Yesterday I posted an email from conductor Rebecca Smithorn, about the chamber orchestra she calls Ad Hoc (because Ad Hoc is how it functions — informally, taking things as they come, and telling the audience exactly what accidents led to each performance being what it is). An entrepreneurial enterprise, if ever I’ve seen one. Especially if you think — as I do — that an entrepreneur needs to create something distinctive.
Today I’ll offer a much longer email from Chris Dulgan, a South African pianist, who — as he explains — conjured an active career entirely on his own, thanks (as he writes) to “hard work, perseverance, luck and a lot of goodwill from people who have supported and believed in my efforts.”
I’m posting this, of course, with Chris’s permission. And I’m grateful to him, not just for letting me pass on what he wrote to me, but for the time and care he put into writing at such length, and in such detail. He gives us a full picture of what he does and why he does it. And his success should inspire all of us.
This is a very long email. It’s all worth reading. But to stoke your appetite — and so I don’t plunge you immediately into all of Chris’s detail — I’ll give you some highlights:
- Through hard work, perseverance, luck and a lot of good will from people who have supported and believed in my efforts, 15 years later I present more than 80 concerts a year. The concerts take place not only in my immediate home area but also in other major and smaller centres around South Africa. The concerts now range from frequent performances or soirees in my home, local art gallery, churches, private and public gardens, and restaurants, to symphony concerts with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra (based in Durban) in the city where I live.
- On the evening I run the ‘box office’ at the door, show [ticket buyers] to their seats, and offer them wine and snacks (I sometimes serve a light meal before or after the performance which I usually prepare myself for up to 40 people).…I serve coffee and chat to [the audience] after the concert. In essence I guess this type of event is a real ‘soiree’ where guests are treated to a musical experience that is at once familiar, social, and interactive.
- Apart from all classical programmes I have found great success with playing a wide variety of music…I am amazed that the ‘piano recital ‘ is stuck in the same rut it was 150 years ago.…And there is the range of music we are exposed to on television, film, in supermarkets, in adverts, in all aspect of our daily lives. Surely one has to select, or at least can reflect, something of this range of possible musics in a concert/event.
- Part of my ‘business’ from a promotional side is to then include other artists, mostly friends or musicians I have networked with. By including them on my platform I provide additional performance opportunity for them, and also for myself as I usually collaborate with them. It means that I can play chamber music, accompany and work with opera singers, vocalists and even create new ideas.
- The peak of this has been my involvement with a local sponsor staging symphony concerts in the local City Hall. The provincial orchestra, KZNPO based in Durban, had largely written off performances in the city due to a lack of audience support. But in recent years we have created a whole new following, promoting interesting programmes along similar lines to what I have discussed above. And included in each concert is a work for piano and orchestra of my choice!
And now the entire email:
I have been reading your blog for some time, very closely in recent weeks. I have been encouraged by one of your followers, a previous lecturer of mine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban – South Africa, Prof Christopher Ballantine, to contribute and comment, sharing my experiences. It may be interesting, maybe not.
From the first weeks of taking piano lessons at age seven I knew somehow this is wanted I was to do with the rest of my life. Looking back my dream may not have been so much performing on huge concert stages around the world but somehow I wanted to play, and play for an audience. I studied at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in Durban, University of Cape Town where I completed a masters degree in performance and then won scholarships to study at the RNCM in Manchester where I finished in 1996. I decided to return to South Africa (where the weather is better!) and I was sure, despite suggestion from certain quarters that I should, that I didn’t see myself swimming in that very populated pool of the European music scene waiting for a ‘break’. On returning to South Africa I settled in Pietermaritzburg, for personal reasons, an hour drive from Durban, and have lived and worked here since.
Trying to crave out a career or really earn a living in a very small music scene in South Africa was an unknown. I set about promoting myself to various concert societies and orchestras with gusto but inevitably there were large gaps in my schedule between engagements. Rather than teach I set about publicizing my own concerts. These were quite standard in format at first. I was aware however of the distance between myself and those around me, including family and friends, who were certainly interested in what I did but had little understanding of or exposure to classical music and what I was presenting to them.
I needed to change that. Not only to keep earning a living but also to integrate with them musically. Through hard work, perseverance, luck and a lot of good will from people who have supported and believed in my efforts, 15 years later I present more than 80 concerts a year. The concerts take place not only in my immediate home area but also in other major and smaller centres around South Africa. The concerts now range from frequent performances or soirees in my home, local art gallery, churches, private and public gardens, and restaurants, to symphony concerts with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra (based in Durban) in the city where I live. This also includes two festivals / series I created.
On one hand I think to myself my experience may not be relevant because this may not work in New York or London but then I guess not everyone lives and works in the major music centers of the world. To give you some background to where I live: I can say that part of the success I have enjoyed is due to the lack of competition in the city. There was once an amateur Philharmonic Orchestra and Society that promoted concerts. But with the economic for Eurocentric art forms falling away after the post-1994 change over of government this all came to an end. I would say that the same decline in funding and support you are finding in USA at present happened in a more a decisive turn around some years ago. All orchestras and arts organization saw the very clear signals; to survive they had to sink or swim.
So to comment on some of the issues you have raised:
Who is your audience?
As I handle the entire operation on my own (I do not employ any staff) I have a lot of contact with those that attend my concerts, especially in my home, a venue in which I can set up to 50 people. I have created a substantial email list of followers. I started by telephoning each one of my ‘clients’ fifteen years ago to tell them about each concert, then used fax and postal mail, but email is certainly a cost effective an immediate route and my current preferred mode of communication. My subscribers receive my email explaining the concert or series of events for the month with a short description of what the event and programme is about. I handle the bookings by email or telephone so I get to communicate to the clients directly.
On the evening I run the ‘box office’ at the door, show them to their seats, and offer them wine and snacks (I sometimes serve a light meal before or after the performance which I usually prepare myself for up to 40 people). Then I play the concert usually 60-70 mins in length, introducing the items and giving some background to what they are about to hear ( I will discuss this separately). I serve coffee and chat to them after the concert. In essence I guess this type of event is a real ‘soiree’ where guests are treated to a musical experience that is at once familiar, social, and interactive. They have time before and after to chat with friends and meet new people. The concerts I have presented in restaurants or cafes – performances sections between the courses of a meal – are also popular.
At all of my concerts I always say something about future concert and invite guests to join my mailing list by handing in their email address to me after the concert (no time like now!), visiting my website www.musicrevival.co.za or sending a list request to the email on the printed programme. With restaurant/cafe events I try to circulate through the venue to chat to each table, get feedback and collect emails there and then – they can’t escape! (This direct contact can also have some downsides – not everyone will like everything. One develops an ability to ignore those you can’t please).
It is hard work to undertake all this, especially in my home, and the pace picks up in the final hours before the event preparing the venue and the food etc. It’s a different kind of work to practicing the piano – that all has to be done days ahead. But careful planning and giving the right type of attention/energy to the task at hand is crucial. I always say there is not time to get nervous as my attention is so focused, increasing in the final countdown. When I do have a concert elsewhere, where my role is only to perform, and I have to sit backstage, I do get nervous, as I feel so much ‘without anything to do’.
Having done this for the years that I have, in what is not a major city, I inevitably bump into a number of supporters while I am out and about, and this is also is a good time to tell people and potential clients about any concerts coming up. I have always had good support form the local press having learnt how to supply them with a good press release and publishable photos. As a result many people know who I am and often approach me or interact in some way. Nothing like a personal sell. The same personal approach extends to any media contacts with whom I built a relationship over a period of years.
Some other points – You mention building this kind of audience through email contacts but in most cases for musicians who travel around a lot this can be tricky. As keen as followers are they really only want to know about the concerts in their area. i have four mailing lists that focus on different cities or regions. I find that despite slipping a Facebook appeal for ‘friends’ into my concerts the majority of my audience are mature and not of the Facebook mindset. Relying on promoters to present you in their series means that you are generally not allowed to play in a region more than once a year, or every two years. This is always the ‘you’ve been here too often’ response, especially if they have not presented you on your last visit!
In Cape Town recently I was told I was ‘overexposed’ even though I have played their in a major concert in over 8 years. But my recordings are aired on the local Classical Music station there repeatedly and I present concerts twice a year in small village near to Cape town – not that those audiences would ever travel to hear me! So in fact attempts to promote myself on a small scale mean that the major concerts, which I would like to be invited to play, are then out of my reach. Ironically what I have shown, I think, is that in the ‘modern age’ SOME people are less interested in the traveling ‘one night only star’ and more in someone they trust. Someone who they will attend concerts of repeatedly, who will explain, interpret or translate for them, and who will introduce them to a personal ‘brand’ of ideas, music and other musicians.
Talking about music
One of the ideas I have become most associated with, and now expected to undertake without fail, is to talk about the music I am playing. I would never have considered this when I was studying and only started to do so when I was literally forced! I have always had an interest in the background to the music, composers and their lives and read everything I could get my hands on from an early age.
I was never a confident speaker and actually very quiet and nervous. But through practice, and a patient audience, I have improved and for audiences who have never heard me before, most are usually quite unaware that it is not something I have always done quite easily. Their general reaction also tells me that these informal interactions, brief as they are, make a huge difference in their appreciation and understanding of what they are listening to.
I have found that knowing what to say, not word for word, but having a handful of points you want to make, is crucial. A humorous incident or detail is a great help. One quickly picks up on what amuses an audience. Filing these successful phrases away for use next time is helpful.
An interesting point as I see it — any audience has such an enormous range of music that could be potentially presented to them. Every composer, period, genre has its own set of structures. So preparing something of a picture as to what, for instance, virtuosity of Liszt as opposed to the poetry or personal expression of Chopin is about, can guide them into an engaging and positive connection to a piece of music that demonstrates that. It helps then as a a positive affirmation that what they are thinking and feeling may be along the right path.
I agree with you 100% when you it is best to be personal, even if you are wrong. One can speak about why you have chosen to play something, be it a personal favorite, something to do with the concert event itself (season, day, time of year) or how it fits into and balances a part of the programme. The worst is to do the often presented ” x was born in y and composed 12 symphonies, 8 sonatas etc and died in z”. It tells the audience nothing. (So many seem to focus on the composers death rather than their life!)
I have learnt to avoid talking about musical structures, especially sonata form, which is too complicated to convey quickly to someone not already familiar with it. But the form or shape, if straightforward, like ABA form ( without using those words) is a great guideline. To say for instance, Chopin’s Fantasie -Impromptu is in three sections, the mid-section being contrasted and more reflective, including a melody later used as a popular tune (something an audience will probably recognize) makes sense. Discussing mood, style or even presenting a social scene that the composer may have performed in is worthwhile as the audience may see themselves in the picture. In essence I find it crucial to present the composers real people. They played the same with their hands, as real music, felt real emotion and thats why they composed it.
From my experience I have found that the more complex the music is, the more difficult it’s so say anything effectively. For instance what does one say in two minutes that would do justice to the late Beethoven sonatas, or the Liszt Sonata. Ironically this is the type of programme content that most recital pianists would be dealing with. Addressing a groups of strangers, an audience you are not familiar with, also means that you have no idea ‘who knows what and the fear is that their are audience members who know more (there always will be) and don’t care (those too) or this that wish you didn’t talk at all (it happens).
So if you don’t know who they are it is best to try to aim across all levels of knowledge, and be brief. I think that takes from all knowledge ‘fields’; the classic academic and historical, from poplar culture/perception, some contemporary or new information ie current thinking and something as a wild card helps create a really worthwhile introduction.
I have also found that it is very tricky to build this kind of personal rapport with a large audience. Anything over 300 people can be very tricky. On the other hand, with smaller audiences, I have recently been encouraged and undertaken, with great effect, my own on concert Q & A sessions. These have taken place in concerts presented within communities where I have visited regularly so I know they have all had the same exposure to my programmes and not at my regular public events where you never know who is coming in.
Q & A offers the audience an unheard of opportunity to ask questions they may have been wondering about — ‘silly’ things like how many hours do you practice, what music do you like to play most, to what makes playing a Beethoven concerto harder than Liszt when Liszt sounds much harder! I also encourage these audiences to request something they would like to hear. I may play a snippet, or the item completely – if I know it and can access it in my mental filing cabinet. It is usually the same standard pieces and turns out to be a neat party trick when i can pull it off. This is also useful market research to know what they would like to hear!
A particularly interesting request in Q&A was the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. It opened up an opportunity to talk about what a concerto is, and to show what it sounded like without the big orchestra tune. This type of deconstruction is something we as musicians get used to knowing about but to an audience it is a very novel and enlightening experience. They become involved and offers more than just being applauding spectators.
While I studied much of the classic piano masterworks during my academic years I seldom play these in their entirety now. Much of what I play focus on shorter works, allowing me to create programmes that contain a variety of shorter pieces, many of them popular classics. Everyone likes to hear something they know and once you have gained the audience’s trust and made them comfortable in not ‘out of the loop’, they will be willing to listen to something that is new them.
Apart from all classical programmes I have found great success with playing a wide variety of music, not only from the classical repertoire but from other genres too. I am amazed that the ‘piano recital ‘ is stuck in the same rut it was 150 years ago. And the ‘recital’ has very little in common with how composers actually presented their music. Think of Schubert, Chopin, Liszt who all created quite different concertizing experiences, presenting their music in different social environments.
Also, we as music consumers in the 21 st century are exposed to and have access to an infinite number of types of music. And such easy and immediate access to it. And we can experience this on our own terms and at will. In an instant we can download and choose music of our own tastes and listen on an iPod, at home etc. And there is the range of music we are exposed to on television, film, in supermarkets, in adverts, in all aspect of our daily lives. Surely one has to select, or at least can reflect, something of this range of possible musics in a concert/event.
My own interest is primarily in the piano. Music that explores the piano in a meaningful way can be found in so many different genres. So for instance, I will combine classic pieces like Mozart’s Rondo all Turca and a Chopin waltz, with a Scott Joplin rag (a favorite with many audiences), traditional or neuvo tango, a jazz transcription, film music and ‘new age’ composition. Not only do all these share sometimes very similar structures of melody, harmony and rhythm but provide contrast and importantly ‘speak’ to each other in interesting ways. For instance a Chopin Waltz in all Chopin programme will have a very different feel to when played after a Scott Joplin rag. Yet one can draw attention to the sequence of tunes around a rhythmic pulse, presented in sections, that both consist of.
The crux of what I think about when selecting a programme, whether it be for myself or for one of the musicians I am working with, is to keep ‘the audience’ in mind. I try to gauge what music may be familiar to them, the defined moods or colour in each piece and what energy may excite or calm them. Pieces with very defined energy or mood are easier to digest. This desire to a create a concert from the audiences experience or point of view seems to be something that so many musicians seem to forget, concentrating instead on their own desire to prove their ability in the complexity stakes!
In the end, as you say – I love what I do, I love playing the piano, I love exploring all the moods and experiences that all music has to offer. I value equally what each genre or culture has to offer – taking it for what it is. I identify with this very strongly and ultimately the goal in performance I strive for is to play any style of music with the same insight and appropriate interpretation it deserves. The music I like I play. It’s all different. Western classical music is not better or cleverer than anything else. It just is what it is.
I found the most important element is that each music expresses its own energy and spirit – they are all complimentary. I can’t think of a Beethoven or Mozart sonata that express the same energy and feel as a rag or samba. My requirement is that it works and explores the possibility of the piano. Certainly I have received a lot of flack for playing what some people see as ‘rubbish’ or second rate. But being true to ones individuality and respectful to the music is the important part. If I win over an audience and create interest in the process I am undertaking how can I be risking my integrity?
Part of my ‘business’ from a promotional side is to then include other artists, mostly friends or musicians I have networked with. By including them on my platform I provide additional performance opportunity for them, and also for myself as I usually collaborate with them. It means that I can play chamber music, accompany and work with opera singers, vocalists and even create new ideas. A duo with for instance a guitarist and accordionist, where little repertoire exists for the combination, means that I explore my limits and explore other performance styles including improvising, creating or composing original music, working in world music genres including tango, jazz, and ‘gypsy’ music.
All in all it is a great freedom having the opportunity that if I want to play a chamber music work for example ‘The Trout ` I can engage the musicians and perform with them. The peak of this has been my involvement with a local sponsor staging symphony concerts in the local City Hall. The provincial orchestra, KZNPO based in Durban, had largely written off performances in the city due to a lack of audience support. But in recent years we have created a whole new following, promoting interesting programmes along similar lines to what I have discussed above. And included in each concert is a work for piano and orchestra of my choice! I am also interested in promoting other young musicians through the channels that I have developed. Having chosen a performing career, one that takes huge dedication and effort, I feel it my obligation to support them wherever possible, working with them on the concert stage and promoting them wherever I can.
The future of classical music?
My own thoughts are that it classical music won’t die, there will always be great orchestras and opera performances. But there may not be so many. To survive at the top you will have to be really special with the wow factor in the field. Classical musicians and traditional audiences are their own worst enemies. It’s so often about the snobbery of how much better they know, or are. “We know what’s good for you” and in today’s culture the younger generation will choose for themselves. Look at the mess those the world is in and how those in charge, who know better, have got us into it! A younger generation I have found are actually more accepting of all sort of music. But they choose to listen to it on their own terms and away from all the pompous hype.
I think there are many ways that musicians, who really want to get to the heart of the music, the music that they are passionate about, can integrate with their own communities and society as a whole. The experience of a live performance, by a real, complex individual, especially presented at close personal range, is magical and that at the end of the day, this is what they should be focusing on, no matter who wants to come to it enjoy it.