Having A Mentor

by Katherine 'KOOL KAT' Farnham


Hi there!


This blog post addresses an important issue: having a mentor. Having an artist mentor is something that has occurred for hundreds of years. A lot of people use the word “teacher” but I think that mentor is in many cases a more accurate word. There are a lot of confusions about this issue. I hope this post will clarify some misconceptions.


I was blessed to be born into a family of professional musicians and educators. I understand what it means to have a mentor and even to be one because I grew up around people who did that. For years sitting around the dinner table meant having passionate and often laughter-filled discussions and debates about music, art and how to help other musicians grow on their path. Strategies and stories were shared and it was usually fun and enlightening.


The great thing about growing up in this environment is that I had virtually 24-7 access to human beings with a wealth of creativity, knowledge and experience. The challenging aspect of it all was that seeing your mentor dressed in a bathrobe watching television and eating popcorn was often a difficult vision to integrate along with other experiences of having an amazing music lesson hours earlier with the same person. 


All of the things I’m mentioning here are things I have lived and experienced myself. I studied music with my mother (former Director of New England Conservatory's Wellesley Branch) who studied with Madame Karin Dayas. Madame studied with her parents, who in turn studied with legendary classical musician and composer Franz Liszt. 


The Criteria
Mentors should have a good balance of solid credentials, experience in their field, good communication skills and a personality that is somewhat compatible with yours. A good mentor may end up being from the same part of the country as you and thus you have that in common. Or perhaps you both have similar tastes in art and culture. Usually, there will be a few common denominators in the relationship.


Mentors Versus Teachers

A mentor is someone who may provide a broad sense of guidance for someone over a long-term period of time. Some people have several mentors, but most have one or two main ones that serve for the duration of their career. Mentors are more common in the genres of classical and jazz music but can exist in any genre.

In contrast to this, a person may have many different teachers. A teacher can provide specialized knowledge for the short term or the long term. A teacher with whom you develop a long-term relationship may end up becoming your mentor. It is important to make that distinction.


A mentor may at times offer to take you for coffee or lunch, talk with you over the phone for free or do other things that may be slightly outside the realm of some teacher-student relationships. This is common and should always accepted with gratitude and appreciation. Mentors don’t usually do this unless they see something in a person that warrants a further investment of time on their part. Try not to be suspicious of this and be so guarded that you end up alienating the mentor. It’s their job to help you. Be grateful because it won’t always happen! Someday you may be called upon to mentor someone yourself. As long as healthy boundaries are in place then this is a great thing. 


Perhaps you are wondering why someone would want to contribute time for free. What are they getting out of helping you? Once mentors have achieved a certain level of success themselves it is a way for them to keep the flow of positive energy going. They are helping themselves too by being generous, by keeping values in perspective. Helping you may remind them of the passion they had at the beginning of their own career. So even if the exchange isn’t monetary, it is still very important. 


If your mentor offers services for a fee and you feel you can benefit from them, then by all means continue to invest in this. Keeping a formal relationship going is definitely win-win. Being a life-long learner is important. Don’t expect something for nothing as this can really hurt you down the road. Don’t expect an unreasonable number of favors from your mentor. Their generosity to you is not necessarily friendship, although there is an element of that at play. Healthy boundaries, good communication and a sense of humor is key!


How Does It Work?

I’ve come to believe that for many people our mentors are in a sense chosen for us. There may be a element of the Divine or tradition in this. Some of it is in our control and some of it may be part of a larger vision of the flow of information and systems within whatever artistic and community structure one is a part of. There is a mystery to it that I have experienced at times. Is it a perfect system? No. But it works if you respect it and use it well. 


Some people today think if you have a teacher or mentor that does or says something you don’t like, that you can just go on the Internet, do a search and find another one. In some cases this may be the right approach. However, the process of obtaining wisdom is not as clear cut as buying a pair of shoes! Often times there is a larger lesson at play. Try to be patient. If you always approach it like that, you may be short-changing yourself. It took me many, many years to learn priceless lessons from some of my toughest mentors. Frustration is normal. Interestingly enough, the mentor that frustrated me the most also gave me some of the most powerful wisdom. So patience and trust does pay off.

Recently, I was given some advice by someone I trust. She did not want me to accept a certain gig and was very outspoken about it. I found our phone call to be a bit frustrating because I wanted to do it. I turned it down with mixed feelings. But shortly after I received several other opportunities that were much better and I realized she had been correct all along!


Have Realistic Expectations

Mentors have their own careers and issues to deal with. Always approach them with appreciation, deference and respect. If you don’t, then it’s really on you at that point. Learn and implement some good old-fashioned manners. It really does go a long way! Manners never go out of style. If something is frustrating you try and communicate about it. They may have a sick day, a vacation, an ill family member or other life issues that at times will make it more challenging. But this is part of any human relationship. A good mentor should give you personal attention, but will help you stay grounded and not get overly self-centered.

The best mentors are humble enough to admit mistakes and are dedicated enough to keep learning themselves. New information is always coming out, so stay in touch because things change. Truth doesn’t change, but the way it’s applied to situations may change according to trends, cultural climates and other factors. 


Mentors Lead the Way & Scout the Path

Sometimes I felt my mentors holding me back. Finally I realized they either saw something I didn’t or were trying to check things out in advance - for my protection, for my benefit, for the sake of doing things the right way. Most of the time they were right. By the time I got to where I had wanted to be, I totally understood all the issues at play and had the “aha!” factor. Don’t try and bypass. There can be serious consequences for this. Follow the chain of command and respect the process because it works! Timing is important. Try and trust the process. 


Sometimes we may be ready musically but not in a personal sense. Perhaps our songs are there, but we lack maturity in certain ways. A mentor usually senses all of this and may push you forward at times when you aren’t expecting it and other times hold you back when you wish you could proceed. Usually there are good reasons for both.

Respect, Values & Manners Apply

My mentors have always been extremely clear in establishing boundaries with me. Sometimes I find them too strict and other times too loose but I’ve learned something from working with them regardless. It’s not usually in our control to choose how a mentor will work with us exactly although we can help to tweak the process over time with sensitivity and patience.


Have Healthy Boundaries

Never, ever, ever bombard a mentor with endless phone calls, long emails about your latest projects, spam or other excessive communications. I have seen cases where this type of thing will get someone blocked temporarily, maybe even permanently. Be professional. Be concise.


Apologize When Necessary

If you make a mistake and wax on for a hour about your recent breakup only to notice your mentor’s eyes rolling over coffee, then realize you may have just committed an error of etiquette. For some it may be only a minor gaff, for others depending on how busy they are and who they’re working with, they may never want to meet with you again. It sounds harsh, but this is the business. Music is a tough career. We are all human however. If you went through a tough time and feel you gave the wrong impression, offer a short apology. In most cases, it’s up to you to take responsibility for your actions, show respect and restore the relationship. Don’t expect them to come to you. 


Most of the time it has been my reaching out - not my mentors - that has restored the waters. Sometimes this is very hard to do. Sometimes I didn’t even feel that whatever was going on was my fault. But by giving them the benefit of the doubt, often they would also provide clarifying information and many times it would all end up with laughter and getting back to the music. That’s the point, isn’t it?


Never Stop Learning

As soon as you think you know everything, you’re done. Keep learning! 


Be Patient

Music is one of the toughest careers there is. This is just the way it is. The tougher the mentor, the better they may be in many ways. Many people don’t want to hear that but I have found it to be true. Good mentors will help you more than they hurt you. That is not to say that you will agree with everything they say and everything they do. You may not. You may even at times be completely baffled by what’s going on. (Think “Wax On, Wax Off” in The Karate Kid.) 


The toughest mentor I ever had taught me lessons that are beyond any monetary value - lessons that are truly priceless. I can never, ever repay this wisdom. All the frustration I had has now been replaced by profound gratitude and understanding of a love and a tradition that was so far above my comprehension initially. Some mentors are in fact so brilliant that it may be difficult to comprehend what they’re doing. Don't try and figure it out! Be the recipient, be in the moment and allow them to help you. I'm not saying this is easy, but if you appreciate even some of their accomplishments keep trying. That is what I had to do. 


Does It Work Both Ways?
A lot of people wonder if you can in turn help your mentor. Many of us, understandably so, feel a bit uncomfortable receiving advice for free and maybe feel a bit compelled at times to try and give back directly to the mentor. 


My experience with this is that some people can and do help their own mentors. However, there are by the laws of this system limits to this. Remember this is not friendship. Mentors in very rare cases may become your friends, but this is not the norm and one should never expect this up front. Trust and relationships are built over time, usually over a period of several years or decades. 


My own mentors usually accepted some level of help from me but made it very clear where the lines were drawn. Don’t feel bad or guilty about this. If you cross this line too much, you may disrupt the whole relationship. Focus on what you need to do and implementing their advice as best you can. If they offer a paid product/service, class, workshop or seminar, sign up for it and support them! Buy their products. Leave supportive comments on their social media sites. Don’t promote your own project, just leave a short thank you or hello. This approach usually will open the door for better things. 


Saying Thanks

One last thing - don’t ever waste an opportunity to say thank you to a mentor that has helped you. None of us can ever really repay this. It’s a honor to have a mentor with experience. It’s humbling. Say thank you today. Say it again next week. Keep saying it. Why? By staying tapped into this timeless tradition, we are staying open to a valuable system that can influence culture and improve the quality of life for others. 


To all those who have helped me - thank you for the music, the time and the love. I am what I am because of you.


Kool Kat, xoxo

(c) 2017-2021 Katherine Farnham



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