Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Seeking Board Perfection

It has been said that there are three kinds of boards:

“The one you wish you had, the one you use to have, and the one you do have.”

I apologize that I don’t know who to specifically give credit for coining that phrase. Wherever they are though, they are absolute right. Boards are tricky. And finding the “right” one for your organization talks time, effort, and patience.

Let’s start with the basics.

Not-for-profit organizations need a board of directors. It is legally required of them. However, for-profit businesses can benefit from them as well. They are a group of people that “ensure that all activities and resources of the organization support pursuit of the mission,” says Amy Kweskin, Program Director of the Arts Management Career Development online certificate program at California State University East Bay.

She says that the board accomplishes this goal by:

1. “Establishing broad governance policies and objectives”
2. “[Hiring], supporting and reviewing the performance of the [CEO]”
3. “Ensuring adequate financial resources and approving an annual budget”
4. “Accounting organization’s performance to its stakeholders”

Essentially the board has to make sure there is enough money, plan for the future with budgets and by putting a great person in charge, and make sure everyone is talking to each other doing what is necessary to make the organization run smoothly.

So where do you find the right people to make this happen? Where can you find people who know how to be on a board of directors and are intimately aware of your mission, vision, and values?* (For more information on mission, vision, and values check out last month’s blog entry.)

The simple answer: you can’t. They aren’t there. Sobering, I know. As an executive director/CEO of a not-for-profit, I was rather disillusioned in the beginning when the board of directors didn’t seem very aware of what they needed to do at the first meeting. However, there are people that really value your organization and are willing to learn how to support your mission as an active board member. With proper guidance, they can make all the difference for your organization.

Now I’m going to attempt (wish me luck) to spell out a five step recipe for creating a great board of directors.

I. Make a List, check it twice, figure out who is naughty and nice
Start by making a list of all the people you know who have supported your organization in the past: donors, audience members, collaborators, etc. If some of them are accountants or lawyers, they can be very helpful. Also, consider the personalities of each of these individuals. Are some of them natural leaders? Work well in a team? Are social butterflies?

II. Assess what skills are needed for your organization to fulfill its mission
This is where you can turn to your organization’s business plan if you are just starting out or if you’ve been together for a while, your strategic plan. Amy states that “the strategic plan is the backbone to the organization’s annual activities, setting the Board’s work plan. With it you can create a board matrix of skills and resources to put the plan into action. From there, continued Board engagement is reinforced with commitment worksheets capturing the motivation and contribution to the organization.”

III. Put together a prospective board member “show and tell” packet
This packet will be used to inform the prospective board member about what membership means and help them and your organization discover whether they are a good fit. This packet should contain your organization’s mission, vision and values; recent financial history; a summary of your activities; a list of current board members (if applicable); and most important, a board responsibilities page that clearly lists your organization’s expectations of them and their expectations of you. Other packet items can include a business or strategic plan, bylaws, and promotional materials.

IV. Approach and meet in person the prospective board members
After you have assessed what your organization needs and have your packet ready-to-go, meet with each prospective board member that is interested and discuss possible membership. I suggest emailing the packet ahead of time and bringing a hard copy with you to review in person. Look for signs that they read the documents. Are they asking a lot of questions? Do they seem engaged? Do you feel they understand what is expected of them? Clearly and succinctly state what you expect them to do in terms of hours per week and what minimum financial commitment you expect from them annually. It is critical that every one of your board members is invested in your organization. That means you need 100% of your board contributing annually in addition to giving time and resources in support of your mission.

V. Choose wisely and bring them together
After you have spoken to the prospective board member and considered whether their personality will fit well with the current board members or other prospective members (if you are just starting out), invite them to a meeting. At the end of the meeting and after the new prospective member(s) have left, discuss with the current membership if they feel it is a good fit. Then, follow-up with the prospective member and offer them a seat on the board of directors. If they decline, go back to your list in step 1.

Now, all of this takes a lot of work. However, writing grants, raising money, making connections in the community, hiring a CEO, creating budgets and making sure your organization is in strong financial health takes even more work. With the “right” board of directors, all of these aspects of a nonprofit get much easier.

A couple final thoughts:
1. Usually a board has between 5 and 15; even larger the longer the organization has been around. Pick a number that feels comfortable.

2. Boards of organizations that are just starting out are often “working” boards that do a lot of the hands on tasks necessary to move the organization forward. More established organizations often require larger boards due to needing adequate governance oversight and often having greater financial goals.

3. All the work, time, and patience to do the 5 steps above can be accomplished by the founder, CEO, staff members, a board committee, a board chair, or a combination.

4. Once you have a board in place, having a board chair is important. They should work closely with the CEO to set the agenda and make sure that there is an open dialogue between the board of directors, staff, and artists.

Creating a great board can be daunting, but well worth it at the end of the day. Your organization will be more connected to your community and ultimately, will reach its goals faster and with greater ease. Good luck.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Take Control of your Artistic Mission

Whether your artistic business is a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a not-for-profit corporation, you need focus to make things happen. You need to know why you are doing the things that you are doing, otherwise you may steer way off course and not get anywhere.

At the same time, you need to be adaptable to the market and try different things out, see what works, and develop a list of best practices. Where to begin?

Start with your mission statement.

Unfortunately, nothing drums up a feeling of dread than being locked away in a room for hours with your colleagues mulling over the significance of this word and that as you develop it. However, it needn’t be like that.

You can successfully put a mission, vision, values and aesthetic core together in an hour. In fact, you probably shouldn’t spend any more time than that in the beginning!!

I started giving these ideas some serious thought after attending a basic presenting workshop led by Ken Foster at the Western Arts Alliance Conference in September 2000. I will use his definitions of these terms while adding my two cents.

MISSION – A short, comprehensive statement of purpose; identifies what we do and for whom it is done.

Essentially, the mission has to describe what you do as succinctly as possible. For example:

MISSION: The XYZ String Quartet performs and sings 21st Century jazz and Afro-Cuban music in small venues throughout the United States and Central America.

From this mission we can gather that all of their music will be written in the year 2000 or after, that they sing in addition to play their instruments, and that their audience probably speaks Spanish and/or English.

VISION – A compelling conceptual image of the desired future; a picture of the organization’s ideal future.

Now, your vision serves as a motivator for your audience, community, staff, and if you are a not-for-profit, your board of directors. To continue with our example from above:

VISION: The XYZ String Quartet seeks to bridge the divides that often separate the United States with their counterparts to the south. Through language, music, and presentation, the quartet produces programs that seek reconciliation and inspire collaboration for future generations.

The quartet’s vision is well-defined and inspiring while being broad enough to leave the door open to a variety of artistic approaches and programming decisions.

VALUES (PRINCIPLES) – Core values and philosophies describing how the organization conducts itself in carrying out its mission.

The values often touch upon essential ideals that you want for your business. Most people want their organization to have high standards of quality, be financially prudent, have creativity, and be passionate. This is where you can list your priorities for the organization and decide what is the most important for your business. For example, the XYZ String Quartet could use the following values for quality and financial health:

1. We are a quality organization. We are committed to achieving excellence and hold ourselves to the highest professional standards in the field.
2. We are a financially responsible organization. We understand that our financial health is dependent upon our ability to execute our annual objectives and be opportunistic to any unplanned alternatives.

Now, once you have hashed out a draft of your mission, vision, and values in 30 minutes, set it aside for a week or so. Then, return to them and make some refinements as you see fit. Once that is done, let people know who you are by putting them on your website or running them by your board of directors.

The most important thing to remember is that this document is flexible and should change with the times. Every month for your first year, return to it and see if the statements still ring true. If not, adjust them.

After a year, return to it annually. After a while you will probably find that these simple statements point you in the right direction when your organization is facing tough decisions financially or artistically.

AESTHETIC CORE - It is the artistic point of view and vehicle by which the organization realizes its philosophy as well as the context in which artistic choices are made.

You can think of the aesthetic core as helping to more specifically guide the artistic decisions made by the organization. I would spend 30 minutes putting this one together.

This is where the XYZ String Quartet can talk about their reasons for repertoire choices and venue locations. For example, let’s say that the XYZ String Quartet chose to: 1) commission 4 new works annually; 2) perform music by women composers 25% of the time; 3) collaborate with two other disciplines annually (eg dance, theater, juggling, magic, visual art, etc.); and 4) work in schools 50% of the time. Their aesthetic core may have the following sentences in response:

1. We believe in the creation and promotion of new music.
2. We believe in the performance of music composed by women composers.
3. We seek collaboration with artists of all disciplines.
4. We strive to serve the communities where we live and recognize the need to offer affordable music education.

Again, this document is not designed to hinder the activities of the quartet but rather help steer them in a positive, artistic direction. As with the mission, vision, and values, it should be constantly reviewed and adapted until a brand identity has been established.

As with any journey, it helps to have a map. Depending on who you are, you may look at it a lot or not very much at all. However, without the map, it is really hard to know where you are going. Think of your mission, vision, values and aesthetic core as the map and enjoy your artistic journey. It can be quite a trip.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hi everyone. The following are the answers I recently provided a student in Alabama about one of the works Quadre commissioned in 2000, Crazy Rhythm by Michael Kallstrom. I thought you might find it interesting.

1. What is Quadre’s relationship with Michael Kallstrom?

I first started talking to him when Quadre was in residence in Selma, Alabama during the 1999-2000 season. I believe the ensemble met him at the Southeast Horn Workshop in 2000 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We stayed in touch during the commissioning process and followed up once after the premieres. We have lost touch since although we still send him updates care of our mailing list.

I might add that this relationship is not unusual. In working with composers and other artists over the years, often there is a very close connection during the project and then everyone moves on afterwards. In some ways, this is probably necessary to give the kind of focus that is required for each new endeavor. That said, please send him my regards since it has been a while since we talked.

2. When and why did you choose to commission a quartet from Michael Kallstrom?
We had played Starflame, liked it, and wanted him to compose a multi-movement work for us. He sent us the final copy in April or May of 2000 I believe.

3. Where and when was the premiere of CRAZY RHYTHM?

The premiere was on Friday, December 14, 2001 at San Jose City College in San Jose, CA. It was repeated on Sunday, December 16, 2001 at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco, CA.

4. Was it well received by your audience?
We didn't survey the audience after that concert, so I can't give you specific feedback. Although, from what I remember, I believe the audience enjoyed it.

5. Who were the performers? Do you remember the part assignments?
The performers were Armando Castellano (I), Meredith Brown (II), Carrie Campbell (III) and myself - Daniel Wood (IV).

6. How would you describe each movement of CRAZY RHYTHM?

First movement - Moderato, quarter note equals 88
A rhythm predominants the first movement: 2 sixteenths, eighth followed by an eighth rest and then four sixteenths, eighth. The quartet starts by playing this rhythm together and continues to return to that figure as a melodic device and accompaniment. Energy slowly builds until the quartet plays in unison a triplet passage in m.55. This is followed by a caesura in m.61, the only one Kallstrom employs throughout the work. A short espressivo section follows at m.62 before the movement returns to the opening figure at m.75. A couple bars employ stopped horn, however the color Kallstrom achieves in this movement is mostly from exploring the sonic qualities of multiple players in unison rhythmically, melodically or both.

Second movement - Adagio, quarter note equals 66
With a focus on the low range of the instrument, movement 2 has a murky quality with many low notes occurring in seconds in the beginning. As the movement progresses, a canonic like section begins that rises to an Ab written above the staff for the 1st horn. A bass drum like syncopation supports the very legato texture throughout the work. After the climax at m.53, the movement gets softer and softer until all players are asked to merely whisper their parts. It closes with the same murky seconds from which it began.

Third movement - Allegro moderato, quarter note equals 120
In the third, the opening three bar figure in horns 2 and 4, repeats itself for the entire movement. The figure varies over the course of the piece, gets passed between parts, and switches from a melodic to an accompaniment role from time to time. In contrast, a melodic theme that uses eighth notes and triplets occurs in the other parts with occasional solos, subito dynamics, and very staccato notes. While the metronome mark is 120, the work feels more like 60 due to the ostinato of the opening figure.

Fourth movement - Allegro assai, quarter note equals 144
This movement has a lot of moves from a quarter note to a dotted quarter note feel. For example, the first nine bars change meter until the work settles in common time in m.10. (6/8 to 3/4 to 9/8 to 6/8 to 9/8 to 3/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 to 7/8 to 4/4) These changes of meter continue throughout the movement, but in less frequency after the beginning. There is a great deal of time where all four players play the same syncopated rhythms. The rhythmic opening leads way to a climax at m.37. A melodic section follows until the work begins its trip at m.67 towards the finale with numerous entrances that match the earlier underlying syncopated rhythms. A nice subito forte four player octave slur happens in m.122 that grabs the audience's attention with a build that follows to the climax at the very end.

We did perform the fourth movement on its own in a number of concerts and masterclasses the most notable being the Manhattan School of Music in January, 2002.

7. Besides the obvious ‘crazy rhythms’ found in CR what, in your (or the quartet’s) opinion, were the most challenging aspects of the work?
Despite the name, the piece doesn't focus on 'crazy rhythms.' I asked Michael how he came up with his titles. He said that he just uses the names found on the back of the scratch manuscript paper he uses which is from an old radio station I believe. The title on the back for this piece was 'crazy rhythm.' Nonetheless, the rhythms can be a little tricky to line up at times. Getting all the parts to play in perfect unison can be difficult and getting the seconds in tune in the low range as well as at the endings was a little challenging. However, the piece pretty much played itself. For a quartet that has been together for some time, it would be easy to program it.

8. In your opinion, how approachable is CR (and by what level of playing)?
It is approachable. I believe a talented college group in their second or third years would be able to manage the work with minimal rehearsal. Even a talented high school group with a good deal of practice and rehearsal could do it. The highest note is a horn Ab above the staff. The lowest note is a horn Bb an octave and a step below middle C. These extremes are used sparingly however. The first and third horn are predominantly the high parts while the 2nd and 4th are the low. Adequate break time is given within each of the parts so that no one has to play constantly.

9. How many other original horn quartets has Quadre commissioned?
We have commissioned:
14 original works for horn quartet (includes 1 trio and 2 quintets)
7 original works for horn quartet + soloist/ensemble (flute, percussion, wind ensemble, choir, etc.)
24 arrangements for horn quartet alone
15 arrangements for horn quartet + soloist/ensemble (piano, soprano, handbells, steel drums, etc.)

10. Has Quadre performed any other Kallstrom quartets?
I believe we played Starflame during some of our concerts in 2000 and 2001. Jeepers was also considered for a few concerts, but we have not performed it.

11. CRAZY RHYTHM is Kallstrom’s first 4-movement horn quartet. How else is CR different from the other horn quartets Kallstrom has composed for the TransAtlantic Quartet?
Besides Jeepers and Starflame, I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with Kallstrom's other horn quartets. However, I feel that Crazy Rhythm is more introspective than Jeepers and Starflame.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Should I start a Non-Profit?

First off, I have to confess that I’m not a lawyer. I was the jury foreman once, but I don’t think that counts. So please don’t take my advice and quote me in a court of law. They would probably laugh anyway. However, I did start a not-for-profit performing arts corporation in California and have acted as its executive director for the past ten years so I have learned a thing or two.

With that experience, individuals take me out for coffee asking how to start their own not-for-profits. They want to know:

1) How do I apply?
2) Can I make money with a not-for-profit?
3) Is a not-for-profit time consuming?
4) Is it worth starting one?

For number 1, I tell them to buy a book for the application process. I used the Nolo Press book, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation. It is available from online retailers and will probably have the latest information on the process in your state.

Number 2 is easy. Not-for-profits can make money. They just can’t funnel that money into employee’s pockets at the end of year as bonuses. They have to use any extra income they make and put it back into their organization. For example, the extra revenue could be used to buy equipment or build up a savings account (read that as unrestricted operating cash reserve in “nonprofit-ese”.)

Not-for-profits are time consuming. You are setting up a corporation. (All not-for-profits are corporations.) You are breathing life into an entity with its own unique tax ID number that can “never die.” More on that later. Any time you start something like that, it is going to take some time to keep it running smoothly.

And finally, given the mission and focus of your idea, a not-for-profit can be well worth it and the way to go. For most people who talk to me, it isn’t. They are doing it for insurance reasons, to get donations, or to apply for a grant. You don’t need to be a not-for-profit to do these things. I explain at the bottom. Hint: fiscal agent.

As most people know, contributions to not-for-profits are tax deductible, but the organization also benefits from a variety of other factors. Simply put they are: tax exemptions, limited liability, perpetual legal existence, employee benefits, and formality.

The first two are pretty self-explanatory. Being tax exempt means that you don’t pay taxes on your revenue. Woohoo!! If you are a performing arts organization that makes a lot of money every year and the taxes would be a big blow to your organization, then being a not-for-profit due to your charitable existence is a very good idea. Many smaller organizations, like chamber ensembles, don’t have that issue of rolling in money so this wouldn’t be a driving factor for them.

As for perpetual legal existence, this can be a really nice thing. It kind of makes you immortal. When you are a not-for-profit, your audience can feel confident that you are going to stick around. Funders and donors are more inclined to invest in what you do too. Of course, if you do go under, there are some legal ramifications with this. Check out the disadvantages for that.

While a not-for-profit corporation can't share profits amongst employees, salaries can and should be commensurate with for-profit organizations. Your organization should make sure to have the necessary funds for administrative and artistic compensation, healthcare, pension, and benefits such as professional development.

Finally, the formality of the organization in regards to its documents (Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, Minutes of Meetings, Board Resolutions, etc.) creates a "built-in set of ground rules...that is an important advantage...where the composition of the board includes diverse members of the community with correspondingly divergent interests." (Nolo Press, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation in California) Without these guidelines, reaching collective decisions that benefit the community at large would be difficult if not completely futile.

Things are not completely peachy however. Not-for-profit corporations have a great deal of paperwork to deal with, the high price tag of incorporation costs and fees, and lots of time and energy to maintain.

And while the rosy gates often are opened to you if you are a not-for-profit in terms of grants, tax deductible donations, rental rates, insurance premiums, etc., two words very often can help you avoid setting up the not-for-profit in the first place: fiscal agent. Another not-for-profit with a similar mission can act as your fiscal agent and be used as a go between you and the grant, donor, insurance company, etc. Arts councils and national service organizations often act in this capacity for their constituents.

And if you form a not-for-profit and it doesn’t work out, all of your assets need to be given to another not-for-profit that does comparable work. Therefore, if all the music you bought for your symphony was paid for by the not-for-profit, every last piece of it needs to go to another not-for-profit group if the bills can’t be paid. Hopefully it will never come to that. In this economic climate though, you never know.

Forming a not-for-profit can really help you organize your mission and get your idea off on the right track. However, it can be a ton of work to maintain. If you have an idea that will keep you working throughout the year and it has a charitable mission, then perhaps starting that not-for-profit is the right way to go. Either way, good luck and make your idea happen.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 10 Tips for Composing and Arranging

In Quadre, Nathan and I create a lot of the original music and arrangements that we play. The process of creation can be the most agonizing and exhilarating experience at the same time. Below are some of the tips and stories that I've gathered along the way.

Feel the Beat Concert
In March, 2008, we did a concert with percussionist extraordinaire Jim Kassis at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. As part of that concert, we performed 2 premieres: one by Nathan called Midlife Crisis and another by me called In Time. Nate wrote a wickedly hard marimba solo that was accompanied by a not so easy horn quartet background. The piece was written in two movements: 44 1/2 and Fresh Beat. The first was rather introspective yet soaring at times while the second was a kind of "hold on to your hat because this is going to be a wild ride."

Nate got the parts to all of us in plenty of time. I, on the other hand, was having a very difficult time with my work. I knew how I wanted it structured as well as the moods I was going for, but I just wasn't satisfied with the motives I was coming up with. Needless to say, it was the week of rehearsal prior to the concert and I still wasn't done with it. At the last rehearsal before the concert operating on less than 2 hours of sleep, I presented the missing movement. With minimal "woodshed" time, we did it. I thought it came off well and as far as the audience was concerned, I don't think they could tell that it was considerably newer than the other premiere.

Later, before we went to record it, I realized why I was getting so unstuck writing it for the concert. The work loosely captures my personal history with women - in particular, my ex-wife. We were only married for a month and a half, so it wasn't much of a marriage although it did create some angst. However, angst for a composer can be a good thing. Before I revised the work for the recording, the movements were titled Luck, Love, Loss and Laughter. The movement I had the most trouble with was Love. Surprise, surprise. When I revised it, I realized that Love was really a fifth movement called Lies. I wrote a new movement titled Love, which was now easy, and the work finally came together as Luck, Love, Lies, Loss and Laughter. You never know when inspiration is going to strike.

Valentine Concert
About a year later, Nate wrote for a huge collaborative concert we had with a flute quartet, Areon Flutes; flute soloist, Molly Barth; and four combined school choirs. He composed three brand new works for horn quartet and choir called Mother's Chocolate Valentine, Skeleton Hiccups, and To the Groundhog. As you have probably already surmised, they were all written with holidays in mind. Unfortunately, they turned out to be kind of difficult to sing as well. So, Nate, true to form, sang all the parts so that the choirs would have a tape to sing along with. He has a nice voice you know. Hearing him belt out those Soprano parts was pretty amazing.

Horns for the Holidays Album
I leave you with one final story about our Holiday CD. It is kind of a Nate/Daniel story, so you get two for the price of one here. Now, this album has a lot of our arrangements on it with even one original holiday carol by yours truly called Hug Santa for Me. (I guess I did my job well since the first time Lydia played it she asked, "Where is this carol from since I haven't heard it before?" I also got Amy Jo's son, Norty singing the melody endlessly. BEWARE - it can get stuck in your head.) Besides that tune, Nate and I arranged 30 of the other 48 minutes on the album. That is a fair amount of music.

Nate really likes the tune Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. So we talked about it a lot. We finally settled on having him arrange it for bell choir and horn quartet. That created the additional issue of finding a bell choir. Our recording session fell on a busy Saturday and a few ringers had to cancel last minute. Fortunately, Lydia knew a few people and we were able to get a full bell choir by the downbeat. Certainly is easier coordinating schedules with just four people!! Not much easier, but easier.

As for me, when we rehearsed Hug Santa for Me with our guest soloist, Jim Thatcher, the pacing just wasn't right. We had three hours between the rehearsal and the session. I took off to the local copy center and came back with new parts for the evening. Nothing like a deadline to spur creativity.

Now, I wasn't trying to go with a moral with all of these stories, but I guess all of it can be summed up in a top ten tips for composing and arranging:

10. Write it with plenty of time to spare for revisions and compositional angst.
9. Make sure you know where the nearest copy center always is.
8. Write for what you know and learn as much as you can.
7. Deadlines can help give you a kick in the pants.
6. Make it easy enough to play, but hard enough to keep it interesting.
5. Have a backup plan in case the musicians forget to show up.
4. Think about what you write, but let your ear be the judge.
3. Make sure you can sing/play/express your music if there is a question.
2. Mistakes can be new opportunities.
1. Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Oh, and if you want to check out that holiday CD I mentioned above, more info about it is here. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story, as told by Nathan Pawelek at Quadre's "Horns for the Holidays" CD Release Party (12/14/08)

My dad takes on many responsibilities during the holidays at church. There was one Christmas Eve service that had me clutching my pew cushion, two-handed, and looking at my shoes. Was I the only one embarrassed? I think he was at the peak of his energies, or the last reserves of his multi-tasking faculties before the onset of his post middle-aged years. He doesn’t take on quite as much these days. Part of me is relieved about that, but I do sometimes miss the vigor with which he handled his roles.

He has many abilities—cellist, tenor, playwrite, teacher. He also has plenty of ambition. He sees a way to doing all, and all is spurred on by the prospect of public approval. He seems busy to the point of frazzled, yes, but always with good intentions and always with a logical, if spontaneous, plan in his mind. He is not a delegator. If I can only move quicker, he must tell himself, as he run-walks from place to place with conviction. But for the most part it goes off okay, whatever it is.

For this particular Christmas Eve service, though he was not the minister, my dad had gotten himself in charge of delivering the main message. How could he present a fresh perspective on the holiday season, something new and transformative that congregation members would go home pondering as they lit their candles and prepared for their own family traditions?

Initially, he planned to write his own sermon, but he instead decided on a personalized version of Christmas in the Trenches. This is a true story about a brief unofficial cessation of hostilities between British and German troops on Christmas Eve in 1914. They emerged from their trenches along a front in France, exchanged gifts, food, cigarettes, song and camaraderie, and may have even played soccer. (Paul McCartney made a video about it on MTV years ago called Pipes of Peace).

My dad painstakingly adapted the story into a neat little piece for narrator and pantomimes. The senior high youth group, of which he was the leader, would dramatize the action. He thought it would be spectacular to have special lighting, real gun-fire sound effects, army uniforms, and wooden rifles that clicked (quietly) when you pulled the trigger. He spent a lot of time locating and renting the props and lighting, and then installing the lights himself.

As I recall, there was little rehearsal. I think he just sort of explained the basic idea to the teenagers, and that they should essentially improvise their blocking. He gave them their rifles and uniforms and told them to show up a little after the service started. Meanwhile, he had the choir and the orchestra to worry about. He was in both. Plus, he had the lobster dinner to prepare, which is a tradition in our house on Christmas Eve.

There was a lamp by his seat as cellist in the orchestra, one of ours from home. He said he couldn’t see his music. The church had only one music stand light, which was the organist’s. It must have looked like mood lighting to the congregation, adding a certain living room ambiance to the pulpit area, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just…different. But no one else in the orchestra had a lamp.

When the service started, my dad was seated in the orchestra, a piece-meal ensemble including a tenor sax and a baritone. He was the only cellist, and there beside him was that big lamp. The first few carols medley of the prelude went off pretty well for a group of amateurs. Then there was the first reading from Luke, another orchestra carol, and now it was the choir’s turn to sing. I wondered how he was also going to get up on stage? Space was tight and he seemed pretty well boxed in.

I watched as he hurriedly clunked down his cello and stepped over the lamp cord to the stage stairs. The choir was already assembled, waiting for him to join the tenors. Once the choir was finished singing, he quickly returned to the orchestra for the congregational hymn, where he carefully stepped over the lamp cord again and picked up his cello.

Maybe because I am his son and as such, overly critical, I found myself focused entirely on my dad that evening. To me, he was the side-show of the service. Once the hymn was done, dad got up to leave his orchestra seat, but not to join the choir this time. He wanted to make sure the teenagers were dressed and ready to go. He clunked down his cello again, and this time he didn’t step high enough over that cord. The lamp jerked off its pedestal, crashed to the floor barely missing his cello, and the light went out. Some people reacted with gasps. He picked up the limp lamp and tested the switch unsuccessfully, unmindful of the people watching him. It still didn’t work after he tried tightening the bulb. All this happened while the minister delivered the second Luke reading.

Leaving the lamp, he walked straight down the middle aisle, the same one the clergy used to process, to his army of teens in the back of the hall waiting with helmets and rifles. He’s a tall man, hard to miss. I thought he should have been more inconspicuous and ducked around to a side aisle. I remember he wore a cream-colored sweater, gray high-water corduroy pants, and brown zip-up boots that were trendy in the 1970s. This was the 1990s.

Just before the narration of Christmas in the Trenches, a competent soprano from the choir, Peggy, began singing O Holy Night with the organist accompanying. While she sang the first verse, my dad thought it wouldn’t hurt to quickly test the spotlights he’d installed, and they suddenly shined in Peggy’s eyes. She recoiled at the abrupt brightness, and her vibrato briefly widened. She blinked rapidly but kept going.

Then, during the second verse, unbelievably, as she approached the dramatic high C, we all suddenly heard gunshot. I knew what it was. He was now testing the sound effects. Peggy paused, calmly looked at the ceiling as if someone were up there banging around. I watched as she kept smiling, her hand poised in front of her like she was a conductor holding a fermata. The organist held the chord. And when the shots subsided, she took a huge breath and resumed like the machine gun fire was a natural part of the piece, hitting the high C boldly, exasperatingly, the way only a soprano would handle such a moment.

Christmas in the Trenches that followed was powerful, but it might have been more dramatic had the gunshot sound effects actually worked. When it was time, he pressed the button on his remote control to a Bose CD player in the back of the hall, but there were no sound effects. The teens, assembled impressively in uniform on stage with their rifles and helmets, suddenly had nothing to authenticate the pantomimed firefight. My dad furiously worked the remote like a joystick, holding it up over the congregation and pointing it to the back. The youth began doing what anyone would do, I suppose. They battled on, now making their own sound effects—explosions with their mouths, and pulling their triggers to steely soft clicks. They hunted each other, and I think I actually heard one whisper, “You’re dead. Hey I got you!”

During the candle lighting, dad’s role in the service was done, except for the orchestra’s Jingle Bells to close the service. I relaxed. When my candle was lit, I looked out across the congregation, a packed house with extra chairs set up in the lobby area, candles all ablaze. It was beautiful. I had forgotten about the rough moments of the service. And I did go home imagining those soldiers in WWI, despite having to look at my shoes in embarrassment. Those soldiers had the courage to come together in an absurd moment of good will. That was the fresh perspective on the season, successfully, if chaotically, imparted. And we, the congregation, who had come seeking renewal, were fulfilled. The music and the message delivered.

Our family lobster dinner was scrumptious. But dad was afraid he might cut himself on the shells so he came to the table wearing thick blue surgical gloves. He also complained of a cold coming on and had a dust mask on to protect us, “Like the Japanese do,” he rationalized.

While we ate he reflected in muffled voice, “Well the service wasn’t so bad, was it?” No. But that’s when we gently advised that he not take on so many roles in future Christmas Eve services. He didn’t make any promises that night, but he seems to have internalized the advice consequently. Those services, however, have not been as exciting in recent years. There is something to be said for the nuance of imperfection in the context of a genuine good effort to follow through with some pretty darn good ideas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to give successful chamber music outreach presentations

Hi everyone. This week our topic is all about an online interview I recently had with Tasha O'Neal, a masters student in horn performance at Louisana State University. I thought she asked great questions about the chamber music outreach experience. What follows gives you an idea for what Quadre has done over the years to connect to our audiences. Enjoy.

By Tasha O’Neal
Student, Masters in horn performance at Louisiana State University
November, 2008; Interviewing Daniel Wood of QUADRE

Question 1: Do you think it is important for musicians to go out into the community? Why?

Answer 1: I think it is absolute essential for musicians to go into the community to perform, educate, train, and share their art. I feel music making is an experience that should be shared with others. When we limit ourselves to traditional venues such as concert halls, clubs, and churches under traditional frameworks such as concerts, we create an environment where it is expected that the audience come to us. I feel it is a two way street where we, as artists, should make equal efforts to meet our audience on their turf whether it be a coffee house, school, park, or transit station. Additionally, I think it is important to expose people to great art and sometimes that requires us going to them so that they know we exist.

Q2: Why are you involved in Chamber music outreach?

A2: Our ensemble, QUADRE - The Voice of Four Horns, has been involved in chamber music outreach since we got started in 1998. This is due in large part to the fact that very few people were seeking us out in the beginning. It was a way for us to do audience development. It is also a large part of our mission as a not-for-profit music organization due to our experiences in residence in the state of Alabama in our third year. During that season we visited people in almost every environment you can imagine and were amazed at the enthusiastic response we received. We began to realize that we could make a real difference in people's lives if we broke down the barriers that can exist in a traditional concert setting. We have been hooked ever since.

Q3: Do you believe there is anything specifically unique to a chamber ensemble like a quartet or quintet doing outreach? What are some advantages or disadvantages of community engagement through these types of ensembles?

A3: I think chamber music can be a unique experience in outreach settings due to the intimacy of the performance and the variability of potential performance spaces. One huge advantage of being an acoustic chamber music ensemble of 2-10 people is that you can perform most anywhere. You don't need power hookups. One can memorize repertoire so that stands aren't necessary. And one can even learn how to stand and move about so that chairs become superfluous as well. Admittedly, certain acoustic instruments are hard pressed when it comes to these sources of strength. A cellist almost always needs a chair and an acoustic piano isn't exactly portable. However, by in large, the flexibility of a small ensemble is a huge plus. Another advantage is that most small groups can easily adapt to their changing environments by changing repertoire quickly, moving about, changing their banter, etc. These quick changes can be challenging for larger ensembles and more scripted acts.

In terms of disadvantages, I'm probably the wrong person to talk to since I don't think there are any. However, going out on a limb, I'd say that sometimes it is challenging to convey ones art in outreach settings. Given all the media that our society is bombarded with daily, a chamber ensemble can seem rather tame. With adequate training though, I think chamber ensembles can learn how to adapt to this shortcoming.

Q4: How do you accumulate the funds to partake in community outreach? Does your group actively seek grant money or are your services only offered to places that can afford to pay you or both? Do you believe all Chamber music outreach should be a free service paid for from an outside source or is there a give and take to this depending on the situation?

A4: I do think that is always important to place a value on what you are providing. Artists work hard to do what they do and should be compensating fairly for providing their services to the community. That said I do realize that there are many people who can’t afford our services at what we are worth, so–as a not-for-profit organization–we write grants to help subsidize our work. The artists donate their services for worthy causes on occasion. And our organization provides free tickets to our concerts to other not-for-profit health and social service organizations.

In terms of raising money for these kinds of activities, we also seek and receive funding from individual donors, corporations, and the local, state, and federal government in addition to grants from family and civic foundations. Service Clubs like the Kiwanis and Rotary have been supportive as well. Most of our funding comes from individual donors who serve not only as our audience, but help provide volunteer support at our events and outreach activities.

Q5: How important a step is it for you in choosing whom you provide outreach for?

A5: If an organization is interested in having us, unless it compromises our personal beliefs, we will do everything we can to provide them with our music. For unsolicited outreach, we consider who we wish to share our art, why we wish to collaborate with them, and whether it is feasible. What also comes to play is whether they are equally interested in having us. The best outreach is when both sides feel they have something to offer each other.

Q6: Who do you do outreach to? Do you only go where you have been invited or do you take an active part in where you perform?

A6: We have performed outreach everywhere including malls, retirement centers, schools, museums, gymnasiums, movie theaters, parks, beaches, amusement parks, churches, bridges, town centers, universities, libraries, concert halls, hotels, community centers, private homes, clubs, coffee houses, convention centers, restaurants, commercial high rises, planes, and trains. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. The populations of all these places are as varied as the places are. We are interested in connecting with people so whether we are invited or not, we do our best to forge this link.

Q7: Do you think chamber ensembles involved in outreach should be active in expanding their audience and whom they do outreach to? Have you done anything to expand the demographic of the outreach audience by playing in seemingly obscure places such as prisons?

A7: We have not played in a prison yet. Although, I’m not sure we would be able to expand our audience there. They are kind of limited in their ability to get out. Joking aside, I think we view all of our outreach experiences as ways to connect to a new population. They may choose to come to subsequent concerts or buy our CDs. They may just stay in touch via email, our blog, or one of our online social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. Whatever way we can help society to get in touch with their humanity through what we do is a wonderful thing.

Q8: Through your experience in community engagement, what have been some observations as far as audience response to your service? (Who is receptive to the outreach and how? Do you see a greater interest in instrumental music from your interactions? Etc.)

A8: I suppose the observations of our audience is based on their comments after the performance in the Q/A sessions, their enthusiasm during the outreach presentations, and notes that we receive in the subsequent weeks. I don’t believe that any one performance that we have done has had a lasting effect on an individual. But I do believe that our repeated performances in schools and community centers have given our audience a new perspective. Here are some sample comments from letters and emails we have received:

"Your four horns were truly one voice that drew pictures in each piece for me. Thank you for that evening!" (Audience Member)

"What a wonderful series of concerts you presented! The interactive program you designed was engaging and informative, and students and teachers alike were fascinated. It is a pleasure working with your group." (Arleen Pickett, Music in the Schools Director, Community School of Music and Arts)

“Chamber music is always a hard to ‘sell’ outdoors and the venue for your concert was a particularly difficult space. But Quadre managed to pull off a first-rate event that appealed to both families with young kids and seasoned chamber music aficionados.” (Jeffrey Sykes, Music in the Vineyards)

“The children learned lots while hearing beautiful music, and they are still talking about the experience. The classroom teachers have also expressed their appreciation for a program that was so educational.” (Kay Newman, St. James School)

Q9: What type of music do you perform for different outreach situations and why? Does the repertoire span time periods and genres?

A9: We perform a wide variety of music that spans time periods and genres. Unless we are asked to stick to a particular theme (e.g.: Romantic Music) or genre (e.g. American Music), we generally play what shows us off best and is able to connect the audience with us. Every work needs to be set up differently. For example, playing a Baroque fugue is going to require a certain amount of explanation and metaphors so the audience can appreciate what goes into it while a spiritual may be best explained by a poem or reading from a work of the time. Knowing your audience and their background is key in providing an outreach presentation that is successful.

Q10: How drastically or not at all do you change the repertoire and presentation style for different demographics? What are some examples in how you have done this?

A10: Our outreach varies dramatically based on the age group of the audience. The younger they are, the simpler the words and more interactive the program. The repertoire needn’t change although we would be more likely to play only 2-3 minutes of a complicated 20th century piece versus 5-6 minutes that we might spend with a older group. Concepts also needn’t change, but the way you engage your audience has to be sensitive to their current understanding of your art form. For example, we were engaged to perform 100 concerts in the San Francisco community for 1st and 2nd graders by the San Francisco Symphony. For that program we kept all our selections to 2-3 minutes, used a lot of interactive movements and questions, wove a plot into the presentation that included props and outfits, and made sure the program wasn’t longer than 30 minutes.

Q11: Specifically, how does your group present their program and how does this change depending on the audience?

A11: Our group presents different programs all the time. However, there are certain key aspects that we make sure to include in all of our outreach presentations. They are 1) telling our audience our names, 2) introducing every work either before or after they heard it so they have context, 3) keeping each work between 2-6 minutes in length, 4) making sure everyone in the ensemble speaks so that each of our personalities come through, 5) having a question and answer session at the end, 6) sharing what we do enthusiastically, 7) including interactive elements like clapping rhythms, singing, or call & response, and 8) giving them ways to get in touch with us later if they want to ask more questions or just stay connected.

Lengths and timings may change depending on the audience, but these core elements stay the same.

Q12: When interacting in a community, what are some things in your presentation have you found to work and be useful? What have been some failures in your presentations if any?

A12: I think it is always important to set the parameters of the outreach presentation and be very clear about what you do with the organizer. That said, it is also very important to be flexible when you arrive with a willingness “to go with the flow” as necessary. We always make sure we have access to the space prior to the presentation. We make sure to understand with time limitations they may be under. We make sure to get everything in writing with signed contracts. We also always go in with the attitude that the audience is going to be educated, respectful, and receptive. Until they prove us otherwise, we approach them like we would any other group. We also make sure to set limits and expectations as any teacher or speaker would.

The failures we have learned from would be a very long list! You don’t do this for over ten years and 700 performances without a lot of failures. In short, we have learned everything prior to this sentence by doing it. We would present an outreach performance and then talk about what worked and what didn’t. We would then sculpt a new strategy for the next time. There was no book to tell us what to do or teacher to guide us. We learned in trial by fire. Thank goodness individuals like you are taking the time to research what the experience is like so that others may benefit. My hat is off to you.

Q13: Can you give me some specific examples of positive and negative experiences you've had in the outreach process in general?

A13: In general, it has been a very satisfying experience. We have made new friends, touched the lives of many, and perhaps changed the lives of a few. Every time I see an audience member laugh, cry, or clap during our performance I’m touched and motivated to keep doing what I can to connect with them.

On the other side of the coin, the outreach process has been a hard, long road to success. It hasn’t been easy and has been very frustrating at times. Nothing is worse than playing for an audience and getting no reaction when you finish. No applause. No comments. Nothing. It makes you question what you are doing. However, you learn from the experience and figure out why it happened and what you can do better next time so that it is more successful.

Q14: Is being involved in outreach something you enjoy doing? Do you enjoy executing community engagements to some types of people more than others? (For example, do you enjoy working with children more than adults or does this not matter for you?)

A14: It does not matter whom I perform for. I honestly enjoy it all.

Q15: What have you learned from community interactions with chamber music?

A15: I’ve learned that no two schools are alike. I’ve learned that everyone’s perspective is meaningful on some level. I’ve learned that there is nothing more difficult or more enjoyable that pulling off the “perfect” show. I’ve learned that the community will respond if you give them something to react to (e.g.: if you are fun and engaging, your audience most likely will be receptive and inquisitive.) I’ve learned that there is a huge world out there with a lot of different opinions and that music and the arts in general can be a wonderful unifying conduit for meaningful dialogue.

Q16: Do you think outreach training or experience should be implemented in college level study? Why or why not?

A16: From what I can tell, it already is. And I’m very happy that is the case. I’ve given talks on audience engagement at the Eastman School of Music, which has a very exhaustive Music for All program that teaches students how to give great outreach presentations in the Rochester community. I’ve also heard and interacted with other schools with have similar programs such as: Julliard, Peabody, San Francisco Conservatory, UCLA, and the University of Oregon to name a few. I definitely think more can be done. And I do think that the expectations for successful outreach presentations should be much higher than they are currently. However, I do witness throughout the industry a willingness to actively engage in conversation about the topic and make changes in how we reach the audiences of tomorrow.