In your introduction you mentioned that you would be interested in explaining why your work is meaningful to you, and I was really curious to hear what you had to say. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of what I’m trying to do as a performer, and sometimes I have difficulty with feelings of it being a selfish endeavor. I guess it’s just important to recognize the contributions that music can make, and as you’re someone who dedicates a lot of time to making tangible contributions with your music and organizations, I thought you might have some things to say that could help me figure some things out...
Thanks for your thoughtful email. I appreciate that you are asking this question, and it is such a Big Question. My guess is that different people think about it in different ways, and I encourage you to keep asking it of yourself and others who you encounter as you proceed in music. In fact, there's no reason to ever stop asking it, because you, your musicianship, and the shape of your career are guaranteed to continue to change over your lifetime.
What I can offer from my personal experience is that I find the most meaning in my relationships, and music is an incredibly powerful opportunity to connect people. I imagine that some people want their music to reach thousands (millions?) while some people are (seemingly) content to play for themselves. Either of these mindsets is fine, and it is crucial to not fool yourself into being or pursuing something that is not true to you. First and foremost, your connection to music is personal and unique, and it doesn't have to "do" anything besides bring you joy.
I also want to make the point that one needn't think of performing as selfish or unselfish. It is important that you do what means the most to you. Performing music can benefit others and benefit you simultaneously. In fact, this is the most sustainable recipe for the longterm.
One way of thinking about this question that I've found to be helpful: A museum director named Nina Simon wrote a brief book last year called The Art of Relevance. EM just purchased it for the NEC library and I highly recommend it. It contains at least fifty examples of arts organizations that are attempting to connect what they care about with the rest of the world, figure out why other people should care.
It turns out that, according to Nina, and I totally agree, the highest value of art is in the word Empathy--the ability to have two human beings be emotionally connected. Maybe because I care so much about relationships, this makes absolute sense to me.
She shares one example of an arts organization in New York State that designs artistic experiences for an audience of one(!). They get commissions to create something that is meant to reach a specific person. They spend time researching that person, etc. Very cool and totally not at all practical, right? But... what an interesting proposition for us musicians to think about. What would you do if your next performance was to be for an audience of one? Especially if you knew that person, knew something about his/her life, his/her likes and dislikes, what he/she is going through right now?
That example of creating (or recreating) art for an audience of one became personal for me this year. In the spring, summer, and early fall, I paid a number of visits to an elderly friend who was in rehab for a stroke, and then hospice until she died in early September. She couldn't speak, but she could listen. It was so interesting to notice how playing for her--and often members of her family who were in the room--influenced the way that I thought about performing music. I had so many thoughts and feelings while I was involved in playing music for her. I think my visits were beneficial for her; I know that they were beneficial for me! Not altruistic; mutually beneficial. In other words, a relationship.
From time to time, having the experience of knowing with certainty that my musicianship/performance has truly been important--relevant!-- to someone's life is definitely valuable and affirming. I think this is often hard to achieve in the Conservatory environment where we are surrounded every day by music performance. However, just outside of these walls, you will encounter people who experience daily life quite differently than professional and student musicians. They may not have the same access to something (music) that has the potential to evoke an emotional response. Your performance may be the key that unlocks something inside of them...
Never fear, there's plenty more time to ponder the importance of performing music and how to make it feel meaningful--years and years and years!
I recently curated Understanding El Sistema, a summer institute at NEC that brought together teaching artists and administrators in the Creative Youth Development space for three days of learning, reflecting, and connecting. This experiment was directly informed by my experience directing NEC's Sistema Fellows Program. Since that five-year initiative ended in 2014, part of my long-term work has been to design new opportunities to make the Program's unique curriculum, refined across five classes of Fellows, more broadly accessible.
Two of my earlier initiatives directly inspired by the Sistema Fellows Program curriculum included El Sistema Survey (Investigating Music Education for Social Change) and Building a Community-based Residency, courses through NEC's School of Continuing Education.
photo by Andrew Hurlbut
Along with several photos, here is a selection of positive feedback from the participants. (To be sure, there was also constructive feedback that will help me refine aspects of the institute for next time!)
"I am super inspired, recharged and more committed."
"Tina’s discussion of core values was particularly useful. For the first time, I REALLY understood the point of agreeing on, articulating and sharing the core values regularly."
"I came away from the institute feeling really energized and with a deeper understanding of the work being done by teaching artists in all sorts of El Sistema-inspired programs."
"We are going to incorporate more elements that include Youth Voice into our program and actively work on shaping our organizational culture."
"As I prepare to take on a full-time position at an El Sistema-inspired music program this fall, this workshop was the perfect precursor. It assured me that I’m on the right path and that my mindset, goals, and mission are in alignment."
"I find myself often operating in a vacuum. It was interesting to hear from others doing the same work about their challenges and struggles."
"I enjoyed talking to people in-depth during the Office Hours, and making connections that I will likely keep up after the institute."
"Loved the MYCincinnati case study – nice to see an in-depth example of a program that is working well, hear Laura’s honest descriptions of lessons learned."
"It was an enormously beneficially experience to get to dive deeper into this work with a team from my organization."
Here's a snapshot of the Institute's schedule of activities:
Friday, June 1
9:30 coffee & pastries
10:00 Welcome & Introductions (Heath Marlow)
10:30 El Sistema in Venezuela (Rodrigo Guerrero, Erik Holmgren)
11:30 Case study: MYCincinnati (Laura Jekel)
12:30 Lunch (provided)
1:30 Creative Youth Development (Erik, Rodrigo)
2:30 Case study: Music Haven (Tina Lee Hadari)
3:30 Office Hours #1 (Tina, Laura, Erik, Rodrigo, Heath)
4:30 Mission, Vision, Values (Heath, Tina, Laura)
5:30 Reflective Writing
Saturday, June 2
9:00 Office Hours #2 (Tina, Laura, Heath)
10:00 Participant Sharing, Responses to Day One
11:00 Organizational Culture (Heath, Laura, Tina)
12:00 Lunch (not provided)
1:00 Developing Powerful Voices & Identities (Adeola Oredola)
4:30 Youth Voice Experiments (Laura) or Fundraising Overview (Heath, Tina)
5:30 Reflective Writing
Sunday, June 3
9:00 Office Hours #3 (Tina, Laura, Heath)
10:00 Creative Placemaking/Placekeeping (Laura)
11:00 Aware Engagements and How to Measure Them (Heath)
12:00 Lunch (not provided)
1:00 Thinking about Sustainability (Heath, Tina, Laura)
2:00 Participant Sharing, Responses to Day Two & Day Three
3:00 Wrap Up & Next Steps
To learn more about Understanding El Sistema, visit #MusiciansAtWork at NEC's website.
My colleague Robert Labaree retired this month after 34 years at NEC. Officially, he is categorized as an ethnomusicologist and performer specializing in Turkish music, and a long-serving Music History faculty member. Exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit of #MusiciansAtWork, he founded NEC's Intercultural Institute in 1993, taking the initiative to respond to an opportunity and create something of value to his community.
I never experienced Bob in his official teaching or performing capacities. For me, he represents something else: a community-minded colleague whose thirst for questioning the status quo coupled with an appetite for collective and inclusive action for positive change. He sees NEC's campus as a public square, in which to bring together intellectually curious people for wide-ranging conversations. He appreciates that members of NEC's community may come from different places and think in divergent ways, but ultimately, each of us share a common investment in better understanding a musician's place in contemporary society in order to prepare NEC students--and the institution itself--to face an uncertain future in the 21st Century.
Several years ago, sensing global shifts with local implications, Bob wrote an essay that led him to create Music in 2050, a discussion group comprised of NEC faculty, staff, and, when possible, students. This group grew into a regularly-convening grassroots community with a mission of "exploring the role of music, musician, and music education in a drastically changing world." Being part of this informal community, and getting to spend time in conversation with Bob, has been one of the highlights of my time at NEC.
When I reflect on the time that I've had the privilege of spending with Bob over four and a half years, I'm grateful for what he modeled for me as a veteran member of the NEC community. I'm inspired by his
-deep respect and care for NEC (the institution, its culture, and its people)
-clarity of thinking (and writing) and seemingly unending curiosity to learn more
-desire to look for ideas outside of the institution's walls (figuratively and literally)
-urgency to make positive change happen, especially for future generations of musicians
-inclusive and openhearted nature exemplified in inviting students and staff join faculty in thoughtful conversation
-energized engagement with challenging ideas, his willingness to ask tough questions, and not be fazed by running into the unknowable or unanswerable
-optimism about our capacity to be better, to do good, and to adapt
-genuine excitement about ideas generated by young people, and their experimental initiatives
Bob has been the most inspiring and inspired colleague that I could ask for. I have personally benefited immensely from our relationship. Thankfully, he will continue to teach at least one Music History course next academic year. That's good news for the NEC community, because we all need him. Bob's presence on campus means that we all benefit.
Last month, while preparing for my new Fundraising for Musicians course through NEC's School of Continuing Education, I found myself thinking about how one might create a fundraising habit of mind in a music school undergraduate.
For a young musician, building a career on the strength of a carefully cultivated web of relationships is becoming increasingly essential in today's gig economy. Fundraising is a natural outgrowth of this focus on strategic relationship building. From my days at Community MusicWorks, I like to refer to this habit of mind that prioritizes seeking out and building relationships as Resource Development Mindset.
If I were designing a music school's curriculum for Resource Development Mindset, I don't think I would necessarily seek to add a specific class. At least at NEC, undergrads already have a packed course load and there is pressure to find enough time to practice. Rather, I'd look for creative ways to embed the development of this mindset into existing undergraduate life, piggybacking on activities that are already accepted as part of the school's culture.
For instance, some specifics ways that I could imagine integrating strategic relationship building into the everyday life of a conservatory student:
1. Build a database. At orientation, each student receives a small notebook with which to begin building their personal database (students, faculty, staff, audience members). Going forward, each new person they meet is documented, eventually added into a simple Excel database. Students are required to capture at least a name and an email address, along with one or more distinguishing personal details.
2. Practice networking. Students begin practicing networking at post-recital receptions and during intermission at BSO concerts. A concert provides an excellent opportunity to mingle with strangers and strike up a conversation. The student's goal is connecting with two new people per event (bonus points awarded if they are non-musicians).
3. Hone a message. Each student is supported by a faculty member to draft an artist statement and core values that they want to build their career around. This statement will evolve over time, of course, but I like the idea of beginning pre-professional training with a clear sense of longer-term purpose. Students display their statements and core values on the inside of their instrument cases so they are visible every day, including to their peers and teachers.
4. Key supporters. Every student is tasked with recruiting a three-member advisory group of adults who have professional careers (not only in music) and who care about them (but are not their parents). They are required to schedule a check-in conversation with these mentors every six months for feedback and career development advice, based on their artist statement and core values.
5. Effective communication. Students are required to produce an e-newsletter every semester about their experience as a musician. Could be serious, could be humorous. As long as it is personal. While it might include dates of upcoming performances, the newsletter doesn't need to contain a lot of information. Rather, it is intended to be a way to focus on maintaining (or increasing) a sense of empathic connection between an artist and his/her audience base (i.e. everyone who gets added to the little notebook).
These are initial ideas. Please feel free to add your own in the Comments section.
As artists, as arts organizations, as the arts sector, what are our questions about how a rapidly changing world will affect us? It's clear to me that we don't have answers, but shouldn't we at least be making sure that our questions are out there, ready to be vigorously explored? For instance,
1. How will changing demographics and a majority minority society influence us? Specifically, what's our plan to appeal to the increasing cultural power of Asian, African, Latin economies?
It's a shame that The Arts as an industry doesn't have the capacity to invest in research and development. The end of Createquity, due to lack of available funding after a successful ten-year run, is a stark example of the lack of ability to focus attention on the big and important questions. Not even figuring out the answers, mind you. I'll be happy with more questions. It's a start.
Sharing excerpts of the learning happening in "Building a Community-Based Residency"