Tag: education

What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers

It has been more than six months since Helga Davis gave the keynote speech at the 2018 New Music Gathering. After a brief opener, she quoted August Gold—“If you want to know what you want, you have to look at what you have.”—and then proceeded to ask the audience to “look around the room, and see what the composition of [the] room [says] about what we want.”

Based on her challenge, we can ultimately conclude the following: if attending a music event and the people in the room of the event comprise mostly white cisgender men, then the greater collective “we” simply does not want people who are not white cisgender men to participate.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated, but for me this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming. After I attend concerts of music solely by composers who fit that expected image, the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” is inevitably evoked within me. Every time. In observing the greater world of classical music, the father of what we refer to as new music today, it is no wonder why black composers do not feel wanted. Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. Why not, for example, include Chevalier de Saint-Georges in a general music history class? After all, his career begins before Mozart’s (who utilized one of Saint-Georges’s melodic gestures in the finale of his Symphony Concertante in E flat Major, K364), his orchestra did commission and present the world premieres of the six Paris Symphonies by Haydn (all of which Saint-Georges conducted), and his own music was highly praised during and after his life. Yet his and other black composers’ non-existence in academic institutions tells black composers that we are not wanted, no matter how much success we gain. New music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today. Moreover, despite the recent increase in conversation about female, non-binary, transgender, and BAME/ALAANA/diverse composers, the programming of these composers has not significantly increased.

For many of us, there is a frustration. On the one hand, if the optics of new music are sending unwelcoming messages, then the next generation of would-be black composers will most likely not pursue composition. On the other hand, the general mistrust and falsehoods that exist within the new music community are already quite high, as evinced by #MeToo-related reports, countless social media posts and private conversations/confessions, stories of professors psychologically abusing their students or mis-teaching their students through their lack of honesty and inability to convey important messages, and more. Discussions about the semantics and accrual of commissions amongst composers of all levels are few and far between, and consequently the underpayment or non-payment of composers for new works occurs more frequently than what may be imagined. Professional recommendations for opportunities do not happen nearly to the extent that they could for all composers, and all of these injustices disproportionately affect black composers. Additionally, the number of ensembles directly reaching out to black composers is not significant enough to noticeably bring these composers parity. There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

It must be noted that it is impossible for me to comment upon every smaller, interior facet of new music with regards to such behavior; there are certainly localities and communities which are more welcoming, open, and inclusive than others, and I would love to learn more about this work that is being accomplished. However, if the aforementioned reality is true for any composer (as it certainly is for me), then the new music community not only has the responsibility, but also the incentive, to change. How, one might ask? There are some EXTREMELY simple steps:

Anthony R. Green introduces the "Freedom Rising"

Anthony R. Green introduces the “Freedom Rising” project by Castle of our Skins at the Museum of African American History’s African Meeting House, Boston, MA; IMAGE: Monika Bach Schroeder

1) If you are an active soloist or are in or run an ensemble of any size, program music by black composers. Program all of it, not just the “socially aware” music. Program it as part of events that happen in months other than February or March. Arrange portrait concerts. Arrange a non-“social justice”-themed concert and program works by black composers which fit this theme, and don’t make a big deal about the identity of the composers. After performing these works once, perform them again, and again, and again, for many years. Make them regular works on concerts. Give them to your students to study.

2) If you do not know any music by a black composer, create a playlist and have weekly listening sessions. Listen often. Listen to music that you do not like. Find music that you like and love. Engage with it critically, but respectfully. Mention black composers in conversations; when you are talking about how cool Gunther Schuller was, don’t forget Ed Bland or Julia Perry. When you are talking about how cool Chaya Czernowin is, don’t forget Tania León and Marcos Balter.

3) Share what you know and what you have learned about black composers. Outside of sharing this information with students and in conversations, write blog posts. Write articles. Make vlog posts and podcasts. Make memes and post them on your social media channels. Share stories and information and anecdotes on social media and other platforms. Share YouTube and Vimeo videos of performances and interviews. Hold listening parties. Spread the word about helpful resources, ensembles, organizations, and other entities doing such work in a powerful, significant way. Encourage people in your community to engage with this work, and be curious.

4) Demand more from your musical sources. Write to your radio stations, to your favorite YouTube channels, to your favorite ensembles; ask your teachers to include more music by black composers in the theory classroom, in the history classroom, in your private lessons. Those who have power will not know what the demand is until the demand is made. If there is really a demand, then make it known.

5) Support black composers and the soloists, organizations, and ensembles that program their music. Castle of our Skins (of which I am a co-founder) is one of a handful of organizations whose seasonal programming regularly consists of at least 90% music by black composers (as attested by its repertoire list), and it is, contrary to popular business-model or donor-related expectations in music, a successful organization. If you are in a position to commission or create an opportunity for a composer for a project, consider reaching out to a black composer, then work with that composer, support that composer financially, professionally, and emotionally. Do not give up on that composer, because perhaps that composer already feels abandoned by the new music and classical music communities.

6) When a black composer is expressing a grievance, listen with all you have. While conversations about black underrepresentation in classical music are generally positive and well-meant, such conversations are almost pointless if they do not include the voices of black people. Trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. We want to talk, but “it’s a privilege to be able to critique without professional fears.”* At one point in my life, I did not have this privilege. Perhaps I still do not have it. But when our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.

Lastly, remember to keep Helga Davis’s challenge within you at all times. When you are at a music event, especially a new music event, look around, see what is missing, and ask yourself what that says about what you truly want.

* My first encounter with this phrase was in the article: “Classical music’s white male supremacy is overt, pervasive, and a problem,” by Daniel Johanson, for Scapi Magazine, February 18, 2018. This article has since been removed from Scapi, but appears on other websites in various formats.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Music Advocacy on Capitol Hill

It’s not an easy time to be a musician in America. When President Trump announced his budget proposal for 2019 back in February, cultural leaders were disheartened to find that the plan calls for the elimination of various funding sources for artistic institutions. Among those on the chopping block are programs which provide food, housing, and healthcare to underserved populations. In the midst of a tumultuous political climate where the lives of countless impoverished Americans hang in the balance, it is easy for artists to feel that their cause pales in comparison to other issues. We know that the life-changing capacity of music is worth fighting for, but can its voice be heard on Capitol Hill?

The answer is “Yes”—and will be quite clear this Thursday morning, when more than three hundred students, educators, and other leaders gather at the nation’s capital to advocate for music education. Facilitated by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), Hill Day is an annual assembly of music advocates from all fifty states. After a preceding day of advocacy training and briefing (and a singing rally on Capitol Hill), attendees meet with their state senators, representatives, and legislative advisors to testify to the importance of access to music in schools. This expansive presence of passionate musicians in the congressional office buildings is both compelling and effective.

Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at the end of 2015. Thanks to the tireless efforts of music advocates, music was specifically mentioned as a part of a “Well-Rounded Education” for the first time in American history (as opposed to being umbrellaed under “the arts” in No Child Left Behind). This explicit definition of music as core was a massive victory for music educators. In addition to definitively conveying the importance of music in schools, ESSA provided a clearer avenue for arts programs to obtain Title I, Title II, and Title IV funding: resources which promote accessibility for all students, regardless of circumstance.

Stories from educators like John Gallagher of Longwood, New York, demonstrate the profound impact of Title IV funding in music programming. Gallagher’s district employed their funds to increase access to musical instruments for children. “We are a lower-middle class school district,” Gallagher stated in a Title IV webinar. “We, like many school districts, could use funding to reach a lot more students to get them involved in our art and music programs… for no other reason but to expand access to them because a lot of them cannot afford the cost of renting an instrument.” Gallagher’s district owns a few instruments which can be rented to students free of charge, but like many school-owned instruments, they were in rough shape. Longwood’s grant application called to resolve this issue: “In my needs assessment, I told people that we need every instrument… We put in for equipment to help our students with special needs: to have instruments adapted to their physical disabilities. It’s for the benefit of our students and all the students we’re not reaching because they can’t afford the purchase or rental of a trombone or a flute or a bass clarinet.”

By arming ourselves with information and a strong network of local, state, and federal advocates, we may add to the nationwide call for equal access to a robust arts education.

The language of ESSA also provided a strong foundation for new advocacy efforts. In the reauthorization of Perkins-CTE, for instance, the inclusion of a “Well-Rounded Education” would allow schools to receive funding for music technology courses through Career and Technical Education (CTE) provisions. Still, despite its definition as a standalone core subject, music remains largely inaccessible in underfunded and underprivileged schools.

Enter the Guarantee Access to Arts and Music Education Act (GAAME). Introduced just last week, this bipartisan bill is the first standalone piece of music education legislation to enter Congress. The GAAME Act calls for school-wide access to “sequential, standards-based arts education taught by certified arts educators (as defined by the State) and community arts providers to meet challenging academic standards.” The bill also outlines “programmatic assistance for students to participate in music programs that address their academic needs.” If passed, the GAAME Act will be a critical step in dismantling the socioeconomic barriers which prevent disadvantaged students from accessing music in their schools.

These massive strides toward equity in music education would not be possible without the advocacy efforts of concerned citizens. ESSA’s continued success is largely thanks to the music students and educators whose stories speak to the importance of Title IV-A funding. In a few short years, music has grown from underneath the umbrella of “the arts” to encompass its own piece of legislation. Still, there is work to be done. This week, the Hill Day delegations will continue the fight for music education by advocating for the GAAME Act in their congressional offices. The bill currently has a list of thirty-eight cosponsors which is likely to grow after Thursday’s 200+ meetings on the Hill. Advocates who can’t make it to their congressional offices can support music education by contacting their senators and representatives by phone, mail, or electronically.

The most important and effective form of advocacy, however, is staying informed. All ongoing legislative processes can be tracked on the official website for Congress. Online resources like NAfME’s Advocacy Bulletin provide analysis and information on congressional developments pertaining to music education. By arming ourselves with information and a strong network of local, state, and federal advocates, we may add to the nationwide call for equal access to a robust arts education. The voice for music can be heard on Capitol Hill—and it’s getting louder.

Re-Imagining Collegiate Music Education

Among the rolling treetops and mountains of western Massachusetts, the large dome of Sweeney Concert Hall stands proudly atop monstrous Grecian columns. The building itself, Sage Hall, houses the Smith College Department of Music. Its four floors boast numerous practice rooms, grand pianos, and a state-of-the-art Digital Music Room. Newspaper articles detailing the accomplishments of alumnae are prominently displayed on various bulletin boards in the hallways. In the basement, where the college ensembles are based, a tattered article from 2001 is pinned to the wall: “Smith Orchestra Makes Carnegie Hall Debut.”

The landscape of Sage Hall suggests a thriving community of student musicians. Statistically, however, this is not the case. In recent years, the musical ensembles of Smith College have seen a significant decline in membership. The same orchestra that played at one of the nation’s leading performing arts venues almost 20 years ago now only has about 30 members. Despite dedicated retention and recruitment efforts by students and faculty alike, youth simply do not seem as interested in playing in a classical ensemble as they once were. This problem is not exclusive to Smith: at a recent conference, I heard testimonies from representatives of various liberal arts colleges reporting similar struggles with dwindling participation in their departments of music.

By investing in collegiate music programs, we invest in a future community of diverse new artists.

Issues of enrollment in collegiate music programs have a direct, albeit delayed, effect on the new music community. New musicians, composers, and educators enhance the vitality of their local music ecosystems by introducing fresh perspectives and partnerships. Most importantly, recent graduates—especially those from diverse backgrounds—can inspire young musicians to pursue their own artistic aspirations. By investing in collegiate music programs, we invest in a future community of diverse new artists. As a student musician and leader in my own collegiate orchestra, I hope to cultivate robust music ecosystems by illuminating potential barriers for continuing music education and proposing cost-effective methods for ensemble retention and recruitment.

Financial inaccessibility

Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of whether many students pursue higher education. Low-income students typically have to take on one or more paying jobs on top of their regular course load: time that their higher-income peers may spend pursuing valuable professional development opportunities. While wealthy students are more likely to enjoy college and find employment on the other side, low-income students struggle to make ends meet, often sacrificing the pursuit of their dreams in the process. This vicious cycle is painfully evident in music due to the massive cost of instrument purchase, repair, and rental. While many K-12 schools own instruments which are available for student use, colleges like Smith typically do not. Thus, orchestral instrumentalists often find themselves empty-handed after their high school graduations, forcing them to give up their musical studies. Even if students owns their own instruments, the cost of private lessons is another barrier. With tuition rising annually, many college students are intimidated by the prospect of an extra fee and drop their musical participation altogether.

Potential solutions:

— Advertise a “used instrument drive” to alumni and community members so incoming students can continue their instrumental studies.
— Invest in owning cost-effective instruments like the plastic pBone line.
— If one does not already exist at your institution, establish a “beginner’s orchestra” with starting musicians and these acquired instruments. By playing in this ensemble, students have the opportunity to develop musically and eventually join the college’s higher-level groups, enhancing the vitality of the music program.


While dead white composers have certainly made large contributions to music history, their narratives almost always take precedence over women and people of color in classrooms and concert halls. The institutional focus on dead white composers is not only problematic because of its lack of accessibility to students: it also “heroifies” some composers like Wagner who have come to represent racist and anti-semitic ideologies. Considering the most recent surge in student activism relating to tolerance and diversity, it is unsurprising that college students shy away from classical ensembles with long histories of Eurocentrism. Furthermore, collegiate orchestras are primarily composed of white musicians, standing at odds with the increasingly diverse makeup of a global campus. Students are far less likely to get involved with an ensemble that does not directly reflect or serve their community.

Potential solutions:

— Program works by women and people of color which are accessible to the overall level of the group.
— Supplement traditional works from the classical canon with detailed historical contexts that consider multiple cultural perspectives.
— Perform a public benefit concert or other service project at least once a semester. Playing outside the confines of the music building will draw in new audiences to revitalize the group. Today’s students will also be more attracted to an orchestra which upholds values of social justice by serving its community.

Stress culture

In her book Doing School, Denise Clark Pope chronicles the lives of five high school students to illuminate how “we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students.” By placing more value on core academics and GPA than on vocational skills or character building, students are put under the impression that “people don’t go to school to learn; they go to get good grades which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying job, which brings them to happiness, so they think.” Thus, the “best and brightest” high school students sacrifice sleep for grades, passions for resume-building, and friendships for academic competition. When all of these like-minded people come together at a college like Smith, the “Stress Olympics” begin. Students are often driven to give up their passions for music because of the high standards upheld by their professors, peers, and selves. Many are simply unable to practice their instrument on top of a full course load. Others are intimidated by the ability levels of their sectionmates and leave the group. Either way, exit surveys completed by departing orchestra members are beginning to sound like a broken record: “I just don’t have the time.”

Potential solutions:

— Create avenues for peer mentorship. Higher-level musicians may teach informal lessons or run sectionals. This would present constructive challenges for students of all ability levels.
— Combat stress culture internally. Student leaders may program “stress-free” social activities outside rehearsals to encourage self-care among orchestra members.
— Always ask, “why are we doing this?” In a culture of immense academic stress, it is easy to forget why one would take the time to play an instrument instead of study. I recommend the integration of a program like StoryCorps into the musical curriculum. The art of storytelling allows students to remember why they started playing music in the first place, ultimately reigniting their love for the art. Story-focused programming may be used to recruit incoming first-years to college ensembles, as well as to advocate for music education at local, state, and even federal levels.

An Ode to Pride Month

I used to hate talking about my major. Like many of my peers, I’ve learned to expect unpleasant responses when I say that I study music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m going to end up living under a bridge with my trombone, that there’s no money in music, and that I’d be better off pursuing a degree in medicine or law. With time and patience, I’ve learned to smile and nod my way through these conversations. But sometimes, there’s a follow-up question that still makes my stomach churn: “Where do you go to school?”

This dread isn’t due to a lack of pride in my institution. I’ve adored Smith College since the moment I set foot on its campus, and its music department has come to be my second family. However, there’s a major drawback to attending this elite women’s college: I’m a transgender male. That means I was born biologically female, but I view and present myself as a male, and I am most comfortable using he/him pronouns. With the help of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and surgery, I’ve finally attained the deep voice and masculine physique that make my body feel like my home. While physically transitioning has brought me endless joy, it has also presented substantial difficulty in my college career. Unless I lie and say that I attend a neighboring co-ed institution (or that I’m an engineering major), innocent questions like “what/where do you study?” often “out” me as a musician and as a transgender person. I’ve spoken with a few people who can’t decide which is worse.

The countless times I’ve been forced to defend the validity of both my major and my gender have caused me to look more closely at the relationship between these two identities. Through meaningful discourse with other LGBTQ+ musicians, introspection on my own identity, and poring over endless pages of queer theory, I’ve come to realize that matters of music, gender, and sexuality are deeply intertwined in queer lives. My narrative is shared by countless other transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) artists. We grow up in despair, feeling trapped in bodies that do not feel comfortable and lacking the vocabulary to explain why. In the chaos of dysphoria and self-discovery, our instruments end up being our most faithful companions.

I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.

Music is so crucial to trans/GNC people because it facilitates the creation of queer space. In lieu of a crash-course in queer theory, I’ll offer a definition of “queer space” as a space which is created and defined by the presence, expression, and/or empowerment of LGBTQ+ people. (Defining the word “queer” itself is a complicated process, as the term has a complicated history of discrimination and reclamation. For our purposes, I’ll use a definition of “queer” employed in many modern social and academic contexts: “not fitting cultural norms of sexuality and/or gender identity.”) Dedicated spaces like these are hard to come by, and are often inaccessible to those who haven’t come out yet. Playing music, however, gives trans/GNC individuals a valuable opportunity to be unapologetically loud and expressive in a cisnormative world which often tries to silence them. Maintaining an outlet to visibly express oneself without fear of violence or discrimination is crucial to the well-being of any person, but especially so for trans/GNC folks. For many of us, music is our only opportunity to feel empowered without feeling afraid. As we play, we fill the hall around us with our musical interpretations and emotions. Our music is a radical act: a consistent cultivator of precious queer space.

Music also does the crucial work of creating supportive communities for trans/GNC people. For many young people, joining a school band or choir is often an important step in forming a sense of belonging and group identity. In addition to offering a brief solace from the trials of adolescence, these musical opportunities foster collaborative relationships. This is a critical opportunity for trans/GNC youth, who often feel isolated from their cisgender peers and are overwhelmingly depressed as a result. I shudder to think where I might be without the support of my high school bandmates and directors. As I grappled with the confusion and discomfort of figuring out who I really was, music gave me the structure, stability, and support that I needed to survive. Most importantly, when I was questioning whether life was even worth this troubling business of self-discovery, music gave me a sense of purpose. I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band: a role that gave me an identity and a motivation to get out of bed every morning. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.

This reflection on the importance of music in my queer life comes at an appropriate time. June is Pride Month: a time dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots. As I celebrate both my musical and queer identities, I also mourn the fact that not all trans/GNC youth have access to supportive artistic communities like I did. It pains me to think of how many young people are forced to hide their authentic selves without any opportunity for relief. With limited resources for healthcare, education, or emotional support in a tumultuous political climate, trans/GNC students are feeling increasingly unsafe and unwelcome in their schools and the country at large. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the artistic programs which serve trans/GNC youth remain intact. Music presents a unique opportunity for community building and self-expression that can be life-changing for a transgender child. Its accessibility could prove invaluable for trans/GNC students’ continued success, comfort, and even survival. This Pride Month is not just a celebration: it is a call to action.

The Art of Play

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

“How can I make the act of creating new art feel less like work and more like PLAY?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot—with my students, with my collaborators, to myself. It’s a question that I return to when I feel stuck—creatively and productively – as an artist and a teacher. My investigations into this question have often been noisy, lopsided, awkward, occasionally flatulent, and—on the whole—a source of profound joy.

I’m excited to be able to share with you a few ways I’ve tackled this question, and I’ve offered a few (incredibly specific) questions of my own, in the hopes of learning more about how YOU use play in your life, work, and art.

Making things BY myself, FOR myself.

It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. Why not just make something you feel like making?

Back in high school, I learned how to make music in broad, crude, strokes, by recording myself playing instruments, making strange sounds, and layering them together in ways I found interesting. Over time, for whatever reason, it settled in my head that composing was supposed to be a different kind of activity—quiet, thoughtful, cerebral, methodical. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be quite different—a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. In rediscovering this process, I recalled the importance of simply making things that seemed interesting, whether they would be shared with people or not. These sketches could be non-musical, too—a video of funny faces, a painting of Hank Williams, a cube made out of mirrors. Why not just make something you feel like making?

What would you try doing, out of sheer curiosity, if you knew nobody needed to see/hear it?

Making things WITH people.

Sometimes, in moments of creative weakness, I get fixated on the idea that a “score” is not only a necessary means of making music, but a very specific type of means, like a blueprint. But a score can be so many other things, right? A puzzle. A Choose Your Own Adventure book. A cake recipe. An invitation to a costume party. A map without a key. A random sequence of numbers. A series of hand gestures. A water balloon fight. A matchbook. A clock. While going off in shamelessly speculative directions as to what a score could be, it occurred to me that a score is not really the interesting thing about making art, however; it’s people. So perhaps, I thought, making music directly, with people, all together, might lead my collaborators and I to creative terrain that the interface of a score couldn’t—a kind of creative space where everyone was collectively testing, discovering, and building new ideas together.

This led me to my current obsession—using games as a way to create new pieces. I’d been employing simple theater and music skill-building games in my elementary school classroom—after all, who doesn’t like to play games?—but had never tried using this strategy to create things with adults. I found that by setting up simple rules and interactions between people, my collaborators and I could develop interesting, surprising, and often quite beautiful relationships and ideas. Not only could these games be used to make works that combine media (sound, acting, movement, visuals)—they could be used to make work with just about anyone, from professional musicians to a classroom of kids. How cool is that? I’m in love with the idea that people of vastly different levels of experience could create something together through the simple act of playing a game.

How could you create a piece WITH people, as a group, without needing to write anything down?
What are some “games” that you play regularly in your work? In your process? In your life?
Could somebody else play these games with you?
Could somebody else use ideas from your “playbook” to make something of their own?

Making things FOR people.

Oh—a score can also be a gift box!

Wanting to make something with people who live far away presents a compelling challenge. I got excited about the idea of incorporating distance into the process of such collaborations by making pieces that were simply boxes filled with stuff. A box could contain anything—instructions, written music, cryptic symbols, magazine clippings, bubble wrap, knick-knacks, etc. A box could be like a little ecosystem, or a junk drawer, following any sort of logic or non-logic. A box could contain surprises, traps, secrets. The idea was that a person receiving a box could make a composition of their own from the contents within, and maybe even send me a box in return so I could do the same. (Some wonderful folks have done this.) But what if the box gets lost in the mail? What if the recipient hates everything in the box? What if the recipient chooses to ignore it, or forgets to open it? I had to accept all of these as possible outcomes, and it led me to think about the idea differently—as a gift, a gesture of love, goodwill, appreciation for someone, from me to them, in the form of art.

Clay box examples

Some sample boxes Clay has created. What would you put in yours?

If you made an art gift for someone, what would that look like?
(For a family member? For a colleague? For a stranger? For anyone and everyone?)

Making things WITH KIDS.

Getting a job teaching elementary school music has profoundly changed how I make things. When I started teaching, I immediately asked the question: how can I make projects collaboratively with these kids and give them the tools to make new art of their own? The complex array of challenges that such a question presents, I think, is what got me thinking about play in the first place.

A class of third graders listened to nine notes by Beethoven and drew what they thought it looked like. These drawings were interpreted by a professional string quartet.

Every year, I ask my students to make their own “note”—a recorded sound with their voice and a corresponding image to represent that sound.

What could you make with a classroom of 8-year-olds as your collaborators?

Asking questions with lots of answers.

Among many things, working with children got me thinking about “the art of the art assignment” (a title I am stealing from a book that I’d highly recommend). How could a simple prompt—a question, a task, a challenge—serve as a springboard for creativity? Presenting such questions to people, and collecting answers—in the form of sound, video, words, thoughts—has always been inspiring to me, and I take tremendous joy in sandboxing with the material folks are kind enough to send my way. This culminated most recently in me mailing a sound “workbook” to volunteers from all over the country, containing twenty simple exercises that could be interpreted on any instrument. Some examples:

Exercise No. 1—Say hello. Sing hello.
Exercise No. 6—Devise a situation in which your instrument unintentionally/accidentally makes sound.
Exercise No. 9—Describe “home” in three sounds.
Exercise No. 16—Write down a secret you’ve never told anyone – match the syllables to notes on your instrument; perform. (Destroy copy; save recording.)
Exercise No. 20—“The sound of ___.”

I was overwhelmed by the creativity and beauty of the responses and am slowly (oh, so slowly) building little collages out of my colleagues’ responses to each exercise.

What are some challenges / tasks / questions that might inspire you to collect things?
If you designed an art scavenger hunt for people, what would it look like?
If people designed an art scavenger hunt for you, what might THAT look like?
What could you do with the things you collect?

Ok, enough about me. How do YOU find ways to play in your creative practice?

Building Curriculum Diversity: Technique, History, and Performance

I believe in the power of music as an art form to create a space for people to communally experience empathy. Classical music is a field that historically began in Europe, but I find it vital to think about the future of classical music. How do we serve our communities? How do we serve our art form? Commuting in New York City, I see the global community in a single subway car. How does classical music reflect, include, and give voice to all of these life experiences?

Violinist Jennifer Koh speaks with great clarity. She and I are sitting in her living room, the faint sound of traffic a gentle reminder of the city. We’ve been talking about commissioning and programming as advocacy for diversity over the past several days, and I’ve been bouncing some ideas off of her for this series. I’m nervous—as I always am before my writing is published—and her encouragement to speak about these issues is centering. She continues:

It is our responsibility as artists to advocate for artists and composers who happen to be women or people of color. I feel that we as artists and as an industry need to model and advocate for our entire community. And frankly, diversifying programming is the only way that classical music will survive. If our programming does not reflect the diversity of our society, then we are not serving our community and by extension, we are actively making ourselves irrelevant to society.

Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh

In this series on curriculum diversity, I’ve discussed how stereotype threat impedes performance, and suggested that students need role models and precedents to fight that threat. I interviewed various scholars, performers, and educators to show examples of people who are creating resources to help build curriculum diversity. As stated in the previous posts, many of these scholars noted that in order to make curriculum relevant to our students and our communities, we need to not only help them find role models, but also give them permission to achieve. In this final installment of the series on building curriculum diversity, I focus on how the inclusion of achievements by musicians that reflect the students’ racial and gender diversity empowers this younger generation of musicians to have permission to be successful.

By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson is another performer who has used both her scholarship and her decisions about programming to advocate for diversity. Her doctoral dissertation is an examination of the collaboration between composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes within the greater context of the New Negro Movement (here is a wonderful article Jackson wrote for NewMusicBox earlier this year, and she is looking forward to expanding her research to include a biography of Bonds). Jackson noted of her scholarship on black composers that it was important to “tell their stories in the same way, with the same honor.” As a performer, Jackson advocates for diversity both by programming her own concerts and by working to build a community of musical activists. Her latest performance project, Electric Lady, is a series devoted to works by female composers. In addition, she is the deputy director of The Dream Unfinished, a collective of classical musicians whose concerts promote civil rights and community organizations based in New York. By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

The experience of concerts celebrating diversity is a topic close to Jackson’s heart. In our interview, she described the first time she went to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra when she was a little girl. Ann Hobson Pilot, the first black woman hired by the BSO, was playing harp. Jackson said, “When you see role models that look like you, that leaves a strong impression. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of that experience, but in retrospect I realize it was a brilliant move on my parents’ part. That inspiration goes a long way—not just seeing someone do it, but seeing them succeed at such a high level.”

One electronic musician who has both inspired and paved the way for younger generations is Wendy Carlos. Carlos is perhaps most famous for her 1968 work Switched-On Bach, a reimagining of Bach’s work on Moog synthesizer that won three Grammys (and will be the subject of an upcoming book in the Bloomsbury 33 ⅓ series by Roshanak Kheshti). On her website, Carlos says of the work, “I began my young experience as a composer realizing that what I had to offer [electronic music] was generally hated. But I thought that if I offered people a little bit of traditional music, and they could clearly hear the melody, harmony, rhythm and all the older values, they’d finally see that this was really a pretty neat new medium, and would then be less antipathetic to my more adventurous efforts.” Even if you’ve never heard of Carlos, you’ve probably heard some of her “more adventurous efforts” in music for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or her scores for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or the 1982 Disney film Tron. Her example and her success show that audiences were ready for new sounds and new ways of presenting music, and her unique perspective allowed for an entire generation of listeners to become enthralled with contemporary music made by the latest technology through her film scores and records.

In addition to programming, another way performers can share the knowledge of their craft is by creating technique books or videos. This not only highlights their presence on stage as individuals, but shows how they are experts. Sound artist and abstract turntablist Maria Chavez’s wonderful book Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable explains different techniques that Chavez has developed through her career as a performer. What I love about Chavez’s music is that she takes found objects from the environment and finds their beauty through focused listening and attention in her sets. The records Chavez uses are mostly found damaged and would otherwise have been discarded. Taking these objects and turning them into a vital part of avant-garde DJing is what makes Chavez’s music so unique. Giving the objects a new voice points to the idea that forgotten or discarded peoples can be empowered to have a voice through advocacy.

Maria Chavez

Maria Chavez

When I asked Chavez why is it important to include women and people of color in curriculums or histories of electronic music, and why it is important that those contributions are visible, she responded:

I don’t think it’s necessarily important to have them in curriculum, I think it’s simply short sighted to ignore the fact that works by different humans EXIST. . . . We are past the time when European cultures were questioning whether the indigenous people had souls or if African slaves should be considered people. To be in a part of history where it’s clear how asinine these kinds of questions truly are, I think asking the question of importance should be redefined as a question of why the original history was allowed to be discussed without including the works of others in the first place. To say something is important, in regards to this question, is to still say the works are unique to the history. I disagree, the works were always there, they just weren’t given the focus as the other works were given. When works are presented equally then the beauty of the true history of electronic music can really shine for what it really is.

Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.

One author who has helped refocus history to highlight forgotten composers through her recent work is Anna Beer. Beer teaches creative writing at the University of Oxford. While she is not a musician by trade, she studied music until she was 18, and she has continued to listen to and research music as a part of her life. As she was doing research about Francesca Caccini, she realized women composers were rarely represented in concert halls. Beer said, “Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.” She decided that she wanted to write something that gave a voice to women who had been silenced in the past. Her advocacy became her recent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. The book details the lives of composers such as Barbara Strozzi and Lili Boulanger. Beer said that her favorite piece that she discovered out of the research was Fanny Hensel’s Das Jahr, which Beer called an “amazing, rich, astonishing work.”

While Sounds and Sweet Airs began as a standalone project, it has turned into lecture appearances and other engagements. Beer said that it has felt important to do concert lectures alongside live performance because it meant talking directly to people. She continued, “Music has to live; it needs a platform and it has to be voiced—that is the most important task. One lieder or anything small that is programmed and heard increases momentum. It helps it live.” Beer reiterated the importance of “giving permission to the next generation to validate their curiosity. It’s not just about having role models but actively giving them permission. It enables people.”

We need to show students the achievements of all people in music. To do that, we must build greater gender and racial diversity into curriculums and concert programs so that students may see themselves in history. By taking concrete action to provide this context of both living role models and historical precedent, students can be empowered to go on to achieve in any area they are interested in. Perhaps, they will even become the positive role models they needed when they were younger.

Musicians at Work: Ensemble Residencies as Social Relationships

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.
—Will Robin

Over the last few decades, many American schools of music have embraced the repertoire and missions of new music ensembles. DePauw, Oberlin, Eastman, Mills College, and even Indiana’s Jacob’s School of Music have opened their doors to the new generation of composers and performers creating new music today. While this is hardly news to the readership of NewMusicBox, it marks a significant change in attitude among American higher education institutions. Take, for example, musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment from 1989 that “both popular and postmodern musics are marked as the enemy, and there is still considerable effort exerted to keep them out of the regular curriculum.” Nine years later, Robert Fink summarized his take on the influence of classical music’s institutions thusly: “For the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music.” Fink was writing about groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their proclivity for performing outside the hallowed spaces of leading institutions.

In contrast to these dour proclamations, today’s schools of music increasingly view new music as a vital and attractive addition to their education mission. A manifestation of this shift is the ensemble residency. Academies across the country routinely hire musicians to teach students both the art and business of professional new music-making. Last year, I had the opportunity to explore the interaction between ensembles and institutions. I spent time with three groups at different schools: Third Coast Percussion at the University of Chicago, the Playground Ensemble at Metropolitan State University Denver, and Eighth Blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music.[1]

I begin with a scene from my fieldwork in Chicago with Third Coast Percussion:

It’s 5:25 p.m. and Third Coast Percussion is running through their music. The quartet has spent most of the day here, in their studio space on Rockwell Avenue in Chicago, collaborating with composer Jonathan Pfeffer. The composer prefers to write music for people he knows well, and he spent the last two days experimenting with the group and discussing how the piece might work. Pfeffer left a few hours ago, and the quartet has since moved on to music for an upcoming concert. A brief pause occurs after they finish the piece, the members gathering their thoughts.

“We kind of settled into a tempo, and I think we should just roll with that” says Peter Martin. David Skidmore observes that the crescendo at measure thirty could grow louder. They discuss the dynamics and phrasing for a few minutes, but at some point, without my realizing it, the conversation drifts to the old Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television. This type of break is not uncommon for these good-humored performers, but it lasts only a few minutes.

“We should, like, take a day off,” David says.

“Like in 2017?” replies Robert Dillon, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face.

The joke is funny, but rings true. The past week had been especially busy, with residency activities at the University of Chicago, a rehearsal with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and collaborative project with Pfeffer. Besides late night meals and occasional rehearsal jokes, the four percussionists have gone without a break for about nine days, often working long hours and hauling equipment from one locale to another. Phones are always close at hand as members check the progress on upcoming projects, contracts, and gig schedules. After laughing off Rob’s joke, they run the piece again, this time with the lights out as they’ll perform it.

I describe this scene in detail because it is typical to a work routine found among Third Coast Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and the Playground Ensemble. Long days of work followed by rehearsals for quickly approaching gigs was common to all three ensembles. Performers often strove for a high level of musicianship that requires focused attention and lengthy rehearsals of difficult music. Humor was used frequently to lighten the mood, but nothing could stop the relentless approach of deadlines.

When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

These musicians are, to invoke the buzzword of our time, “entrepreneurs.”[2] They “create success” for themselves, an approach touted by arts consultant Astrid Baumgartner. They innovate, collaborate, and embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the “growth mindset.” Obstacles are transformed into creative guidelines, and programs created to attract audiences with enticing themes. Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird work together.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird worked together in the summer on creating a special touring show for the upcoming season. From left to right: Third Coast Managing Director Liz Pesnel, percussionist David Skidmore, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall, and production manager Rachel Damon.

And work is constant in a small flexible ensemble. During my fieldwork with these three groups, I saw people working at all hours of the day, often leaving one site to report to another. Even breaks could be filled with work: phone calls to arrange the details of an upcoming gig, meetings with collaborators or students, or attending the premier of a friend’s piece. In one case, I sat down with two musicians for a casual lunch and they started discussing an approaching show, prompting one musician to quip, “Sorry to make this a work lunch!” The flexible nature of these ensembles, a seeming hallmark of the new music scene today, requires constant attention to the dozen or so obligations that, like plates spinning on poles, are poised to fall without warning. A grant application is due. Did you send me that budget? Can you help set up chairs for a second? I need to practice that one part. We have a concert and need some spoken notes. Could you prepare something?

Within the residency, tailoring is the working method of the flexible ensemble. Like consultants in the business world, these musical entrepreneurs maintain an influential if somewhat ambiguous relationship with host institutions (Sennett, 2006). At each residency, musicians designed projects (concerts, presentations, and teaching activities) that were somehow tailored to the needs of the institution and the abilities of the ensemble. Work included a variety of teaching and performing activities, as dictated by the nature of the institution and the contract for the residency. This tailoring required regular communication between ensembles and institutions, a somewhat challenging prospect depending on the number of people involved on each side of the consultant relationship. Furthermore, an ensemble’s impact upon an institution was confined by the temporary nature of the residency itself. None of these musicians were actually full-time faculty members, and their ability to shape institutional policy and goals remained limited by their transience. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that ensembles have a strong and infectiously positive impact upon an institution’s students.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital.

For all three groups, residencies are a major part of professional life and economic livelihood. The two touring ensembles—Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird—rely heavily on residencies for their income. Residency activities such as teaching and master classes are often important offerings used to secure gigs within the network of music institutions. Such work varies greatly in length, ranging from a few hours of teaching, lecturing, or coaching all the way to weeks of activities spread out throughout the year (or years, as in the case of Eighth Blackbird’s Curtis residency). For the Playground Ensemble, a single residency provides limited financial support, but gives the group access to percussion equipment, rehearsal space, and performance venues.

Cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

During an open reading session for student compositions, cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital. The currency of artists for some time, symbolic capital takes the form of prestige and reputation. It is, in essence, the value of your name. Ensembles leverage relationships, prizes, grants, and endorsements from critics and other influential taste-makers to secure future work. The prestige ascribed to a given institution serves as a sort of sociomusical business card in conversations with insiders and outsiders, as Third Coast Percussion member Robert Dillon told me of their Notre Dame residency:

There’s nothing better than being able to go somewhere and say that you’re tied to this larger reputable institution. For people who know nothing [about new music], if we walk in someplace and say we have ensemble residency at the University of Notre Dame, it’s like, “Wow, you guys must be great!” And if you’re talking to presenters or managers, then they know the person who runs the [DeBartolo] Performing Arts Center [at Notre Dame], and so that’s even better.

Members of all three ensembles described a similar view of residencies. The prestige and respect perceived to be held by the institution was, in effect, transferred to the ensemble and provided evidence of the ensembles’ legitimacy and respectability (see further Kingsbury, 1988 and Cottrell, 2004).

Like other aspects of flexible artistic labor life, residencies are developed through and contribute to social relationships. They allow ensembles to foster new contacts and project ideas. During fieldwork, I witnessed plans for future projects flourish in institutional spaces. Students told me about the important lessons they had learned from musicians, and teachers and administrators hailed residencies as part of a broader shift in institutional culture. This was especially true at Curtis, where composition faculty and director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble David Ludwig had spearheaded a broader shift in curriculum. In an interview with me, Ludwig described a new emphasis on teaching Curtis students:

how to be self-motivated, how to have artistic intellectual curiosity and apply that to being in the community and to engaging people. It shows a very different way of thinking […] because the school wouldn’t have even thought of that pre-internet, pre ideas of engagement.

Within this context, Eighth Blackbird figured in many ways as a model for the socio-musical entrepreneurs Curtis now seeks to create. Along similar lines, Prof. Peter Schimpf, Chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, described his vision: “I want Metro to be sort of a hub [of musical activity].” Playground, for Schimpf, offered a new music spoke, as it were, on this hub of musical offerings.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, and former member Tim Munro.

At all three institutions, ensemble members became, to varying extents, part of the educational life and community of the institution, carving out nooks and crannies, as it were, for themselves and for interaction between themselves and students. These types of social relationships were viewed by all as highly valuable when considering the overall value of the residency. The residencies thus reified these relationships into contracted work.

For over thirty years now, musicians, arts workers, and presenters have been building a vibrant scene of musical activity that provides much needed reform to classical music and an alternative to the stodgy programming common within classical music. Creating this scene requires constant energy, constant work, and constant maintenance of social relationships. Projects and programs must be tailored to unique needs, tweaked after they start, and thrown out when they falter. Though rarely examined in the popular press, residencies are an important site in the production of the new music culture so many of us love.

John Pippen

John Pippen

John Pippen teaches courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and music and culture at the College of Wooster. His primary research has been an extended ethnographic study of the new music scene in Chicago. Pippen has presented his research at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and College Music Society, among others.

1. For this publication, I have omitted specific details because of the sensitive nature of musicians’ networks. An important issue that remains to be fully explored in the academic literature, musicians often prefer to keep the details of gigs (fees, contracts, struggles) out of public view.

2. Many in new music are wary of this term, as am I. I have spoken to musicians of varying stature who express sincere doubts about the accuracy of the way Baumgartner and others use “entrepreneur.” Others are hesitant to invoke a term they view as connected with neoliberalism (a view I share).

Power of the Project-Based Life

jenga playing

Photo by Claus Rebler, courtesy of Flickr

As a faculty member at Seattle Pacific University, conversations with music students around “What am I going to do with my life?” come up almost daily. The anxiety over which direction to go resonates deeply (as I imagine it does for most creatives) and, in an attempt to console while acknowledging the value of regularly asking this question, I find myself saying such pithy lines as:

“Artists should constantly ask themselves why they do what they do.”


“If you aren’t seriously asking yourself why you are doing this at least once a year, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

While intended optimistically, these aphorisms strike a relatively cynical tone compared to my actual intentions and beliefs.

After years of these conversations, however, I have a few observations. Our mainstream American ideas around work and success are a bit misguided and are reflected in the silent (and not so silent) messaging of the university and conservatory systems themselves. While the ivory tower in many cases really is the bastion of independent thought, critical thinking, and fearless experimentation that we want to believe it is, from the perspective of a parent’s bank account its goals need to be much more pragmatic.

As higher education is slowly responding by retooling programs to address the much-needed vocational skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century, we are also going to need to rethink our philosophies around how we conceive of our careers and our methods of making money.

Young musicians in particular are overtly encouraged to follow their “passion” but cautioned that they must realize that they will probably starve along the way. Maybe they should consider that business degree so that they can have a desk job to cover expenses and then keep music as a hobby. Or perhaps they should go into education because it’s just too hard to compose or be a performer—as if choosing one path would negate the other.

This way of thinking creates a duality mindset implying that our creative calling into the arts is at odds with the realities of making a living and so we are encouraged to choose one (I can be either a teacher or a performer, I can be a composer or in arts leadership). I think that the fundamental problem here is that these ideas all stem back to a flawed concept of work and success. Somewhere, deep down, we as a people idolize the idea of the single paycheck and the lifetime job. It goes something like this:

Step 1—Get into a good college, pick a track, and pop out the other side with skills and credentials.
Step 2—Get a job that will support your lifestyle and become your identity/source of your life’s purpose.
Step 3—Retire happy at 65 with full pension and healthcare, closing the book on your life’s work and a job well done.

The problem, of course, is that this is overly simplistic and, honestly, not really how it works for most people. Yet our capitalist system encourages this mentality and our universities are becoming increasingly more vocationally focused to meet the demand for increased value for dollars spent. This builds tremendous pressure to “go get that job” and to demonstrate your success as a musician with big commissions or a single W2 (teachers/orchestra musicians), or—maybe easier—with fame. This sets up a system, however, that is really hard to thrive in when the 21st century is so far trending in the opposite direction. As someone who spent years on the audition trail, I came to realize that the landscape really wasn’t what I had thought and that I had so much more in me to give.

Vocation and Career might not have to be identical

Typically we all view vocation and career as virtually the same thing and both words are usually used in the context of describing how we bring home the bacon. We often use the words vocational training and career development interchangeably and confusingly talk about our vocational careers, that in some contexts describes a way of making money that is within our chosen discipline.

This is admittedly a slippery slope, but I think that there can be great value for 21st-century musicians in reframing the differences between vocation, career, and our perceived relationships to money.

If our careers are defined as our overall work in a chosen discipline or disciplines, then think of vocation as the big picture vision of who we are and our overall vision (or purpose, or calling) for our lives. Vocation becomes a larger, more holistic view that includes both the work of our careers and the whole of who we are. This includes what we do for money, what we do with our off hours, who we choose to connect with, who we love, and how we choose to spend our time in music. For example, I would describe my vocation as growing to become the best human I can and to help make the world a better place by advancing the cause of music and art. A lofty mission statement such as this is very broad and many diverse careers could support and uplift the values of this vision.

In contrast to vocation, try thinking of career as the sum of our daily practices and the thousands of individual projects we create along the way. These projects could be as simple as putting on a concert or building a teaching studio or as elaborate as building a business or working for a tech corporation for thirty years. With this definition, our careers can even involve the noble blood and sweat of our daily routines and struggles. Steven Pressfield, in his beautiful book The War of Art, describes the daily battle with our own resistance as key to our professional careers. And thankfully, some of our projects are even monetized. But it is important to realize that our projects do not need to bring in money to be considered as part of our careers. Our careers are ultimately built up from what we do on a daily basis and our careers fit into the bigger picture of our vocations.

Not creating a clear distinction between vocation and career can lead us to conflate what we do with who we are, often with the even more damaging conclusion that how we make money defines who we are. We carry with us the embedded message that our “vocational skills” and “entrepreneurial training” are here to help us succeed in our careers and in our lives.  However, it is so crucial to remember that we are more than what we do to earn a paycheck.

A great deal of liberation is possible when we view vocation as our big-picture vision, purpose, or calling, letting go of career and money’s tendency to dominate.  In the big picture, I am a musician, a teacher, a friend, a husband, a father, a son, a neighbor. I cook, eat, drink, travel, love, go to concerts, and make music. I cry, whine, laugh, joke, and play. Oh…and yes, I do make a bit of money in there, too.

Meanwhile, my vehicle for making the moolah is constantly changing. Even with the cushy academic job (project), I have countless 1099s, W2s, and hand-written checks to process. Artistically, I get my fix from a diverse range of projects from playing with the symphony downtown to recording a flamenco record, composing for my new music ensemble, or running a non-profit. No doubt all of these activities add to my career as a musician but not all of these bring in money—in fact, often times, they cost me money. The money factor is simply unrelated. Sometimes it is connected to what I do, but it does not define my career. Someday, I might adapt my career and may go get a desk job or open that restaurant. I used to think this meant that I was falling short of success, but now I just don’t believe it. No doubt if the way I make money changes, I will still be generating a plethora of projects to advance my cause of music and art. My career is just bigger than how I make money. It is built upon a series of projects, sometimes one-week long, sometimes spanning years. By linking these projects in interconnecting circles we can build toward a brilliant career. Look at Charles Ives and J.S. Bach… those two understood this concept of career and vocation.

Thinking of our work this way helps with the frantic urgency we feel around publicly proving ourselves by supporting ourselves financially with our chosen profession. We struggle daily between the concepts of patience and urgency—and I would argue that we have it backwards most of the time. We want to rush into our success with our fancy new entrepreneurial skills and spend much time and energy nurturing the idea of our rigid career tracks. Yet, because of our anxiety over career, money, and demonstrable success, the real work of actually pursuing the creation of our art is often done with a lackadaisical, distant, or fearful approach. By reframing the scenario around a project-based life, we can now approach each day, and the challenge of one particular project, with urgency and fervor. And what we do with our present day ultimately becomes our life in music. This way we can find the patience with our careers and earn the peace of mind that comes with fully and intentionally engaging in today’s work.

Maybe it is strange, but I think that satisfaction in our crazy profession comes down to deeply embracing the concept of a project-based life. What would it look like if we all changed the way we view our careers? What would music schools look like if we changed the way we message vocation? I plan to work and to create until the day I die, and honestly, my project list is longer than anyone could complete in three lifetimes. I dream of being able to quit my higher paying projects so that I can work harder at others. I believe that the quicker we can all lose the idealized fantasy of American success the better. If, instead, we fully embrace the ideas and the flexible glamour of the project-based life, the question of “what am I going to do with my life” moves from some imaginary point in the future to “what am I going to do with today.”


Brian Chin is the founder and artistic director of Common Tone Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring positive change for our diverse world through arts education and music. As an international trumpet soloist with the Yamaha Corporation and advocate for new music, Brian has commissioned and premiered many works for trumpet and is the creator of the Universal Language Project, a concert series creating new music and multi-arts programs. Brian is also an executive leader with the UNITY Arts Alliance, a national collective of non-profit organizations dedicated to social justice and to demonstrating an alternative model for working artists. His two solo recordings, Universal Language and Eventide are available on Origin Classical.

What I Didn’t Learn in Music School



If you’re earning a comfortable wage and living a happy life doing Exactly What You Thought You’d Do With Your Degree(s), I applaud you. Sincerely! I am among the many people in the music world who are not, but I couldn’t be happier with where I landed.

A brief history: I went to school for flute performance and, along the way, I learned a lot. Music history, how to maintain sanity after being in a confined, solitary room for hours on end, music theory, flute repertoire, patience (see “practice room”), a little jazz improv, pedagogy, large and small ensemble playing, and many other things that are specific to the field of music performance. Mission accomplished, right? Sort of. In the first year out of my master’s degree, my desire to win a full time orchestral flute job (What I Thought I’d Do) was diminishing at a rate that didn’t align with my increasing desire to lead a more diverse career and lifestyle.

So, what next? First, I’ll share a few things I wish I’d learned in school: marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking. I’m delighted that some institutions are extremely forward thinking in training what I’ll call the “Whole Musician.” Exhibit A: Paul Taub at Cornish College of the Arts teaches a career development class to junior and senior music majors which covers representation and promotion, fundraising, music business, recording, and graduate school applications. Exhibit B: Brian Chin at Seattle Pacific University leads a quarterly series for all music majors called “Futures in Music: A lecture series providing vocational exploration through engagement with renowned artists.” Last week, students heard from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw and Cameron Beauchamp. Up next will be New Music USA’s Kevin Clark, and later this year Seattle recording emperor David Sabee.

Awesome, right? I bet all former music majors out there are thinking, “I wish I had a class like that!” If you’re still in school and there isn’t such a course but you have some extra credits to fill, consider exploring the communications course listings. Volunteer or apply for internships. Looking for some extra cash? See if the recording engineer at your school is hiring student techs. Seek out an expert in one of these areas and ask to shadow them, or to have a coffee and ask them some questions. Most professionals will be willing and there’s nothing to lose by asking.

These seem like such obvious ideas to me in hindsight, but in the trenches of playing in at least one too many ensembles, practice time, class, papers, group projects, and more practicing, it was hard to stomach the thought of adding something else. If you’re like me and didn’t seek the aforementioned opportunities, you are not imminently doomed. I can offer some coping mechanisms and philosophies:

  • A creative and open mind is crucial to exploring career paths
  • Proactively continuing your education is strongly advisable (whether through formal courses or informal mentorships)
  • Timing and luck do account for some success

Those principles led to my current job as assistant program director at Classical KING FM where I co-founded Second Inversion and currently manage all it’s content and platforms. It’s a project dedicated to rethinking classical music through a 24/7 audio stream, blog, Seattle event calendar, and collection of music videos filmed in our studios and eclectic venues around town. After a year of four young KING FM staffers brainstorming, sketching logo designs, making contacts, and building the website and stream, it launched in 2014 out of our general manager and program director’s desire to reach a younger, more diverse audience for classical music.

Entrepreneurship and advocacy—two buzz words from a session at the 2016 New Music Gathering called “The ‘How to Be’ of Being a New Music Musician”—are foundational to Second Inversion, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot ever since. While many agreed that the E word can have a bit of toxicity attached to it in the music world, Claire Chase reminded us of entrepreneur’s Sanskrit meaning: inspiration from within. On advocacy, Claire went on to say, “It’s doing something for oneself and the community in the same in breath and out breath.” NANOWorks Opera co-founder Kendall A. added, “Advocacy is the rising tide that lifts all ships.”

Second Inversion began as a grassroots, entrepreneurial project and has grown into a thriving, active community joined together by and advocating for the common interest of new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. I didn’t learn about these things in formal ways in music school, but rather through trial and error (entrepreneurship) and relentless passion (advocacy). For new music to thrive, we need composers, performers, recording engineers, promoters, audience, donors, and advocates. We’re all in this together and none of us could do our work—whether it’s Exactly What You Thought You’d Do or not—without each other.

Maggie Stapleton

Maggie Stapleton is the assistant program director at Classical KING FM and manager of all programming and platforms for Second Inversion. As an active flutist, Maggie plays regularly with the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.


New Music for Learning

music and learning

Tools of the Trade. Photograph by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Poetry. Physics. Sculpture. Politics. Economics. Television. Botany. Weather. Through music in its myriad forms, composers have illuminated ideas drawn from these topics and countless others. In such works, listeners are provided with emotionally impactful learning experiences that may live in their memories long afterwards. And, by interpreting music through ideas, listeners may even have experiences of this music that are more enriching, rewarding, and personally meaningful than they would have without extramusical context to engage with.

In my four-part series of articles, I’ll be exploring some of the possibilities for creating new music as a catalyst for learning. I’ll seek to demonstrate why the connections between music and learning shouldn’t only be a topic of interest for scientists or educators, but something that composers, performers, and presenters should acknowledge and, in some cases, actively apply to their work.

To begin, some overarching premises and principles regarding new music for learning:

Emotion, Learning, and Music: Cognitive Reality, Creative Imperative

Emotion and learning are intimately and integrally connected. Cognitive scientists have defined “learning” as the process of committing new information to long-term memory (see Mayer’s Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning). According to the research of Gordon H. Bower, among others, emotions can help us to create and reinforce long-term memories as well as aid in recollection. Schema theory (developed by Bartlett, Minsky, and Rumelhart) describes how these long-term memories constitute our individual and collective knowledge, conceptual understanding of the world, and the very formation of our identities and perception of what is meaningful or relevant to us.

Music can evoke strong emotions and create indelible impressions, which are closely attached to the context of music’s hearing. Anyone who enjoys film, TV shows, or opera, for example, intuitively knows that music can cause one to make strong emotional connections to narratives, characters, and places, or form powerful associations with concepts and ideas.

The importance of emotion in learning, and music’s emotional impact, are two of the key reasons why I think that music has enormous potential—a potential that, I would argue, hasn’t yet been fully investigated by musicians—to facilitate and catalyze learning experiences. (I refer here to “learning” in the broadest sense, not restricted to academic education.)

I propose an approach to creating new music for learning, which is distinct from the established strategies for integrating existing repertoire and concepts from music into conventional forms of education. Certainly, much work has been done within music education itself to explore the manifold benefits of music making for learning and many aspects of personal development (e.g., the inspirational achievements of El Sistema). There is also a strategy in humanities teaching of bringing historical music into interdisciplinary curricula to provide deeper context to historical and cultural study (e.g., listening to an excerpt from Der Freischütz as part of a curriculum on Romanticism). Then there is, of course, the traditional function of song as a mnemonic device (“The Alphabet Song”), or even the use of acoustical phenomena as a tool for conceptual understanding in math or physics (my personal favorite example: the 1959 Disney film Donald in Mathmagic Land). Not to mention the centuries of music created for spiritual education within worship contexts.

While I do not question that the above may be effective and worthwhile educational strategies, I’ve personally been most compelled by questions and imperatives speaking more directly to composers, performers, and advocates for new music. What kind of musical experiences most effectively facilitate learning? What can we do, through the composition and presentation of new music, to work towards this goal? In what ways can listening to music make extramusical concepts more meaningful, memorable, and relevant? Conversely, how does extramusical content help the audience to form stronger connections to the music? And, taking a step back, how can the above help us to make better music overall?

The Impact of Context on Hearing

Some readers would probably debate whether it’s even possible for music to contain intrinsic meanings or associations beyond music itself. My personal theory is that experiences of music are entirely subjective and will inevitably vary on a person-to-person basis, but that there are concrete approaches—to the creation of the music itself, as well as its context of presentation—that composers, performers, and presenters can take to provide compelling opportunities for the audience to make rewarding connections between music and extramusical content. All of this requires a certain degree of attention and participation on the listener’s part, of course, but I think that artists and presenters bear the burden of responsibility to make such experiences readily accessible to a willing listener.

Many associations can be evoked through the application of certain musical devices (think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony or Strauss’s tone poems). Along those lines, I’m personally extremely interested in using purely musical elements such as form, timbre, pitch, and rhythm, to evoke a sense of “place.” But consider also the way in which merely the title of a work can affect its hearing. Extend that effect to the many aspects of music’s presentation—the performance venue; text presented in conjunction with music, whether through speech, or digital or printed media; the visual components of the performance; experiences provided directly before and after the music; and so on. You might begin to imagine the impact that an alliance between artistic intention, musical content, and context of listening can have to bring forth images, ideas, associations, and narratives for listeners—even in the case of music that may be purely instrumental and lacking an overt program.

Members of A Far Cry perform Cohen's The Course of Empire

Members of A Far Cry perform Cohen’s The Course of Empire for string quartet at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2011. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.

For example, on two occasions I’ve sought to enrich audiences’ appreciation of a series of paintings through the presentation of concerts in museums where the artworks were on display. These concerts, which featured chamber music I’d composed inspired by the paintings, were presented in the context of: a brief speech I gave introducing the music’s connection to the art; a printed program note; video interviews with museum curators about the art, clips from which were screened as part of the program and/or provided on a mobile-optimized website created for the event; images of the paintings projected onstage during the entirety of the performance; and, of course, the opportunity to see the “real thing” in the gallery before and after the concert.

Probing music’s potential to facilitate learning is a goal I’ve pursued primarily through presentations outside of—or building on—conventional concert contexts. These have included music within interactive media, music within theatrical or multi-disciplinary presentations, music with video projections, and so on. Utilizing music as a platform for exploring extramusical ideas can also bring contemporary concert music into varied circumstances—whether in museums, schools, community centers, or simply on the Internet—for diverse audiences who may or may not have prior interest in new music, or any classical or concert music at all. The audience at the aforementioned museum-based concerts did not, for the most part, consist of regular new music concertgoers. The majority of them were drawn to these concerts by publicity related to special exhibit openings and the promise of an event presented in connection with the art.

While my museum events seemed to have been successful at piquing the audiences’ interest in both the artworks and the music, they represent just one possible approach: the tip of the iceberg of what may be possible to accomplish through new music events designed to facilitate learning.

Composers as Intellectuals

When I was a teenager, one of the reasons I chose to pursue composing music as my primary artistic path was because it was a medium through which I could envision myself exploring all of the evolving ideas, topics, and realms of experience that would come to fascinate me over the course of my life—whether it’s the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Yosemite National Park, or Medieval literature. Through composition, I could bring everything into the fold.

I know there are others with similar motivations to mine. So, consider the potential for more composers to adopt the role of “public intellectual” through learning-oriented music. Many of us are passionate about using music to further the visibility of ideas and subject matter that we feel are worthy of broader appreciation and awareness. Since composers are typically curious and intellectually multi-faceted people, why not do everything we can to push these inclinations to their fullest realization and really hone in on utilizing the creation of new music as a positive and proactive force for broadening the intellectual engagement of a larger public?

In my next three articles, I’ll explore how these principles of music created as a catalyst for learning may be applied within two areas which I’ve focused on in my own work: music inspired by visual art, and music inspired by nature, landscape, and place—which I call “Landscape Music.”

In the meantime, please share your thoughts. Has an experience with music ever helped you to better understand or appreciate an idea, a realm of knowledge outside of music itself, or some other aspect of life? Have you observed this happening for others? What elements of the musical content and/or its presentation do you think made that experience particularly effective? And, if you’re a musician, have you sought to facilitate your audience’s learning through your music?

Nell Shaw Cohen


Nell Shaw Cohen is a composer and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015-17 Composers & the Voice Fellow with American Opera Projects and the founder of Landscape Music, an online publication and affiliated Composers Network. As an educational media producer and user experience designer, she also creates unique videos, multimedia installations, and interactive media. Learn more at nellshawcohen.com.