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’m glad you are back with me today. If you are just joining this blog series today, we will start with a quick recap. We started by posing the question “Do I believe in my organization’s artistic work?” If you don’t or you have reservations about saying that you do believe in the artistic work of your organization—then I asked you to bundle together all those negative thought and focus them into a sense of intuition to evaluate which things you think that your organization can do differently. It doesn’t matter whether you are the Executive Director, the intern, or somewhere in between as far as your job title goes. You can change the course of your organization by being the change you want to see. By constant evaluation of the work you do and by constantly asking yourself how the work you do serves the people that your organization aims to serve, you can bring about positive change.
In the last post, we talked about how we should ask WHY? to everything we do. Everything in an organization should be able to justify its purpose and how its purpose serves the organizational mission. If you have been reading this series, you’ll remember that I last asked you to use WHY? to gather as much information about your organization’s environment and to avoid passing judgment on your findings. Today, I would like to help you make sense of the data you’ve found by following three basic principles. Here they are:
1. Human-to-human interactions are at the core of all that your organization does. You must consider how your data is related to people and how changes can affect them. The most important people for you to consider is your audience. They must be the primary concern. In the arts, especially, we must be ambassadors of goodwill and maintain a positive place in the lives of our constituents. We rely on the artists themselves to perform for the people whom we serve. As administrators, your relationship to the artists must be in good standing so that you can help to guide the creativity and skills of the artist in a way that will ultimately touch your audience. There is no place for negative interactions, and conflict between people can quickly detract from the organization’s mission. There are ways to work around the conflict. You have to dig deep and find them.
2. Priority of action is given to that which will simultaneously do the following: 1) Strengthen or reaffirm the mission, 2) Change the environment of the organization in a positive way by setting examples. After gathering so much data, one can easily feel overwhelmed. You might find it difficult to determine what actions to take first. Some issues might seem easy to resolve—and indeed perhaps they are. Streamlining the way the daily mail is dispersed could easily be fixed by organizing a schedule to do it— but this is totally unrelated to the mission of the organization. Therefore, this issue would be much further down the list than say—organizing a new social media campaign strategy that would help reduce the amount of snail mail campaigns your organization produces. The second issue is more complex to solve, but when completed, it would increase access and social relevance to your patron base, present them with more artistic content from the organization, and reduce the number of employee hours that formerly went into snail mail campaigns. As you can see, the second issue would have priority over the first.
3. Lastly, it is important to comb through your data to identify any superfluous item that detracts from the organization’s mission. Are you occupying a space that is actually too big for your needs? Could you move somewhere else that is slightly smaller but equally as well equipped? You could use the saved money to provide more for your constituency. Is your office a disaster? Do you spend time searching for items that are out of order? Could you be more effective with your work if you had your workspace streamlined? Do you have unnecessary redundancies in workflows or jobs? —–BUT WAIT—– Finding a redundancy doesn’t have to mean firing someone like it does in the corporate world. It could mean recouping valuable human resources to be used toward another area of the organization’s mission driven work that has been understaffed (without hiring someone new). Does your organization’s administration use an antiquated schedule of 9am-5pm? How does this impact the human-to-human connection you have with your staff, and subsequently from your staff to your patrons? These are all examples of how junk can slow you down and hold your artistic work hostage.
You can see how ridding your organization of excess, focusing on human interactions, and prioritizing your plan of action will set you up for success as you want to change your organization and the way it works. If you are force of positive energy, creative spirit, and a good compromiser, then you will inspire others to take up positive change. In the next post, we’ll discuss how you can influence others with your positive change, and encourage others to see things the way you do.