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.
Hey everyone! Sorry for the hiatus last week, but I was on a much needed vacation to New Orleans, Louisiana. My wife and I decided to spend the week of Thanksgiving down there—we love to experience new places and cultures together. I took in my fair share of pralines and Bloody Mary’s and I managed to get the rest and relaxation I needed. But the blogger in me was gathering inspiration and taking notes. On my flight back to NYC I realized there are a few things that the rest of us could learn from the musicians of the Big Easy.
1. Leave “Pretentious” at Home.
I was amazed at the humbleness, and down-to-earth personalities of the musicians I encountered. From the (stellar) band I heard on the Riverboat Natchez, to the jazzers in the clubs, to the street musicians on the Rue Bourbon, you’d think everyone was your long lost best friend.
2. One More Time—With Feeling!
I bet I heard “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Red River Valley” a dozen times in the Crescent City. But you know what? Each musician had a different interpretation, a different version—each one said something completely different with those simple melodies. I found the variety captivating. Who says repetition of favorites has to be boring or the same?
3. People Playing for People.
The musicians I heard had a peculiar quality that I rarely find in large arts centers like New York or DC—the immediate impression I got was that these were real people. Maybe it was the laid back music they played, relaxed postures, warm smiles, or simple clothes. I’m still not really sure what defines this quality, but I am sure that when we stood on the street corner with 30+ others and listened to one guy play, you were watching a really talented person, not an exotic creature performing in a glass box.
4. Anything Goes…
Sure, a lot of familiar tunes were repeated: “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Autumn Leaves” to name but a few. But don’t be fooled, there was plenty of original and spontaneous improvisation going on too. With my (trained) ears, I heard some funky harmonies and complex melodies—but that didn’t stop these guys. No matter how familiar or how funky, these folks sold it to their audiences. As long as you believe in the art you are making, you can convey your passion to an audience. This proves that you can grab your audience’s attention if they catch the same fever for your music that you have
5. New Orleans is Music is New Orleans.
Music and New Orleans are inseparable and the musicians who perform there know it. They know that it’s their responsibility to keep the music at the heart of the city’s culture. They know the tradition that they belong to. They also clearly understand that culture is people too, and that for music to stay integral to the culture—they have to connect the music to people. It’s that willingness to reach out to citizens, tourists, and each other through music, to make real connections and experiences for their listeners—that’s what keeps their place (and value) in the cultural life of one of the greatest cities in the South.
I’d like start off by saying welcome back and that I apologize for the hiatus in content last week. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of travel and preparation for a major audition that I took this last Sunday. I had been preparing for this audition for quite some time and last week was final push to the big day.
Auditions are a funny thing I think. They can be the most perilous moments or decisive victories of our careers. We strive for months to attain perfection in what may only be a 10 minute window for an audition committee of people whom we often can’t see behind a screen, or that we may not even know. But we train ourselves to meet what seems to be impossible circumstances nevertheless. We push our bodies to achieve a level of technical grace that we never before thought possible of ourselves. Many of you readers know exactly of what I’m talking about.
As I was walking to up the steps to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on the night before my audition (I was attending a National Symphony Concert prior to my audition the following day), I couldn’t help but feel the electric excitement about the imminence of my performance to happen the following day. It was a feeling of what some sports psychologists call “flow”. It’s that feeling where you have conquered your own shortcomings and you move past anxiety, you move past the way you physically feel, for I was getting over a nasty cold, but you suddenly feel as if you are floating above everything while still connected to it. I thought about this feeling– this energy about performing, quite a bit on my four hour bus ride back to NYC. I realized that what I was feeling was 100% pure authenticity about who I was as a performer, what I was doing, and why I was doing it.
This is the feeling I have written about many times to describe what is fundamental for effective performance. It is necessary for the kind of performance that grabs audiences and doesn’t let them go. When you have this feeling of mastery and of “flow”, you know it, and you feel like it is possible for you to do anything.
I had this feeling another time as well, when I played Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto Op. 11 at the historic Paramount Theater in Kentucky a few years ago. You stand before the orchestra and you bare your soul to the audience and the orchestra. Does this sound a bit melodramatic? Yes, I’ll admit that it does– and it should because that is exactly what music requires of us. Auditions are very much the same way only with complete anonymity.
You walk out onto that empty stage stripped of name, voice, face, gender, title, resume, familiarity. All you are left with are the sounds that you are able to produce. If they are hollow and purely technical, like exercises from a book of etudes, you can’t expect to grab hold of your audition committee and pull them to the edge of their seats. All they have is your sound, you have to be the one to infuse it with your soul, with your will and with your determination.
That is what I learned most from my experience this last weekend; that authenticity and truthfulness is centrally important to the work we do as performing artists. To truly make a connection with our listeners, we have to be in complete flow with the music, our instruments, and ourselves.
Invisible walls exist between the stage and the audience in performing arts organizations around the country. In my last post, I tackled the problem of making the wall visible. I showed you how to identify the problems that the wall was causing in your performance or your organization. Depending on what you do, there are many different ways your wall could actually look.
If you are a small ensemble or a solo performer, then you have lots of individual control over how you can tear down the wall that keeps you separated from your audience. If your performing organization is large and has many members, like an orchestra or a dance company, then you have to work together with your administration to decide what steps you will take to break down the wall together. This latter scenario can be significantly more complicated, but if you have identified that a wall exists, it is your duty as an authentic performer to initiate the changes you feel need to be made.
So to give you some ideas of where to start, I’ll use today’s post as a chance to make a list of some of the actions you can take to start breaking down barriers and drawing your audiences closer to you– and if you do it right, they might just begin to grow too.
So while there are countless options to consider, you must carefully take a look at who your audience is, what they like, and what they need. The following list is broken into several categories, but some may have dual applicability.
Your Audience Barrier Wrecking Ball includes (but is not limited to…):
At the administrative level:
1. Leaders that have direct one-on-one physical communication with all audience members, not just elite and wealthy donors. (and yes, shudder, tremble, quiver, this means executive directors as well.)
2. An environment where the administration pools the organization staff from secretary to executive director, and a retreat is held where all employees can voice opinions, exchange ideas, and take ownership in the way the administration interfaces with the audience. This is in lieu of relying on “consultants” to tell an organization everything that it needs–and much less expenses. Capitalize on every strength in your administrative staff. Use the intelligent, artistic, and valuable people that you pay to run your organization where they think the organization is headed in terms of its interaction with the audience. This advice is golden, because these people have a very personal stake in the success of the organization.
3. Be transparent, invite audience members to public discussion about the future of the organization. Don’t keep the public in the dark about what is going on at the highest levels. (I’m sure executive directors are trembling somewhere…) The days of back door deals and nepotism are not cool anymore. Don’t let patrons feel like they are shut out, they’d be thrilled if you invited them into all aspects of organization. It’s not hard guys, just put it on a blog.
For the performers in large organizations:
Ok folks, I hit the administrators pretty hard, but now let’s talk about what we can do to tear down the wall.
1. Mingle with audience members before and after the concert or performance.
2. Wear a pleasant countenance at all times. (Just smile) Even if you aren’t feeling it, remember you are onstage and you are acting. Make eye contact with as many audience members as you can, and smile at them.
3. Look your best onstage. Look like a million bucks, feel like a million bucks, and play like a million bucks. You are performing, you are doing what you are meant to do. Love every minute of it and let the whole world know it.
4. Form a committee in your organization to send hand-written notes to audience members, from you, to thank them for coming to the concert.
5. Put surprise tickets on the bottom of seats and lucky audience members will get to come to a reception after the concert to meet members of the orchestra or company, or group.
6. Put the audience on the stage once in a while. It is a more intimate setting, you can charge appropriately for the less availability with seating, but don’t gouge. Use this as an opportunity to let the audience know that you want to know them up close and personal.
For the Solo performer:
1. Talk to your audience. Forget about the old day of walk out on stage and play. Speak to the audience, acknowledge them, thank them, and engage them. I’ll write more about this in future posts.
2. Play a video before the concert that helps the audience put context around the performance that is about to happen. How did you prepare for it, what does it mean to you, why are you glad you have an audience. Tell them how you feel and why you love to do what you do.
3. Do away with program notes and have a live person announce each new event in the performance, or you can do it yourself.
4. If your audience is small enough, take questions and answer them honestly.
5. Receive your fans graciously after every performance, no matter how many (or few) of them there may be.
This list is as long as your imagination wants it to be. But rest assured, every action you take to bring your audience closer to you and the wonderful artistic work that you do, the bricks will begin to crumble into invisible dust.
Until next time,
Related articlesFringe frenzy takes over Edmonton (with bonus reviews) (metronews.ca)
- The Wall That Keeps Our Audiences Away (tuxedorevoltblog.wordpress.com)
- Times are a changin’. (tuxedorevoltblog.wordpress.com)