Monday, March 14, 2011

New Collaborations

My colleagues Shannon McGinnis, Nicholas Hutchinson and I have started a new vocal arts institute in downtown Chicago that we are very excited about: Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. I've known Nick and Shannon since we were all students at the University of Michigan together, and we are excited to be kicking off this new adventure that will be both an educational resource for young singers and pianists in the Chicago area and (as soon as we raise a bit of money) a place for musicians and audiences alike to explore vocal chamber music in performance. You can read more about what we are doing (and even donate...) at our spiffy, new website:

At our brand spanking new website, there is a blog called Collaborative Musings, where I will occasionally post a few ramblings from time to time in addition to the musings of my colleagues and our guests, and I plan on reposting those pieces here, as well. My first post at Collaborative Musings is below:


In the February issue of Details magazine, there is an article that talks about the rise in entrepreneurial culture in the US recently. They write: “The act of striking out on your own is hardly a new phenomenon – it’s in the DNA of the American Dream, after all – but it might well be today’s savviest career move.”

Back in 2005, writing about the current system through which most singers rise, Anne Midgette wrote in a New York Times article:

"A baseball-like farm system has developed in American opera in recent decades, as more and more young-artist programs have sprouted up around the country. Aspiring singers now follow a career path from a music degree and graduate school to a residency with a smaller house to, ideally, a place in one of the top programs for young artists: the Metropolitan Opera's Lindeman program, the Chicago Lyric Opera's center for American artists, San Francisco's Merola program or the Houston Grand Opera Studio. From there they are theoretically ready for the big leagues.” (NY Times, 11/13/2005)

When I enrolled in the voice program at the University of Michigan as an 18 year-old freshman, I quickly ascertained that this was a smart path to follow, and set my sights on following it as closely as possible. When home for holiday dinners, talking about my aspirations with my parents' friends, I would say, “Well, my plan is to get a master’s degree, and then hopefully join one of the major young artist programs, and from there hopefully find an agent and start building my career from there.” I was convinced it was a sure road to a big career, and I naively thought that if I could make it into one of these “top programs for Young Artists”, I was sure to find instant success. I knew with great certainty that I would be "ready for the big leagues".

I was one of the lucky few to be able to follow the institutional path that I set out in front of myself, quite closely – but was surprised to learn that even though I was lucky enough to have been afforded the opportunities I was, none of it meant that I was going to make my dreams come true by just proverbially adding some water and stirring. There was a long path of hard work still ahead of me, and there were still basic skills that I had to hone and keep working on that had been glossed over in my haste to get to where I thought I needed to be.

There is a lot of talk amongst young artist programs and training programs in schools today about the “Business of Singing”. American singers of the generation that graduated with me in 2001 (as well as further back) lament never having learned while in school the important lesson that when you choose to be a professional musician, you are running your own business. It is my impression that educational systems and young artist programs are now trying to remedy that, and teaching young singers that they need to start thinking of themselves as "Young Singer X, Inc." Now, there is an abundance of resources helping students and young artists alike choose the right 5 audition arias, choose the right audition outfits and headshots, and format their resumes so that they can fit themselves into the right boxes (fachs) to be most marketable to opera companies and opera administrators around the country.

In an economic age where opera companies, symphonies, and other presenting organizations are folding or downsizing left, right and center – it’s all the more important to be thinking creatively and embracing that spirit of entrepreneurship that was featured in that recent issue of Details. But I pose this: As young musicians, when we are thinking creatively about creating work for ourselves and how to market ourselves, thinking about our music and our music-making should be of the highest priority. In order for us to open the creative flood gates, we have to come back down to basics and meditate on what is at the core of what we do – music itself. How can we best hone our skills? What music is it that makes our hearts beat faster? How can we be the best that we can be in order to serve our communities in the most meaningful way possible?

The arts are definitely in a period of upheaval and cultural shift right now. There is a lack of money, and many institutions are struggling (for instance, the Detroit Symphony recently canceled the rest of it's 2010/2011 season recently as a result of its unsuccessful labor negotiations due to the orchestra's financial struggles), and signs seem to indicate that it is not going to get significantly better any time soon. Many bloggers and administrators are tossing around various ideas about how to market classical music and opera to wider and wider audiences. Many institutions are attempting to draw in audiences by crossing over. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, presented Andrea Bocelli in a solo recital this year. But when I think back to what drew me into classical music, and what has drawn core classical-music lovers to the artform, it was not watered-down, crossover classical experiences – it was the core repertoire. Most classical-music lovers I know fell in love with the classical repertoire listening to Mahler symphonies, or hearing a phenomenally personal and beautifully-sung performance of something as simple as “Caro mio ben”, or seeing an exciting performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto. This fear that the classical arts are “in trouble” is causing people to panic, and in the desperate search for people to fill the seats in our concert halls and opera houses, our focus is becoming diffuse, and therefore losing its impact. Rather than trying to energize and empower our core audience, we are leaving them by the wayside and scrambling for this nebulous idea of “wider audiences” and wondering why we are feeling like the classical arts are losing their cultural impact. Which culture are we trying to impact? Who are we trying to talk to?

At a Q & A session I conducted recently at a University with a very well-respected vocal program, students’ questions primarily centered on these things. Their questions were along the lines of “how do I get myself into the best young artist program possible?”, “what should I wear to my auditions?”, “do I need a website?”, “which competitions should I apply for?”, “which programs should I sing for?”. Curiously enough, though, not one question I was asked was related to music or the art of singing. Instead – the questions were all basically asking about different aspects of the same thing: “how can I best market myself as a commodity that can be bought and sold by an opera company?”

Like this larger debate that looms around the classical music community, the students at that Q & A session a few months ago seem like a smaller part of what is going on in our artistic macrocosm. In a way, while the questions they posed are important ones to be asking, they are of secondary importance. It’s important not to put the cart before the horse. What does this mean for us as young musicians and performers? It means that we must prioritize digging even deeper, pushing our technical boundaries even farther, and searching inside ourselves for more openness of hearts in order to give the most layered and expressive performances we can to our audiences.

Here’s another way to think about it: It’s a basic fundamental of any business: if you want people to buy a product, the first thing you have to be absolutely sure of is that your product is of the highest quality.

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