DIY: Music Career

Conservatories are teaching the business of the business

By Brian Wise

The Manhattan School program is modeled partly on graduate case studies. Sirota cites the example of Alondra de la Parra, who came to New York to study piano at the Manhattan School, but quickly discovered her love for conducting. Rather than apprentice with a small local orchestra, she learned how to form a board of directors and establish a donor base. At age twenty-three she launched her own freelance group, today known as the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, which is releasing an album of music by Central and South American composers on Sony Classical this fall.

Seeking other entrepreneurial models, conservatory deans frequently point to the kind of flexible chamber ensembles that don’t fall into traditional categories. This includes Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet founded in 1996 by graduates of several major music schools, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a flexible group that began in 2001 with several Oberlin graduates, and which today plays everything from duos and trios to large multimedia works and pieces for thirty players.
Neither Eighth Blackbird nor ICE was the product of a top-down entrepreneurship program, but both groups have made themselves marketable to major presenters such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center as well as alternative venues that include The Tank, a black-box theater in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Both present challenging programs of modernist fare but couch them in hip settings and programming conceits, like ICE’s “Violin Showdown” or Eighth Blackbird’s musical theater work Slide, with actor¬-¬singer Rinde Eckert.
“Ten or fifteen years ago if someone posited that a contemporary group of six to eight musicians could earn their living commissioning living composers, that would have been seen as ridiculous,” says David Stull, the dean of the Oberlin Conservatory. “Students have not only cleverly taken business models that support smaller ensembles but they have skills, really, as entrepreneurs.”

Certainly, new music groups have always been the product of enterprising do-it-yourselfers who look beyond conventional career outlets (the Bang on a Can All-Stars are a prime example). And questions remain about whether entrepreneurship programs can foster groups that reach a wider segment of the classical audience. Are schools willing to provide enough funding and faculty resources? Will the courses and workshops be required of all students or remain as electives? At Oberlin, only twenty percent of students have taken advantage of the entrepreneurship program, “Creativity and Leadership,” despite the fact that the school offers incentives such as seed grants to students with innovative project ideas.

“I still haven’t seen any school put their money where their mouth is,” says Drew McManus, an orchestra consultant who writes the blog “There is no real clear definition of what entrepreneurialism is. It should be a two-year set of courses that’s required of all performance majors.”

McManus believes that students need to be taught about the hard realities of the job market before they even set foot in a school. He proposes a class on the mechanics of touring that would teach “how to book dates with performing arts presenters, how to set the tour schedule up so it’s the least amount of expenses with the most amount of revenue, how to put the time and effort into a program that will sell.”
Kaufman, the grad student who co-founded the Music Diplomacy event, sees panel discussions as a way to bring newcomers to the concert hall. He and Reichman consulted with administrators at New England Conservatory on how to raise funds from various donors and foundations. They also sought advice from outreach and marketing experts on how to publicize. They are now in the process of forming a nonprofit organization that will present other concert¬symposia on big social issues.

“It’s all about making your own opportunities,” says Kaufman, who says he plans to hold a day job to support his musical activities. “There are plenty of resources to be had if you’re smart and you come up with an idea and find people out there who are interested in supporting it.”

Some school administrators worry about pushing the practical side of a musician’s education, arguing that entrepreneurial ingenuity and risk-taking are traits that can’t be taught, and that schools shouldn’t alter curricula based on short-term economic realities. Christopher Kendall, dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, advises caution. “I don’t think we’re interested in chasing down immediate cultural imperatives to the extent of losing broader and more deep-seated values that the arts are engaged with,” he says. “But being flexible and nimble is important. And institutions like ours are not known for being nimble.”