Are Musicians in Crisis?
In recent years, there’s been a paradigm shift in what the career of the modern performing artist looks like. It is a difficult reality for many, as it was for me, that technical skills + talent are no longer enough to build a career in the performing arts. Make no mistake, these are still the perquisites if you want to (pardon the pun) play in the big leagues. But now we are asked to do much more than would have ever been dreamed of just a few years ago.
Sure– teaching, being a good orchestral musician as well as being knowledgeable of the standard solo repertoire, knowing how to lead a master class or give a pre-concert lecture– these have always been multi-faceted and reasonable expectations for a performing musician. But could you start an El Sistema nucleo or teach a room full of 9 year olds if asked to do so? What do you know about attracting and engaging audiences, marketing, and networking through social media? I mean more than just Facebook and Twitter; what about other popular platforms like Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Digg, Tumblr, Instagram and Reddit? How’s your
ability to run a rehearsal, or apply for grants, or make a budget, or itemize a strategic plan for any ensemble or group with which you might be performing?
Can you easily translate what you do when speaking to others? Or better yet, can you translate what you do when writing to others– and by others I mean potential funders? Can you make a clear
and simple argument about your passion for the art you practice? Do you want to play in an orchestra? That’s great– but how will you be able to contribute to the sustainability of your group? Are you familiar with good fiscal management? Do you have an arsenal of audience engagement ideas that you can offer to the Artistic Director?
And what about money? Do you have a plan in place to pay off those loans? Are you putting away money for a rainy day when work slows down? What are you doing to get more paid performance opportunities? Do you have a strategy to sustain your career over the long-term?
STOP. ENOUGH QUESTIONS ALREADY.
Okay— now breathe. I’ll agree that was a little rough. It’s okay if you don’t have answers to all of these questions (yet). I didn’t a few years ago. That’s when I confronted the reality that if I wanted to be a musician of the 21st century, I had to do more. The truth is, at first I didn’t like all the extra stuff. There once was a time when I thought that I would jump through the hoops of higher education, get my degree and win my orchestra job. Or at the very least, I would gig enough to make ends meet until I could win that big job. I wanted the simplicity of practice, perform, repeat.
But what I learned in my struggle to grapple with the enormity of all these new necessary qualifications was that I loved music more than I didn’t like all the other stuff.
I wanted a life filled with music, to perform, to champion music of others. I wanted to be on the scene, I wanted to be connected, I wanted to live the life of a performing musician. That’s when I realized that all the other stuff was present in the lives of nearly all the professional musicians I knew. This wasn’t knowledge I had to learn as a penalty for failing at a performance career as I had imagined and chided myself so many times. This was the real education. This stuff was what made the life I wanted possible.
I urge you to think big and embrace an optimistic attitude towards all that you do in music. When learning a new piece of music you might run across something that you can’t already perform. You know you will slowly learn how to bring it to life. It’s the same idea with these entrepreneurial-administrative-organizational-whatever-you-want-to-call-it skills (all the other stuff). If you don’t know how, just invest some time to learn. It’s an experience of growth, humility, and learning–ironically, it’slike learning to play a new instrument.
Change Begins in You.
As I teach my arts administration course this fall at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, you’ll be able to follow the journey along with my students right here on the Tuxedo Revolt Blog. Prior to each class, I hope to write a post that will give insight and depth to the issues we are going to cover. However, before we begin this sojourn of understanding what makes a successful arts organization in the 21st Century, I wanted to first explore the changes that must happen within ourselves before we can begin to change the world around us.
Change begins in you.
That’s the first major realization that is necessary for you to find success in any entrepreneurial venture. It doesn’t matter if you want to start a new chamber ensemble, re-envision an existing orchestra, start a rock band, or even a non-music business– your project will reflect your personal views, both conscious and subconscious. You must truly believe in the change you are willing to implement.
Let’s be honest, it is much, much easier to comply with the status quo than to lead change. It takes far less energy, less critical thinking and less time. But I believe when one identifies both a need for improvement AND a solid plan that would help that improvement’s realization, then we are obligated to bring the issue to the surface and argue for the change. In so many ways, this notion of identifying issues, planning out how to fix them, and taking responsibility for their realization is at the heart of what we call progress.
You have to believe that your plan to bring about change will work. Right now, many artists, musicians, and teachers see “music or arts entrepreneurship” as a buzz word. They often think that if they can find a use for this buzz word then they’ve done their due diligence– one more box can be checked off of the resume or todo list. This isn’t what entrepreneurship is about. The drive to break to go out on a limb, to differ from mainstream opinion, to prove something for yourself has to come from within you. No amount of in-class strategizing or note taking can replace that.
Entrepreneurship is about taking charge of your life, your art, or your organization and going it alone because you know deep down that you can do it better. It’s a deep kind of knowing oneself, knowing that you are capable of making your mark. Like in music performance, it’s very similar to the kind of craftsmanship that goes into crafting a beautiful solo, it becomes distinctly your own creation. Your voice shines through.
As we explore what it takes to create new kinds of programs, organizations, and experiences– we will take some time to get to know ourselves as well. What do you value? What problems have you identified in the arts for which you now have ideas how to fix them? From what kind of artistic work do you derive the greatest satisfaction? How far are you willing to go to see your idea all the way from a fleeting thought in your mind to real people, taking action in real time, doing real work, in the real world.
To see an entrepreneurial project all the way through is a long process. There are very few shortcuts, and I promise that I’ll share with you the ones that I know. But as I write this post, I doubt that the challenge is too much for you. You would never have become a performing artist, or ever worked in the performing arts industry if you didn’t already understand that in our area of expertise, adversity is to be expected.
I’ll also wager that because you’ve made it this far, to my blog, that your are already toying about with the idea of going solo and breaking off from the herd to do things your way. While I’ve previously mentioned that the work involved in entrepreneurship is nothing to take lightly, I am also obligated to say that the freedom to do what you want is incomparable to anything else. For me, that’s where my true creativity lives.
I’ve found that the brightest creative impulses I’ve have had coincide with my personal freedom and my disregard for the confines of the establishment. Over the next few months we will explore how our beliefs manifest themselves in our personal and artistic missions, in the effectiveness of our organization and in our ability to make a positive impact– and you’ll have the freedom to do it your way.
So let’s begin. Listen to yourself. Listen to the silent alarms that go off around you, the ones you sense and feel. Believe, even for an instant, that nothing is set in stone, that the world is play-dough you could mold with your bare hands— for indeed, it can be. Let that thought wash over you for just a moment. Make no mistake. You can change the world with your vision, your art, and yes, even with your bare hands.
Ensemble 212 and Big Questions Answered
Some interviews are easier than others—but not my recent interview with Yoon Jae Lee, founder and conductor of Ensemble 212 based in New York City. I reached out to Yoon Jae a while ago because I admire his great entrepreneurial spirit and his ability to curate great concerts within Ensemble 212. It’s no easy feat to establish a successful chamber orchestra in NYC. So I thought, if anyone has had to grapple with some of the “big” questions surrounding engaging performance today, it would be Yoon Jae.
I asked him for his take on the culture, environment and challenges surrounding classical music in the United States. Here is what he had to say:
“I believe that the challenges facing “classical music” are numerous and extremely complex. Like most social issues in the US (immigration reform, health care, etc.) there are no easy answers can which solve all of classical music’s problems with the snap of a finger. However, there are many things that our generation, the young professionals, can and must do to make classical music a part of our everyday culture and at the same time enjoyable as well.
I often find myself asking this rhetorical question: What is “classical music” anyway? Is “new music” (defined as a sub-genre of classical music “classical”?!? Yet, aren’t The Beatles “classical” to most in the general public? What about Phillip Glass? Labels can be convenient but also limiting and harmful as music often defies categorization. For example, is Gershwin jazz or classical?
I think the single most problematic issue with “classical music” is that for the general public, it is something of a “fringe” interest and definitely not mainstream. We need to change that and make it relevant.”
Classical music as a fringe element? I’ve got to admit that even I hadn’t thought the general consensus was that classical music was considered to be that irrelevant. However, it is an interesting point– perhaps even a truth that all of us who love and cherish this form of art need to acknowledge. It cuts a little close to home, but isn’t the first step to correcting a situation to know and understand its full scope and breadth? Yoon Jae makes a great point, one with which I completely agree, that bringing classical music back into the scope of what is culturally relevant with audiences of today should be our first priority.
So where does this shift begin? Who is going to lead the change, and who will take responsibility for it? (I told you– all really big questions.) Yoon Jae had some powerful viewpoints on these issue that are worth sharing:
“I feel that music education in general needs a radical reform at all levels. I think the concept of having separate concentrations of performers and educators is fundamentally wrong. How many “performance” majors are going to be just performing and not teaching? I believe that most conservatories leave their graduates ill prepared to face the challenges described above. For me, it was only after I got out of school I realized what a perilous situation classical music and its professionals faced.
If we are not given the tools to teach properly or more specifically, have the ability to relate to the general public about what “classical music” is about and why we do it, how can we expect them to truly appreciate what we do and why? The recent derogatory articles on the SF Symphony’s strike is a clear example of writers who have no understanding about our profession. I don’t blame them 100% though, I think we musicians are partly at fault for not relating what we do to the general public.
I experienced difficulty relating to non-musicians once I left conservatory, especially working in a teaching capacity. We need to do a better job integrating our performing and teaching skills while still in conservatory so that when we go out into the real world, we can better relate to the general public and help them understand what music is about, especially for those who are willing…”
I believe in what Yoon Jae Lee is doing with his Ensemble 212. The orchestra’s stated mission ” to propel the careers of young professional musicians as they develop into the finest performing artists of their generation” is aptly suited to meet the demands of a changing arts culture. Ensemble 212 does not shape the careers of performers of past generations, but rather, shapes the careers of performers in this generation.
To learn more about Ensemble 212, check out their website by clicking here.
A Question for All Graduates
In the past week, many of my friends and colleagues finished their master’s or bachelor degrees. I’ve seen so many happy and heartfelt messages on Facebook and Twitter– so many great memories being made. I’m so happy for all of them. I know all too well the toil that goes into earning a master’s degree. It seemed appropriate that at this time I write my valediction for those artists and performers who are graduating from conservatories and performing arts academies this month. There is one question above all else that I wish someone had asked me when I donned cap and gown several years ago, and today I’ll put it to you.
Now that you are a graduate, how will you connect to the lives of other people?
After graduation, when the honeymoon is over, your calligraphed degree is framed on your wall and the cap and gown have been packed away– you will begin making plans for the future. I hope that you will ask yourself this question and you’ll really consider how you’ll connect to others.
It can be very easy to focus on the I, Me and the Myself. You must do so in order to seek financial security, to realize your dreams, and make grand plans for your future. But as an artist or performer, you must give consideration to how you will connect your artistic work with other people. The longer that you wait to get your art into the public, to perform for audiences, to put your finely honed skills and cultivated talent into the real world– the harder it will be as time goes on and the more hesitant you will become.
Class of 2013, I want you jump in feet first. I want you to go buy a megaphone if you have to and start getting people’s attention. You aren’t in school any longer– and that is a great advantage to you. Watch, listen, and observe people interact with the world around you for any and everything that will lead you to inspiration. Keep your finger on the pulse of society and culture and use your observations to guide your plans for the future.
Build as many relationships as you can to other artists, and people. Network until there is no one you don’t know (that’ll keep you busy!). Keep your family ties strong– you’ll definitely need them later. Talk about your ideas with other people until you are breathless. When you get exhausted, take a nap (but only a short one) then get out there and start connecting again.
Do your best to avoid isolation, except when your creative soul needs it. Constantly consider how your creative work will be received by your audiences and by the public. Your career as an artist, a musician, an actor, a playwright, a composer, a dancer— is eternally tied to public opinion. Therefore, you must be too.
When you consider connections to other people, you subconsciously understand that your creative work is not for you and you alone. Your music, choreography, plays, performances, and writing will be experienced by others and interpreted by those whom you’ve never met. My friends, if you never fail to consider your impact on other people’s lives, then you will stay on the right path.
What “Reaching Out” Really Means
Have you ever stopped to think about what the term “reaching out” really means? We talk about reaching out to our audiences, to new communities, to new patrons and to new donors all the time– but I think it is time that the arts community take a fresh look at what reaching is and is not.
Full disclosure: I dislike the terms “community outreach” and “reaching out”. I don’t like what they imply, that somehow our audiences or the community needs us to graciously step down from our dais of cultural superiority and (shudder) mingle amongst them.
These terms are elitist. Thank goodness that in recent years the arts world has begun to shift in lingo, now giving these same kinds of programs names like “community or audience engagement initiatives”.
But I’d like to argue that a name change isn’t enough. There has to be a sense of authenticity in the way arts organizations interact with and develop relevancy to fellow citizens of their communities.
So how can you do this? How can an organization ensure that its community engagement initiatives are really connecting with people in the community? How do you provide real value to others through your art? The following are some basic guidelines for community programs that are actually– well, engaging.
Be mission driven.
The first step is to compare your community program with your overall organizational mission. Community programs should simultaneously provide benefit for others as well as raise an awareness of the artistic work of your organization. Don’t send a mixed message with your programs. For example, an orchestra who runs a program in the public schools that teaches an introduction to all the performing arts is overreaching. Protect your mission and your budget by sticking to programs that promote your brand of artistic work.
Help your organization personify the values of a model citizen.
Did you know that for-profit corporations have the same legal rights as a real person? I was shocked to discover this and it got me thinking, what if non-profit organizations behaved like a person? What would their habits be? Thinking in terms of human characteristics can help us guide our arts organizations to be model citizens in our community. Do we help out in times of need? Do we donate time and services to people in crisis? Are we active in city government regarding arts issues that would impact our community? Is our organization a pessimist or an optimist? Are we an activist or a pacifist? These questions help us to create a new lens through which we can view the work that we do and how it is perceived by our community.
Showcase artists as community members.
If you were able to answer yes to some of all of the questions in the previous section, then chances are you have members of your organization who are active citizens at the individual level as well. Showcase them! Get the word out to the public about the great work these dedicated artists are doing. It’s a win-win situation. Your artists and/or employees will feel their work is being appreciated and the community will have an increased awareness about the work these great people do in your community programs. The community will begin to see the people behind your programs and can develop meaningful relationships with them.
Identify a need and consider how your art can address it.
One of the great things about musicians is that we can use our art to influence positive change in the community. Consider important issues in your community and use your musical gifts to help raise awareness of an issue. Get your hands dirty and show the community through action what issues your organization supports.
Let’s consider for a moment that your organization has an engagement program that is very costly, but seems to be underperforming. Many organizations are afraid that if they cut the underperforming program they will be seen as in crisis or as taking away valuable services from the community. Perhaps it isn’t as black and white as that. There is an alternative, which is to cut the poorly performing program and break apart that program’s budget to support a wide range of one-time issue based events.
If hunger is an issue for your commmunity, you could use the funding to help sponsor a food drive by providing a concert for the kick off event. Another portion of the former program’s budget could be to help send small chamber groups (made by members of your orchestra) into veteran’s centers, retirement communities, or public schools to bring music to audiences outside of the concert hall. Suddenly, a program that was formerly a budget black hole has now been transformed into a variety of one-time projects that tackle important community issues. Your organization becomes a civic activist while simultaneously improving its image. It’s another win-win.
Consider the impact your organization’s art will have on other arts in your community.
When designing community engagement initiatives, this can be a difficult consideration to assess. Especially in large urban and cultural centers, it is both a challenge and a necessity to project how your plans will impact other cultural organizations. However we must remember that at the most basic level, if you are a non-profit then your mission trumps your bottom line.
I know that I’m going out on a limb by saying that, but I do believe it. David Handler, co-founder of la Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, said to me in an interview last year that concerning arts organizations “…there is room at the table for everyone…” Don’t make your aim to provide the same program better than another organization. Don’t focus on competition as much as providing service. Those who provide real service will be the ones who are ultimately recognized as outstanding.
Lastly, drop the pretense and be genuine.
As a final note, I urge all arts organizations, administrators, and artists to be humble. Try to forget notions of position, class, influence. As artists, we are all cultural stewards. We are servants to our art and the people who experience it. Don’t ever forget that, no matter how successful or challenged your organization may be. Never be afraid to get your hands dirty. But most importantly, never belittle anyone– ANYONE, in your organization or your community. We are servants. Realizing this is the only way to begin to serve our communities in ways that truly matter.