Hitting the High Notes

Renowned music director shares what it takes to succeed in the creative arts

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Ray Chew (Photo by Jerry Jack)

Ray Chew

Title: Contemporary Music Director, Master String Arranger, Composer and Head of Contemporary Music for Carnegie Hall

Location: New York

Age: 50

Power Play: Along with a long career as musical director of the Apollo Theater and his own company, R.C. Music, Chew served as musical director for the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the network-televised Neighborhood Inaugural Ball

Typically it’s a struggle for creative professionals to manage both their craft and the business aspect of their career. Has that been your experience?

We’ve learned from the mistakes of our jazz ancestors; people who were told that they should do the music and leave the business to others. That was a mistake. A lot of our jazz greats wound up dying penniless. I’ve focused on having a good grasp on my business, learning how to navigate and manage my time, and also trying to be aware of where the business itself is going and how to put myself in a position to succeed.

What have been some strategic moves that have enabled you to get where you are now?

There’s a lot of planning and focusing. I remember touring at a very young age. While a lot of my friends were hanging out and partying I was inside learning about production. I toured with the Commodores and they had these huge arena shows. I learned a lot about lighting and every job out there. When it came time for me to get involved in television production, I knew a lot and was able to put that into effect. I was the artistic production director on Alicia Keys’ first big tour because I was knowledgeable about every job out there. Research and commitment enabled me to do a job that wasn’t specifically designed for someone who just plays the piano.

What have you learned from other creative professionals that has furthered your own career?

Quincy Jones told me on numerous occasions about commitment not only to your craft but also taking chances. If you want something that’s special you have to reach for it. And in the process of reaching for it you might have to leap without a net. That means you have to believe in yourself and be prepared. Continue to be a student of the craft and a student of the business. I’m always learning something new from every experience, and then I evaluate what’s gone right and what may not have gone the way we wanted.

What business strategy would you share with someone who wants to pursue a creative career?

The first thing that I would say is to arm yourself with as many high-end focused skills as possible. If you’re an instrumentalist, also study the things that are connected to the industry: computers, software, audio components. If you’re in it for the long haul then you need to prepare yourself. It’s not a sprint—a career is a marathon.

This article originally appreared in the the October 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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