Growing up in a family that moved around alot, I got used to meeting new people. My mom, like my Grandpa and many other members of my family, can coax a meaningful conversation out of a brick wall, and I’ve found a little bit of that in myself over the years. It certainly came in handy as a member of Cantus given that the touring schedule, sometimes surpassing three weeks a month on the road, meant we were constantly meeting new contacts in the choral and music education fields. Now coming from the gigging lifestyle over the past few years as a composer, professional vocalist, clinician, educator, and entrepreneur, the ability not only to initiate but to cultivate these relationships is crucial.
Most of the blog posts I see differentiate between personal relationships and business networking. Post after post after post about business networking offer lists of actions to consider when building contacts. Yet when taken out of the lists’ contexts, the majority of these suggestions lean toward creating and maintaining meaningful personal relationships rather than business transactions.
While I agree that we shouldn’t necessarily be taking all our colleagues on dates or going into business with our grandparents, there are important lessons from our personal lives that we can apply to our professional contacts and network. In this post, I’ll focus on the composition side of things, and later we’ll address the conductor’s viewpoint.
I know that when I have a chance to be with my closest friends and family, I can be myself without strings attached. Ideally our personal relationships are built on a basis of being sincere, allowing there to be a safe space to be oneself without being judged. Cultivating this space is important when it comes to networking as well. As a composer, no matter where you find yourself meeting someone new, whether at a national music conference or in your local community, it’s important to be genuine and allow others to do the same.
You may not get to mention your new consortium that would be perfect for them or find a way to plug that piece you’re about to publish, but you’ll end up with thoughts that will likely continue the next time you meet each other. Oh, and it’s easier to remember people’s names if you commit to a good conversation.
These are in no particular order, but if they were, finding commonality would be right at the top in my book. Not all of our closest personal relationships are immediately built on common ground, but cultivate genuine interest (mentioned above) and you’ll find it.
Sometimes this can be harder said than done. People are particular and often unique in personality traits, musical interests, and more. You might have to wait it out and search a bit. But we all have a lot of things in common, and as humans we’re wired to connect anyway. All we have to do is seek out others’ versions of those common traits or experiences to connect. Who knows, they may enrich your own views in the process (and this is called progress).
The best relationships are those that stick to it through thick and thin, including challenges, disagreements, confusion, and change. A 2014 paper found that there were two types of support within close, complex relationships. When others help you “thrive through adversity,” they offer support through a buffer against negativity as well as helping you grow as a result of your particular situation. If others help you “thrive in the absence of adversity,” they’re challenging you to embrace new possibilities.
Many composers can see themselves in the second half of that support system, offering what we see as healthy new music and challenges for the directors with whom we work. But we need to remember the first type of support as well, meeting ensembles where they’re at so their experience can have a strong, stable jumping off point. If you network with both in mind, you’ll find collaborators who appreciate the new ideas you bring to the table as well as your support of their current strengths.
Unconditional love and caring are traits we seek out in our familial relationships, and it’s natural for us to want those same traits in our closest friendships. Similar to being sincere as mentioned above, we find an open, caring space when we’re around those who think positively in their connections with others. No one wants to hear gossip about themselves, and word always gets around if someone has two faces. Instead of trying to one-up those who could be considered competition, why not celebrate what they have to say in their own way?
Let’s consider it from a different perspective. You may feel disingenuous if you put on a smile while disagreeing wholeheartedly with someone you’ve just met, or if you have an aversion to a particular personality trait. But it’s not really about you, it’s about the potential of the conversation. Consider the various ways in which you can shift the conversation in a way that’s beneficial to both parties, so you end up with a memorable conversation–which you can recall the next time you meet– rather than a memorable fallout.
Even if I’ve had a big disagreement with a family member or close friend, if given the opportunity to help them out, I would. The same could and should be said for your contacts in the field, whether it’s a potential commissioner, ensemble, or fellow composer. If you’ve kept things positive, interesting, genuine, and equally about both of you, chances are you’ll come away wanting to help that person whenever you can. And if you feel that way, it’s highly likely that they feel it too.
Again, you might wonder if your loyalty to this person will come full circle to benefit you in the long run. It always will. Consider that you had an in-depth conversation that changed your views on a couple things. You made a new friend you actually would want to hang out with later on. You found common ground in your field, those whom you both know, or possibly your favorite food or Netflix show. In the end, being a little selfless goes a long way to creating a reputation that will land you commissions, or at the very least great testimonials on your character, down the line.
There are many other traits from personal conversations that bleed into our professional work, but the moral of the story is this: wouldn’t it be nice if all our conversations with friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and those whom we haven’t even met yet were fulfilling? I think we can all agree on that.