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."
A series of free events featuring curated conversations with musicians—including NEC alumni—who are creating their own opportunities, building their careers, and taking initiative to make their musicianship relevant to society.
Events will be held in the President's Library (Jordan Hall building, 2nd floor) unless otherwise noted. Please join us, and feel free to bring your dinner!
Monday, January 30, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
Tracking the growth of El Sistema in Boston
NEC’s Sistema Fellows Program ran from 2009 to 2014, contributing to the growth of numerous El Sistema-inspired initiatives in Boston. What do these programs look like now, what are their current challenges, and where are they headed in the future?
Avi Mehta, Margarita Muniz Academy (Sistema Fellow ‘12)
Graciela Briceno, Josiah Quincy Orchestra Program (Sistema Fellow ‘11)
David France, Revolution of Hope (Sistema Fellow ‘12)
Julie Davis, Bridge Boston Charter School (Sistema Fellow '12)
Josue Gonzalez, Conservatory Lab Charter School
Wednesday, February 8, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
Palaver Strings: Planning for our future
Palaver Strings is a three-year-old musician-led initiative “passionate about taking classical music beyond the concert hall to engage with diverse and new audiences.” As the Palaver musicians look to create a long-term community-based residency that balances performance and education, where will this path lead them? How will they get there? Palaver members discuss the results of recent strategic planning efforts.
Maya French, Executive Director; violin
Matthew Smith, Community Engagement/Development Coordinator; cello
Kiyoshi Hayashi, Education/Community Engagement Coordinator; violin (BM ’16)
Alex Goodin, Education Coordinator/Marketeer; bass
Monday, February 13, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
Thread Ensemble: Using improvised music to connect to our lived experiences
Thread Ensemble formed at NEC in 2012 to explore a shared love of improvisation and storytelling. As it evolves, the ensemble is exploring how to “curate the connection between listeners’ lived experiences and improvised music.” How do they do this? Get a peek under the hood as Thread demonstrates how it “adapts to each unique audience and environment with original music created in the moment.”
Rachel Panitch, violin (MM ’13)
Abigale Reisman, violin (MM ’13)
Andria Nicodemou, vibraphone and percussion (MM ’13)
Tuesday, February 28, 2017 5:45-7:45 pm (location: St. Botolph 311)
The Artist‐as‐Entrepreneur: A critical look at the "21st Century Musician" model
Tanya Kalmanovitch co-designed and teaches ENTP551: The Entrepreneurial Musician, a course for NEC’s graduate students. In this presentation, Tanya will critique the popular concept of entrepreneurship in music and promote a “more nuanced conversation about the future of music and the professional musician.”
Dr. Tanya Kalmanovitch, NEC Faculty, Entrepreneurial Musicianship, Contemporary Improvisation
Thursday, March 2, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
Roundtable discussion: Developing community-based music initiatives
Last year, 14 musicians participated in a weekly course that supported them to design and build their own community-based artistic endeavors. This is an opportunity to check in and see how their work is progressing. What are the biggest challenges? What are resources that they have discovered? How have their ideas and strategies changed?
Alumni of Building a Community-based Residency
Monday, March 6, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
Castle of our Skins: Celebrating Black artistry through music
Castle of our Skins uses concerts and educational workshops as vehicles to invite “exploration into Black heritage and a curiosity for Black culture.” What started out as an idea for a single concert has since grown into an organization attempting to promote cultural pride, curiosity, and harmony “through and beyond music.” How does the organization think about achieving this vision? What are the next steps?
Ashleigh Gordon, Co-Founder; viola (MM ’08)
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
School of HONK: Activist street bands and making music joyful
School of HONK meets every Sunday afternoon to make spontaneous music and parade through the streets of Somerville. Anyone can join in, and novices are welcome. How is this different from other music education initiatives? How does the tradition of activist street bands help us to look at music differently?
Kevin Leppman, Executive Director; Co-Founder, HONK! Festival
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 5:45-7:15 pm
How to survive as a freelance singer in Boston
How do classically-trained vocalists navigate building a professional freelance career in Boston? What are opportunities to embrace? What are pitfalls to avoid?
Lindsay Conrad, freelance soprano, Co-Director, Opera On Tap Boston; Production Assistant, Boston Lyric Opera (MM '11)
Seth Grondin, freelance bass-baritone, Executive Director, New School of Music
Bethany Worrell, freelance soprano (MM '11)
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 7:00-8:30 pm
musiConnects at 10: Performing, teaching, and creative placemaking
Since 2007, musiConnects has been learning to “model and teach self-expression, peer leadership and community development through the transformative power of chamber music.” What does this work look like in its tenth year? How does the organization support its community-based musicians to pursue this mission as both performers and educators?
Betsy Hinkle, Founder & Artistic Director; violin (MM ’01)
Jason Amos, Resident Musician; viola (GD '09)
Nancy Galluzzo, Executive Director
Friday, April 28, 2017 3:30-5:00 pm
Kithara Project: Social change through classical guitar education
With program sites in Boston and Mexico City, the Kithara Project is looking to change the life trajectories of children through learning to play the guitar. How do the founders balance leading this work with active performing careers? What are their ambitions and next steps?
Adam Levin, Co-Founder; guitar (MM ’08)
Matthew Rohde, Co-Founder; guitar
I'm grateful for this contribution from Karen Holvik, (chair, NEC voice department) following up on the March 2017 conversation about surviving in Boston as a freelance singer.
When I first got to New York City, my Upper West Side neighborhood was still not gentrified, so the pawn shop was close by. I bought a manual typewriter because it was cheap, and found a Typing for Dummies book at Coliseum Books (now gone, sadly) on 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall. I taught myself to type -badly- and signed up with a temp agency.
Since I didn’t have good typing skills, I was sent out on receptionist jobs, which came in handy when I finally landed a job at a major law firm in Rockefeller Center that had an in-house temp arrangement called a "floater pool” which was made up of singers, dancers, actors, writers, etc. It was great because we could do auditions, concert gigs, even short tours, and still have a job when we returned. (Renee Fleming worked there at one point.)
The arrangement fell apart when the firm hired a new personnel manager who didn’t want people to be coming and going so much. I was lucky enough to inherit a job from a friend who was working for a solo practitioner attorney in another Rock Center building. That’s where my typing really improved! I hated office work, but until I decided to quit so I could be more free to travel, this job served me well.
I had other survival jobs in NYC, but the office work was what kept me going the longest. As I tell my students, we all have to decide what we're willing to do to finance our lives as we follow our dreams.
"I came to the Wednesday evening discussion after an intense forty-eight hours. Literally every waking moment that I was not rehearsing, teaching, in a meeting, driving, or eating, I had spent furiously writing a grant. The discussion was a relief because I walked into a room of people who knew exactly what my crazy forty-eight hours felt like. They had all been there before and they were talking about it! Both the practical challenges and the philosophical questions we all ponder, and why we started our organizations in the first place. I felt less alone.
It is rare that I get to have such important conversations with fellow musicians who understand my working life, because we are all so busy trying to make our projects happen! I learned so much from the questions that were posed and the experiences that were shared.
I made it a priority to attend #MusiciansAtWork because Palaver Strings had been coming up in my newsfeeds and emails lately, and I wanted to get to know the group better, as well as connect with other attendees who I knew are also part of Boston's cultural ecosystem.
Heath has a gift for bringing together passionate, motivated, intelligent people and getting them to have important conversations. He asks amazing questions that get to the heart of the matter. He does it in such an honest way that it invites others to also be honest and vulnerable in their responses. #MusiciansAtWork discussions fill a great need for community, encouragement, reflection, and learning from each other. I don't know of any other place where this happens."
Sharing excerpts of the learning happening in "Building a Community-Based Residency"