Branding my students

This was one of the happiest times I’ve ever had as a teacher — an exercise in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, in which my students took some first steps in branding themselves. This worked so well that I have great hopes for the branding workshop I’ll be teaching next week for professionals. (And — by the way — I’ve got enough interest to make a second workshop possible, if just a few more people sign up. Email me!)

Here’s what happened. Of course we’re not talking about commercial branding — slick slogans, snappy graphics. We’re talking about defining who we are, as people and as musicians, and then communicating that, as a step in getting people to care about what we do.

The students responded wonderfully. One brought photos of the wilderness in Canada near where she grew up. There was one town nearby, she said, and then — 4000 miles to the north pole. The silence of the landscape formed her, she said. And now that she’s a violist, she loves playing inner voices, quietly adding to the music, without standing out from it.

We all, I think, were touched. And that was a brand all but ready to go. It’s easy to see how this student could design a website showing and saying what she showed and said in class.

Another student, a bass player, at first said he couldn’t brand himself, because he doesn’t think the bass is a solo instrument. I could argue with that; I think solo bass performances can be gripping (and also fun), and this student (to judge from a video I’ve seen) is a lively solo performer.

But that’s OK — he can be what he wants to be, and the whole point of branding is that it helps you be what you want. So he decided — having taken our discussions seriously — to brand himself as an ensemble musician, someone supportive and sensitive, someone who looks for truth in music. And so branding was helpful to him. It helped him not only sell himself, but also to better understand who he is.

Viktoria Mullova

Another student, a violinist, said she thought of herself as a philosopher, a child, and a rebel. She had a striking drawing someone made of her, which conveyed these things. But she also could use photos, carefully chosen. (Maybe like the photos on Viktoria Mullova’s website, which show a person, someone you’d be drawn to talk to. And of course you’d want to hear her play).

A baritone in the class boldly offered images of Frank Sinatra, Superman, and James Bond. And also a Monet painting. I think it’s fair to say that his branding isn’t formed yet, but the direction he should take is clear. Without literally evoking Superman (someone else’s trademark) or Sinatra (he loses, if anyone compares him to the man), how can he brand himself as heroic, maybe brash, and sensitive?

And finally there was a flutist, who’s been working part-time for the company that makes the wildly successful iPhone Ocarina app. She’s graduating, and now will play the ocarina full-time. So that’s a brand! But really she wants to brand herself, in her words, as “a renaissance person,” someone who plays guitar and banjo, writes her own music, and does her own art.

She brought art that she’d done, and — again thinking of the web as a likely place for branding — could easily use it on a website. She’d also like to brand herself as someone who could talk to other flute players about doubling (playing other instruments besides the flute). And as someone who might inspire other musicians to think that they, too, could do many things.

All of which would flow directly from her grand. And which led to a discussion about how sad it is that music schools, for the most part, still don’t encourage students to lift their noses from the grindstone, and go in unconventional directions. Though the growing emphasis on entrepreneurship may well change all that.

Which then shows why branding and entrepreneurship are closely tied together. And, again, why branding is so powerful an exercise. You might start by thinking it’s just cheap, commercial lying, but you end by going deep into yourself.

Anyone who wants to do this work with me can take my branding workshop. Email me!

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  1. says

    Branding = Your Life Story – Stuff People Don’t Care About

    You have to know yourself well, while at the same time be able to pay attention to the needs and concerns of your potential fans. In the end, it’s all about people and making that “connection” between yourself and your audience members — it’s art, in other words.

      • says

        Oh, I have some very serious things to say, but you might be too enfolded in the hegemonic corporate capitalist ideology of our culture to really hear them. As one who attempts to think about and create art that can be a kind of ‘Archimedes point’ outside the hegemonic ideology, a site from which that ideology might be criticized, it saddens me to see such blithe, uncritical acceptance of the corporate discourse of ‘branding’ by teachers and creators of art. Did any of your students resist this exercise, or were they all enthusiastic participants? I can imagine Adorno reading your blog post and either shaking his head sadly or (closer to my reaction) crying out in horror. At the same time, I understand that if your goal is to teach your students how to succeed in our society, you are surely doing the right thing. However, if the goal of education is to show students various pathways by which they might think for themselves, think and live authentically, then this is surely a very wrong road. In closing, I’m not criticizing you so much as the cultural moment in which we both live and in which authentic thinking (of the sort Nietzsche and Heidegger and Sartre and Adorno accomplished) is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible. Maybe we’ve already passed that point of “absolute reification” that Adorno warned us about. I hope not…

        • says


          We could have a very productive discussion. If, that is, you’re not too blinded by your own ideology. Which, of course, seems like truth to you, as ideologies usually do to those who believe them. Me included, I’m sure. The idea that I’m in thrall to a corporate ideology is really rather silly, I’d think, to anyone who knows me. And much of the current thinking about entrepreneurship and branding — Seth Godin’s writing, for instance — is resolutely anti-corporate. Have you read it?

          And, ah, Adorno. How do you think he’d feel about the current environment in conservatories? If I read him with any understanding at all, and if I trust my experience — after 17 years at Juilliard, with stints as teacher and consultant at other schools — I’d say that conservatories are profoundly reified, in their treatment of music as an art. A doctoral thesis by a British scholar recently concluded, after extensive interviews and historical research, that conservatories marginalize creative engagement with music. Students are told what to play and how to play it, not as part of any living tradition, but as career-oriented craftspeople, made even more rigid by an ideological overlay, that tells them they’re acting in the highest interests of art, and that any objection from them will betray that art. Reification in a very high degree!

          Adorno, I can imagine, would have reacted much as he did to the music appreciation movement in the 1940s. Conservatories — and, really, most things that go on today in the classical music business — become yet another branch of the culture industry.

          Against this background, the work the students and I did on branding has exactly the opposite effect from what you feared. It doesn’t help the students become better commodities, easier to sell in the classical culture industry. It enables them to define themselves as artists, without regard for markets or ideology. I have to wonder, Brian, if you read my post with any care. Because if you did, I can’t imagine how you could have missed that I was saying precisely what I’m saying here, though without the theoretical structures I’m happy to join you in adding to the discussion.

          In which case — if you’d read and understood what I was saying — your proper move would not have been to accuse me of ignoring the dimension you bring to the discussion. Rather, you should have accused me of falling into the trap that Herbert Marcuse so famously called “repressive desublimization.” Fake liberation, in other words, liberation only on the surface, while we still remain enslaved to the ruling ideology.

          But, since I don’t think this is what I was doing, I might think — without meaning to sound grandiose — that you’re making the same mistake about me that Adorno made in missing what jazz was about, or in missing the truth of what happened in the 1960s.

          My students participated enthusiastically, and I think they’d all say that the exercise helped themselves understand who they feel they are, reasonably free from reified culture, ideology, and education. I say “reasonably free” because any reader who accepts the core of what Adorno says will understand that nobody can wholly break free of ruling ideologies. For me, one of the most of Adorno’s insights — I think it’s in Minima Moralia — is his thought that even the strongest opponents of the ruling machine can be distorted by it. It’s up to you to convince me that this observation doesn’t apply rather strongly to you. Since, with all respect, you seem to be applying critical theory in a reified way. I don’t say this because you disagree with me. I say it because you disagree, to judge from your comment, with a caricature of me, one that, for all I know, you started to draw the moment you read the word “branding,” without noticing precisely what I was saying about it. I can’t help but wonder, after much of a lifetime spent with the kind of thinking you seem to think I don’t know about, if rigidities in your own ideology have blocked you from accurately seeing me.

          • says

            You’ve caricature me as successfully as I probably caricatured you. We’re speaking to our caricatures of each other, and that’s probably inevitable in this medium of radically alienated ‘conversation’ in which we pretend to ‘speak’ to and engage with people we don’t know from Adam. Again, it’s not you I’m criticizing; it’s most of the world. Let’s end it there.

          • says

            So, Brian — if conversation has been so radically alienated that, for practical purposes, it’s now impossible…and if that frees you from any responsibility to engage, for real, with other people…how do you spend your life? Do you sit at home, and talk to the walls?

            Just asking. You can’t get away with it here.

          • says

            Look,. it’s your blog, so you have the privilege of the last word–for what it’s worth (extremely little)–but you can at least read my brief reply correctly. The medium to which I referred was the internet. If you can’t comprehend any form of conversation other than a blog, you’re worse off than I thought. My implication, which you conveniently failed to understand, was that we probably could have a good conversation about this topic, one on one, over a beer, if we knew one another. But not over the internet, where we will always be strangers, each existing for the other only as caricature. And frankly, I’ve had better conversations with walls…

          • says

            Brian, I’m sorry I was sharp with you. Shouldn’t have done it. And I like the core of what you’re saying here, that you and I could talk over a beer. I’d like to do that.

            But I don’t understand why we — or anyone else — can’t talk on the Internet. I’ve had fine talks with people online, and many good conversations happen on this blog, and on other blogs. Why is it different from exchanging letters, in the old, pre-computer days?

            Obviously there are differences. As Brahms so famously said about the big theme of the last movement of his first symphony sounding like the big theme in Beethoven’s Ninth, “Anyone can see that.” But how about the similarities? An exchange of written thoughts. With, in my experience, more spontaneity in the Internet exchange, which can be a plus, more than a minus.

            And not that blank exchanges never occurred with handwritten letters!

            Let me, in the spirit you had in this comment, ask you a practical question, one with a lot of force for the students I teach. Imagine yourself teaching these people. Eager musicians, full of love of music, but — they’re graduate students — soon to embark on careers, if they haven’t already. And they know the pitfalls. The classical music business, both in its education and in what’s normally demanded of them when they launch themselves professionally, will tell them what they can and can’t do. As mercilessly, in my opinion, as any culture-industry machine Adorno ever theorized about.

            One student, last year, wrote a paper about when she had to play the way someone else wanted her to, instead of the way she might want. She was humorous about it, but her point was to show that she was forced to fit someone else’s idea of music in every conceivable occasion in which she might play, except producing concerts on her own.

            Brian, what would you suggest these students do, if they want to be true to themselves artistically? I’m not asking this rhetorically. Nor do I have a prepackaged answer in mind. Answers might range from, “Do what’s asked of you, and trust that later in your career you can have things your own way,” to “Play only for your own enjoyment, with no thought of making a living from it,” to “Play with the most rigorous artistic meaning, and make this the most important, the only necessary thing, without initial concern over whether you’ll be able to make a living doing this.”

            I really can’t stress enough that these are practical questions. They matter. The students want to make music, and, like everyone else, need to make a living. They have to make choices about how they make music, and how they make money. How would you advise them?

        • says

          I think you’ll find that Adorno (and the other philosophers you’ve mentioned) tends to be met with skepticism among younger people today — even within the halls of academia, his credibility has taken a sharp decline during the last few years, especially in the wake of the economic crisis.

          Why? Because while he sometimes says things that are true, he offers no viable or realistic escapes from the problems he supposedly illuminates. People want and need solutions right now, because they’re worried about earning a living and making rent.

          Neither corporations nor capitalism invented the concept of branding — it’s just a means and methods of getting the word out of what you’re doing, which is told in the form of a story. Small businesses, artists, governments, non-profits, religions, all engage in the act of branding and have been since the beginning of time, when they came up with the idea of using flags and symbols to represent what their culture was about. Yes, even academics like Adorno is a brand, because he’s no longer alive and we now only know him as an idea of what his story represents to us — a Marxist living in the midst of American capitalism.

          Maybe you could be talking about larger institutions using their branding power to leverage unfair market-share or stamping their brand onto someone else’s work which can be problematic but that’s a different issue than the one Greg is talking about here. Giving individual artists the skill and power to brand themselves gives them a fighting chance against the big guys, especially in an age where there have been successful examples of grassroots campaigns beating out institutions with multi-million dollar marketing budgets purely based on the passion and merit of an idea. It wouldn’t be fair to try to deprive people of this opportunity, in my opinion.

  2. says

    It is wonderful to hear the bursts of creativity and originality that came out of your branding class. I too teach branding in my class at the Yale School of Music. Over the course of the semester, my students crafted their brand statements–their message of what makes them unique and memorable to their target audience and why they are the ideal person for that audience. These statements tapped into their authentic, creative selves and became a powerful exercise in entrepreneurship because it enabled my students to communicate their gifts to the very people they want to touch with their art. On a practical level, my students used their brand statements for their websites, promotional materials, networking elevator speeches and even their interactions on social media. It is marvelous that we as professors can take a tool from commercial advertising and adapt it into a meaningful exercise in authenticity and entrepreneurship!

  3. C Fleck says

    Identifying your brand is really identifying your voice as a musician. It would be interesting to see if this exercise has any impact on the musicians’ artistry, ex. improved confidence during performance, trying new projects, playing with a more “authentic” voice.

    • says

      I can see it going in that direction, based on conversations I’ve had with some of the students. Anything that makes you more grounded in who you are — and more willing to believe there’s a place for you in the world — has to help with everything you do.

  4. says

    The only thing I’d caution about this approach is the dangers of premature branding, if done over-zealously. I don’t feel I know who I am as a composer yet and, whilst that remains the case, think I need to be careful about telling people something I don’t know. Not only would it be dishonest to do so, it would aslo constrain where I wanted to go. Branding can be surprisingly tricky to shift!

    That’s not to say I’m not a fan of branding. I’ve thought very carefully about the branding of Filthy Lucre, the company I’ve co-founded.

    • says

      Good points, Joe. What I did with my students was an exercise in branding, not branding itself. In one case, what emerged was some insecurity about what kind of playing one student wanted to do. So clearly he shouldn’t brand himself yet, just as you say. But the value of the exercise was clear even for this student, because it helped him define some central issues he was dealing with.

  5. ken nielsen says

    A good discussion about important issues for musicians.
    I am sorry Brian decided not to continue. To me, discussions in forums like this, even between people who don’t know each other, are often as good as or better than talking over a beer.
    Here we have time to think through a reply. And to change it before posting.

    I should say that I was present (as a guest) in the class meeting that Greg writes about. The students were encouraged, and helped, to think about things that will be important in their careers. I will bet that most continued that thinking for quite a while after the meeting. That is something that a good teacher hopes for.

    • says

      Thanks for this, Ken. Ken and his wife Liz founded and run the Pinchgut Opera in Australia, a very successful small company that does Baroque opera. I’ve known Ken online for some years, and had the pleasure of meeting both him and Liz in Sydney when I was there two years ago. They were in NY, and visited my class. And, I should add, participated in wonderful ways, among other things outlining their own development and branding strategies for Pinchgut.

      They saw, as I did, how inspired the students were. Two students, in fact, have told me they now have strategies for their careers — very personal, very honest ones — that they formed as a result of our class discussions.

      And, I should add, I’ve just had the first session of the branding workshops I’m now doing for classical music professionals. The results, as with the students, are (so far) very encouraging. I have interest enough (including some from Australia) to do at least one more workshop in June. If anyone’s interested, email me! You can go to to see what I asked participants to read and think about for the first session. In the second, they’ll be forming ideas for what they think their branding should be, and looking — critically but sympathetically — at whatever materials (websites, for instance) that they’re offering now, to see if these things communicate the message about themselves that they’d like to be sending.

  6. Anonymous says

    Classical music doesn’t have much of a future left. There is electronic music being composed that is on par with the best old classical works – or better. Electronic music provides an infinite range of possibilities (perhaps finite because of the human hearing range) rather than limiting composers to acoustic instruments. It’s more difficult and likely requires the effort of a team rather than a single man. Electronic music is more relevant to modern times and requires less financial investment to produce. I wonder if some day in the future the great underground of electronic music will gain public attention. It’s hard to put faith in the youth of our generations and seems unlikely. Classical music will practically die out but electronic music will continue to thrive in niche audiences, effectively replacing the role of classical music in the older generations.