Back in 2006 when I was being recruited by NEC I found myself being interviewed by countless people – faculty, Board members, staff, donors, community. You name it and I met them. At the time I was transitioning from a career that had been almost exclusively devoted to managing orchestras both in this country and the U.K. I had established very firm opinions about the problems facing the arts in general and music in particular, from the end user perspective of an employer of musicians. And I had come to a conclusion, which, like so many conclusions and epiphanies, was blindingly obvious.
I had always believed that organizations changed because of inspired leadership from the top. I also thought that ever improving standards of performance were the raison d’être for all orchestras and was therefore immutable. The lightening strike of the cognitive zap was simply that change needs to happen from the grass roots (the current Middle East being a great example) with help from the top. Yes, excellence in performance was a given and our national default system. But if musicians really wanted to change the world and become leaders in their communities, they needed new “extra-musical” skills.
During my marathon series of interviews I spoke about this in what must have been a sort of protean way. But I think it was clear. This was on my agenda as part of the future direction that I would wish to pursue at NEC.
Four years on and these thoughts and reflections have become programs and initiatives. The Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory is fully formed and producing outstanding young leaders who, inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, are blazing a new trail nationally.
To develop our students’ “extra musical” skills, we have created a highly defined, and I am delighted to say, highly successful Entrepreneurial Musicianship program. This program is directed by Rachel Roberts, a young and very dynamic musician originally from Eastman and latterly the management team of the Atlanta Symphony. Assisted by Eva Heinstein, Rachel has galvanized interest from faculty and students alike. Getting this initiative off the ground has required great energy and support from across the organization, but I am pleased to say people seem to get it. Students are already aware that more will be required of them and that reinvention is the order of the day. The faculty acknowledges that reality as well. So it was mostly a matter of harnessing these energies, bringing them together with much that already exists, and adding to them in an intelligent way. Some early investors, who really believed in this new direction, provided the funding necessary.
Entrepreneurial Musicianship is basically a way of thinking about the future of music and musicians. It is about new skills, but more importantly it is about the relevance of music in our society and the need for new leadership to breathe oxygen into a situation gasping for air. Its starting point acknowledges the foundations of musicianship, technique, the essential importance of the studio teacher. Then it adds the necessary new layers . . . how do you program, what is an audience, how many audiences are there within one audience, what makes for effective presentation and communication, how do you meet the needs of the community, how do you raise money, how do you make your presence known through PR and marketing, how do you plan for the future, how do you resolve conflicts and what is the best leadership model? All these issues are discussed and taught in the most experiential way. With such a cutting edge approach to the real world combined with their innate idealism and energy, students can learn to move mountains.
There is one special program within the Entrepreneurial Musicianship program that I would like to spotlight. It’s called quite simply “Entrepreneurial Grants.” Its purpose is to encourage new thinking and new experiences from brainstorming and creating a project through the process of securing a grant. The purpose of an Entrepreneurial project can be various – a new music business, new concert formats, the use of technology as an enhancement to music appreciation. The maximum grant award is $1500. It represents the first experience that nearly every student will have in raising money in order to make their dreams come true.
What students have to go through is highly detailed and requires them to have a pretty good understanding of planning, articulating, budgeting, and marketing a project. They do not do this alone. Rachel and Eva meet with each applicant early in the process to discuss project ideas. Then the applicants come to the great experience of presenting their proposal to a panel which comprises faculty, staff, and a student previously awarded a grant. They are grilled in the interview—an experience that will give them a true idea of what is required in terms of preparation, thinking and delivery, to make their ideas absolutely compelling. Once, applicants have been awarded their grants, we provide them with advisors who offer expert advice as plans are executed.
I confess I get a real kick out of being involved with this program both on the panel and working as an advisor. It’s not just about possibility; it’s also about hearing these brilliant young musicians talk about their concerns and dreams for their art form, where it is now, what they are reading and hearing about the crisis facing performing organizations, and the attitudes of funders, audiences and communities. Sometimes what they say is very inarticulate, but the very business of speaking about their concerns and their solutions, make it real and articulate. Just listen to this from Michael Dahlberg, a young undergraduate cellist who combines a seriousness of intent with natural good humour. He was part of a class I gave on communications skills and I selected him to read the most famous Shakespearean soliloquy of all time. So for me he is forever “My Lord Hamlet.” This was how he described the need for his new project in his application and what he wants to achieve.
“The frontal format of a conventional concert, where the audience is asked to sit in darkness and focus their attention on the music alone denies the audience the multilayered experience that could spark their curiosity. I believe the concert format must create multiple access points.
Our format will connect the music to something the audience finds familiar, while expanding on previous knowledge and questioning preconceived notions of classical music. It will excite and challenge the audience’s ear through guided listening and audience participation. The performers will dress casually and mingle with the audience, creating important personal connections. Additionally, everyone will be encouraged to eat, drink, and chat.”
This is not yet fully formed but it contains the essence of reinvention and new thinking. It is the germ that inspired the new ideas and approaches of the chamber orchestra A Far Cry, the challenging journey of English cellist Peter Gregson, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, the new format and fun of the Parker String Quartet playing Bartok and Ligeti in night clubs, and the repertoire discoveries and courageous presentation approach of cellist Matt Haimovitz.
Much of my writing in this new blog has been about the challenges facing classical music and large artistic organizations. Through the Entrepreneurial Grant program, I’m seeing a trend of our young students: they are examining ways to create a freshness around repertoire, engaging and educating (young!) audiences, and continuing to provide a vibrant, living tradition of music. Below is only a sampling of the creative projects NEC students are producing with their Entrepreneurial Grants (visit here to see the full listing of all Entrepreneurial Grant awards):
• Parlor Night is a bi-monthly chamber music series at the LilyPad in Cambridge. A collaboration between Michael Dahlberg, his LilyPad String Quartet, and venue owner Gill Aharon, Parlor Night aims to transform the perception and conventional presentation of live classical music performance in Greater Boston. The mission is three fold: to find new performance formats that attract audiences, to make classical music a social convener, and to cultivate deeper relationships between professional musicians and the communities that they are part of.
• Samantha Angstman, along with partners Michael Dabroski and Sofia Hirsch, co-founded the Burlington Ensemble (BE), an organization dedicated to creating benefit concerts that build new audiences and serve the Burlington, Vermont community. After completing a pilot summer concert series at the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington, BE has launched a new 90/10 series—10% of the proceeds is used to cover concert costs, and the remaining 90% is donated to partnering Vermont nonprofit organizations such as the Stern Center for Language and Learning, Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation, Committee on Temporary Shelter, and KidSafe Collaboration.
• Colin Thurmond is curating a concert titled Acoustica/Electronica, which will be included in this year’s Together Festival. By bringing classical and electronic genres into conversation with one another, Acoustica/Electronica will enable young musicians at NEC and beyond to express their diverse musical realities, which include both classical and non-classical influences. The concert will also include ‘sound painting’ – an improvisatory collaboration between visual artist Josh Wisdumb, DJ Rich Chwastiak, guitarist Colin Thurmond and a string quartet comprised of NEC students.
• Wayne Shen is developing Project Violin, a new venture that will provide high-level violin instructional videos online. This service aims to mitigate the decline in violin instruction in grade schools around the country and the high cost of private lessons. Project Violin will serve as an educational resource for students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to access high-level instruction, and will also provide an alternative mode of study that utilizes the Internet, a medium that is central to the lives of young students today.
• Andres Lopera and Cecilia Huerta have teamed with Villa Victoria to launch the Boston Latin-American Orchestra (BLO). This chamber orchestra is comprised of twenty-two current and former NEC students as well as musicians from the Greater Boston area. BLO aims to present Latin-American orchestral music and in so doing, create a space where Latino culture can be celebrated and shared.
Larry Lesser, who was President of NEC from 1983 to 1996 and is still a great member of our faculty, and José Antonio Abreu, founder of the El Sistema movement in Venezuela, both offered me the same counsel in years past. “Always trust the power of the young.” World politics is telling us that this is certainly the way to go. Music now just needs to harness the energy of these new leaders and then enjoy the ride.
Fall grant recipient Ryan Maguire’s multimedia project, City to Summit, aims to highlight issues of conservation through film and new music.