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.
In a captivating performance on Wednesday night, Eunbi Kim and Laura Yumi Snell crafted a new kind of performance art, a new kind of presentation format for live classical music and a new message for contemporary performing artists. With the spell-binding production of Murakami Music, Eunbi and Laura made it clear that if you are willing to take big risks– your art will thrive.
It’s taken me several days to begin to write this review (for lack of a better term) of their performance. I’ve been thinking about the experience, what I took away from it, and how in the world I would try to explain it to you. I knew that a simple recap would never do it justice. This post is going to be much more detailed than other reviews I’ve done; for when I get the opportunity to write about something that absolutely embodies the core ideals of Tuxedo Revolt, I have to be able to share it with all of you.
When Eunbi first told me about her idea for Murakami Music, I featured the concept in a post back in January. If you aren’t familiar with this project or need a refresher– click here. Last week’s performance took place at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea. It was the perfect venue, living up to its definition as a 21st Century Salon. I must give a great deal of credit to the founding artistic director of the Cell Theater, Nancy Manocherian for her vision for such an innovative, elegant and multi-functional performance space. For a hybrid music/drama project like Murakami Music, the Cell provided a fresh and blank canvas for Laura and Eunbi to explore throughout their performance. But now— onto the performance itself.
Merely listing the order of events, pieces played, and highlights of the evening isn’t appropriate. I found Murakami Music to be so intellectually stimulating that I realized I would need to analyze the performance like a painting, or a piece of literature. This was no concert– it was a full-out experience.
When you consider that the project was based on passages of Murakami’s writings, combined with a performance of musical selections referenced in his novels, a book reading with musical examples is the first thing that comes to mind. The project’s director Kira Simring anticipated this perception and skillfully transcended it. As the program began, artist LauraYumi Snell read from a copy of Murakami’s book– as we might have expected. Then, as Laura continued to recite passages from the novel, Eunbi began to delicately introduce the solo piano into our field of perception. Laura continued to read aloud, but gently closed the book, all the while still reciting Murakami’s text. The dramatic narrative from the text then took on a life of its own. With flawless transition, our descent into the world of Murakami Music had begun.
This performance was focused on engaging the audience at all times. Murakami’s texts, so skillfully dramatized by both Laura and Eunbi, shared a symbiotic relationship with the music of Chopin, Debussy, Prokofiev and other composers whose music was featured in the performance. Spoken word and live music gave meaning and context to each other. Audience members who had never read the works of Murakami were introduced to his world of dual meaning and pensive emotion through beautiful music with similar dramatic properties. Audience members who were not familiar with solo piano music were introduced to it in way that they could begin to understand its emotional depth as it echoed the emotions of the unfolding drama.
For the music-must-stand-alone-as-its-own-art-form critics who are reading this, I must say that Eunbi and Laura created a performance where both music and drama took equal roles. The music, brilliantly executed by both Eunbi and Laura, was in no way impeded by the precisely planned and well chosen texts they also presented. Under the gifted guidance of Kira Simring, the pair used both music and drama to appeal to the senses of sound, sight, and spatial awareness. As an audience member, I was on edge waiting for what was to come next.
Transitions between scenes and musical selections were handled flawlessly and the performance never lost its momentum. I am most critical of transitions between events when I attend performances. These are the moments when audience members are not lost in their own thoughts, but rather present with you and in the moment. Transitions present a golden opportunity to introduce new themes, new ideas and new energy. Too often, transitions seem like TV commercial breaks, interrupting the flow of a performance and flat-lining the energy of the overall experience.
Murakami Music reminded me of why the tradition to hold applause until the end of a performance came to be in be first place. Once upon a time, musical performances were so captivating to audiences that no one dared to release the energy or flow of a performance until the event was truly finished. Audiences didn’t know what to expect as the next great work began to unfold. Finally, at the end of the performance, the moment came for the audience to express appreciation for the performers and to release through applause the energy that was building within each audience member throughout the performance.
As the final tableau in Murakami Music drew to a close, I glanced around at my fellow audience members. I saw young and old on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, captivated and ready it burst into applause. When the final note of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in d minor, op. 14 sounded, we the audience, finally had our moment to thank the artists who performed for us. It was truly a genuine exchange of gratitude.
When I am able to attend such a great performance, I am inspired to keep writing this blog. I am refreshed and reassured that through adaptation and innovation, live performing arts can still be socially relevant and meaningful to audiences. With its solo piano and stage absent of scenery and props, Murakami Music brought to my mind images from the great American playwright Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town. When the audience is challenged to use its imagination, but is guided to do so, there is a freshness to the performance and each audience member walks away with a unique and memorable experience.
I’m reminded of a line from Our Town spoken by the character Emily Webb, “Live people don’t understand, do they? They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?”
In Murakami Music the audience shared in an emotional journey together. We heard live music and spoken words. We saw expression on the faces of the performers which led to an expansion of our own sense of empathy. And for just a little while, we weren’t shut up in the little boxes of ourselves. As an audience we shared in the experience together, and it became ours.
Congratulations to Eunbi Kim, Laura Yumi Snell, Kira Simring and the Cell Theatre for a performance that was truly in the in the spirit of Tuxedo Revolt.
- Haruki Murakami’s new novel reaches 1 million print run in one week (japandailypress.com)
- You: New Murakami novel tops 1 million (japantimes.co.jp)
- Haruki Murakami’s new release: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (themindsplace.wordpress.com)
Guest Post by Matthew Sullivan:
I have good news and bad news.
Let’s Start With the Bad
There was once a day when practicing regularly, diligently, and with rigorous application of your mentor’s advice; was enough. It was enough to land you a niche as a performing, gigging musician.
That day is over.
The good news is that there is a new horizon in music. The old guard is losing its grip. There are new players and new rules. Best of all, there are already people making it work. They are fiercely optimistic, enjoying themselves, and making a comfortable living as musicians.
To live in this new world of citizen-musicians (to borrow a phrase from my mentor, Richard Kessler), requires a bit more than being able to play down a list of excerpts. And exactly what it takes to make it in this new world is what I want talk about with you.
Making It Work
I recently was talking to a friend of mine who really wanted to know how to get on tours. I told him that I was connected to a few folks who had toured extensively; one guy with the Monkees, and another with David Byrne. I offered to put him in touch with these folks, because frankly I know nothing about getting on a tour.
His reaction was priceless: “No offense, but that’s fake. If I can’t get on a good tour just based on my playing, then I shouldn’t be in this business. I’m not going to schmooze my way in.”
This is when you just walk away. These people can’t be helped.
Not surprisingly, these are the people on the verge of giving it all up. The ones considering rekindling their passion for statistics in hopes of a better future. Unfortunately, once this guy finishes his MBA, he’ll still be afraid of asking for help, and he’ll still be in a position of no growth.
Had he not been so stubborn and set in his ways, here is what I would have told him:
If you want to pay your student loans when you finish school; if you want to avoid taking a job at Starbucks upon graduation; if you want to step immediately into a career as a musician, you need to ask for help. There are people out there making it work, and they asked for help too.
I don’t understand why people are so afraid to do this. It boggles my mind.
As I was finishing school, I reached out to everyone and anyone I could: People in orchestras, people on Broadway, organists, conductors, teachers, and administrators. Many of them I didn’t know. Most were friends of friends.
How to Reach Out
While a lot of people I reached out to were too busy to see me, not one of them was rude or taken aback by my simple request: “Can I take you out for a cup of coffee and pick your brain about how you’ve made it work as a musician?”
I asked about 10 people in the span of my last semester in school. More than half said yes, and I learned things that I NEVER would have figured out on my own.
Incidentally, one of those people was Tuxedo Revolt’s own John Morgan Bush. We now have regular brain-picking sessions. We go back and forth, sharing ideas, offering suggestions, looking for areas where we can collaborate. We’ve both shared with one another our most precious resources, and both of us have benefited immensely from doing so.
It is so easy to reach out and ask for help. But there is one caveat: Don’t be an idiot.
- If you reach out to an organist to learn more about getting wedding gigs (hey, some people like that kind of work), DON’T BRING YOUR INSTRUMENT. You asked to pick their brain, not to audition for them.
- Remember, you are the one asking for help. They are the more important, busier party. Even if they aren’t, pretend they are. Be flexible. Offer to meet at their convenience.
- If you want to be an orchestral violinist, there are a ton of people who can help you. Glenn Dicterow might be one of them, but more likely that 26 year old gal in the middle of the section will have more relevant advice. Think outside the box. Often the people we think have nothing to offer us end up having the most.
What would a guest post be without a call to action? So here it is: Step out of your comfort zone today and send an email to one person whose brain you’d like to pick. Don’t be lazy and email me just because you’re reading my post, or I will slap you!
If you have questions about…
- How to frame your message
- What to ask when you finally do get to take someone out to coffee for a brain picking session
- How to take a simple coffee meeting to the next level
…Then John Morgan might be a great first person to contact. The guy is brilliant. He lives with his hand out, pulling up those who are making the climb to the summit.
Without an ecology of musicians around you, (friends, peers, mentors, mentees) your progress will be drastically stunted. So reach out and start building your ecosystem right now..
Thanks for reading my guest post, and as John Morgan says…”stay tuned”.
About Matthew Sullivan: I’m a freelance trumpeter and music educator living and working in New York City. I write a blog for Fairfield School of Music, covering topics of interest to young musicians and their parents. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I check my email everyday so send me a message and I’ll get back to you asap. I won’t really slap you.