Fifth House at AEEN!
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?
MS: 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.