I’m writing from the comfort of my living room, having just watched pianist Igor Levit perform Bach’s Chaconne (the piano arrangement by Brahms) in a Munich studio via Periscope. To be candid, I found it too difficult to concentrate for twenty minutes; I couldn’t manage the entire performance before switching over to reading more urgent headlines on Twitter.
I recognize that we are currently in the jarring, shocking phase of having our everyday reality turned upside down. Sadly, today does not feel anything like last Sunday. Most musicians are rightly anxious about lost income and what that will mean for their families. In light of this, what I’m sharing is something for us simply to begin to consider, to the degree we are able to focus, in order to be ready to experiment and adapt in the weeks and months ahead. Finding ways to be productive and positive, together, feels important right now. After all, there’s only so much CNN that one can watch.
It’s heartening to already see many musicians and organizations offering free online access to their music, from the biggest institutions with international reach (e.g. Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, Yo-Yo Ma) to smaller-budget, local enterprises and individuals. This is a significant way that musicians can continue to contribute to the greater good, and it is very valuable.
This public health crisis is making me think of what the climate scientist/musician Richard Heinberg presciently shared in his Music in 2050 Forum speech at NEC three years ago:
"Artists will have the opportunity and duty to translate the resulting
Today, as we enter this uncertain period of self-imposed isolation, I’m wondering about our collective opportunity/duty to find creative ways to help sustain our audience members, our students, our community—including, importantly, each other—throughout a very difficult time.
These initial thoughts are based on a last week's conversation with the Community MusicWorks Fellows combined with my recent thinking about how a local music organization (Emmanuel Music, in my case) can continue to provide something of value to its constituents during a period of social isolation, either elective or mandated.
If you know other musicians who may find my musings helpful, you are welcome to share them. This is an all hands on deck moment for our society, and that includes—potentially—its artists.
Musicians and human connection
As I noted earlier, a virtual trove of aural riches is already widely available. For those who treasure attending concerts, they will still be able to get their fix of fine artistry through a myriad of online performances, not to mention the already vast resources of YouTube and other sites. But what about the human connection, the sense of community, that is synonymous with attending live music? How do we continue to experience that?
Even when limited by social distancing, we aren’t prevented from human connection. It’s just that we must adapt to new circumstances. For me, the key word is empathy, meaning the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We build empathy when we learn about people and begin to establish a connection with them on their terms, rather than ours. A silver lining may be that a world of opportunity opens up for artists who are able to experiment and develop new best practices.
We each have an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s inner life, and it starts with being willing, as an artist, to both receive and respond to another person’s lived experience. As Nina Simon writes in The Art of Relevance, our challenge, whether individual artist or arts organization, is to “try to understand not just the surface of the individual’s personality but the fundamental way that person sees the world.”
Admittedly, this is a process. Achieving an empathic connection means that both participants become vulnerable. Far easier to connect meaningfully with people that you already know well. We need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable, and to help someone feel safe requires taking the time and care necessary to build trust. Does this sound like something musicians can do? I believe so. It may not have been part of our formal training, but it certainly has been present in our lived experience, in our relationships. At least for me, sharing my musicianship—not necessarily limited to my playing but my feelings and ideas about music—almost always leads to a deeper and more meaningful connection.
One opportunity: Older adults
There's a specific initiative that I want to propose, among any number of others that will hopefully become widely embraced. (For instance, did anyone catch Laura Benanti’s invitation to high school students on Twitter? So beautiful.) My biggest concern is for older adults, including those who are the most at-risk and, therefore, most likely to be socially isolated. There is such a significant overlap between this segment of the population and our dedicated concert-going constituency.
Yes, let’s keep streaming performances and opening up our archives to share recorded music. Along with those efforts, this is a proposal to be more targeted and specific. We all know older adults in our communities, especially within our concert audiences. Let’s figure out how to connect, one-to-one, with them and use our musicianship to help them emotionally navigate this stressful time, including letting them know that they are not alone.
There is no stage; there is no audience. This initiative requires us to reach out and make personal contact, something that musicians don’t necessarily practice in an intentional way, but we shouldn’t let that get in our way—especially now. I’m not suggesting reaching out randomly (see my earlier comments about building trust). It would feel artificial to cold call someone with whom there is no prior relationship. Rather, the opportunity here is to identify the specific members of our community who most depend on their relationship with us for their well-being. We already know who they are. If not an arts organization’s community, then for sure among your community of family, friends, and neighbors.
There are more or less involved ways that I imagine this can be accomplished. Here are several rungs of the ladder to consider. Let’s start with the first rung:
1. Sharing curated playlists of existing online performances. This could be a general playlist curated by an organization’s staff, or better yet, it could be individual musicians (and others) who create personal playlists (What are the pieces of music that mean the most to you? Which artists do you seek out, no matter what work they are performing?) along with written and/or spoken commentary, depending on the medium. And it doesn’t even have to be an entire playlist; it could be a single viewing or listening recommendation. The point is that this is a personalized, not general, recommendation.
Here’s a response I received after sharing the link to Igor Levit's performance with an isolated older adult close to me: “Thank you for sharing that video...so beautiful and so compelling just to see how the music took over his body and at the end, his right hand....trying to express the emotion. I will forward it to Hans whom I think will appreciate the performance.”
2. If there is enough personal/staff capacity, the playlist might evolve into an ongoing (weekly?) opportunity to connect and share solo performances and conversations. At Emmanuel Music, with such depth of experience and expertise around Bach’s sacred cantatas (including the recently published book of founder Craig Smith’s essays), I can imagine a series of recorded conversations between artists and academics, performers and clergy, that serve to engage our core audience of devotees. We could temporarily re-focus our efforts on providing meaningful content (shorter, more personal) that can be posted online for our community, rather than full-length concert programming. For instance, twelve recorded segments could be shared judiciously over three months. A Far Cry, for one, already appears to be moving in this direction.
3. We could also create opportunities for our community to participate, even if remotely. For instance, at Emmanuel Music, using chapters from the book of Craig Smith’s essays, we could launch a moderated online "book club" with participants sending in questions and comments. Perhaps we could identify a number of non-commercial recordings and (with permission, if needed) share excerpts of archived performances paired with commentary from the musicians who participated in them.
4. The furthest rung on the ladder, and likely the one that has the biggest potential effect, is to reach out to an individual—audience member, friend, or neighbor—with the offer of creating a personalized musical gift. Just the act of reaching out is itself meaningful. And if your offer is accepted, the resulting virtual interaction needn’t be long or perfectly* executed. To be meaningful, it does, however, need to feel relevant to the recipient, and this is the reason for my emphasis on developing empathy. (My thinking here is deeply informed by Nina Simon, OF BY FOR ALL founder. Please take five minutes to read Relevance for One from Nina Simon's book, The Art of Relevance, in which she describes what is, for sure, an extreme example. But isn't it amazing to contemplate?)
In my experience, this initiative puts us in uncharted territory for classical musicians, and maybe for other musicians as well. I don’t have enough personal experience to tell you exactly how this experiment plays out, but by sharing my ideas with you, I’m committing myself to exploring it.
Will you join me?
I would love to hear recommendations from performing artists who have successful experience with making one-to-one connections online. Also, in this time of great uncertainty, if you are inspired to try something new but feeling hesitant and want to talk through your ideas, I’m happy to be a sounding board and support for you.
* Technical considerations
My friend and Boston-based cellist Jacques Lee Wood has experience with performing music via Facebook Live on his iPhone. He recently shared with me the following list of equipment that he invested in to take his ability to stream music up a level. Not necessary, but if you (or, more likely, an organization with which you are affiliated) wish to invest, he told me that the total cost for his gear is around $500. All of it is available on Amazon.
1. IRig Duo
2. Rode M5 paired condenser microphones
3. 2 XLR mic cables
4. Mic stand with stereo mounting bar
I'm grateful to Nate Martin of Palaver Strings for including me in his new podcast, Resonance: Conversations about Life and Music. As I share with Nate near the beginning of our conversation, hearing my voice and having to wonder if I sound smart is not something that has been on my bucket list. However, I'm sure glad that I took him up on this opportunity to say out loud in my own voice--and preserve--what is ultimately guiding any words printed on these pages: my personal story of a life shaped by music.
I tried something new yesterday, drawing inspiration from Nina Simon's The Art of Relevance. Before the season's first major event, I instructed the team of volunteers directing patrons to their seats to ask, "Is this your first Mass in B minor?" If it was, they were offered this one-page note of welcome. It's too soon to know how this experiment landed overall, but my early indications are positive. This absolutely gave people a point of connection that led to conversations during intermission and after the concert.
My first Mass in B minor
A welcome note from Heath Marlow, Director of Development
Thanks for joining us for this evening's performance! We've been looking forward to sharing this exquisite music with you for some time now. Our musicians have been preparing together all week, attempting to create the most meaningful musical experience that they can provide for you, our valued listeners.
As Ryan, our artistic director, likes to say, we welcome you, wherever you are on your musical journey. People seated near you may have grown up listening to—or even singing!—this music. For them, this concert may summon nostalgic memories of people and places from their personal histories. Others in the audience may have been introduced the music of J.S. Bach later in life, either through friends or through their own exploration of classical music. Still others may be encountering this music for the first time tonight.
If you are new to Bach, I’d like to share a perspective that you may find useful. First of all, performing this piece of music is an enormous undertaking. This evening’s performance will last nearly two and a half hours. There are not many things in our lives that require us to sit still and pay attention for that long. You may experience moments of rapture; you may experience moments of boredom. Either is possible across an entire evening's worth of listening to music.
This is my first time hearing this music performed live. I'm hoping it will be a memorable evening. Sometimes I find that, just by noticing that we are all sitting silently and sharing a communal experience in a space of incredible physical and acoustical beauty, I begin to relax and listen more deeply. I think that this may be because I’m reminded of how uncommon this experience is, and how the rest of my daily routine is so very different.
For all of us in the room this evening, music has the potential to affect us in personal and powerful ways. And sometimes not. After all, there’s no right or wrong way to experience music. We may each come away from this performance with a few moments that stay with us. I hope that you find—and keep—whatever it is in this incredible work by Bach that is of most value to you.
If you wish to share it with me, I'd love to hear about your experience, either directly after the concert or by email. I’ll be curious to learn what makes this evening memorable.
My full-time position at NEC, Associate Dean for Arts Leadership, will be eliminated at the end of the month. I have been invited to continue my work exploring the intersection of artistry, leadership, and sustainability as a part-time Entrepreneurship faculty member. This year, I will teach a class about artistic project planning and lead the two institutes that I created, Understanding El Sistema and Building a Chamber Music Residency.
These past seven years have been an interesting journey, and as I prepare to embark upon my next professional chapter, I have taken some time this summer to reflect. I want to mention several aspects of my NEC experience that are meaningful to me. First, I’ll summarize the journey.
I was hired in 2012 to guide the fourth and fifth classes of Sistema Fellows (NEC's five-year investment in training fifty musicians to create social change through music education for at-risk youth) through a nine-month leadership and professional development curriculum. This was an exciting time for me that included international travel, passionate group discussions and intellectual adventures, and a seat at the table with inspiring colleagues and experts from across the US and beyond.
After the Sistema Fellows Program ended in 2014, I continued to support the fifty Fellows while simultaneously developing opportunities to share aspects of the Program's curriculum more broadly. This included piloting new courses and institutes at NEC, such as Fundraising for Musicians, Understanding El Sistema, Building a Chamber Music Residency, and the reason that this blog exists, Building a Community-based Residency.
In addition to supporting the Sistema Fellows, now fanned out across the country, I also enjoyed being a mentor, advocate, and advisor to musician-led initiatives such as musiConnects, Newport String Project, Little Opera, and the Iris Music Project. I built relationships with professional musicians and offered them something valuable: sustained access to professional development and capacity building resources.
What am I grateful for and what did I learn?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate social change through music education with idealistic Sistema Fellows who have created ambitious and exemplary community-based programming in places like Cincinnati, Juneau, and Ventura.
I’m grateful for the unusual amount of time that I was able to dedicate to creating and refining strategies for working at the intersection between purpose, artistry, and sustainability. I supported the efforts of emerging professional musicians—especially NEC alumni—who have created initiatives as diverse as Castle of our Skins, the Merz Trio, Palaver Strings, and Thread Ensemble.
Over regular lunches and coffees, I learned new concepts—and tested my own ideas—through conversations with inspired and generous faculty, such as Tanya Kalmanovitch and Bob Labaree.
I appreciated the camaraderie of dedicated and thoughtful colleagues, such as Tanya Maggi and Rachel Roberts, who care so deeply about the student experience, and who are always up for imagining next steps in better supporting emerging professional artists.
My attempts to realize Leslie Foley’s idea of building a revenue generating arts leadership certificate, based on the Sistema Fellows Program curriculum, were ultimately unsuccessful. Still, I appreciate having the opportunity to think deeply about leadership and to experiment with applying my ideas (influenced by Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, Eric Booth, and Kenneth Foster) to a conservatory environment.
I took advantage of my platform at a leading conservatory to connect with far-flung colleagues. Conversations that had begun with Bob Labaree’s white paper pondering our collective future, informed by economic and societal forces at work beyond our walls, led to rich Music in 2050 discussions at public lectures and roundtable events. Importantly, it wasn’t only people from the arts industry in the conversation.
After the Sistema Fellows Program ended, I was sad to lose the opportunity to work in daily collaboration with the wonderful Virginia Hecker. However, I benefited professionally and personally from unprecedented flexibility to pursue my work largely on my own terms. For instance, I re-connected with my roots as a chamber musician, spending a luxurious week annually at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, preparing Beethoven quartets (Opus 127, 130, 131, 132) for performances (with Ealain McMullin and Emmy Holmes-Hicks, founding violinists of the Newport String Project).
What am I still working on and what’s next?
Time and again, these last seven years have brought me face-to-face with the following reality: There is a tension between 1) providing emerging artists with the freedom to fully immerse themselves in honing their craft and 2) preparing them with strategies and skills for navigating the realities of their professional lives.
This tension is nothing new, but it will continue to intensify, mirroring the broader societal challenge: If the system only works well for an advantaged minority, at what point do we risk our carefully cultivated image of success by acknowledging that there is a significantly larger underclass—a supermajority—that is facing a vastly different experience from the often idealized (and, frankly, less than three-dimensional) version of professional success that they have been prepared for?
Meanwhile, I’ve got plenty of big questions and interest areas to continue to explore. I’m looking forward to continuing to support the work of musician-led initiatives negotiating what it means to be relevant to the civic life of a community, including building "social cohesion and trust."
Another Diane Ragsdale quote that has been pinned to my MacBook's desktop in recent years is about the goal of creating empathic relationships and understanding of self and other.
I’m thinking more deeply about, in the words of Richard Heinberg, the “opportunity and duty” of being an artist in an increasingly tumultuous 21st century.
The unique value that musicians can contribute to our world is often ephemeral. As is the pursuit of recognizing, shaping, measuring, and sustaining this valuable contribution. While I seek to define the next steps for me in this pursuit, I appreciate the advice contained in this Gwendolyn Brooks poem that a colleague shared with me earlier this year.
One of the most important (and under-reported) experiments in the Creative Placemaking field has been unfolding in Cincinnati's Price Hill neighborhood over the past eight years.
In Spring of 2011, cellist Laura Jekel was getting ready to complete the Sistema Fellows Program, a professional development program at the New England Conservatory. The program, a prestigious fully funded fellowship that included a month-long residency in Venezuela, was about training musicians to think differently about music education, and learning to use it as a vehicle for social change and community development.
Laura had previously identified Cincinnati as her destination after the conclusion of the fellowship. In March, she made an initial trip to Ohio to see what she could set up for herself. A friend with an urban planning degree recommended that she try to get an appointment with Terry Brundy who worked for the United Way.
Laura told Terry her story about wanting to build a youth orchestra program for at-risk kids that would hopefully change their lives and their trajectories. Within a few minutes, Terry was on the phone with Ken Smith, Executive Director of Price Hill Will, one of Cincinnati's several community development corporations (and a United Way grantee).
At their initial meeting, Laura didn’t bring anything on paper to show to Ken. She decided that she would just talk to him about her ideas and see where it went. “I just told him what I want to do” and that “this is not a music program, but a youth development program that uses music.” She also told him about her fellowship in Boston, and what she had seen in poor neighborhoods in Venezuela and Los Angeles where vibrant music education programs were creating positive opportunities for local children and their families.
Ken asked Laura to return later in the week and bring a proposal so that he could present it to his board of directors. Shortly thereafter, Laura got the green light. Ken offered Laura an office space and supplies, access to health insurance, and the CDC's 501c3 status. She would have to raise the funds to pay herself--and for almost everything else--on her own.
This past June, I invited Laura to return to NEC to present the story of building MYCincinnati, her after-school orchestra program (Part 1) in Cincinnati's Price Hill. For me, the story gets even more interesting in Part 2 ("Creative Placemaking") as she begins to explore the ways in which her work in Price Hill is having a positive impact on the greater community, well beyond the kids participating in her orchestra. And in Part 3, Laura explains how her work over the past eight years has helped to catalyze new community development--both economic and social--including planning for a Warsaw Avenue Creative Campus, a "youth and family-centric campus for residents" based on the CDC's decision to strategically invest in local artists and arts programming.
Please enjoy the following excerpts from Laura's presentation, posted in three separate videos, below.
Sharing project documentation and examples of student thinking, and my own.