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New path was music to his ears

Wed., Jan. 4, 2006

Paul Jan Zdunek grew up on the streets of Baltimore. That old cliché about several of his friends “are now dead or in jail” fits him. When he was 12, a concerned soul tabbed Zdunek for a boy’s choir and his life changed irrevocably.

Music became his life and his mentors immediately recognized he was a young man of genuine talent. He moved from the choir to piano lessons. He became the organist and music director for a church when he was 16. He excelled at the piano, but as he practiced late into the night he came to realize he was good, but his peers were great. So he pursued and attained a Bachelor’s of Music in Composition from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. That led to conducting and a Master’s of Music in Orchestral Conducting from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Paul Jan Zdunek was on his way in the music world. Conducting orchestras, especially youth orchestras, became his life. The more Zdunek immersed himself in his music though, other memories from his childhood started to crystallize. He says it is now obvious to him that he always had an entrepreneurial streak.

He remembers conducting backyard circuses to raise money for charities and wrecking his mom’s kitchen to make fried dough to sell to neighbors. One time, he painted his face to look like a clown. Then he made colorful pictures of himself in the clown makeup to sell door-to-door. He always wanted to make money, and no job was off-limits. By the time he was 12, he was working for a local dry cleaner, unsure of how legal that was.

And thus the stage was set for a collision of interests and dreams.

His conducting success was never in question, but Zdunek found himself sometimes neglecting his music preparation in favor of spending time critiquing his orchestra’s logo or its marketing approach. He found himself playing around with the budget process and gradually realized that at the end of some weeks he was spending more time on the administrative details of his orchestra than he did on the music.

Zdunek now understands that his behavior was telling him important things about his true interests. Gradually, he started paying attention to the reality that business and corporate matters were intriguing him more than his musical tasks. As he came to that realization, he started to explore other careers because he became convinced the musical world would not tolerate his sideways move from music to administration.

He now ruefully understands that “once you start a career, nobody can picture you outside of it. We allow ourselves to be put in boxes and there seems to be no way out of it within that organization or industry.” So Zdunek “got lucky” and made a lateral move completely outside of music to an architectural stone manufacturing firm where he served as director of Professional Relations & Business Development.

That courageous leap gave him valuable corporate experience that enabled him to win the job as president & CEO of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra Association in December 2003. He is now back in the field he loves, doing “the kind of work I want to do all day long.” He says, “I slipped quite comfortably into the place that ties both my music and entrepreneurial side together: CEO of an orchestra. The suit finally fits.”

Zdunek admits his friends and family, with the exception of a supportive and encouraging wife, “thought I was nuts for leaving music.” He describes himself as “naive enough to not let stereotypes get in my way. I learned to never put a limitation on possibilities.”

One man’s naiveté is another man’s courage. I find Paul Jan Zdunek’s personal courage to follow his heart and step outside the box inspirational, instructive and worth imitation.

Tip for your search: Paul Zdunek had to take a risk to get “unstuck.” His leap of faith did not come with guarantees or safety nets. If you are seriously thinking about change, a written invitation is probably not going to arrive in the mail, nor is a special angel going to arrive at your doorstep. You have to take the first step.

Resource for your search: “Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life” by Gregg LeVoy (Three Rivers Press, 1997)


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