~Laura Josepher
~Laura Josepher

The life of an artist is challenging under the best of circumstances. The desire to make money in our chosen profession can sometimes cause us to raise our hand and say “yes” to things that may not be in our best interest. This could take the shape of an overeager young performer in her first big show who volunteers to belt out the high Q flat in the finale, not realizing that singing that note 8 shows a week will wreak havoc on her voice. Or it could be the music director who wants to be seen as a “team player” and therefore volunteers to write the vocal arrangements and orchestrations without extra compensation.

It’s not a lesson often taught in college training programs, but learning how to set reasonable boundaries for yourself is an important step in being a successful professional working artist.

Learning the Hard Way

Unfortunately, the way a lot of us first learn that we need to set boundaries is once they’ve been crossed and we find ourselves angry, resentful, stressed, embarrassed, guilty, drained, or full of self-doubt. Ick! As tough as it may be, try to take a step back from these feelings and evaluate what got you to this place. Try asking yourself a few key questions:

  • Why did I agree to do “X?”
  • What did I do to wind up in this predicament?
  • Did I ignore my instinct to say “no?”
  • Am I a people pleaser?
  • Am I afraid of disappointing someone?
  • Am I afraid of confrontation?
  • Did I not set clear expectations?

Figuring out how you got yourself into a bad situation can be the best way to make sure you avoid making the same mistake in the future.

“A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect.”


Self Care is Not Selfish

Its important as artists we learn to stand up for ourselves. We’re often our only advocate. Setting clear expectations is one of the best ways you can start setting boundaries. A lot of bad situations can be avoided if you set your boundaries right at the start. If you set your fee and then the hours of the gig get extended – tell them you’re sorry but you’re not unavailable for the extra time without an extra fee. If you thought you could do the rewrites and be at rehearsal every day but now you’re feeling overwhelmed – tell the director you can’t do both. You can’t be responsible for their reactions. But it doesn’t make you a bad person to take care of your needs first.

Practice Your Pitch

If making your needs clear is difficult for you, practice the conversation. Anticipate any push back you think you might get. Make notes with things you want to be sure to say. Be direct. Use words like, “I want,” “I need,” and, “I can’t.” If you’re not naturally assertive, it’s going to feel unnatural. Standing up for yourself is a skill you are going to need to cultivate. And you will need to follow through. If your boundary is, “I won’t work anymore without compensation,” you have to be willing to walk away if the theater says it can’t pay you.

They Will Call Again

As artists many of us have a fear of saying “no.” We think if we reject an opportunity we might never get offered another one. I once heard Meryl Streep say she accepted a film role because she was afraid she might never get offered anything else. If Meryl Streep thinks that, where does that leave the rest of us?! But most people respect artists who set boundaries. In fact, sometimes it even makes us more desirable. I know a vocal coach who wanted to raise her hourly rate but was afraid she would lose clients. She decided to go ahead and raise it anyway. The response? It seems singers saw the higher rate as a sign that her value was  greater. She actually wound up getting more clients.

Circle the Wagons

Learning to set (and keep) your boundaries is hard lesson for most artists to learn, so gather a team of friends and colleagues you can look to for support. Do you have a tough call to make? Practice your pitch with someone then call them afterwards to debrief. Need to working on a project for a few solid hours without interruption? Ask a friend to sit for a few “work only hours” in your apartment. Being accountable to others will help you stay strong and keep your boundaries clear.

Stay Strong

If you are constantly giving your power to others at the expense of yourself, you are not following your own path. When others see your strength and determination, they will likely respect you more. And if they don’t — hey, you probably don’t want to work with those people anyway. Love yourself enough to follow your instincts and do what is best for you. “No” is a complete sentence.

* * *

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3 thoughts on “Boundaries

  1. Just a thought on boundaries. When studying the freelance lives of women musicians and composers, Victoria Armstrong (2012) found bulimic work patterns, which meant much work for one part of the year and little in other parts. The demands of managing these work patterns which can be from project to project, are very high indeed. Artists themselves, and or their training centres take little time to discuss this aspect of work in the industry. What if one day there were more sharing of how people actually cope, or not cope and what they found helped. In my practice I have terms and conditions for singing students; but this may not be suitable for all artistic practices. I wonder what else is out there?

    1. I think this is a very interesting topic, Kathleen, and I agree it is not something taught in most training programs. It seems most artists learn their coping skills in a trial and error fashion and usually, unfortunately, after a bad experience.

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