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.