Author: SugarVendil

Making the Numbers Work

One of the toughest parts of being a musician in new music is finding the balance between making a living and performing the music and concerts you are passionate about. Often times those two don’t line up, with one siphoning away your time and the other siphoning away your income. This is a puzzle that I constantly struggle with.

As someone who is both an artistic director of a growing organization and a pianist, I often switch between practicing, teaching, working on creative projects, and tackling administrative tasks. Before I decided to make teaching my only day job again, I had worked at a creative agency as a production assistant, then as an events producer at a nonprofit that I loved. While working these jobs, I also maintained a small private piano studio. Towards the middle of last year, we at the Nouveau Classical Project were launching our first benefit on top of producing our largest project to date. My gut told me I had to leave the event production job much sooner than I had planned (I thought it would be at least another couple years) because I knew I needed more time to put into NCP. It came down to needing not only the time, but also the energy and the brain space to nurture my vision. But I wasn’t going to quit without knowing first that I had enough teaching hours to pay my bills. I made it my new priority to make sure that I could maintain my 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. practice schedule with time in the evening and weekends for NCP hours.

It used to be about being as busy as possible, playing as much as possible, with the hope that it would line up at the end of the month. Right after I got my master’s degree, I was eager to take on every single gig I was offered. Besides the fact that I needed to find a way to eat and pay rent, I suffered musician FOMO (fear of missing out); I worried that if I did not play in nearly everything I could, I would be hindering my career. I thought this strategy would allow me to eventually become a self-sufficient musician. What I did not account for was how much time it takes to do everything well—and that in order to do it well, I needed a lot of free time to practice for my performances.

This is not a time management problem; I have always been very disciplined about practicing and having an organized schedule. But how do you manage time when you don’t have it?

Just because you can make time to attend every rehearsal and perform in the concert does not mean you can find the time to practice and be prepared. That might mean saying no to performing every now and then. It also depends on the music, of course, and maybe the assessment can be made after you see what is being programmed, but for the most part, it will be obvious if you are spreading yourself thin. We aren’t invincible.

With wedding music or random cocktail receptions, it is easy to offer rote performances and make an easy buck. But for the concerts that I’m sure most of us NewMusicBox musician fans love to perform—the concerts with music by living composers who have poured their energy and love into writing it—we can’t just phone it in. And we shouldn’t. The compensation for these concerts ranges, so it’s difficult to project how much will be coming in from these gigs. Because of this, we find ourselves in the difficult position of taking on as many gigs as possible to cover our living costs, which can unfortunately quickly put us in the corner of over commitment. We aren’t able to fit in the time to practice because we have too many rehearsals and concerts.
You have to be your own boss—to be responsible for creating the schedule for the week—and this isn’t easy. You need to be able to step outside of yourself and, in the case of freelance musicians, become a second person who tells you yes and no. How anxious are we to play everywhere, be everywhere, and do everything? We need to make a living but we also need to be artists and we need to nurture our careers by performing a significant amount to get our names out there. This is the essence of the struggle.

A scene from Potential Energies.

A scene from Potential Energies.

In NCP’s recent piece Potential Energies (a collaboration with dancers) we have a movement nicknamed “It Comes Down to the Numbers.” It’s about time and money, and the turning point where they aren’t lining up with your original goals. In my case, in the past I’ve tried to do too much to make this happen. Some gigs paid well and some did not but were artistically fulfilling. It would be a shame to only think in terms of financials and not see the artistic merit or potential of a project, because oftentimes, especially with projects by less established but talented artists, the numbers do not quite line up with the value of the art. If instead you used some of your time to teach or take a part-time day job, you might be more able to take on the gigs that are more artistically fulfilling than they are monetarily fulfilling. And you could find the time to prepare for them.
How do you make all of these numbers line up?

What worked for me was when I separated what sustains me financially versus what fulfills me artistically until the day comes that I make the two meet. Everyone has their own individual solutions, but I think it is most productive to keep in mind whether or not we are maintaining the quality of our playing and artistry and have a solid source of income while we build our careers. I’ve learned that one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is learning how to tell myself “no.”

Performers as Co-Creators

At the moment we at The Nouveau Classical Project are working on our largest undertaking thus far: Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29. It’s a modern ballet where the musicians and dancers share an equal role on stage. Each player is paired together with a dancer in order to demonstrate two sides of a single identity which, in the subject matter of the ballet, is an attempt to reconcile ambitions with reality.

This project has involved intense collaboration between musicians and dancers and was unlike anything most of the musicians of NCP and I had experienced. Through the process of directing Potential Energies and creating it with my ensemble, choreographer Barbie Diewald, and her company TrioDance Collective, I had the chance to immerse myself in the world of dance and learned a great deal about collaboration.

We’ve had workshops and rehearsals twice each week since October, totaling four-six hours a week. For the most part, dancers were required to be at all six hours of rehearsal. (I went to all rehearsals, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job.) There were times when it was absolutely grueling.

To begin with, the piece involves ten performers: five musicians (myself included) and five dancers. And this isn’t a piece where musicians are simply learning a score and accompanying dancers; in fact, for much of the ballet, memorizing the music (composed by Trevor Gureckis) is required.
Potential Energies-rehearsals
It was clear from the start that musicians would need to contribute movement ideas because the musicians knew what their bodies were capable of doing while playing their instruments, and our goal was to create movement that was as natural and uncontrived as possible. When I started attending the workshops that involved only dancers, what struck me was the way Barbie asked her dancers to generate choreographic material. Sometimes Barbie would have ideas right off the bat, but oftentimes we would discuss the idea behind whatever section of the ballet we happened to be working on that day, and the dancers would create phrases that we would possibly use, discard, or save for later. (As far as the music goes, it is through-composed and that collaboration primarily existed between the exchange of ideas between Barbie, Trevor, and myself.)

While there are opportunities for musicians to have a sense of compositional decision-making in aleatoric pieces or in improv-based music, such as jazz, I am particularly curious about how a classical composer and musician can build a piece together from the ground up. Co-creation is something not often explored in the classical genre, and after working on Potential Energies, I’ve been thinking about how the choreographer-dancer process could be applied in creating new compositions. I know that composers and performers often collaborate, but it often seems limited to commissioning and/or sharing ideas about performance execution rather than the creation of material.

Potential Energies-rehearsals

Potential Energies, rehearsal shot
Photo by Mickey Hoelscher

During the creation of Potential Energies, Barbie mentioned to me that she needs the bodies present (choreography software exists but she said it’s not that great) so that is probably a factor in her highly collaborative process, but she also depends on the creative minds of her dancers and their improvisations, and in the case of Potential Energies, input from the musicians as well. In depth composer-performer collaborations would allow musicians the chance to have a stronger creative voice beyond the artistry of performance, especially for those of us who do not compose. Just like the choreographer in the dance process, the composer would form the final composition, but in this case there would be a significant amount of input from the musicians, and it seems improvisation would be essential to the process as well.

I would love to hear about any unique composer-performer collaborations that have taken place or are in the works! Please share in the comments below.

Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

Nouveau Classical Project headquarters

Nouveau Classical Project HQ

A new contemporary music ensemble is born every 5.6 seconds.* Conservatories have tuned into this trend; for example, Oberlin launched a Master of Contemporary Chamber Music degree, and Manhattan School of Music, University of Missouri’s Mizzou School of Music, New England Conservatory, and other schools have launched music entrepreneurship programs in recent years. I would have loved these programs to have existed when I was an undergrad so that I could have had more guidance with my career early on and been aware of what my other options were aside from the only one I was aware of at the time: become a professor, play concerts here and there. I probably would have started The Nouveau Classical Project sooner and with fewer growing pains.

These days, many musicians are acutely aware of how to start and run a chamber ensemble, at least when it comes to the basics: gather musicians, perform the works of young composers mixed in with established composers, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs. Due to our friends and our friends’ friends launching their own ensembles, a wealth of information has been passed around in the new music community.

Here in New York—which I must note is the only new music scene I really know about—there are a number of performance opportunities that are accessible to startup ensembles. Smaller venues, such as Spectrum, won’t hesitate to program young groups, and there are many other venues that are affordable to rent. And as noted above, even academia encourages more musicians to launch new ventures.

But I’m wondering if anyone is asking: should you start another new music ensemble?

I’m not trying to be cynical nor am I trying to discourage, but it’s a valid and important question to ask oneself. Google “things to consider before starting a business” or “should I become an entrepreneur,” and thousands of results pop up. I’m sure many of us are aware that establishing an ensemble is essentially like launching a business. However, I do believe that the question of whether or not to start one is not often reflected upon first. I’m curious about this issue because there are so many groups and oftentimes musicians within these groups not only play in multiple ensembles, but also begin their own, and the differences between groups don’t seem to extend much beyond instrumentation.

So should you start another new music ensemble? Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited. It’s essential to think about how you’re going to fit into the world of new music. Can you answer these questions: What makes you different? Will your ensemble convey a specific identity to audiences? Can you get people other than close friends and colleagues to your concerts with what you’re doing? (Because if these are your usual attendees, you may end up with a sad turnout if they are at a mutual friend’s ensemble’s concert on the same evening.)

There are so many emerging groups out there that you may already fit into a preexisting one that could use your skills and talents. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to seek an ensemble where you can share your ideas and join an already fully formed team instead of pursuing a similar venture from scratch. I know from personal experience and from talking to colleagues that many of us artistic directors love having a team of musicians who are proactively involved behind the scenes. I am extremely fortunate to have built this with NCP over the last two years.

If you do decide to start an ensemble, ask yourself the questions that you would ask if you were to create a business. Your answers will inform your decision and provide a clear direction for your work. Playing concerts is fun, yes, but the work that goes into producing concerts and running an organization can be grueling. If you see things going nowhere it will be difficult to be creative and the whole experience will become discouraging. A few suggestions:

1. Why am I doing this? A simple question but it can reveal so much. Maybe it’s a personal passion or just an interest in the business of new music. You have to get to a place of no return, where you can only imagine yourself creating and being in this ensemble. When you’re consistently staying up until 1 a.m. looking into venues and rentals, this question will definitely come up!

2. What is unique about my ensemble? How will you define your ensemble as being different than the many others? Is it your music, your style, your performance?  There needs to be something tangible that quickly provokes curiosity about your group.

3. Who is my target audience? This is difficult to answer but it’s extremely important. When I started NCP, I wanted an audience that had eclectic interests (makes for better post-concert conversation), so I aimed to target people who enjoyed culture, museums, fashion, and did not currently attend classical music concerts regularly (that is, until meeting NCP!). When I had entered the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, one panelist noted that the way we were targeting our audience reminded him of the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.  The book uses the metaphors of the red ocean and the blue ocean. The red ocean is where everyone is fighting for the same market share, turning the ocean bloody, while the blue ocean is the market space untainted by competition. Think hard about your target audience and how to get them!

4. Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!

5. Am I willing to do this for the next ten years? It’s a long game. It’s going to be a while before you draw a salary. (Any day now!)

These are the questions I’ve found to be relevant to my experience with NCP over the past six years. It’s true that you don’t know until you try, but some thoughtful questions like these might provide a clearer direction for your artistic endeavor.

*This is not true because I made it up. But doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?

Trite & True

From The Nouveau Classical Project's Sweet Lost Pierrot concert.

From The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sweet Lost Pierrot concert. Conductor Kyle Ritenauer, violinist Marina Kifferstein, pianist Sugar Vendil, cellist Rose Bellini, clarinetist Mara Mayer, and soprano Amanda Gregory. Photo by Misaki Matsui

As the artistic director of an ensemble that was built on a desire to connect classical music and fashion, I’ve often been asked to discuss the idea of challenging the status quo. My initial answer is a question: these days, what is the status quo? It’s a complicated concept in our “everything goes” culture, but what I can say is that we are all aware of what has the potential to piss off versus please a certain audience. For example, classical music performances that incorporate elements of popular culture—in the case of my ensemble, fashion—are typically viewed negatively as counterproductive to the original concept of the composer. But I don’t think of it that way. We aren’t trying to subvert the composer’s intention but rather color on the edges with young fashion designers creating original clothing that is inspired by the music itself. It brings a new perspective to the concert experience.

When I started The Nouveau Classical Project, I was less confident than I am today. The only classical music world I knew was the academic one; I was late in discovering the more open-minded new music scene. I was immediately on the defensive, imagining all sorts of attacks on my integrity, people questioning whether or not I was a “serious” musician and being accused of using fashion to hide something. As in: love of fashion=superficial=not serious about music because one spends energy thinking about frivolous clothes. I have no idea who these people were that I had imagined, seeing as I had zero public presence. Although my initial intention was not to push boundaries, I knew this was probably going to be a natural side effect of having an unconventional approach to a traditional performance structure. I listed reasons justifying my concept. I like music. I like fashion. Why not combine them into something interesting that hasn’t been explored? Why not create a collaborative atmosphere between the music and fashion? We are, after all, watching the performers while they are playing the music. But ultimately this is not what mattered. What it boiled down to was that I was simply expressing myself creatively through the medium of a concert.

Flutist Laura Cocks, Clarinetist Isabel Kim, Violinist Marina Kifferstein, Cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Pianist Sugar Vendil, and guest soprano Lucy Dhegrae. Photos by Misaki Matsui And I think that that is what most of us are essentially doing when we allegedly break the rules—we are simply being creative with the form of self-expression we know best. So what if you are about to attempt something you think can potentially alienate those you want approval from? I may not have something new to add to recurrent TED Talk-esque favorites such as “do what you love no matter what,” “stay true to yourself,” and “ignore the haters,” but I can speak from personal experience about what I’ve learned thus far from running a group that often takes a different perspective on the classical concert paradigm.

Staying true to your artistic vision is much easier said than done. After losing grant applications specifically due to the fashion presence, my group and I used to discuss how we could ensure that we weren’t viewed as gimmicky or superficial. This was just a waste of time and breath. The truth is you cannot control what people think. I knew from the start that fellow musicians who didn’t have a connection with or a remote interest in fashion would be unlikely fans, yet I still cared about their opinions. I also wanted to win awards that validated our place in the music world. This spurred a series of missteps on the artistic level, with us trying to recreate the success of other new music ensembles (i.e., participating in a concert series that they had been involved in, programming similar music, etc.). I completely respect these ensembles and what they do, but their activities did not fit NCP’s artistic vision. Instead of nurturing that vision, I fell into the trap of spending precious time and energy on things I wasn’t excited about in order to get ahead. Oftentimes, when we cater to what we think people will want instead of what we truly believe in (in actuality, we really know only one of those two things), time is wasted on creating mediocre work.

From The Nouveau Classical Project's Sweet Lost Pierrot concert.

From The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sweet Lost Pierrot concert. Fashion direction by Zon Chu using pieces from Gemma Khang’s S/S 2013 collection. Violinist Marina Kifferstein, cellist Rose Bellini, and clarinetist Mara Mayer. Photo by Misaki Matsui

Instead of trying appeal to people you think have power over your career, I’ve learned it’s more fruitful to cultivate an audience that really believes in what you’re doing. What’s been encouraging for us is that we have raised more funds from individuals than we would have had we only won most of the grants we applied for (although winning them in addition to these donations wouldn’t have hurt!). This is because we have found wonderful people who really believe in us. You can find an audience for your unconventional artistic endeavors; trying to figure this out is time well spent. It could be the difference between a one-time attendee versus an advocate.

When it comes to the status quo, my instinct tells me that the best thing to do is to ignore it, whatever we think “it” is. We all know of accomplished artists who have already succeeded in challenging convention, and while we can look to them as examples, again, this is easier said than done. As an emerging artist, I can personally speak to the desperate need for both a sense of validation and encouragement that could influence our artistic choices. There’s no formula for “doing it right.” There’s only doing. (Cue slow clap.)