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.
Musicians can prove their value in an instant when they are involved in music education activities. But is their value clearly visible when they interact with a community as performers? This is a question that I have been carrying with me as I travel through my daily life, interacting with colleagues who are (mostly) Classical musicians, members of ensembles, and leaders of community-based organizations.
I find myself saying that it doesn't matter what the music is, or at least that the content is a trivial concern compared to the importance of making a human connection between performer and listener. This human connection occurs through creating empathy, or the ability to share the feelings of another person. Sure, intellectual engagement may be interesting, but the true and lasting impact of an aesthetic encounter comes from the special gift of experiencing its emotional meaning.
How do we achieve empathy? Through relevance. As Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History explains it metaphorically, relevance is a "key that unlocks meaning. It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives."
"Imagine a locked door. Behind the door is a room that holds something powerful—information, emotion, experience, value. The room is dazzling. The room is locked. Relevance is the key to that door. Without it, you can’t experience the magic that room has to offer. With it, you can enter. The power of relevance is not how connected that room is to what you already know. The power is in the experiences the room offers… and how wonderful it feels to open the door and walk inside."
After reading Nina Simon's The Art of Relevance last year, I have been begun proselytizing in earnest, including at Community MusicWorks where I lead professional development seminars for participants in its two-year Fellowship Program. I recently had the opportunity to work with the four Fellows to design an experiment in creating relevance: a series of visits to Butler Hospital, the psychiatric hospital across town.
At our first session together in Fall 2016, I asked the Fellows to come up with a new community (not the communities already served by Community MusicWorks) that could potentially benefit from interacting with a string quartet. As violinist Kate Outterbridge explained in an essay published later on National Sawdust's blog,
"Quickly, we discovered each of us has personally been touched by mental illness in some way, so we decided to work within the mental health community. Our personal experiences, combined with a common interest in developing creative expression, began an exploration to find a community in Providence that was interested in partnering with us to offer a series of workshops that would blend music and mindful being for the benefit of mental health."
I requested that the four Fellows "collaboratively draft a mission statement for the quartet residency project, something that tells us what you are going to accomplish so that we can measure its success." In response, they crafted the following sentence:
“We will deepen the connection between music and mental health through a residency that offers musical performances and group exercises that inspire the creative process, fostering a safe space for openness and expression.”
Next came the research and networking phase with the following prompts:
1. Who is the right partner for this project?
The group's research led to the conclusion that it would be important to try out their ideas in an environment that had the capacity to support the quartet's experimental activities. Butler Hospital's Healing Arts Program was immediately receptive to hosting the quartet, and a series of three activities for distinct patient populations (adolescent, adult, geriatric) was soon decided upon.
Noting the explicit challenge that the upcoming visits to Butler Hospital presented for her and her three colleagues, Kate Outterbridge wrote,
"There is always a risk, when entering a community as an outsider, of assuming what people need or want. It is easy to fall into the trap of delivering a service that we assume a community lacks. I believe through flexibility and an attempt to make deep personal connections, musicians can fight this “savior” mentality, and instead everyone can work together for a greater common goal: a genuine and meaningful music experience that benefits everyone in the room."
During the winter, leading up to the Butler Hospital visits in April 2017, we spent time refining the scope and ambition of the proposed residency activities, while also exploring the realities of budgeting and fundraising along the way.
As April approached, the Fellows worked together to design their three interactions with patients based on the following menu of proposed activities, collectively deciding to hone in on meditation, movement, and improvisation as their guiding priorities.
1. Ice breakers
Kate Outterbridge nicely reflected on the aspirations of the Fellows Quartet prior to arriving at Butler:
"Even with our limited time at Butler, we hope for ourselves and the participants to come away with a renewed outlook of the world. By sitting together in the moment, we hope to connect to each other on a deep level of consciousness. And through musical performance and creation, we hope to create an aesthetic experience that connects us to each other and reminds us of the beauty that is all around us. Between these shared moments and through this building of community, we are able to imagine new beginnings."
Later, following the hospital residency activities, the Fellows were impressively open and candid in their written reflections and self-assessments. Here are a selection of their responses:
"It was personally humbling to participate in the workshops. The response in each unit was so
Finally, at CMW's Fellowship Seminar in May 2017, the Fellows and I reviewed the design, planning, and execution of the Butler Hospital activities for an audience of CMW staff, board, and invited guests (including the coordinating staff member from the hospital).
Acknowledging that we may have only scratched the surface of what is possible through this experiment, I started the general discussion phase of the seminar with the following prompt:
"Based on this recent experience, can we identify some best or emerging practices that are important ingredients? Is there a recipe for replication in future seasons by a CMW ensemble? Is there something here, in this experimental experience, that contains the seeds of a new way for CMW (or any other organization) to present music?"
Posing the question, "How do we get people through the door to Beethoven?", I presented several favorite quotes from The Art of Relevance, looking for possible openings to examining how a chamber music-based organization might continue to experiment with how it presents its performances.
"We build relevance when we learn about people and connect with them on their terms... This is a simple two-step process. First, find a way to ask the person what brought them in. Then, find a way to affirm and build on their response."
If this level of thoughtfulness and attention to audience experience, exemplified by the CMW Fellows, is worth undertaking when visiting a hospital's patient population, why not make the effort when performing in any venue? I proposed a new script to follow in future performance situations: Engage, Affirm, Build on the response. All while brilliantly providing amazing music, of course, because as Nina Simon writes:
"Relevance is a paradox. It is essential; it gets people to pay attention, to walk in the door, to open their hearts. But it is also meaningless without powerful programming on the other side of the door."
We had a rich, searching conversation that day at Community MusicWorks, as is always the case with that particular group of special people. Unsurprisingly, we ran out of time before we could arrive at any shared agreement about next steps.
Surely, this journey towards relevance must continue in concert halls, on theater stages, in schools and hospitals, at farmers markets, and in living rooms everywhere. I believe it is necessary that we are explicit about the choice to prioritize empathy. To me, it is critically important in a society that is increasingly divided and segmented, each of us insistent on living in our own version of reality. I can't say if it is equally important for anyone else, but I'm entirely comfortable following the recommendation of esteemed arts researcher and practitioner Diane Ragsdale:
"We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people's eyes to the truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty."
Sharing excerpts of the learning happening in "Building a Community-Based Residency"