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 student project documentation and, more recently, my own.