Margo Drakos: On Creating a Safety Net and Taking a Chance on Yourself

Have you ever begged and pleaded for something when you were a kid, and when you finally got it, discovered it wasn’t quite what you expected?

Like the time you finally got a pair of Zubaz.

Or like in that Friends episode where Monica got new boots .

Of course, once you’ve fought so hard for that thing, there can be a lot of pressure to stick with it. Even if it’s not a good fit. And it’s tempting to think you just need a different color.

I think our careers can sometimes be a little like that too.

Especially in music, where you start out so early, and sacrifice so much, that it can feel like the thing you’ve always done is the thing you’re supposed to do. Even if, over time, it starts to become clearer and clearer that it’s just not “you.”

But what if you’ve never really done anything else? Or “only” went to conservatory? Or never took the GRE’s?

Our inner critics can come up with some pretty compelling reasons why we should keep our heads down and just stay the course. And there can be a lot of hesitancy, doubt, and fear about whether we are capable of taking on completely foreign challenges too. Even though the reality is that future us is capable of a lot more than we might think.

So if you’ve ever had an itch to explore something totally different, but stopped yourself from venturing down this new path, I hope you’ll enjoy the following chat with cellist-turned-tech-entrepreneur Margo Drakos.

Meet Margo Drakos

Formerly the principal cellist of the Oregon, San Diego, and Seattle symphonies, associate principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and member of the American String Quartet, Margo was also co-founder of InstantEncore, and is now the CEO of ArtistYear.

Margo’s resume is kind of mind-boggling, and when we hear of someone’s unusual success like this, it can be tempting for our brain to assume that things were easy. That talent must explain everything. And that this person must be nothing at all like us normal folks.

But I hope you get a sense from the episode with Margo, that while talent and luck certainly do have a place in the equation, we are all capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. And that we can do some pretty cool things when we take tiny leaps of faith, embrace opportunities to work really hard on the things that are difficult for us, and trust that we’ll figure out how to land on our feet as we go.

In this 45-min chat, we’ll explore:

  • How being told to “sink or swim,” while scary at the time, helped to launch Margo’s career as she neared the end of her time at Curtis (3:45)
  • How she was perhaps not the best colleague in her younger years. Plus, some initial hints that an orchestral career wasn’t the right fit for her, though she couldn’t see it at the time (7:19)
  • How surrounding herself with musicians above her level enabled her to “catch up” and accelerate her growth in the 6th grade, again when she got to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and once more when she got to Curtis (8:42)
  • The two things that helped her excel, despite not being the most gifted or talented player (12:42)
  • How she learned to maximize the effectiveness of her practice, and the role her friends and teachers played in this (14:39)
  • Signs that she wasn’t in quite the right career, and an internal struggle to figure out what she wanted to do with her life – but then having her application rejected by Columbia University (19:14)
  • The thing that motivated her to juggle a job as principal cellist with the San Diego Symphony, while teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and being a grad student at Columbia University (24:51)
  • ArtistYear – the organization that all of Margo’s experiences may have been leading her to all these years, without realizing it. And what is ArtistYear, anyway? (27:17)
  • From being an active duty military spouse, to wondering where the opportunities might be for artists and musicians to serve society, and whether there might be value in “shared cultural experiences” as a nation (29:16)
  • Why ArtistYear’s focus is “not just art for art’s sake” (32:04)
  • What the ArtistYear fellows are learning, and how their experiences have been transformative (35:57)
  • Maybe not a life philosophy per se, but Margo describes the 3 pillars that have guided her decisions and path over the years (43:33)

Noa: Honestly, in trying to get caught up and look through what you've done over the years; you've done so many different things and it's been such an intriguing and varied career that ... So what I thought we could do, maybe as a general format is go through your story a bit, post-Curtis and explore some of the decision points along the way? Moments where you might have had doubts or uncertainties, but wanting to do different ... Because I think we talked about before. There's often a difference between the story that people see on the outside, and the story that we experience on the inside, and there's a lot more doubt and fear on the inside than anyone ever gets a sense of. So yeah, like-

Margo: Absolutely.

Noa: So, from Curtis, right, you went ... What's the next thing? Pittsburgh then or how did you-

Margo: Well, first I ... Oh, that's a great ... Thank you, first of all. Thank you for framing that so well and it feels timely. Recently, I've been rather obsessed with various presidents and political leaders and their decision points. Of course, you never think about that with your own journeys, but yeah. It's funny you should say, when I think about fears or doubts, I'd say actually my end of Curtis was one of the first major moments of fear and doubt and panic. I was so fortunate at Curtis to have support towards my living expenses. I was touring with Musicians from Marlboro. It was just a magical time musically, personally with friends and professionally rewarding.

Margo: I was planning on staying a fifth year at Curtis and my performing career if you will, meager as it was at that moment, Soyer, my teacher David Soyer, the former cellist Guarneri String Quartet, who later walked me down the aisle at our wedding, was like a surrogate father to me. I showed up a couple weeks before what was graduation at the end of the year at Curtis and he said, "You know, you don't need to stay a fifth year" And I was like, "What do you mean?" He's like, "It's time for you to sink or swim." And I was like, immediately burst into tears, cause I had no Plan B. They supported my you know, again I was resource dependent on Curtis. You know I loved the school so dearly. I had no plan. I was like how is health insurance going to happen, rent, you know, life, right? So, he's like, "Well, it's time for you to figure out how bad you really want this. You have enough concerts starting."

Margo: So I pulled up the orchestra musician paper and the only audition really that was happening was principal of Oregon Symphony. I had never taken a formal orchestra audition, never had prepared a list other than for Curtis, the orchestra auditions at Curtis. And submitted my resume and a couple weeks later used my last sort of free plane trip ticket you could get from Curtis for to go to like a professional development event if you will or compete in a competition or whatever and flew out to Oregon. But I was completely panicked. So, long story short, I ended up winning that job and Jimmy...James DePriest came out at the end of the last final round and everybody was like, congratulations. And I was like, are you kidding me? Then I called to tell David Soyer of course immediately following the audition. He was like, "See, I told you so." And I was like, "That's not the point! You put through me ... I was like a stress case, you know, how am I going to exist?"

Margo: So, along with the way of saving, you know, I think at that I hadn't really thought about how to balance a career in chamber music which I loved so dearly with the realities of actually needing to support myself and even though most of my friends were moving to New York City, I didn't have the resources to be able to put a down payment on a, you know to do the first and last month rent and all those things. I chartered a path that could ideally give me some financial security and I was really lucky to have that. Fast forward a couple months later, I applied for associate principal of Pittsburgh Symphony. Won that. And then I kept being in, I kept either like winning or being in the finals of other principal auditions that were kind of dragging on you know, where there'd be a trial, or no decision was made and yada, yada.

Margo: Although I think in retrospect, I was not very, a wasn't a wonderful colleague in my regards in orchestra. I lacked the humility and respect in the sense as a 21 year old when I started in some of those jobs. It's something that still makes me cringe to think about. You know, if I thought there was bowing that didn't seem to be artistically, didn't seem to meet the composers intent, I didn't see why you shouldn't just change that even if it was not in matching of a concert master's or something. You know it was just totally, I was really quite obnoxious about things. So I kept trying to move around and find, I kept thinking that if I found other jobs, maybe I'd find the actual job. You know, more, just something that I would enjoy more on some cases, but I just found it challenging in orchestra to be quite honest. That sort of started me off on another path.

Noa: What I think is interesting is, even listening to it now, I know it wasn't an easy path, but it sounds like it was a lot easier than it actually was and so I wonder if it might be helpful to actually go back a little bit. Obviously you can feel comfortable to share as much or little as you want. But you were kind of on your own from a pretty young age [crosstalk 00:06:02]

Margo: Yeah. Very.

Noa: You talked, when we were talking earlier today about feeling behind cello-wise. Like just not feeling like you're secure of the instrument and you're not ready.

Margo: Absolutely.

Noa: So I wonder if you can maybe walk me through some of that? How did you get caught up as it were? How did you, do you know what I mean? How did you get to where you needed to be?

Margo: Well, and I mean, I credit to you, I mean, individuals and specifically you as your listeners may become aware, you know we were, you and I both started in like Suzuki, in Columbus, Ohio when were like around just two and half or so years old and then I switched to cello and did some other singing and other things as a kid. What I found, then I had the wonderful fortune of moving back to Columbus, Ohio and I met you and what became our string quartet in sixth grade on. All you guys, you, Todd Park, and Bruce Lo were all total wunderkind on the violin and viola. And so I really wanted to play with you guys, but I was like behind. I hadn't played, I hadn't really taken it serious. My mom gave me the option at some point during elementary school where I could either clean the bathrooms in exchange for her continuing to pay the rent of my cello or she was gonna return it. And I didn't want her to return it so I chose to like clean the bathrooms. So I wanted it for some reason, but I just didn't want to practice and work at it.

Margo: I think you guys, when I had the privilege of being part of that quartet was the first times I really was like, oh, wow, I really want to be able to play with you guys in this group and I need to catch up at least a little bit to try to hold my own. But it was like humbling cause you guys were fantastic and I hadn't really played in a couple years, really. When I got to Cleveland, I started as a double major in composition in cello and I really loved composing. Which is a theme I think I've come back to now later in life cause I think I really like, I love blank pages and building things which I think certainly is a commonality throughout my life in different ways.

Margo: At the time, I was really concerned about supporting myself. I left home fairly early and was financially dependent primarily and needed to figure out how to get a job. And to me, I thought that I should give myself a couple years and see how fast, or how much I could catch up on the cello. I was really behind. I was fortunate to study with Richard Aaron at the time I moved to Cleveland and he is just phenomenal at setting somebody up to have a relaxed, phenomenal technique. I just hustled and everybody around me was dedicated and exceptional. It was an incredibly nurturing place at Cleveland Institute of Music. I just set about my bow arm wasn't straight, everything was tense, so I just sat in front of the mirror until like it was straight. And you know, like you just picked off one thing after another and figured out how to make the building blocks bit by bit so that you drilled in such a way that you could execute.

Margo: When I was fortunate to be able to get into Curtis and transfer there when I was 18 and that was again when I got there, I was behind I felt and I wanted to excel and I was so lucky again to be there with my string quartet I was mentioning was Soovin Kim, Nathan Cole, Burchard Tang all phenomenal musicians. Then had a piano trio with Jonathan Biss and Hilary Hahn. It was just amazing to be surrounded by individuals who also had such work ethic and discipline and so you just worked. I think one of the things that I really reflect on, I certainly have never been the most talented or most naturally gifted individual at all, I think that one thing that I was, that David Soyer taught me, was definitely how to teach myself, which I think about all the time and how to problem-solve the issues you were having. And I think that the thing that I maybe can stand to do more than others could sometimes, who were certainly more gifted than I am or was, was that I could work on the things that I wasn't good at.

Margo: I didn't spend a lot of time practicing things that I was good at in general. I tried to work on the things that I was crummy at. I think that served me very well and I think sometimes, I found out later in my teaching that a lot of my students would only want to keep working on the things that they were good at or play the same passages that they were good at, and they didn't always have the discipline to work on the things that were out of tune or sloppy or whatever. So I think that served me quite well, but it was scary. I think in general the common theme of having, in a way, no safety net and figuring out how to make that safety net for yourself, can be a wonderful gift, but it's always easier to say that once you're through it.

Noa: I'm curious about this problem solving, teaching yourself. I mean is that a perspective that your teachers gave you or kind of encouraged or was it something you just figured out on your own? Maybe feeling like you're behind so you needed to figure out a way to accelerate? I mean, I think you're right, that a lot of people find it easier to try to make the things that they're already pretty good at, even better. Cause it's not fun to realize, oh, you know what, I really suck at this, so this is really difficult for me. Like, no one wants to spend time doing that cause that makes you feel like you're behind and not gonna get anywhere. Do you have a sense of how that came about?

Margo: Well I think in some maybe some morose kind of way I enjoy challenges and breaking it down to try to figure out at the micro-level, but again, I think one of things that was, I used to you know, watching at Marlboro, watching Midori in the mornings practice like single note, how close to the bridge, or watching Hilary drill, or Robert Chen [inaudible 00:12:20] prepare for concert master auditions, all those things that I was these individuals and I was really fascinated with how each individual would, who were so incredibly disciplined and worked incredibly hard, even though they looked like they never miss anything, never make a miss mistake, I was watching how they prepared for everything and I found that fascinating and totally inspiring.

Margo: I feel like I took a lot of things from watching these extraordinary violinists and then try to apply it in my own. I mean, I think in that regards, Soyer who I love obviously so dearly and his voice is in my head still for various things til this day constantly obviously, but he wasn't exactly one to point it out. He would just be like, you know, there was nothing espressivo about that phrase and somehow he had the ability to make you feel like a flea when he would say that so you would just keep going and trying. But I think in general, he really cultivated that attention and love of, as he would say, the music between the notes and what is your vibrato, organizing things in such a way that the speed, the oscillation of each vibrato on any note, the amount of bow-speed, the pressure, angle, blah, blah, blah. You were required to have a plan in such a way that again, back to creating your own safety net, that on the worst day, you knew how you were going to still execute.

Margo: So, if it was an amazing day, where you were so inspired and everything's perfect, then you could just be free and innovate and play on top of that, but you had to know on a day where everything wasn't feeling well, what was the plan? Every note, every phrase, every movement, and so forth, and he expected you to figure it out as did Felix Galimir in our coachings and all those things as well. But I think it was just the expectation that you're privileged to be playing these amazing works and what is a composer's intention and how are you going to honor that intention and the thought required at the micro-level to be able to realize the whole picture. I think it was just kind of implicated in everything we were doing. Certainly at Curtis and at Marlboro as well obviously.

Noa: A lot of it sounds to me like just learning how to get better at your craft and what principles underlie excellence and-

Margo: Absolutely.

Noa: Which might be a good transition to what happened after all these orchestra auditions and these positions and your time there. Was the American String Quartet next? Or how did you go from-

Margo: Yeah, so I was associate principal in Pittsburgh, in the finals for a bunch of other things, and or a few other positions at that time and then I had the chance to join the American String Quartet and I had always dreamed of being in the string quartet. They were residence in Manhattan School of Music and Aspen in the summer and so that was super exciting to me because I loved teaching and I jumped at the chance and moved to New York City. In retrospect certainly as a decision point, it was an absolutely asinine financial move and certainly not well thought out in that I had just purchased a cello. The Pittsburgh Symphony had loaned me interest free some money towards that which I then of course had to repay immediately. I had a large loan from Marlboro.

Margo: Very fortunate to have the things, but you know, it's like balancing a house payment with also needing to live and it was decimating to financial planning. It was wonderful. I had the chance to do my first Beethoven cycle and I built a studio at Manhattan School which I absolutely loved in both orchestra repertoire and chamber music and private. What I found during that time however, was that after touring some seasons with the quartet, a couple things happened. One was, you started to be back at the same venues and the same individuals, you know, meeting the same wonderful patrons and such each year, but it still left me kind of wondering, seeking for more in terms of, you know, God willing, was this what I was gonna do year after year for like 50 years God willing right, or whatever. And it just seemed disconnected increasingly from post 9/11, living in New York City. Thinking about also just changes not only in our society, but with the influence of digital media in our space, traditional revenue streams were all but evaporating.

Margo: It was just a challenging time in the arts. It felt to me as, what was my role and what was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to best contribute? And so I was starting to really struggle with that and then at the same time, my wonderful husband, Nick, we were getting married around that time, and he's not a musician and we would have all these conversations about various things and international affairs or economics and so forth. I basically did not have a single basis of knowledge about anything outside of classical music and it started to really piss me off and just my lack of ability to formalize or formulate any type of discussion point if you will, I won't use the word argument, but just to be able to discuss various issues going on in our society, so I got the bee in my bonnet that I was gonna go to grad school.

Margo: I applied to Columbia University to study international affairs because Nick, prior to moving to New York, had worked in the oil industry and drilling engineering field and I wanted to study the role of oil corporations in emerging markets. Basically to be able to effectively argue with my husband was really the peak motivator. In truth, I was actually really curious if I could do anything else. I had gone to conservatories so early, I nearly stopped formal education by the time I was like about 14. I just hadn't, I just didn't even know if could do anything. I applied to Columbia because it was across the street from Manhattan School of Music and I figured that was doable with my current roles, rehearsal schedules with quartet. And Columbia rejected me and then that really irritated me.

Margo: So long story short, they ended granting me, a Dean at the time, had a family member who knew people in the classical music space and said that, "Well she must not be a total incompetent individual she's on the faculty of Manhattan School," Blah, blah, blah. So they let me take a course, I was supposed to take two courses and if I could okay, then I would finish matriculation. I was very fortunate to do well. That first class was a nightmare for me. It was incredibly challenging. It's not a first class I should have taken, [inaudible 00:19:46] Strategy. One of the finals was taking place during a dress rehearsal, sound check time for a Carnegie Hall concert I had with the quartet and I had petitioned very carefully to be able to take my exam another time,. Some time later I had also as I matriculated in, I got docked because I was actually giving a class at Brown when I had a class at Columbia and they docked me. So it was not an easy graduate school study program to be in while doing my obviously full-time job as a cellist.

Margo: But I found that i absolutely loved it and I found that much to my shocking surprise, although it was beyond daunting. Because when I started grad school, I had never researched on the internet. I had graduating from Curtis when there was no website prior to Nathan Cole building one for Curtis at that time was back in '99. It was incredibly daunting. It was so challenging for me, but I ended up being published in law journals I wrote, I presented at Yale Law School. Things that, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to do something in a different field and in a way it made me strengthen my love of music a lot more.

Noa: Wasn't there a time, I think you mentioned where you were sleeping in your studio in Manhattan so that you could manage everything?

Margo: Yes. A nightmare, nightmare. Well, cause I was then at that time, I was also playing out, it was when I left the quartet, but I was still full-time in the full-time teaching at Manhattan School so I was playing principal leads out in San Diego Symphony, just the subscription meets, sorry the subscription meets with San Diego Symphony and I would take a red-eye back. The janitor at Manhattan School was wonderful and that was on duty at that time on Monday mornings would let me get into the building early. I'd go sleep on the floor, then start to teach at eight to ten or whatever, then go to Columbia, go to class all day, then come back, do more teaching. And then we were actually living far out on Long Island at Stony Brook area at the time, then I would take the two and half hour train ride home. [inaudible 00:22:07]

Noa: Do you remember what motivated you at that point to try to balance all this. I mean, beyond just wanting to be able to articulate arguments more clearly with your husband?

Margo: You know, I think back to again, I was just really struggling with kind of where, you know, I like to be challenged. I like problem solving. I like things that, I think I was just really hungry to learn and study more and not in any way shape or form, to say that, that performing as a cellist is not a constant challenge, I mean, obviously in dedication throughout your life.

Margo: But I was curious to explore more and I was hungry to learn more about the world around me and just kind of missed ... You know, I wasn't like, some of the wonderful, like yourselves who did undergraduate studies or things that where you, or classmates of mine at Curtis who took classes at Penn or took their own classes at Curtis, which are amazing, very seriously, I didn't. I was working, I was performing, I was traveling, and I was practicing, you know? So I didn't take it serious so I think it was more a hunger and a curiosity and a stubbornness. I worked well when someone said I couldn't do something. Then I liked to prove them wrong. Which can be a positive and a negative, right, at times.

Noa: Is that maybe what helped with kind of combating doubts about your ability to do things or did you kind of figure out pretty early on that you had what it took?

Margo: No, I still don't feel like, I never felt that way. You know, I never feel like ... I think the only commonality in any of my positions to date or anything that I have done is that, always feel like I'm incredibly, that I'm not prepared for anything I ever liked want or achieved or something. Everything I have done thus far and continue to do, you know, I feel like, always feels like there's a big hurdle ahead and can you put your head down and break it down and just do it bit by bit. Otherwise it just looks too daunting to ever do.

Noa: So the process it sounds like is very similar to like tackling all 24 Paganini Caprices or 6 Ysaÿe Sonatas

Margo: Exactly.

Noa: Whatever.

Margo: Absolutely.

Noa: Just like break it down, figuring out what you need to work on, try to problem solve those, figuring out what are the important components involved.

Margo: Yes.

Noa: Get better at those, put them together. So I'm actually inclined to skip over InstantEncore, McChrystal Group, like all these other things because I want to skip ahead if it's okay to where you are right now with ArtistYear because that seems like a really interesting place to have come through on the other end in a way where it kind of ties together, in a way maybe what you were thinking about doing but didn't know you would be doing back when you started at Columbia.

Margo: That's so beautifully put. Thank you for recognizing that. Yeah, it's been a full circle having spent a number of years in kind of building startups or being part of wonderful growth companies and so forth in a couple different areas. And yes, as you said, like when I think having a blank canvas if you will and getting to like you do with a piece of music or any organization, or if you have an idea of something and then how do you break it down and build it up. That's something I just love doing and being part of. I think just like chamber music I love doing that with a small dedicated team.

Margo: There's nothing I think more rewarding than getting to do that with close knit group of individuals. I know Google often asks you know, sometimes at recruiting interviews, what's your best day at work look like? And I think about that question a lot cause I think it's a similar one for chamber music or for a company in that sense where you're part of, you know, where you have a performance where you're supporting different voices or in a company where you are supporting one another in different ways and you watch a product be the first to market or some sort. Anyways, long winded story yeah, so ArtistYear had been an accidental merge of some passions and kind of founding pillars if you will of my journey thus far. Just to take it back for a second.

Margo: So, I'm an active duty military spouse, my husband currently serves in the military and being part of that journey is a wonderful privilege and it's also quite challenging and often quite anonymous and invisible. And a few years back, I was part of this initiative that was coming out of the Aspen Institute to increase the number of national service positions in our world and our country to solve some of our nations biggest challenges and to, at the time, things were looking and it's only increased, more polarized in our society and whether social economic groups or civilian and military divide and so forth. So this is an effort to say, what if we had more shared cultural experiences as a nation for everyone as a right of passage, in some ways serve our nation.

Margo: So my husband was deployed at the time in Afghanistan and surely that was very much on my mind obviously and at that event out in Aspen, Yo-Yo Ma, Damian Woetzel did some commentary and shared things about citizen artistry there. And although I was at that event on a military side, I was so struck by what was the opportunity or where were the opportunities for artists to serve our nation to use their amazing skills and so forth. What ended up kind of happening fast forward a bit, was the founding of ArtistYear. ArtistYear's the first national service program for artists to dedicate a year of service as full-time teaching artists at high poverty schools to insure that every underserved youth in our nation has access to arts education.

Margo: If you think about it as an equation, there's almost nearly a million higher education art graduates in our nation who graduate yearly if you look at it broadly across creative writing and visual artists, photographers, comics, to musicians, hip hop artists, the whole nine. So you've got a million over on that side of the equation and if you take it with the number of underserved youth in our nation who do not have access to arts education, it's kind of a staggering stat that I think about often. 80% of low income students in our nation attend poverty schools, but only about 26% report receiving any arts education at some point in their schooling compared to about 60% of their more affluent peers. It's a pretty staggering number and so we set about thinking about what if you pair these amazing arts graduates with a teacher in a high poverty school to deliver arts education. Either during school or after school.

Margo: And really our focus is not just on arts for arts sake, this is about believing arts education is a fundamental right for the citizens in our nation regardless of their zip code. And that arts is one of the most critical components towards critical thinking and towards self discipline, towards civic engagement, and is way to become and engaged citizen in our nation and is key to promoting thriving democracies. That was sort of the origin of that and when we received that amazing gift from Gerry Lenfest, we weren't a 501 (c)(3), we didn't have a way to deposit the check, and I was like, oh my gosh, so it just became apparent when you think back on what things matter in your life. I would have regretted terribly not trying to give it a go. Not only honor the opportunity that Gerry gave to us to start ArtistYear, but I thought the opportunity to merge artists coming out, thinking about their role in society and all the young people in our world, in our nation who can potentially benefit from having arts education. It just seemed like a no brainer.

Margo: The first grant I ever wrote was for AmeriCorps which if anyone has ever written a federal grant, or just grants period, it's unthinkable to me now that that's the way I decided to start learning how to write a grant. Never written a grant in my life, but it was such an important thing for us as an organization to try to become part of AmeriCorps because AmeriCorps enables loan forbearance during a service year, it gives an educational award of almost $6,000 to those who serve. A host of other benefits. We wanted to make sure that ArtistYear was able to be open to everyone, not just for those that could essentially afford to serve. Who had parents who could take on loans, repayments or whatnot. You know national service is certainly a sacrifice. You're not getting rich off of it. You get a living stipend, public living reimbursements and so forth, but it certainly, it is a sacrifice to be sure. But it's been amazing.

Margo: So we currently have 55 ArtistYear AmeriCorps fellows as we call them, who are serving across all artistic disciplines. At the moment they are serving in 51 schools. They teach 11,000 students twice a week, not duplicated students. They're teaching the same about 200 students every week those 11,000 during the school year. So they're cumulatively delivering over about 93,000 hours of arts instruction in the schools they're in. We're currently in three locations in Philadelphia, in the borough of Queens in New York, and in the Roaring Fork Valley in rural Colorado in partnership actually with Aspen Music Festival and School which is a wonderful and different experience to be out in a more remote location compared to urban, so equally important. It's been an amazing journey. Challenging to be sure, but it's we're having a lot of fun. So we're just getting started and hope to be eventually in all states or most major centers if we're so fortunate over time.

Noa: I think we could easily spend an episode or more talking about you know the research and like the benefits to students of an arts education in terms of creative thinking and problem solving and those sorts of things. Reminds me of Daniel Pink book that I read many years ago, like "A Whole New Mind" and the idea of designing a toaster and a toilet plunger, like why does it have to be so kind of utilitarian and it could be a piece of art as well and serve function. Anyhow I mean we could go that route, but I'm also curious about the fellows. Like what do they report getting out of their experience in their own development and kind of growth as artists?

Margo: Oh, it's been amazing. That's amazing question and it's ... You know, we're in year two of our AmeriCorps program so it's still new, but what's been happening about 50% have decided to go into some form of teaching artistry or accelerated track towards wanting to teach which is phenomenal in the arts. Some of them have been hired by the schools as full-time contracted teachers post their service here and so forth and so on. But above that, I mean, beyond, some are going to veterinarian school, some are going to, once is a principal clarinetist in Fort Worth Symphony. You have a broad range of paths following, but I think most of them, not to paraphrase, but their having a chance to see a community and become part of a community because they're at the same school with the same students for the whole year.

Margo: It's very different than a lot of us might have traditionally had with outreach where you go and play or you do a special thing, but then you kind of move on. I mean, they are immersed in the community and the emotions and the perspective that they've shared with us that the impact they feel had on their own artistry, their own perspective on socio-economic challenges in our nation, challenges for schools that have been dealing with DACA issues, with immigration challenges, just all the things that are often times kind of, out of sight, out of mind for, and depending if you're practicing in the walls of Juilliard or Curtis or whatnot. So they shared that it's transformative for them and you see that in the way that some of them are continuing on to start organizations to address some of these challenges or whatever mechanism it takes beyond them.

Margo: We kind of have a rather formalized professional development arc during their service year that focuses on their successful entry to exit if you will from their service year. I mean, it's an intense service year right. They're working in highly complex environments and even though we as an organization are focused on you know, serving underserved students and believing that all schools deserve to be rich with the arts and making sure that we are increasing arts equity and access in a sustainable way through our program, obviously, equally and the core sound of this is that our fellows are the change agents as you will. We are dedicated towards helping them become effective teaching artists, to become effective members of our 21st century workforce if you will, in whatever way and active participants as citizen artists in our world.

Margo: So we, to that end, they start their year going through a rather robust orientation training institute focused on learning about teaching artistry and culture and context and the effects of poverty and chronic stress in students and communities and how to develop skills to build [inaudible 00:36:27] building in the schools for the schools to become art worth rich. And we also do a session with Aspen Institute on how to take complicated texts, in this case, like Martin Luther King letters from Birmingham Jail or Gettysburg Address, or other amazing founding doctorates from our nation and think about how to discuss those kinds of things. So they learn how to be facilitators while teaching kind of how to respect identity or the concepts around identity.

Margo: They start that, their year with that and then they move into modules on learning how to be a citizen artist development or leadership throughout their careers and self care and time management and how to art for social justice. And they learn how to work on preparing a community arts event. Each one of them cultivates or executes at least one community arts event during the course of their year of service and it's amazing to see what some of these guys do. Then in the last portion of the year is focused, the professional development side, is focused on planning for themselves as citizen artist going out beyond their service year and how to help their school stay arts rich if you will. Like prepare for, how to sustain the work that they've chartered during their year. So we always partner with the school I should say for about three years at least to help them become more arts rich and sustainable overtime. There's been some amazing stories of what that journey is looking like.

Noa: So I have this theory that in particular artists, musicians, athletes, given what it takes to excel, that they're all much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. And I've had students who privately express doubts and fears about their ability to contribute outside of music because they, quote, "Only went to conservatory" They haven't had rigorous schooling since high school in an academic sense and one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is because you went from music and to all these other areas and have kind of come back to it in different ways and so forth. But, what you described these fellows getting, I think I heard you say something about, I mean, obviously the hope is that the students, through arts education and learning that they can create things and they can do more than they thought that they could, maybe it's empowering for the students, but I think I heard you say that it's really empowering for the fellows as well. They've gone on to expect more of themselves in terms of what they want to contribute using their music or their arts in a society [crosstalk 00:39:05]

Margo: Absolutely. That's one of the things we share at the beginning of the year that keeps coming back at through mid year reviews and at the end of the service year overwhelmingly and that is exactly your point. This is something that we know is hard. I mean service is hard. And being a full-time teaching artist in a low income school in our nation is incredibly challenging and the pride in the feeling and dedication that they, in their dedication that they feel at the end of their service year, is just amazing. It's deeply moving.

Margo: Again, most of them, many of them might not have ever put together community events with thousands of individuals attending over the course of their service year and so forth. Or created field trips for their students in tandem with community arts partnerships that they're establishing. So you know there's all these things that they're learning how to do in an entrepreneurial sense as well as learning how to be flexible with you know, you might have a lesson plan, you might have intended to do X, but something happens and you've got to do Y. How to have that flexible mindset and how to be adaptable. How to effectively communicate with teachers, with students, with parents, with principals, all who are so taxed in most capacities.

Noa: What I'm thinking about is, if you have like a general life philosophy or something that sort of been a guiding principle, but I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

Margo: So, I think actually, I should have said this back when we were starting about ArtistYear. You know, I often reflect and I constantly think about what are the pillars that are common, have been throughout my journey thus far and first is, the arts. I was fortunate to have access to extraordinary education and training in the arts. The arts has helped me, it served me beautifully in terms of my own ability to express myself perhaps in ways that otherwise I would not known how to express myself throughout music. It took care of me, like emotionally and financially if you will. It supported me in every way.

Margo: So there's that side of that from the beginning and then the second side is the concept of citizenship and the third one is service. And when I say, citizenship, I think that through different challenges I had in my life it's but for the accidental blessing I was born in this country and that there are so many things that helped take care of me and supported me in a way that was just so fortunate. So I think about how lucky I am to have been born here and have and what is my responsibility to pay some of that privilege forward and how do I, in a sense, earn the right of my citizenship. So I think that's something that I think about an awful lot.

Margo: And then third is in terms of service, as an active duty military spouse, the cons of good service and now running a national service organization is very much obviously on my mind and think something that I think I'm most grateful for outside of, aside from the arts, and the accidental gift of being born here in terms of being part of the military community and the national service community has enabled me to meet people from so many different communities and backgrounds in a way that I would have never had that chance if I had, if I was still playing in a major symphony orchestra in that line of work. I've lived in Missouri, spent time in Alabama, rural communities across this nation and watching the sacrifices of our military community has just been deeply moving and humbling. And I think to the point of feeling like you often, like myself, going to conservatory and I just never really felt like I was prepared for anything, as I said, the only commonality is that I haven't been prepared really for any job I've ever had, but I think what I've been amazed by and it's one of the reasons I believe so much in why arts should be provided for all students in our nation regardless of zip code is because you see that the building blocks that you learn in the arts is so transferrable to anything.

Margo: And I know there's so much literature and stuff about that, but you never know it until you try it yourself. I share with our fellow a lot as they're embarking at the end of the year too when they're doing, we spend some time of kind of you know, what kind of positions, what did they like about their current role, what is challenging, what are they going to do in this next stage, how does it balance with their professional and personal roles, and making sure they remember personal too, because sometimes that gets divorced from people's pictures. I think reminding them that they, you know, a lot of have gone and created things from nothing in terms of initiatives and projects and so forth and that should give them a whole lot of grounded confidence in the ability to take on whatever they wish going forward. And I hope that for them very much. That they know that. And that's something that no one can ever take from them. That they did that.


[1] If you’re curious about what a service year might look like, you can learn more about that here. And if you’d like to support ArtistYear’s mission, you can learn more about the many ways in which you can do so right here (like shopping at Amazon through a special link) (30:25)

[2] I mention Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which has actually been out for some years, but feels like an even more relevant book now than when it first came out (35:38)

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.

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