Tag: advice

Finding Myself in an Alternate Reality, or 12 months on Sand Hill Road

Two elevators

If you drive north from San Jose on I-280 towards San Francisco, you eventually pass the unassuming Exit 24 which takes you towards Sand Hill Road. Just past the Stanford Particle Acceleration Laboratory, Sand Hill Road is home to some of the most expensive corporate real estate in the world. (I was told a single 20×20 sq. ft. office in the same business park would rent for over $15,000 a month.) Here is the casino-laboratory where Silicon Valley’s unicorns are created: Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Lime Scooter. Some of the most ubiquitous names in our modern lexicon started on this road with funding.

During the process of my divorce, the assault trials, and the ensuing litigation which lasted approximately 20 months, I had decided for safety and financial reasons to move in with family in the Bay Area and had found a day job as a systems administrator for a local IT company. The job paid well enough that I was able to cover my bills, clear up some debt, and generally keep my head above water and start to save—something that I had never been able to do during my five-year-long partnership.

I was assigned to provide technical support three days a week to the largest and most successful venture firm in the business park. I was responsible for end-user support of computer and tablet devices used by some of the most elite of Silicon Valley’s elite.

In the beginning, I hated this world. It was everything I had grown to despise about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area: wealth in excess of anything one could possibly spend in a lifetime, a complete lack of creativity in my tasks, a boring routine, a lousy commute, and people who, on good days, were simply unpleasant, and on bad days were downright rude. Plus it had no connection to the arts and for the first time in my life I truly felt completely disconnected from my field and craft.

I hated this world until someone in my family reminded me of several things:

  1. Nothing is permanent, including this job.
  2. You are taking care of what you need to do so you can live the life you want to.
  3. Try to learn something from this job. You never know what might help you in the future.

So I opened up my mind to try to learn.

I took away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward.

I knew I would never want to be a financial analyst or investor within about 30 seconds of working there, and that feeling continued. However, I did take away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward, as I learned in the coming months.

Something that had always eluded me in the pursuit of music as a career was how to sell myself and my work, and now here I was standing in an office the entire purpose of which was to watch people sell themselves and then decide whether to invest in them or not.

“Sales is sales,” an old boss used to say to me when I worked for an audio firm, “and art, or audio, is nothing but sales,” and I took that to heart.

Because of the nature of my job, I sometimes had to sit in pitch meetings and provide whatever technical assistance was needed, and I came to love watching these investors in meetings. It gave me the unique opportunity to see what technical critics used to refer to as the “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field” and allowed me to learn three valuable lessons:

Time (and Money) is Limited

Even in the world of Silicon Valley business where it seems money is endless, the reality is that time and money are in short supply. I noticed that these fund managers only invested in products or projects that spoke to them on some level. I decided to do the same, by only accepting commissions and only pursuing personal projects that I felt a true connection to in some way.

How to Construct an Elevator Pitch

I had the experience of chatting with a major investor for a few minutes. He had taken a liking to me, and we were chatting about what my life was like outside of my day job. He asked me what I did outside of work, and I had mentioned that I had gone to conservatory. Knowing this person had an interest in the Bay Area arts scene, I was hoping to chat about this for a time. Instead, he looked bored and changed the topic. It was another reminder to me how I had lost passion in my own work, and it showed. I decided to learn all I could about pitching and marketing my own work. If I didn’t believe in it myself, or show passion about what I had created, no one else would.

Passion is More Important

Time after time, I saw these products come in that (in my opinion) were not something I could see anyone in their right mind paying for, but the passion that these engineers, developers, and CEO’s brought to the table was what eventually caused the firm to, if not invest outright, advance them to the next round of decision making. It was the passion that got them continued meetings with higher and higher level employees.

My parents had hoped that by living surrounded by family I would be able to get more work done. What they believed I had come to Silicon Valley to do, make art, was not to be, but what I learned from what Silicon Valley does best—innovate—affected my work Sonetos del amor oscuro beyond what I had thought was possible.

This project, originally started after the mass shooting at Pulse, became an obsession for me. Creating something that I was passionate about was the breathing room I needed outside of my day job. By day I fixed tablet computers and by night I buried myself in this work. Building on what I had learned in my previous work Remember the Things They Told Us, I again wrote from the heart. I relied exclusively on craft and intuition without attempting to devise contrapuntal contraptions or other gimmicks to create some heady work of art as I used to do.

I lived the text that García Lorca had set down on those pages. I soaked them up, and it was in those words that I could come to terms with myself as queer. Though I had come out at the age of 22, I had not truly admitted it to myself until I began to devour this work. I always had this belief that I was more than my queer-ness and in order to fulfill that, I had always attempted to avoid trying to come off as “too queer” (whatever that meant) in my writing. The effect, however, was more like cutting my writing off at the knees. To quote the great Bill Watterson, it was almost as though I was saying to myself “you need a lobotomy, I’ll get the saw.”

Hearing this work performed live became extremely important for me because hearing the work live meant that for the first time, I would publicly acknowledge an aspect of myself that I never felt previously was important or relevant, but had come to understand in rediscovering myself that it was more integral to who I am as a composer than I realized. A recent trip to South Asia had also reminded me that it is not necessarily normal in the world to not go unpunished (if not be validated) as a queer artistic voice, and conversations with other queer friends in Mexico City reminded me that most Latinos, especially queer Latinos, do not even have a platform to bear witness in this way.

When I approached the Great Noise Ensemble with a concept recording and a partial score, Armando Bayolo graciously agreed to do the work on their “Four Freedoms” series, a series of four concerts each of which recalled one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Essential Freedoms”: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Freedom of Expression was truly the epitome of what this work meant to me, and would begin to drive a need for me to become more of an activist citizen-artist then I had ever been before.

Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

What you did in your 20s won’t matter much

There is a cult of youth in the composition scene, just as there is with most public-facing human activities. When you’re a young composer, a lot of people are interested in what you’re doing simply because “young composers”! That’s not wrong—young people with no track record do need a way to get a leg up—but the mistake is assuming that the attention you get as a young composer somehow predicts the attention you’ll get when you’re older.

After a few years, most of the people who experienced your youthful glories will have totally forgotten that you exist, having moved on to the next round of young composers. So while you should definitely take advantage of the young composer competitions, festivals, workshops, and prizes, it’s important to realize that there’s an expiry date on their usefulness.

Composing is about who you know

Speaking of prizes and festivals and such, it turns out that winning them is much less important than the connections you make along the way.

When you’re in your 20s, the task of finding compositional opportunities mostly gets sorted out on its own: you have to write pieces for student recitals, you go to summer festivals, you get a few emerging composer commissions, etcetera. This is also, not coincidentally, the period in your life when you reach “peak friends.” Opportunities arise seemingly organically, maybe you win a few prizes, and it’s logical to assume that all this is happening because you write good music.

Yes, you do have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends.

Then a few years pass. You’re no longer in school, you’ve aged out of the young composer festivals, and—having passed peak friends—a lot of people move on and lose touch. It then becomes obvious that the main reason you’re composing for Quartet XYZ is because the cellist is a buddy of yours, not because of your skill as a composer. Yes, you do also have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends. While there are exceptions to this pattern, most of your post-20s opportunities will stem from the personal relationships you make.

When I was in grad school at UCSD, I got my fair share of those young composer commissions and prizes. Also, as a Canadian I didn’t expect to stay in the US long term, so while I did of course make friends at school, my priorities were always elsewhere. Well, here I am in San Francisco almost ten years later, married to an American. Yet few of my professional connections today stem from grad school, probably because my peers could tell I wasn’t fully invested in the community. And for all the effort, Gaudeamus and MATA and the prizes I won never created any lasting opportunities. In retrospect, back then I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.

A lot of your peers will stop composing

Look around: how many of the composers that you know are in their 20s? Then think about how many you know in their 30s. It’s a smaller number. Move up to 40s and it shrinks again. With each passing decade, there are fewer people who continue to compose. It’s a hard lifestyle, opportunities are not always forthcoming, and faced with the task of toiling in poverty versus getting an office job that actually pays, many people eventually choose the latter.

You need to keep proving yourself

I’m a recluse by nature—I’ve always dreaded schmoozing and networking, or really most types of group-based social activity. But in my 20s, I expected that if I stuck it out for a while, eventually my reputation would make it less necessary to do that stuff and that opportunities would come my way with increasing ease. Turns out that’s not the case. You need to make more of an effort as time goes on, not less, due to a confluence of the factors described above.

At some point in your life, while you’re busy being a young composer, you’ll suddenly realize that an active cohort of younger young composers has sprung up after you. They will be largely unaware of what you were doing in your 20s, because they were teenagers then. And just as you did before them, they’ll be busy basking in the cult of youth and hanging out in an echo chamber of people mostly their own age.

Of course, this happens at the exact same moment the more established musicians have forgotten your young composer successes—there’s a new group of up-and-comers to attend to, after all. You’ll also have fewer colleagues your own age to turn to, because of the people-dropping-out-of-music thing.

The end result is that you have to keep proving yourself, just like you did in your 20s, getting to know the younger cohort and solidifying your ties with your remaining peers and the musicians who came before you. Except now, you also need to create all of the opportunities yourself. There are no prizes or festivals or required recitals to rely on. You have to form an ensemble, or put on concerts, or pitch ideas to the groups your friends run, or otherwise use your personal network to find ways to create music.

You achieve greater success by helping others succeed

Design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well.

Which brings us to the next point. When you pursue projects that are exclusively about your own glory, you will have to do everything yourself and pay full price for services. People will play your gigs, but since they’re not invested in your success, it’ll just be another gig for them.

In contrast, if you design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well, they will want to help you succeed. You will find that you have a network of people eager to assist you with the things you care most about, and you’ll be able to mount your projects with greater ease than you could have on your own.

Making money and making music are unrelated questions

There are a lot of ways to earn a living, just as there are a lot of ways to compose music. You can follow the academic path. You can teach privately. You can conduct or take gigs as a performer. You can do a job outside of music, or as an arts administrator. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll start an ensemble that taps into big philanthropic dollars.

There will be some overlap between the money aspect and the composing aspect, but the connection will never really be as strong as you want it to be. In my 20s, I was fairly successful as a grant writer and freelancer. I assumed that this success would continue to expand, both in terms of volume of commissions and remuneration.

What I discovered, however, is that there is an upper bound. There are only so many funders, and you can only write so much music. Therefore, as your financial needs increase—and they will, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live like a college student indefinitely—you need to find other income streams. My income from grant writing and commissions has stayed fairly steady over the past decade, but it has become a smaller proportion of my total income.

You have to work from a place of strength

Andrew Solomon perhaps put this most poetically in his Advice for Young Writers: “To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.”

When you’re young, there’s the tendency to want to do everything, learn as much as possible, conquer all challenges. I used to drill and drill and drill on ear training exercises, because as a percussionist, I felt like I had to “catch up” to the composers who grew up playing strings or singing and had an amazing sense of pitch.

I did get a lot better, but I don’t play pitched instruments every day, so those skills are just never going to be as good as someone who does, even if I did have the time to keep up the ear training drills.

So I compose from my strengths and interests, accepting that there are things others will do better than me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got the right skills for the music I want to write, and that’s what counts.

Focus on the types of activities that you’re good at and enjoy.

This principle likewise applies to the more career-centered aspects of composing. You need to focus on the types of support activities that you’re good at and enjoy, whether that means grant writing, running an ensemble, freelancing as a sound engineer, etcetera. The reason I’m sitting here writing this article is because I like to write, I’ve gotten decently good at it, and I’ve attracted a respectable audience over the years. If those things weren’t true, I would be doing something else instead.

In this respect, composers are best served by standard career planning advice, with the exception that you’re most likely to find a hodgepodge of workable if imperfect compromises as opposed to the single, Goldilocksian solution a vocational counselor might prefer.

Career counseling

You need collaborators

Find people in your life who can support your weaknesses.

Because you’re working from a place of strength and can’t do everything yourself, you need find people in your life who can support your weaknesses. This arrangement could be formal or informal. A lot of great people throughout history have had spouses or patrons that have kept them afloat, both financially or just in terms of keeping their shit together. Some composers start collectives or ensembles, or they work with dance companies or otherwise find a team of people to support them. Note that this doesn’t have to be an egotistical, “taker” kind of arrangement. In fact, it’s usually more successful if it’s reciprocal. But you need to find your complements and work with them.

You won’t go to all the concerts anymore

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been (working/teaching/grant writing/rehearsing) all week, haven’t seen your (spouse/kids) for more than a few minutes a day all week, had a (board meeting/fundraiser/computer meltdown) last night and have (no groceries/a piece due next week/relatives coming over tomorrow). There is a new music concert tonight featuring amazing players that you love, but they’re playing Boulez (or whoever) and you’ve just never really been that into Boulez. You will skip the concert to watch Netflix and have a beer, guilt-free. Otherwise you’ll soon burn out on all concert going, and if you don’t enjoy concerts, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated to compose. I suspect that going to boring concerts is the #2 reason why people stop composing. (#1 is, of course, the money.)

Your best artistic days are ahead of you

This article by Irish/South African composer Kevin Volans caused quite a stir recently, and there’s a lot in it I disagree with. But one thing he said that is undoubtedly true is that people become better composers over time.

Young composers, on the whole, write conservative music that lacks depth and personality. There are Mozartian exceptions, but even the best young composers tend to get better with age. You’ll write better music in your 30s, even though you’ll likely get less recognition for it, seeing as you’re not a “young composer” anymore.

You have to be O.K. with a lack of feedback

Chances are you’re no longer in a structured environment like school or the young composers summer circuit, so you won’t get a lot of feedback on your work, except for reviews of your performances here and there, or complaints from your parents who wonder, “Why can’t you just write a pretty melody for once?” (Full disclosure: my parents are actually super cool and really supportive.) You have to be O.K. with not having anyone comment on your music most of the time.

This is an especially composerly issue. Playwrights tend to work with dramaturges for this very reason, professional singers often have coaches, and there are many other parallels across the arts. But it’s hard for composers to find this kind of collaborator. It’s just going to be you most of the time.

You’ll probably be a much faster composer

The reasons why you write music will become clearer. (If they don’t, you’ll probably stop composing.) When you know the why, and you have more practice with the how, the act of composing speeds up quite a bit. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get stuck, just that the average number of hours you need to put in to create a given amount of quality music will go down.

That will give you time for other things, like hobbies or volunteering or having kids—whatever. Take advantage of those possibilities. They’ll lead to a richer life, and the best art always stems from lived experience.


Aaron Gervais-TracyWong

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.

Words After Music: Stories from the Archive

On May 19, 2015, NewMusicBox hosted its first live event which featured performances and stories as told by three incredibly compelling and diverse music makers: Gabriel Kahane, Matana Roberts, and Joan Tower. The evening was filled with laughter and poignant reflections, and throughout the month of August we will be posting each of the 20-minutes sets for you to enjoy.

In addition, we took the opportunity to dig through the NewMusicBox archives and reflect a bit on the phenomenal stories composers and performers have told us over the years. Since May 1999 when the site first launched, we have profiled hundreds of artists, presenting in-depth conversations with them through text and video and showcasing their music. In the early years, fans used to frequently ask if we hoped one day to be successful enough to have a print version, but this never made much sense to us. It is a magazine about music, after all. That readers are able to hear the work we cover for themselves is one of its greatest features, not a flaw.

And so for sixteen years we’ve carted our recording equipment all around the country and—even though we joke about how these interviews always seem to take place on the hottest or coldest day of the year, in a 6th floor walk up, or on the exact day the next-door neighbor decides to start a complete apartment renovation with a jackhammer—the fact is that the invitation we have been given to step into artists’ homes, their lives and their work, can’t be beat.

Since the beginning, it’s been very important to us that NewMusicBox let’s music makers speak for themselves, and they have told us some unforgettable anecdotes. We’ve loved being able to share those experiences with you online. Here are a few highlights.

Advice from Strangers: Finding Your Own Strangers

bon voyage

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to be While in Rehearsals

Musicians in an orchestra rehearsing with a conductor

The American Composers Orchestra in rehearsal, photo courtesy ASO

There’s nothing quite like sitting through a rehearsal of your new work. Many readers of this site will know this feeling. You are simultaneously evaluating the piece, assessing the performance, and keeping a mental tally of things you need to tell the musicians. I know people who have purposely worn dark colors to rehearsals because of the secret world of sweating that happens with a new work.

From the other side, as a conductor, I’ve learned over the years that each composer’s demeanor in rehearsals is unique. In the same way that everyone writes music differently, each composer has his or her own style of collaborating. Some want to play a very active role and some like to sit at the back and give an occasional thumbs up. Many of you are black belts at this, but for those composers just starting out here are some tips for having excellent collaborative skills in rehearsal.

I’m sure that you do this anyway, but when in doubt about how to behave in the rehearsal room (or in meetings or when drafting emails, for that matter), always default to professionalism.

Your score and parts will represent you a hundred times more than anything you do in rehearsal. Make sure that your score and parts correspond in all aspects to this MOLA document. It’s a compilation of what orchestra librarians across North America have agreed is the best way to present your music. Following these guidelines is how you will avoid glimpsing voodoo dolls of yourself with pins in them on the musicians’ stands.

Speak the language of music when providing feedback. I’ve found that many composers want to poetically convey the feeling of a passage when it would be better to give musical details. For example: “pianissimo instead of mezzo piano at measure forty eight.” Talk in terms of dynamics, articulations, tempos, sul pont vs sul tasto, accidentals, and so on. Speaking poetically about the piece as a whole is a great inspirational strategy, but in fixing individual moments, try to offer the musical specifics.

Don’t be embarrassed about changing dynamics. There have been premieres where we changed nearly every dynamic in the piece during rehearsals. If you need to fix things because you are hearing it in the hall for the first time, don’t be afraid to do it either on the spot or by providing a concise list by the next rehearsal.

Be authentic. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s O.K. to say you need to think about it.

Keep an eye on the clock when providing feedback. Your conductor has calculated the rehearsal time down to the nanosecond. Listen for cues from him or her as to how long you have to talk. It’s rarely enough time to say everything you would like to, so you often need to prioritize on the spot.

Roll with it. Sometimes musicians joke around a bit in rehearsals, especially if it’s been a tough week. Don’t take it as an affront to your music. I promise they are taking it seriously. They know it’s their responsibility to play every premiere as though it’s the greatest piece ever written. Based on my experience, on the night of the show, they’ll knock it out of the park.

Learn to conduct. I often hear from older composers (older than I!) that one of the things they regret is not learning how to conduct when they were younger. If you are in a composition program and there is a conducting program at your school, try to take some of those classes. It’s difficult to find conducting opportunities once you are out of school. The thing about conducting is that you have to want to do it and to make it happen on your own. And like anything really hard, it takes about ten years to learn how to do it properly, so starting early is a good thing. However, once you have a reputation for being able to competently conduct your own pieces, it’s a great way to eliminate the middle man and give feedback about your music directly to the players.

And last but not least, remember that your reputation will precede you. Always speak well of your colleagues, even when they are not there. When one composer is celebrated, don’t let jealousy cloud the accomplishment. It’s good for everyone as it brings more attention and opportunities to the community as a whole. New music is the little guy and we are all in this together, so be sure to support your colleagues whenever you can.

Who’s Got a Question?

Matters of the Art
Too embarrassed to ask your colleagues for guidance on handling performance anxiety? Facing a problem so professionally complex your mom doesn’t know how to help you? You need a fierce friend and NewMusicBox is here to help.
Whether it’s issues with your fan base or your French horn, when the curtain comes down, real life dramas can trouble your practice time and cramp you new music style. Your city’s alt-weekly advice columnist might not know enough about stand-sharing etiquette to understand your pain, but NewMusicBox’s newest column, Matters of the Art, is ready to lend an ear, a shoulder, and a hand. Column author Ellen McSweeney explains:

Many of my most popular articles at NewMusicBox have covered broad hot-button issues for musicians, including health insurance for freelancers, orchestra labor conflicts, and how women are (and aren’t) making progress in the fields of composition, conducting, and aesthetic tastemaking. And while I’m delighted to do a little rabble-rousing in the name of a more just and equitable world, I’m equally fascinated by what’s happening in the hearts and minds of individual artists. I’m a big believer in the value of sharing our struggles with each other. My experience is that by shining a bright light into the dark, un-talked-about corners of our lives, we make things a little easier for everyone.

Worries large and small accepted. Anonymity guaranteed. Write to [email protected] today.

Houston: River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships.–Alecia Lawyer

Based in Houston and drawing on some of the finest players in town and from around the nation, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is gearing up for their tenth season. Since its inception in 2005, ROCO has presented hundreds of concerts to a wide variety of audiences and in many different forms. Founded by oboist Alecia Lawyer, ROCO has commissioned or premiered 34 new works and during their upcoming season they will pass 40, including a co-commission in partnership with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry for a piece by Derek Bermel. Lawyer was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to fill me in on how ROCO got started and where it’s headed.

Andrew Sigler: How did ROCO come about?

Alecia Lawyer: I had been a part of many start-up orchestras in NYC and in Houston and had had an entrepreneurial trio in NYC while at Juilliard.  While in Houston, when my church was being renovated I knew a chamber orchestra would be perfect there in this lovely Frank Lloyd Wright-style building with seating for around 550.  I wanted to build something for Houston, but also something very authentic and relevant to the classical music world.
I thought of the musicians who were with me at Juilliard and different festivals who actually smiled when they performed and took joy in their craft on stage; who could be vulnerable and open in performance; who could talk to an audience and engage them, not just entertain them; who performed with such fluency that the music became the language, not the entity.  I was lucky to have hired Suzanne Lefevre as personnel manager, who helped form the orchestra, as well.

AS: What are some areas of presentation that set you apart?

AL: We have many simple ways to make the audience feel comfortable without changing our product of fantastic classical music.  The concerts start at 5 p.m. and are over before 7 p.m., so people can do more than one thing in a night.  I put pronunciation guides for composers’ names [in the program] so people don’t feel dumb, and I include timings of pieces to allow people to get a sense of the scope of a piece. (And if they don’t like it, they know how much longer it is!) I married the idea of a kid’s night out with the concerts and now have ROCOrooters, a music education/childcare program during and after our concerts.  We don’t have a regular intermission.  It’s “Take 5” [style] and musicians actually clip on nametags and walk into the audience to greet our audience. ROCO is known as “the most fun you can have with serious music.” Our season consists of four main concerts with all 40 professional musicians (half of whom fly in to play) with repeat performances.  The rest of our 25-30 concert season is made up of chamber music in various venues and with many partners throughout Houston.  We actually perform in ten zip codes here.

AS: Your mission statement is to “shape the future of classical music through energizing, modernizing and personalizing the orchestral experience.” That’s a tall order. How do you accomplish this?

AL: We energize through musician involvement in programming and creative direction, rotating conductors ([the ensemble has] no named conductor), annual conductorless concerts, and world premiere commissions. We modernize through streaming live concerts into patient rooms at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Hallmark Retirement Home.  We are dedicated to bringing this music to immobile communities like the V.A. hospital, where we performed a veteran’s concert this season. We also have a Listening Room where you can hear our past concerts for free and also download them.  We offer ring tones by our individual musicians so you can carry your favorite ROCO musician with you wherever you go.  We have been broadcast nationally over 60 times on Performance Today. We personalize through accessibility where musicians and audience and board have relationships; through our musical collaborations; knowing our audience members by name; keeping the house lights up the whole concert to feel even more connected to our audience; having individuals or groups support each musician’s chair throughout the season (every musician has a sponsor or group of sponsors); commissioning and programming with actual people in mind and involved.
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
AS: You have a pretty spectacular group of players from all over the place. How were they assembled?

AL: They are not just from Texas!  NYC, Vancouver, Boulder, others I cannot think of. It’s more about people I knew and ROCO’s personnel manager, Suzanne Lefevre, who has a wide group of musicians she knows.  Plus her job is not what you would expect.  She is now named associate artistic director and has always been a partner in building the orchestra.

AS: You have had 34 world premieres (and counting!) in less than ten years. Are any/all of these commissioned works? How do you go about selecting these works/composers?

AL: Yes, all are world premiere commissions.  We have more that are either Houston premieres, or world premieres that were not commissioned by us. Some composers came to us in the beginning, but now that we are known for this I get submissions constantly and love it! I am constantly getting suggestions from the musicians in ROCO, as well, for repertoire and commissioning. Our big news this season is that we are doing a co-commission with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry having Derek Bermel compose the piece.  ROCO will get the world premiere on Valentine’s Day next season.

AS: Houston is a large cosmopolitan city with many outstanding musical organizations of all sizes. How does ROCO fit into this?

AL: Many people don’t realize the difference in groups for classical music.  There is a 100-piece symphony orchestra on one end and then chamber groups on the other.  In between you have string orchestras of around 18-20 players and then a full-size chamber orchestra like ROCO of 36-40 performers.  Each of those four categories is its own animal with repertoire specifically for it.  We have other groups in the different categories, but are the only one occupying the full-size chamber orchestra space and truly sticking to that repertoire.  I love the flexibility we have for the main concerts with the full group and then chamber groups throughout the rest of the season.  It is intentionally being built as a Lego model, where small groups like our ROCO Brass Quintet have their own series of concerts under the ROCO brand.

AS: You’ve presented at Yale, SMU, Round Top, Juilliard, UT Austin, and the Texas Music Festival concerning your entrepreneurial approach to community-specific orchestra building. What is your approach?

AL: I call what I do “Wildcatting in the arts” which might need explaining if you are not from Texas! I meet with the performance majors and the arts management students and talk about starting ROCO.  The talks have gone in many different directions from development and board building to programming/commissioning.  However, my favorite thing to do is to talk about ROCO as a case study of reactions to my own past in performance and then have individual appointment times for students to come discuss their own ideas. I believe that orchestras should not be cookie-cutter and actually have a personality like the city in which they are created.

I love the process of connecting people together through the arts.  Each conversation, whether about music, money, or venues, is one of discovery and craft.  Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships. Gratefulness, joy, and connection are our panaceas.


World Premiere/Commissions by ROCO for the full chamber orchestra
Brad Sayles – Echoes of Invention for narrator and orchestra (2008)
Karim Al-Zand – Visions from Another World After Illustrations by JJ Grandville (2008)
Carter Pann – Mercury Concerto (2009)
Brad Sayles – Buffalo Bayou Suite (2010)
Scott McAllister – Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra (2010)
Karim Al-Zand – Handel’s Messiah Pregame Show (2011) In collaboration with Houston Chamber Choir
Paul English – Lumiere Lunaire (2012) (In honor of the 100th anniversary of Pierrot Lunaire and based upon JoAnn Falletta’s poem about Pierrot)
Tony Brandt – Maternity (2012) based upon neuroscientist David Eagleman’s writings about women throughout evolution back to the amoeba.
Reena Esmail – Teen Murti for string orchestra (2013)
Carter Pann – The Extension of My Eye, Le Tombeau d’Henri Carter-Bresson (2014)

World Premieres
Steve Laven – Beyond the Odyssey (2006)
Tony Brandt – Nano Symphony (2010)
Todd Frazier – “Save the World” in Memorium; Richard Smalley (2010)

Houston Premieres
Derek Bermel – Natural Selection (2006)
Michael McLean – Elements for solo violin and strings (2006)
Daniel Kellog – Mozart’s Hymn for String Orchestra in 16 Parts (2008)
Pierre Jalbert – Autumn Rhapsody (2012)
Huang Ro – Folk Songs for orchestra (2013)

Chamber Music World Premiere/Commissions
22 Works for our annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) musical and literary ofrenda. Composers write small pieces about life, death, remembrance, or other themes for an oboe, viola, and cello trio from ROCO with a singer.
We also have commissioned and premiered two other chamber works on our chamber music series we are now calling ROCO Unchambered.
Alecia's Pet Peeves

The Artist’s Dictionary: Redefining Success

Around Christmas last year, I received the music for an upcoming concert I was going to be playing with Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente. Being my usual neurotic self, I looked at the parts and immediately commenced freaking out by practicing furiously, even though I was technically on vacation. A few days later, my brother-in-law relayed to me a conversation that he’d had with his six-year-old daughter:

“Daddy, why does Auntie Sara play cello so much?”
“Because it’s her job. That’s what she does to earn money.”
“Daddy, that’s silly! Cello isn’t a job!!”

You know how sometimes a six-year old can say something that instantly shatters your self-esteem? Well, suddenly I found myself defending my career choices to a kindergartener. I literally began to recite my resume to her, at which point I realized that, well, I was reciting my resume to a kindergartener.

This whole episode reminded me of similar stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues. Together we’ve rolled our eyes at the people in our lives who just don’t get what we do. What we often don’t admit out loud, though, is how hard we take it. So I started wondering: Why are musicians so on edge about the validity of what we do? What does it take to make us feel like we are successful? And how do we even begin to define success?
violinist meme
What it seems to come down to, in many cases, is that musicians are hardwired to base our sense of success on how our career is perceived by others. If you think about it, it makes sense: when others approve of our playing, we get good reviews, big audiences, standing ovations, fame, fortune, etc. Throughout school, auditions, and gigs, we’ve relied on the judgement of others to gauge our own talent, so it’s all too easy to allow their perceptions to determine how our professional career is going, too.
The root of the problem might be that the 21st-century classical musician doesn’t seem to have an updated guide to gauging success. Think about what you were taught in school about how to become “successful,” and where you would be now if you had followed that path. If you had truly succeeded, you would have either landed a full-time job in a major symphony orchestra or ensemble, accepted a tenure track faculty position at a prestigious university, or won first prize in a major international competition. No biggie. But seriously, is this model of success even valid anymore? Why are these still the only clear markers we have to “prove ourselves” in our field?

Because our views on success are so often skewed towards these milestones, musicians who take alternative paths are often unfairly looked upon as less successful. Our traditional ways of defining success are suddenly inapplicable, and this leads us to feel dubious about the legitimacy of someone who is forging their own entrepreneurial path, or who feels satisfied with their work, though it may be unconventional. If what you’re doing isn’t easy to slap a label on, then you must be failing…unless, of course, someone influential notices you and publicly declares your success. This is the sense I sometimes get, both from the outside world and even among musicians.

One emerging musician whom I know has done a lot of thinking on this subject is Meerenai Shim, a flautist who specializes in new and experimental music. When I asked her to define success, she laid out five separate definitions, from how she used to think of success to how she defines it now. She began with her view when she was a student that achieving success meant becoming famous or winning a big orchestra job (sound familiar?), went on to her real-world post-college impression that success meant being able to pay the bills as a full-time musician, to then land at her current definition: “Success to me is making meaningful art.” She has approached her career from all types of angles: gigging and teaching to make ends meet, getting a day job to allow herself the financial freedom to pursue her new music projects, and, ultimately, ditching both the teaching and the day job so she could focus solely on the music that is most important to her, which is turning out to be the key to achieving that last definition of success she came up with. Taking this approach certainly comes with its financial risks, of course (check out Meerenai’s blog post on “making it work”), but often the confidence that comes with taking those risks is what can lead to hard-earned successes, both musically and financially.

More and more musicians these days seem to be following the same line of thought as Meerenai. When I posed the question of how to define success on Twitter, many of the responses I got were along these lines:
twitter success definition
The new music community is clearly thinking about success in new ways–ways that free us from external judgement and allow us to base our success on the achievement of personal goals, artistic fulfillment, and driving vision. But while it’s great that so many professional musicians are coming to these conclusions, I couldn’t help wondering whether the old model of success, the one that’s based on fame and fortune, is still what students and young professionals are clinging to. So on a recent trip to Miami, I spent an afternoon chatting on this topic with Howard Herring, the president of the New World Symphony.

As a New World alum myself, I know all too well the organization’s reputation for churning out young hotshot musicians who head straight from their NWS fellowships to the top symphony jobs around the country. And fifteen years ago at NWS, you might say that winning a symphony job was the official definition of success. However, orchestras aren’t as stable as they once were, and word has gotten out that the euphoria you might feel after winning an audition may not necessarily stick with you for the next 40 years on the job. What Howard pointed out at the very beginning of our talk was that there’s a big difference between a “job” and a “career.” A job is something that you get, a career is something that you build. When I asked him what definition of success he hopes to imprint on the NWS fellows, he explained that achieving success in one’s career comes from embodying these three principles:

  1. Independence. Independent thinking allows us to think outside the box and be proactive about our passions.
  2. Inclusiveness. When we engage our communities, great things are possible.
  3. Responsibility. Taking responsibility for our art form ensures its continued relevance in society.

“When you are true to those concepts,” Howard told me, “you can manage the potential and the problems, and the success is all yours.” And those concepts, according to Howard, are constantly morphing to fit in with each new era. Take inclusiveness, for instance. In the not-so-distant past, that may have meant playing an outreach concert in a nursing home or giving spoken program notes before a performance. But now–and this was when he started really getting excited–we’ve reached a new digital era that is changing the way we think and igniting our imaginations. No longer is our community limited to the audience in front of us or the city we live in. In the digital era, our community is truly global, and that makes the potential for inclusiveness, and therefore success, all the greater.

Howard admitted that, for a large number of the current NWS fellows, winning an orchestra job is still the most important measure of success. For now. “Far more musicians are cut out for this [alternative] type of career than they acknowledge,” he told me. He is giving young professionals the knowledge and the resources to eventually make their way to redefining success for themselves, while at the same time aware and accepting of the fact that those young professionals might not be ready to do so right away.
My biggest takeaway from the various responses that I heard from Howard, Meerenai, and others was that in this new and somewhat turbulent era for classical music, our own personal success isn’t just about us anymore. The old model is no longer relevant because simply having a job or being a superstar doesn’t necessarily contribute to our communities or to our art. Music is bigger than ourselves, and how we shape our careers affects the role that classical music will play in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

I had to chuckle as I thought back to that comment from my six-year-old niece. “Cello isn’t a job!” she protested. She was completely right. Success cannot be defined by how we make a living. What truly defines success is the way in which we incorporate independence, inclusiveness, and responsibility into our careers. When we focus on these principles, we succeed not only in satisfying our own artistic needs, but by also making a difference in the communities we live in and sustaining the art that we are passionate about.


Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a cellist based in Chicago.  A member of Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she has also been heard performing with the Milwaukee Symphony, Ensemble Dal Niente, Anaphora, New Millennium Orchestra, and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami.  Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis. She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

You’re Doing Targeted Marketing Wrong

Dart board

Photo courtesy of timlewisnm on Flickr.

You want to grow your audience, but you have limited resources, so you target your marketing efforts at the groups most likely to respond to it.

Sounds familiar? Sensible?

It is. But almost everybody does it wrong, often alienating core customers and defining their offering by the needs of a completely imaginary group of people instead of the community around them.

Generally, we begin screwing up by turning demographic research into inaccurate stereotypes. We find out how our audience differs from the general population, define it by those differences, and then aim our outbound communication at an imaginary person who embodies every one of those differences.

You might discover that, compared with the general population, people at your concerts are more likely to be old, rich, smart, and male. You might then devise a marketing campaign to target smart old rich men. If you asked for a show of hands, though, you might also find that while the old, the smart, the rich, and the male are all overrepresented in your crowd, there isn’t a single smart rich old man among them.

This sort of thing isn’t sensible targeted marketing. It’s desperately clinging to any piece of information that comes along. When you’re adrift in a sea of ignorance, almost anything looks good to hold onto, but crude generalizations can be anchors instead of life rafts.

In that case, what is demographic data for?

Institutions love demographics. It’s easy to collect this type of data (you ask a sample of people at a concert), and sponsors/advertisers often ask to see it. As a result, the marketing department generally has a very good idea of the typical ages, incomes, occupations, and educational backgrounds of their customer base.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you’re not selling music. If you have an unrelated mass-market product to promote and you’re considering sponsoring a single event, then demographic data provides useful information. You’re being offered access to a room full of people united by an interest in something that isn’t your product. You don’t know anything (else) about what they like and there’s no easy way to ask, so you look at gender or social class to determine a rough fit.

It’s a blunt tool, and while it’s better than nothing, the results are underwhelming unless both groups significantly deviate from the general population. If the customers for your product are split 60:40 male to female, then advertising to a 60:40 male to female population split should result in a 4% greater response than advertising to a population split 50:50.

With results like this, targeting groups that are moderately overrepresented in your audience is not going to change the world.
If the question we really want to answer is “how can we sell more tickets?” then demographic research seems like it would help, but what we’re really doing is substituting the answer to a different question because that’s the information we have on hand.
Marketing Infographic
The average concert audience member might be a little older, richer, and smarter than the average American. This is something to tell advertisers who are bad at statistics and want to reach old rich smart people. You know something substantially more valuable about this crowd: every one of them came to your concert.

So what do you ask?

The question to ask them is: why did you come to this concert?

You’ll find people who came because they wanted to see something at the venue, and this was what was on. Others will tell you they’ve always wanted to hear this repertoire. Another group have been following the artists for some time, and this was their chance to hear them live. Some people were dragged there by a date who is doing your marketing for you.

These are the reasons people left their homes on a cold night and paid money to hear some music, and they have everything to do with human motivation and almost nothing to do with income, gender, or education.

It’s the same with record sales: people are loyal to artists, composers, and sometimes even labels. They’ll buy records out of curiosity and they’ll buy them for who or what was on them. They’ll buy them because they’re beautiful, because they’re ugly, because they’re expensive, or because they’re cheap. They’ll buy them as souvenirs, they’ll buy them on impulse, and they’ll buy them as a culmination of a lot of research.

This is not the same as, “How did you find out about this concert/album?” The vast majority of the people who find out about your CD or your concert don’t go on to buy a disc or a ticket. It’s widely accepted in the world of marketing (indeed, it’s common sense) that people often make a purchasing decision only after hearing about a product many times. The thing you need to know is what sealed the deal. Why did they pick your event out of everything on the website? Why did they buy your album out of all the others on iTunes?

Knowing what motivates your customers is the way to improve the story you tell them. Knowing where they found out about you might tell you where to get the message across, but it doesn’t help you to figure out what that message should be.

That’s it?

Of course not. If you target based on motivation instead of demographics, there are still plenty of opportunities to screw up. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is making the mistake of preaching exclusively to the choir.

The people who come to your concerts, buy your CDs, or visit your website are a self-selected subset of the public—a tiny fraction—on whom your marketing efforts have worked thus far. They are not representative of the general public and they are not representative of the group of people who would come to your concerts if you did marketing differently.

Worse, any assumption based purely on your existing audience is likely to lead you round in circles, ultimately becoming self-fulfilling. Pick the largest group in your audience and market primarily to them, and your audience becomes smaller and, crucially, less diverse. Repeat this process a few times, and you have the audience of a modern major symphony orchestra.
For individual artists with a tribal following, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to ignore a whole section of society. For an ensemble, festival, or venue that purports to be a part of its broader community, though, this is a fatal error. If you want what you’re doing to be perceived as suitable for and relevant to the whole community, you have to speak to them all, and be seen to speak to them all. Otherwise, you become the Abercrombie & Fitch of music, scaring off those outside your target groups with an environment that is openly hostile to them.

Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for defining an audience by the people who aren’t in it.

Unadventurous thick people? This music isn’t for you.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

How We Learn Now: Education Week
Index of Education Week Articles















Whether it’s been years since you last sat in a lecture hall or only just this morning that you put a child on the school bus, September will probably always carry with it thoughts of the classroom. Yet despite these traditional specters, how we seek out and process new information has clearly evolved in the digital age.

While maverick music makers who build their art well outside traditional institutions were certainly not invented in 2013, advances in technology have multiplied and publicized the myriad routes students may follow. In parallel to the ways we’ve seen the boundaries of genre blur and meld, education and career paths have been derailed and resurfaced; others have completely gone off road.

So how do you get to be a new music composer or performer today? How do you connect with the music and grow as a listener? Fresh learning methods have opened up exciting possibilities when it comes to advancing music education and introducing new ears to new work, so this week (September 23-27) we’ve invited our regular contributors plus some special guests to each pick up a thread in this huge concept and tell us about a piece of this story that’s important to them.

While I don’t expect that any of them will dismiss the idea of music education completely, they may advocate for learning that occurs outside of traditional intuitions or that continues long after the graduation cap is airborne.

This, of course, isn’t the first time we’ve poked around under the hood of educational issues here at NewMusicBox. In recent years we’ve chronicled Detroit’s fight to save music in the public schools and examined how we measure learning among music school students. We questioned if education debt was really worth it and what kind of teaching methods are best for those who decide to invest in it.

I expect that lots of new ideas will be thrown around this week, and it’s my hope that you’ll be inspired to add your voice to these discussions as well, using whatever 21st-century messaging strategy you most prefer.
For my part, I’ll sign off with this YouTube video. Now, I’m not much of a performer, nor did I complete any advanced work in the sciences, but thanks to the internet I’ve been schooled by someone who clearly has both well in hand. So thanks, A Cappella Science Guy! You’ve illustrated the importance of music education even when it comes to STEM subject excellence: Sonic proof of concept for any naysayers, as far as I’m concerned.