Sometimes, a talented person can do multiple things, and wants to transition from their career. But a career transition is not always easy, and it can take so much energy from someone. Adrian Gordon, founder of Leap Year Music Publishing, shares his invaluable insights for succeeding in a career transition and expansion. His tips shared in this episode come from the experience he had as he expanded his career. In addition, Adrian immerses himself in his book, “Note to Self: A Music Director’s Guide for Transitioning to a New School and Building a Thriving Music Program.” So, why don’t you grab your buckets because Adrian brings so many golden nuggets to today’s conversation? Join this episode now as he navigates into what to Note to Self!
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Your Guide To Thrive: Navigating Your Music Career Transition And Expansion With Adrian Gordon
I’m excited to be here with Adrian Gordon. He is a music teacher, a composer, and an author. We have so many things to talk about with the diversity that a lot of musicians approach their careers with. I’m excited to talk to Adrian because he does so many things. I’m always talking about income streams. It’s all good but how do we balance all of it? We’ll get into all of that in a minute. First, I always like to have people tell their story so people know the background and the perspective of where our guest is coming from. Adrian, if you could give us an idea of how you got into music, what made you move into teaching music and composing, and all of that?
I’m Adrian Gordon. Bree, thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of what you do. I am a composer and author. I run a publishing company. I’m a teacher and conductor. I do quite a few things. I started music at a young age, just like most people. I started in elementary school. I was singing, doing piano, moving on to string instruments, and playing the violin. It stuck with me. I ended up going to school for music at the University of Miami. I ended up studying music business and the entertainment industry.
At the time, I was in a band. We were an acoustic R&B vocal group. I wanted to be able to protect us the best that I could with all the knowledge wrapped up in the music business. I did that and we were together for a while. After separating from the band, I ended up going to teaching and I figured that would be just temporary years later. It stuck. There is something that’s quite gratifying about seeing the light bulbs and kids’ minds go off. From there, I went into composition and publishing, and the rest is history.
When you grew up and were in the school program and got excited about the instruments, isn’t it cool to be able to light that up in someone else?
It was a big impact for me. It was something that kept me out of trouble. It was always something in my mind. I always had tunes and notes running through my brain. It was a no-brainer that I would end up doing music.
Did you fall into teaching or did you make a conscious decision? I have a lot of people that I work with that sometimes are like, “I’m going to do this until my indie music career takes off or whatever.” There the people who consciously decide they love teaching.
Teaching found me because I was in my Acoustic R&B band called Unison, and we were performing. At one point, we even got to perform for Michael Jackson. We’re like, “We’re on our way,” even though things didn’t end up going the way I thought they would. Teaching found me. I got a call from one of the nice private schools down the road when I lived in Miami. I went in thinking, “I’ll go in and I’ll teach for a couple of months or maybe a year, and then I’ll find the next thing to do.” It stuck with me. Years later, I’m doing string orchestra here in North Carolina. I’ve done a bit of everything. I’ve done general music and choir. I’ve been an assistant band director. My specialty, I would say, is orchestra.
We were talking at the beginning about how I have Michael Jackson in the background here, and then you said you’ve met him. What was that like?
That was a surreal experience. I was in that band Unison back in the day. I was doing a lot of songwriting. I was at the University of Miami. I had a record deal through their record company called Kane Records. I ended up writing a tune that won an award. It was the John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship.
That’s a pretty a pretty big competition. That’s great.
I won second place in the country. I was excited about that. We had a friend who was staying in West Palm Beach in this huge house that Michael Jackson was staying at. She connected with him and our producer and said, “We have these guys who can sing and they can songwrite. Would you be interested in hearing their music and consider one of their songs for your album?” It was crazy because we had two days to write the music, record and produce it, and all the bells and whistles, including the song that had won that national songwriting competition.
We did all of that in two days. We went up to West Palm Beach and met him and his buddy Chris Tucker, which is pretty cool. We presented three songs to him. Spoiler alert, he did not pick any of the songs that we presented, but it was a surreal experience. It was funny, he went up to bed upstairs and he was singing my song to himself as he was walking upstairs. I thought that was the highlight of my musical career at that time. That was a pretty cool experience. From there, I went back to school and I was sitting in my music history class thinking, “I just met Michael Jackson the night before and now I’m sitting in a music history class. What a contrast.” That was that experience back in 2003.
That’s amazing. Did that experience and winning that competition inspire you to go into composition more heavily?
I always had it in me to be creative and compose. On that trip to New York where I accepted that award, I ended up writing music down the line about that trip, which is now getting a lot of performance time. One of the pieces is called High-Rise. A lot of students and groups are playing that piece around the country, which I’m excited about. From there, I pushed on. Once I started teaching strings, I had this childhood dream of writing a quartet. I was like, “I’m in the perfect position to do it. I have students who could play it.”
That piece started to blossom into a string orchestra piece. I put that in front of the students and they didn’t know it was me. I put other pieces in front of them, not knowing it was me, and they liked it. I was like, “I’m going to send it to publishing houses.” From there, I got rejection after rejection from publishing houses. I didn’t understand how students who are the target audience enjoyed the music, yet people in the publishing houses were not.
I thought what I was doing was particularly special like a leap year. I said, “I am no longer waiting for permission to be granted. I’m not going to wait for unknown faces to allow me to be creative.” I created my own publishing company called Leap Year Music. From there, that was the channel for all my creative endeavors, my book writing, my compositions, and all my publications. That’s how all of that came to be.
I love that you had this group of people that you could test it on first and know that people are going to like it. If they don’t know that it’s yours, they might go, “This is so boring,” or whatever. They’ll talk. Kids do not keep anything to themselves when they have an opinion. I remember having opinions about different songs I had to do in school. I was like, “Why are we doing this song? It’s so boring.” I did not keep it to myself. That was smart and brave because you know they’re going to tell you what they think.
They have no filter, but they ended up liking it and I liked it. That’s what mattered. I believed in what I was doing and I went for it. That’s everybody’s story. You just have to go for it. You believe in what you’re doing and follow through.Believe in what you are doing and follow through. Click To Tweet
You didn’t have the backing of these publishing companies, and anyone can start a publishing company. How did you figure out how to get your piece into the hands of more people than just your students?
That was difficult. That was a long process. That was like fourteen years overnight. I started locally. I started with colleagues seeing if they would be interested in playing some of my music. I started going to some of the state clinics, and seeing if I could get my music in some of the reading sessions, the new publication reading sessions, and then also on the context space. Most states have prescribed music list that has an educational value that they want students to perform. I went on a journey and tried to figure out how to get some of my music on there.
For the most part, it was the networking and connecting with people and treating every connection that I had with importance. Nobody was not important enough to talk to, connect with, call, or email. Everybody that I came in contact with was important. I tried to be respectful. I came at my career from a place of service to everybody that I came in contact with. From there, things started to grow. I started putting my website together. It wasn’t perfect from the get-go, but it started to come together. Now here we are where I have several publications. I’m also working with a publishing house called Alfred Music. That’s been a fantastic feeling to be on the other side of things, not just doing it on my own, but having somebody else to support me and put my music out there.
It’s like how an independent artist goes through that period where networking is so important and they need to be building up their career. Eventually, maybe they can approach a record label or a record label will approach them, a publisher, or whatever if they’re a songwriter. How did you make that leap? Did you go to Alfred Music or did they find you because you were making so many waves in the industry?
It was critical mass with all the connections that I was making through teaching and bringing in clinicians. The music world is very small. The more you go to a lot of these trade shows and all these clinics, the more you’re going to network and realize how small the industry is and how many people know each other. It’s just word of mouth and speaking to people that I connected with in the past, and did favors for them with nothing expected in return, and recommendations. Things came together. I can’t pinpoint one thing. It was that snowball effect of connecting with people year after year. It reached critical mass and I was able to use that to get my stuff out there.
The snowball effect is real and the critical mass thing. I can’t tell you how many pieces of music I’ve looked at, especially for choirs and things that offered music on them. Congratulations. That’s a great company to be associated with.
They’re a great company. They have a lot of great music out there for bands and orchestras. I’m excited to be working with them.
You said also in your publishing company that you have published books. You have a book called Note to Self. We want to talk about that. Have you published books previous to that?
No, but I’m working on my second book. I have no idea when that’s going to be published. Right now, I do have that one book out there called Note to Self. That book came out in 2022. It’s supposed to be a contribution to the music education community to talk about some of the things that don’t get discussed in universities. They teach you how to enter a classroom. They teach you philosophy, psychology, how to play your instrument, and how to conduct.
Nobody talks about how you interact with students on a social level to win their trust, how you interact with your administration and with your faculty, and what you do to build culture. All those things that don’t get talked about at the university level when you’re studying, like how to become an educator. I wanted to put that in a book format since I had done so many different things and made that my contribution to education.
I hope that gets picked up by universities. I took a class called Music in the secondary school and I didn’t learn any of that.
That’s the idea. It’s for pre-service teachers. It’s also supposed to be for people who have been teaching a long time in the field but have never made that jump. Maybe they’ve been teaching at one place for 5 to 10 years, but they’ve never had to transition into a new environment, a new community. How do I do that? I got all the pedagogy and I understand all that, but how do I make that shift as smooth as possible in my new environment? That’s what the book is supposed to help with.
It is hard when you’re a new teacher because you’re used to everybody knowing you. They know your abilities, you know them, and there are always new students every year, but you have this core that you’re already tight-knit with. You understand each other. Suddenly, you go into a place where no one understands you and you don’t understand any of them. Do you have any tips for that thing? Whether that’s going into a school or starting a new studio of students, how do you make that transition?
Particularly if you’re going into a new classroom setting, one thing that comes to mind is to make incremental changes. You can’t rebuild the program or shape it the way that you want it to be overnight. If the program has some established traditions and you are against them, move slowly and pace them out. If they’re playing at whatever grade level you meet them at and you want them to be here, take your time. It’ll happen but you have to have that vision. Have a plan and goals, and include them on how to reach them. That would be the main incremental changes.
One of the big things is to give yourself grace. As educators, we can be hard and beat up on ourselves and say, “I want things to be perfect and be right the first time.” Education is messy because it’s not an exact science. You’re dealing with human beings and you want what’s best for them. Give yourself grace. Don’t beat yourself up because it’s going to take time to shape the program that you want to see. It’s probably anywhere between 3 to 5 years until you see your mark and your stamp on that program. Give yourself grace. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Make those incremental changes.
The last thing I would say is your personal health is important. When you make those transitions, you don’t realize how much energy you’re burning, how much you’re contributing to so many different people, and you’re not being replenished. Take care of yourself, make sure you’re sleeping, making sure that you’re eating well, taking breaks, and taking walks. These are all things that I learned the hard way. I didn’t do those things in my transitions and I paid for it. I felt that life force being drained out of me. The idea was to write some of these things down and offer help to other people so they don’t have to touch that hot stove.
I especially like what you said about incremental changes because there is a serious temptation to come in and be like, “I need to show them that I am making changes. I’m putting my stamp on it. I am successful.” Coming in there and suddenly changing everything will backfire because people don’t do well with swift changes like that.
No, they don’t. More than anything, they want to know that you care. You have to meet them where they are and then show that you care about them as people. Music happens to be the vehicle to show them that you care and build character and discipline within them, and all those things that you see come about. They have to know that you care about them. Treat them like human beings, laugh with them, and talk with them. All the things that you would do with a regular human being, they want that too. Once that’s established, they are more likely to follow you, see your vision, and do what you’re asking them to do.
You mentioned earlier about personal health and work-life balance. It can be hard to do as a teacher, especially if you don’t have a family yet because you are able to pour all of yourself into them and you can get swallowed up in it. I had a teacher that was like that. She didn’t have kids and that was her life. I’ve heard my daughter’s choir teacher say many times, “I’m working on work-life balance. I have not been good at it in the past, and it hasn’t been good for me.”
She constantly says it out loud. She reminds herself and says it in front of the parents so they know that if she doesn’t get back to them in one day, that’s because she’s trying to make sure that she takes care of herself and not just being swallowed up by the job. I’d love to hear some tips from you about how you keep that balance, especially while you’re also composing, writing, and all these things.
I always say there’s no award for the most burned-out teacher or educator. When you’re on the airplane and the flight attendant comes on and says, “If the oxygen mask drops, make sure you put yours on before you help anybody else.” It may seem selfish at the time, but you can’t be good for anybody else if you’re not taking care of yourself. One of the things I do is put my family first. My wife and my kids have to come first. Beyond that, I make sure to have my list of things that need to get done. I try and protect my time. If I can’t get to it, as your colleague or your friend was saying, maybe a day or so, it’ll get done. It may not immediately, but I don’t freak out about it. It’s okay.
I have my to-do list and I put my family first. I have a goal board in my office so I can see exactly what needs to happen and when it needs to happen. It’s not all floating around in my head. I have my daily to-do list, but I have my overall goals that need to happen over the next couple of months or years, and how I am going to attack those goals. It’s strategic and it’s not always neat. It’s not always perfect. I’m not always going to get it right but I try and make sure that I put my family first. Everything else will fall into place, as long as you have your health and you’re taking care of your family.
You mentioned your health and taking walks and things. Do you try to build that into your day?
One of the things I used to do was take a walk to get that fresh air and get that vitamin D, and then I would also sit in my car. Sometimes it’s having your home away from home, like a secluded area where you can put on the music that you like. You can put on your AC and you just relax. You can throw back your seat. If it’s ten minutes that you do that and then you go right back into your workspace, and that works for you, then that’s a mental break or a refresher to help you get through the rest of your day. I would do things like that. Take a walk. I would sit in my car or use the restroom. As teachers, you end up working so hard and you think, “I don’t have time to use the bathroom.”
I kid you not. As educators, you have a ton of kids in the room. You want to make sure everything is good to go. You put yourself last. You can’t do that. Those are a couple of things that I would do to take care of myself. I also bring healthy snacks to make sure that I’m not loading up on junk food during the day. I’m trying my best to take care of my body. This doesn’t mean that I get things perfect all the time, but these are my intentions. I strive to achieve these things every week.
The main thing is that you’re being intentional about it in advance. A lot of times, when we’re going with the flow, it’s so easy to let things happen to us instead of making sure that we have all the things in place to be able to do it the way we want to do it.
I want to be proactive and not reactive with the understanding that things are going to come up. I have to be flexible. I get emails from every which way. Right now, I’m getting emails from everywhere you can think of asking me for this and needing music for that. Things are going to happen like that. As long as I’m intentional about what I’m doing, I know I have a ton of things to do tonight, but I’m going to go for a walk for at least 30 minutes to clear my mind and get my heart rate up a little bit and to help myself.
When you get to the emails, you’ll probably do them twice as fast because you won’t be as tapped out. At least that’s my experience.
I think so.
I’m going to ask this because you do work in the schools, and I’m now experiencing this. I’m the treasurer for my daughter’s choir, which is a new thing for me. I am finding there’s a lot of work to be done on the fundraising side, and teachers have to spearhead that. Luckily, we have a good group of parents. How much of what you do is about making sure that there’s enough money to run the programs that you want to run or buy the music that you want to buy? I’m finding they don’t even support enough to buy all the music that’s needed to do the pieces we want to do in the year.
Luckily, I’m at a private school that fully funds our program. I have seen that where it’s hard to fund the program. They’ll do things like gift wrapping sales, donut sales, cookie sales, bake sales, and stuff like that. I also see a lot of directors sharing music if they can’t afford to purchase it, “I’ll trade and give it back to me.” Things like that where they want to give the kids the opportunity to play that music, but they can’t afford it from their program. It’s hard. I’m grateful that I don’t have to do that right now.
You are lucky. I love what you said that it comes back to networking. I know there are groups in every state and probably even locally as well, like music teachers. As you said, it’s a small world. It’s just pooling our resources.
At the end of the day, you want what’s best for these kids, and it gets harder and harder. You want to do right by them. You want to see those light bulbs go off. You do what you can to make the program work.
It sounds like you have a great situation, which is awesome. It’s allowing you the ability to do these other things, which is allowing you to touch other programs with your music and that ripple effect. That is awesome. Can you let our audience know how they can find your book?
The best way to find it would be to go to AdrianGordonMusic.com. Once you go there, you’ll see the link to my book straight away.
Is there the ability to listen to any of your compositions online anywhere?
All of them are on AdrianGordonMusic.com as well.
That’s great. Do you have any parting words that you want to say to music educators or musicians who are trying to do all the things?
Keep working hard. Give yourself grace. As my dad says, “Keep adding fuel to that fire and it will grow.”Keep working hard, give yourself grace, and keep adding fuel to that fire and it will grow. Click To Tweet
That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Adrian, for all of your insight.
Thank you, Bree.
About Adrian Gordon
Adrian Gordon is an internationally performed composer and seasoned music educator. In addition to teaching, Mr. Gordon is a composer with Alfred Music as well as the founder of Leap Year Music Publishing, which publishes string music for elementary, middle, and high school ensembles. He is also the author of the book Note to Self; A Music Director’s Guide for Transitioning to a New School and Building a Thriving Music Program.