Trust the Power of the Young

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.

Inter-NEC collaborative project

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.


Nell Shaw Cohen Grant recipient 2010

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.

NEC student practicing age old art of busking

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.

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7 Responses to Trust the Power of the Young

  1. Larry Fried says:

    You didn’t mention whether the program is mandatory or optional for NEC students. I truly hope it is mandatory!! (I am an NEC grad, class of 1975.)

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    Firstly Tony, if you feel I am dominating your website with my views on the state of classical music, please remove my post.

    When situations are traumatic, the human mind tries to make the situation normal. There was a recent case of an aircraft which caught fire on the runway. While the crew were evacuating the aircraft, a few passengers were calmly taking their hand luggage from the overhead compartments, they were trying to make the situation feel normal.
    The state of classical music is not that traumatic of course. However the task is so immense – how to ensure the employment of large full time symphony orchestras in recession hit cities – that we calmly evade the problem and talk about small community projects. They may be worthy in themselves, but they are not going to save classical music.
    I feel your article evades the question, and instead tries to create optimism by saying young music students will save the day. Our generation created the situation we are now in. We wrecked the classical music scene. We insisted the music played was unpopular; we insisted that classical music was esoteric; we used buzz words and phrases like ‘cutting edge’, ‘provocative’, ‘dangerous’, ‘questioning’, when all people wanted to do was go out and enjoy themselves. We felt especially qualified to tell people what music was good for them.
    We are now saying, we created this mess, please students, sort it out for us.
    Our generation should have created a thriving classical music scene so that young people had an opportunity to enter a thriving profession. That is what happened in rock, folk, country, soul, R and B, MOR and film music.

    If I go to a cafe and say “I fancy a cup of strong coffee and a slice of iced lemon cake”, that is what I get.
    If arts managers and administrators were to run cafes they would say “that is bad for you, here you are going to have chamomile tea and a tofu salad – it’s good for you! We are not popularist and we certainly don’t pander to customers like you”.

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  4. @Ian Stewart

    Our generation should have created a thriving classical music scene so that young people had an opportunity to enter a thriving profession. That is what happened in rock, folk, country, soul, R and B, MOR and film music.

    I think the problem is that that hasn’t happened (or isn’t happening) in those other genres either. Granted, the recession hasn’t helped, and neither has the growing “digital download revolution” but Douglas Dempster, after describing that while the classical music’s market share in from 1989-1998 shrank from 3.6 percent to 3.3 percent–but the market got bigger. Which means that given the population growth the market has grown nearly 100% during those years. Classical music went from being a $237 million market in ’89 to a $453 million market in ’98.

    “Having only 3.3 percent of the U.S. recording market, one might argue, is nothing to brag about. Even if there had been no decline in market share, some would see a crisis in the mere fact that classical music holds such a small share of the musical interest of Americans. But this has to be put in context. If market share is any measure of cultural health, the real crisis in American musical culture is in rock-and-roll, which sank from a 41.7 percent share of the market in 1989 to 25.7 percent in 1998. That’s what I call a sustained and precipitous decline. Jazz has lost half its market share, sinking in 10 years from 4.9 percent of the market to a tiny 1.9 percent. Pop and “new age” have lost one-third to one-half of their market shares over this period. Country music has approximately doubled in its share of the music marketplace, but still controls only 14 percent of the market. If there is any very clear trend in the sale of recordings in the U.S., it is a trend toward musical tastes becoming more fragmented and more eclectic. The marketplace for music recordings is now less dominated by any one musical style.

    In a cultural marketplace of this kind, the remarkable fact is that the audience for classical music has grown along with the general growth of the recording industry.”

    Granted, this was nearly ten years ago, and only deals with the recording industry side, but he’s cautiously pessimistic in his piece, but also thinks that in talks about Classical Music, we always turn to Symphony Orchestras, and he has this to say about that:

    I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

    To illustrate: it’s true that professional orchestras have struggled financially as they have reached various limits on audience size, cost-cutting, fundraising, and expansion of programs. However, at the same time that orchestras have struggled financially, chamber music is enjoying enormous growth in the U.S.31 While it’s not the whole story, the mobility and cost-effectiveness of chambermusic groups surely contribute very significantly to the comparative economic success of chamber music. The struggles of symphony orchestras are reported everywhere in the press, but one hears little about the growth of chamber music.

    Part of the problem is by only referring to the fortunes of Symphonic organizations and using that as a measure for the success of Classical music, we leave out all the smaller ensembles, many of which were getting to be successful. I’m sure part of that has as much to do with their relative size and ability to adapt a bit more quickly to changing circumstance, but it probably also says a lot about just sheer size–operating costs are negligible in a chamber group compared to that for a full sized symphony.

    Here’s Dempsters piece in whole:

    Anne Midgette also posted a recent blog about usage of the computers and the internet to access classical music here:

    Relevant quote:

    A survey released in 2008 indicated a steep decline in audience participation in the performing arts. But it turns out the data paints quite a different picture when analyzed differently — when the definition of “participation” is expanded to include more than simply buying a ticket to something. The 2008 survey told us that only some 35% of adults attended a performance or visited a museum; but the new survey pulls the lens back and realizes that 75% of adults interacted with art in some form via their computers.

    And classical music is leading the way: 18% of that audience participated in classical music, more than any other kind of art (Latin music, visual and literary arts followed: 15% each). That’s notable because classical and Latin are thought of as niche genres.

    She continues:

    This is really great news. It proves that there is, indeed, a healthy interest in classical music. As I’ve said all along, the field itself isn’t endangered: the music will prevail, and people will continue to find new ways to discover it, hear it, make it.

    But it also proves that the old institutions are being left in the dust. Classical music has the highest participation of any art, and ticket sales are still tanking (as the same data demonstrates)? This is more evidence, say I, that orchestras in particular are going to have to continue to work to expand their role if they want to stay alive in an era that loves classical music more than ever but is happy to pursue it without them.

    Which I think echoes what Dempster said over ten years ago. Add in the fact that attendance at all big live events, including sports (since there’s tons talk about lockouts by next year), is slowly declining I think as far as an institution, classical music is holding its own much better than “popular culture.’ Problem is, as long as we define the success and fortune of classical music with Symphony Orchestras (and Ballets and Opera companies) and not other organizations (like Chamber music groups) then we can easily get a distorted picture of decline and/or growth.

    And for the record–I don’t think there’s anything wrong with organizations saying what’s good for you. As long as they understand that different groups are going to have different needs with respect to “what’s good for them.”

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  7. Pingback: – Orchestras Part V

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