by Madeleine Crouch, Editor
hile there is infinite variety to be found in music, nothing says "conventional" more than the prospect of the annual spring recital. Parents and families are notified, students dress up in their Sunday best, and everyone files into a large room on the appointed day and hour. There, a piano looms in front of rows of chairs, looking like Darth Vader plotting against the forces of good. Some children skip up to the bench, seat themselves with a flourish, and ham it up for the audience. Others eke out a nervous compromise at the keyboard and smile with relief when it's over. The rest trudge up to the piano as if they are spending their final moments on earth just before they dissolve into a puddle of stage fright. Meanwhile, parents in the audience squirm with anxiety waiting for Jennifer or Christopher to play, and then they beat a quick escape as soon as their little darling is finished.
We've always done it this way. Just like the adage that medicine ought to taste bad to work, we might be perpetrating spring recitals on our students because we lived through them ourselves, and feel stronger for having made it-survival of the fittest.
Take a look at the clever cover art for this issue. This delightful menagerie was created to promote an "un-recital" presented by the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. Stephen McCurry, the director of this Southern California music school, has taken some bold steps to jolt parents and students into new awareness by asking them to consider, "What is music, why do we listen, and how can it change our lives?"
For the first step, the Conservatory decided to hire John Steinmetz to be artist-in-residence, with a mission to develop new audiences and strengthen the relationship of the Conservatory to the community. John turned the process upside-down by looking at traditional recitals from the audience's point of view, with fantastic results.
by Stephen McCurry
hen John Steinmetz assumed the position of Artist-in-Residence at the Pasadena Conservatory, part of his charge was audience development. By asking audience members to decide what they most wanted from a concert experience, he turned the whole process on its head in a most creative way. So far, we have held two events designed in this way-a fund-raiser and a parents' night.
For the fund-raiser project, the planning group included members of our board of directors and our advisory board. They were full of passion and ready to save the world through music. It was very exciting, although reality eventually checked in. We asked them to tell us what they wanted from a performance, and here's what they told us:
From this "wish list," John came up with the idea to juxtapose art music with an intimate, cabaret-style environment. We were lucky to have the talents of flutist Gregory Jefferson, a Conservatory alumnus who has become a local celebrity, thanks to appearing on television and winning competitions. The front of the printed program featured a caricature of Jeffrey and his flute, created especially for the event by William Bramhall, who is related to one of our advisory board members. His cartoons appear in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, etc.
Audience members sat at small tables with checkered tablecloths, sipping their drinks in the candlelight while Gregory played a fantastic program of classical and jazz music, accompanied by a rhythm section for the second half of the program. It was everything the committee hoped it would be-casual, fun, and stimulating. A complete description of the evening, written by John, appeared in the Conservatory newsletter and can be found here.
To design our parents' night event, we selected a small committee of parents to work with John. With this group, he continued to work his magic. The committee decided to present the story of music through a theme: A Safari Through Music. The art work for the poster advertising this event is featured on the cover of this issue of Keyboard Companion. The drawing is by Mary Jane Elgin, the mother of one of the Conservatory's students, and a local free-lance artist.
The evening included a number of short, simultaneous presentations that repeated throughout the evening. Each one explored different aspects of music. Parents were invited to break up into small groups and make three stops on their safari, choosing from instrument demonstrations and discussions of composition, theory and music history. A popular safari destination was dropping in to hear several professionals, including a local CBS news director and a physical therapist, tell their audience how music-making was an important part of their lives.
As the tour guides-members of the Conservatory staff and additional volunteers-led parents from one room to another, they taught them a rhythmic motive, which they continued to rehearse by clapping between destinations. When everyone finally returned to the main hall, they picked up the percussion instruments that were waiting for them, and we had a big jam session in a samba rhythm. This was followed by an exotic meal and free time to share the experiences of the evening.
Promotion for these audience-planned events appears in the Conservatory Newsletter. The announcement promoting attendance at A Musical Safari, written by Conservatory faculty member Polli Chambers-Salazar, can be found here.
Naturally, events like this require a lot of work from our staff and volunteers, but they are so popular that both programs had a waiting list due to limited space. We are currently working with a classroom of non-music students to help design a future concert.
With over seven hundred students at the Conservatory, playing a wide variety of instruments, these special events are only a part of the complete picture. We have approximately 45 student performances of various sizes and types throughout the year. These may be benefit concerts, casual student recitals on a sign-up basis, Suzuki recitals, graduation recitals, in-house evaluations of student progress, and theme recitals: teens only, adults only, and presentations of a particular set of pieces or a musical era.
My advice to studio teachers who would like to liven up their recitals is: Don't be afraid to try something new. We want to share our music with the widest possible public, and that means considering who they are, and how to get them involved as more than mere spectators. When others participate in designing a concert, they have a vested interest in its success.
Stephen McCurry is Director of the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. If you want to know more about these projects, you may contact the school via email at email@example.com
by John Steinmetz
met Stephen McCurry through our mutual friend, Richard Chronister. Stephen had read my article, "Resuscitating Art Music," and discovered that I live only a few blocks from the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. After we talked, Stephen said he'd like to have me involved with the Conservatory, but wasn't sure how. A year later, he had the idea for me to become an artist-in-residence.
He extended me a radical and intriguing invitation- to become an influence at the Conservatory. This was quite daring, to open the Conservatory to an outsider and trust that the unknown results of such a collaboration would be positive. We chose some topics for the residency and talked about processes, but we didn't set goals or specify outcomes. It was more like a research project than a conventional residency.
Raising money for the position wasn't easy. Foundations usually require goals, outcomes, and a time line. We barely had a job description. Finally the president of the Conservatory's board of directors, Penny Lusche, said, "We'll just do it ourselves," and they funded the first year of the residency through internal donations. With several successful events under our belt, we have since applied to the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust, which has funded the second year of the residency.
Part of my work with the Conservatory has been audience development, through outreach to the community and "inreach" to family and friends of the students. One way to do this is to ask members of a potential audience to be involved in designing performances or other events. Having the audience itself involved means that we don't have to guess what would most excite them.
When this kind of planning group gets together for the first time, a blank slate can be intimidating, so I give them some parameters as a starting place. Will it be an event for families or the public? How young or old will the audience be? Will the event have a specific purpose? Will it be a fund-raiser with an admission fee?
Next, we often go through a three-step process. First I give them a "quick and dirty" assignment to generate ideas spontaneously, perhaps something like, "Design a concert and pretend the sky's the limit-what would it be like?" I divide the participants into small groups and have them meet for ten or fifteen minutes. They have to work very quickly. Then we regroup and share our designs and talk about the "why" behind them. Someone writes down all the ideas on a blackboard or big piece of paper.
In the second phase (it's best to do this in the same session, but it can happen at a later meeting if necessary), we examine the ideas and determine what's important to the group-that is, what we really care about. We want to see what issues are especially important. If some ideas conflict, we might try to find out what the disagreement is about, or whether this is a minor disagreement masking a deeper consensus.
It can be very helpful to have staff and faculty involved in the process, too, since they will be doing much of the work of staging the event. They also provide important information and reality checks, and sometimes they offer crucial help if participants get bewildered by the interlocking complexities of concert planning.
Together we examine the list, looking for common elements and discussing the motivations behind them. For example, a participant in a planning session once suggested that anyone making noise during the concert would have to wear a dunce cap. Although it was a negative and unworkable idea, it was also a symptom of a real concern. I asked the group what this was really all about, and an interesting discussion developed.
Finally someone explained, "We want respect for the music." That statement crystallized the issue, and freed us to think about how we could design an atmosphere for the concert that would foster the kind of behavior we wanted, instead of designing punishments for undesirable behavior.
Once we talk about what's on everyone's minds and in their hearts, we can harness their passions and concerns. The discussion really forces things out into the open. When we know what we all care about, the final details will fall into place more easily. During the third phase we take the final list of ideas and actually design the event.
Teachers might use this process to have their students help design a recital. The students will learn how much work goes into putting on a recital-finding a location, printing the programs, setting up the stage-and they will have more appreciation for the event. Having designed the program, students will likely be more excited than ever about performing.
The process I have outlined draws out the creativity in people who don't necessarily know they are creative. At one point, we used this process to examine the possibility of a new site for the Conservatory. I gave the group all sorts of junk like paper clips, cardboard boxes, sticks, and tubes, and then told them to build a model of an ideal facility, but imagining it is a hundred years from now! Some of the results were ordinary and some were spectacular. When they were asked to explain the features of their model conservatories, we got a better understanding for how people see the institution, what they love about it, and their aspirations for the place. For instance, every model incorporated trees or dramatic plantings or nature in some way. I never would have guessed, nor would the participants, that these were crucial elements of this music school! The models gave us important clues to the personality that a new site must have.
I'm interested in group dynamics for many reasons, but one big reason is that I've always been bugged by sitting in on too many ineffectual meetings, wasting time and energy. I've also done some reading in psychology and learning theory. The ideas behind this process of collaborative design came from education researcher Doreen Nelson, with whom I collaborated on a consulting project.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind during the design process. When setting up the initial "quick and dirty" design problem for your team, it's important to pose the problem in a way that frees the imagination. Give them instructions like, "You can use technology that hasn't been invented yet," or "You have access to unlimited resources." Also, placing the problem in the distant future, one of Doreen Nelson's techniques, can be quite liberating.
I frequently ask participants to include at least one outrageous feature in their design, or to include something that's never been done before. Once I instructed a marketing design group not to use anything that had been used before. Such guidelines force thinking away from the norm. The final design may turn out to be conventional, and that's okay, but it's good to get fresh ideas on the table early in the process.
Sometimes the group has too many good ideas, and it's hard to pick and choose. One of the hardest tasks is to decide which great ideas not to use. There can be a tendency to get fired up and try to solve all the world's problems with one concert. Or perhaps one person in the group is too dominant. These are times when the role of the facilitator is to guide the "traffic flow." When the group's ideas are listed on a blackboard or a big piece of paper, you can point to what the group has already agreed on, and keep the process flowing.
There is always some frustration during the sorting-out stage. People are not used to living with uncertainty. That's why it's so important to define the purpose of the event, because we can always refer back to those guidelines. That initial good work will always win out.
John Steinmetz is a freelance bassoonist, studio musician, and principal bassoon with the Los Angeles Opera. In addition to positions such as Artist-in-Residence at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, he is a consultant and author. You can read his ground breaking article Resuscitating Art Music on the Internet at: http://www.munb.com/artx2.html