League Conference 2013: Learning from New Ensembles

Moderated by Norman Ryan, Vice President of Composers and Repertoire at Schott Music Corporation, the panel for this session included Amy Garapic, Co-Executive Director of Contemporaneous; Beth Perdue Outland, Vice President of Community Engagement  and Strategic Innovation, Indianapolis Symphony; Jen Richards, Managing Director, eighth blackbird; and Julia Rubio, Executive Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra.

The session description was: Orchestras often look to smaller, younger, more flexible and innovative orchestral ensembles for inspiration. Likewise, many of these newer ensembles wish for the advantages of staff, a regular venue, legacy, and access to resources. Even with the common ground of vibrant music-making, what can we learn from these new organizations, and what might they learn from us?

eighth blackbird full

Eighth Blackbird

You can watch this session in its entirety at the League Conference webpage.

Norman Ryan introduced the panelists, and talked about his working in programming at Lincoln Center in the mid 1980s, when programming choices were not at all risky – usually an overture, a concerto, and a symphony, with a great artist who was a star to drive the concert. He eventually left that environment to work with composers; he’s seen a burst of energy in entrepreneurship in both composers and new ensembles, and not just in New York City but across the country, Canada and the world. It’s been a parallel development with the development of young talented composers. He’s impressed with the commitment that ensembles make for more successful collaborations, and better music.

He focused on a New York Times article, published December 12, 2004, titled “The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later” where the author tracked down 44 instrumentalists who had graduated from Juilliard in 1994. Half of them were no longer in music at all, professionally; their occupations included an English teacher in Japan, a fitness trainer, a salesperson at Tiffany’s, an insurance underwriter, and a network engineer for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. The comments from the graduates in the article were varying: How can I be useful as a musician? What’ s my purpose? What’s my worth. [Note: This article was recently discussed on ICSOM’s Orchestra-L.]

Amy Garapic of Contemporaneous is also a founding member of the percussion trio TIGUE and performs new music extensively, with Bang on a Can and elsewhere. Contemporaneous is an ensemble with 19 musicians who perform music of living composers. She described the group as possessing unbridled creativity, and encouraging possibility, risk and challenge. “For many of us in the new music ensemble world, we’re excited to get up there and create as much music as we can – we find alternative ways to support ourselves.” She said that there was no new music when she arrived at Bard, where she is a percussion teaching fellow. Contemporaneous was founded because they wanted to have their own voice and be spokespersons for composers who had their own voice. But it’s not a way to pay the bills.

The group is now three years old – one of the hardest things was the initial phase of generating excitement and commitment. Bard is a very small community (it’s a “magical nugget up in the Hudson Valley’), and they were able to generate initial excitement locally. Then they started repeating their concerts in the city [New York City].

Jen Richards of eighth blackbird is the former president of New Music Chicago. She spoke about the group’s intensive residencies over the years and suggested that the drivers and key to their successful 17 seasons is perseverance – they have now achieved a degree of stability. She was their first staff person – the first in twelve years. Before she arrived, the musicians did everything themselves, but the demand for administrative work was cutting into their rehearsal time.

The group is now experiencing a bit of “founder syndrome,” where the musicians don’t know everything that’s going on – they still want to hold onto everything but know that they can’t. They recently held a strategic visioning retreat with consultant Tom Morris, to determine how to become an institution that will outlast them. They want eighth blackbird to be legacy based, beyond the personalities of the people involved, to become a pedagogical approach. This type of thinking opens up residency work where they can teach their approach.

The group has only had two replacements over the past 17 years. 20 years from now, eighth blackbird will still be going strong but most likely no original members will be involved.

Question: Norman asked about staffing issues at Contemporaneous and eighth blackbird.

Amy: If there’s a board, it’s a working board. Contemporaneous established a core group mission, where each member has responsibilities and finds ways to contribute. The rest of the musicians approached us; they wanted to be more involved, help run it and feel an ownership, and be involved in decisions, not just be musicians that came to play a concert. However, this is problematic –  having 19 people trying to make decisions isn’t particularly easy. Many of our concerts are in small venues but it’s more of a community event – we generate a buzz around what we do because the musicians are excited about what they do.

Jen: We had epic business meetings when I was first involved with eighth blackbird. Everything was very laborious. Finally we created subcommittees, with only two musicians plus me; this helped a lot. There’s been a lot of professionalization over the years; we now have a full-time finance manager. But if we’re planning marketing for a benefit, the musicians will want to be more involved. There will always be a tension. There’s a huge difference from a start up, where the musicians do everything, to orchestral musician who show up to play and are totally disengaged.

Norman’s question for Beth : How do you confront this idea of orchestral musicians feeling trapped or stifled?

Beth: Indianapolis has an ensemble in residence, which was really an opportunistic accident. Our concertmaster, Zachary de Pue, is part of Time for Three, a trio of crazy hyper-talented musicians who met at Curtis but feel the need to operate outside the standard box of the orchestra. So I thought, what if we have part of a smaller ensemble that can operate differently within the larger machine?

We took them in and allowed them to apply their sensitivity, and told then, “Don’t be beholden to genre.” How do we make room for that in our organization? We had started a Happy Hour series for young professionals and we were failing at that. We found the trio the curatorial time, and we stepped aside and let them do the Happy Hour series. They totally changed the concert format. Did that scare us? Yes. And it scared our musicians. But it was successful.

We had a lot of formatting matchups – Beethoven and Coldplay, Stravinsky and Katy Perry. We got arrangers to find the thematic content, and integrated them to create new pieces. The series got a large following, and it birthed a new FORTE professional organization that supports the orchestra, which has tripled in membership over the last three years. We did a 40 minute play through of Brahms and Radiohead. It was wildly successful. But it can’t just be about matchups. It’s hard to do pop-ups with whole orchestra but you can do it with small ensembles. And we’re finding that most of the rest of the musicians want to be part of it; they keep asking, “What’s next?”

That led to William Bolcolm – he met Time for Three, saw what they could do, and saw what the orchestra could do, having worked with them. He wrote Games and Challenges: Something Wonderful Right Away, a complete piece for orchestra and Time for Three, based on improvisations of Second City. Giving the trio curatorial responsibility expands the palette of what the orchestra can do, and expands the audience’s perspective on what it means to go to an orchestra concert.

Norman: What types of venues do you use? Are these audiences coming back to Symphony Hall? What institutional barriers did you encounter?

Beth: The demands for Time for Three are pouring in – schools, department stores, etc. They have a 14-week residency, and we gave them more time, time to create more programs on different series. Some weeks are incubation weeks for them: we leave them alone and they become a stronger ensemble. Then we put the administrative structure in place – community placements. We had to let go of some of our preconceived notions about placing an ensemble. They played for a major donor, and the board president was concerned that they didn’t have a play list. But they just “feel the room” and improvise on the fly.

We have to trust them to do what they do. I’m not going to direct every second of  what they play, how long, what they wear, etc. And it’s integrated with artistic planning – they work with the orchestra musicians as they learn to improvise and understand jamming.

Norman: How many musicians are involved in these programs? Do they have a say about participating?

Beth: Mostly we use Time for Three as our ensemble in residence, with their own unique brand identity. And they take the ISO brand identity out with them. Sometimes we use them with full orchestra, so they’re seen as part of, and working together, with the full orchestra. There is a subset of other musicians, such as our electric jazz bassoonist, so during the curatorial phase, they worked with the arrangers to make use of this unique asset. The are identifying the unique skills in the orchestra and finding ways to elevate them – this makes it much more satisfying for those who want to stretch.

Norman question for  Julia Rubio: What is the socially-responsible mission of Black Pearl?

Julia: We are a traditional orchestra, repertoire-wise, with an ethnically diverse mix of musicians. Our conductor is an African-American woman [Jeri Lynne Johnson], and our mission is to normalize diversity in the field. It’s been a personal journey for me – I’ve been involved with classical music  for many years, and I had many stereotypes and assumptions about audiences, etc.

Historically, the experience of participating in classical music for many members of our community has been a painful one. There are people who come into our concert halls and they feel pain; they feel not welcome, or ‘I don’t fit in.’ Our answer is evolving. The first step is that the folks on stage reflect our community. Philadelphia is 50% non-white. For orchestras it’s 2%. There’s a huge disconnect.

It starts with our changing our vocabulary. We don’t use words like “minority” or “inclusion” (i.e., we’ll bring you into our world). We use “socially responsible” rather than “outreach.” We are normalizing diversity rather than bringing in minorities to the concert hall. Our audience is 60% African American and Latino, and 50% are under 50. We don’t want to have the experience where an African-American mother can’t bring her son to a concert and show him someone who looks like him.

We don’t want to be a “black” orchestra or a “Latino” orchestra – we’re not separate but equal. The Kimmel Center is our home too. And it’s not about just a certain social demographic in the city.

The other piece is a hands-on component, which is hard to do with orchestral music. We now have programming that brings people onstage to conduct. We have a program called “I Conduct,” and another called “Orchestrating Leadership.” We hold a workshop at a school, after school, and we teach leadership skills through conducting. And during concerts, we bring people from the audience up to conduct Beethoven 5. It’s simple and it doesn’t cost anything. Why not? We’re asking ourselves “Why not?” all the time.

Norman: I love the I Conduct program. I was looking at some of the  videos on your website and seeing kids doing this. What do the kids get out of it?

Julia: Our goal with our after-school residency program is not to create musicians. We’re empowering these kids as individuals. You give them a baton and put them in front of our professional musicians – that’s a powerful position. And we ask the musicians not to just play the piece – they do a bad job if they student is terrible. And it’s as much about self-empowerment – at the end of the 12-week program, we can see changes in the kids. They’re speaking more articulately, they’re composed, conducting well, and making eye contact. It’s all very experimental; we’re still learning how to capture it.

We’re careful in choosing venues – we try to avoid the 50 tickets and a bus scenario. Most of our activities are in the community. Passing out tickets and providing a bus tends to feed the problem – “We were brought in for a special concert.” It still creates this sense that they’re not part of the concert audience. We need to both play in their communities AND bring them in. Let them know that they’re welcome in these venues.

Amy to Beth: How much of a burden is it to support this trio?

Beth: We need an organizational culture that’s willing to adapt and be flexible. We can build new relationships for now, as we have revenue streams from unexpected donors. There’s also an infrastructure in place, with staff time and a change in our production capacity. There’s a lot of work involved but it’s all forward thinking and what you learn is applicable.

Amy: Composers have written pieces for us that directly involve the audience.

Jen: It’s no longer sufficient to play good music very well. Most of my colleagues see this as boring – they prefer a start-up that has an element of risk  The ISO ceded control to the trio, which is very hard for an organization to do. There’s a burgeoning new music culture in Chicago, which is all musician led, where we have to do things ourselves. It naturally flows out of our situation. It’s taken a dire situation in orchestras for them to see that they must do something different.

Norman: If you’re harnessing creative partnership ideas, which are core to start-ups, you’re expanding the infrastructure.

Julia: You’re changing the culture – that’s where it starts and these are huge issues. You’re changing the culture in your staff, but it’s not just about the strategic plan directives, or tactics or branding. It’s about changing the core of understanding your community, and seeing them in a different way.

Norman: There’s a balance of taking risk but staying stable. You all have proven that this is critical.

Question about Super Storm Sandy: Why didn’t the Brooklyn Philharmonic or the New Jersey Symphony jump in and do something about it. The NJ Symphony should have been standing there next to the governor!

Beth: Flexibility is very challenging for orchestras. We plan our seasons two or three years ahead, we’ve used up our services, the conductor has engagements – it’s very hard to be opportunistic. But having a relationship with the ensemble has enabled us to be opportunistic, and they can represent the values of the orchestra. This can then become R&D for us and can become part of the planning. But the large institutions have a really hard time with that kind of flexibility.

Norman: Opera companies are doing this more and  more with second stage performances – taking chances and risks with a new production and being opportunistic. How do orchestras do more with that?

Jen: We haven’t done this but we think about it a lot. We’re programming an eighth blackbird concert where we don’t say what we were going to play. It’s like opening a present from Mom – you don’t know what it is but you know you’ll like it because it’s from Mom. What if orchestras had 1 or 2 programs a year where you don’t announce the program – you use the core musicians only and no soloists – this could allow for the flexibility to respond to a Sandy. A day where we say, “We’re going to be doing something – trust us!”

Question: How are music schools training musicians? We seem to be stuck in a  19th century paradigm, which is completely disconnected from what’s happening out there. How can ensembles like eight blackbird have a paradigm-shifting impact on music schools?

Jen: Both are happened. To use a bad word, there’s “tokenizing,” where people say, well, over there is some new music, and then we’re forgotten. The Mellon Foundation approached eighth blackbird and said, “We’d like you to apply for a big grant.” We were thinking about out legacy and we wanted to partner with an institution to make our paradigm shift in pedagogy happen. It quickly came down to two institutions.  The obvious choice was Oberlin – blackbird emerged from there, and there’s a culture of new music there. But we chose not to go there but instead we went to Curtis, which is a very classically traditional conservatory. But our approach was that there, we would have a much bigger impact, because they turn out so many concertmasters and leaders in the field. If it’s successful, it will be because of a few people at the institution who have buy in. You have to have people who are willing to take a risk with you.

It’s hard to carve out a career in music, as shown in the Times article. Even if you get a job, it’s not clear that you’ll enjoy it. Groups like eighth blackbird are giving musicians a different way to be an engaged musician. Our newest violinist left her stable position as assistant concertmaster at Washington’s National Opera because she wanted to be more engaged, musically, artistically and even administratively. That’s becoming more appealing. If we see more orchestras partnering with new ensembles, we’ll see more possibilities.

It’s almost cruel that we allow so many musicians to matriculate from conservatories. We don’t tell them that this is not what they’re going to do for a living. It’s fine if you want to go through this training because you really enjoy it and you’re going to be an amateur musician. We need to be more honest about this and show them more alternatives to a traditional orchestra path.

Jim Holt from the League: What advice and challenge to the people in the room can you give about what they can do to start these types of projects? What’s the first step they can take?

Julia: Don’t be too hard on yourselves. As a field we’ll work towards this and one day it won’t be an issue anymore. Get out in the community – volunteer in something that has nothing to do with the arts. Make it part of the culture of the organization that you work for, such as a Day of Service with an AIDS walk, a homeless shelter, a community garden. Take risks, and partner with organizations.

Jen: Partner with young organizations and take risks. Take risks.

Beth: Start with community needs – know your community needs, and musicians are part of that. Don’t leave them out. Get them involved in building community relationships. How are they involved – because they’re the people with sticky tentacles who are going to draw people back as well. And also risk tolerance – you have to develop a comfort for failing.

Jen: Being comfortable with failure goes along with risk. 90% of everything I’ve started has failed, but then you get known for that 10%.

Amy: We’re just looking to get out and play. We have a little buzz in our communities – it would be exciting to see us work with musicians in larger organizations to build relationship.

Norman: Talk to composers and publishers directly – if you have a project in mind, talk to people. The idea is getting music out there, and encouraging you to take risks, not discouraging you.

Beth: If everybody loves it, you’re probably not taking a big enough risk.



About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

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