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.
Let’s talk small. In my last post on the musician’s micro economy, I described how we should consider resources available to us as different forms of currency that can be used to improve our careers and more generally, our lives as artists. I also introduced the concept of the portfolio career, which is essentially a vibrant career that is the sum of many small projects, talents and skills—including performance—that all contribute to financial stability for the 21st century musician.
Now let’s explore what makes up a micro economy. Follow my logic; if businesses make up the economy (in the traditional sense) then micro businesses make up the micro economy. So now, let’s talk small. I mean, really small. Marcel-the-Shell-with-Shoes-On small. Let’s talk about how you can make your claim in the music micro economy by being excellent, by being focused and by starting out very, very small.
For many musicians, the word business makes us anxious, second only to the word taxes. It makes us want to run back to our practice room and play scales until we are calm again. Don’t laugh; you know I’m talking to you. Yet income, finances, taxes, and dare I say it—money—are essential to our everyday lives. So whether we want to think about it or not, money rears its green, ugly head in all parts of our career. The concept of the micro economy is applicable to all kinds of artists, but for musicians of the 21st century, it’s actually a way of life. Have you ever given thought to all the ways money influences your career? Whether it’s trying to purchase that new instrument, cashing a paycheck from a gig, travel costs for a gig, paying other colleagues fairly to perform with or for us, the list goes on and on forever. We need to make money and we need to spend it. That earning and spending is the most basic essence of what an economy is. Therefore, it’s not too far of a stretch to then think of individual artists as little businesses—micro businesses who specialize in creativity and art. We are micro-businesses in a creative economy.
I realize that I may have just lost some of you. I compared you to a business and you were like #bye. Just hang in there for a moment. The good news is that there has never been a better time in the history of the world to be a micro business in a creative economy. As you might have read on this blog, I’m fascinated with the millennial culture. After all, I am one myself. I’m constantly marveling out our rebellious nature, our determination to see ideas come to life, and the effect our sheer will has on society. Artists have always been a rebellious lot but millennial artists, those young people of the millennial generation from all artistic disciplines who identify as professionals in their respective art forms, are undeniably impacting the global society and economy in ways we never before thought possible. In the coming Tuxedo Revolt blog posts, we’ll explore how you can embrace the idea of being a micro business and also explore new platforms and marketplaces allowing the modern performing artist to grow their micro business. We’ll look at how small and excellent is the new model for the emerging artist professional.
Marcel-the-Shell said, “Some people say my head is too big for my body—I say, COMPARED TO WHAT?!” Marcel had the right idea. Another way of saying it might be though our size as a micro business is small (obviously), we can still have (and do have) an enormous impact on the world’s creative economy.
In order for musicians to thrive in today’s economy, we have to first understand it. Even a basic understanding is essential if today’s musicians are to cultivate a viable career from their craft. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in economics to comprehend how the new economic landscape is shaping the careers of new generations of musicians.
A dictionary defines micro economy as “The study of how businesses, households, and individuals within an economy allocate limited resources.” I think musicians of all stripes can relate all too well to the bit about limited resources. But in order to make this more real to you—try to consider all the possible meanings of the word resources outside of just money. Practice time, planning time, energy, equipment, favors from friends and colleagues are all forms of resources that musicians commonly use as currency that is either spent or earned. For musicians, it is important to look at the term micro economy in a very broad sense and consider all the different activities we do that contribute to our overall career.
Do you remember those long lists of “music professions” that your well-meaning high school guidance counselor may have shared with you back when you first considered “going into music” (to your parents’ horror) as a profession? It listed jobs like: arranger, sound designer, composer, performer, copyist, music teacher, song writer, recording technician, etc. You remember those, right? You probably remember the sinking feeling you had of “Oh my God, how will I ever pick one of these?!” The good news is that you don’t have to specialize in just one area. Today’s musicians are expected to have basic skills in all these areas and many more. It’s the new Micro Economy that has placed diverse demands on musicians’ careers. The economy is reshaping our profession in ways we never thought possible even four to five years ago.
In this series of blog posts, we’ll explore numerous micro opportunities that musicians can pursue to build a portfolio career. You might already be doing some of them and there will be a few more you haven’t yet heard of. We’ll also discuss the many new markets that have emerged for musicians to either generate income from their music or help connect them to a greater number of potential audience members. It’s a whole new world out there for professional musicians.
Lastly, I’d like to put a disclaimer out there near the conclusion of the first post in this series—No one is telling you to let go of that dream of winning your big orchestra job, launching that solo career, or rocketing to stardom in classical music. In fact, it is my wish that you do make that happen for yourself. This series is for everyone else, for the thousands of other excellent musicians out there (some fresh out of school) who are trying to gain a foothold in “the business” at the onset of their professional career. This series is to help us all better understand our individual Micro Economy and how to best make decisions that will allow us to support the passion for music that we all share.
On of the greatest benefits of being a musician is that our is career perfectly suited for for self-growth. But are you taking advantage? Are you seeking new things? When was your last adventure? The way we share music, they way we push ourselves to perform better when playing with others, and yes, even the practice room are all laboratories for improvement and heightened performance. But not applying those skills in new ways is a bit like the guy who buys a ton of state-of-the-art camping gear, reads tons of survival guides– but never actually goes camping.
Professional musicians have a lot to contend with both professionally and personally that can make it hard for us to be courageous. It’s true. You experience success with one piece or genre of music and that success or comfort can make it difficult to explore new repertoire later on. Many people advice young musicians to “find their niche” and while there is some good advice to this, it often means that musicians end up building their own gilded cages.
Remember, above all else, that you are an artist. An artist. An ART-ist. You have musical skills and training that are your tools to interpret and explore the world. Like the mountain climber with his rope, pulley and pick axe you have the tools in hand to do great feats. Don’t ever forget that. So if you are ready to take the next step, if you want something more, then try these 4 steps to exploring the unknown part of your artistry. You might be surprised at what you discover.
1. Step out of the comfort zone. It can be in the smallest of ways, but stepping out of your comfort zone is the first step to self-growth. Whether it’s picking new repertoire, collaborating with unlikely partners, or seeking new meaning in your music (among many other ways!), changing the status quo is the first step.
2. Understand that there is risk. For anyone, no matter the field, there is no reward without the risk. That is what makes the reward so, well, rewarding. You have to embrace the unknown. Embrace the notion that your new idea, or venture might not work– and that is okay. It’s not whether or not you succeed that matters most, it’s what you learn about yourself along the way.
3. Record your adventure. What great explorer or salty sea captain of ages past didn’t keep a journal of their experiences? Sometimes, we can’t fully understand the takeaway from a situation while we are experiencing it. Write it down. Take notes. Be observant. There will come a time for reflection and that is where you will learn about yourself. You’ll want to be able to remember your experiences vividly and writing them down will allow that to happen.
4. Move forward only. The hardest part of self-growth is fighting the urge to slip back into old ways. But think about that mountain climber again. Would he or she, when so close to the summit, turn back because it would be difficult to reach? If they did, we wouldn’t consider them much of a mountain climber would we? Why? Because the point of mountain climbing is to reach the peak– and so it is with you. Keep your sights set ahead of you. Imagine yourself as an adventurer. One step at a time, one tiny inch forward is a change that counts. Remember, everything counts.
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.