Good beginning

This, too, is a “solutions” post.

I’ve mentioned that I’m artist in residence this year and next at the University of Maryland, with a mandate to work with students at the music school there, to help them develop concerts where they’d reach an audience their own age. This follows, of course, from my work at Maryland last summer, where I spoke to students at the National Orchestral Institute, who then went out and took control of one of their concerts, to extraordinary effect.

I blogged about that, here, here, and here. The key to what happened at NOI was Jim Ross, who runs the program, and also conducts the orchestra. He’s in charge of conducting at the Maryland music school, and it was his idea, last summer, to put students in charge of a concert, and let them do what they wanted.

My role was simple enough. I stirred the pot. Primed the pump. Gave them some ideas, and some perspective. And, I think — combined with Jim’s opening the door to student control — helped show them that they really did have permission to change things.

Almost all of them joined in. They were asked to write three ideas down on paper, after my last session with them, and only one of them — it was a large group — said that concerts should remain as they are. The others all wanted changes, and (as you can read in my posts) ended up putting rock arrangements on the program, and having a group improvisation, with the audience welcome to join in. Plus they introduced each piece in various ways, creating such happiness that the audience just roared and whooped after each piece in the Elliott Carter Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, not the kind of piece that usually gets a reaction like that.

So now I’m helping to carry that spirit to a larger stage, the entire music school. I’ve been working quietly since the fall, meeting faculty, and finding more support than I would have dreamed was possible. It’s exciting.

Last week I spoke to students for the first time, along with Connie Frigo, a dynamic saxophonist and saxophone teacher, who’ll be my partner in everything that happens there.

And the result was exactly what it was last summer. The students, when Connie and I had finished, started talking, and I think they might have talked for hours, if they and we had had the time. Ideas just poured out of them.

So now we move forward. We get more students involved. We start planning — with the students — how we’ll approach the serious work next year (the 2010-11 academic year), when the students will develop their concerts. The goal won’t just be to produce concerts in various new ways, but to attract a new audience, presumably — though not necessarily — drawn from the Maryland campus.

And that’s going to be a challenge. Has any other music school tried to reach out, not to community institutions, public schools and the like, but to university students the same age as the music students, but who don’t normally go to classical concerts? I’d love to hear about it.

And of course this isn’t “outreach,” a terrible word, and concept, in my opinion, because it implies that we sit somewhere on a height, and reach out to people below. Instead, I see it as marketing. The Maryland students have concerts that many of their fellow students, not at the music school, would enjoy. But those other students don’t know this. How can we tell them about the concerts, and get them excited enough to come to them?

This will require new kinds of marketing — guerrilla marketing, viral marketing. Working with the students to develop that will be half the fun. (Though it’s hard work, too.)

Stay tuned for more about this, as things develop. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a project like this at any music school, and I think it has big significance for all of us. One lesson I think I’ve learned — if you create an environment in which classical music students feel safe to say what they really think, they’ll say that they’d like to see big changes in the way that classical music functions.

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  1. says

    What you describe sounds very progressive given what seems to be the common opinion about the musical academic establishment.

    I think any activity that prepares students to conceptualize, organize, create, promote and then perform their own concert – targeted to their peers – is excellent training for the real-life world of the 21st century American musician.

    It will be interesting to see what develops…

    Thanks, Paul. Many schools are starting to emphasize entrepreneurship for classical musicians. NEC and Manhattan have started or soon will start programs focusing on this. At Maryland, I think we’re going a step beyond by trying to find a new audience, but everything schools are starting to do is important, given the current realities.

  2. says

    The only conclusion one can draw from this is that students of the University of Maryland are superior to students from other schools. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I’m choosing to draw from it.

  3. says

    It’s great news to hear you are at UMD College Park this year. I’d like to be on a mailing list for UMD School of Music concerts. Just a reminder also, that all of the scores and parts collected by the American Composers Alliance going back to the 1930s and earlier, are housed at the magnificent Special Collections in Performing Arts Library there, and UMD students have direct access to this treasure trove of material. Much of it is available as PDF files for perusal as well. Cheers, -Gina Genova (composers dot com)

    Hi, Gina. Thanks for the info. Worthy archive, of course.

    I’m afraid I don’t know anything about mailing lists about concerts in College Park. You might Google the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on campus, and see if they have a mailing list. If they don’t, maybe they should have one! This is very far from any of my responsibilities at the school, but if I have the chance, I’ll try to find out about it.