Advice from Strangers: The Craft of Community

It is community that brings our creations to life and extends them far beyond what we are capable of on our own. The reverse is also true: our creations bring communities to life, by connecting like-minded people and providing them with a space in which to safely explore their interests and passions.

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BFC Admin

symphony hall

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is third in the series.

It is 10 p.m. Five hundred ticket-holders file into the concert hall to hear exciting contemporary works. They await the opening notes, they hear the performance. They are enthusiastic. They clap. They file out. They go home, check the mail, pay the babysitter, turn on the TV.

I am one of them. I have just recycled my program notes, kicked off my shoes. I am posting photos from the concert on Instagram.

Is this audience my community? Is it anyone’s community?

I don’t know.

What I do know, with relative confidence, is that an audience is not necessarily a community. And that goes for all kinds of audiences: the million-strong user base of a popular website, consumers of a chef’s fine cuisine, a Twitter following, a political following, the readers of this blog.

Community vs. group

Community requires connection. Without interpersonal relationships, a community is just a group.

Community requires generosity. Without an element of giving, it is hard to imagine members being invested in the collective and future well-being of the group.

Community requires space. Without a place (virtual, physical) in which people can connect and contribute, it will be much more difficult for these things to take place.

In tech, as in music, groups have their place. But it is community that brings our creations to life and extends them far beyond what we are capable of on our own. Communities champion our efforts to new and dissenting audiences, make our work more meaningful through their experiences, and expose new truths about our work to ourselves, so that we can do more and better and different

The reverse is also true: our creations bring communities to life, by connecting like-minded people and providing them with a space in which to safely explore their interests and passions.

So: How do we get from group to community? If an audience is not a community, how do we go about turning it into one?

Music-makers and techies are constantly crafting communities. Here’s how we do it.

Nurture connections

“A successful concert of my music isn’t just about the music,” says composer and performer Dean Rosenthal. “It’s about generating interest in each other and the traditions we inherit. It’s important for me as composer to create an environment that is conducive to connecting a community in the context of the concert. I do that by writing music that (hopefully) speaks to my audience on an emotional level, and by explaining a little bit about it: where it comes from, what inspires it, maybe even how it’s composed, and lastly why I chose to write it.”

“For digital products, the times when I’ve seen community work well are when the product itself was useful for the community,” says Kiesha Garrison, senior business development manager at Microsoft. “The people who were fans of the product became a support group for each other and came to rely on each other.”

The key here was that the focus wasn’t on engaging with their brand or with their content. This company started with the fact that there were going to be certain topics that the members of its community were all going to find meaningful–topics for like-minded people to discuss among themselves.

“It never felt like business,” says Garrison. “It felt valuable to have additional perspectives from people who were doing something I was doing. So many like-minded people to tap into at one time.”

Find a juicy juxtaposition

There are people who compartmentalize their friend circles: work, personal, and family do not intermix. I am not one of those people. Intersections are fertile ground for connections. They attract a curious and multifaceted crowd.

“The community organizer is masterful at maneuvering the intersection, the edge where two systems come together,” says Ashara Ekundayo, co-founder and chief creative officer of ImpactHub Oakland. “They could be two ecosystems, two ways of thinking. They could be opposites, juxtaposed. The point is to look at the unique juiciness that exists at the intersection. Where the shore hits the ocean, there’s that cool little line with all the sea crabs and the shells… or where the road meets the forest, there’s all the stuff on the sides: trash, money, watches, all the stuff that comes out of the forest. It’s cool! So think: What are the two most odd things I can try to put together? And not only that: who wants to come and listen to it? Who is it appealing to?”

Who indeed? Enter the audience, ye flotsam and jetsam.

1. Does your community have a space to convene and converse? Open a Twitter or Instagram account and share content your target community will be interested in. It doesn’t have to be about you or your work; it does have to be relevant to the community.

2. Are you encouraging connection and conversation within the community? Introduce two like-minded people in your community who don’t know each other. Suggest coffee or a collaboration.

3. How are you serving the community? Think about what your community needs and brainstorm a few ways to help provide it.

Try audience-centered design

“Try opening your next performance by saying, ‘I made this for you.’ How does that change your connection with the audience?” writes mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen in her exploration of the performer-audience relationship.

Composers and performers are in a unique position to impact directly, and in real time, how an audience relates to their work. Even the simplest acknowledgement of the audience at the start of a concert is an acknowledgement of coexistence.

In tech, we don’t often get to physically stand alongside our products as they go forth into the world–but when we design interfaces in a way that considers our users’ needs, it sends a similar message: I made this for you.

Human-centered design is the idea that we can design a system to support its users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors rather than requiring them to adapt to the system. It’s a key principle in user-interface design, where the goal is to create user-friendly experiences for people with a wide range of abilities and limitations. Designers try to take into consideration that any given encounter with the software might be a person’s first or fiftieth.

New music, it seems at first glance, would strive to do just the opposite! Atonal. No obvious rhythm. Difficult to relate to. Devoid of context. Not. User. Friendly.

“Truly new music is intentionally subverting the mainstream voice,” says Adam Fong, co-founder of the Center for New Music (C4NM) in San Francisco. “It’s contrarian by nature: ‘There’s a new thing I’m going to create, and it’s going to be different.’”

And yet, or perhaps because of that fact, our contemporary composers are asking themselves: What does the audience need in order to have a meaningful experience?

“Ultimately, we all connect to music on a personal level and the listener has their own response that an artist has nothing to do with, aside from providing the music,” says Rosenthal. “I write the music I want to hear that isn’t being written, and that inspiration helps me bring enthusiasm to the concerts. But the music has to connect in way that could go well beyond me.”

“I think about writing music that engages and interests people,” says one Seattle composer. “If there is already an audience for that ensemble, then I think about writing in a way appropriate for that audience. Or perhaps the performer or ensemble and I think together about what kind of event or context we want to create. I wouldn’t write something simply because I think it is what an audience wants to hear, but I always try to write something that is both true to what I want, and that I think would be interesting to the expected audience.”

Composers are in the lucky position of considering at least two audiences: the one that will hear his or her work, and the one that will perform it.

“Under the best of circumstances, you’re composing for a person,” says composer Daniel Felsenfeld. “When I write a piece for a musician, I put names in the score, not roles–because I believe in writing not just to people’s strengths but also to their frailties.”

At the risk of over-composering this section, I’ll share one more voice, because I find the emphasis on collaboration so very inspiring:

“I’ve found that openly acknowledging the role performers and audience members play in the formulation of a musical work’s meaning helps to develop an engaged and cohesive community,” says composer Garrett Schumann. “Composers, as members of a community, depend on the cooperation of performers and listeners to achieve their ultimate goal of creating meaningful music. If composers remind themselves that they (most often) need someone else to play their music and (always) need someone else to listen to their music in order for it have meaning, then they will not act as if creating meaningful art is a singular endeavor.”

Give of yourself

New music folks revel in service.

“I’m in a constant state of trying to build community around new music,” says Ihnen. “I do it by trying to serve the new music community and the life and culture of a city with my performance.”

“Do service,” says Felsenfeld. “Start concerts, plan events, beg collaborations, reach out to people.”

Felsenfeld does all of these things. His work as a composer is a long sequence of collaborations; he organizes and curates concerts and has co-founded the New Music Gathering.

Felsenfeld and his colleagues brought the three-day conference into being this year when they realized they had no place to formally get together with their community and talk about pressing matters. They designed a framework that would support more than just networking, by establishing clear rules to guide their planning.

“We wanted to keep our roles in it pure. We are volunteers; we have none of our music played. We weren’t there to shill on behalf of our own work, nor will we be in subsequent years. There was no commerce, nothing to buy, no pressure to sell. And there were no built-in competitions–you could not show up and lose something… In short, the only thing we stand to gain from the entire show is the community we build.”

We can build new communities, and we can strengthen existing ones. The San Francisco new music community existed before the Center for New Music did. Fong and his colleagues saw potential in the community, and set out to help it become more efficient, grow better artistically by its own judgment, and tackle its own problems so it could be healthy and vibrant.

Whither service in tech?

Despite how deeply community-oriented many technologies are, and despite the fact that companies often sponsor community service programs for their employees, “service” is not a word that comes up when I ask tech colleagues about their experiences in community-building. I doubt it’s a matter of personality; they are upstanding and conscientious people, even altruistic at heart, and not just in it for the money.

The fact is that there is service in the tech industry, whether it’s volunteering for a civic coding project, providing space for community gatherings after hours, building software to help with disaster recovery, or just running a neighborhood website. I wonder why we don’t see these contributions as service.

Offer a vision of what is possible

“To create a more positive and connected future for our communities, we must be willing to trade their problems for their possibilities,” writes Peter Block in Communities.

Communities are future-oriented. If we want to build strong communities where members serve generously, we must help each other discover what it is we each have to offer–and what we can become–and then enable that to happen.

“Young people do what they see,” says Ekundayo. “If you look like them, then you being there–and them seeing you–activates something in them. When you see another human do something you thought wasn’t possible, you say: ‘Oh, this is possible!’ Imagine what would happen if you took the next step and told them, ‘After I’m done with my performance, you can meet me backstage and I will teach you for an hour.’ Maybe you teach one person, maybe you teach a group of people. What happens if you commit to spending not one but five hours with them, one hour a week for the next five weeks?”

She pauses. “What happens if you go over to a music school and teach there?”

“It’s a community-support effort–introducing singer friends to new repertoire that may suit them, or helping each other out with particularly tricky phrases,” says Soprano Hillary LaBonte. “I try to be as good a representative of new music to my colleagues as I am to non-musicians.”

So many things are available to us that don’t seem accessible until someone shows us they’re possible.

Show up

Be present in the community you are building–as a member of it, not an outsider.

“We are interrelated and interconnected,” says Ekundayo. “Every human being on this planet. Being engaged in your community means showing up for it, and you have to acknowledge that we’re connected. If you think you’re different, you can’t show up.”

Not only is being present the best way to be alert to the changing needs of the community, but it’s a powerful form of support. There’s nothing like showing up at someone’s performance to make it clear that what they’re doing matters to you.

“We support each other by re-posting projects on social media, spreading the buzz, generally spreading the love,” says a flutist friend. “And when I have time, I am usually at my friends’ gigs. I like to keep updated with what people are doing, and face time is very important to the new music community. It not only helps sustain my personal presence in the community, but it also helps sustain the community.”

Service is integral to community. Investing time and skills keeps us accountable for and invested in the wellbeing of the collective. The members of an engaged community care so much about the thread that connects them that they are willing and glad to give of their time and energy to participate and keep it all going.

Design purposeful spaces

“Communities are built of purposeful action,” says Fong. “Are you creating a space for learning, or for interacting? Is it a one-way discourse, or more of a round table?”

According to Block, every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create. Our task is to rearrange the room to meet our intention to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment. A concert space, Facebook feed, Meetup gathering–the way these spaces are set up, who is in the room with us, and even how we know them–this is all configured by someone.

As a builder of community, you get to choose who you want in the room–and how you intend to use the space will inform that decision. Consider who you’re trying to serve and what their needs are. Then design virtual or physical spaces to meet those needs.

At the most operational and practical level, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? – Peter Block, Community

The Center for New Music is designed for casual interaction in a single room of shared space, so artists can talk and be creative together. By day it’s a coworking space; at night it transforms into an event venue.

The model seems to be working: even during grant season, a time of high stress and competition, the co-working space sees members working together on applications supportively and collaboratively.

“The most effective way of building community is to give people a space where they can try new things, experiment, and be fairly well-insulated from financial and critical pressures,” says Fong. “That allows them to do creative work primarily for themselves, their friends, and people who care about the music. We serve as host and matchmaker, connecting musicians, ensembles, institutions and resources; then we let the art grow organically from there.”

Composer Judah Adashi writes passionately about the importance of designing concert spaces for communal experience.

“Turning a performance into an inviting, communal experience goes beyond the concert itself,” he says, and as artistic director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series he is in the perfect role to carefully craft that experience. Each show in the series opens with a pre-concert conversation and is followed by a wine reception. The event continues with an after-party at a local cafe–where they play a bonus “track.”

“It’s not an afterthought,” says Adashi. “It’s part of the plan.”

Equal access

“Being a community builder is being someone who is hopefully committed to illuminating and cultivating opportunities for equity in the group,” says Ekundayo. “Provide access in as many ways as possible.”

When we go to a lecture or concert, our purpose is to listen to an exceptional work–and the rooms that host those one-way conversations are designed to optimize the listening experience, with the audience facing the presenter.

Two-way conversations are more likely to emerge around a round table. When we’re on an equal plane, our expectations shift: we expect everyone to bring contributions, behave constructively, and treat each other like peers.

The performance space at the C4NM is one long, narrow room. There’s no raised platform; audience and performer are literally on the same level. “It’s hard for the audience to not interact with the performer!” exclaims Fong. And this overcomes barriers.

What happens when composer, performer, and listener interact as equals?

“I am frequently stunned by what the people who play my pieces are able to reveal about my music’s meaning,” says Garrett Schumann. “I profit unquestionably from the things performers bring to my music, which I cannot imagine. I also learn a great deal from what my listeners find in, ascribe to, and take away from my music… these interactions represent the kind of basic community all art requires.”

The digital amplifier

Being physically present isn’t something people can do all the time.

“People’s lives are increasingly full of things they want to do, and even in a thriving, successful community, getting everyone to show up at any given event is just as difficult as always. So we’re looking into what it would mean to build an online community,” says Fong of the C4NM.

The thing about online communication is its accessibility. Public conversations can be seen by anyone. Archived conversations live on forever. There is vast potential for amplification.

“Successful bands are emphasizing digital communications, perhaps even more so than emphasizing people showing up at concerts,” says Fong. “In San Francisco, there’s been a greater acceptance that your work may only be heard in digital form. People generally accept now that the accelerated success–the snowball effect–is going to happen in the digital space and not in person.”

Digital exposure also provides communities with a visible heartbeat.

“People are attracted to communities with activity. Make that activity happen!” says Michael Snoyman, director of engineering at software development company FP Complete. Create public forums for discussion on Reddit, Stack Overflow, Quora, and IRC. Be a resource: put industry-relevant information on your website, and cross reference it regularly. Create group mailing lists–and strive to keep those conversations addressed to the collective.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between physical spaces and digital spaces. Both industries regularly augment meaningful face-to-face encounters with digital ones, creating vast, rich, and exciting spaces that encompass all that both have to offer.

A computer science graduate student at UMass Amherst recently told me how she used the momentum of an in-person encounter to build a community in the digital realm. While in Vienna for a conference, she gathered a small group interested in a specific (but unrelated) research area, and then created a mailing list for that topic. A week later, 30 people had joined the list–and she hadn’t yet tapped into her entire network of researchers.

Musicians regularly use social media to share snippets of rehearsals and other behind-the-scenes videos, welcoming listeners into the preparation process. Audiences connect–as communities!–on these channels, anticipation builds, and suddenly the performance is extended in both time and space.

It is our privilege, as community-builders, to think about which conversations we want to take place, who should be in the room for those conversations, and what tools they will need to make these interactions meaningful and productive. The success of our communities hinges on how effectively the spaces we craft–physical or digital–support that intent.

Writing about community for a community is an odd thing, not only because you, reader, are already part of a thriving community (it’s how we found each other), but because the writing itself is an act of community-building. It connects people and ideas in service of our collective well-being, and hopefully creates a space for continued conversation within and between our two communities.

At the heart of it, the point of community is to connect with our fellow humans in a meaningful way.

“Meet for coffee. Get to know one another on a real (and not just a professional ‘what can you do for me?’) level,” urges Felsenfeld. “You don’t just get to show up with your good ideas and foist–you get conversations going, and that is the path to making things better.”

Next week: trust.

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