Category: NewMusicBox

Road From Heiligenstadt: A Composer’s Perspective on Surviving COVID

A masked Dalit in Forest Hills (October 2020)

I had just spent a joyous half-hour at the piano with my son, introducing to him the score of Beethoven’s First Symphony. It was a rare moment, when I was actually able to forget my now habitual caution, so necessary since the resurgence of my symptoms this past October: the need to weigh each word, to assess the value of every conversation, to allot the days of rest necessary to prepare for that next class, or Zoom meeting, or phone interview. For one brief half-hour, I was able to simply revel in the moment of allowing my voice to follow the dictates of my mind. My health was improving, as I had been on vocal rest the whole previous month: my chest pain upon speaking, a raw, knife-like soreness so singular to this virus, was waning, as were the low-grade fevers and debilitating chronic fatigue that accompanied it. But then, the familiar burn reared its head once again.

On April 4, 2020, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. I began exhibiting symptoms on March 26, and started my self-isolation at home before moving elsewhere, to maintain the health of my husband and son after they tested negative. This was before it was determined that infectiousness ends after 11 days: as my symptoms were not abating, to ensure my family’s complete safety, I remained away in quarantine for over four weeks.

This virus affects everyone differently; there can be no presumptions about what to expect. Upon diagnosis, it is futile to then neatly pencil 2-3 weeks into one’s calendar for recovery, scheduling life to resume as planned once the aforementioned time limit is hit. This disease does not answer to deadlines: it lingers, even for those fortunate enough to exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, not extreme enough for medical facilities to help. We were so fortunate to even procure tests, as none were available in the early stages of the pandemic. We were able to locate a private doctor who traveled to people’s homes to administer them, for the sum equivalent of a 13-week seminar’s pay.

I am aware that in certain ways I was blessed. Blessed with options. Blessed with the most beautiful-spirited and loving husband and son, without whom I could not have endured this: my Angels. Blessed that the virus, initially headed toward my lungs in the more dangerous “inflammatory phase” of the second week, then “seemed to change its mind,” in the words of my doctor, although—while an initial X-ray showed clear lungs—a subsequent CT chest scan revealed that they had indeed been affected.

At first, medical presumption held that my experience would be relatively light, and my symptoms were indeed mild. As for self-isolation, composers are generally quite comfortable with this status quo, even to the point of seeking it out, and so I decided to take the Romantic view: I had just been granted an unexpected artist residency! To my new quarters I brought two large pads of manuscript paper and pencils, with which to explore the beginnings of a new work, inspired by Beethoven. The piece, conceived the previous summer at MacDowell before the pandemic even began, would be an exploration of how infirmity might paradoxically inspire and enable one’s creative need. It would illustrate how isolation, induced by both society and self, could breed a passionate, yearning love for humanity, and a fierce drive to enable and universalize communication and connection through one’s art.

The following convergence of events were most likely serendipity. (That said, I do wonder if we as creators—especially at the earliest stages of writing—tend to invoke these paranormal occurrences, rendering every gift provided by the universe as creatively meaningful, no matter how trivial!) From the outset, I marveled at how my experience seemed to match Beethoven’s in certain ways. We were both exploring ideas in complete silence (not least as my temporary residence had no piano). We were both handicapped in such a way that alienated us from basic human communication: Beethoven with his encroaching deafness, I with my increasing difficulty in breathing and speaking without pain. On my first day in quarantine, I was practically certain that Beethoven’s spirit, over in Elysium, had mandated an unforeseen 12-hour break in Internet service, to ensure that I was truly internalizing his own silence! This was followed by a hail storm later that day, which began just as the “Tempest” Sonata—the very work Beethoven had completed before writing his famed “Heiligenstadt Testament”— resounded from a radio in the next room. Isolation seemed to heighten my awareness and appreciation of these mundane incidents, and the need to conjure whatever spirits necessary not only to feed my art, but to lend poetic value to an otherwise sad and pointless experience; they struck me as a heavenly gift.

But then, I entered a new, unforeseen “inflammatory stage,” far more dangerous, which I was told could last 2-4 weeks. Apparently, while improvement was possible, one also could experience setbacks, or “plateaus.” I was prescribed hydroxychloroquine, cautioned that a significant side effect could be vision loss, a terror for any composer. I elected not to take it, skeptical yet rattled by the public unfolding of Boris Johnson’s own bout with the virus, which landed him in the ICU on a ventilator after he had refused the drug.

My place of convalescence, while comfortable, was unfamiliar, and could only be reached via a steep and narrow staircase and a series of doors. In retrospect, the way into the apartment from the street entrance was not very long, but due to my vulnerable state, which included dizziness and vertigo, it seemed overwhelmingly labyrinthine. At night, as I tossed—ever-cognizant of my state of breathing even in half-sleep—I had visions of medics unable to reach me, should any emergency arise, as I would be too physically weak to toss them the keys to these various doors from my window. The prospect of losing the ability to breathe while completely alone was terrifying. I found myself h thinking of those suffering from AIDS, during the early days of the epidemic when there was so much confusion, helplessness, and fear. It was also not difficult to imagine that grim awareness of those elderly or already with pre-conditions, who find themselves being wheeled to the hospital, in complete isolation, everyone around them masked and bedecked in astronautical gear, their loved ones unable to be near them. I realized that, in addition to the actual physical havoc wrought by the virus, this was a disease of loneliness.

I went “there,” perhaps inevitably as, at this time of world-wide fear and foreboding, along with the relentless telling of somber stories, it was impossible not to. I allowed myself to imagine the various predicaments that earlier composers had faced at the end, each in their mid-forties, each an idol and inspiration: Scriabin at age 43, accidentally nicking himself during what would become his last, deadly shave; Berg, aged 46, attempting to ignore the inconvenient festering of an eventually fatal insect bite… First, the incredulity — how silly, to fall ill over such a trifle! Surely our spirits are more powerful and transcendent than this, and must prevail? Then, after a rallying of fierce determination and hope, the gradual sobering. The daze of disbelief. And, finally, the pained horror, and clarity, of… “This is it.” Submission.

I wonder if, whenever one must reconcile with such fate, there is an irony. The irony of details, that this is, after all, the way it ends: a bed, a lonely room, the lack of touch, the struggle to speak, to breathe. Or, there is another more existential irony, perhaps akin to what Haydn had felt, as he wistfully mused about how then, only then, did he truly begin to comprehend writing for woodwinds.

My husband was my Knight. He would visit me each day, masked and at a distance, delivering nourishing home-cooked dinners in Tupperware. My quarters were near enough that he and my son could take daily walks to visit, calling up to me beneath my window so that we could view each other unmasked. While they maintained brave demeanors, their eyes bespoke such sadness.

My ultimate salvation was music. It was especially important to return to those native energies that had so fueled my original creative impetus, especially as there were few other pastimes that could deeply transport me for which I had energy. In particular, I had the pleasure of listening to the latest CD collection of the great thereminist Clara Rockmore, entitled Music and Memories, which features interviews and newly unearthed, astonishingly profound performances: the most notable (to my mind) are her second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, which she plays in dialogue with herself via overdubbing, and her rendition of the Franck Sonata, both violin and cello versions combined, due to the scope of the theremin’s range. To be brought so close to Clara, one of my dearest, most profound mentors and inspirations as a musician, through her music, her lilting voice, her grace, felt to me like a resurrection or visitation, a centering, a true gift.

By June, I seemed to have recovered fully, and I enjoyed the summer and early autumn months in a state of restored health. In the ensuing months, I grasped at the blessings and even the silver linings: after all, didn’t Tolstoy claim that “illness can liberate the power of the spirit in us”? I relished every precious moment at home with my dearest ones (what paradox, that hardship can enable beauty to be experienced all the more vividly!), and welcomed a rigorous teaching schedule at the two institutions where I serve on composition faculty. In those particular days of national unrest, it was a joy and a blessing to dissociate from it all through work with my students. Every composer-professor can doubtlessly relate to the tug-of-war of energies that arises as one must balance not only time and mental space, but also the constant shifts in the way one engages with the world. (I’ve noticed, too, that teaching and composing can be unexpectedly symbiotic.) That said, convening with my students – all excellent, particularly focused and inspired – was a true balm for the spirit.

Dalit at the Piano

First premiere post-Covid: “Resurrection,” from Different Loves, at the Cell, presented by Bright Shiny Things. Sept. 9, 2020.

But then, in October, the symptoms returned, causing lecturing to be especially difficult. Each two-hour seminar seemed an Olympian feat, prompting bouts of chest pain, severe fatigue and low fevers that would last as long as 36 hours, and demanding days of recuperation. At the time, the syndrome of “long COVID”—or any awareness that there might be a long-term impact from the virus—had not yet been discovered, although COVID survivors whose onset of illness began before April 2020 (who term themselves online as “Long Haul COVID Fighters”) were describing dismaying symptoms of relapse at the seven-month marker. By November, it had come to the point where I stayed silent except for when teaching my classes. To my own family I would whisper, until I learned that doing so causes more strain. Every occasion to speak was accompanied by the prospect of danger, the dread that the chest pain will return. Increasingly, I would teach via email correspondence, and a composer colleague was on-hand for any last-minute substitution, which was increasingly necessary. I had a podcast interview scheduled, and then a pre-concert talk, that month: preparing for each necessitated a week’s vocal rest. I felt in quarantine within my own physical being.

Communicating through music, therefore, was truly my sustenance. Music has the capacity to penetrate and surmount the limitations of spoken language, a reason why I am addicted to writing it and exploring its endless capacity for emotional wisdom (all-too-often revealing and teaching new significances to the composer during, and long after, the process).

I noticed how, as a composer with a propensity for introversion, it was not very difficult to cocoon back into the safety of one’s interior existence. The repertoire I gravitated toward brought about unexpected discoveries of light. I rediscovered Liszt, specifically his Consolations and the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses for solo piano, surprised at the spiritual depth and capacity for simplicity in both works. I loved the freedom with which Liszt alluded to liturgical texts within the piano line, almost as an invisible voice, and the joy with which he conjured different composers such as Beethoven and Palestrina; I also heard him foreshadowing Wagner, not just spiritually but in structural scope. I reconnected with Schubert, Faure, Messiaen, and both Schumanns, feeling myself able to access each composer’s spirit and intent in newly intimate ways as I myself experienced their music through ears, fingers, and mind: I was sure that the Consolations were written by Liszt as consolation for himself. I believe that one of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within: one’s music, in the most ideal of scenarios, can take others—and the composer—through an emotional journey, even to catharsis when necessary.

So what sort of music does one write during a pandemic, and during the course of such an experience? I can liken my recent creative impulses to those I had in the year following 9/11. Some weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I flew to Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship. It was a time and place particularly rife with turmoil. At times, I found myself unsettlingly close in proximity to the latest calamity, and was also—as it happens—battling a chronic illness.

Did my music express tragedy? Not at all: I ended up composing works of fierce, defiant celebration, of deep and ecstatic joy. I believe that the act of composition was the most profound medicine, providing me with an overwhelming strength and invincible energy, and provoking an intense liberation of voice, tremendous self-discovery and reconnection with something deeply intuitive and visceral.

I realized, back in 2001, something I have been reacquainted with now: that Music—creating it, playing it, receiving it any way that it may be experienced—is the ultimate antidote. It is our lifeline, our “best friend,” the ultimate expression and reflection of our souls, of the best of ourselves. And then, there is the beautiful irony that what arises from the most internal and vulnerable place within us then serves to reach others, crossing barriers of language, culture, and politics, reaching people as individuals and embracing them in communal understanding and togetherness… at least for a moment.

On the academic front, this past year’s experience has brought me uncomfortably in touch with the precariousness of the adjunct professor’s—and, indeed, the freelance artist’s—lifestyle. Having taught composition full-time at a reputable conservatory in Boston for ten years, in 2011 I had relocated to my native New York for the sake of both my musical and family life, carving for myself an active and multifaceted identity as a composer, academic, and performer (on both piano and theremin), and teaching composition at multiple institutions, along with an independent studio of private students. At the two institutions where I am currently on faculty, my students, colleagues, and department chairs could not be more understanding, flexible, and sympathetic, and for that I have been deeply grateful. That said, I discovered that there are no options in place for adjunct faculty when catastrophe hits, such as the need for paid medical leave, even during our current crisis: the system is simply not set up for such situations. To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health. One must have banks of energy in reserve supply, a surplus, and there is no room for illness in this equation. In the absence of a full-time academic position that would allow for a more flexible teaching load and manner, it occurs to me that there are so few alternatives for composers—aside from receiving a sizable grant or a large orchestra or opera commission—that don’t mandate the regular use of one’s voice.

At the time of this writing, I have mostly recovered. After some months of being able to rest my voice, my fatigue has now ebbed. Each day yields improvement, thanks to a regimen of rest, patience, an altered lifestyle, voice healing work, and a seemingly beneficial bout of Prednisone. I am lucky to have basically avoided the characteristic “brain-fog” and work as I can, passionately, while parenting a gifted sixth-grader who needs my nurturing, guidance, and energy. Composing has sustained me, kept me joyful, idealistic, and sane. This March, practically one year after my initial diagnosis, I will return to a limited amount of online teaching, and am increasingly confident I will be able to do so. With the onset of spring, I am filled with renewed hope and anticipation.

Virtual Premiere of Different Loves, A Cycle of Classical Portraits (2020-21) by Dalit Warshaw
Composed from Jan. 2020 to Jan. 2021, Different Loves explores the seven Classical Greek Loves through this seven-movement cycle of musical portraits. From friendship, to family devotion, to altruistic love, to Eros, we are taken on a journey through the spectrum of human emotion and experience, culminating in intimate and reflective self-love. The undertaking of composing and performing this work served as a spiritual antidote to the challenges of this somber time.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Illuminating Anxiety, Creative Process & Nurturing Support

Sarah Kirkland Snider standing in front of a lake.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider shares her experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder and how they impact her creative process. She unpacks the shame and stigma surrounding mental health challenges, the toxic myth of the tortured artist, strategies for coping and silver linings of hypersensitivity, and the importance of nurturing support systems within our families, universities, and professional communities.

Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

A photo of an old card catalog from a library

I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.

As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.

The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.

The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.

We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.

The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.

The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.

Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.

(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at [email protected]. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)

The logo for the Real Music Wages database

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Creating Safe Spaces and Asking for Help

Julia Adolphe at the Piano

LooseLeaf NoteBook provides a safe space to talk about mental health challenges and modes of healing, including therapy, medication, and at-home self-care practices, as well as examining the complex and often misunderstood relationship between mental health and creativity. I share why I started this project, and how my composition professor, Steven Stucky, created a safe space for me to talk during our lessons, ultimately enabling me to seek professional help for my anxiety at the age of 19.

Listen to Julia Adolphe’s most recent LooseLeaf NoteBook podcast, as well as earlier episodes, on Spotify:

Listen to Julia Adolphe’s most recent LooseLeaf NoteBook podcast and all of the podcast content hosted by NewMusicBox on New Music USA’s SoundCloud page:

Livestream Community Survey: What We Learned from the Field

Three members of the [Switch ~ Ensemble] playing instruments and an additional person operating a laptop for a livestream


A January 2021 full broadcast performance from Switch~ in residence at UT Austin for 5 telematic world premieres: Nathan Nokes’s Co-Opt (2020); Ian Whillock’s void (2020); Geli Li’s Long Nights (2020); Monte Taylor’s Zoetrope (2020) and Lydia Wayne Chang’s Project Agree: Mission for the Internet Communities (2020) (All works performed by the [Switch~ Ensemble] telematically on December 1 & 2, 2020.)


In August 2020, the [Switch~ Ensemble] led a Community Survey about the habits, preferences, and interests of concert-goers for livestreams. We are pleased to provide a summary of the responses, as well as recommendations based on our analysis of the data.

We publicized the survey through direct email marketing and in our social media. Several organizations, including New Music USA, helped boost the reach of our announcements through their channels. In total we had 52 respondents. Responses were collected in a Google form.

The first section of the survey helped us have a baseline for who was responding. Respondents tended to reflect [Switch~]’s audience overall, including a significant number of other musicians and industry insiders. One-third of respondents indicated they are “very familiar” with [Switch~], and the average survey respondent had a relative fluency in music technology. One shortcoming in the breadth of responses was that none of the respondents identified as disabled/having a disability. So, for example, we do not have the perspective of anyone who is blind/low vision or deaf/hard-of-hearing and their experiences trying to navigate video livestream performances.

Two further sections asked detailed questions about past attendance and preferences for future engagement and opportunities.

In the months between survey and publication of this essay, vaccines raced from experimentation to delivery, indicating a return to concert halls may come in the next 6–9 months. Yet, livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, livestreams do have significant benefits. They can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, invest more in artists and less in plane tickets, and more equitably engage in collaborations with artists from across the country and around the world.

6 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Livestreams are a lifeline for connecting with friends and/or artists you like. Strong results in this area is the most important predictor of success.
  • Improving the standard of production value and audio quality are critical for the ecosystem.
  • There is some skepticism of the value of livestreamed shows, which ensembles are inadvertently exacerbating through their marketing and messaging. Instead, we should be building trust in broadcast performances as a valuable way to experience music.
  • There is a growing divide between those in the habit of regularly attending livestream performances and those who are not. From initial marketing to concert time, each cohort has different needs when it comes to helping them feel welcome, supported, and engaged.
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways. Respondents seem well-aware we are all in uncharted waters, and that the sky is the limit for imagination and innovation. There is great interest in new works, premieres, and using this opportunity to work on repairing longstanding issues around equity and the exclusion of talented artists.
  • People are not always forthright or self-aware in what drives their attendance or interest, and tastes can change quickly. Accordingly, some information is curious if not self-contradictory. This topic has a long history, notably: the Ford Edsel.

 

A FEW DEFINITIONS

Let us pause for a moment and define some terms. We’re defining a livestream as any way of sharing artistic content where the performers and audience aren’t in the same place, but the audience can watch/listen thanks to technology.

A situation where all the performers are in one place and sharing a video stream out to their audience is commonly referred to as a broadcast.

A situation where all the performers are in different places—coordinating by way of teleconferencing software, then sharing a video with their audience—is commonly referred to as a telematic performance. Musicians have been researching these topics for decades. For example, we encourage you to read about Pauline Oliveros and her research in this arena.

Many artists and ensembles are presenting livestreamed performances where the audience observes at the moment of performance. We could call this a synchronous livestream: the music is made and consumed at the same moment, with performers and audience together on a video conference like Zoom.

Others are opting to assemble performances/recordings that are then released on a streaming platform at a later date. We might call this an asynchronous livestream.

SOME BASIC LEARNINGS & DATA

For several questions, options ranged from “Really Negative” to “Very Positive” and/or from “Irrelevant” to “Very Important”. To help analyze data quantitatively, “Really Negative” and “Irrelevant” were both assigned a value of 1.0, and “Very Positive” or “Very Important” assigned a 5.0. For example, a quality score of 2.5 and an importance rating of 4.5 would suggest a given feature is of low quality and very important to the experience of a livestream.

A chart comparing responses to the question:

Reflecting on the decisions to attend past livestreams, the most important factor was “get to see friends/colleagues perform”. It scored an average importance 4.3/5.0, with 42% ranking it Important and 48% ranking it Very Important.

That livestreams “Feel like a return to normal” were largely irrelevant, scoring an average of 2.2. There appears to be a collective understanding that “normal” is not possible and that livestreams do not support a sense of normalcy.

Choice of platform was also rather insignificant: an average importance of 2.3, with only 2 Very Important and 14 Irrelevant. A wide range of platforms are popular, with 44 respondents indicating past attendance on YouTube/YouTube Premiere (36), Facebook Live (32), Zoom (25) and Twitch (15). (Respondents could check multiple entries). However, regardless of platform, qualitative comments suggest a strong preference for a flexible schedule of consumption rather than a limited release only at “concert time”.

Generally, when asked to name reasons they would attend a [Switch~] livestream, respondents favored innovative repertoire (40 votes) and to support members (35) above all. A sense of community, “repertoire I know and like”, and interesting ancillary content saw moderate support (15-18), and “feels like a return to normal” saw few (8).

A chart comparing the 3 reasons respondents gave for coming to a livestream event: Innovative repertoire (40); to support members (35); Familiar repertoire (18); Sense of community (17); interviews and presentations (15); feels like a return to normal (8)

These responses support earlier data on the importance of social connections, and elevate the importance of new and excellent repertoire.

GOING DEEPER

We took a deeper dive into consumer preferences with a closer analysis of four questions in particular. (Fair warning, the next few sections get a little wonky!)

  • How important were the following factors to your experience of past livestreams?
  • How did the following factors impact your choice to attend past events?
  • What are some reasons you would RECOMMEND a [Switch~] livestream to a friend
  • What are some reasons you would HESITATE to recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?

The factors considered in each question fell in three analogous buckets:

  • Audio & production quality
  • Getting to see friends or artists you support
  • The content of the performance itself

Separately, all respondents were asked: “Would you recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?” as a yes/no/maybe question. In the following sections, we’ll talk about two groups: those who answered this question yes (we’ll call them advocates) and those who answered maybe (we’ll call them fence sitters). The cohort of respondents that indicated they attended 4-or-more prior livestreams will also be frequently compared against the cohort that attended few-to-none.

 

FOUR QUESTIONS

A chart comparing responses to these 2 questions:

As mentioned above, audio quality had the greatest impact on experience but the lowest quality score. This is a problem, as it appears to be eroding trust that livestreams are worth going to.

Audio quality was nearly unanimous in importance but respondents were displeased with its success. The average importance was 4.4/5.0. However, most found the success rate poor (3.0). Production and technical skill, more broadly, were very important too (an average of, 4.1, with 14 Very Important, and 0 Irrelevant) but also saw a mediocre score for quality (3.3).

Scores around 3.0 may seem average, but, generally, consumers tend to be optimistic when filling out surveys like these. For example, the Net Promoter Score used by many Fortunate 500 corporations considers a score less than 7 on a 1-10 scale to be a “Detractor”. Accordingly, anything at or below 3.0 on our scale warrants some concern.

So, we’ll start with the bad news: the level of satisfaction with audio quality warrants some concern. The single-lowest quality score assessed by any group (2.7) was on audio quality, from those who attend few-to-no livestreams. 2.7 is even lower than the already troubling score to this question overall (3.0). This perceived lack of quality from the cohort of few-to-no show-goers is particularly significant as it suggests we are either losing audience members or that they don’t attend at all due to threshold fear of an undesirable experience.

Interestingly, our group of fence-sitters had more favorable views of the audio quality in livestreams they attended than just about any other cohort (!), with above average (3.2) sense of quality and equivalent sense of importance (4.3). A separate question on “Production/technical quality” saw similar results, with fence sitters holding slightly more favorable views on average.

So, why are they on the fence? Data suggest that, as a group, they report a significantly lower sense of quality experience getting to see friends or artists or they know.

“Got to see friends &a colleagues” was generally positive (4.2) and influential to the experience (4.2). This was most true for advocates (4.5 & 4.5, respectively), and for attendees of 4+ prior shows (4.3 & 4.2). But responses grew more tepid with those who had attended few-to-none (4.0 & 4.1) and most of all with the fence sitters (3.8 & 3.7)—i.e. those who hesitate to suggest a livestream show to a friend.

Taken all together, we see an important distinction: The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad. The most important reason people are hesitating to recommend them to friends is because they have not felt good about getting to see friends and colleagues in a compelling performance.

A chart comparing the responses to the question:

To see friends and colleagues perform is once again the gold standard. It scored equally highly among survey respondents familiar with [Switch~] and unfamiliar with [Switch~]. In other words, this is a field-wide phenomenon, not a reflection of [Switch~]’s specific fans.

Those who attend livestreams regularly have stronger and more polarized feelings about new works designed for the medium. But, interestingly, the platform matters less to those in the habit of attending more livestreams. The latter were more than twice as likely to name it an Irrelevant feature.

While “Feels like a return to normal” scored badly across the board, it was most influential to those who had attended few to no prior livestreams.

“New works designed for the medium” scored highest among those who use music tech professionally, but a bit less strongly among others. It is logical that experts in the field want to see innovation.

Advocates and fence sitters largely agreed about which features were irrelevant to their experience, but a few key issues separated what did matter to them. Advocates ranked getting to see friends and colleagues perform more highly. And where fence-sitters cared more about getting to see repertoire they know and like (3.5 vs 3.0) advocates had stronger feelings about seeing new works designed for the medium: 27% vs 5% who named it Very Important.

A chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some reasons you would recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Technical skill (23/0); New works & premieres (9/0); Thoughfulness about equity (18/-4); Interviews/info about the work (5/0); Connection to a member (9/-6); Familiar repertoire (6/-2); and Good marketing (3/-8)

Perhaps predictably, the fence sitters consistently gave more tepid responses to each of the 5-point scale questions compared to the advocates. The most noticeable divergence was with the importance of having a connection to a member (3.8 vs 2.8), with thoughtfulness about equity in programming a close second (4.3 vs 3.5).

But, advocates and fence sitters agreed that getting to see new works and premieres was an important factor. Not a single person deemed this feature irrelevant. The only attribute that fence sitters thought was more important to a recommendation than advocates was “It’s repertoire I know and like.” Perhaps those who are unsure about livestreams feel more comfortable with some familiarity with the repertoire.

Those who have been attending livestreams often were more likely to care about new works and premieres than those who had attended few to none (4.0 vs. 3.6), and less likely to be influenced by knowing a specific member (3.2 vs 3.5). Overall, the number of respondents who named “new works and premieres”, “thoughtfulness about equity”, and “technical skill/quality” as “Very Important” was about 10-15 percentage points higher among those regularly attending livestreams. These therefore seem like 3 key areas for capitalizing on most ardent supporters.

The group of respondents who had attended 4 or more previous livestreams gave relatively similar answers in this section than those who had attended few to none. The greatest average difference was in the importance of good marketing. Just 5% of people who had attended few-to-no livestreams said this feature was irrelevant, compared to 23% of those often attending livestreams. It stands to reason that those regularly in the habit of attending livestreams are less reliant on attractive marketing to get them “off the fence”.

In separate questions, the importance of “New works and premieres” tended to score less favorably than “new works designed for the medium”. At first, that seems a curious finding: the two are functionally synonymous. We believe it suggests some lingering hesitation about livestreams as a medium. The salient takeaway is likely that “come see a world premiere” is a more effective call to action than “come see a new work made for streaming.”

The difference between advocates and fence-sitters was most noticeable when considering the reasons to recommend a livestream. Their responses about reasons for hesitation were similar. In other words, the two groups shared hesitations but the advocates had significantly greater excitement. This suggests the problem is not one of “like and dislike” but rather of excitement versus apathy.

Chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some of the reasons you would hestitate to recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Ticket price (+12/-5); not enough thinking about equity (+12/-11); don't think livestreams are interesting (+7/-8); worried about technical difficulties (+7/-8); too much conventional repertoire (+5/-9); marketing not engaging (0/-8); and unfamiliar with repertoire (0/-22)

Overall, there is an uphill battle with livestreams: 42% of respondents said they “just don’t think livestreams are interesting” as an important or very important reason they would hesitate to recommend a show.

Those who had attended 4+ prior livestreams had fewer hesitations overall than those who had attended few to none. The greatest variances were around concerns of poor marketing, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire, and technical difficulties: Those who had attended few to no livestreams named them 10-20% more important, on average. While 53% of respondents who regularly attend livestreams said that unfamiliar repertoire was irrelevant in provoking hesitation, just 30% of those who rarely attend livestreams said the same.

What does stand out for the fence-sitting group? Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently. But technical skill/quality tops the chart with an average of 4.1 and almost 30% of respondents rating it “Very Important” to recommend a show to a friend or colleague.

However, our fence sitters were less willing to admit that concerns about technical difficulties were a source of hesitation. You may also remember earlier data that the fence sitters felt audio & production quality of shows they attended was actually better than average.

In the words of Kenan Thompson, What’s up with that? While this at first seems contradictory, the wording of the questions provides two clues: 1) the concern is not discrete technical difficulties so much as an overall lack of enthusiasm about the quality of livestreams, and 2) the concern is not that something will be bad so much as a reluctance to suggest to someone else that it will be good.

Finally, fence-sitters appear among the most price-sensitive for ticket sales, ranking that more important than average as a source of hesitation. However, in a separate section about the financial impact of COVID, respondents in this group were less negatively impacted than respondents overall. In fact, nearly half of respondents in this group were making similar or more than what they used to, compared to pre-COVID times. Only 14% had lost more than half their income.

Taken together with above data about the poorer sense of connection to known and beloved artists, we believe these data suggest not an inevitable inability to afford shows, but rather a skepticism of their value.

Accordingly, we feel the solution is not ever-cheaper tickets and centering “free show!” in one’s marketing. Rather, the solution may be to earn trust by cultivating excellent content, and hone our skills at naming its value. Whether or not to actually charge for tickets will depend on each ensemble’s community and specific goals, but regardless we should be mindful not to perpetuate a lack of trust in the value of artistic work by centering how “cheap” they are to attend. That might well make it harder to attract audiences.

 

COMMUNICATION, IMPLEMENTATION, AND ATTENDANCE

Marketing and communication can likely play a key role in fostering greater confidence that livestreams will be a compelling concert experience. At the moment, respondents seem to be expressing a gap in trust that livestreamed shows will be a quality experience, which is hindering the sector’s overall ability to connect with audiences in this format.

We know that people are willing to watch performances and listen to music on a laptop or phone: we do it all day long. We would be best served to compete for attention on an axis where we see we have an advantage, like:

  • connect with artists you know and like despite quarantine
  • see friends and colleagues
  • see new musical works and premieres

On the latter point, new music ensembles tend to thrive in ordinary circumstances. However, the logistical constraints of quarantine have challenged many ensembles but empowered others. Improvisers, mixed media artists, and ensembles interested in multimedia have been able to produce new and significant bodies of work. Some groups may not be able to perform right now, and that’s okay too.

On the first two points, there is likely considerable room for growth. How to enhance the possibility for social connection in these events is a rich area for discussion and sharing ideas. When asked if they would want a chance to socialize in a livestream performance, 49% of respondents said yes, 43% said “maybe”, and just 8% said no. A prior familiarity with [Switch~] did not necessarily correspond to increased interest in socializing. The most likely groups to say yes were the “advocates” (those who said “yes” I would recommend a livestream to a friend) and those who had previously attended 4 or more livestreams. The least interested in socializing were the “fence sitters” and those who had attended few to no livestreams. This divide, mentioned elsewhere, suggests a fundamental split between those who have enthusiastically incorporated livestream events into their routine and others who are less skeptical of engaging in that way.

Our colleague Megan Ihnen asked a great question: How can we, the performers, help individuals further foster a sense that they are connecting to the artists they like? Something like a listening party, side-by-side with a pre-recording livestream release, has a lot of merit. Zoom breakout rooms—like cocktail tables at an album release party—could work too. Concerts can’t be everything for everybody all the time. Getting the fence sitters off the fence may require different work than further activating the advocates.

With tools like YouTube Premiere or StreamYard, ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live. Interweaving pre-recorded performances with interviews or live questions over Zoom can foster a sense of “liveness”. Specific tactics—like having performers wear the same clothes or film at the same camera angle as their original performance earlier in the week—can enhance it further.

There are a few important factors to note in the marketing and communications of livestreamed concerts that appear to impact attendance significantly.

About 80% of respondents said that at some point since March, they had been interested in a livestream but ultimately did not attend it. Given a list of possible reasons in a multi-choice poll:

  • 31% said they wound up missing the show because they didn’t get a reminder
  • 12% said because there were no tickets or reservations it was easy to skip
  • 22% had technical difficulties
  • 34% said the event was poorly marketed or communicated
  • 61% said they simply “forgot”, as opposed to 31% who “lost interest”

In other sections, respondents indicated they felt marketing had little impact on their choice to attend livestreams. However, given the above data, we believe they may be significantly underestimating its influence on their behavior. When over a third of respondents acknowledge they accidentally missed a show because it was poorly marketed or communicated, the conclusion seems self-evident.

Or, as our colleague Megan Ihnen put it: if a show doesn’t have effective marketing, how did you even know about it?

Some simple best practices could include:

  • Well timed reminders (including day-of) about the show
  • A registration system with personalized link & reminder (like house shows: “RSVP for address”)
  • Charging a small admission fee

The last point is rarely done, and was something respondents are sensitive to in their reasons for hesitating to recommend an event. However, we all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience. And, as anyone who’s ever worked a box office knows: pre-sales always have a low no-show rate.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble] showing members of the ensemble in separate locations and program notes.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble]

LOOKING TOWARD FUTURE

In the long term, being able to produce effective livestreamed and/or telematic performances can hold considerable value for the sector.

A vaccine may be on the horizon, but livestream performances are almost certainly here to stay. Grantors and arts services organizations could fulfill at least 2 key responsibilities:

  1. Grants for ensembles and musicians to acquire at least basic level professional audio equipment. Not only would these investments help enhance our capacity to produce higher-quality virtual events, but so too would they alleviate many longstanding inequitable access issues.
  2. Lead open workshops on technical questions and production/audio skills, and host convenings for ensembles to share best practices. There is no need for so many artists to have to stumble through the same questions in their own silos. Grantors like New Music USA could support trainings and workshops—even “office hours” style drop in sessions—with technical directors and marketing and communications staff of larger organizations who have already seen success in this medium.

Among the many benefits of livestream shows we might count limiting unnecessary travel. How often is the principal beneficiary of an artistic project an airline? It’s also terrible for the environment. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, vast time, money, and environmental impact is spent flying new music ensembles throughout the country. If even a small share of that travel could be replaced by high quality virtual interaction, it would cut down our outsized carbon footprint and put more money in musicians’ pockets.

Telematic livestreams in particular are also an occasion to consider further experimentation with an innovative and rich medium. Many artists have made vivid work with digital software for a long time, so there is a fertile tradition on which to build.

Moreover, as many ensembles continue to reckon with the homogeneity of their social and professional networks—on lines of race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity—experimentation in a new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels by its history of orthodoxy and oppressive gatekeeping. And more facile collaboration across physical distance would have democratizing impact by alleviating the advantage of living in high-rent urban areas to be near a “scene”.

So: how are you making livestreams work for you?

[Ed. Note: Switch~ Ensemble’s next livestream is on March 5, 2021. Learn more about the event and register for it on EventBrite.]

Introducing LooseLeaf NoteBook – A Podcast on Creativity and Mental Health

Photo of Julia Adolphe inside a computer monitor with EKG and headphone graphics underneath

Two powerful feelings arose in me at the age of nine: the desire to write music and intense, overwhelming waves of anxiety. I began exhibiting daily obsessive-compulsive behaviors and my parents wondered if I should see a child psychologist. They also purchased a small keyboard for me to play, and it became clear that writing music made me feel better. I would get lost in the dreamworld, spending hours playing and creating songs and trying to figure out the relationships between the notes. Music was fun and freeing, and I would forget in those moments that I felt anxious in other areas of my life.

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies quickly subsided, but I still remained a very anxious child. Most mental health disorders don’t fully manifest until around twenty-years old, and at nineteen, I began experiencing panic attacks that brought me to the hospital. At this point, I was in college studying composition with Steven Stucky. I remember one lesson with him where I was struggling to articulate my musical ideas. My mind felt clouded and my heart was racing. He stopped me, looked me in the eye and said kindly, “Take care of yourself,” and made it clear that I could leave the lesson early if I wanted to without an explanation. I understood in that moment that my creativity was suffering, that I was suffering, and that I needed help.

I was diagnosed soon after with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, considered a mental illness, and have been in therapy and on medication ever since. There is a myth that a tortured psyche creates great art, and the classical music industry still subscribes to ideal of the mad genius. This belief system initially interfered with my healing process. While I was open to therapy from the beginning, I was terrified that medication would dampen my creative impulses. Even more dangerous was my belief that my suffering somehow made me a more powerful artist, and that through the process of healing, I would lose access to the frenzy and adrenaline I associated with sleepless nights of composing.

It took years to find the right medication and dosage, but I quickly learned that my medication functioned like a volume knob, lowering the noise interference of anxious and oppressive thoughts, clearing a path for me to form my musical ideas as well as feel freer in my life. Through therapy, I began to examine my childhood desire to cure my anxiety with my music and the many complex ways that manifests in my adult life, and ultimately have developed a healthier relationship with my creative process. I also had to learn to reconnect with that childhood joy of writing, which we can easily lose once music making becomes entwined with the stressors and realities of professional life.

I have wanted to share my experience publicly for a long time, but finally felt ready last summer when I launched LooseLeaf NoteBook. In the midst of the pandemic, national protests against systemic racism, increasing threats of domestic terrorism, and going stir crazy in my living room, I started the podcast at first simply as a creative and emotional outlet. I yearned to connect with friends and colleagues about the collective toll this period has taken on our mental health and creativity, and to remain active and present within our community while so many of us are forced to wait, or worse, are struggling to survive or function.

Highlights from Julia Adolphe’s LooseLeaf NoteBook interviews about creativity and mental health in the context of the pandemic, featuring composers Jessie Montgomery, Billy Childs, and Samuel Adler, pianist Gloria Cheng, librettist Aiden Feltkamp, percussionist Sidney Hopson, and high schooler Jaden Gaines.

Through interviews and solo reflections, LooseLeaf NoteBook uncovers the connections between mental health and creativity, with a focus on nurturing artistry, emotional intelligence, and self-care. I share insight into my creative process and journey towards mental health alongside guests from across fields to provide a space for open dialogue and paths towards healing through artistic self-expression. While my focus is to help de-stigmatize mental illness within the arts, I use the terms mental health and creativity broadly to include any conversation about caring for one’s own emotional wellbeing while embarking on creative work. I also strive to feature guests who can speak to experiences beyond my own, spanning from how racism, xenophobia, and homophobia impact one’s psyche to the emotional and creative challenges of parenting or caring for an ill family member.

There is so much more to being a productive, thriving artist in our field than we learn in conservatory or discuss openly in our professional lives. It is my belief that mental health, emotional vitality, and creative potential are inherently linked. In my experience, the healthier I’ve become, the more powerful my music becomes because it is a more authentic communication and reflection of who I really am and what I need to express.

I could not feel as healthy as I do today without the support and my family, friends, and professors who have guided and comforted me along the way. I cannot overemphasize the power that Steve Stucky’s simple gesture, expressing his wish that I put my health before my musical studies, had on me during those formative years. I hope that, in turn, LooseLeaf NoteBook provides a safe space to discuss openly how we take care of ourselves and cultivate healthier creative practices, ones that allow for spontaneous inspiration as well as healthy boundaries, for pursuing artistic excellence while caring for our wellbeing – practices that support us as artists, as contributors to society, and as humans.

Composer Commission Pay in the United States

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

By David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi

This article is an introduction to a research report on the Composer Commission Pay Survey conducted in Fall 2019 by David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi. To read the complete report, visit www.composerpaysurvey.com.

How much should composers get paid for commissions?

This is a question most composers have. As composers ourselves, we recently set out to find the answer. We were motivated not only by our curiosity, but also by our desire to know what is fair and equitable. When approached by an individual or ensemble for a commission, we have had a perplexing variety of experiences. Everything from being told, “I will pay whatever you charge” to “We know this isn’t enough, but here’s what’s possible in our budget.” We have been paid on occasion what seemed like a generous amount; we have also done work for no financial compensation at all.

Informal discussions about commission fees with fellow composers did not help broaden our understanding. These conversations were frequently beset with embarrassment, defensiveness, and long-winded explanations of why the composers accepted fees that did not match their expectations. This kind of dialogue was, however, preferable to another common response: silence and unwillingness to mention numbers. Different as they may be, both reactions gave the same impression: composers were unsure what a fair commission fee would be. They didn’t know how much to ask for.

Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

The reality is that many questions surround composer pay. Some people wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some people are surprised by the amounts they have been paid. Some people worry they should have gotten more, but weren’t bold enough to ask for it. Some composers get asked to name their number. Others are told, “this is the budget.” Some of us are making a living from our commissions. Some of us have other jobs that help pay the bills. Many of us are jealous of people who do something different than we do and whom, we suspect, are getting paid more. The questions, to put it bluntly, are fraught.

How do people in other professions deal with such consternation? They look to labor statistics. We consulted several resources in our research looking for such statistics. The “Commissioning Fees Calculator” on NewMusicBox is a well-known resource that suggests fees for composers. But the origin of these numbers is unclear, and anecdotal experience points to them being higher than what many people actually encounter. The American Composers Forum gives some numbers in their “Commissioning by Individuals” guide, but the numbers vary widely and are again not sourced. The US government collects pay data for many professions, but the category in which composers are included also includes many other kinds of musicians, making the data not helpful in answering our question. Joan Jeffri’s Taking Note: A Study of Composers and New Music Activity in the U.S. is a 2008 study including data on  composer income. While it gives good numbers about overall income, its broad numbers didn’t give us the answers we wanted about individual commission fees. Sound and Music in the United Kingdom in collaboration with the Australian Music Centre presented a model we found most useful–their 2015 Composer Commissioning Survey Report asked about individual commission fees and primarily reported on those in the U.K. and Australia. Finally, in late 2020, we learned about another U.S. commission pay survey, conducted by Fahad Siadat. Dr. Siadat’s report is forthcoming, and we are interested to see its results.

Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

After considering this existing body of work, we found ourselves with more questions. Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid. Thus, we decided to create a survey to ask composers to name their commission fees.  We focused on what we most wanted to know: How much do composers get paid for commissions? What are the musical characteristics, including instrumentation, genre, and duration, of commissions of different amounts? What are the demographic characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc., of highly-paid, modestly-paid, and unpaid composers? Then we developed a series of detailed questions for the survey regarding these topics and others. We chose to survey composers whose commissions resulted in concert performances of live music, and we also chose to focus on commission income only. In fall 2019, we launched the survey and received data from over 200 composers, reflecting information on 871 commissions from 2017 and 2018.

Commission Pay, Genre, and Instrumentation

Our first question was the simplest–how much did composers get paid for commissions in 2017-2018? The range of responses went from nothing–37% of the 871 commissions reported on were done for no fee–to an opera commission for $300,000, an impressive outlier from our dataset. The median commission fee of $1,500 ($150 per minute) best represents “central tendency” (a statistics term meaning the center of a dataset) from the data collected. The chart in Figure 1 excludes the $300,000 outlier and the unpaid commissions to show how fees were spread across various commissions.

Fig. 1

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

While commission activity was clustered below $5,000, there were a good number of fees above that. A similar diagram (Fig. 2) shows commission fees at and below $9,000, excluding a large number of outliers (as defined by the interquartile method) and focusing on the area where most fees exist.

Fig. 2

A chart showing commissioning fees at or below $9000.

While the overall median gives a good sense of the big picture, we can look at instrumentation and genre to get a sense of how these affect commission fees as well. As can be seen in Figure 3 our responses were heavily weighted towards classical works, but the instrumentations varied widely.

Fig. 3

Figure 4 shows a comparative chart of median fees, both per commission and per minute of music, along with the percentage of paid commissions for each instrumentation type. The “n” value is the number of components in a dataset. In this chart and others shown below, the per-commission and per-minute medians leave out unpaid commissions, thus the “n” values are different there than for the percentage of paid commissions.

Fig. 4 Median Fees and Percentage of Paid Commissions by Instrumentation

Soloist with Large Ensemble$2,750.00$171.81493%15

Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Percentage Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $1,500 $150 533 63% 871
Instrumentations
Solo $1,000.00 $100.00 128 52% 254
Trio/Quartet $1,000.00 $100.00 65 53% 125
Ensemble of 5-9 $1,500.00 $133.33 82 58% 141
Chamber Chorus (10-22) $500.00 $125.00 31 76% 41
Small Wind or Jazz Band (10-22) $375.00 $73.80 10 56% 18
Chamber Orchestra (10-22) $2,500.00 $142.86 17 50% 34
Chorus (over 22) $3,100.00 $612.50 80 87% 92
String Orchestra (over 22) $300.00 $75.00 5 86% 7
Wind Band (over 22) $3,500.00 $427.50 30 77% 39
Full Orchestra (over 22) $5,000.00 $375.00 31 74% 46
Full Orchestra with Chorus $7,000.00 $424.84 10 80% 15
Other $2,000.00 $147.45 30 73% 44

In general, larger ensembles received paid commissions at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles, and those commissions tended to be for larger amounts. Interestingly, the highest paid instrumentation per minute of music was large chorus. Large choruses were also the second most likely to pay their composers, with a paid rate of 87% (higher than large chorus was the instrumentation of soloist + large ensemble, at 93%).

In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles

.

Composer Characteristics

Besides information on their compositions, we also queried the composers in our study about their personal characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. We used a range of questions to ascertain the career stage of our respondents (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

We can see the correlation of career stage and commission income data in Figure 6. The n values here are the number of people in each category.

Fig. 6 Career Stage and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Most advanced music degree
None $19,200.00 $2,284.44 $341.54 6 3 66% 9
Associate’s $1,100.00 $550.00 $15.88 1 5 40% 1
Bachelor’s $1,070.00 $750.00 $83.33 17 2 66% 23
Master’s $2,000.00 $587.50 $75.83 41 3 70% 47
Artist’s Diploma $14,000.00 $2,500.00 $226.90 2 8 65% 2
Doctoral $4,000.00 $1,708.33 $200.00 105 3 66% 127
Date of most recent music degree
2010-19 $2,500.00 $925.00 $100.00 87 4 66% 103
2000-2009 $2,550.00 $1,500.00 $102.98 32 2 75% 35
1990-1999 $4,500.00 $2,125.00 $190.28 23 3 50% 31
1980-1989 $9,500.00 $3,000.00 $242.13 17 2 50% 25
pre 1980 $4,250.00 $1,541.67 $369.05 8 2 100% 10
Date of first commission income
2010-19 $1,900.00 $750.00 $83.33 71 4 56% 84
2000-2009 $3,700.00 $1,500.00 $226.43 45 3 80% 49
1990-1999 $3,250.00 $1,604.17 $193.75 28 3 66% 38
1980-1989 $7,750.00 $2,958.33 $204.47 18 2 50% 21
pre 1980 $30,250.00 $5,756.94 $572.92 10 3.5 100% 11
Percentage of successive years with commission income
0 – 25 percent $1,000.00 $500.00 $65.70 49 2 40% 77
25 – 50 percent $2,500.00 $1,250.00 $118.16 39 2 65% 44
50 – 75 percent $3,350.00 $1,500.00 $127.78 29 3 66% 31
75 – 100 percent $12,750.00 $2,916.67 $264.14 55 5 100% 57

 

Across measurements, greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

We also asked our survey respondents for data about their demographic identities. The pie charts in Figure 7 show the breakdowns in gender, sexual orientation, age, region, population, religion, and race/ethnicity. The regional areas are defined by the U.S. Census.

Fig. 7

The respondents to our survey tended to be white, heterosexual males from large home communities. Age, religion, and region of residence varied more widely among our respondents. We considered fee information from all these demographic categories; selected results are presented in Figures 8 and 9. The n values are, again, the number of people in each category.

 

Fig. 8 Selected Demographic Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Gender
Male $2,900 $1,300.00 $113.64 115 3 65% 142
Female $3,700 $1,500.00 $170.83 53 4 78% 60
Sexual Orientation
Heterosexual $3,350 $1,460.00 $139.27 129 3 66% 159
Non-Heterosexual $2,700 $1,200.00 $100.00 41 4 66% 46
Age
18 – 29 $1,200 $470.08 $63.15 28 3 54% 32
30 – 39 $3,850 $1,460.00 $139.27 53 4 80% 61
40 – 49 $1,500 $1,000.00 $105.95 37 3 66% 41
50 -59 $3,750 $1,854.17 $195.14 24 3 50% 32
60+ $7,000 $2,916.67 $303.03 29 2 58% 40
Religion
Agnostic/Atheist/
Non-Religious
$4,500 $2,062.50 $192.55 94 3 80% 109
Bahai $666 $333.00 $30.27 1 3 66% 1
Buddhist $2,850 $1,200.00 $102.98 4 2 100% 5
Catholic $2,385 $764.29 $144.67 8 2 45% 12
Christian (not catholic) $1,500 $690.00 $78.33 38 3 55% 47
Jewish $3,000 $1,500.00 $190.28 17 4 80% 21
Other $16,450 $1,916.67 $431.02 2 5.5 75% 2
Prefer not to answer $2,000 $1,000.00 $96.43 19 3 66% 23
Race / ethnicity
White Non Hispanic $3,000 $1,300.00 $121.62 151 3 66% 182
Non-White $3,000 $900.00 $105.95 23 3.5 66% 28

 

Fig. 9 Selected Geographical Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Size of home community
More than 50000 $3,450 $1,500.00 $128.46 126 3 66% 155
2500 – 50000 $1,330 $1,000.00 $107.14 43 3 66% 49
Region
Pacific West $5,750 $2,583.33 $217.11 26 4 67% 32
Mountain West $2,550 $725.00 $75.00 22 3 70% 24
West North Central $2,850 $1,350.00 $127.78 13 3 65% 15
West South Central $1,350 $875.00 $79.17 12 2 68% 15
East North Central $2,500 $1,250.00 $100.00 29 3 59% 34
East South Central $8,650 $2,912.50 $318.40 2 4 83% 2
South Atlantic $2,150 $879.17 $97.40 20 4 49% 27
Middle Atlantic $3,500 $1,500.00 $196.21 34 3 72% 38
New England $3,500 $1,250.00 $198.41 17 3 45% 24

 

Who gets paid the most?

We wanted to know more about our outliers–the composers who received the largest commissions. We used a common test–the interquartile range method–to determine what commissions were outliers, and then we looked at the demographic information of the 30 composers who received these commissions. In many ways they were similar to our entire dataset, but some qualities stood out. “High earners” are more likely to have composition agents representing them. They were more likely to be over 60 years of age, or to be in their 30s. They were more likely to live in the Pacific West region. And they were much more likely to be regularly commissioned. Figure 10 shows data from the group of high earners.

Fig. 10 High Earner Characteristics

Conclusions

The major conclusions we were able to draw from our study are as follows:

  • The median commission fee for all compositions was $1500, or $150 per minute.
  • While commission fees were generally under $10,000, there was a sizable portion of outliers – around 11 percent of works – whose fees were between $10,000 and $50,000, or sometimes even greater.
  • Commissions for small groups or soloists were more likely to be unpaid, or for small fees. Commissions for large ensembles were more likely to be paid, and to command larger fees. Most outlier fees were for large ensemble commissions. The best paying large ensemble was the large choir.
  • Composers with more experience tended to receive higher fees.
  • Without taking into consideration factors such as experience level, female composers had a higher per-minute pay rate than males, and white composers had a higher per minute pay than non-white composers (as a group).

 

More data is needed.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final. While over 400 composers began our survey, just over 200 completed it, and they presented information on 871 commissions that occurred within 2017-2018. This is just a snapshot of data over a limited period of time. Regular surveys of commission pay would provide a clearer picture of the economic situation for today’s composer. Further research, supported by composer advocacy groups and professional organizations, is necessary to obtain data that will empower composers in making informed professional decisions.

 

More sophisticated analysis of data is needed.

Beyond more data collection, we would also like to invite future researchers to collaborate with us to conduct more sophisticated statistical analyses of the data from this study. It is important to note that when looking at the “conclusions” that women are paid more than men and whites more than non-whites, we have not yet answered questions that would consider data variables in combination and find out what the factors are that may contribute to these pay anomalies. For example, we don’t know if the women or white people in our sample were more likely to have higher degrees, or more years of experience, or some combination of factors that would have made their higher pay unexceptional; or, controlling for all these factors, whether their higher pay was indeed unaccounted for by anything other than gender or race.

 

More research on unpaid commissions is needed.

After launching our survey, we heard from one successful composer who refused to participate because we decided to include unpaid commissions. This composer insisted that “in the real world,” professional composers never take unpaid commissions. We disagree, having found in our survey (and in our own lived experiences), that many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions. We should not ignore this reality of many in our field.

Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

37% of the 871 commissions in our survey were unpaid. Around half of all chamber music was unpaid. These are significant numbers. What factors influence this reality? How can the new music community do better in compensating all composers? These are important questions.

 

Conversation about pay should be normalized.

Finally, our call for action is for members of our profession–composers, performers, and commissioners–to talk about the economic issues raised by our study. The recent trend toward open discussion of pay needs to come to the field of composition, too. We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence. We want to empower composers and commissioners to have frank conversations about what pay is fair. To do so would shed light on a difficult topic and free us all to work toward improving the new music economy.

We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

For a more comprehensive look at the Composer Commission Pay Survey, its methods, limitations, results, and conclusions, we invite readers to visit www.composerpaysurvey.com to read our complete research report (complete with footnotes!). We also welcome correspondence at [email protected] and [email protected]

The Composer Commission Pay Survey was planned, created, and reported on with the help of many individuals, whose assistance we gratefully acknowledge here. For help in envisioning and designing the survey, we thank Ed Harsh, Frank J. Oteri, Scott Winship, Alex Shapiro, Jazmin Muro, Christopher Roberts, Kala Pierson, and Iddo Aharony. For help with analysis, we thank Tim Trenary, Kristofor Voss, and Kris Nadler Dean. For help with editing the final report, we thank Natalie Kirschstein, Carla Aguilar, Kevin Garlow, and John Pippen. Finally, we thank all of the respondents to the survey for their generous time in recording responses.”

Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.

“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”

Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.

“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”

Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”

As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Kris Bowers
October 22, 2020—12:30pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Los Angeles CA and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Stand In The Gap

People walking on the tracks toward a streetcar in Memphis, TN, (Photo by Joshua J. Cotten / Unsplash)

In late October I had a what I thought would be a passing conversation with a friend that ended up affecting me quite profoundly. He described to me how he visited his local convenience store, one he visits often, and he saw several heavily armed protestors outside. While normally he felt at peace when stopping at this store, this time he felt uneasy. In describing that moment, he said that he wasn’t scared for his safety or fearful of the rhetoric. What scared him most, he said, was that he was looking at his home which he no longer recognized.

That sentiment stuck with me all through the election week and in the months since. While after that week I have occasionally felt flashes of recognition for a society I remember from my youth, for the most part, I am still looking at a society and a set of communities that I don’t totally recognize anymore. I am troubled by the rampant disregard for the truth, lack of courageous leadership, and the attacks on the fundamental democratic processes of our country.

In 2016, the day after the election, I wrote a long response that I was planning on sharing on social media. I ended up not publishing it and it has since been lost to the internet or a hard drive somewhere. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but I vividly remember feeling lost while I was writing; I didn’t know why I was writing or even what I wanted to say, only that I had to get something on paper.

Looking back, I think I felt the instinct to write a response because I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education. At that time and for the next couple of years after, the most common question I would ask myself was something along the lines of “Why does all of the work I’m putting into my independent practice, classes, rehearsals, and performances matter?”

I was having a difficult time reconciling my artistic practice and endeavors with a world that no longer seemed to share the values I was taught to believe in my youth: values such as trust, working together, and community. I had become untethered from an artistic practice that felt relevant and while I initially wrote that response in 2016 to share, I realize now I wrote it for me. I was looking for a new path.

Fast forward to the day after the 2020 election, and I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater: the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. I was asked if I would be willing to talk about my doctoral research into creative placemaking and community-engaged music making. The timing of this request did not escape me as it made me think about my path to this research, which started with my soul searching in 2016. This time when I examined my own practice in the context of our society, I found an answer to why my artistic activities matter. That meaning came in the form of another question to which I can tether myself and from which I can perhaps find a bit more understanding. While in response to the events of the months following the election, my feelings have continued to vacillate between confusion, disbelief, and anger, I have not felt as lost during this time as I did four years ago thanks to this guiding question.

That question is: “What is the role of artists in our communities?”

To answer that question, we have to start by looking at our communities. In recent decades in the United States, we have become more divided culturally and ideologically than ever before. We have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups. To put it another way, most Americans now live near, work amongst, and interact with only other people who think exactly like them. We have sorted ourselves into communities and social groups with other people who affirm our own beliefs.

In his book, written in 2009, called The Big Sort, Bill Bishop says this, which has only become more pronounced in the years since: “We all live with the results (of this sorting), balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies; but bitter choices between ways of life.”

I think it’s important to note at this point that elections in the US have always been bitter choices between ways of life, especially for those with less privilege based on our societal structures. Nowhere is this division more evident than in the history of racism in our country. The country was founded on principles of division and racial superiority/inferiority that we are still trying to overcome to this day. Yet the change referenced in the above quote still resonates strongly with me because I believe those of us with more privilege, myself included, have become more aware of this division and its far-reaching effects within our society and, more importantly, are committed to addressing it head on.

We would expect that alongside the sorting we have done in American society, we would feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities and to the people around us, but that isn’t the case. In fact, levels of reported loneliness in the United States have gone up. In 1980, around 20% of the country reported feeling lonely, while in 2017 that number had more than doubled to over 40%. Human beings are social creatures; we are hard-wired for connection with each other. We need it to survive. In fact, loneliness is just as deadly to our health, if not more so, than smoking or excessive drinking. One study entitled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality by Julianne Hold-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton estimates that loneliness increases our risk of dying young by nearly 45%.

However, this sorting has gone beyond polarized politics and loneliness, and over the past two months we have witnessed the depth of our disregard for the truth in favor of viewpoints that fit our own perspective and attacks on the fundamental democratic processes our country is based on, culminating in the stunning acts of violence committed at the US Capitol on January 6. I’ve noticed a trend where we find that it’s easier for us to hate the “other side” rather than confront our own pain and loneliness head on. We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.

Noted author, professor, and social worker Brené Brown states that “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books.” An example from our own country’s history is the use of minstrel shows to degrade the identity and artistic practices of Black Americans. This manipulation of language and art can be used to create an enemy image and a sense of moral exclusion that allows us to treat someone else as less than human.

This instinct to dehumanize a group of people based on their identity and inflict harm on them because we don’t agree in order to compensate for our own pain is what strikes me as being most antithetical to the society I thought I belonged to. This didn’t just change over the past four years. It has been slowly developing over time and is destined to continue unless we confront our pain and our fear head on.

This is where artists come in. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says the following about music and art, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope … Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared … The magic of music is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.”

Just as human beings are hard-wired for connection, we are also biologically programmed to respond to sound and music. The human brain is conditioned to align itself with the visual and aural rhythms of the world around it through a process called entrainment. Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry. Think of the ways we use sound in the medical field to break up cataracts, treat tendonitis, conduct ultrasounds, or even fight cancer. Music can be a vehicle to create a space for authentic connection and relationships between people. It can be part of the antidote for the loneliness we feel. Just as art can be used in the process of dehumanization, it is essential to the process of rehumanizing our society.

If we want the art we make to heal our community’s loneliness and pain and bring us back together again, then it has to be about more than creating a pristine product to be consumed. We need to recognize art’s place as part of the fabric of our society, an essential piece of our culture, and a means for enabling authentic connection between people. Artmaking is a representation of the human condition. We artists, similar to many other disciplines in this day in age, need to take a hard look at our priorities and recognize that the historical traditions of our art form are just traditions which can be molded to address new challenges; they are not immutable laws.

Every element of our creative process is a lever that we can adjust to place connection and relationship-building at the center of artistic experiences. These levers can include elements such as behavior expectations for performers and participants, choice of venue, availability of food and drink, choice of repertoire, and so much more. I use the term “participant” here instead of “audience” intentionally, because the term audience implies passive consumption not active engagement in the artistic experience. If our goal is building relationships and understanding, then every participant must invest themselves fully in a personal experience with the music. This active engagement on behalf of participants demonstrates, as Eric Booth states so eloquently in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, that “art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity – expanding the sense of the possible.” Making authentic connection the central goal of our artistic endeavors unlocks the possibility for our art to begin the work of rehumanizing our society. We do this by prioritizing understanding and empathy in our relationships with each other and respecting every person’s dignity as a member of the human race.

Just because things have been done one way and are easy to keep doing that way, does not mean it works every time. We will find more connection by exploring a different means of performing, teaching, and communicating and we must bring our communities into the creative process of designing these experiences. One example of these new means could be co-creating new works of music with direct input from community members so it tells their stories. We can also lean into providing opportunities for two-way communication between artists and participants as a part of every performance through events such as question-and-answer sessions and pre- and post-concert conversations and interactions between performers and participants. We critically must also embrace equity and inclusion so that the stories we share in our art belong to all people. We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process and expect intentional participation, even if that means dissent.

We have to make a priority of creating trust, both in our own practice as artists and between us and those who participate in our art. Creating that trust means listening louder than we play and stepping into a brave and vulnerable space where we engage with people whose beliefs we may feel stand against our own truth. It takes a special kind of courage and craft to use our art to face those beliefs and say, “Tell me more; help me understand your pain so we can work through it together.”

When we tell our story, share our own pain, and listen to other people’s stories in artistic experiences, we create the opportunity for rehumanization. We find wholeness and meaning as human beings through our relationships with each other and we can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own. Rehumanization is not just about finding what we have in common but also about seeking to understand and empathize with what we each hold as most important or sacred, which can be different for each person.

When I go back to that place of questioning four years ago, I realize now what I was looking for was a role for artists to play. In a world we increasingly don’t recognize, one where we pass off our own pain and loneliness by hating and dehumanizing someone else, artists are called to be healers, transformers, and restorers. We have a responsibility to rehumanize each other through our work and remind our communities of what we all share. As artists we are called to stand in the gap of social, cultural, and ideological differences and create experiences that reaffirm our connection to our shared humanity.

I won’t pretend it will be easy. It will be scary and vulnerable, but vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is the lifespring from which our creativity and compassion rise. It’s our courage to show up, be seen, and see other people without the safety of our ideological and artistic safety nets. Being vulnerable is a fundamental part of our humanity.

We, artists of all backgrounds and training, are called to stand in the gap. I hope to see some of you there.