“What if we call it what it is?”

From a readerI raved yesterday about the stories readers tell me about their adventures as entrepreneurs. So, to help start 2012 on a happy note, here’s another one, from Rebecca Smithorn, a conductor in Rochester, NY. I love what she emailed, which I’m posting here with her permission.

And at the beginning, where Rebecca thanks me — no, I’m not preening, when I pass even that part of her email on to you. The point isn’t that I gave her what turned out to be good advice. No, the point is that any of us, when we reach out to someone else, might hit the sweet spot, and find — very likely without knowing we’ve done it –a way to be helpful. So let’s all of us do that! Reach out and help, whenever we can.

Here’s Rebecca:

You probably don’t remember, but I believe I sent you an e-mail a while back lamenting some career woes in what I’m sure was an overly dramatic fashion, and when you responded, you said something that changed my life a little bit. It was something like, ‘Having a career in conducting is really very simple, in theory. If you want to be a conductor, you have to… conduct.’ How I had overlooked that profoundly important point up until then is beyond me, but I took that advice to heart and started my own ensemble.

And when I was starting my own ensemble, I absolutely knew what it would be like – young, scrappy, near-chaos – because that’s how these ensembles inevitably are. The thing is, though, I *love* attending performances like that for the sport of it. I love the suspense; I love the sheer gutsiness of them; I have very special place in my heart for ensembles that come together in 24 hours and dissolve as soon as the booze at the after-party is gone. But I also realized that the only reason I get to enjoy them in that way is because I’m inside the profession. I’ve been around the block enough times to be able to look over a program, look over an ensemble, and know when I’m seeing such a performance. It’s never ‘advertised’, partly, I think, because all of our conservatory profs tell us that it is an unforgivable sin to step foot on a stage without infallible preparation. So, as I was trying to decide what to call this group, I said to my wife, “What if we just call it what it is… and add some capital letters?” And Ad Hoc, an ephemeral chamber ensemble, was born.

I talk to the audience at all of our performances, and I tell them that we’ve met exactly X number of times (usually one or two), that Kristy was supposed to be playing bassoon but had to unexpectedly catch a flight to Seattle for an audition, and thus Kyle is performing with us instead for the first time in front of their very eyes; that Tim wrote this piece just for tonight’s performance but didn’t hand me the score until this morning, and so on. And they love it. In the same way that I do. As an added bonus, it frees up the players. They’re not worried about performing up to a technical standard which the circumstances and rehearsal schedule might not allow for. But, since this is Rochester, and since we work steps away from ESM, the players are very, very good, and we have had some very good performances, even on ridiculous rehearsal schedules.

Our concerts are free – I hope to keep most of them that way, while slowly but increasingly paying players, ideally with foundation support, as a kind of experiment in audience accessibility. Attendance has gone from roughly 25 at our first concert in August 2010 to roughly 150 at our concert in August 2011. And after that concert, a lawyer found me at the reception and offered to set up our non-profit incorporation pro bono – I have my first meeting about getting that started tomorrow. The whole thing has turned out to be a sort of musical playground in all respects – in terms of musicianship, conducting, programming, administration, etc. On the one hand, we don’t have a ton of cash yet, but on the other, we can try absolutely anything we want. It’s wonderful. And it’s also proved transformative in my conducting and career, even if nothing major has happened yet.

So in any case, our website is below. If you’d like to peruse, I would, of course, be interested in any feedback. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but, really, your advice started the whole thing, so I thought perhaps I’d get in touch.

As I said, I love this. Wish I could get to these concerts!

For anyone curious, and I hope you will be, Ad Hoc’s very fine website is here.

[10:40 AM, Wednesday — I’ve fixed that link. As originally posted, it didn’t work. My bad. Apologies to anyone who got the 404 error message. And many thanks to Scott for posting a comment to point out the mistake.]

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  1. says

    This is a great story and points up what we might call the ‘decadence’ of the current classical scene. I just watched a documentary about ancient Sparta and the program ended with the comment that what caused Sparta to fall was the rigidity of their social structure. They simply could not adapt to the changing circumstances.

    I think that the current classical institutions face a similar problem–and I know that this is the message that you have been stating over and over again. I think Rebecca’s is a creative and productive response and I bet she is having a lot of fun!

    I just put up a post about this: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2012/01/classical-decadence.html

    • says

      But Jon — didn’t I say Rebecca’s in Rochester, right in the second sentence of my post? But maybe that’s a lesson to me. Mayne the information should have come later, when Rebecca talked about the group.

  2. says

    Yes, you said SHE is a conductor in Rochester and she mentioned the group is from Rochester in the email you quoted, but that’s not the problem here (she could be a conductor in Rochester while having many groups elsewhere, right?)–the first thing I look for when I’m checking out some cool new group or ensemble (which Ad Hoc is definitely!) is where the group is based. If I have to search every single page and not see the base of operation (for me, and I think a lot of other potential audience members, knowing if the group is close enough to actually see live is important).

    Having to click on the facebook page because I know that most of them have default “hometown” information was good for me finding out their base of operations, but not good for anyone unfamiliar with facebook pages or other social networking sites.

    Just saying (and I could very well have missed it on the website which just means it might not be obvious enough), I think base of operations is good and useful info for potential audience members (and who knows, maybe potential donors?) since you have been discussing such things as getting an audience to events!

    Sounds like a col ensemble and so wonderful that Rebecca “just did it!”

      • says

        Excellent–and I love that you folks have an open call for working with other performance of all bents and stripes–if I’m ever in the Rochester area I would so love to see one of those collaborations! Kudos to you and your orchestra and good luck!

  3. says

    A fantastic story, Greg. Thanks for sharing!

    I also helped start a rather ‘temporary’ ensemble, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, which rehearses for two weeks each summer an presents a single performance (this past year, our 10th season, we were decadent and performed twice). Our entire annual budget is about $6000. We’re all in it for the challenge and the joy. And we’ve still managed to record two commercial CDs, commission new work, and make some ‘top 10′ lists among local arts journalists.

    It’s not an approach for everyone. But the ‘ad hoc’ idea has legs.