I adore Commencement. We recently had ours at NEC and it presented that great mixture of excitement, energy, optimism and sadness at the passage of time and imminent leave-taking. As I stood on the stage of Jordan Hall looking down at that ocean of expectant faces it brought to my mind all the ideals needed to develop and shape our world and the enormous service that music can provide. If only we could harness the power in Jordan Hall at that very moment we really could change the world.
After the set pieces of introductions and remarks the first truly genuine event happened. And it was the one most looked forward to by the student body. The Student Commencement Address. The student speaker is chosen through a fairly exhaustive assessment process with essays requested and a final choice made of the best example. This year the chosen speaker was Robyn Bollinger, a young violinist completing her Bachelor of Music after studying with Miriam Fried. Robyn is the real deal. An astonishing violinist, one who can tackle all the Paganini Caprices from memory, but much more than this. A young musician who is aware of the world and music’s unique place in our time and who has a burning desire and mission to do things differently, to meet the challenges with contemporary cutting edge creativity. Here, she shares some of those aspirations as a set-up for her Commencement Address. I find her spirit and ambition to be an inspiration and something that we could all learn from.—Tony Woodcock
I am an NEC alumna. Wow, how strange that is to write!
My name is Robyn Bollinger. I’m a violinist, and I graduated from NEC with my Bachelor’s Degree with academic honors this May as a student of Miriam Fried. It has been a whirlwind four years; as I look back I’ve learned an astonishing amount, and not just about the violin. I’ve learned about people and about the art of performance; I’ve learned about the nuts and bolts of music harmony, history, and education; and I’ve learned about communication. But most importantly, I’ve learned about myself and my beliefs. Thanks to NEC, I’m beginning to discover what it means and what it takes to be a successful musician in today’s world, and I’ve developed the courage and curiosity to push the envelopes of tradition and expectations.
I’ve done many of the typical aspiring-soloist things. I’ve won prizes at international competitions, soloed with orchestras, participated in top summer festivals, and collaborated with great musicians. (If you’re curious, check out my bio at http://www.robynbollingerviolin.com/index.html .) I am profoundly lucky to have had such opportunities, and NEC has facilitated many of those experiences. But that’s not what makes me or NEC unique.
Two defining factors that have shaped me over these four years are first, I’ve had big, think-outside-the-box ideas; and second, the faculty and staff at NEC have done everything and more to help me realize those ideas. Their support doesn’t stop at my music education. They encourage my wildest dreams as an artist, inform my abilities as a leader and organizer, and guide my thought process and vision as my generation enters the performing workforce.
My classmates and I face a difficult work environment and decreased job opportunities. We are economically challenged. Music education in schools has been cut significantly, orchestras are folding or contracting, concerts are harder and harder to fund. Music performances aren’t drawing live audiences like they used to. Concerts feel impersonal and, at best, ritualized. In short, we musicians are not important to the majority of the general public. This is a tragic shift. Music is vital to society; it is essential to personal and social development, and it is the most effective way we as a species learn to communicate, empathize, and express ourselves. But sadly, the people who don’t have access to concerts or lessons don’t know that, and the people who get bored at symphony concerts have forgotten. My generation must change that.
Photo by Lauren Penizotto
During my junior year at NEC, I developed a program called “Project Paganini.” http://www.robynbollingerviolin.com/project-paganini.html My goal was to challenge the typical concert setting. In the performance, I combined a multi-media production featuring recorded and live monologues and historical images with my staged performance of all 24 Paganini Caprices. The presentation was designed to personalize Paganini, his music, and me as a performer. I wanted people to understand why I love Paganini and why I find his music fascinating and beautiful, and I wanted to do so in a way that didn’t feel like a lecture. I wanted a fun, interesting evening of multi-sensory stimulation, something that would keep people engaged and teach them about music. It worked; people loved it.
I’m grateful to say I’ll be back at NEC to pursue a Master’s degree, and I have some big ideas for the next few years. I’m hoping to develop another program à la Project Paganini (no spoilers!), establish an afternoon chamber music series for casual college-aged audiences, and write music myself. Below is a video of an encore piece I wrote this year, to be published on my website soon.
I guess if I were to summarize what I’ve learned from my time at NEC and what I hope to achieve for myself and for my colleagues, I’d say this: in order to reach as many people as possible and bring audiences to music, we as musicians shouldn’t box ourselves into one role. My hope one day is to be an active performer, a curator, an orator, a manager, a director, a classical-violin singer-songwriter, a collaborator, and most importantly, a teacher in the deepest sense of the word. I hope that by embracing our creative possibilities, we will remind our audiences why music matters, why musicians matter: because we make music not for personal gain, but for moral, global good.
I was honored to be the student speaker at this year’s Commencement Exercises. Below is the transcript of my speech. Thanks for reading.
I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing about some of the experiences we’ve had in these four years- recitals, classes, auditions, maybe a few parties. One irony of these four years is that it seems like every year we’ve been here, Boston has had a mini-Armageddon that got us out of school for a few days. Freshman year it was the water fiasco, where the water supply for the entire city of Boston was contaminated; sophomore year wasn’t so bad, we just had a lot of snow days; last year we had the power outage that lasted most of a week, thank you NSTAR; and this year we had a hurricane and snow days to boot. But there’s one event that stands out in our hearts and minds, a day we’ll all remember forever, and that was the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
In the same way we are the generation of 9/11, we are the class of the Boston Marathon bombings. I don’t believe events like these define us, but they do unite us and bring us together as moments we all share in a horrible way. For both of those days – September 11th, and April 15th, – we all know where we were when we found out what happened, who we were with, what we were doing, how we felt. One thing I remember in particular from both days was the thought of how strange it seemed that such a terrible thing could happen on such a beautiful day – as though it would make more sense if it were raining.
Following the bombings, a quote went viral on my Facebook newsfeed. It was a quote by Leonard Bernstein, taken from a speech he gave following the assassination of JFK. He said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It’s a powerful sentiment, especially for us as artists. It reassures us of our validity in this all too often terrible, destructive, political world, as if Bernstein is telling us today that even when we feel helpless, even when we are desperate to contribute and have no idea how, we are relevant and important and good.
But the more this quote popped up around me, the more I wondered what else it implied. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Surely it’s more than, “If I just keep practicing, that’ll make the world a better place.” Yes, practicing is intense; sure, from practicing we make things beautiful; and practicing definitely requires devotion. But that’s not what Bernstein meant, and just practicing isn’t enough in our world today. We can pretend that fixing that one technical obstacle or that one phrase is the most important task of the day; but in a practice room, we don’t have to face the world, or our difficult place in it.
I grew up backstage at the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was lucky to have constant, personal access to great musicians with such high standards. But always in the backdrop of these concerts, for as long as I can remember, were discussions about dwindling ticket sales and new PR strategies to reach broader audiences. Apparently it didn’t always used to be this way, but today it makes sense that our art is struggling. We live in a world where people live from one electronic screen to another. From Facebook to Instagram, who has the patience or discipline to sit still for two hours and be mindful of a beautiful phrase developing into something more? How can we possibly compete for our audiences’ attention?
In this age of iPhones, Reddit, Twitter, and others, we receive constant information and effortless stimulation. Oddly, our digital age has made it all seem personal to us; yet a solo recital or even an ensemble concert doesn’t come close to the same level of in-your-face input that we receive outside the concert hall. One way to address this is to update our performance formats to make them just even more engaging than the latest status update. I hope that when we gather for the next generation’s commencement, we give them a world that has a bigger place for music and a deeper understanding of what music can be. But for that to happen, we first need to find our audiences wherever they are and use whatever they have to connect them to our art. We have to find new ways to demonstrate what music means for society, what it means for us. I’m not suggesting that we turn our backs on the rich tradition of music, but I do believe we need to find a new way to draw people in. Maybe it’s in advertising, or education, or connecting with people about music offstage. Whatever the method is, let’s harness it and run with it; let’s embrace change and refuse leave things the way they are.
Music is both for and about people. It is something we do for ourselves and for each other; it is the most effective way we learn communication, empathy, and expression. We musicians have the power to transform a mundane, even ugly moment into something beautiful and meaningful. As we go forward from Boston, from NEC, and from each other, I hope our reply to violence will be to make music not just for ourselves but for the people who need it the most, especially those who maybe don’t know yet that they do.
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson. David Loebel, Kristopher Tong, and Melissa Snoza.
In this last guest installment, some of the very students we are preparing at NEC take over the conversation–again. Feisty, adaptable, imaginative, and passionate, they make me optimistic for the future of music. They know what they will be facing when they emerge from the Conservatory and are ready to embrace that life, however challenging. I’m so proud of them. –Tony Woodcock
In late March, we had the opportunity to gather in the President’s Library with Tony Woodcock to speak about our futures in music—the roles we want to step into, the concerns we have, the new challenges that the professional community will throw out to us. We shared ideals, dreams, worries, assurance, self-doubt, strategies—sometimes expressing things we had never previously admitted to others. It was exciting to find so much common ground across age, nationality, discipline, and professional trajectory. And, so, when we were asked to ‘sum it all up’ in a blog post, it seemed fitting to compose a set of guiding principles, a credo if you will, for music’s future and our role in it. Here goes:
1. Shifting paradigms lead to new opportunities. It’s scary to acknowledge that so many of the professional structures that support, preserve, and present music are struggling. How different it is at NEC where music-making is thriving, vital, and full of passion. How could it be that outside our halls, audiences are shrinking, organizations are in crisis, and music education is experiencing deep cuts? Spend a day in our shoes and you’ll appreciate the contrast. Large organizations and government bodies don’t change quickly—they aren’t, for the most part, nimble and able to respond deftly to changing conditions. But we are nimble, and we have the space, time, and creativity to build new structures for music and musicians to be in the world. That’s the important bit to hold on to.
2. Be adventurous and grapple with uncertainty. As artists, we know how to navigate uncertainty in the context of a performance–in fact that’s what makes live performance so exhilarating and meaningful. But, when it comes to building a new artistic venture, uncertainty can cause us to clam up, to create barriers that we imagine will save us from the messy business of failure. “It’s too competitive,” we say, or “I won’t make enough money to survive”. Uncertainty, troublesome as it is, must be taken as an opportunity to look beyond what exists, to see what could exist. Our task as artists is to find a balance between risking it all and playing it safe. The former can lead to ruin; the later, stagnation. We’re shooting for the sweet spot somewhere in between.
3. Just try it. We work so hard to master our instruments, perfect a new piece, deliver a flawless performance. As a result, many of us walk around with the notion that anything less than mastery is, well, simply not good enough. But pretty good can do a lot of good. We know that building a sustainable career requires more than musical brilliance. It requires a diverse set of skills: creative marketing, financial wit, clear-eyed negotiation, engaging public speaking, and the list goes on. All of that can be overwhelming when taken together. But these skills are within reach, individually and collectively. With curiosity, pluck, Google, and a friend who has done it before, we can become the versatile change agents that our field is waiting for.
4. Look internally for your brand. Brand. It sounds so Madison Avenue and constricting: one phrase, image, or idea that’s supposed to represent you. Really? That might be possible for a can of soda, but not a human being. Each of us is a beautifully unique, complex, messy, breathing, moving, changing entity. And we’ve each got more than one thing that makes us unique as artists. Creating a brand is just about identifying the particular mix of gifts and quirks that is unique to each of us. And promoting our brand is nothing more than telling our own story. More on this in number 5.
5. Find the people who love what you do. “Marketing” is a loaded term for many of us. It smacks of strident hucksters and conspicuous consumption. But marketing, at its core, is about telling stories and building relationships. It’s about opening up your art, and your world, to those who want to take part. Marketing is just a set of strategies to help you connect with the people who love what you do (but don’t know it yet). We like to think of our audience–potential or real–as a community of people who value our gifts and want to see them grow. And it’s not just about warm and fuzzy feeling. If we can build a small but mighty group of super fans–people who love what we do, will go to our concerts, buy our albums, and contribute to our fundraising campaigns–we can also make a living.
6. Audiences connect most to music when they connect to the people making it. Yes, we think about our audience as a community—maybe even a family–and we think of ourselves as part of that community. No more off-putting protocol, no more formalized ritual that only the “initiated” understand, no more snobbery. Communities form through open exchange, support, and shared values–not through strictures, barriers, and distance. We must strive to reach and welcome people where they are—in parks, coffee shops, online spaces, living rooms, and local schools.
7. Say yes, a lot. Remaining open to opportunities is vital for maintaining forward progress as an artist. Remember, we’re nimble. That’s what makes us well poised to create the change that is needed in our field. Being nimble means: remaining open-minded; stretching; putting ourselves in situations that make us a little uncomfortable (“I never thought I’d do ________”); and signing up to do something we’ve never done before. These experiences will bear fruit, build connections, lead to a light bulb moment (or two), clarify what we hate doing, and help us uncover skills we never knew we had. These are all good things.
8. Elevate music. Music can be a powerful tool for addressing the deepest social needs: education, hunger, expression of powerful feelings, and communal solidarity. Music is a common language that can offer joy or solace where it’s desperately needed, call attention to injustice, provide a nurturing context in which young people can grow, and preserve cultural memory when it’s threatened. This element can’t be a “part” of what we do, it must pervade what we do.
9. Act local. We like local food. We like local businesses. We like to talk about the quirky things that make our neighborhoods great. So, why, when it comes to our music do we look outside our local communities for validation, support, and engagement? We stand the best chance of making a real and lasting impact in the communities and neighborhoods we know best. Maybe we’ll be the quirky thing about a neighborhood that people love.
10. Talk it out. These kinds of conversations are vital for overcoming the formidable challenges that face the arts. Their purpose is not just for catharsis or “kumbaya”. Deep, probing discussions can clarify positions, plant seeds, forge connections, and incite action. Teams are formed and ideas are hatched around cafe tables, kitchen tables, and yes, president’s library tables. We are going to need many more enthusiastic teams and creative ideas if we are to build the structures of tomorrow and make a central place for music in the world.
Compiled by Eva Heinstein, Assistant Director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department with contributions from Robert Cinnante ( ’13 MM Vocal Performance), Tyler Gilmore (’13 MM Jazz Composition), Julia Partyka (’13 BM Vocal Performance), Caroline Scharr (’14 MM Oboe Performance), and Tong Wang (’16 BM Piano Performance).
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson. David Loebel, and Kristopher Tong.
Melissa Snoza is a flutist and Executive Director of the ensemble Fifth-House. The Chicago-based Fifth-House Ensemble is a versatile and dynamic group praised by the New York Times for its “conviction, authority, and finesse.” Having pioneered the art of narrative chamber music with its signature series “Black Violet,” “The Weaver’s Tales,” and “In Transit”, Fifth House’s innovative programs engage audiences through their connective programming and unexpected performance venues.–Tony Woodcock
Early this morning, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, a third grader with a big smile and a hot pink flower in her hair (it was her birthday) asked me, “What inspired you to start playing the flute?”
Each of us has our own “creation” story about how we started on our instrument of choice. Perhaps it was a popular friend who played the piano, so you started studying to be just like her. Or, it was a performance you experienced live, on TV, or on a recording that made you say, “WOW – I want to be able to do that!” Or maybe, as with some of my younger students, the answer is a sullen, “My mom made me do it.”
To me, the interesting part comes not in where we start, but in why we commit. Somewhere between when we are inspired to begin our practice and when we reach professional status, the process of improving as a musician can start to become an achievement-based, strategic trajectory composed of chair placements, auditions, summer festivals, competitions, conservatories, and generally playing higher/faster/louder than the next guy. There’s a system, a path in place for training the next solo or orchestral superstar, and we run up those steps as fast as we can in the hope of achieving our goals.
I highlight those words because they are important.
In high school and college, I was completely consumed with the desire to excel on my instrument through achievement. This week, I’m going to challenge my way up to first chair. This semester, I’m going to audition my way into the top group. Next year, I’m going to get into the conservatory of my dreams. In four years, I’m beating everyone else out for that orchestra job. Me. Mine. Gimme!
When I think back to this time in my life, I realize that my primary motivation for bettering myself was fear. I would be afraid of getting yelled at in a lesson, of a conductor ripping me apart, of being seen as the weakest player in my studio, of losing the competition, and of ultimately being one of those sad souls that “doesn’t make it” as a musician and has to go work at a desk.
As a result, I was a wreck. I suffered from tendonitis, requiring weeks away from my instrument. I was physically ill for a week before every recital. I couldn’t eat on the day of any major audition. I questioned whether I wanted to continue as a flutist, mostly because I was convinced I’d never be good enough.
And then, I left school.
Despite my generalized state of panic, I did win an audition to land in Chicago as part of the Civic Orchestra. We performed glitzy concerts at Symphony Center playing wonderful music with some of the world’s leading conductors. At the same time, I also volunteered to participate in the organization’s MusiCorps program. Through this, I coached youth orchestra sections and performed chamber music in intimate, non-traditional spaces throughout the city.
During one of these chamber concerts, for the first time I took a moment to look at the audience. Until that point, the thought of doing that would have terrified me. What I saw was a room of people who were engaged: listening, smiling, closing their eyes, moving or still, but overwhelmingly hanging on every note.
Something had changed. I was no longer in the bubble of my musical peers and teachers. This was the real world.
In that moment, I began to realize the beginnings of what it means to play music, and what my real purpose is in this larger space, outside of the training zone. Music is a gift. I don’t mean a gift as in a talent, I mean a gift – the kind you give to someone else with both palms open.
As we consider what it means to be a classical musician in a changing world, and the skills necessary to re-imagine the traditional model of professional success, I would argue that one of the most essential lessons that today’s artists must learn is the most simple, yet the most contrary to the process that gets us here.
In short, lose your Self.
As a flutist, this means that I practice to perfection for the benefit of my audiences, who have given their valuable time and money to be with me. They deserve to hear the music flow straight through me with the freedom that only comes with impeccable preparation, not to hear my anxieties about whether I’ll nail a difficult passage. I practice for my colleagues, who deserve the pleasure of coming to rehearsal with a partner who is ready to explore musical ideas, not one who needs to be taught the basics of her part.
As an entrepreneur, this means that I have a hand in crafting concert experiences and educational programs that are audience-centric. In Fifth House Ensemble, I’ve built an organization that listens to the needs of its audience and community, builds partnerships with artists of all types, and produces the kinds of concert experiences that truly do bring classical music newbies into the fold. We invite audiences inside the creative process, enlisting their help in telling stories for our programs, or tweeting responses during a show. We build educational programs that support teachers’ goals while empowering students to listen, create, and perform. We serve.
While these activities might be done in service of others, the benefits to me are immeasurable. Whereas before I was afraid, now I am fulfilled. I am inspired by the children we see each week, and by the audience members who share the reasons they love Fifth House with us after each show. On the practical side, failing economy be damned, I haven’t gone hungry a single day in the last 10 years of my professional life operating this way.
So what does it take to build a career in music? Do what you love, in service of others. The greatest success can be found in the intersection between what fulfills you the most as an artist and what serves the needs of those who experience your art. Reach inside yourself to find the former, take the time to listen to discover the latter.
Ten years ago, I would have considered a photo shot like this to denote success:
The glamour! The glitz! The shiny hair! She must be famous!
Today, one of my favorite performance shots of all time looks like this:
A room of kids with no musical training, listening to piece for the first time and showing with arm motions that they understand which instrument has the melody as it passes through the ensemble. Hands in the air, smiles all around.
Watch teachers and students from Chicago’s Lowell Elementary School in Humboldt Park share their experience with Fifth House Ensemble.
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson and David Loebel.
The Borromeo String Quartet, Ensemble-in-Residence at NEC, represents for me one of the finest and most intriguing ensembles in the world. Their artistic quality, musicianship and energy are phenomenal, but their sense of curiosity in terms of repertoire choice, presentation and the use of technology in performance place them in a unique position in the world of chamber music. Their second violin, Kris Tong, who joined the quartet in 2006 after receiving his Master of Music from NEC in 2005, is a young musician who not only plays in the most energized way, but is also engaged in thinking and discussing the issues surrounding music and the world. This guest blog takes us into his world and reveals a personality concerned with every aspect of music.—Tony Woodcock
“So why are you doing this?”
I was surprised by the question. I had expected Lenny to be enthusiastic that I had chosen a life in music, that I wanted to apply to music schools and to continue the violinistic tradition of which he had made me suddenly aware, in less than a year’s time. Lenny (Leonard Braus, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony) had a reputation as a tough teacher; he didn’t take many students, and my waiting until the 11th grade to study with him made me feel like I was rather behind. But what a year it had been; my technique had been rebuilt from the ground up, from open strings and long tones to scales and Kreutzer etudes with various bowing exercises. I had played the violin my whole life, really, but it was not until I met Lenny that I knew what was really possible, how hard it was, what a responsibility it was to try to play well. He had been an assistant to the great violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold, who in turn was the protégé of Eugene Ysaÿe. Studying with Lenny was like going back in time, like looking in on an era when musicians were still celebrated, when a life in music, in art, was very serious work indeed, and seriously regarded.
“You know, it’s getting harder and harder to get a job out there. The audiences are going down and nobody knows what to do. Someday, maybe in 10 years, 20 years, there are only going to be a handful of orchestras, in the biggest cities, and everyone’s going to be competing for just a few spots.”
How Lenny was so prescient in the summer of 1997 I’ll never know. The country was in the middle of a boom, just at the beginning of the dot-com craziness; the federal deficit had been cut and there was talk of even a surplus in the coming years. And here I was, on the phone with Lenny, who was suddenly all doom and gloom. How could he discourage me, when he was the one who had ignited in me this burning, insatiable desire to play, to play, like Heifetz or Milstein, Elman or Oistrakh?
Once, in a lesson, Lenny asked me what my favorite concerto was. There were too many pieces to name; how could I choose between Beethoven and Brahms; Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, or Mendelssohn?
“Conus. Your favorite concerto is Conus.”
This was news to me, as I had never heard (or heard of) Julius Conus’s little known Violin Concerto
(You can listen to Jascha Heifetz’s incredible recording here.)
But more than that, it was Lenny’s way of assigning me the task of not only learning the solo violin part, but also to charge me with the responsibility to explore what the piece was, to open myself to its beauties, and to love it. It was a great lesson, and an important one for me to learn. After all, ultimately, what we do in music is to empathize; we try to feel what a composer has felt and has transformed into physical tones, so that we may once again create these notes, just vibrations really, and in doing so evoke the same sensation that we ourselves have felt, imagined. And we get chills from the vibrations…
Of course, he was just making sure. Lenny needed to know that I was going in with my eyes open, that I was moving forward because of music, and not because of delusions of grandeur about fame and fortune and a big recording contract. That I would be happy just doing it, having a life in music.
“Gingold used to say that all we can ask is to play the violin. And if that’s not enough, then you should do something else.”
I suppose it’s never quite that simple. When I joined my colleagues in the Borromeo Quartet I was ready to dedicate the next several decades of my life to the intensive study of the quartet literature, interspersed with occasions when we would interrupt said study to perform, in public, for people who could not possibly understand the complexity or difficulty of our efforts, then to resume study. But I came to realize, very quickly, how entirely futile our efforts are without an audience to consume them. How it is a remarkable thing that people come to concerts, amidst their endlessly busy lives, and actually open themselves to having an experience, to receiving the sounds that you are creating, with all of their import. How it is an important thing to make yourself and your art available to those who may not have a native interest in your chosen profession. That in order to justify dedicating your life to something, you must ask yourself why it matters at all; you must ask why what you do is relevant.
And this is no small question. I remember sitting at Bear’s in Bloomington, Indiana (a local watering hole for Hoosiers) with my best friend from college, Aaron, a cellist himself, on September 12, 2001.
“Kris, what are we doing? There are people whose job is to rush into burning buildings to try and save people. What are we doing? It’s all so…selfish.”
I’m not sure I have an answer for Aaron, after all this time. I could never look anyone in uniform in the eye and tell them that my work is as important as theirs. But my feeling is that it is our responsibility to continue to prove our worth. That we need to continually find ways to share what beauties we have discovered with others. To invite people to share in our empathy.
One of my many duties as a member of the New England Conservatory’s quartet-in-residence is to teach some of the wonderfully talented students who come through Boston on their own personal quests for a life in art. I am constantly amazed at what these young musicians can do. They are hungry to learn, eager and ambitious, and they are all racing to get better, to be more accurate, more in tune and faster and louder and…I just need to be sure.
“So why are you doing this?”
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction, and an essay by Lyle Davidson.
After 11 years as Music director and Conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, David Loebel joined the NEC faculty as Associate Director of Orchestras in 2010. In that capacity, he conducts both of our College orchestras and also works closely with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, our Preparatory School’s senior-most orchestra. We are extremely fortunate to have such a gifted, warm, and collegial member of the team. In Memphis, David, the administration, and players were particularly prescient in understanding what orchestras needed to do if they were not only to survive but flourish in contemporary cultural life. In this post, he discusses these requirements and how orchestras must consider these needs in their selection of players. The Future of Orchestra Auditions ?
I’ve literally spent my entire life around orchestras. My father played in the Cleveland Orchestra for many years; not until the age of six or so did I realize that not everyone’s father dressed up in white tie and tails to go to work at 8 o’clock on Saturday evening. In addition to playing and teaching, beginning in the 1960s my dad was among the founders of a movement to improve the pay and working conditions of orchestra musicians. (His generation’s story is well told in Julie Ayer’s enlightening book, More Than Meets The Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History).
As I began my conducting career, the efforts of my father, his colleagues across the country, and the boards and staffs of their orchestras had begun to bear fruit. Seasons and audiences grew, musicians’ salaries increased, and orchestras in smaller cities improved exponentially in professionalism and quality. Sure, there were occasional downticks in ticket sales and every so often a “gloom and doom” article in some national publication heralded the imminent death of American symphony orchestras, but somehow they always got back on track.
To many of us, the well-publicized problems that orchestras are currently facing feel different and merely tweaking around the edges of our “business model” will not solve them. The causes seem obvious: new forms of entertainment and new means of delivering them, changing lifestyles, a new generation of philanthropists uninterested in classical music, and the decades-long devaluation of arts education in our schools. The symptoms are similarly obvious: aging audiences, revenue not keeping pace with increased costs, contentious contract negotiations, the occasional bankruptcy, and a mad scramble by all concerned to come up with the magic formula that will instantly and painlessly solve all our problems.
It’s impossible to know exactly what orchestras will look like in a decade or two, but the job description of most orchestra musicians will surely change. In all but a tiny handful of very elite orchestras, merely sitting on the stage in a magnificent concert hall playing highly polished performances of great masterpieces will no longer be enough. Musicians will need to add value to their orchestras in myriad ways: working with young people and under served audiences, passionately advocating for music in general and orchestras in particular throughout their communities, playing in small ensembles with both traditional and non-traditional instrumentation, composing, arranging and much more. In an increasingly polyglot world, those musicians who are multi-lingual or are comfortable with jazz, world music and other non-classical genres will likely have a leg up.
The good news is that conservatories and universities, including New England Conservatory, are proactively preparing their students to enter this new world. But how can orchestras identify those musicians who will fit into it?
Before joining the faculty at NEC, I was Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Like many orchestras, we recognized that our survival depended on connecting with our community in new ways and that our musicians would be the most critical factor in achieving that goal.
It was obvious that every new member of the orchestra would have to be able to contribute to our community engagement initiatives, yet the traditional format of orchestra auditions made it difficult to determine which candidate was best suited for that task.
Our auditions looked like everybody else’s: a preliminary round consisting of a solo piece and the usual orchestral excerpts, followed by semi-final and final rounds. Auditions for positions whose occupants would also play in a chamber ensemble included a chamber music round. For principal chairs, the excerpt list would be a little more elaborate and, if possible, the winning candidate would play for a week or two in the orchestra before receiving a final job offer. If we had questions about a candidate, we might call a few references. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about our process.
Things began to change when we had an opening for Principal Oboe, a crucial chair in any orchestra. After all the finalists had played the excerpts and done some sight reading, we gave them a “tuning audition,” asking them to play several A-440s in a row to check the consistency of their pitch. Then the audition committee and I probed their musical personalities a bit, asking about such things as which oboists they admired or which pieces they most enjoyed playing.
This brief post-audition chat quickly morphed into an actual job interview, which we jokingly referred to as the “Miss Congeniality” round. It became an integral part of all our auditions. Our purpose was not only to make sure that a candidate’s personality would be compatible with his or her future colleagues, although in a few instances it was painfully apparent that there were problems in that area. Rather, we primarily asked questions that would measure what the candidate could offer the orchestra beyond just playing well: “What experience do you have working with young people?” “Are you comfortable speaking to a group of strangers?” “Tell us about a performance you played that was especially meaningful to you.”
The answers to that last question were particularly revealing. Invariably, the most compelling responses did not involve performing in Carnegie Hall or playing under a famous Maestro. More typical were stories of playing for underprivileged children or starting a lunchtime chamber music series in a downtown office building; not the glamorous gigs, but those in which music touched people whom it hadn’t touched before.
Sensing that the Memphis Symphony’s future would be substantially different from its past, we wanted to use every possible means to insure that our new members were a good fit with our long-term goals. (For more on the MSO’s plans, see pg. 26—39 in this League of American Orchestras’ report ) When I described the “Miss Congeniality” round to business people on our Board of Directors, they were incredulous that such an interview was not already part of our hiring process. It was sometimes difficult to explain that in professional orchestras, a musician plays an audition and is offered a position; if all goes well during the one or two year probationary period, he or she pretty much has a job for life, barring catastrophic on-the-job behavior or other extreme circumstances. So if nothing else, the interviews helped us avoid hiring errors that would have been awkward to undo later.
It would be too simplistic to say that adding an interview to auditions will help assure orchestras’ future. What’s more, such a statement runs smack into the “elephant in the room,” namely the question of artistic quality. Some years ago, I raised the issue of looking at more than just a candidate’s playing with a group of musicians from fine professional orchestras. Their vehement response boiled down to: “The person who plays the best audition gets the job. Period.” [ For a gripping account of the audition process and the search for “the best,” check out this article in Boston Magazine. ]
But what if “the best audition” merely means “the most note-perfect audition”? More importantly, what if the nature of the job changes? Imagine that two players make the final round of an audition; they both meet the orchestra’s minimum musical standard, but Candidate A plays a bit more compellingly, while Candidate B can add substantially to the orchestra’s standing in the community. Who gets the job then?
Carrying that example to its logical extreme, imagine two orchestras of roughly equal budget size. Orchestra A plays outstanding concerts to half-empty houses and only pays lip service to the idea of broader community involvement; Orchestra B doesn’t play as well, but has deeply embedded itself into its community’s fabric. One day, there’s a recession and both orchestras hit a financial rough patch. Orchestra B’s street cred helps it weather the storm, while Orchestra A falls into a life-threatening downward spiral from which it barely emerges after several pain-filled years. How much does the difference in artistic quality really matter at that moment?
As long as I’ve been a conductor, it’s been a given that musical excellence is our sine qua non, the value to which all others must be subordinate. I, along with countless idealistic musicians and administrators, still stubbornly believe that. But can our idealism survive the new realities we face?
I remain optimistic that it can, because increasingly I believe that we may not have to choose between traditional excellence and the attributes that the Miss Congeniality round reveals. Every day at NEC, I find myself surrounded by amazingly talented young people. They come to us already playing at a nearly professional level and their open-mindedness and enthusiasm dwarfs those of earlier generations. More than anything, they want to have long, rewarding lives as musicians. And already many of them understand that such lives will contain more than simply playing beautiful concerts in beautiful concert halls before a stereotypically beautiful audience. I have faith that they will arm themselves with the skills to make those lives possible and, more importantly, with the will to help reshape our musical institutions to accommodate a changing landscape.