Students harmonize music talent with business savvy

Nanseera Wolff performed with Sunshine State during the Frost Music Fest on March 20, 2021.
By Michael R. Malone

Nanseera Wolff performed with Sunshine State during the Frost Music Fest on March 20, 2021.

Students harmonize music talent with business savvy

By Michael R. Malone
With an emphasis on creative collaboration and cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit, the Frost School of Music’s Modern Artist Development and Entrepreneurship program prepares young musicians to navigate the dynamic and mercurial music industry.

Nanseera Wolff seemed destined for a career in music. Her parents both valued art and music, and Wolff spent her earliest years in Uganda, the homeland of her East African mother, then moved to Ethiopia where the infectious sounds and rhythms influenced her earliest sensibilities. 

The family moved back to the United States for high school, and Wolff’s chorus teacher recognized an exceptional talent and mapped out her future—beginning with jazz studies at the University of Miami Frost School of Music.

“At the time, I just laughed and said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ but, well, here I am,” said Wolff, a junior majoring in the school’s Modern Artist Development and Entrepreneurship (MADE) program. Instead of jazz, though, the singer/songwriter is pursuing a minor in Creative American Music where she can play her acoustic Gibson J-35, explore musical styles, and write songs in the fashion of her favorites that include Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen, and Hayley Williams.  

While Wolff now envisions a future for herself as a recording and touring artist—both in the writers’ room as a songwriter and also on stage performing—she’s emphatic that her confidence stems from the skills she has developed. She also knows that she has benefited immensely from the collaborative stimulation the MADE program provides.

“How do you make a program where people can really learn to be artists? It’s really hard to fully prepare us, so they give us a bit of everything knowing that the industry is changing every two seconds,” Wolff said. “We get a taste of so many different aspects of the field.” 

Daniel Strange, assistant professor and director of the MADE degree program, emphasizes the “development” and “entrepreneurial” components of the program.

“Those are the key words because as a young musician the general training path is to do music in a school or after-school setting, take some private lessons, join an ensemble, or start your own band with friends—these are valuable experiences and provide important training, but they can have their limitations,” explained Strange.

“Our degree seeks to instill an entrepreneurial spirit, which means that you begin to think about yourself as a brand and become a business-minded artist in the sense that you better understand the how-to’s of your career path—reading the important documents, the contracts, spreadsheets, learning how to get your songs placed in film and television. These are the things that you want to be thinking about now because the business has changed so much, especially in the last couple years. The trends and opportunities are coming so quickly," he added.

Strange referenced a recent article that charted the musical career of Cat Stevens, a singer songwriter who catapulted to pop stardom in the late 1960s and 1970s only to vanish for decades and then attempt a musical comeback. The article pointed to the extraordinary challenges the modern artist faces in sustaining a career.   

“Cat Stevens is a legend, but I’m sure he and his team are looking at navigating this new environment as it’s not just about booking shows and releasing music, there’s the online presence which is huge,” said Strange, who has cultivated a lengthy career in music.

His parents’ earliest memories of him are singing along to Mr. Rodgers’ songs and tapping out the notes on the piano. Strange played a variety of instruments growing up, began gigging in high school and realized that playing music was the best summer job available. “Music has always been my identity, I’ve known nothing else,” he said.

In his own formation, however, the one thing he wishes there’d been more of was the training and emphasis on the business and entrepreneurial side that MADE provides for students. 

He noted that the pandemic has exaggerated and accelerated the new environment that was already emerging.

“As mentors, we’ve focused our efforts to be sharing best practices in terms of what students could do for outreach in the online world, whether it was a livestream show, releasing an album that everyone recorded remotely, uploading music videos, doing co-writes or online duets where Artist A posts a melody and challenges Artist B to write lyrics for the music—these are really unique opportunities,” Strange explained.

“Our job is to keep tabs on all these many changes and to make sure that we’re sharing best practices and telling our students: ‘Hey, this is an angle that you guys might want to pursue,’ ” he added.   

In his own career and in the program, Strange emphasized that collaboration commands the top of the charts for best practices.

“Creative collaboration is the ultimate best practice. When you read about the big explosion moments, what goes viral, the hit song, and the breakthroughs—there’s more often than not a team of people helping at the different layers,” he said.

“For a songwriter who comes to school and has only written by themselves to now be surrounded by a couple dozen really talented songwriters—that’s immeasurable in terms of the positive influence and stylistic change that will happen for them,” Strange pointed out.

The benefits transcend the writing process. “These are the happy accidents—we’re teaching them a musicianship angle, but also a human connection angle to be able to work together,” the director noted.

Wolff echoed the value of collaboration and how it has supported her development and boosted her confidence. 

“Collaboration is huge and as big a part of our education as anything,” she said. “The curriculum and creative classes are all helpful, but it really comes down to the people. I have learned so much from my friends and colleagues.”

In addition to intensive musical skills training, the four-year MADE program allows for broad elective choice. And Wolff has already taken classes in literature and creative writing, to support her song-writing capabilities, and French. As she prepares for her senior year and delving more deeply into learning the production side, Wolff is finishing work on a solo album. 

“It’s super collaborative. All my friends played on it, my friend Spencer Ford co-wrote some of the songs and is helping produce it, and alumni helped with the engineering,” Wolff explained. “Here in the program is one of the few times that we’re going to be in a place of such concentrated talent—and it’s like woohoo, this is so exciting.”