Toned head shots of Stanford Thompson, Sarah Robinson, and Brad Wells

21CMPosium Speakers Preview: Founders, Entrepreneurs and Activists

The 21CMposium is about taking action – about getting out there and creating the kind of musical world you want to live in. That’s why we’ve invited a host of speakers who have done just that.

Whether creating an ensemble from scratch, discovering new audiences, founding an organization or embarking on any number of projects designed to bring something meaningful into their communities, the speakers at the 21CMposium want to share their optimism and inventiveness. 

At the TALK 21 sessions, speakers give 21-minute-long TED Talk-style presentations about the projects to which they devote themselves. Listeners can apply lessons and ideas to their own work as they glean what presenters have learned from years of immersive practice. Each TALK 21 session is followed by a question-and-answer period. Then, three workshops – presented in rotation three times throughout the symposium – offer attendees the chance to put theory into practice. Melissa Snoza with Fifth House Ensemble put on a workshop on psychographic audience analysis; Alicia Lee with Decoda demonstrate how to contextually frame music; and Brad Wells with Roomful of Teeth present an interactive session on extended vocal techniques.

To give a taste of what’s to come at the 21CMposium, we’ve profiled three of the presenters. The specifics of their musical interests vary widely, but each shares a spirit of commitment to their creative vision. 

Stanford Thompson instructs student musicians

Who: Stanford Thompson

Occupation: founder and executive director of Play On, Philly!

At 21CMposium: presenting Talk21 session, “Concert Halls Disrupted: The Intersection of Social Justice and Artistic Excellence”

It always made sense that Stanford Thompson would be a musician. Born to music educator parents, surrounded by siblings who all played at least one instrument and then taught by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it also made sense that he would be a particularly good one. When the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia made Thompson an offer of admission, the trumpet player moved there to pursue his art. 

What didn’t always make sense was what Thompson used his music for – and why. “That was a disconnect that I had in general,” recalls Thompson. “[I was] always questioning: Why am I learning all this stuff? Why am I running to all these auditions?” It nagged at him, especially when he was pursuing his art “in a city where school music programs were falling apart.” 

Stanford Thompson wasn’t the only person with these questions. During his senior year at Curtis, Thompson watched El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu give his TED Prize acceptance speech, in which he “makes a compelling case on how … playing in an orchestra can be a perfect model for what the community should look like and that music learned at a really high level and with a lot of integrity could be a huge driver for social change.” For decades, El Sistema had rigorously trained youth in Venezuela – Gustavo Dudamel came out of it – and now Abreu wanted to extend the program in the United States. This was the direction Thompson was looking for. He applied to the newly instituted Abreu Fellows Program (now the Sistema Fellows) at the New England Conservatory, which was designed to train musicians to launch their own Sistema-style programs. That was the beginning of Play On, Philly!

In theory, Play On, Philly! (also known as POP) picks up where public school music programs – or rather, their funding – left off, but its structure is much more thorough and intense than any departmental program could be. Set up specifically for at-risk youth and in places where school music programs don’t exist, POP requires students to spend three hours after school each day – yes, every day, Monday through Friday – rotating between ensemble rehearsals, small group lessons and music literacy classes. The young musicians perform around 30 concerts a year, and they’ve collaborated with the likes of Simon Rattle, Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis. “Their résumés are better than any of our teachers,” says Thompson. 

The organization has conducted studies that link POP to extra-musical successes – like increased test scores and decreased truancy. But for Thompson and his 42 teaching artists, it’s their students’ enthusiasm and sense of security and community that is their reward. “This is so much more than trying to build an orchestra,” explains Thompson. He points out, frankly, that POP is “one of the only times [our students] even have a positive image of white people, of rich and wealthy people. It also gives them the opportunity to be in places around town where either they don’t feel welcome, or genuinely are not welcome.”

In Thompson’s mind, POP is not new. Rather, it’s the continuation of the original vision of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which intended music to be available to every member of society. But as school districts cut music programs, Thompson asserts that it’s the 21st-century musician’s responsibility to fight for that accessibility. “If we want this field to be healthier,” he says, “we have to step up and do that work. Period.”

Sarah Robinson performs on stage with a vocalist from Helix Collective

Who: Sarah Robinson

Occupation: flutist, founding member of Helix Collective, co-director at Classical Revolution Los Angeles, author of Clubbing for Classical Musicians

At 21CMposium: Presenting Talk21 Session, How I Stopped Asking Permission to Have a Career in Music

The first time Sarah Robinson saw classical musicians performing at a club, it was at The Blue Wisp in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I was just blown away by the change of venue and how much changed with that,” she remembers. “How much more entertaining it was, and what a different connection there was between the audience and players.” The show was put on by the local chapter of Classical Revolution, an organization founded in 2006 with the mission of bringing classical music to nontraditional venues like bars and clubs. Robinson was hooked. When she came back to The Blue Wisp a year later, it was as one of the musicians on stage.

For Robinson, getting involved in Classical Revolution not only opened up how, and how often, she performed but also the manner in which she pursued her entire career. Up to that point, she had been hot on the symphony orchestral audition trail, traveling around the country whenever a position with an orchestra opened up, but it was “extremely taxing, economically and emotionally.” 

It’s at that stage that many classical musicians despair or change careers. Instead, Robinson decided to scale back on what wasn’t working for her – the orchestral auditions – and focus on what was: performing. She moved to Los Angeles with her then-fiancé, Phil Popham, an oboist, and threw herself into the music community there. Only this time, as opposed to other moves she’d undertaken, she was more concerned with creating opportunities instead of approaching others for them. With Popham, she recruited more members for their ensemble, Helix Collective, founded the Los Angeles chapter of Classical Revolution and started a live film-scoring event that over time, and “accidentally,” turned into a full-blown annual festival. Robinson, realizing that her path was working, then decided to write about it in a book she titled Clubbing for Classical Musicians, which covers topics like differences in venues, how to make shows that fit the location and how to manage the financial aspect of gigging. 

Although she sometimes fantasizes about the ease that would come from that traditional orchestral gig, it’s clear to Robinson that the demands of self-management – of learning how to work an audience, book gigs, start organizations and manage them – have stretched her and made her grow as an artist in ways that would not have been possible within the safety of an orchestra. More importantly, she performs as much as she wants to. “I really love what I’m doing,” she says. “Because I get to play with these amazing people and every experience makes you a better player. I just want to be here [in Los Angeles] and keep working.”

Brad Wells stands in a line with the other members of Roomful of Teeth

Who: Brad Wells

Occupation: founder and artistic director of Roomful of Teeth

At 21CMposium: presenting workshop, “The Extended Voice: Tradition, Technique, and Transcendence”

Roomful of Teeth is an ensemble that has taken off with such meteoric ferocity that one would think that founder Brad Wells had crafted each step of its success with scientific precision and well in advance. Not so. It’s true that something had been brewing for years, but it was more like a murky, driving curiosity – a hypothesis, in Wells’ words. A conductor, composer and singer for many years, Wells was frequently exposed to singing techniques from all over the world, and he wondered: “Could some of the energy and expressive uses of the voice that I’m learning about from different cultures be studied by a single group and developed into a kind of polyglot singer so that composers could make use of this wider spectrum of sound?”

In 2009, Wells put out a call for singers of a certain profile. They had to be “smart, [with] flexible voices, a high degree of musicianship and freelancing musicians.” Then, along with two composers, the group retreated to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art for three weeks in the summer. The singers studied three different vocal techniques – yodeling, Tuvan throat singing and belting – while the composers studied the sessions and wrote pieces for the group. At the end of the week, they presented a concert for which they had already sold tickets. “That was a part of my taking a step into a void: not knowing if there would be a plank built in time for me to put my foot down,” says Wells.

Roomful of Teeth pulled off the concert, performed once more that year in New York and then didn’t meet again until the following summer. By the year after that, they had gathered enough pieces written specifically for them – including member Caroline Shaw’s soon-to-become-Pulitzer-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” – to record a full-length album, and then some. Turning Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize into a one-two punch, the group’s debut album earned three GRAMMY nominations and one win.

Now, Roomful of Teeth is firmly cemented in the ranks of forward-thinking and in-demand new music ensembles, but it’s that sense of curiosity, driven by Wells, that keeps them moving forward. And that curiosity – that roaming, artistic thought process – is anything but fixed. When asked how he juggles the different roles and demands in his position as artistic director, Wells does not offer some kind of point-by-point strategy. Rather, he recalls a memory from college, when he took over a new music ensemble that put on lots of “Dada-ish performances” because the regular director was on sabbatical. “It was a kind of entrepreneurial moment to make this new music experience for people happen,” he says. “For me it was, how can I get back to that feeling, that feeling of excitement and the experience of something new in a room with a group of performers … and doing it together so that there’s a communal feeling with the audience?” 

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Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer and arts journalist. She co-launched the arts publication Ampersand, and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” …more 

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