Innovating Through Artistry

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CAEF: A**ess This!

In Author: Melissa Snoza, Authors, Creativity and Innovation, Current Events, Entrepreneurial Tool Box, Music, Theater/Film, Writing on October 24, 2009 at 11:27 pm


Yesterday, I attended the second in a series of events presented by the Chicago Arts Educators Forum, an initiative started by Merissa Shunk and Nicole Losurdo and sponsored by CAPE. This community of teachers, teaching artists, and organizations explores common challenges and opportunities in arts education in the Chicago area.

This day of discussions and workshops centered around assessment, everyone’s favorite part of the process when designing an educational program or residency. Confronting the negativity that surrounds this process head-on, the organizers created a parking garage for frustrations (participants wrote their biggest challenges on sheets of paper taped to toy cars and “parked” them for the day) and an anonymous confessional that also served as the event’s video documentation.

Why so negative? Many artists and organizations view assessment as something they must do for their funders and for the public. So many of us have found ourselves daunted by the task of evaluating the same programs several different ways using the specific criteria presented by those who have provided support. It begins to feel like the process of assessment is about teaching to the test – making sure that the outcome fit the objectives set forth by the organization and its funders.

But what other purposes can this process serve? A question that became a lightbulb moment for many participants was: “Who is this assessment for?” Of course, we’re responsible to those who provide support, but the assessment and evaluation process is also meaningful tools for students, teachers, teaching artists, and organizations if done in a way that captures the depth of the work. In this way, we begin to connect our larger objectives and the activities that accomplish them to our assessment tools, rather than putting the cart before the horse by using a standardized method.

Another theme that resurfaced multiple times was the question of how to quantify social and emotional progress, or literacy and cognitive skills that become evident in work samples more clearly than in a multiple-choice test. In the case studies we examined, many organizations found themselves asking students to take pre- and post-residency surveys, asking questions like “Do you feel a personal connection to these characters” on a scale from 1-5. Often, the difference in responses wasn’t meaningful.

A great start to the answer of this question was presented in Dennie Palmer Wolf’s keynote presentation. She displayed pre- and post-residency work samples from the same student, showing the difference in the vocabulary and depth after working with the teaching artist. One could feasibly assign a number scale to these factors to chart progress, in addition to having the samples available for review. Or, she showed diaries of a day in the life of two students, one of which was participating in an arts program, with yellow highlights on the parts of the day where the student felt personally and deeply engaged. Having five of those moments instead of one is a measurable and meaningful effect of the influence this program has.

The day really helped me and the rest of our staff think much differently about how we assess, evaluate, measure, and document our work, and how connected those tools must be to our own objectives rather than a pre-designed template. The funny part is, making these tools authentic in this way will result in data that can then be pulled to highlight the factors a funder will want to see, while telling a richer story that will be meaningful to our organization, the students, teachers, parents, and schools we serve.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

The Great Balancing Act

In Author: Melissa Snoza, Creativity and Innovation, Entrepreneurial Tool Box, Health & Wellness on September 28, 2009 at 7:02 am

In thinking about what topics might be useful for entrepreneurially-minded arts folks, I was reminded of a question that came up at a career skills roundtable that Fifth House led at the University of Northern Iowa that struck me as particularly timely, yet not frequently asked.

A student raised her hand and asked, “How do you balance your professional and home lives? Do you have enough time for a marriage and family?”

Having prepped ourselves for questions about self-promotion, fundraising, organizational development, and the like, this came a little out of left field. In retrospect, I’m so glad she voiced this, because it’s a real challenge that any small business owner will face head-on.

Being in the building stages of a rapidly growing small arts organization, and being in the first decade of our professional careers individually, none of us had particularly encouraging things to say about how much time we’re able to devote to ourselves and to those we love. Starting a business can mean that you work 98% of the day, with your laptop in one hand and PDA in another. Always reachable, always on the clock.

The good part about this is that you’re spending a ton of energy and resources on the one thing that you wake up and fall asleep thinking about. It is the passion for our work that fuels our desire to strike out on our own in the first place, and to selflessly understand that the 9-5 workday doesn’t really exist in any project’s infancy.

But what about the risk of burnout, failed relationships, or medical ill-effects? Most people can’t keep up a the fevered start-up pace forever, and those that do tend to lose at other parts of their life, even as they win. As the amount and quality of the work/gigs/business you are generating grows, it’s time to begin to trim the bonsai and focus on those things that are important both in your business and at home.

This means choosing your projects and engagements more carefully, delegating wisely, scheduling your work time AND your play time, and remembering one of the wisest business lessons I ever heard: EFFICIENCY is the ability to work faster, EFFECTIVENESS is the ability to decide what to do and when. It also means beginning to outsource those parts of your business that someone else can do better and faster.

One of the members of our group has a friend who religiously kept Shabbat (the weekly day of rest that has its equivalent in many major religions) even through the most hectic parts of her college years. When he asked her how on earth she could afford to do it given the huge number of activities she was involved in, she replied, “How can you afford NOT to?” Having  one day to refresh and recharge gave her the energy she needed to tackle the week, and made her focus on working smart and meeting her deadlines in preparation for the day off.

It’s a lesson we can all learn and apply in our own way. Whether it’s scheduling an afternoon with your spouse, creating a daily ritual that includes exercise and time for reflection, or becoming involved in a group activity that has nothing to do with your professional life, the change of pace keeps the mind fresh, the body in balance, and the creativity flowing.

And now, to read this post 40 more times until it sinks in…!

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

The Grass is Always Greener (for making green)

In Author: Melissa Snoza, BOOKS: Learn and Grow, Interesting Articles, Legal, Marketing, Money on September 5, 2009 at 9:21 pm

First, a big thanks to fellow ETA blogger David Cutler for featuring Fifth House Ensemble in his new book, the Savvy Musician, advance copies of which are available on his website prior to the full release in November. If you’ve been reading his posts, you know that David brings an incredible energy to the concept of being a working, entrepreneurial musician, and his book is sure to be a great resource all of us who are working to create new opportunities in the field.

In an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David’s mention of 5HE’s dual business model was mentioned. When we formed in 2005, we created both a 501(c)3 nonprofit (Fifth House Ensemble) and an LLC for our private events business (Amarante Ensembles, LLC). Same folks, different purpose.

As a young group, we knew we wanted to provide a wide variety of services, including those that would serve the public good (performances, educational programs), as well as those that would help to keep us fed (weddings, private events). We formed both businesses at the same time in order to be able to keep these activities separate financially, and in order to be able to market them in completely different ways.

Since the article was published, I’ve been getting many inquiries from arts organizations both established and emerging about how and why we did this, wondering if the same model would work for them. Interestingly, in most cases the concern is less about the types of services being provided and the best business structure to manage them, and more about how to raise the most money in the shortest amount of time. Inevitably, those who began as a for-profit think that they will raise more from donated funds as a non-profit, and vice-versa.

My first question is always, “why do you want to do this?” A business structure is about the most effective way to manage the types of services you want to offer, so you have to consider what is a good fit for your goals, not just your bank statement.

If you are a performing arts organization that is committed to work in the public schools and bringing performances to underserved audiences, changing from not-for-profit to an LLC will not help you raise funds from venture capitalists, unless something changes about the services you offer. What will you tell them about their return on investment? And do the people you are serving have the resources to pay big bucks for what you do?

Conversely, if you are a for-profit company that has been successful selling tickets to shows, merchandise, and DVDs, and you are attracted to the extra money you think you will bring in as a non-profit but loathe paperwork, is switching to 501(c)3 status really a good fit? Given that you don’t want to be the one to do grantwriting, annual reporting, financial management worthy of public scrutiny, board agendas, and all of the other tasks that go into managing a nonprofit, you may end up paying staff a large part of the added revenue you would see from changing structures.

The only real reason to have a split structure (in my opinion) is if you have services that are distinctly different enough to warrant that. If there is overlap, not only is the purpose for your choice not clear, but you also risk running afoul of the IRS. I remember fondly the conversation I had with Mr. Botkins, the IRS agent who reviewed our 501(c)3 application, about how we had created these two entities for the sole PURPOSE of keeping for- and non-profit activities separate. The IRS doesn’t like seeing for- and non-profit organizations to be connected in any way, via common control (similar officers/managers), contracts, or other financial arrangements.

Know yourself, the type of work you want to do, your tolerance for paperwork, and the types of people you want to serve. Be realistic about how much you have the potential to earn or raise. If the structure you are considering isn’t a good fit for your services, don’t be tempted to follow what you perceive to be the greener pasture, or you may certainly find yourself out in the cold. The best way to get more green is to make sure that what you do is serving the people around you in the best possible way, which will inspire customers to pay for your work, or donors to support its creation.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

PEAK Performances

In Author: Melissa Snoza, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on July 31, 2009 at 6:39 pm

We tend to think of a peak performance as something we view as transformative from our own perspective, but are we the only ones in the room?

 I recently attended two workshops presented by the Arts Engagement Exchange which addressed the concept of psychographics as applied to marketing and programming in the arts.

The first was a lecture by Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre, California’s largest boutique hotel company. He recently wrote a book titled PEAK, in which he applied Maslow’s heirarchy of needs pyramid to multiple facets of an organization (customers, employees, etc.).

He also explained how rather than using demographics, he used psychographics to design his hotels and reach his customers. Each hotel he builds is modeled after a magazine, as Conley feels that the magazine industry does a fantastic job in creating an identity-refreshing experience for its readers. Need other brands that do the same? How about Apple or Prius – both of these products give the person who buys them a bit of a psychological boost, reinforcing the self-image and beliefs they espouse.

In applying his ideas to the arts, he presented three layers to the needs pyramid, the lowest being “entertain me,” then “move me,” then “transform me.” As an example, he shared an experience he had in London with a theater company that presented a moving play highlighting issues relating to racial bias, and presented by actors with disabilities.

The program itself was moving, but then the company invited the audience to stay and participate group discussions to explore the issues brought about during the performance. To Conley’s surprise, about 80% of the audience stayed. His group of 60 people stayed in discussion until 3am.

In this way, Conley described the performance as having fulfilled his expectations, his desires, and lastly, desires he didn’t know he had. He had no idea before coming to the performance that he would find himself engaged in a room of strangers, brought together by a common cultural experienced that inspired them to share stories and ideas through the night.

Following this, AEE presented a full-day workshop, where organizations could send two staffers to help to explore their audience psychographic. Groups were challenged to create specific, named identities for their core and target audience members, and were asked probing questions about their favorite place to buy shoes, choice in mobile phones, and spiritual beliefs.

We also had the opportunity to share ideas about how our organizations meet needs, desires, and more, from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to online ordering to backstage passes.

It’s an interesting thing, viewing the concert experience from your patron’s eyes. Next time you go to a show, take notes. Was it easy to find? Did you have to pay to park? Was there enough/not enough/too much information in the programs?

And how did this shape your opinion of the artistic experience before a single note was played?

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

Asparagus: The Long View

In Author: Melissa Snoza, Cooking & Food, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS, Money, Music, Risk on June 13, 2009 at 2:42 am

Perhaps it’s the economy, but garden centers nationwide are finding themselves having trouble keeping vegetable plants on the shelf this season. Having started my journey with a few tomato, cucumber, and squash plants myself over the past couple of years, I was one of the many inspired to take my efforts to a whole new level this season.

So, I dutifully go off to my local home improvement center, rent some heavy machinery, and cut out 50 more feet of plant bed to house my new garden. I till, I mulch, I compost, and finally, I plant.

Of the many types of veggies I laid in the ground this spring, one of the most curious is asparagus. I had never attempted to grow this odd little vegetable before, and most people don’t have any idea what the plant looks like, or how it grows, based on the look of the tender spears we buy neatly rubber banded together at the grocery store.

Starting an asparagus patch begins with tilling the soil deep, breaking up rocks, adding rich organic material, and digging trenches in which the bare roots will be laid. Then, you cover with a couple of inches of loose soil, and wait.

Finally, little baby spears come out of the ground, and you begin, little by little, to add more soil to the deep trenches. With patience, you’ll have topped the plants with enough soil to level the surface. Each asparagus spear grows straight out of the ground, reaching its full height in a single day. They don’t get taller or fatter after this point, rather, the tips that we enjoy munching on leaf out and become like miniature christmas trees, sucking up sunlight and feeding the roots below.

So, once you see the little shoots emerge, it’s dinner time, right? Wrong.

Even with 2-year crowns, most gardeners wait a full one to two more seasons for their first harvest. Those tempting, green stalks that scream “EAT ME!” during that time have to be left alone, because the newly-laid roots need the energy they provide to establish strong roots that will produce year after year.

And now, the point. Those of us who have made the commitment to create, establish, nurture, and feed a new entrepreneurial project have much to learn from this ferny wonder. As freelance artists, most of us are trained to think in gigs – how much $$, how much time. Being an entrepreneur is something else entirely. When you seek to write the checks, not have them handed to you, you make the commitment to take the long view.

One of the most successful ensembles I know spent their first five years feeding their roots. During that time, every dollar of income they made went straight back into their business. Forgoing the usual small income that they could have paid themselves initially, they chose instead to put their money into marketing, press materials, and large artistic goals.

At the end of this nurturing period, they had enough money to commission a very well-known composer. As a result of this project, they became the ensemble of choice for the newly-created work, performing it at a large venue in NYC, which came with a stunning review in the NY Times.

Then, their world changed overnight. Booking agents who had stubbornly refused to answer their calls were responding with engagements, and tours were scheduled nationwide. Dates were planned so well in advance, that the players were able to create a yearly budget, prioritize providing health insurance, and pay themselves a salary for their work that was more regular than a per-service fee.

Had they chosen to harvest too early, they may have been able to afford more trips to Starbucks, but wouldn’t have achieved the commission that launched them to national attention. Consider how the lowly asparagus might have something to teach you. Would a web redesign yield more profit than expensive dinners out? Would better quality press kits make more of an impact than a couple of months of cable? Sacrifices in the short term lead to long-term, sustainable success. The asparagus patch understands this.

After that initial few years of gaining strength, it continues producing heavily with very little effort for over 25 years. I can’t say that a career in the arts will take as little attention as this, but it can certainly feed you as well if you give it the right start.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

The Power of Partnerships

In Author: Melissa Snoza, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on May 6, 2009 at 9:31 am

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Chicago Arts Educators Forum event, titled “What is a Partnership?” CAEF is a fantastic new organization sponsored by the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, and formed by two like-minded Directors of Education: Merissa Shunk from Adventure Stage Chicago and Nicole Losurdo from The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University.

As the title would suggest, this was a day full of workshops centered around building successful partnerships in education. Lectures were led by accomplished experts, and breakout sessions gave smaller groups of participants the opportunity to explore topics in greater detail.

One of the most interesting breakout sessions I attended focused on this question:

What do we learn as organizations from partnering across disciplines?

Because cross-disciplinary collaboration is central to the mission of Fifth House, this is a subject that our staff explores on a daily basis. Participants wondered, “How do I select an effective collaborative partner? How do we split up our tasks? Who’s in charge? What if we have different work styles/speeds? How do we make these two art forms work together? Why bother doing this in the first place – it’s so much work!”

Why bother?

It’s the concept of 1 + 1 = MORE. When two organizations/people/artists/genres/subjects come together effectively, the result is usually more than the sum if its parts would suggest. Think of how your favorite scene in any movie would be without its soundtrack. Dry as toast? The music sets the mood, inspires emotion, and heightens the intensity of the scene. Put it all together, and you’re out of Kleenex.

From an educational standpoint, as many of the teaching artists and organizations participating in CAEF can attest to, arts integration in the classroom allows students to connect to core subjects and to the art form in deeper, more meaningful ways than if each were presented separately. These collaborations between artists and classroom teachers support diversity in learning, reaching students who were previously not engaged through more conventional means.

So, we know it’s worth it. But, the process is a challenge – often we see two groups of people who speak different languages, and even with the best of intentions, it can be difficult to iron out the logistics of making the planning stages run smoothly. Where do we begin?

First, find the right partner. The want ad for a collaborative partner would be daunting at best. You’re looking for an organization that achieves excellence in its art at the highest possible level. And, in most cases, organizations don’t form partnerships – people do. So, you’re looking for an individual who you…LIKE! You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, so it should be someone who is open, responsive, and has a sense of humor (at least in a perfect world). It should be someone who answers your emails and phone calls in a timely enough fashion (read: not a time suck), and who is genuinely excited about the mutual end goal.

You’ve found your partner. How do you decide who does what, and who is in charge? Figure out what each organization brings to the party, and let them do what they do best without trying to fit them into a mold. The most successful artistic collaborations I’ve participated in resulted from the process of allowing artists to run with a general idea first, without too many boundaries or suggestions.

As an example, if we’re working with a dance company or a visual artist, it is not my place as a musician to dictate exactly what I want them to produce. We can start with a general concept, but in the best case we give the collaborative artist the freedom to take the ball as far as they want to run with it, then we merge back together once they’ve created something they are proud to call their own. Often, we come up with a project that is in many ways completely different from what we would have imagined ourselves, yet infinitely better.

In the classroom, we may come into a curriculum-integrated residency with some ideas in mind, but we generally have the teacher we are working with lay out some of the general learning goals and framework of the unit prior to collaborating on the design of our activities. They are, after all, the experts, and they know their audience better than we do. It’s at that point that we sit down together to answer the question, “how can music help students to better understand ocean ecosystems?”

Having a true partnership, rather than one organization that sub-contracts another, takes a significant amount of planning time. There are reasons that it takes us a year to program each subscription series we do prior to the first note we play, and most of them have to do with the increased amount of learning and communication that have to happen between organizations and disciplines. You have to know your partner and their strengths, and understand their timeframes in order to be successful.

As one of the keynote speakers pointed out, it is possible, and often a great experience, to work with a partner who is in some ways “difficult.” You may find an artist or organization who is phenomenal at what they do, but the partnership is limited by personality differences or work styles. These can still function as long as there is a way to find common ground, much in the same way as those of us who do PR work need to learn how each media contact prefers to be reached, and how NOT to call them when they are on deadline.

But, don’t get pulled into working with an organization that proves to be a time suck – one that doesn’t return calls, ignores emails, falls through repeatedly on commitments, and in general proves to be unreliable. This is an investment that never pays off, and the product always reflects the process.

In short, do what you do best, and allow others to do what they do best. Learn from each other, and keep your mind open to the new possibilities that arise – this is, after all, why you wanted to collaborate in the first place. Thanks again to CAEF for a great day of discussion – looking forward to the next session in October!

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

Fifth House at AEEN!

In Author: Melissa Snoza, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on April 11, 2009 at 6:04 pm

A couple of summers ago, I met the amazing Gary Beckman at the Brevard Conference on Music Entrepreneurship. I was truly inspired by the ways in which he encouraged students to begin the process of starting their own entrepreneurship ventures while in school, and was also intrigued by his extensive research on the state of arts entrepreneurship programs in this country. Gary manages the Arts Entrepreneurship Educator’s Network, a rich resource for higher education institutions and arts entrepreneurship programs which can be found at www.ae2n.net.

Recently, Gary interviewed me about my work with Fifth House Ensemble. A copy of the interview is available at the AEEN website, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share it here. Thanks again, Gary, for the fantastic work you do!

GB: How did the Fifth House Ensemble begin?

MS: Fifth House officially formed in 2005. There were several of us who had recently finished a tenure with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and who had played together in orchestra and chamber music settings for years. Interestingly, the inspiration for this type of work came from our experiences in Civic’s MusiCorps program, not the more formal performances in Symphony Center. MusiCorps sent out chamber ensembles to small, unique venues for performances, classes, and coachings, and this gave us the opportunity to have more control over what we played and how we presented it. We also got the experience of watching the “light bulbs” go off with audience members in such an intimate setting. The idea of being able to create a career path for ourselves that allowed us this kind of access to our audience was very attractive, and we all had a serious love for chamber music as an art form.

GB: Why did the ensemble elect to have such a robust mission for such a small non-profit organization and is the boldness of the mission a hinderance or an asset?

MS: Definitely an asset. There were two major decisions we made as an ensemble that I believe have been critical to our success. First, we decided to run our organization as a business, as opposed to simply staging a few concerts and taking things as they came. Second, we wanted to find our point of difference, recognizing that new chamber ensembles crop up every hour. Finding specific ways to focus what we do in a way that serves our audience and the general artistic landscape has proved to be so valuable in distinguishing our group from the crowd. Moving forward, our mission helps us to guide our efforts as we grow, ensuring that we’re staying on point with the core values that mean the most to us. I’m proud, and a bit humbled, to say that most critics, presenters, donors, and audience members who read about us then experience what we do make the comment that we really walk the talk when it comes to our mission statement, something that many sources have told me is another point that sets us apart as an organization. And, it’s working – at a time when the economy is having a real effect on nonprofits, we’ve grown 40% a year.

GB: What where the marketing imperatives you hand in mind with the design of your website?

MS: Plain and simple, we wanted a dynamic, engaging website that was capable of telling the story of what we do through image, word, and sound. Because of the scope of our mission and programs, it was incredibly hard to come up with a single look that encapsulated all of what we offer. What seemed to speak well to the edgy, innovative side of our live performances didn’t feel right when it came to curriculum-integrated educational programs and entrepreneurship training. So, we went with a very clean, simple Flash site that allowed for large, vibrant images and color shifting to help tell the story, rather than relying on too many design elements that would either pigeonhole the whole site or make different sections of it look so disconnected that they wouldn’t flow. Next, ask me how much we paid for it.

GB: Is Fifth House engaged in any Social Entrepreneurship activities – or are there any plans to delve into this area?

MS: None other than the larger mission of offering audiences of every type the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with classical music, and to discover the art form in a way that is relevant. That in itself is a social change that is plenty hard enough to make, given the many choices people have on how to spend their free time and money. We are, however, always pleased to lend a hand to other organizations that do this type of work, having been featured on a CD for I-Go Cars and at the Driehaus Fashion Awards this Spring, which raises something like $150K annually to support social service nonprofits.

GB: How important is your blog and frequent mentioning of supporters and donors in ” reaching out to” and “maintaining” audiences?

MS: Honestly, most of our marketing efforts are online. We’ve found our website, mailing list, blog, Facebook, Myspace, InstantEncore and Twitter pages to be some of the most low-cost and highly effective means of broadcasting information about concerts and other happenings, and of letting people know about opportunities to support our organization. We do list our supporters on our website and in our programs, and special mention is made of donors to any of our wacky fundraising events on our blog. I think it’s great to see your name in lights, and we’re happy to provide that experience to anyone who invests in what we do. The online tools are great also because people can network and talk about you freely, which is always fun to watch.

GB: Many successful ensembles have something unique that emerges during performance – an intangible that makes the ensemble “click.” Is there a similar “feel” when the ensemble makes decisions about Fifth Houses’ professional direction and “business” decision making?

MS: Absolutely. There is no success without a fantastic team, and I am so lucky to work with such an incredible group of talented, funny, irreverant, warm, overly energetic, and intelligent people. Like any young organization, particularly a chamber group of our size, we’ve had some turnover when people’s lives take them in a different direction after a period of time. The process of growing up as a group has made us so much more focused in what we look for in an ensemble player, to the point where finding the right fit comes down to a really unique mix of playing ability, personality, skills, and a good catalog of dirty jokes.

We know who we are, and we’ve experienced first-hand the incredible growth that can happen when you have a team of people who are all focused on the same thing. There’s an energy that happens when everyone is 100% behind the mission, and it makes the hard financial decisions and sacrifices of time that are an inevitable part of starting any venture par for the course, rather than sources of contention. All of that groundwork is starting to pay off – at this point in our development, based on what is happening around us when it comes to response and performance opportunities, it’s like we’ve been ascending the slow climb and are just about to go over the falls. The tipping point is a very exciting place to be.

GB: Have you experienced any “push back” (from the more elitist chamber music critics, or others) for doing what you do?

MS: Of course, what we do with what we call connective programming isn’t going to be for absolutely everyone. We do strange things! Pairing music with an original storyline, using projections, cutting back and forth between movements of different works – these are all things that on paper seem like they’re disruptive if you are used to a specific way of enjoying classical music. All I can say is, come to a show. We’ve had everyone from Chicago Symphony board members to people who would never under normal circumstances pay money to see classical music in our audience together, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. We consistently hear that the connections we make with dramatic storylines and other art forms help people to actively connect to what they’re hearing.

Here’s the interesting part from the performer’s perspective. The first and most obvious point is that without an incredibly high level of musical artistry, none of this works. No one wants to pay to hear good music played badly, no matter what else is going on in the room. That means it’s a gimmick, and that would be the worst public statement we could make about classical music. The decisions we make come from the music, and we believe in them artistically – we’re not just wearing funny hats to distract people from the fact that we can’t play. Second, having to make these connections requires the performer to really get to know a piece of music in depth using dramatic analysis. This is part of the process of selecting the right musical/non-musical pairing, and also highlighting your decisions in how you choose to interpret the performance musically. It really makes you flex your musical muscles in a new way, and helps you to rediscover things about works that are familiar. And lastly, contrary to what you might think, interspersing movements from different works of different styles is a HUGE challenge in live performance. Often, we’re working with multiple setups on the same stage, so we’re traveling back and forth in character, and having to reset our concepts of sound to fit the work we’re about to play. It’s not easy, but it creates the same type of concurrent dramatic lines that occur in a soap opera or movie. We’re used to thinking this way when we’re watching TV, and we’re bringing the concept to our music.

GB: How important is early childhood music education to the ensemble and why did the ensemble elect to delve into this area.

MS: K-12, and, in the case of most of our residencies, K-8 standards-based, customizable residencies are a central part of what we do. We very much feel that a significant part of building new audiences for chamber music is starting early, and the great thing about what’s evolved as our organization has grown is that there is a very clear parallel between what we do on the concert stage and what we do in the classroom. In our performances, we link music to storylines (as in our subscription series), to our venues (performing Voice of the Whale at the Shedd Aquarium on the same day the baby beluga was open to the public for the first time), and to other art forms (performing JacobTV’s Lipstick, The Body of Your Dreams, and Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse alongside the work of emerging fashion designers at the Driehaus Fashion Awards). The point of this is, once again, to create relevance.

In the classroom, we use music to teach core curricular subjects in collaboration with a classroom teacher. This year’s residencies were Music and Geology (ocean ecosystems), Music and Poetry, and Multicultural Influences in Western Music. We have a system we use to develop lesson plans with classroom teachers so we make sure that we support what they do, rather than hijacking their class time. What we’re finding is that this method supports diversity in learning by allowing students who have trouble with comprehension using traditional means an alternative way to experience these subjects. And, we’re finding that students connect to both subjects more fully through exploring their relationship and having to get to know each well enough to make the connection. It’s the same process I was describing earlier when talking about our connective programming process – we have to know the music inside and out to link it to other things.

Oddly, the more disparate the topics, the more interesting the residency. We discovered this with the Music and Geology residency, where we found parallels between the balance of living/non-living parts of an ecosystem and the musical ecosystem that is a live chamber ensemble. When the group isn’t in balance, the whole performance changes. Students ran experiments on us, having certain members play louder, softer, higher, faster, and backwards to show how these changes affect the whole. And, the concept of pollution translates to how an audience or other external force can impact a live performance (positive and negative), so that became its own activity.

In addition to classroom time, students present their final projects in live assembly performances with members of our ensemble. All of a sudden, students are personally invested in the musical choices they make as a result of the residency, and they’re proud to present their work in front of 500 peers. And, students in the audience are much more engaged because they’re getting spoken text, projected images, and live music, all to support a learning goal.

If you’re one that feels more programs like this need to exist, we’re right there with you, and we’re working with a team of curriculum experts to develop a system for transferring our work to other ensembles and organizations nationwide. As a result of some of the partnerships we’ve built in Chicago, it looks likely that other ensembles in the city will be using our work as early as next year. Why would we do this? Going back to the social change question, we’re a service organization. We can only be in one place at one time, so to affect a larger change requires us to get more people out there doing the work we do. It’s a part of the larger picture that we’re after.

GB: What advice can you give to aspiring chamber ensembles still in college?

MS: START NOW. While it might seem like college is a bad time because of how many pressures there are, and how many things are taking up your time, it’s also an incredibly safe environment to start to incubate an idea. You’re free from many of the practical concerns that become a required part of your daily life once you leave school (paying bills, for one), so it’s a great opportunity to get things started with minimal risk. You also have a built-in support network of professors, and a powerful volunteer base of peers. Once you leave, all of these things take more effort, planning, and money. And, if you happen to have a half-baked idea the first time, all you’ve lost is your pride, not your mortgage.

Other than that, find that thing that makes you different as a performer or ensemble, and find the way in which what you do brings value to other people’s lives. These are the things that have worked well to bring us opportunities in excess of what we would have purely as a high-caliber performing ensemble.

GB: How did Fifth House “learn” how to become a non-profit, develop its priorities and take its first steps?

Stubbornness and sleepless nights. There are those among us who have worked in arts administration before, namely myself with my experience in Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program and with the Rochester Philharmonic, and our Director of Artistic Programming’s experience with the Boston Pops. I’d love to say that past experience prepared me fully, but it didn’t. It’s the same as if you were to work as an employee of a large corporation, then decide to take your skills and start your own consulting firm. You may have the knowledge to do what you do, but managing the business and getting the word out are skills that you need to acquire. I can’t endorse the Nolo books highly enough – stacks of those from my local library helped me to create the proper forms to incorporate, and guided me through the process of doing the 36-page tax document that is the 501(c)3 application myself. I’ve learned Quickbooks, grantwriting, PR skills, and a whole host of other things in service of this organization, and it’s been fun.

As far as developing priorities and taking first steps, I think a lot of what I believe about the direction I wanted to take with classical music had its roots during my study at Eastman. Many of the seminars and courses were focused on the changes that are taking place in the arts environment, and how organizations are (and aren’t) responding in a meaningful way. I knew I wanted to be part of the change so I wouldn’t get left behind.

But, the biggest thing has been not being afraid to ask for advice. Along the way, at Eastman and up to this morning, I’ve sought counsel from people that I think have succeeded at parts of what we’re trying to do. This includes other artists, educators, and professionals of every discipline. Why reinvent the wheel when there are experts who are willing and available to share what they’ve learned?

The best part is that we’re now in a position to be that resource for others, and I can’t tell you how good that feels. Knowing that we’re developing courses and curriculum for higher education music students and for other ensembles in the marketplace means that we’re helping the arts environment in a larger way. And, when people thank me for my time after seeking advice about anything from project development to managing the interpersonal dynamic in a team, I’m always quick to say that I would never be here if it weren’t for the scores of other people who were willing to do the same for me. Paying it forward is great.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.

Never Surrender

In Author: Melissa Snoza, Music on April 3, 2009 at 2:11 am

First off, I just have to say how excited I am to be a part of the Entrepreneur the Arts blogroll! Lisa has done a fantastic job of building this community, and I’m looking forward to sharing some tips from the road that I’ve picked up as a young music entrepreneur. To get a sense for what I’ve been up to when a wiser person would be sleeping, please visit Fifth House Ensemble’s website at www.fifth-house.com.

This being my first blog post for ETA, I thought I’d explore a little-discussed truth that affects us all as artists, and one that applies whether you choose to explore the entrepreneurial life or not.

I did my undergraduate degree at the Eastman School of Music, and one of the many things I loved about the school was that its size was such that there was hardly a face you didn’t know while walking down Gibbs Street. As a freshman, having the opportunity to work (and play) with upperclassmen was a definite bonus, and allowed me to take advantage of the culture and work ethic that pervades the school.

During my first year, I got to know a fantastic trumpet player who was a senior at the time. Aside from showing me the ropes at the school, including how to dodge the security guards to get into the best spaces to practice late at night, he gave me a piece of advice that has served me well to this day. Put simply:

Never suck.

Ever.

Under any circumstances.

I remember him telling me that you never know who is going to be listening, and when they’re going to be in a position to sign your next paycheck.

As student or professional musicians, we’ve all been there. It could be that rural church gig on a dreary Sunday in February, the interminable joy that is 8:30 am conducting seminar, or a reading of a newly composed work that you don’t know well enough to enjoy yet. There are so many circumstances when we can be tempted to let our musical guard down, surrendering to the lowest common denominator of apathy and artistic morning breath that can become the norm on some types of jobs.

We slouch, we play with an unsupported sound, we daydream. In short, we don’t do our best, because it doesn’t matter, right? Who’s going to care if that high C doesn’t speak? And who ARE these people? Do they even have music degrees? Did this composer learn how to write music by watching Meow Mix commercials all day long?

And then, it happens.

For me, it was the summer after I received this little gem of advice. I was in my first of two summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School, a place which I highly recommend for any student who can afford to go. Looking back at the experiences I had there, I know that it’s one of the best places in the country to meet other artists who can and will have a real impact on your career someday.

Always at the mercy of the rotation system that exists in the orchestra program there, I was placed in the pit for the opera students’ production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It was a work that not many of the orchestral musicians knew. Secondly, being in the pit tends to feel like the name would suggest to some instrumentalists, despite the fact there is so much to learn from listening to beautifully executed vocal music.  And lastly, the conductor was young, and someone that most of the orchestra hadn’t had the pleasure of working with, or apparently hearing of, before the first rehearsal.

You can guess what happened next. Most of the orchestra played the first rehearsal as if executing a collective eye-roll. A horrifying moment happened when the conductor asked the principal trumpet player for his first name when making a musical comment to him, and the answer was, “J*&# (changed to protect his reputation), what’s YOURS?” Determined not to let the insouciance affect the rehearsal, the conductor simply responded, “You’re clever,” and moved on.

I remember thinking to myself that the “never suck” principle was going to have to apply here, tempted as I was to join in the apathy. I stayed focused, nailed my part, and found myself enjoying both the piece and the conductor, who I thought was clear, concise, and possessing of a well-formed musical point-of-view.

Fast forward a few months to February, when I received the sort of out-of-the-blue phone call that, when you’re a student, you think only happens to other people. It was the conductor that I had worked with for The Rake’s Progress in Aspen, calling from Frankfurt. Apparently he and his colleagues had been discussing who they should invite to fill a flute position at a new summer chamber music festival (MMCK) in Japan, and, remembering my work, he saw fit to look me up via my flute teacher. The following year, I had a fantastic three weeks in Kazusa and Tokyo, working with artists from all over the world, and generally grateful for the advice that put me there.

There are many other stories that I could tell about how not surrendering to the lowest common denominator afforded me jobs, opportunities, relationships, and paychecks that I would never otherwise have had. As a freelance musician, the kind of reliability that this attitude brings becomes your calling card. People know that when they call you they’ll get a job well done, and that’s invaluable.

Oh, and as another little tidbit, the conductor in question was Alan Gilbert. Though many of the student musicians at Aspen in 1999 hadn’t heard his name at the time, he’s gone on to do quite well for himself, as we know.

Point taken.

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit www.playingclosetothebridge.wordpress.com, brought to you by members of 5HE.