A collage of violinists and audience and a university icon

Who’s Leading The Leaders? – Part Two

Whether they’re brand-name conservatories in major cities or programs at rural liberal arts colleges, music schools across the country are all grappling with the same question: How do we prepare the musicians of tomorrow to connect with contemporary audiences? 

And how do we prepare the leaders at these programs to prepare their students? In the second installment of this two-part series, we turn to those who are helping to lead the charge in transformation at the institutional level. This month, we welcome music school thought leaders Heather Landes, Michael Stepniak and Joyce Griggs to weigh in on how our institutions can better address matters of diversity and inclusion, audience engagement and 21st century skill sets.

Heather LandesDr. Heather Landes

Director, Arizona State University School of Music
How do we keep our audiences coming back for more?

We’ll never build an audience base without stepping outside of our current performance spaces and into the community – where potential audience members reside – to engage and excite them about what we’re doing and how it relates to them. And I think we’ve got to build work that mirrors the demographic of the community: The programming needs to better reflect who that demographic is. In the Southwest, I think that’s the indigenous community, that’s the Latino community. If we’re not presenting diverse works by women and people of color, and featuring cultural aspects of this place, then we aren’t going to build a diverse audience. 

How can technology help us find new audiences?

There’s the stuff that everybody’s doing now on social media that includes things like event invitations and interactive video. But I think the other question is how do we create collaborations and opportunities where we’re bringing people together who aren’t physically in the same room? 

We have a faculty member working on LOLA, or LOw LAtency, the high-quality audio/video transmission system for network musical performances and interaction. We’ve had a faculty member conduct our wind ensemble in our concert hall with a video screen featuring another high school band performing 25 miles away, with the same music, simultaneously. As we’re developing that work, we can see possibilities where we’ve got performances in multiple cities running simultaneously. 

What is your most sage advice for emerging musicians?

With our talent comes a responsibility to think about how to impact our society using our music. If artists think in that way, it will be transformative. Along with mastery, artists cannot lose sight of curiosity. They have to play. They have to experiment with the tools available to them. That means continuing to take risks, to try new things and to realize that learning is a lifelong commitment. 

Michael StepniakDr. Michael Stepniak

Dean and Professor of Music, Shenandoah University
How do we keep our audiences coming back for more?

There is a frightening aspect to understanding the relationship between music-making and audiences. “Do you have something powerful to say through your music?” is an important philosophical question. The more pressing and sober question is: “Do audiences believe you have something to say that is pertinent and pressing to them?” We don’t ask that question often or seriously enough. 

How do we make our art and art spaces welcoming for all?

I think it’s paramount to give talented musical artists from all backgrounds the space and opportunity to connect with [other] people from multiple backgrounds, and [to] do so in a range of physical spaces – from formal to informal, on campus and in the community.

I believe that there is much work to be done to further ensure that our universities and cultural institutions are more welcoming to and affirming of different artistic voices. Concurrently, I suspect that any aspiration to create a singular art-centered experience that is somehow inclusive and welcoming for all misreads the fact that tastes, sensitivities and desires differ radically between individuals. But we can do much better to provide artists steeped in those different genres with the space to speak their musical truth, and to provide audience members with a greater choice of artistic experiences.

Of what value is a spirit of entrepreneurship to today’s music students?

Most “classical” musicians who aspire to earn a living through performing and teaching will greatly benefit from the possession of an entrepreneurial mindset and related skills. I suspect we will help our students much more if we do better in providing them greater access to mentors who are themselves highly entrepreneurial. It is easy to overlook the fact that entrepreneurship is not only a set of skills that can be strengthened, but also a personal proclivity and orientation that exists to differing extents in different individuals. We can and must do more to support those students who already have an entrepreneurial bent to achieve their creative potential.

Joyce GriggsDr. Joyce Griggs

Executive Vice President and Provost, Manhattan School of Music 
Can you think of a time when you witnessed musicians using their art to bring communities together?

Just recently, Manhattan School of Music’s Black Student Union curated a performance for Black Heritage Month. They opened the concert with a lively drum circle. Within this circle, audience members from both MSM and from the surrounding Harlem neighborhood were dancing together, laughing and smiling. As the concert got underway, students used poetry, music and song to describe both their jubilation and their heartbreak. There’s a lot of discord in our country about race, immigration, sexuality, politics, etc., and our students are not deaf to this narrative. To hear and see them confront this challenging discussion with such elegance, artistic excellence and hope – it raised everyone’s spirits. The school was buzzing for days, and the whole community beamed with pride to have shared such a powerful moment.

How can technology help us find new audiences?

I don’t think technology is a requirement to find new audiences. Finding and connecting with audiences seems to be most successful when we treat it as a relationship: We have to earnestly care for and about our audiences. Technology can help keep the connection “alive” between performances, and for some performers it can be key to finding new audiences. I’m less familiar with leveraging technology in this specific way, but eager to hear how others have been successful!

What is your most sage advice for emerging musicians?

I’m not sure if it’s sage advice or exclusive to emerging musicians, but these are my nonnegotiable beliefs: Know what drives you and pursue it with relentless passion. Don’t be afraid to fail, for this is when we have the most to learn. Musical excellence is a must and can never be compromised. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t let money be the lowest denominator for making decisions: If you’re not happy, that’s a far greater cost than any money you’ll ever earn. Be kind, brave, honest and act with integrity. Our world is small and getting smaller: You never know when a connection or impression you’ve made will impact an opportunity you have in the future.

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