In discovering my own path, I’ve come to realize that I don’t share all the same goals as many young conductors. While conducting professional groups is important to me, my true desire is to be involved with many types of programs and assist in the development of young musicians of all ages. And I am overjoyed to have leading roles in programs for all ages and levels, middle school through professional, with all my current positions.
NEC Prep gave me my first orchestral experiences when I was an 11 year old oboist in the Youth Repertory Orchestra (YRO). We played Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. I was so enthralled by all the moving parts in the orchestra! Even back then I was drawn to how everything was put together… not just my own part. Sure I wanted to sound as good as possible (like everyone else), but I was even more entranced by looking at why composers made their musical choices and how that created an entirely new world. Furthermore, I was fascinated at how the conductor chose to interpret and implement those details in a way that allowed the music to speak to everyone.
I began playing in the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO), the top of NEC’s Prep orchestras. And that forever changed me. What made my time there so powerful was not only the incredible music we put together (Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses, Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #2, Shostakovich Symphony #5), but where we took that music. I was privileged to tour Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. In the final leg of our tour, we connected with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and learned firsthand the powerful and universal effects of music. I have always said music has saved my life and I’m sure many of my colleagues and friends can remark similarly. In Caracas, where there are 60 homicides a weekend alone, music programs such as El Sistema, have literally saved thousands of children’s lives by keeping them away from gangs, dangerous drugs, and violence. I realized it’s not just about great music and great performance, but educating people and helping those in need… to inspire others to grow… to unite people from all over the world as best as we can.
One rehearsal during my 2nd year in YPO, the conductor randomly called on me to come and conduct the slow brass chorale section in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. I stood in front of the orchestra and had a life-altering experience. I was amazed by everything and I was fortunate to show another part of my musical persona… a side that no one really knew. I am forever grateful for this experience. It assured and confirmed that, even though I wasn’t ready to announce it publicly, I really wanted to be a conductor.
The summers of my freshman and junior undergraduate years at New England Conservatory I worked for the Festival Youth Orchestra as an oboe teacher, woodwind coach, and assistant conductor. Although the program was in its startup years, I saw it as a vital music festival because so many of the area’s music happenings were 2 hours west in Tanglewood. There isn’t anything like FYO in Boston during the summer.
Having moved to Chicago this past August, I became the Director of Conservatory Orchestras at the Merit School of Music, a staff conductor at Roosevelt Chicago College of the Performing Arts, and Director of an El Sistema-inspired orchestra called the YOURS Project for the People’s Music School. As co-director of Holographic, I continue to explore new music for orchestra. No matter the age and level of the orchestra, all of my past experiences join me whenever (and wherever) I take the podium… and I use them every day as the basis for my teaching.
My all-encompassing view of education and performance is largely due to all my time at NEC. When asked if I wanted to return and lead the Festival Youth Orchestra for their 3-week program, I jumped at the opportunity because I believe in the program so much. I’m honored to be chosen for this position so I can give back to a wonderful organization that has played a huge role in who I am today as an artist and person. My name is Ben Bolter. I’m a Boston-born Chicago-based conductor who will be the Music Director for this summer’s Festival Youth Orchestra at New England Conservatory.
After leading four performances with the St. Luke’s Philharmonia in Oklahoma, Jose-Luis heads to Connecticut to guest conduct the esteemed Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The concert is to be held on May 16th at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and is part of the organization’s flagship education programs. He will conduct a repertoire that includes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; Mendelssohn’s evocative Nocturne from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Copland’s Hoe-Down from Rodeo. “I am delighted to be able to work with some of the finest musician’s in New England, Jose-Luis said, “the orchestra has a rich tradition of musical excellence and a strong commitment to making the experience of music accessible to all.” As part of the event, Jose-Luis will also present a dynamic pre-concert workshop to a few hundred students and their teachers. Tickets available at: http://www.hartfordsymphony.org/
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson. David Loebel, Kristopher Tong, and Melissa Snoza.
In this last guest installment, some of the very students we are preparing at NEC take over the conversation–again. Feisty, adaptable, imaginative, and passionate, they make me optimistic for the future of music. They know what they will be facing when they emerge from the Conservatory and are ready to embrace that life, however challenging. I’m so proud of them. –Tony Woodcock
In late March, we had the opportunity to gather in the President’s Library with Tony Woodcock to speak about our futures in music—the roles we want to step into, the concerns we have, the new challenges that the professional community will throw out to us. We shared ideals, dreams, worries, assurance, self-doubt, strategies—sometimes expressing things we had never previously admitted to others. It was exciting to find so much common ground across age, nationality, discipline, and professional trajectory. And, so, when we were asked to ‘sum it all up’ in a blog post, it seemed fitting to compose a set of guiding principles, a credo if you will, for music’s future and our role in it. Here goes:
1. Shifting paradigms lead to new opportunities. It’s scary to acknowledge that so many of the professional structures that support, preserve, and present music are struggling. How different it is at NEC where music-making is thriving, vital, and full of passion. How could it be that outside our halls, audiences are shrinking, organizations are in crisis, and music education is experiencing deep cuts? Spend a day in our shoes and you’ll appreciate the contrast. Large organizations and government bodies don’t change quickly—they aren’t, for the most part, nimble and able to respond deftly to changing conditions. But we are nimble, and we have the space, time, and creativity to build new structures for music and musicians to be in the world. That’s the important bit to hold on to.
2. Be adventurous and grapple with uncertainty. As artists, we know how to navigate uncertainty in the context of a performance–in fact that’s what makes live performance so exhilarating and meaningful. But, when it comes to building a new artistic venture, uncertainty can cause us to clam up, to create barriers that we imagine will save us from the messy business of failure. “It’s too competitive,” we say, or “I won’t make enough money to survive”. Uncertainty, troublesome as it is, must be taken as an opportunity to look beyond what exists, to see what could exist. Our task as artists is to find a balance between risking it all and playing it safe. The former can lead to ruin; the later, stagnation. We’re shooting for the sweet spot somewhere in between.
3. Just try it. We work so hard to master our instruments, perfect a new piece, deliver a flawless performance. As a result, many of us walk around with the notion that anything less than mastery is, well, simply not good enough. But pretty good can do a lot of good. We know that building a sustainable career requires more than musical brilliance. It requires a diverse set of skills: creative marketing, financial wit, clear-eyed negotiation, engaging public speaking, and the list goes on. All of that can be overwhelming when taken together. But these skills are within reach, individually and collectively. With curiosity, pluck, Google, and a friend who has done it before, we can become the versatile change agents that our field is waiting for.
4. Look internally for your brand. Brand. It sounds so Madison Avenue and constricting: one phrase, image, or idea that’s supposed to represent you. Really? That might be possible for a can of soda, but not a human being. Each of us is a beautifully unique, complex, messy, breathing, moving, changing entity. And we’ve each got more than one thing that makes us unique as artists. Creating a brand is just about identifying the particular mix of gifts and quirks that is unique to each of us. And promoting our brand is nothing more than telling our own story. More on this in number 5.
5. Find the people who love what you do. “Marketing” is a loaded term for many of us. It smacks of strident hucksters and conspicuous consumption. But marketing, at its core, is about telling stories and building relationships. It’s about opening up your art, and your world, to those who want to take part. Marketing is just a set of strategies to help you connect with the people who love what you do (but don’t know it yet). We like to think of our audience–potential or real–as a community of people who value our gifts and want to see them grow. And it’s not just about warm and fuzzy feeling. If we can build a small but mighty group of super fans–people who love what we do, will go to our concerts, buy our albums, and contribute to our fundraising campaigns–we can also make a living.
6. Audiences connect most to music when they connect to the people making it. Yes, we think about our audience as a community—maybe even a family–and we think of ourselves as part of that community. No more off-putting protocol, no more formalized ritual that only the “initiated” understand, no more snobbery. Communities form through open exchange, support, and shared values–not through strictures, barriers, and distance. We must strive to reach and welcome people where they are—in parks, coffee shops, online spaces, living rooms, and local schools.
7. Say yes, a lot. Remaining open to opportunities is vital for maintaining forward progress as an artist. Remember, we’re nimble. That’s what makes us well poised to create the change that is needed in our field. Being nimble means: remaining open-minded; stretching; putting ourselves in situations that make us a little uncomfortable (“I never thought I’d do ________”); and signing up to do something we’ve never done before. These experiences will bear fruit, build connections, lead to a light bulb moment (or two), clarify what we hate doing, and help us uncover skills we never knew we had. These are all good things.
8. Elevate music. Music can be a powerful tool for addressing the deepest social needs: education, hunger, expression of powerful feelings, and communal solidarity. Music is a common language that can offer joy or solace where it’s desperately needed, call attention to injustice, provide a nurturing context in which young people can grow, and preserve cultural memory when it’s threatened. This element can’t be a “part” of what we do, it must pervade what we do.
9. Act local. We like local food. We like local businesses. We like to talk about the quirky things that make our neighborhoods great. So, why, when it comes to our music do we look outside our local communities for validation, support, and engagement? We stand the best chance of making a real and lasting impact in the communities and neighborhoods we know best. Maybe we’ll be the quirky thing about a neighborhood that people love.
10. Talk it out. These kinds of conversations are vital for overcoming the formidable challenges that face the arts. Their purpose is not just for catharsis or “kumbaya”. Deep, probing discussions can clarify positions, plant seeds, forge connections, and incite action. Teams are formed and ideas are hatched around cafe tables, kitchen tables, and yes, president’s library tables. We are going to need many more enthusiastic teams and creative ideas if we are to build the structures of tomorrow and make a central place for music in the world.
Compiled by Eva Heinstein, Assistant Director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department with contributions from Robert Cinnante ( ’13 MM Vocal Performance), Tyler Gilmore (’13 MM Jazz Composition), Julia Partyka (’13 BM Vocal Performance), Caroline Scharr (’14 MM Oboe Performance), and Tong Wang (’16 BM Piano Performance).
Musical highs unlike any I’ve ever experienced in my life; 8 months of non-stop preparation; visa problems too numerous to count; one armed robbery and a stolen passport; one band member having to stay behind at the last minute; our 1st Lady (our bus) Amanda; -27 Celsius temperatures; frozen gas tanks; the sauna; Moose and Camels; very bad humor; Santa Claus; Sverige; 8 packed concerts and 5 clinics in 8 cities around Finland; overwhelmingly positive concert reviews… the images that flood my mind thinking back to the two weeks my quintet - myself on fretted/fretless guitars and oud, Utar Artun from Turkey on piano, Bruno Råberg from Sweden on acoustic bass, Tareq Rantisi from Palestine on percussion and our special guest vocalist Eva Louhivuori from Finland - spent touring Finland this past February quickly become quite a blur, to say the least.
Prior to this tour, I hadn’t played a single gig in Finland in the almost 5 years (since moving to the US in 2008), and hadn’t played in my hometown in 13 years. This was a homecoming that had tremendous personal meaning to me.
It’s fascinating to observe one’s own thought process while being in the middle of something like this as it is actually happening. Our concert at Kulttuuritalo Korundi in my hometown Rovaniemi, which is a town of 60,000 people or so, about 4 miles from the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, was an occasion that made me quite nervous in advance - and I very seldom get nervous before concerts. The daylong drive northward from our previous clinic and concert in Joensuu found me in quite a contemplative mood. Out of all the concerts on the tour, this was one of only two door gigs, so I had quite a few things going through my mind - will there be anyone there? Can I keep myself together onstage? How will people living on the Arctic Circle react to a music that is a collage of influences from around the world, a diary of a search for Home after a childhood spent moving between Northern Finland, Jordan, Tanzania, Oman and Lebanon? Can we connect with the audience?
After getting settled in our family’s house and doing the mandatory Arctic Circle sightseeing and taking the guys to meet Santa Claus, we started to get ready to play again. The venue proved to be - bias or no bias - the most beautiful out of all the places we played on the entire tour. Built into a renovated old factory warehouse, Kulttuuritalo Korundi was a medium-sized concert hall with beautiful acoustics and gorgeously atmospheric lighting to set the mood. The parallels of reunion were many: in keeping with the theme of going full circle, I’d asked Timo Rehtonen, the same guy who had engineered, mixed and mastered my very first studio recording back in 2000, to do our live sound.
Adding to the emotional charge as we took the stage and begun the concert with “Bayatiful” was that not only did it turn out that the concert was nearly sold out, but I saw so many familiar faces spanning my entire life - there were childhood friends, high school friends, family and relatives in the audience. Perhaps most significant of all, my parents were there; my father had not heard me perform in thirteen years. When Eva joined us to sing a heavily improvised piece I’d written as homage to part of my roots in Finnish Lapland, “Kaiku”, I felt like I disappeared and dissolved completely. I don’t remember much after that except feeling a tremendous sense of both peace and energy. The response from the audience was overwhelming; when, after playing through the material that comprises my debut album un, we ended the encore with an Eva-reinforced trio version of “Nuku Sie”, which I dedicated to a childhood friend’s newborn son who I’d just met that morning, not only both Eva and I, but many in the audience as well, were in tears.
That night, after we’d already got back to my family home, I got an email from an unknown person thanking me for the concert. Reading it, I was left completely speechless. As my mother read it, she cried. Little did I know that the man writing to me was also the columnist for Lapin Kansa, Lapland’s largest newspaper, and that he would publish much of what he wrote to me in a column the following week with the title “The Value of Art is Immeasurable” (my translation):
“…I closed my eyes as the familiar tune [“Naima”] from a jazz legend [John Coltrane] played and opened them later to make room for tears. The music that Reijonen had composed as a sonic photograph of his Lappish roots [“Kaiku”] was so beautiful that I felt as if it had cleansed me. All the pettiness, jealousy and bitterness that had gathered in me peeled away, and what was left was only the human being I would like to be. They were tears of joy that flowed, hot and unhindered, onto my cheeks. I suppose it was a spiritual experience, although I have never experienced anything spiritual in the religious sense before.”
- Jouni Kantola, Lapin Kansa, 10 February 2013
To wordlessly connect with another like this… the power of music never ceases to amaze me.
As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson. David Loebel, and Kristopher Tong.
Melissa Snoza is a flutist and Executive Director of the ensemble Fifth-House. The Chicago-based Fifth-House Ensemble is a versatile and dynamic group praised by the New York Times for its “conviction, authority, and finesse.” Having pioneered the art of narrative chamber music with its signature series “Black Violet,” “The Weaver’s Tales,” and “In Transit”, Fifth House’s innovative programs engage audiences through their connective programming and unexpected performance venues.–Tony Woodcock
Early this morning, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, a third grader with a big smile and a hot pink flower in her hair (it was her birthday) asked me, “What inspired you to start playing the flute?”
Each of us has our own “creation” story about how we started on our instrument of choice. Perhaps it was a popular friend who played the piano, so you started studying to be just like her. Or, it was a performance you experienced live, on TV, or on a recording that made you say, “WOW – I want to be able to do that!” Or maybe, as with some of my younger students, the answer is a sullen, “My mom made me do it.”
To me, the interesting part comes not in where we start, but in why we commit. Somewhere between when we are inspired to begin our practice and when we reach professional status, the process of improving as a musician can start to become an achievement-based, strategic trajectory composed of chair placements, auditions, summer festivals, competitions, conservatories, and generally playing higher/faster/louder than the next guy. There’s a system, a path in place for training the next solo or orchestral superstar, and we run up those steps as fast as we can in the hope of achieving our goals.
I highlight those words because they are important.
In high school and college, I was completely consumed with the desire to excel on my instrument through achievement. This week, I’m going to challenge my way up to first chair. This semester, I’m going to audition my way into the top group. Next year, I’m going to get into the conservatory of my dreams. In four years, I’m beating everyone else out for that orchestra job. Me. Mine. Gimme!
When I think back to this time in my life, I realize that my primary motivation for bettering myself was fear. I would be afraid of getting yelled at in a lesson, of a conductor ripping me apart, of being seen as the weakest player in my studio, of losing the competition, and of ultimately being one of those sad souls that “doesn’t make it” as a musician and has to go work at a desk.
As a result, I was a wreck. I suffered from tendonitis, requiring weeks away from my instrument. I was physically ill for a week before every recital. I couldn’t eat on the day of any major audition. I questioned whether I wanted to continue as a flutist, mostly because I was convinced I’d never be good enough.
And then, I left school.
Despite my generalized state of panic, I did win an audition to land in Chicago as part of the Civic Orchestra. We performed glitzy concerts at Symphony Center playing wonderful music with some of the world’s leading conductors. At the same time, I also volunteered to participate in the organization’s MusiCorps program. Through this, I coached youth orchestra sections and performed chamber music in intimate, non-traditional spaces throughout the city.
During one of these chamber concerts, for the first time I took a moment to look at the audience. Until that point, the thought of doing that would have terrified me. What I saw was a room of people who were engaged: listening, smiling, closing their eyes, moving or still, but overwhelmingly hanging on every note.
Something had changed. I was no longer in the bubble of my musical peers and teachers. This was the real world.
In that moment, I began to realize the beginnings of what it means to play music, and what my real purpose is in this larger space, outside of the training zone. Music is a gift. I don’t mean a gift as in a talent, I mean a gift – the kind you give to someone else with both palms open.
As we consider what it means to be a classical musician in a changing world, and the skills necessary to re-imagine the traditional model of professional success, I would argue that one of the most essential lessons that today’s artists must learn is the most simple, yet the most contrary to the process that gets us here.
In short, lose your Self.
As a flutist, this means that I practice to perfection for the benefit of my audiences, who have given their valuable time and money to be with me. They deserve to hear the music flow straight through me with the freedom that only comes with impeccable preparation, not to hear my anxieties about whether I’ll nail a difficult passage. I practice for my colleagues, who deserve the pleasure of coming to rehearsal with a partner who is ready to explore musical ideas, not one who needs to be taught the basics of her part.
As an entrepreneur, this means that I have a hand in crafting concert experiences and educational programs that are audience-centric. In Fifth House Ensemble, I’ve built an organization that listens to the needs of its audience and community, builds partnerships with artists of all types, and produces the kinds of concert experiences that truly do bring classical music newbies into the fold. We invite audiences inside the creative process, enlisting their help in telling stories for our programs, or tweeting responses during a show. We build educational programs that support teachers’ goals while empowering students to listen, create, and perform. We serve.
While these activities might be done in service of others, the benefits to me are immeasurable. Whereas before I was afraid, now I am fulfilled. I am inspired by the children we see each week, and by the audience members who share the reasons they love Fifth House with us after each show. On the practical side, failing economy be damned, I haven’t gone hungry a single day in the last 10 years of my professional life operating this way.
So what does it take to build a career in music? Do what you love, in service of others. The greatest success can be found in the intersection between what fulfills you the most as an artist and what serves the needs of those who experience your art. Reach inside yourself to find the former, take the time to listen to discover the latter.
Ten years ago, I would have considered a photo shot like this to denote success:
The glamour! The glitz! The shiny hair! She must be famous!
Today, one of my favorite performance shots of all time looks like this:
A room of kids with no musical training, listening to piece for the first time and showing with arm motions that they understand which instrument has the melody as it passes through the ensemble. Hands in the air, smiles all around.
Watch teachers and students from Chicago’s Lowell Elementary School in Humboldt Park share their experience with Fifth House Ensemble.
Announcing a new course for OCU students and learning opportunity for El Sistema-inspired music educators.
El Sistema: Social Action Through Music (MUED 2071)
Enrollment now open at Oklahoma City University, Fall 2013
About the Course:
Social action through music refers to the ideal that 21st century musicians play a part as leaders in the development of a thriving civil society. This course prepares musicians to envision artistic careers that create public value, transform communities, and dignify the human condition. The course focuses on the philosophy and practice of El Sistema, Venezuela’s revolutionary music education program. The course meets once a week.
Qualified students may also seek guided internships (optional) with El Sistema Oklahoma, a program of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, in partnership with the Wanda L. Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University and The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools. The "open-source" course will be made available via video webcast to music educators across the United States and internationally.
-Students will learn to discern the practical and affective capacities of music through critical thinking and practical immersion into its social, philosophical, ethical, and spiritual constructs as exemplified by El Sistema and other relevant 21st century models and frameworks.
-Develop preliminary aptitudes for teaching and learning in community arts education settings; and advocating for music as an instrument for social transformation.
-Envision new and innovative self-concepts for professional engagement as musicians, citizens, artists, and scholars.
Instructor: Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada, M.Mus.
Sistema Fellow '12 (New England Conservatory)
Social Media Flyer: https://smore.com/6yk0
*If you are not an OCU student but would like to learn more about how to partake in the course via informal distance-learning (non-credit), email me directly at email@example.com.
Photo Credit: Peter Dammann