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George Strickland is a musical director, vocal coach and orchestrator based in Manchester. He has worked around the UK and internationally in a variety of genres, but specialises in musical theatre and particularly new writing. He is also a trained life coach specialising in careers coaching. For more information see www.georgestricklandmusic.com

Jack of All Trades, Master of Some - top tips for transforming from a generalist to specialist 

Early on in most of our careers in the arts, sometimes even while still in training, many of us are advised (even actively encouraged) to do as much as possible to gain as many skills and strings to your bow” as possible. At the start of a career this is arguably a good thing - it gives you the chance to learn what you do and dont like doing (very important for a portfolio career), as well as helping maximise earning potential as a young artist/creative. Expanding your skill set can only be a good thing, right?

However, there then comes a point for a lot of us when we need to ask ourselves what do I really want to do?" I think a more empowering version of this question could be what do I really want to be known for being the best at?" Choosing a niche can be a daunting prospect - while a specialist has a far greater depth of knowledge in a chosen field and therefore can charge more, it can also mean that people wouldnt consider you for jobs which youre more than capable of and therefore a loss of income.

Before we go on, let me tell you a bit about me (and why this topic is something very important to me). I started my training as an oboist - doing an undergrad at the University of Leeds and then a masters in oboe performance at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I also starting “doubling” on clarinet, saxophone (and a bit of flute when asked nicely). Alongside this, I was also an accomplished pianist (it being my close second study from a very young age), and have been working as a musical director/rehearsal pianist and vocal coach since the age of 18. Already, I was trying to maintain two full time careers at the same time! On top of this, I was an orchestrator and arranger which came in useful in both of these career paths. A couple of years after my masters, I decided that I needed to change path because the one I was on was unsustainable, so chose to say goodbye to woodwind and focus entirely on musical direction. 

Leading up to this decision, it seemed like I was stuck in a rut and I didnt really have any direction - I was letting myself get pulled in any direction that would have me. Not only was this confusing for potential bookers/employers, but it had a significant effect on my mental health as I felt as though my career was spiralling out of control and I had very little say on where it was heading (I even briefly left the music industry to pursue a career in IT sales…needless to say that was pretty short lived, though at the time I believed it was to be my “forever job”). The day I made the decision to stop accepting woodwind work and purely take on MDing and vocal coaching work in musical theatre (and this is 100% truth), I went from having an empty diary to being pretty solidly booked for 6 months and the bookings kept rolling in.

Sadly, at the end of those 6 months, COVID took hold, but I continued to work and started reflecting on what had changed in those 6 months and why, even though the performing arts industry had pretty much ground to a halt, I was still working and feeling fulfilled despite the terrible circumstances the world had found itself in. I brought it down to these three points:

  • Do what makes you happy

One of the most important lessons I was taught at music college was from my oboe teacher (and reiterated by a visiting, highly successful oboist) which was “do what makes you happy”. We spend the majority of our adult lives working, and no one knows this more than people who work in the arts. We often work long hours with few breaks or days off, (sometimes for less money than we know we deserve) and as a group, we tend to fall into the living to work” category (instead of working to live”). Of course, we sometimes have to do jobs to “pay the bills”, but I do believe that this mantra is a good one when making the shift from being a generalist to a specialist. If you’re happy, you’re likely to do a better job in general, and have a higher level of resilience to the “bad days” when they inevitably come along. Looking back at my career, I was always destined to work as an MD in musical theatre - working in that environment has always brought me joy and fulfilment. Not that I didn’t enjoy or wasn’t good at the oboe, I simply prefer working directly with actors, aligning scripts and scores, and putting together productions. Since training, and especially since I left woodwind entirely, it’s been a good lens for me to look at potential work through to decide what work to pursue and what to leave.

  • The power of saying no

“No” can be a terrifying word for freelancers. “No” can trigger fears of lack of earnings, missed connections, or sometimes not being asked again. It can also be an empowering word for us - it puts you back into control of your time; as well as reaffirming that you know what your time and skill is worth (and it can also give you a much needed breather in a busy schedule). It takes time and practice to get used to saying it, and is of course not a word to use lightly, but remember that it’s not always a negative - use it through the lens of “what makes you happy” and see just what a force for good it can be for your career. By making work a choice as opposed to an obligation, it can very much shift your mindset towards the positive.

  • Be clear about what you want to do.

If you don’t know what you offer potential clients/employers, how are they supposed to know? Using the two previous points, work out what makes you happy and what work you want to say no to. It is possible to do this retrospectively by making a list of the work or projects you are working at and ranking them from “best to worst” (I once did this and made a number of categories to score the jobs by including fulfilment, fee, fun, profile…it was a bit overkill but did the job). A simple list can be a crude but effective way of visualising where your priorities and interests lie, and if there are any links between the jobs at the top (and the bottom) of the list. Getting your priorities in order allows you to direct any CPD (continuing professional development) to further strengthen your niche, and also get any marketing in order (both in terms of what to market yourself as, but also who to market yourself to).

This barely scratches the surface of a huge and quite complicated career decision, and definitely is not one to take lightly. I believe that almost all freelancers in the arts should have some sort of niche for themselves to aid in employment and visibility, and it’s always a good idea to continue checking in with yourself asking: 

  • Am I happy?
  • Could I have said no to that?
  • Am I clear about what I am doing in my career right now? 

If you can confidently answer each of those questions, then you are on a good course to success in your chosen field. If there are any stumbling blocks then that would suggest it’s a good idea to ask yourself why, talk to friends/teachers/colleagues, or potentially seek out some careers coaching if you feel that is necessary.

If you liked this article, why not read more about: Ten questions to ask instead of what now?

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