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.
Thursday, April 4 | 12:00-1:00
A recent addition to the NEC viola faculty, Nick is also Co-Artistic Director of Silkroad and a founding member of Brooklyn Rider, two ensembles with which he has traveled the globe and witnessed how music can transcend cultural differences. How does this experience of listening to the world influence his practice as a musician?
Wednesday, April 10 | 12:00-1:00
A bassoonist who co-founded Memphis’s PRIZM Ensemble, Lecolion recently relocated to become the Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston. How has his personal journey in music informed his plans to develop the CMCB of the 21st century?
Tuesday, April 23 | 12:00-1:00
Miki recently toured Alaska and West Virginia in a rented van with an electric upright piano. Her goal was to more deeply engage with audiences in rural communities. What was she able to learn from this unusual experiment about making her artistry more relevant?
Wednesday, April 24 | 12:00-1:00
An ethnomusicologist who was a student in NEC’s Third Stream Studies program in the 1980s, Alan chairs UMASS Lowell's music department where he teaches music business. How does he think about the economic factors, especially technology, shaping today's creative practice? How does he think about developing musicians in the 21st century?
Thursday, April 25 | 7:00-8:00
An NEC alumnus (MM'03), now Oberlin Conservatory's Associate Dean for Academic Support and Liaison to the Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Chris is a violist, educator, and administrator interested in the theory and practice of human rights, especially equal access to music performance and education. What does he see when he looks at the practices and aesthetics of classical music through the lens of diversity?
Monday, May 6 | 11:00-12:00
An alumna of Miriam Fried’s violin studio, Miki is a member of the Solera Quartet and A Far Cry. She is the inaugural recipient of the Sun-Law Vuillaume Fellowship. How has this unique opportunity to explore music's ability to connect people more deeply to one another shaped her thinking, her artistry?
Career Development Institute: Building a Chamber Music Residency (June 2019)
Designed for the Vera Quartet & Rockport Chamber Music Festival
Why is this institute necessary? Beyond competing as interchangeable artistic commodities on the presenting circuit, emerging professional ensembles can benefit from learning strategies and concrete skills for developing future place-based career opportunities. In this pilot version of the institute, Rockport Chamber Music Festival benefited from the ensemble’s local work in the short-term, and the four members of the Vera Quartet gained the long-term benefit of being better prepared to build a place-based residency, such as their own summer festival.
Photo by Andy Hurlbut
1. Address the Quartet’s identified top priorities: learning about fundraising and doing strategic planning for an artistic project concept.
2. Prepare the Quartet for its activities representing Rockport Chamber Music Festival in the Rockport community.
3. Demonstrate the potential to create deeper relationships between Rockport Chamber Music Festival artists and the Rockport community.
Tuesday, 10:00 am. Based on the Quartet’s expressed interest in learning how to apply fundraising concepts to their projected career development, we discussed appreciative inquiry, donor cultivation, and strategic communications. We built an experimental model for developing annual residencies across disparate geographical areas in order to consider building a sustainable career for the Quartet based on relationships with key stakeholders in specific communities.
Photo by Andy Hurlbut
Tuesday, 1:00. Continuing to prepare for the upcoming “pop up” events in Rockport, the Quartet members deepened their thinking through a conversation about best practices for engaging communities with NEC's Tanya Maggi, Dean, Community Engagement & Professional Studies.
Photo by Josue Gonzalez
Photo by Josue Gonzalez
Saturday, 1:00. Lori Correale, Rockport Music’s Development Director, provided an opportunity for the Quartet to take a deeper dive into examining annual fundraising strategy, including using the example of Rockport Chamber Music Festival to explore how a festival is built on an always-expanding web of relationships that, like a garden, necessitate carefully planned attention.
Saturday, 2:00. We spent our final hour together reflecting on the overall residency experience of the Quartet, both in Boston and in Rockport, with additional reflections shared by Barry Shiffman, Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s Artistic Director, and Josue Gonzalez, Director of Education & Partnerships. Barry articulated the value of developing an emerging professional ensemble’s investment in a “constant state of thinking, observation, and awareness.”
A Quartet member explained that the open-minded discussions were valuable for leading them to adopt new thinking and activities, even if indirectly and in the future. For next time, the Quartet members asked for more and repeat “pop up” opportunities, allowing them to both reflect on their work and improve upon it. It was generally agreed that there would be significant benefit from more time spent thinking strategically, including getting better acquainted before working together and beginning the “pop up” planning earlier.
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!
Sharing project documentation and examples of student thinking, and my own.