When was the last time a performance of any kind gave you cold chills? Not that squishy-made-for-tv-movie kind, but rather the visceral and literal sort of chills that lets you know something inside you has been moved? That was how I felt at last night’s performance of InsightALT: The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing commissioned by American Lyric Theater and performed at Merkin Hall in conjunction with Opera America’s 2017 New Works Forum.
The question “Why opera?” was posed earlier in the day at a group discussion facilitated by Marc Scorca. And as if the question had been a call, the performance last night was its obliged response. Opera is indeed an often complicated and cumbersome art form, but it is so out of necessity. But to answer “Why opera?” we must also realize that very same complexity offers the possibility to provide an in-depth perspective on any topic—no mater how cumbersome or complicated that topic is. It allows versatility, drama, and helps us to relate, exam, criticize and reflect on the human condition.
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing is the brainchild of composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico. The workshop performance was presented in a concert version with piano and with what might seem to be the most economical resources to perform an opera–no sets, no costumes, no theatrical lighting. But throughout the performance, the audience was reminded that a powerful opera is a dramatic chameleon able to shift and adapt to its circumstances while still being able to convey a narrative and message.
Baritone, Jonathan Michie sang the lead role and demonstrated clear mastery of its dramatic elements. Michie sang with an expressive voice that easily convinced the audience of the explosive and complicated emotions contained within the role. An unexpected delight of the performance was the dramatic integration of the chorus, performed by MasterVoices, who displayed versatility and played a major role in keeping the narrative of the opera moving forward. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya led the cast and chorus with a surgical precision and provided the balance and style necessary for the audience to appreciate all elements of the new work with equality.
It has been so good these past several days to be reminded of the value and veracity found in new music. It was a powerful experience to be reminded that we have countless stories that need to be told and that contemporary opera is one of many ways in which we can tell them. As we move forward, we must continue to look to luminary organizations such as the American Lyric Theater to light the way for new work and to champion the evolution of the genre.
To my readers, it’s been far too long since I last posted on the Tuxedo Revolt Blog and I apologize to you. But I’ve been watching and thinking, observing and taking notes. I’ve spent the past year being a musical participant, a maker, a creator, performer, teacher—and in many ways a student as well. I’ve been watching our world of classical music. I’ve been doing a lot of introspection into my own music making as well and there is much that I want to share with you.
Since it’s a new year, I thought we should start with a few resolutions. (I say we because I will be joining in these too.) While I’m not usually a big fan of them, I started to think about the meaning of a resolution, about how they demonstrate our “resolve” for change and improvement. A resolution is an opportunity to bring about positive change to our lives—and for musicians, to our art as well. As artists, we strive for excellence at all costs. We constantly seek to improve upon our skill, or repertoire, or musical achievement. This pursuit is part of our identity as musicians. With personal excellence in mind, here are 5 resolutions for classical musicians to consider for 2015:
1. Own your role in supporting the arts.
We are all in this together and as such, we all need to do our part in supporting the arts in as many ways as we can. Be active. Write a letter of support to your local school system or elected official supporting music education. Make a donation to a local arts organization (if you can) or at least make the offer to donate some of your time or talent. Share articles that advocate for the arts on your social media or write an iReport or Letter to the Editor of your local paper. Start a thread on Reddit. Do something to help us all.
2. Help stop the negativity in the classical music world.
“If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all,” my father said many times when I was young. Truthfully, I’ve not always taken his advice, but in the case of classical music, I’m pretty sure compliance is crucial. Let’s make this cut and dry: the general public has a clouded perception of our world and what we do. Many people see classical music as stuffy, outdated and worn-out. As many of us are working to change that perception, we face a further declining public opinion when vitriol over union conflicts, lockouts, and defamatory remarks come from both sides of disputes in our industry. We need a cease fire and moratorium on negativity. Do your part by only putting forth positive messaging about the importance of your art, your passion, and classical music more generally. Be on the side of peaceful progress.
3. Dig deep into your own emotions.
This is one is simple. Challenge yourself to find deeper emotional meaning from every note that you play this year. Take whatever commitment to emotional expressivity you currently have and add 30% to that. See how much more you can express your own range of emotion in the music you make. It might change the world.
4. Share your music with more people.
This year, make the effort to share your music with more people than you did last year. Sharing is easy in the digital age. Post a video on YouTube or Facebook. Upload a clip to SoundCloud. Get more of the music you love out into the world. There are bound to be others out there who will love it too.
5. Talk to your audience.
This is the year to change the way you engage with your audience. You have the power to transform an evening of great music into a memorable experience that lasts a lifetime in the mind of your audience members. You have to communicate with your audience. Do as little or as much as your feel comfortable, but do something. It can be as little as making sure you thank five individual audience members for coming to the concert at each gig you play this year, or as grand as completely revamping your concert presentation format. The approach is up to you, but we need to collectively do more to bond with our audiences. If we all did this, we could go a long way toward changing the public opinion.
So here’s to a great year ahead. Let’s do more this year than we have ever done before. Let’s make waves in the classical music world. Let’s change the state of play.
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.
You are an individual with unique values, goals, passions, and interests. As an artist, you may have broad and often conflicting interests while simultaneously you are deliciously engrossed in the minutia of a singular niche. For the entrepreneur, there are no rules that say you must give up any of your interests or passions for a career. If someone says you can’t make a living pursuing multiple passions, then you need to run the other direction.
2. It’s a dumb idea to say that a music career can be defined by any one kind of job.
Yep, I said it. That’s dumb. The truth is there are as many kinds of music careers as there are genres of music—literally thousands. When you consider the how many possible combinations of music careers there could be, the options are seemingly endless.
3. Creative people need freedom to create—and it’s okay to honor that need.
Musicians can be wonderfully creative, frenetic, sporadic, and illustrious people. When we have our freedom to create and experiment, we can accomplish truly unbelievable feats. But what happens when you clip a bird’s wings? It can’t fly. The same is true for the musician. When our “jobs” take over we can forget or ignore or suppress our spontaneous creative urges. The creative flame grows dull. This feeling does not just express itself in the lives of many musicians who have taken on the thankless “day job”. It can also be expressed in the lives of performing musicians whose orchestra or ensemble has become more a prison than a blank canvas for their art. Music entrepreneurship is built on the idea that the job/income is built around accommodating your individual artist needs.
4. There is a difference between owning your life’s work, and wishing you did.
That’s a bold statement, but it’s true. When you pursue entrepreneurial projects, you undergo a dramatic mental shift. You realize that your success is now in your own hands. This knowledge will give you incredible energy to pursue the path(s) you love. No doubt, you will face struggles and obstacles between you and your goals. However, you will own that struggle and it will only serve to temper your resolve to see your goal to its realization. Entrepreneurs make their own decisions and for better or worse.
5. Entrepreneurs aren’t victims.
No longer are you the victim in a world where (shudder) “the arts are dying.” Rather, you view yourself as part of the solution the arts need. You will view yourself as a positive force that fixes problems or addresses conflict in the arts world. By setting your own course, you are free to be flexible and agile when making career choices. When you experience a setback, you can change directions in a second and minimize or avoid the setback altogether. You have complete control over your entrepreneurial enterprises and can be free to take the action you feel is best for you. In short, you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of someone else’s circumstances.
Though this list is far from comprehensive, I hope that it showcases some of the benefits that an entrepreneurial career has to offer. It takes bravery to be a music entrepreneur as you may find yourself breaking from your comfort zone. Just remember, there is no feeling like owning your own successes, taking charge of your life, and putting your creativity first. There’s nothing like it in the entire world.
At the close of 2013, I want to say thank you for your support, your business and your encouragement over the past year. It’s been very busy with many exciting changes, but I’m happy to report that Tuxedo Revolt continues to grow in new directions.
This year’s artistic ventures included recording projects with jazz singer Chris McNulty and singer song-writer Gabriel Rios, a second collaborative recital with the Harlem Sound Project on the music of Paul Hindemith, and the completion of my first solo CD.
By far, the greatest change this year was my joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It was a big decision for me, but the opportunity to help emerging artists and young professionals find sure footing for their careers is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. From coaching my “Music + Multimedia” mixed chamber ensembles, to presenting community engagement concerts at the Huntington’s Disease ward at a nearby long-term care facility– I never cease to be amazed at the bridges music can build or the new perspectives it can introduce. I’m amazed at the ideas and level of perception students in my Arts Admin/Entrepreneurship class demonstrated as well. I’ve learned from my students that innovation is more than possible and that great ideas, well, are the stuff of magic. They really can transform our cultural perceptions.
Throughout this fall, I’ve been gathering material to post on the Tuxedo Revolt blog after the new year. In addition to new writing, stay tuned for several Tuxedo Revolt speaking engagements that might be happening near you this winter. In January, I’ll be a guest on a panel discussion about “Audience Engagement Strategies for the 21st Century” at the 2014 Chamber Music America Conference. Then in March, I’m presenting a workshop on engaging communities through social media at the 2014 American String Teacher’s Association National Conference. 2014 will be about Tuxedo Revolt attempting to reach more people than ever before.
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, for me, it will be off to the races. But for now, I’d like to pause to say thank you once more. I couldn’t do all this without your interest, your readership, and most importantly– the actions you personally take to keep the performing arts relevant and accessible.
Wishing you the happiest of holidays,