Thursday, April 25, 2013

Joan Sparks Shares Secrets to Musical Success

In this photo released by the FSU Department of Music, the poster for "Entrepreneurship in the Arts"  is seen. (AP Photo/FSU Department of Music)
By: Sarah Galvin ENGL 336.002

On Wednesday, April 24 at 3 p.m., over two dozen students gathered inside of FSU’s Performing Arts Center’s choir room to get career advice from guest speaker Joan Sparks, a professional flutist and owner of Flute Pro Shop in Wilmington, Del. The lecture, “Entrepreneurship in the Arts” sponsored by the FSU Department of Music, showcased how a music degree can be applied successfully in the music business — “which is not an oxymoron,” Sparks emphasized to hearty laughter and applause.

The image often conjured of those in the “music business” is of the stereotypical unemployed, starving artist, and in a room full of music majors, the job market can be a sensitive subject. Mikayla Young, a senior music education major, explained typical presentations from music professionals are depressing and disheartening, often focusing on a superficial list of do’s and don’ts. Imitating such a presenter, Young adopted an angry frown and raspy voice, shaking her pointed finger sternly and chanting, “Don’t do this! Do this! “ She adds, “I was expecting to come in and hear a boring lecture.”

Fortunately, Sparks was far from being grouchy and condescending. She did readily admit that finding a stable career in music is a challenge but stressed the importance of dedication and persistence, especially when coming from a music program outside of the nationally recognized "brand name"conservatories. Some of the most widely renown music schools include the Eastman School of Music, the Juilliard School, and the Curtis Institute of Music, among others; however, Sparks argues that countless quality musicians graduate from respectable programs, like FSU, that simply have less hype. For her undergraduate degree in music performance, Sparks attended the University of Delaware (UD), a school with a little-known music department that, at the time, was smaller than Frostburg’s. She noted that the department actively discouraged all students from majoring in performance, and she was the first student to ever complete the program. She reflected indignantly that the chair of the UD Department of Music told her outright that she was “foolish” for pursuing music. Sparks dramatically paused here to let the weight of that discouragement sink in.

Before she even started playing flute at age 8, Sparks recalls that she wore out her father’s copy of Claude Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" on the family's turntable. The sincerity of her artistic passion was evident from her musical beginnings. As she described her lifelong commitment to music, Sparks made the DU department chair sound like the foolish one. She avidly asserted that hard work, not school name, is crucial to surviving in the music field. Bragging about her work ethic and diligence, Sparks confided, “I know what it is like to break-up with my boyfriend and play a concert that night.”

She narrated her own path to success; standing comfortably in front of the group, speaking casually and never going too long without throwing in a punch line. Sparks kept the audience engaged and chuckling. Her humor seemed natural, and her animated laughter always punctuated her own jokes. She shared her past accomplishments as a performer with various orchestras and large groups as well as in award-winning chamber ensembles and as a freelance flutist. She is also an established private flute instructor and, as of recently, a business owner.

In this photo released by The Flute Pro Shop, the store's logo can be seen. (AP Photo/Flute Pro Shop)
Sparks opened Flute Pro Shop in 2009 to accommodate life as a mother. She strives to provide individualized service for every flutist's needs and “fill the world with beautiful music one flute at a time.” Sparks confirms that most of the store’s profits are from instrument sales, but “everything flute,” including music, accessories, repair services, and lessons, can be found there.

For her visit to Frostburg, Sparks brought two large suitcases of items to share and recommend. She set up a display of sample products at the front of the room, covering the top of the choir room’s piano with a royal blue tablecloth that featured the logo for Flute Pro Shop. For those going into music education, she showcased several instruments that she recommends for beginning flutists. However, the main attraction was her demonstration of new Bluetooth technology, called AirTurn, that allows musicians to turn the pages of sheet music viewed on a tablet device with the push of a pedal.

Although AirTune grabbed the most audience attention, drawing many questions and murmurs of “awesome” and “that’s cool,” what Zach Dodge, a senior music education major, was most impressed with was Sparks’ positive attitude and funny stories. He highly enjoyed her anecdotes that revealed all the typical insecurities and struggles of a musician, from the nervousness when trying to impress a new teacher, to the panic when running late to a concert. By being relatable, Sparks was an inspiration to students like Dodge. “I liked her message that no matter where you come from, you can make it,” said Dodge, who appreciated hearing a success story from a musician who did not attend a nationally recognized conservatory and explored musical careers outside of being the traditional symphony musician. Sparks was motivational and encouraging; every listener left cheerfully, and even Young, who had reservations about the event in the beginning, left with a broad smile. “I’m leaving feeling confident about my future,” she exclaimed, looking slightly shocked but highly satisfied.

Find the Flute Pro Shop online, on Twitter or on Facebook for more information.

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