Ann Drinan  

League of American Orchestras Conference 2010

Ann Drinan
February 2, 2019

The Entrepreneurial Musician

Jesse Rosen moderated; panelists were Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, President of ROPA and a cellist in the New Mexico Symphony; Tom Gibson, a freelance trombonist in Atlanta; Matt Albert, violinist and violist of eighth blackbird; Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory; and Susanna Perry Gilmore, concertmaster of the Memphis Symphony.

Jesse posed the following questions: What is essential about symphonies – what are their core fundamentals? The session was motivated by something he noticed in New York City – musicians today, when contemplating careers, are imagining a wider range of possibilities regarding a career in music. There are important questions to ask of professional training institutions in terms of what is the appropriate preparation for a musician today? How might orchestras need to change to be most hospitable and supportive of musicians today as they develop their musicianship?

Carla Lehmeier-Tatum: “This is a passion of mine.” She researched the founder of the NMSO, Grace Thompson, who was sent to New Mexico as a tuberculosis patient. During her recovery became committed to coming back and devoting her life to music in New Mexico. Grace worked with John Philip Sousa to create a New Mexico march, with native Americans playing classical instruments. The NMSO was approached by a mine up in mountains to do two concerts for the community and out of town guests. Musicians have been connecting to communities since the start of orchestras. 2nd NMSO concert, 77 years ago, programmed arrangements of native American folk songs that Grace transcribed.

Tom Gibson: I joined the Navy band right out of graduate school – I needed to relate to taxpayers. They were phenomenal at outreach programs. I took with me the skills that I wasn’t taught in school about management, marketing, and communication. I felt confident to leave and pursue my own projects. I chose to be a regional orchestra player so I’d have time to do jazz and commercial playing. Some people have great people skills but not everyone. Find out more about each individual in the orchestra; there will be a way for them to express themselves in new ways.

Matt Albert: The conservatory students I encounters show a combination of leaders and those with other skills. I encounter little resistance to what eighth blackbird does – the students are excited about a new music group that communicates from the stage and uses theatrical elements. But there’s a disconnect about getting from where they are to where we are. Lot of students don’t know how to do it, or what the steps are. Others are better at the go get it. Everyone wants to be excellent at their instrument, and we do need excellence, but some think that’s all you have to worry about and the opportunities will find you. They need to learn how to find these ideas, because the ideas won’t find them.

Jesse Rosen: What were attributes that got eighth blackbird launched successfully?

Matt: One was a total priority to the organization first – we were all students at Oberlin and then we committed to be together for two years. We had to find part-time jobs so we could rehearse from 1:00 to 5:00 every day. We gained by deciding to give everything to this group for 2 years – we could always go get a graduate degree if it didn’t work. Second was a commitment to one another. We’re a chamber group of 6 people – when we had conflicts we committed to resolving them amongst ourselves before we changed anything. We’ve only replaced one of the founding members. We figure out people’s skills – making cold calls, balancing the checkbook, etc. This thinking can apply to auditions as well, in terms of principal player vs. section players – you may need to look for a different skill set.

Colin and Jesse acknowledged that view was that they’d get an orchestra job after school. End of work to make your career happen – job is to show up and play. Matt took very different career path.

Tony Woodcock: Like all really good ideas, entrepreneurial musicianship is not new. Look back in time: Sullivan producing in London, Paganini was in it for the money, Beethoven promoted his own concerts, Wagner, etc. Organizations need to do a retrospective re-invention. Humans are highly specialized in thinking; there are more brain specialists in the greater Chicago area than in the whole of the UK – all have divided up the little sections of the brain, so you have to go from specialist to specialist. In music we’ve also become highly specialized – expectations of musicians have become more and more limited; we expect less when we should be expecting more.

At NEC, we celebrate unfettered creativity – if you have a dream on Thursday, you can make it a reality Friday morning. When the students go to the real world, that’s knocked out of them with a baseball bat. They see only two ways of earning a living: as a studio teacher/free lancer or get a tenured orchestra job. I think that’s the past. The tird option is neither of the above – you create a blackbird. NEC students play excellently but that’s not enough. There’s a new entrepreneurial program at NEC and other conservatories which will result in young musicians having very different expectations and different skill sets – they could help to transform your organizations. We need to put all the pieces together.

What’s an audience? 200 people = 200 audiences. How do you raise money? Become a charity? Produce a budget? Conflict management? Group leadership? Consensus building? Go into a classroom? NEC can now help them with that.

Susanna Perry Gilmore: Over the last 6 years, under Ryan Fleur, there has been a complete paradigm shift in how the creative energy of the musicians can be harnessed. Our latest project has been a concert series that the musicians created and piloted last year; we designed the series in response to cut backs in staff and other concert series. We opted in to taking on some traditional roles of staff, such as marketing, programming, design. No MD last year. We had a grant from Mellon to take what learning we could, so we did a mentorship with Orpheus. Seven musicians went to New York and observed Orpheus for a day, came back to Memphis, and presented what they’d learned.

We voted on a code of conduct, created a system of self-governance based on Orpheus’ model and then Orpheus musicians came and worked with us on our pilot performance in December. Why a code of conduct? We polled our colleagues about their fears – the biggest was what would happen when the conductor left? How would we talk to each other? Resolve issues? There was a fear that it would become “the Susanna show.” It was a constant challenge for the orchestra’s musicians, but it was a also very cathartic experience, for section players especially.

We analyzed how we’re connected to the community – we kept being approach by people who said, “the symphony isn’t my thing.” This was a new concept – outside the concert hall, audience is 360 degrees around us, interspersing non-classical repertoire, we talk between movements, it’s OK to clap whenever, we wear jeans. It’s been a great success in building anew audience base.

Tony: Relationships. Terrific work for Susanna – also an indictment of the current orchestra model. The back of the 2nd violin section are never listened to. Think of the skill base in the orchestra – so much is not utilized. But it’s put into a context that’s highly regimented; the role is re-creative rather than creative, one person is the whole focus of the organization. We need a new model or need to recreate the model. Look at the creative power of individual musicians, then allow them the opportunity to be trained.

Carla: The change of leadership in Memphis enabled this change to happen. There must be a willingness amongst all –a power struggle can prevent this from happening. NMSO musicians met with board members to help get a grant renewed, and the next year the staff was unwilling to execute what was in the grant, causing resentment and no buy in. We must create something that everyone owns.

Jesse: The concept of professional development – it’s 8% of the budget in commercial budgets, but barely exists in orchestras. What can orchestras do to improve the capacity of people to navigate through new channels?

Tony: Memphis’ code of conduct – I can understand how you reached that conclusion – it’s a reflection of fear. Fear of stepping away from the contract. Be really courageous and create new models – get rid of trench-like thinking. If the process is one of inclusivity, then everyone has ownership of the results, and you can use a failure to learn and move the agenda forward. This is how musicians might be in the future – they are magical, powerful people. It’s critical that they not be subjugated. We must bring people into the engine room.

Matt: In a chamber group you are responsible for doing so many of these things on your own. The parents of one member paid for an etiquette training program.

Tony: How much of the creativity of the musicians does an orchestra use? Perhaps 30%. They get their creativity elsewhere.

The audition process is a brutal system of dashed expectations. If recruitment were more focused on the package that a musician could bring other than his/her expertise on stage, we’d start to look at the organization very differently. We’re in agreement with excellence but fear we are more geared towards perfection and thus creating problems. Perfection of performance is misguided because the audience often can’t tell the difference, but they can tell with how engaged we are with the community.

Jesse: In summary, musicians have always been innovative and entrepreneurial – how can we take advantage of that and attract them? We need to explore the concept of opt-in. In terms of recruitment, we must define what we’re looking for. There’s lots of tension around that process, which comes from a different time. Feedback is crucial for professional development; this is an area of opportunity for staff as well. CBAs don’t create encouragement or an opportunity for that to take place. There’s a tension around the organization’s focus on the Music Director that doesn’t build a sense of value and worth in musicians.

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