The Art of Turning Down Work

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Dear Edna:

My career is evenly divided between an active performing career and commissions for original compositions. My guiding rule over the years has been to never turn down work, regardless of budget and timeframe, unless it was absolutely impossible to fit it in. This year, however, it became clear that I am more of a perfectionist than I used to be and projects take somewhat more time to come into shape. I need to find a way to space out my workload a little more evenly, which may mean turning down or postponing more projects. And so I wonder – is there a polite way to turn down or postpone work (concerts, commissions, smaller projects) when you’re clearly over-committed during a period, but to do it in such a way so as not to jeopardize the relationship for the future? Are there good battle strategies for this? Thank you so much!  –Caffeine Doolittle

Dear C.D.:

Let me begin by saying that you are the clear frontrunner to date for the “Ask Edna” creative alias competition!

It is truly a pleasure to receive a question from someone who has more professional opportunities than they can handle. Usually, people write to me when they have too few and are wondering about the long-term viability of their career. My answer to you is simple and straightforward. Honesty is the best policy and humility goes a long way. People who are approaching you may not realize how busy you are. You will want to stress from the outset how much their offer means to you and how you wish you could accept it. You might want to give them an idea of the volume and scope of projects with which you are involved without seeming egotistical. You might also mention when you were first approached about those projects so that they can get an idea of how much lead time you might need to fulfill their request in the future. In the case of concert requests, you can explain that you try to plan your season in blocks, with different time periods reserved for different types of concertizing. They will be flattered if you suggest a particular date or time period to them for one season later, explaining that you want to make sure to include them in that season and will use their date as an anchor for a period devoted to similar concert dates. If you already have dates slotted in for that season, give them as many choices as you can. They will appreciate your flexibility. You might also endear yourself to them if you offer to perform for the same fee you were receiving in the current season, even if there should subsequently be an increase in your fee. If the request is of a more substantial nature, such as a new commissioned work, the commissioning party will undoubtedly be appreciative if you set up a timeline with them, beginning with the date by which you think the piece could be ready and then working backwards to set up target dates for discussion of aspects of the work that might need to be addressed. With this kind of approach, there is little chance that you will jeopardize any relationships for the future – quite the contrary. Those wishing to work with you or present you will sense your genuine enthusiasm for collaborating with them and will respect the professionalism and care with which you make commitments and stick to them.

I would love to have YOUR question! Please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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