with people, how you think about opportunities, how you deal with the fear of maybe not succeeding, but if it's coming from this place of no, this is my job to try to get my ideas out in the world, to share, to connect with people, and that's bad whether I'm promoting myself, whether I'm focused on the business side of my career or whether I'm focused on the music making, that these are together.

Angela: I think it's easier for people to feel freer in their expression, but also in the projects that they take on. This is just a strange thing that I found in the work that I do. A lot of work with clients is focused on promotional materials and this weird thing of riding your bio, which is so uncomfortable for most people and makes us feel insecure like oh, I haven't done enough, I run into so many people who have like major resistance around this. Suddenly, we're working, we're working, and then when it comes down to seeing the drafts of the bio, it's just like one excuse after another.

Angela: Suddenly, they've got all of these family emergencies and illnesses and 12 other projects that take precedent because they don't want to face this fear that they are a failure and it's how they're judging themselves, which is often so much worse than anybody know it would judge them that way. I mean it's very common, but it's a funny thing that when you really get to working on the bio and figuring out what's at the core of the work that you do, what's the change that you seek to make in the world through your music, and that can feel grandiose even to think about it in those terms, but I mean why else are we doing this? We want to bring something wonderful into the world and it's not so that people will clap at us, right?

Angela: It's not so that we will at the end of our days have won all these awards and made all these, whatever, all these recordings and gotten all these reviews. That's not the point. If you can get people to really think about that stuff and then work on their promotional materials from that angle, then it starts to get more organic this process, what it is I want to make happen in the world, how I need to dare myself forward, and how that can free up my own artistic work. When I see this stuff start to happen with people, it's like magic. There really is something there to this basic approach why are we making music. So strange to think how that filters into everything we do.

Noa: What you described makes me think of an experience I had and one that I've heard some students described, and this sounds horrible to say, but honestly I would get more nervous playing for peers and other teachers who I respected than any audience. Frankly, I didn't care what the audience thought which again sounds horrible. Even though they're the ones who are finding parking and driving a car and getting babysitters and taking time out of their schedule to come and have an experience that will hopefully make their day a tiny bit better, yet I'm only concerned about like the one or two people in the audience who know the piece that I'm playing or also... You know what I mean?

Angela: Yeah.

Noa: ... like who are in my studio and so forth. Yeah, it seems like maybe if that's what you're speaking too as far as being more concerned with creating an experience for the people whose lives are going to be enriched by it as opposed to competing for a reputation of some kind or an award.

Angela: Yeah, there's a game you can play with the why behind what you're doing to say well, I want to earn the respect of my peers and to say okay, let's say you get that, what will that result in? Each thing that you arrive, well what would that result in? Because you want to figure out well, what is really at the end of that of that train of thought? Is it that I will finally feel that I'm good enough? What is the thing we're really after? I think to dare yourself for any of us to say what's my real motivation here and is it getting in the way of me really doing my own talent, the justice, me doing justice to the piece, me actually... I think everybody knows that feeling in a performance when you dared yourself out.

Angela: You've gone towards the edge of not being in control, but of really pushing yourself just how present can I be in the moment, how real can I be with this expressiveness, and I think that's what people want. They want to reach those limits, so that you got to let go of the comparisons. I don't know any other way. It's like you have to say I'm going to give my ego a holiday or push it out of the room right now.

Noa: When you've been able to help clients, like you said push to ego out of the equation and ask what would that result in question enough times until they get to where it is that they're trying to go, do you remember some of the things that have struck you where people did finally find? Angela Duckworth's book Grit, she talks about this. I think she uses the word purpose, right? Your life purpose, your life philosophy and that's huge as far as the motivation to keep getting back up when we've been knocked down a little bit. Yes, I'm curious as to what some musicians have said or identified and maybe surprise themselves by as what their purpose is and doing what they do.

Angela: Yeah. I'm thinking about a composer actually that I'm working with now who had a religious background and he said, yeah he's one of these people that didn't outgrow it so that this fate is actually very important in his music making and it's not anything he would ever dream of writing about in the bio, and yet it's this thing about what are you reaching towards in the work that you're writing, and if that is really what it's about. Now he's been talking about writing a piece connected with the rosary, and so I happen to know some other works around that.

Angela: I said, "Oh, have you checked this out?" Sometimes you just give people the permission to go to those places where there unconscious hasn't been, I don't know, let free to really say this is behind it, this is part of my imagination and my creativity. I think that's the most obedient example that I can think of at the moment, but I mean we all have stuff there, people who are needing to prove something to their parents and they're not happy that it's still there, but then you're thinking okay, if we got that place or if you gave yourself permission to get that approval in your imagination, what would that allow you to do in the playing.

Angela: Just a good way to get real about this because otherwise, what happens is we put up all these roadblocks that get in the way of our reaching our potential.

Noa: One of my favorite quotes you would think I'd be able to get it exactly right, but I probably won't-

Angela: Go for it.

Noa: ... but it's a E.E. Cummings' quotes, something along the lines of how it takes a lot of courage to grow up and become who you are, and that's what I was reminded of when you're describing this because I don't know that our life purposes when we write them down are especially juicy or compelling to other people when you read them. They're just these dry sentences, but I think what matters is that they mean much more to us and it makes sense to us and it resonates with us. Yeah, I like it that it doesn't anything to do with ego or proving anything, but more about helping a certain kind of person or serving a group of people in a particular kind of way that allows us to spend most of our time doing something that's personally meaningful.

Angela: Yeah. No, I absolutely agree Noa. I think that the thing is the personally meaningful if it is aimed at good in the world than it is making an impact. It may seem relatively small. I'm thinking about my walking partner in the morning, Flory. She's in her 70s. She's terrific and she would be the first person in the world to say that she hasn't lived a life that made some... She's not famous. She didn't have big, fancy positions in life, but I know for a fact that she has touched hundreds of lives by her example, by her way of treating people. This thing about the impact each one of us makes is much larger than we can appreciate. I just see so often musicians under estimating the value of what they bring to the table and I mean part of it is the culture that we live in.

Angela: I want to go back to what you said about the bio or the mission statements that people have. Usually they are really dry and full of cliches and generalizations and not useful in any way, and it doesn't mean that we have to have some beautiful statement there, some piece of poetry, but what I find is when people have done that kind of inner work and they've hooked into something that actually is more genuine, more honest, even if it's incomplete because it's just words, you can't really capture it, there is something that resonates in the reader. You can tell was this a formula or is there something real there, and I think it's tremendously attractive.

Angela: If you're thinking about people's even their personas on social media, it's the people who are more forthcoming and real and human that people are interested in. They're interested in their careers. They're interested in their music.

Noa: This might not link up to what you just said completely, but as you were talking, I was also wondering if part of what holds us back is not trusting that the things that we geek out about or that we value or that we really love matter to other people, and that also made me think about you're walking but you made me think about this movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I think it was called The Bucket List. Yeah, The Bucket List, and there's a scene, they're on top of a pyramid or something because I think it was Morgan Freeman explaining, and who knows if this is true, but the ancient Egyptians believe that when you went into the afterlife, you were asked two questions.

Noa: The first one being did you find joy in your life and the second one being did your life bring joy to others. I think finding joy in your life isn't winning prizes. It's did you find something that you could do that was meaningful just to do it for its own sake, and did that thing also then contribute to the world in a positive way like you said, and I like that. That always resonated with me and maybe that's what you were talking earlier about with thinking of your craft and music as an act of generosity in some way as opposed to one in which you got to prove yourself.

Angela: Yeah. Yeah. When I was in school, no one ever talked about audiences at all and maybe they talked about promotion in terms of butts in seats, but there was nothing there about what is it you're wanting to communicate and even if it is your classmates who are ruthlessly scrutinizing everything, what is the message of the piece that you're wanting to deliver and who is the person that you want to be in that process. I think there's a way to focus on audiences where you can see the value of what you're bringing and you can see the connectedness that we are all together.

Noa: We talked about a few, very specific, concrete, actionable things that students and young musicians can do to make strides towards developing and creating and designing this career that's going to be personally meaningful and satisfying, but I know that we also got into a lot of abstract sorts of ideas around that as well, and to try to make things as concrete as possible because at the end of the day, it comes down to taking action. We can think all the things we want. We can read all the things we want. We can know the things we need to know, but if we don't take action, the world doesn't respond and nothing changes.

Noa: To that end, you have this 5-step action guide on your website and based on the title, I'm assuming that this is a way of trying to cut through a lot of the millions of things we could be doing and try to identify the most impactful things that we could take action on without getting overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and so I'm curious if I'm right and if so, what these five things might be if you could say what they are.

Angela: Sure, sure. Yeah, on my website, right on the front page, there's this thing you can sign up for and get the 5-step start-up guide. Yeah, it's exactly what you said Noa. I find so many people are overwhelmed by this issue like oh, what am I supposed to be doing for my career. You said you didn't start thinking about this or panicking until you were in grad school, and that's very common and the panic that actually ensues and some people start way early with that, it actually infects what we're doing in the practice room because it's this extra layer.

Angela: It's this underlying layer of anxiety, am I good enough, who is judging, are there any jobs out there, I've already been in debt for this amount, I feel so guilty of what my parents have gone through to make this happen, and that feeling of I'm a fraud. One of the best things that people can do whether they're in school or out of school is to be taking action every day, and these small steps, one of the steps is about reconnecting how you could reconnect with people that you lost track of, people who might be really helpful for you from a mentoring point of view or from a modeling point of view, or they might be a great collaborator.

Angela: I find so many times people are reluctant to reconnect or they're embarrassed about how they left their relationship or that they have been so out of touch when actually we just a little bit more human and direct message someone or email and saying I can't believe, I let all this time go by, I would so love to know what you're doing, and that starts... It's like that little bit of action like what I was saying like oh with the secret project, that person you might reconnect with might have a great idea for that secret project.

Angela: They might actually be a partner with you in it, so that's what I love about the start-up guide because the whole intent is to give you manageable action steps that you can start in right now, and whether you're in school or not because I found that people who are taking action every day, even if it's small, that sense of being in forward motion and seeing the results of those actions, that's what creates traction in someone's career. That's the people who are making things happen.

Noa: Well, thanks so much Angela...


[1] Seth Godin comes up pretty early on in our chat. If you’re not familiar with Seth Godin, this entertaining 2003 TED talk on the initial failure of sliced bread might be the best introduction to who he is and what he does. And if you want to go a bit deeper and explore the concept of picking yourself, James Altucher’s interview with Godin would be a great next step. Because Altucher is a pretty interesting and compelling person to follow too, and wrote a book called Choose Yourself which is also super relevant to this conversation. (7:13)

[2] I alluded to a study about how the degree of engagement students experience in college may matter more than the prestige of the college they go to. That was actually a white paper written by the Stanford-based organization Challenge Success, which you can read here. Or if you just want the basic overview, you can read that here. Or watch a 90-second video summary. (7:29)

[3] Angela Duckworth’s research comes up in conversation too. Specifically, the idea of purpose, passion, or a life philosophy. And what’s that about exactly? Take a moment to read this short Facebook post where she elaborates on the importance of this. And if you’re not familiar with Angela Duckworth, her 2013 TED talk is one of the most-viewed talks out there, and a good place to start. (33:42)

[4] Here’s the e.e. cummings quote that I didn’t get quite right: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” (36:10)

[5] And if you haven’t seen The Bucket List, here’s that scene I was talking about: The Two Questions… (39:47)

More resources from Angela

Interested in getting that 5-Step Startup Guide that Angela put together? You can find it right at the top of Angela’s website:

While you’re there, check out her blog and newsletter, which has practical and actionable tips on booking more gigs, freelancing successfully, fundraising, bio-writing, pitching project ideas, booking performance spaces, writing “cold” emails, and more.

And if you’d like to get a copy of Angela’s book Beyond Talent, it’s available at Amazon right here. Or, you can pre-order the revised, freshly updated 3rd edition here, which comes out in a couple weeks!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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