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.
I just got back from a trip to Kentucky and I’ve got to tell you, I’m shocked at the amount of arts advocacy I saw in the mainstream public forum in this past week. It seems things are a bit different than when I left the Bluegrass State four years ago to study in New York City. It left me to wonder, how come the “leading” arts institutions in the Northeast aren’t as proactive about vying for the public’s awareness?
In my sister’s college graduation ceremony at the University of Kentucky (shout out to Sara-Elizabeth Bush, I’m so proud!), President Capilouto’s address to the graduating class of 2013 mentioned the importance of the performing arts multiple times. The pre-ceremony videos featured Reggie Smith Jr., a student graduating from the UK opera program and entering the world as an emerging artist with major performance engagements coming up in the near future.
The Lexington Airport featured ads for classical music events on well designed billboards throughout the airport. That wasn’t the only advertising I saw to support classical music either– the mall at Opry Mills in Nashville featured large artwork of orchestral instruments and I also ran across mainstream advertisements for classical music events in the Nashville airport. The impact of these small awareness campaigns is much greater than the sum of their parts. Where is all this chatter and advertisement in the Northeast?
The one exception that immediately comes to mind is the Metropolitan Opera. Their photography and advertising campaign is, in my opinion, the best classical marketing effort I’ve seen in the past 5 years. New York’s WQXR radio station comes in at a close second place with their “Obey Beethoven” campaign that flooded subway ads for time in 2011. But that’s two notable campaigns in the last 5 years— just two. Where are all the other “big” organizations? Or for that matter, where are advertisements for individual classical artists the way Gaga covered the 7 train with vinyl wrap ads?
Advertising is expensive– but what is the more costly: a long term decline in audience growth, an inability to be seen as relevant by the public, or worse— the public simply not knowing your organization exists at all? Advertising must be a centerpiece in sustainability plans for arts organizations. Even though online advertising may reach more views than traditional print, seeing traditional ads lends a credibility to branding and also helps bring your organization and its work into the general public’s eye. If you want to catch salmon, fish in a stream. If you want to catch everything possible, go fish in the ocean. That’s what traditional advertising does. It can help bring traffic to your (hopefully by now awesome) online presence where new audience members can acces lots of information about what you do and why you do it.
This is an opportunity to be innovative. Photography is not as off-limits as it was 10 years ago and you no longer have to hire a Don Draper marketing firm to handle your organization’s image. With some basic graphic design skills you can create the image yourself and focus on increased distribution rather than increased cost to produce it. When was the last time you saw a bill board alongside the interstate for an orchestra? A massive subway campaign that was hip and cool which featured the orchestras in a comical or memorable way? Or (OHMYGAWD) a TV commercial? The Met puts commercials in movie theaters. Why have so few caught onto this?
I can’t tell you how proud I was to see arts organizations in the South promoting themselves and raising the public’s awareness of their work. It was so refreshing because there was not a drop of elitism to be found anywhere, just a genuine southern invitation to come and see for yourself the great work these organizations did. The ads I saw came off like a warm southern smile, telling you to come spend time with them and experience the art they had to offer. That’s a great way to put it–they advertised experiences, not events. They put potential audience members at ease. They sparked interest, and they unobtrusively entered the public’s field of awareness. It was brilliant.
I want to know your thoughts on arts marketing. What ideas do you have to help performing arts organizations connect with the public?
I’ll stay tuned to hear from you,
- The International Society for Performing Arts and Acceptd Announce… (prweb.com)
- New Season for Classical Music (tuxedorevoltblog.wordpress.com)
- Classical Music’s Role Today (shacklesandcynicism.wordpress.com)
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.
You probably follow the Tuxedo Revolt Blog because you support innovation in the performing arts. (If you don’t then you are on the wrong blog!). You probably also recognize that orchestras and performing arts organizations must work around the clock in order to come up with fresh audience engagement ideas. I talk a lot about how “good enough” or half-hearted efforts won’t cut it in today’s culture. If it doesn’t hit the bullseye of what modern audiences find accessible, then it misses the mark totally. I understand that is a rather harsh perspective. Yet, one of the greatest delights I have when I write posts for you is when I get to report on an organization who gets it right.
I just came off of a very busy week of playing in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra (Allentown, PA). I was doing a lot of commuting and performing which prevented me from writing. I knew as soon as I was able, I would write a post about the innovative performances in which I was able to play. “What made these performances innovative?” you ask. It was the use of original film to accompany Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique that I found so fascinating and effective. Steve Siegel, a contributor to the Lehigh Valley Morning Call said the following of the performance:
“There was something to intoxicate everyone at the Allentown Symphony Orchestra’s “Psychedelic Dreams” concert last weekend…With the added feature of a full-length surrealistic video accompanying the Berlioz, about as high-inducing as one can get, at least legally, at a classical concert…[ASO Conductor, Diane] Wittry’s video, projected on an enormous screen above and behind the orchestra, combined still and moving images that complemented the music marvelously without detracting from it in the least. Just as we hear the beloved’s theme throughout the work, first sweetly on violins and oboe and then, in gross caricature on a clarinet, we see her haunting image float before us, hovering through smoke and clouds. The film’s creative imagery included shots of instruments being played, eerily in synch with the actual score. There was a dizzying sequence of a spinning chandelier during the sumptuous “Waltz” segment, frightening views of a guillotine in the “March to the Gallows,” and a “Witches’ Sabbath” sequence haunted by blood-red skies and flaming skulls. Adding to the surreal effects were the faces of the ASO musicians themselves, which, illuminated only by light reflected off their sheet music – there was no stage lighting other than the lights from the music stands – seemed to hover above their instruments.”
From Siegel’s description, you can create an image for yourself of what the performance was like. I have to agree with his description, and add that the ASO musicians did a great job collaborating with the conductor to meet the unique technical needs of making sure that the music aligned with the film as planned. Symphonie Fantastique is an incredibly complicated work. I have performed it in the past and also have attended performances of the piece by major orchestras and never have I seen so much effort put forth by an orchestra and its artistic planners to ensure that the audience would be able to relate to the music. If you are a classically trained musician, then you probably know the story and origins of Symphonie Fantastique by heart. If you don’t or would like a refresher course, click here.
Modern audiences don’t have the patience or desire to read through a verbose narrative in their program notes. The ASO artistic team boldly realized and accepted the fact that their audience needed another way to experience the narrative Berlioz defined for his music. Film was the obvious choice, but the film’s content could have proven fatal to the impact of the performance. The ASO should be applauded for rising to the challenge to create a film that both provided a point of understanding and a loose framework for the narrative, but yet, was still abstract enough to allow room for much individual imagination in the minds of each audience member.
This is one element of programming that I haven’t spoken about enough. If you desire to tell a very specific story with your performance, it is your prerogative to do so. But for large works performed by many artists, or works that are best interpreted in a variety of ways by individual audience members (for example, orchestral music), you must leave room in your presentation so audience members can use their creativity and imagination to make meaning from the music. It’s a tricky process that takes trial, error, experimentation and refinement. This kind of creative experimentation is where so many arts organizations fall short on their promise to deliver dynamic performances to their audiences. It is in this experimentation and refinement that we begin to understand what our audiences need and want from us and how we can best deliver it to them.
If a regional orchestra like the ASO can be a trailblazer and go out on a limb with projects like this, then I ask– why aren’t we all? Truly, if we want to continue to fill our seats and perform our music or other art form for large audiences, then we have to keep our finger on the pulse of what our audiences need as well as what they like. We have to lose our fear of pioneering new experiences, or maybe I should put it another way. We should become afraid of what will happen to our art if we don’t learn how to connect with modern audiences.
To the ASO, I say a job well done. To everyone else, I say take notice.
You can’t help but smile a little when you see the tell-tale signs of Spring. More daylight is to be enjoyed, the trees are heavy with buds just waiting to blossom, and you can see the little shoots of green pushing right out of the mud. Spring is a time of renewal and also for contemplation of the future. There is a sense of inevitable possibility and imminent change that fills the air every time you walk outside your door. Maybe it is time for us to lend a feeling of possibility to our careers in the performing arts as well?
It is time to look forward and not on the past. We must innovate and move into uncharted territory– both as individuas and as performing arts organizations. But rather than letting apprehension get in our way, let’s embrace a spirit of discovery and exploration. Let’s challenge each other to be more innovative than any other artist in our respective disciplines. Let’s focus on being problem solvers and strive to always present at least three possible solutions to situations encountered with which we disagree.
This spring, I encourage you to invest yourself in your performance and in your audience. Set aside time to read and research new methods of performance. Think big and set large goals for yourself in the upcoming performing season. Make lists like crazy, collaborate with friends, arrange to meet new colleagues; do whatever you need to do to get your creative wheelhouse turning.
Most importantly this spring, I urge you to think about what you can do in your upcoming performances to make strong connections with your audience. There is no one way to go about strengthening the relationship with your audiences and you should feel free to experiment with all kinds of audience engagement ideas. Brainstorm on this by yourself and with your friends and colleagues. Imagine how you can make stronger connections and then put those plans into action on you performances in the coming months.