Author: BFC Admin

Advice from Strangers: Finding Your Own Strangers

bon voyage

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

A few months ago, I set out to explore areas of the software development experience whose depths, I felt, were in need of plumbing.

The project began with a questionnaire, ate its way through at least 500 Post-its, inspired a few unexpected interviews, and finally found its voice on this site about new music.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Advice from Strangers was not the overlap between tech and new music (which was, after all, its impetus), but discovering that the process of researching and writing exemplified the themes discussed within the series: creative growth, community building, trust, collaboration and resource management.

There are also other challenges worth exploring. How do we document and/or (an)notate our work so that it is usable by others? How do we make smart technology decisions in the face of cost and ongoing obsolescence? How do we support ourselves financially while starting a new venture? Furthermore, the juicy juxtaposition isn’t limited to new music and tech; I’d venture to say we could look at any two creative fields and find advice (and even solace) from across the divide.

So: How to harness this delightfully eye-opening and joyfully serendipitous experience? It can be yours in seven easy steps:

  1. Choose a field. Starting with friends, find a few people you respect who work (or play) in an industry that is not your own. (It helps to pick something you find interesting.)
  1. Identify the challenges. Ask them what their main challenges are in their work, interpersonal or otherwise. This is the backbone of your questionnaire.
  1. Prepare a questionnaire. When you start to see themes surfacing, use the themes to write a questionnaire. (Here’s mine—Gmail access required.) In the questionnaire, describe the challenges and ask people how they handle each issue. You may be able to use the same questionnaire for both the industry you’ve chosen and your own industry; if you need to, make a copy and tailor the language to fit the audience. Use quotes or examples to clarify the questions as needed.
  1. Find strangers. Share the questionnaire on Facebook, Twitter, and email. Ask your friends to share it with others in their industry. This is where the strangers are! If you’re lucky, you’ll get responses from around the world and from many different perspectives.
  1. Write down the main ideas. When you have at least 15 responses from each industry (the more the merrier), arm yourself with a sharpie and a stack of Post-its. You’ll need two colors, one for each industry. Start with the first question from your questionnaire. As you read through the responses, write down each independent concept on a Post-it. You may find there is more than one concept in a response. For example, Question: How do you successfully balance collaboration and privacy? Post-it #1: Sharing feels natural!, Post-it #2: I believe in sharing over hiding.
  1. Group the responses to discover themes. Stick those post-its on a wall and admire your glorious handiwork. Then, start looking for themes. Group together similar concepts until you end up with little Post-it clusters all over the wall. These are your answers! (Or starting points for further investigation.)
  1. Dig deep for meaningful information. Are any of the themes vague, or too theoretical to be actionable? Ask your strangers what they had in mind. Request anecdotes to explain a strategy or outlook. Follow up over coffee and a pastry. Worst case scenario: they draw a blank. Best case scenario: you get to know an interesting person who will continue to share his or her wisdom for years to come.

That’s it—your very own advice from strangers.

Should you choose to embark upon this Jules Vernian quest, you may find that looking at a familiar problem through an unfamiliar lens can cast rainbows on even the thorniest of challenges. Go talk to strangers, have a blast, and drop me a line if you turn up something interesting. Bon voyage!

Advice from Strangers: When Resources Are Low

burning the midnight oil

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

Once upon a time, there was a princess. Resplendent in burgundy velour, this voluptuous leading lady—played by renowned cellist Joshua Roman—tossed stunning blond tresses and flitted around in falsetto to the antic-laden lines of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.

You might ask what circumstances led Roman to don a wig and play the damsel in distress with Deviant Septet on that night. “The only woman in our group was busy playing something during that scene,” writes the ensemble on Twitter, and “he just seemed too natural a fit.”

Creative solutions often have their beginnings in resource scarcity, but that doesn’t make being short on manpower less of a challenge, especially in early-stage startups and music ensembles.

I can’t sugarcoat this: limited funding means everyone pulls extra weight as a matter of course. When that’s the baseline, it can be daunting to take on even more work ahead of a product launch or performance. Incredibly, we manage: we lose sleep, forget to eat, spend less time with friends and families. Everything else falls by the wayside while we get the job done. When it’s all over, we crash, recuperate, and start again.

If that’s a fact, are there ways of doing it better?

I asked 30 colleagues in new music and tech how they fill manpower gaps to get work done when resources are low. Here’s their advice.

Prioritize and focus

“You are just not going to get it all done,” says product and marketing executive Orlena Yeung. “Even with a lot of resources, there is always more to do. Understand what is necessary and what will have the greatest impact—and do few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.”

Project manager Bill Manos agrees. “The one-two punch of getting things done with limited resources is figuring out the minimum needed to achieve your mission, and then combining that with a laser focus on prioritization. Sometimes it simply takes a little extra planning to save yourself a ton of rework down the line.”

We prioritize throughout the day without realizing it—deciding how to spend our time or money, deciding what to eat—and these same thought processes inform our decisions about what to create. The difference is that product development and music creation are more complex than dinner, so we need to break them down into smaller increments and evaluate each piece in the context of the whole.

“I ask myself, if this feature doesn’t exist, will the product work?” explains developer Jack Reichert. “Sometimes I’ll add some non-essentials, but they have to add significantly to the experience. I tell my team: Make it work, then make it work well.”

Minimum viable product(ion)

Technologists will be familiar with the concept of minimum viable product: implementing just the core features that allow a product to be deployed, and no more.

Gahlord Dewald runs an ad-hoc puppet opera company with an orchestra of mixed skill levels. He arranges the music to suit each musician’s abilities and personality, giving the melodies to those who are more skilled, or pairing less in-shape players with strong players.

Why structure an orchestra this way? Because it’s fun—and practical.

“The town where we perform [Burlington, Vermont] is full of musical people. But it’s just a town, maybe 60,000 or so in the area,” Dewald clarifies. “If we were to field a full-size professional or teaching orchestra, I’d have had to spend more time fundraising than making music. What we do is limit the scope so we can ‘ship’ something that is delightful and feels complete. If we abandon the concept of full orchestra or having some explicit educational component, and instead create an environment where that might be acceptable or even preferred by the audience, then we can ‘ship’ product faster and with fewer resources (material, temporal, and human).”

Is the experience of watching Dewald’s opera the same as seeing an opera at the Met? “No,” he says, “but everyone who came knew what they were getting, and many of them had never been to an opera or would [not] normally choose to see one anyway. We worked a different/new market for the content.”

Find a sustainable pace

“There is a human cost to overworking employees,” says Brandt Williams, a lifelong musician and serial entrepreneur who is currently responsible for strategy and development at the Zoo Labs music accelerator. “When you’re asked to do more with same resources, or the same with fewer people, employees become dissatisfied with their work and feel they’re being compromised. They either leave, or their work suffers and they get fired. The human cost is probably higher than anything else: you are tossing away employees who have institutional memory, really good memory, and knowledge about the business, and then you hire somebody new to replace them. The spinup process takes time, the new employees are frustrated and unhappy, and all they’re doing is the same thing the other employees were doing: reacting to organizational demands, just trying to keep up.”

This doesn’t mean you should never go into crunch mode. A crunch every few months can be exciting and motivating, but a permanent state of stress causes burnout—not just for those doing the work, but also for friends, family, and coworkers in supporting roles.

“The team has to feel responsible when there is an emergency and you need more people and more commitment,” says technology consultant Tamar Rosen. “But it’s very bad to be low on manpower for an extended period of time. People have a life outside of work. A healthily work-life balance must be encouraged if an organization wants to sustain itself for the long run.”

If you notice teammates dropping like flies due to the workload, and don’t have the option of hiring additional support, “scale back to work within the means of the organization, with a priority on slow growth,” says composer J.M. Gerraughty. “You don’t want to overtax your most valuable resource.”

Expand existing roles with care

“Every tech startup I’ve heard of has people go outside their narrow job description,” says the head of an early-stage startup. “As CTO (chief technology officer), I handled many data collection and cleaning tasks, machine configurations, operations, and other tasks.”

I hear this from colleagues across the startup world:

“Learn!” says developer Yitzchak Schaffer. “In my experience, unless you have a whole person’s worth of resource gap, it is more efficient than trying to outsource or hire.”

“Encourage people to grow. Explain the benefits of getting new skills, and explain how it will help the team or company,” echoes programmer Michael Snoyman.

I’m picturing a water balloon about to burst. How far can you stretch a person? Does it always make sense to encourage colleagues and employees to expand their roles?

“Some people want to do their job and leave it at that, which is more than enough for certain roles,” says Lea Aharonovitch, VP of product management at “You shouldn’t try to add more on top of that: you’ll fail, cause frustration, and lose value on the human resource front. But there are roles where it makes sense—when there’s an existential need, for sure, and even when there isn’t—to maximize on the value of what an individual can contribute.”

When done right, role expansion can increase creativity and collaboration. Members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) experienced a creative boost when they took on additional administrative responsibilities rather than hire new staff.

“At a critical moment a few years ago when we were faced with capacity challenges, we made a decisive move to not hire more outside administrative staff but rather to empower the musicians within our organization to take on responsibility for different aspects of the business,” says flutist Claire Chase, 2012 MacArthur Fellow and ICE CEO/co-artistic director. “It made us stronger and more creative in every way. Now we have a team of six artist partners who fulfill dual roles onstage and offstage, effectively running our production, education, and development departments. The artist partners work alongside and in close collaboration with our administrative staff and board. We don’t see these groups as part of any kind of hierarchy but rather as part of a collaborative and symbiotic ecosystem in which every decision is a creative decision.”

Ultimately, it comes down to using human resources in an efficient and respectful way, while also building on and maximizing their value.

“There has to be a good reason to ask someone to do something outside their job description or comfort zone,” says Aharonovitch. “I wouldn’t ask my product managers to make coffee, but I would ask them to spend a week with the support team, or the marketing team, because understanding the bigger picture would make them better product managers. If we do need more hands on deck, that is the most intuitive place for our team to get involved and help carry the load.”

Enrich volunteers’ lives for a lasting connection

Typically, you wouldn’t have a drummer who’s not a saxophone player play the saxophone; you also wouldn’t ask a database architect to design a user interface. Yet when a skilled volunteer arrives at the office of an arts organization, they do whatever’s next on the to-do list, whether it’s answering phones, tallying audience zip codes for a grant application, or loading up a truck with drum sets and music stands.

“We’ve been trained in the arts that if someone is willing to do the job, let’s get them to do it, and we don’t necessarily care if the task fits their skills. If we need somebody to answer the phone, well, that’s what’s happening on Tuesday, so no matter who shows up, that’s what they’re going to do,” says Williams. “When you have people who might be able to make a positive impact for the organization further down the line, that’s not the best use of time, energy, or effort.”

And in tech?

“In tech, we’re used to being able to hire the best fit, or at least trying to hire the best fit,” he says. “In tech, a good hire is a valued employee because of their knowledge.”

How might we shift our approach toward valuing volunteers for their knowledge, not just their time?

Williams suggests involving people in a way that is outside the traditional norm in which donors get VIP access, and everybody else collects tickets or stuffs envelopes. We should be asking: How do we want our volunteers to describe their relationship with our organization? How has their life been enriched because they’ve chosen to volunteer with us? The idea is to move from individual short-term volunteer contributions to a long-term relationship with an organization, which starts with making volunteer work more meaningful.

One way to do this is to match volunteers with tasks they are uniquely qualified for. Instead of saddling a web designer with the three-hour job of manually wrangling zip codes in a spreadsheet, try this: find an Excel expert who will use those same three hours to set up a process that can be run whenever needed. Then, use the designer’s time to handle tasks like website design or program layout.

Consider investing in volunteers while they invest in you. Train them to become experts in skilled tasks, and continue to call on them when needed.

“As a volunteer in a wooden boat project, I was asked to carve part of the bow from a piece of laminated wood,” Williams says. “It took three days, and I was an expert by the time I was done. I got really, really good at it. If someone came to me today and said, ‘I need this bow keel made,’ I’d say ‘Sure, give me the materials, I’ll see you in three days.’”

When properly matched with tasks that let them shine, volunteers get to hone skills and make a lasting contribution, and as a result, they’re more invested in their work and forge stronger bonds with the organization.

Delegate bite-sized tasks

Delegating doesn’t come easily to everyone. Even the most bogged-down humans don’t necessarily know how to ask for help, or what help to ask for. Who wants to place a huge responsibility on people who are themselves frantically trying to make ends meet? And practically speaking, how do you even turn a huge knot of work into something that can be done by people who aren’t deeply committed to your cause, or who have only recently joined your team or organization?

All but the simplest projects consist of multiple steps. “Understand the tasks that constitute the core work, and defer or delegate the rest,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup.

Start by dividing your project into stages, and then break each stage into tasks. Evaluate each task: will the success of the project be jeopardized if this one thing doesn’t get done? Finally, consider which of the tasks must be done by core members of the organization because of their particular skills, knowledge, clearance, or other qualifications, and which could be outsourced to others.

Then make the tasks as tiny as possible, and start doling them out.

“I break everything down into very small tasks: pick up this drink donation, come at this time to set up,” says Nikki Lee, product manager at Microsoft and dean of the Seattle branch of the volunteer-run Awesome Foundation. “That’s a lot less daunting for people to sign up for, and it also gives everyone a really clear view of what needs to get done. We always end up with enough volunteers, and people often commit to more work than they initially think they’ll do.”

Streamline and automate

Automation is ubiquitous in tech, where tasks are often carried out repeatedly as part of communication, coding, or testing processes. Imagine clicking on every link on your web site to make sure it points to the correct page, and then doing that again every time you update the code.

Technology companies are in an enviable position when it comes to automating and streamlining work, because they have the resources to develop tools internally based on an intimate knowledge of their workflow needs. From Basecamp to Amazon Web Services to the internet itself, some of the software products we rely on now started out as internal tools.

The rest of us can be thankful that not all tools are kept behind closed doors.

Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, who is also executive director of the contemporary music ensemble Hotel Elefant, says she started using Trello—a free project management tool—to streamline communications when a website redesign project rendered email ineffective.

Trello and software like it are game-changers for volunteer management, board reporting, event and project planning, operations, and even artistic discussion, because they offer transparency while also supporting as much collaboration and autonomy as is needed.

“There were hundreds of emails, files scattered and lost in the middle of threads, and our inboxes became consumed by this one project,” says Kouyoumdjian. “We started using Trello, and almost instantly our conversations were organized into boards, topics and checklists with activity assignment and monitoring, and file sharing – all away from our personal emails and living in a virtual space we could go to when we were ready to work on that specific project. We were able to communicate to each other about needs and progress in real time, without stacking up messages and threads.”

If you find yourself repeating the same task regularly and with little variation, there’s probably a way to automate it.

“When Exapno was starting up, every email I wrote was a personal email,” says Lainie Fefferman, a composer and performer who founded the Brooklyn coworking/performing space. “Now a lot of the emails that come in ask the same things and can have the same answer. When I reply, I usually start off with a template, and then I tailor it. At first I was uncomfortable with that—I thought it was too corporate—but then I realized there’s actually no difference on the end of the person reading the email.”

Lee uses Gmail Canned Responses templates to manage communications at the Awesome Foundation.

“They’re fantastic,” she says. “I create a canned response for anything that I have to say frequently: letting people know we’ve made a decision about a grant, reaching out to potential applicants, onboarding new trustees. I try to avoid sending only a stock template, because that feels too impersonal, but it’s really helpful for making sure that I don’t leave out anything important. For example, when we’re onboarding a new trustee, there are a lot of resources I want to make sure I give them. Instead of trying to list these off from memory, I pop in the canned response and then add content around it that’s relevant to the conversation I’m having with that person.”

Once you’ve identified which parts of your work could benefit from streamlining or automation, start shopping around for a tool that will help you do it. Keep in mind, though, they’re not one-size-fits-all. Test-drive a few options, get a feel for which is best suited to your needs, then dig in.

Not every decision is intellectual

We choose some projects rationally; others take flight from a less quantifiable place.

“I get a gut feeling,” says composer Fefferman. “I have to work on this project, or work with these people. It all feeds into one big unpredictable combination of artistic excitement, people-friendship excitement, and career-impact excitement. Sometimes I decide based on a single axis; often the axis is the character of the person who is doing the commissioning. I get excited about the months ahead working with that person. But in general, I get excited, pumped about life, then decide whether to do the work or not. It’s an ineffable stew of feeling.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity is also the mother of all-nighters.

Pre-launch, pre-performance, and even just in the day-to-day life of startups and arts organizations, we turn up the octane, press forward as a team, or carry the extra load on our own shoulders. When we’re lucky, others jump in and lighten the load.

There are never enough hours in the day, but there are usually a few trusted folks to depend on. Never hesitate to ask for help. Who knows? You just might be rescued by a princess.

Next: the end?

Advice from Strangers: A Path to Collaboration

Collaboration illustration

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

A rising tide lifts all boats, some say.

There is general consensus in both the contemporary classical music scene and in tech that collaboration is a positive thing, that it is natural and beneficial, and that the possibilities for collaboration are endless. Yet alongside that enthusiasm is a strong expression of “I can’t collaborate.”

We face internal challenges (mostly in music): “It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.” “I’m a control freak. That makes collaboration difficult.” “I have yet to find a collaborator whose artistic sensibilities align with mine as closely as I’d like.” “My arts community is isolated and competitive, instead of open and collaborative.”

We face external challenges (mostly in tech): “Conservative managers can limit collaboration with the public.” “Everything at work is secret and walled-off, for good reason.” “At work, we operate on a need-to-know basis.” “People can steal your ideas.”

Both industries rely on collaboration. Can new music artists find ways to get around personal roadblocks to enjoy working together? Can technologists participate in—and foster—a collaborative environment, even in a climate of stealth?

Friends, collaborators, readers: we can, and we do. I asked 30 technologists and new music practitioners how they work together with others. Here is their advice.


Start with people you trust

Some collaborations begin with an idea. Others begin with people. The best involve people you can trust.

“It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself,” says soprano Hillary LaBonte. “If you have an idea for a collaboration, approach people you already know and trust. My best collaborations have been with artists I trust implicitly.”

“I have been very fortunate to collaborate with the people with whom I do collaborate,” says composer Daniel Felsenfeld. “I also like most of them as people, value their friendships, try never to ‘pass the buck’ in our collaboration, and try not to take criticism of my ideas as a referendum on me as a person or composer.”

Classical violist Heather Bentley recently composed and produced an opera based on the story of the goddess Ishtar. She chose performers whom she trusted with her vision, and whom she trusted to take it further in their own way. She was able to let others have their way with the opera, she says, because she picked them for that very reason.

“I chose them because I wanted to hear what they would come up with,” she says, “and thinking about those people inspired me to come up with the idea of what I wanted them to do.”

If you’re not interested in your collaborators’ contributions, it might be time to rethink working as a team.

Articulate a clear vision

When a collaboration takes a wrong turn, it could be that the vision is flawed or that the team is flawed. But also worth exploring is the possibility that both are fine, and that it’s the articulation of the vision that is flawed.

“Ask yourself, ‘Have I really gotten to something that can be clearly articulated outside my own head?’” says Jacob Smith, partner at A Brave New, a Seattle-based marketing agency. “If you’re going to try to exert control in a collaboration, you have to have enough of it worked out that you can actually explain it to somebody, and if they can’t understand, it might be that you haven’t gotten yourself far enough down the road.”

In tech, product managers often define the priority, functionality, and design of a new feature or product, and it is their responsibility to convey this information to a team of engineers. When done effectively, this results in a timely delivery of a useful, working product. And when product specifications are ambiguous or omit key information, the implementation can become a nightmare.

The same applies to musical collaborations. A clear vision sets expectations for all involved: Is the goal improvisation or strict adherence to a specific piece? Are we starting from scratch, or supporting an idea already in progress?

“My idea for the opera addressed the rift between how it is to be collaborating on chamber music, and how it is to be improvising with other people,” says Bentley, who is experienced in both. “I wanted to know: is it possible to take great improvisation energy, and put it into a long form that has a dramatic arc to it, where everybody in the ensemble would be on board with where we’re going, what we’re illustrating?”

Bentley’s exquisite articulation of her vision—defined structure with improvisation within it—made that possible, and the opera was born.

Skate toward the same goal

“It’s essential to get all the players in an organization skating toward the same goal, regardless of whether that’s a technology implementation or a strategic imperative,” says Jesse Proudman, founder and CTO of Blue Box, a Seattle-based start-up that provides private cloud hosting.

“Inside Blue Box, we’re big believers in small agile engineering teams—but small agile teams cannot be successful without close collaboration amongst everyone in product and engineering, and amongst engineering’s ‘customers’ inside of the organization.”

To get everyone on the same page, he says, over-communication is key. Start with more than seems necessary, then dial it back based on feedback. Also important is face-to-face interaction, not just with teammates but cross-functionally.

Establish clear roles and responsibilities

“Collaboration is about respect, pure and simple,” says Felsenfeld. “But it is also about knowing who has what to do, and who is going to have a kind of final say. I once was told by a famous composer that whenever he gets into a collaboration he figures out who can fire who in the scenario, which makes for at least a clear route.”

“It must be clear who is doing what,” says composer Steve Peters, who directs the Nonsequitur/Wayward Music Series. “Everyone needs to be able to do what they are best at without stepping on each other’s toes, and be prepared to relinquish some control. Power struggles are a sure way to undermine any collaboration. Define everyone’s role and then let them do it; if they ask for help or advice, offer it without steamrolling them.”

Bosco Kante is a hip-hop producer-turned-startup founder. A Grammy winner with a background in mechanical engineering, he’s currently working with a small team to create the ElectroSpit—a mobile version of the talk box that pairs with digital devices—and produce music with it.

“Early in my career, I teamed up with a few other producers. We worked together for a few years, but ultimately we broke up because we couldn’t agree on who owned what. Now, with Electrospit, I’m working with Pete Miser, another producer. He’s a longtime friend and is very experienced, so I believe we can figure that out pretty easily.”

All members of a collaborating team must have a clear understanding of the members’ roles and responsibilities, as well as who has the final say, in order to carry out the vision.

Relinquish control

“We all get great ideas from time to time, but the best ones are fleshed out with multiple minds,” says LaBonte. Great things can happen when you let go of the reins.

Bentley runs a small chamber group with a friend. “She’s an idea factory, and I’m an idea factory, so we throw all these ideas against the wall and see what sticks,” she says. “We don’t feel bad about the ones that don’t stick. When you’re collaborating, I think you need to be able to be ok with the stuff other people don’t want to do, or the ideas they don’t like. That’s a skill.”

Lack of control over circumstances or resources can even be the catalyst for a great creative collaboration.

“I started really collaborating when I was in college,” says composer Steve Layton. “We didn’t have a whole lot of instrumentalists, but we had dancers! So I did a lot of things with dancers. It’s fun—you don’t know what’s gonna happen to you, you just do it.”

Peters agrees. “Having outside parameters imposed on me is an interesting challenge.”

“I’ve often chosen collaboration over working alone, and although it tends to go in a totally different way than expected, I don’t feel like I regret those choices,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen.


Money changes things

“We have to address the 800lb gorilla, which is money,” says Bentley. “Essentially, what we’re doing—the opera, these collaborations, my chamber music series—there’s no money at stake. You make zero money, and sometimes you pay. I love it, and it’s great, but I’d say that the stealth culture exists in tech because it’s possible there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Last month, Bentley and Layton released an album of collaborative works that they made available for free download. Bentley created and recorded improvisations on viola and piano; Layton received the tracks via the internet and mashed, remixed, and processed them.

“Our collaboration is different from those funded with Kickstarter,” says Bentley. “When you do a campaign like that, you’ve got so much invested in the final product because of many factors, and that is going to affect the kind of music that goes onto that album.”

“Sometimes you’re just writing with no specific goal, and I think those are the times it’s easier to collaborate. There’s no expectations other than let’s get together and make something cool and figure out what to do with it later. It’s a great time, being in total creative mode,” says Kante.

It’s especially easy when there’s no money at stake, either because there’s none on the table, or because it’s abundant.

“I’ve watched Kanye West over the years in many kinds of studio environments,” Kante says. “Collaboration for him is a very open process. Once we did a song with violinist Miri Ben-Ari, a couple of comedy sketches, all kinds of percussionists, John Legend singing, Kanye—and I was playing the talk box. It had all these different elements. Part of his creative process is asking, ‘How many great, interesting people can I bring into this room to work on this song and participate in it?’—with almost no regard for the rights issues at that stage of the creative process. We didn’t figure out any of the rights issues until the work was done.”

He pauses. “Looking at that, I should say…‘I’m doing everything wrong’… I should throw everything out the window and just think about how I can make the best record. It’s easy to say, though. If you put a record out and know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”

Kante is inspired by the idea of creating a framework for attribution and compensation to set expectations and ease negotiations with collaborators.

“I could probably increase my success by saying, ‘I do want to collaborate, and this is how it would look.’ I’d be free of the fear, once I’d built a framework for collaboration. That’s what needs to happen. I need to engineer the collaborative process to take out the uncertainty and the risk, and then I could just concentrate on the art. I haven’t done that yet. But it’s possible!”

Openness vs. secrecy in tech

“No matter how big and anonymous, tech does feel like a big sprawling community, and sharing feels natural,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “And it feels most natural to share frameworks and tools, the things that help build products. But the products themselves? Well, we’ve gotta preserve some reason for people to pay us.”

Startups struggle with this daily. In tech, there’s a very present tension between being open about new ideas and projects—which can lead to groundbreaking collaborations and speedier technological progress—and the secrecy that plays a major role in getting a product to market before the competition (and keeping it there).

Still, there are ways to collaborate in tech that skirt the issue of proprietary information.

“We’ve based our product on a major open source project: OpenStack,” says Proudman of Blue Box. “We contribute to and participate in the development of the open source software itself, and we differentiate ourselves from the competition on raw execution driven via ruthless automation and the way we’ve chosen to bring our OpenStack to market as a service.”

In other words, the code may be public, but Blue Box’s secret sauce is in what they are capable of doing with the code, and how they execute it.

“I lean very much towards open development,” says Michael Snoyman, director of engineering at software development company FP Complete. “When I began working on my largest personal project, there was another framework that was being developed in secret (also to be later released as open source). Had they developed in the open, I likely wouldn’t have even started my project. Instead, I made it open-source, ended up getting a much larger contributor base, and it is now the dominant framework in that space. The downside to being so open is that people can steal your ideas.”

He adds a silver lining: “That forces you to stay on your toes and continue to improve and innovate faster than others.”

The conservatory challenge

“Classical music is a highly competitive field,” says Bentley. “Everybody in a top program is a top student aiming for the top, so you don’t get a lot of ‘Hey, let’s check out what it would be like to think about this piece a different way, and by the way what is the sound of a fuzzy caterpillar?’—you don’t have any conversations like that at all.”

Layton agrees: “It’s not like everybody says, ‘Hey, let’s you and me get together and we’ll just make something here, and I’ll write some stuff, and you guys too, viola and flute and whatever, let’s just play.’

“But you wish you could, somehow,” he adds wistfully. “Is there a way we could encourage that with extra-curriculars, to balance the rest, give students a more well-rounded experience, so they could get introduced to it at least? Because a lot of people never get that, and we end up with this situation where you hand performers a score, they play it, and that’s what they do—nothing else.”

Layton has been running an improv message board, Sound-In, for five years. Musicians post links to their short musical creations, and he turns these into a playlist. With people contributing from California, New Jersey, France, Tokyo, and all at different times, Layton wondered what it would sound like if they mixed some of these tracks together, as if the musicians were playing together.

“Incredibly enough, without much tweaking, we can make it sound an awful lot like these guys are in the same room, playing, that they’re all listening to each other. There can be incredibly weird kinds of music – each track is wildly different – but somehow when you stick them together, it becomes a coherent piece. It’s an interesting sort of collaboration. I’m doing the mixing, but everyone’s just showing up on their own, and waiting to see what happens.”

Does your gut still whisper at you to work alone? Perhaps what you really need is an employee, not a collaborator. It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.

If you do crave a collaborative experience, and can’t give up the reins to your own project, consider joining someone else’s. Get involved in an online improv collaboration. Contribute to an open-source project. Call up a few good friends and get in a room with them and start something from scratch.

“Whatever idea you come up with or collaborate on, the most important thing is that it generates other ideas, for other collaborations or other pieces,” says Layton. “Each piece leads to another part of a puzzle or another unfolding aspect of whatever this musical life is. That’s the fun part. You don’t know where it’s going, you’re just seeing what can happen. You’re never going to know until you do it. And then you find out.”

Next: when resources are low.

Advice from Strangers: A Trust Recipe

trust illustration

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

There are things we return to, again and again, without hesitation.

A favorite restaurant has a new dish on the menu–I order it. A favorite author comes out with a new book–the subject doesn’t matter, I read it. Pixar has a new short–I know it’s going to get me in that squishy sentimental way they do. Apple announces a new product, and I’m doomed.

And so it goes too with musicians, composers, and music festivals: you may not love everything they do, but you’ll give it a shot because you trust them.

Trust is the superpower that bequeaths upon us endless leaps of faith. How do we get it?

Craft, mission, and brand

The work you do is your craft, your mission is your motivation, and how people perceive these two things is your brand. It’s the sum total of what people think about when they hear your name, or your company’s name, or the name of something you’ve created. Your creations live in the world; your brand lives in people’s minds.

So it is not enough to simply do our craft, if we want to create a relationship of trust. We must also project a vision of values, a mission or an experience that is consistent with who our audience is and what they like–and deliver reliably on the promise inherent in that vision.

How do we bring trust-building into our day-to-day routine? I asked technologists and music-makers what types of behaviors were instrumental in capturing the trust of their fans, clients, and collaborators. Notably, the themes that surfaced are industry and scale agnostic. Here’s their recipe.

Act with integrity

“Make genuine promises that are real, tangible, and meaningful, and then keep those promises,” says Gahlord Dewald, president of ThoughtFaucet, a strategic content studio.

Defining and delivering on a clear mission goes a long way to setting expectations and building trust. “You find your integrity sweet spot and don’t move,” says composer Danny Felsenfeld. “At the New Music Gathering, I think we did a lot of things right because we had certain boundaries and we stuck to them. For example, we decided that none of the co-founders’ music would be played at any gathering, even if people wanted to.”

At Switchboard Music, curators have found that sticking to their mission to support innovative and eclectic music has helped to set useful expectations with their community.

“We try to have a mixed balance–not necessarily just our top five every year–and we try to give a cross section of the Bay Area music scene,” says Annie Phillips, Switchboard co-director. “Because we stay true to that mission, people know they’ll hear some interesting music they may not be familiar with. They think: ‘I know if I go to this concert, I’ll have a bit of an adventure. I know I’ll see something I like, and I’ll see something representative of the Bay Area.’”

“The Switchboard brand is strong,” says co-founder Ryan Brown. “At our festival, people don’t need to know the name of who’s playing; they trust the brand, the presenter name, the festival name.”

This strength of brand helps bring new performers to the festival, too. Bands who have never before performed together will make their debut at Switchboard, because they know they’ll find an audience looking for their kind of music.

In tech, when there are many competitors with similar products, integrity can mean the difference between collaboration and isolation.

“When I’m deciding on a new partnership, I meet with major players in the industry and assess whether they’re presenting their content with integrity,” says Kiesha Garrison, a business development manager at Microsoft whose main focus is negotiating content deals. “It damages my opinion of them if they talk about the competition in an icky way. I tend to take that as an indication of their company culture, which is something that may seep into their content–and I don’t want that vibe in the content. When you’re trash-talking your competition, your focus is on that. It’s not on the customers, and that comes through.”

Communicate responsibly and responsively

When it comes to building trust, programmer Michael Snoyman values communication even above the quality of his code. In fact, he wrote a manifesto about it.

“It’s about action–when people report bugs, responding and fixing them. When people ask questions, improving the documentation. Being present so that no one ever wonders, ‘Is this a maintained project?’” Snoyman explains, “People feel comfortable with my software because I stand behind it.”

Rock-solid communication eliminates most poking and prodding. Whenever possible, be polite and responsive; whether in email or on social media, acknowledge receipt of incoming communication, even if you can’t address it fully at that moment.

Outgoing communications–program notes, season announcements, tutorials, documentation, testimonials, other support materials on your web site–showcase your brand as well. If you win an award or get a press mention, find a way to display them on your site. They can’t speak for you unless you give them a mouthpiece.

Quality speaks for itself

Adhere to the highest standards of quality possible while still getting the job done. “Never compromise on the quality of a performer or conviction of the idea behind the theme of a festival or concert,” says a board member of a contemporary music ensemble.

And good work speaks for itself.

“I don’t have experience creating a brand,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “But I think I’ve created trust just by getting things done. Once you’ve seen my work, you know I’m going to do a good job and be meticulous.”

Surface the human

Technology is inherently cold and logical, and needs warming up through pleasant interfaces and communication from its creators. Unsurprisingly, technologists put a premium on communicating the fact that behind a product are human beings who care.

“For complex products, trust in the product turns on trust in the people behind it,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup.

I thought this sentiment would be limited to the tech community, since music seems so inherently human. But a human connection is critical in the music community, too.

“Music may seem inherently human because there’s a human being performing, but it can still be a sterile connection, especially in classical music,” says Phillips. “If an audience member has no context, they won’t identify a performance as a human thing.”

She adds that personal connection is an important part of trusting an organization.

“The brands that people trust are the ones they feel invested in or loyal to. When people feel emotionally invested in a brand, they’re more likely to stay loyal. A human connection makes it more likely for people to feel more emotionally invested in a brand or organization, so they also feel personally invested in it. When they feel a strong tie, they become patrons instead of just audience members.”

The same applies in other areas of the music business.

“For a composer, especially one at the beginning stages of their career, interacting with individual stakeholders is paramount,” says composer Jason Gerraughty. “I didn’t really figure this out until I was finished my Ph.D. and had nobody to write [music] for, because I didn’t put in the hours at the bar. If there is any advice I’d give to a freshman composer, it’s that the afterparty is just as important to your career as the concert!”

Be transparent

Shared values and mutual interest are not-so-secret ingredients in a trusting relationship, but perhaps less obvious is the importance of being transparent about what all parties are getting out of the relationship when those benefits may not be immediately apparent.

“Fiscal transparency helps people trust that you’re doing good work with the money they give you,” says Phillips. “At Switchboard, for our monthly series, we borrowed our sales model from the Center for New Music. All the ticket sales go directly to the artist, and we announce that at the concerts. We explain: all ticket sales go to the artist, and if you buy a beer it comes to Switchboard to help us put on more concerts. It helps people donate money while they’re there.”

“I think that trust in a brand requires people to believe that whoever is behind the brand has their best interests at heart,” agrees an engineer at Google. “If they are participating in a transaction, it helps to have the benefit to the company and the user be transparent, so that the user can think to themselves: ‘I know what the company is getting out of it, so I know why it is in the company’s best interest to treat me right.’”

Transparency also plays out on a personal level, says Phillips.

“I try to be a resource for people in a transparent manner. I believe a high tide floats all boats. When I have access to a resource or I’ve figured out how to do something, if someone asks me how to do it, I just tell them. In business, some people want to play their cards close to their chest; I don’t think that benefits the music community or the musicians. If I think being transparent will help, I’ll do it.”

When people see you as a resource–and you’re transparent about sharing your resources–they’ll trust you and, by association, the projects you’re affiliated with.

Be honest

Deal frankly and honestly with clients, collaborators, and yourself.

“I was working with a bookshop to bring an ensemble to their space,” says a presenter in Seattle. “We had a great time brainstorming about the concert program and event setup, and then we talked about what they needed to make it worthwhile for them, and what I needed to pay my musicians. There was a great willingness to make the event happen, and at the same time, a shared understanding that if we aren’t able to make the numbers break even, we wouldn’t pursue the idea further. Everyone’s needs were on the table, and it was clear that if the numbers didn’t work out, we’d be able to walk away from the collaboration without ruining the relationship.”

A partner with a good sense of personal limits is a true gem. It’s a lot easier to operate on realistic expectations than to clean up the mess after the alternative, and lack of trust in this area can be the death of a partnership before it even gets off the ground. Things go more smoothly when everyone involved knows what can and can’t be accomplished, in how much time, and for what compensation.

Time is a resource. Respect it

Nothing burns goodwill like a waste of time. Assume all time is a precious resource, and when you find yourself in the position to benefit from someone’s time, treat it with the utmost value.

“I do my due diligence before going to a subject-matter expert for help, so I don’t waste their time,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “I’m not going to go to them without doing my homework.”

If you’re not sure how to think about a collaborator’s time in a way that is respectful, try looking at the situation in personal terms.

“At New Music Gathering, we tried not to think like an ‘organization’ but as individuals who were asking people to come do something, and as such we felt a responsibility to make sure those people were not wasting their time or being ‘had’ in any way,” says Felsenfeld.

The humble fumble

“Readily admit when you’re wrong and rectify it immediately,” says software developer Jack Reichert. “I’ve made a few big mistakes in my time. I’m still around because I fess up when I do.”

Making a mistake is a huge opportunity to build trust. It’s also probably the most counter-intuitive way to do so, and it works wonders.

“I was managing a rickety relationship with a client,” says a software product manager. “We were powering their whole network of sites, and our system went down. It was early in the morning, and we debated notifying the client. In the end, we left a message at his office, and by the time he got it we’d already resolved the issue. He was doubly pleased: not only had we handled the problem, but we’d kept him in the loop instead of making it seem everything was fine. It gave us a great foundation of trust  moving forward.”

In the same vein, box-office issues can turn an average listener into a fan.

“Box-office mixups happen all the time,” says Phillips. “If someone buys a ticket online, and when they arrive they’re not on our list, the presenter will usually apologize quickly, let them in, and give them a snack or a beer at the concert. They’re much more likely to come away thinking: ‘Switchboard is a stand-up organization–they took care of me.’”

Another common snag in the music industry is double-booking–and again, the same approach applies.

“As long as you apologize and handle it quickly, it works out,” says Phillips. “When you get vague about why you double-booked the evening, haggling over the details of who said what in an email…well, eliminating the drama is good.”

Starting from zero? You’re not a zero

Even when you’re just starting out, commitment and collaboration are your champions.

“I think when you’re new, it’s either: ‘I have a very strong commitment to my mission,’ or ‘Trust my collaborators’–and you’re working with very high quality people,” says Phillips. “Once, someone put together a completely new group with new music he’d written that we hadn’t heard yet. I trusted him, and I knew the people he was bringing in would be good, so I felt comfortable bringing him into the concert series.”

There are echoes in tech:

“If you’re new, I’m going to look at who you’re associated with, what experts have lended their voice to help you build your credibility,” says Microsoft’s Garrison.

Make it easier for people to see your affiliations by highlighting them in your bio. Who have you worked with in the past? Are you or your partners affiliated with a university, publication, or school of thought? Who will recommend your work?

We can’t ride on the coattails of our ambassadors forever, and in the end, you’re the only one who can deliver on your own brand promise. But this may just be the thing that gets you the opportunity to do so.

These strategies are a guide to building trust, but clearly we don’t walk through our busy days, our office meetings, or our commutes with blog posts in mind. Tactics can be easy to forget.

If we’re going to make trust-building a part of everyday life, we need to prioritize these behaviors, normalize them, and build systems into place to help us carry them out as a matter of procedure.

I asked my colleagues: Have you created a brand that people trust without hesitation, return to again and again? What do you think led to that trust?

This recipe, from composer Dean Rosenthal, is effective and inspiring:

“I would like to think that I have created that returning out of quality of work, integrity, inventiveness, intelligence, concern for community, mutual interest, and devotion to the art of public music making,” he told me.

Trust is not born of one encounter, in a single grand gesture. It is built by repeatedly and consistently behaving in a way that reassures people they are being heard and respected; that we have their best interests at heart.

Next: collaboration.

Advice from Strangers: The Craft of Community

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.

Advice from Strangers: In Pursuit of Growth

green water color forest

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

A recent conference of new music professionals devoted a workshop to the subject of creative growth. Participants toiled. There were groans of frustration and murmurs of revelation. Digital devices were set aside, notecards scribbled upon, thoughts shared. Forty-five minutes were dedicated to the development of strategies for relevant, positive, reflective growth. In those minutes, hearty seeds were planted that will share their yield for a long time to come.

In tech, where I’ve worked for the past decade, we are charged with innovating, iterating, and disrupting. We invent software, undermine old industries, create needs. We make new things all the time, even as we aim to better those that already exist. And yet, I wonder: is there a mismatch between this mandate and the method in which we’re growing creatively as individuals?

Skill-based learning vs. creative growth

Even though as an industry we champion the cause of innovation, as individuals, the practical day-to-day goal is to become more functionally proficient. So when we say we grow, we mean we continually build an arsenal of skills, enabling us to increase the efficiency and robustness of software, scale technological infrastructure, and support a growing business.

But most of us are in tech because we want to do cool new things, create new stuff, explore. Isn’t it important for us to grow that side of ourselves—the creative side—as well? If our ability to encourage disruption is so important, how do we open ourselves up to and equip ourselves for opportunities to do new and different rather than incrementally better and faster at the same thing? We must learn to expose ourselves to new processes of innovation and new interpretations that can bring us out of a local maximum toward a radically better solution.

The new music community offers us a model of rigorous self-examination, a thorough and ongoing exploration of the processes leading to creative innovation. The tech community favors a skills-based approach to growth. The strategies overlap, even as the applications differ. Here are the top growth strategies of 35 colleagues from the industries of new music and tech.


Growth strategies


Accept growth as a constant

It may seem obvious, but let’s start with this: there is always something more to learn in our ever-expanding universe of experience. If we don’t acknowledge this, we ride blindly past opportunities to grow.

“The first step to my growing is accepting the fact that growth is a constant in my life,” says freelance composer Garrett Schumann. “Over the last few years, believing this has led me to invent new challenges that force me to grow as a composer and member of the new music community… I designed my dissertation to force myself out of my compositional comfort zone. It is my most ambitious vocal work to date, and the process of creating it helped strengthen my confidence in setting text and writing for voice.”

Liz Cohen, director of marketing at a crowd-funding platform for start-ups, agrees. “I am open with myself about the fact that there is tons of room for me to grow. For everyone to grow. So I listen to people around me—the people who are ‘green’ and the people who have supposedly been doing this for decades.”

Getting comfortable with growth—having the willingness to tell someone, yourself even, “there’s something important that I don’t know”—opens the door to personal development. The rest is tactics.

Physical spaces, mental spaces

“I believe in space. You need to have a space associated with learning and creating,” says Vinitha Watson, executive director of ZooLabs. (More on ZooLabs later.) She mentions a “mind palace,” and I immediately picture a richly decorated temple for my thoughts. I’m not far off: the idea is to set aside a physical place for growth—a specific room at home, a favorite cafe. Routinely associate the space with creative or learning activities, and soon that atmosphere will envelop you whenever you enter.

Another approach is to find points in your daily routine that combine well with growth tasks, like a commute or quiet moment in the morning.

“I start my day just absorbing new information, catching up on blogs across life and work,” says Orlena Yeung, a product and marketing executive. “Setting aside this time helps me warm up for the day as well.”

Create and welcome challenges

One way to stretch our creative muscles is to reach for the fringe of what we know, find the edge of what we’re comfortable with—and hover there before moving even further along.

“I seek out opportunities that will push me way outside my comfort zone,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen. “I focus on projects that make me light up. Then I always ask, ‘How can I make this happen?’ Sometimes they’re my ideas and sometimes they’re other people’s dreams and ideas. I just know that I want to see those ideas through to fruition, and I will learn whatever I need to along the way.”

“Take risks,” says technology consultant Jack Kustanowitz. “The nature of technology is that everyone is always learning, so the best way to grow is to take on projects that are just outside your comfort zone. I’m not advocating a professional poet agreeing to design a banking system, but if you are a technology expert and you have an opportunity to work in an area that is 50% stuff you’ve done before and 50% things you’ll have to learn, grab the opportunity, even if it means some late nights and unbilled time.”

Kiesha Garrison, a senior business development manager at Microsoft, creates thought challenges by looking at tough problems in her industry—and ignoring their existing solutions. “I look up the unsolvables to stimulate thinking. I want to know, ‘Why is this the issue?’ rather than the answer, so I can try to think about a new answer.”

The tricky thing about taking on new challenges is making them count. After all, time and resources are limited.

“I like to grow and learn, but struggle with translating that into things I can point to and say: ‘This is what I did,’” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft.

The key: actively digest what you learn, apply it, and share it with others.

One programmer mentioned that he writes about his findings on a blog and takes on speaking engagements to compile and process his learnings. In a similar vein, Garrett Schumann took on a blogging project that led him to listen to and report on the music of 150 of the composers and songwriters who follow him on Twitter.

I asked ZooLabs’ Watson to weigh in on the question of productive learning. ZooLabs is a start-up music accelerator that is invested in the intersection of creativity, craft, and commercial viability. Residents spend two weeks on-site in a program steeped in experiential learning. They quickly consume new material, learn its direct applications, jump back into their reality, and then come back with questions.

“If your goal is to learn a good skill, learn it, then do it,” she says. “Get away from the reading of it and actually apply what you’ve learned. It’s like cooking. You look at a recipe, you know what you want to accomplish, and you’re using someone else’s guide to do that. And then you do it! You’re in the kitchen, you go back and forth between the recipe and cooking.”

Keep in mind that learning can be productive even without producing something tangible. Simply switching contexts can be refreshing, reducing cynicism and burn-out. (Note: heavy terminology ahead. You will not be quizzed on it.)

“Two areas interesting me greatly right now are digital currency and just-intonation music,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “The former has me immersed in blockchain trustless verification concepts, and the latter is exposing me to scala and microtonal sound card programming. I’m not sure how much conceptual inspiration I take from these fields back to my primary, but they certainly help [keep] me from getting burned out, so I can continue to grow in fairly traditional ways without getting sick of it.”

Learning can be a high-risk activity, sometimes without financial or otherwise tangible benefits. But choosing to take on difficult challenges—and then cementing those learnings by putting them into practice—will make them meaningful.

Question yourself

Ask yourself hard, meaningful, complicated questions, and do it often.

“Force yourself to constantly question how you are doing things,” says a software engineer at Google, a creative problem-solver I worked with for several years. Soprano Hillary LaBonte agrees: “Self-assessment is key to continuous progress—not only measuring where you stand in the current music industry, but against your past self as an artist. It’s important to take stock of yourself, and align to (or counter) the changes of your field with your own artistic ambitions.”

Finding the right questions is hard, and having a process for that helps. Composer Aaron Siegel suggests starting with a goal. Here’s his method:

  1. Think of a goal you have for the next year. (It could be writing a new type of composition, learning a coding language, implementing a new feature, or reaching a different audience.)
  2. Reframe the goal as a question.
  3. Ask yourself:

+ Is this question too easy to answer? (Hint: a good question is not easy to answer.)
+ Does it lead to other questions?
+ Do you care about the question? Does answering it matter?
+ Does it have poetry—other deeper implications or relevancies?

When you’re satisfied with your question, try keeping it in mind as you go about your day. You’ll be surprised how relevant—and informative—your experiences become.

Skill-based learning requires a forcing function

I have 27 open browser tabs. My own biggest growth challenge is finding time to sit down and learn specific things. Wandering, exploring in the world—these are my brain candy, they come naturally. But when I put skill-learning tasks on my calendar, they get…overlooked.

What to do? For each learning task, Watson suggests a project-oriented approach: define a start time, an end time, and milestones for success along the way. Completing those will give a nice little dopamine dump that’s associated with advancing.

If setting milestones doesn’t work, try collaborating on the task. Being accountable to a friend or client provides a forcing function—like a gym trainer—that keeps the pressure on until the task is done. Just ask any ensemble musician preparing for a concert.

Still, you don’t have to learn every day.

“Give yourself room to breathe,” says violinist and computer science professor Sheila Oh. “Being driven makes you want to plan—but not all learning is planned. If you schedule too much of your time, you can miss out on unplanned opportunities to grow.”

Purple water color mountains

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Wander far afield

“I’m a firm believer that becoming the best artist means becoming the best person I can be, and that includes participating as a citizen of the world, with interests that extend outside my immediate circles,” says LaBonte.

There is indeed a special kind of critical growth that is possible when we position ourselves to experience something that differs vastly from our status quo. This experience is important because it provides new and unexpected context for old ideas, breaks down familiar ways of thinking, and helps us discover and feel empathy for new audiences. So how do we go about expanding our horizons?

“Make sure you’re talking—actually having a conversation—with a very diverse group of people,” says Garrison. “Talk to people who do not all mirror you in some way, or mirror each other.”

Composers should become “rabid consumers of multiple art forms,” says Daniel Felsenfeld, composer and co-founder of the New Music Gathering, an annual conference dedicated to the performance, production, promotion, support and creation of new concert music. “We should go to artist colonies to speak to people who do things differently, to collaborate with those people, to figure out how and why they do what they do. And of course we should listen to everything, not just for professional reasons but for personal reasons. We should know the canon inside out (which, yes, is impossible) and we should always be proudly peeking into its dark corners. And we should not be content with ‘scenes’ but should strive to expand the cast of characters with whom we do our business.”

In other words: get out there and explore all of the things. There is much to learn from being around people who do not share our values and interests, beyond the echo chambers of our niche conferences, office spaces, and artist colonies.

Learning is distracting, and that’s okay

“I’m always finding new things. My struggle is focusing and getting things done,” says Gil Reich, an engineering and product lead who is a veteran of several start-ups.

It’s not all his fault. Remember my 27 browser tabs? Watson says the elusive focal point might just be the nature of how technology is designed. You go to your phone for one thing, and end up doing something else.

It’s also the nature of learning. Curiosity leads to curiosity, and that’s exactly what it should do—and not just in the arts.

“Learning with an expansive amount of time and no goals is great,” says Watson. “It allows you to go off into space and dream, which I think is definitely necessary. It’s like floating, daydreaming. There’s some benefit to letting your mind wander through a forest of information. If that’s your goal, that’s fine.”

If that’s your goal.

“Learning is serving a function, and wandering serves a function. Wandering through information is not a bad thing, but it might be frustrating if someone has different goals,” she cautions.

Friends: growth is a skill, to be learned and honed. Our colleagues’ strategies, be they creative or skill-based, apply across the spectrum of our growth needs, across and beyond the reach of our own industries. Go forth and pursue growth, whether it be within your community or farther afield. Ask probing questions. Take on challenges you’re not entirely comfortable with. Wander to the far reaches of your comfort zone. Enjoy.

Next week: community.

Advice from Strangers: The Best of Two Worlds

Tech and new music chat

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

“How can we better ourselves?” asked composer Aaron Siegel of a small but hushed crowd of new music composers and performers at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in January. “The hardest thing for smart self-starters to do is to look for unknown things. It’s easier to do what we know.”

And oh, it is easy to continue on a known path, especially one that works! But creativity suffers, innovation suffers.

Clearly, in order to keep improving at our trade, we need to probe that which is unknown to us. How do we do that? How do we figure out what we don’t know, in order to learn about it?

Some context: I’m neither a composer nor a musician. My background is in software product management, information architecture, search technology, and user-centered design. I run a small community calendar for classical concerts in Seattle. It’s mostly orchestral stuff.

It began awkwardly for me, this gathering of the new music community. The conservatory’s halls swelled with a sea of music-makers immersed in hug-frenzied joy and familiarity, while I sat—alone, music-less, hug-less—at an otherwise empty cafeteria table.

New music, it turned out, was not what I had thought. Had I made a mistake, going so far afield from orchestral music? Would spending time on a tangent be a good use of my already limited resources?

Oh, blessed people. The table wasn’t empty for even five minutes, and for the next three days, I listened to composers and musicians talk about the challenges they were facing in growth, collaboration, decision-making, documentation, community-building, brand identity, making a living, bridging resource gaps—challenges that sounded a lot like those I’ve faced with my teams in startups and small technology companies.

Despite the fact that new music was outside my comfort zone, or perhaps because of it, the gathering lifted the floodgates on a burst of creative thought.

New music—raw, creative, and largely uncharted—may be eliciting questions we’ve long forgotten how to ask in other, more established industries. What if we technologists could be as rigorous about reinventing our creative processes as we are about reinventing software? And what if some of our time-tested best practices could be of use to new music makers, as they pave the way for new explorations of sound and performance?

Curious, I approached colleagues in both communities whose work I respect and asked for their insights on subjects that arose during the gathering. How do we build an engaged community? What is the secret to balancing privacy with collaboration? How do we make good decisions for and as a group? How do we get that community to trust us? How do we fill gaps when resources are low? How do we put dinner on the table? And, of course, how do we better ourselves?

Tl;dr: techies and music-makers have a lot in common, and on occasion, our approaches diverge in some really interesting ways. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore familiar and new paths together, and see what we can learn from each other.

Are you ready? Next week, we cross the streams.


Shaya Lyon

Shaya Lyon is founder and director of the Live Music Project, a community calendar for classical and contemporary music in Seattle that supports community music by connecting audiences with accessible musical experiences. Passionate about organizing information, and the collaborative creative processes that make it possible, her many hats have included product manager, UX designer, news editor, photographer and creator of fine Rice Krispy treats.

Sounds Heard: Andrew Byrne—White Bone Country

Andrew Byrne – White Bone Country (excerpt)

Buy directly from New World

Andrew Byrne:
White Bone Country
New World Records 80696-2

Stephen Gosling: piano
David Shivley: percussion


Andrew Byrne’s new CD, White Bone Country, offers a collection of pieces for piano and percussion played by Steve Gosling (piano) and David Shively (percussion). Shimmering and bright, the Australian-born composer’s music is constantly in motion, and the consummate performers heard here convey the energy and mysteries of the music.

The title track, White Bone Country, occupies almost half the disc. The nine desert landscapes Andrew Byrne has created are divided into three sections: “Desert Terrain”, “Life”, and “Weather”. By capitalizing on the contrasts in register and timbre available with his chosen instruments (piano “inside and out” and crotales, bells, gongs and glockenspiel), Byrne does indeed cover a lot of territory.

The first track opens with a Morse code-like insistence, and this rhythmic propulsion continues for the entire track. The interaction between the percussion and piano (which is slightly processed) is engrossing: polyrhythms emerge along with nascent melodies, charming bits of a song that jump through the holes of the rhythmic patterns. In this movement (as others), Byrne displays a wonderful ambiguity: it is difficult to tell which sounds are played by the pianist and which are played by the percussionist. In the second movement, Byrne builds waves of sound from low, undulating piano chords, four intervals that are the underpinning of the entire track. The harmonic rhythm is slow, allowing the piano to ring; the motion is constant. Following the movement for solo piano with a solo crotale piece highlights a contrast and a similarity: the crotales are reverberant, too, but refreshingly high. Again, the moving is constant, but the repetition of pitches and their ringing creates a captivating cloud of beating overtones. The effect is marvelous.

The second part, “Desert Life”, brings the features of the desert into focus. It starts with contemporaneous contrast: a layer of soft microtonal gongs is paired with aggressive low music on the piano. The second part of this section utilizes repeating cells, at different speeds, at first up, then down. High tinkling on the piano and in the metals is followed by a movement unlike the others: knocking on the piano while playing the keyboard, providing a darker image of the desert.

A return to reverberant piano chords that swell and regress marks the beginning of the third part, “Desert Weather”. The second part of this section begins with a true bassline, taking advantage of the more sinister sounds of the piano, including those found inside of the piano. At the end of the piece, Byrne again uses registral contrast: a bright and sprightly duo for crotales and piano in the upper register.

A minimalist approach is evident throughout the piece but the patterns seem to be about the way the sound and interaction of the instruments evoke the landscape rather than about mathematics or meditation.

Also on the CD are Tracks, a Ligeti-like work for solo piano and Fata Morgana: Mirages on the Horizon, a piece written in 2007 for prepared piano. Both of these display a post-minimalist approach similar to White Bone Country, creating attractive cellular patterns with rhythmic interplay and exploring timbral and registral contrasts.

Even though much of the music on this CD is metered, the sound world is expansive. It’s as though the music progresses like water in a river: sometimes rushing forward at a steady pace, sometimes swirling in eddies, circling around itself, but always moving and always changing. It could seem ironic that water is the image that came to mind in a desert landscape, but perhaps the oasis metaphor is apt: this is an attractive CD that listeners who enjoy rhythmic interplay, bright sounds, and pattern music played well will find refreshing.

Putting It Together: The Art of Arranging and Orchestrating

Music arranging and orchestration are essential skills and generally are not well taught in university music departments. The special contributions of music arrangers and orchestrators are often misunderstood and sometimes unfairly maligned.

Arranging is the adaptation of an existing composition for performance on an instrument or voice or combination of instruments for which it was not originally composed. For example, a singer-songwriter may come up with a new song that she can perform. When she decides to record it with an orchestra, she may hire an arranger to create the orchestral score, based on her original song. Many arrangers approach this kind of work as a kind of re-composing of the song and may enhance the harmonies, use additional keys, develop transitional passages, create an introduction, and so on. Asked what an arranger is, the famous arranger Van Alexander (who arranged for legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, among others) quipped, “An arranger is a songwriter’s best friend.”

In answer to the same question, someone else said, “An arranger is someone who prays for a great song.” The better crafted the original song is, the easier it is to do a great arrangement. One could think about arranging as a type of musical composition, requiring the same skills and talents required of all composers.

Orchestration is the art and craft of arranging a musical composition for performance by an orchestra or other ensemble. Orchestrators are often used in film and television, not because composers do not know how to orchestrate their own music for orchestra, but because of the time constraints. Most TV and film composers are very explicit in their instructions to orchestrators about how to prepare the parts. Often the composers write what is called a “short” score, and in most cases it clearly indicates what the orchestration should be from this “sketch.” Sometimes when orchestrators are given complete freedom to orchestrate a music cue as they wish, it becomes more of an arrangement than an orchestration, so these terms become interchangeable or confusing.

The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) is the professional organization for arrangers and orchestrators. You can find out more at or visit them on MySpace.

When should a composer seek the help of a professional arranger or orchestrator? Generally a composer may need an arranger or orchestrator when deadlines loom or a specific type of expertise is needed to complete the work. Many composers have written successful compositions that could enjoy new or extended life in performance by having the work adapted for another ensemble. For example, you have written a work for symphony orchestra that could be effective for concert band. You don’t have experience writing for concert band so you might consider hiring an arranger/orchestrator who is known for his or her concert band work (either arrangements or his own compositions) to make a version of your symphonic work for concert band.

Part of what arrangers and orchestrators do is what composers consider “the grunt work” of composition, and once the composer has completed the task of composition, are relieved to turn this “grunt work” over to a professional upon whom they can rely so they can turn their attention to the next composition project. In order to work this way as a professional composer, it is necessary that you are able to separate out these tasks in your work.

Next time: Sketching and learning to delineate what is composition, what is orchestration, and what is arranging in your own process as a composer.

Music News from Hollywood

NewMusicBox would like to welcome a new addition to the Chatter team, Jeannie Gayle Pool. She is a composer, musicologist, music producer, filmmaker, and a consultant to Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Music Department in Hollywood. Her book, Peggy Gilbert & Her All-Girl Band, about a bandleader, saxophone player, and leading advocate for women instrumentalists, was published in March by Scarecrow Press, and is based on her film of the same title. For more information, visit

Jeannie Gayle Pool

Over the next couple of weeks I want to talk about issues related to composing, orchestrating, and arranging, so let’s begin the discussion with a brief history of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC).

ASMAC is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. The organization began on January 13, 1938, as ASMA (American Society of Music Arrangers) to represent the interests of music arrangers. Most arrangers work on their own as individuals and felt at that time that they were not receiving the same benefits and pay scales negotiated for instrumental musicians. Arrangers had become critical members of motion picture music departments with the advent of sound film, but were not paid well.

The first important soundtrack agreement of May 23, 1939, did not cover orchestrators and arrangers, so individual orchestrators and arrangers had to negotiate their fees on their own and get whatever price they could for their work. Some arrangers started to demand a five-dollar minimum, but others were getting a flat fee per arrangement of only a dollar or two a page. No one anticipated the problems and entanglements that arrangers and composers would get into as a result of radio, sound films, and recordings, given the copyright laws that were in existence then and the contracts eventually negotiated for re-use of arrangements and compositions.

Back in 1921, Charles Maxwell tried to organize the arrangers in New York City, without success. Leo Arnaud, Murry Cutter, and Charles Haggett tried again in 1933. But in 1937 a group of Hollywood arrangers (many of whom had moved from New York City to work for the Hollywood studio music departments) including Wayne Allen, Ray Heindorf, John Leipold, Charles Maxwell, and Leonid Raab asked J.W. Gillette of Local 47 for help. Gillette was then president of Local 47. After several months of working on a plan to create an organization, it was announced on January 13, 1938, with the following goals:

  • to further the progress of our art
  • to gain greater recognition of our work
  • to establish a closer bond among members of our professions
  • to provide opportunity for social discussion and analysis of our work
  • to promote a mutual understanding with our contemporaries and
  • to work toward the fulfillment of the co-ordinate needs of all our members.

American composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett, who was famous for his Broadway show orchestrations, was the first elected president (and served four consecutive terms); Adolph Deutsch and Hugo Friedhofer were vice presidents; John Leipold was secretary-treasurer. Bandleader and composer Arthur Lange became president of the organization in 1942. He helped the organization define the differences between orchestration and arranging and, in 1943, a new union price list was developed in accordance with the new definitions. It declared a definite price scale for orchestration, but left the payment for any creative contribution (such as arranging or composition) up to the individual doing the work. The organization’s board at that time decided to have an equal representation from each field—motion picture, radio, and dance band.

In 1943, ASMA began publishing its monthly newsletter, “The Score” (later called “Take One”), which included a list of what its members were doing. It ceased publication at the end of 1945, but resumed again in 1950 and continued into the 1990s. In 1946, ASMA became a national organization and turned its attention to problems and inequities in the copyright law (related to derivative works) as it affected orchestrators and arrangers—namely how to make the creative material of arrangers copyrightable. Under Bennett’s presidency, ASMA presented several symphony orchestra concerts of members’ works in New York and Los Angeles. The big issue was that arrangers worked for a flat fee, but players were paid by the hour (or session). Arrangers found themselves working long hours for substantially less than the players were receiving to perform or record their arrangements.

In 1987 the name was changed to ASMAC, in recognition of the fact that most of its members were active as composers. The organization holds monthly luncheons, seminars, master classes, workshops, and offers annual scholarships in both arranging and composing. If you are interested in learning more about ASMAC, please visit the website.

Next time: What is orchestration and arranging? How does one become an orchestrator/arranger? When do you need one (even when you are a composer)?