[ In the Press ]

Music’s Newest Career Track has a Social Conscience

June 7, 2016

21CM | By Diane Haithman

Sebastian Ruth

Sebastian Ruth

The word “outreach” in the performing arts conjures up visions of the local orchestra performing for underserved communities – then rushing back to the concert hall in time for the 8 p.m. curtain.

But a new crop of classical music entrepreneurs wants to make social activism the main event. Musicians are forming more ensembles outside the orchestra in pursuit of new models of giving back. They are devoting their careers to music as social entrepreneurship.

Sebastian Ruth is a violinist, violist and the founder of Providence, R.I.’s Community MusicWorks, which provides music education for at-risk kids. The landscape was different 19 years ago when he founded MusicWorks. “When we started in the late ’90s, our work was much more of a marginal activity,” Ruth says. “I would say people were not flocking to do this kind of work. That seems to have shifted pretty dramatically.”

So dramatically, that in 2010, Ruth was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for “forging a new, multifaceted role beyond the concert hall for the twenty-first-century musician.”

Indeed, it is easier to find ensembles with a social focus in 2016. To name a few: Boston’s Music for Food , founded by Grammy Award-winning violist Kim Kashkashian; New York-based Musicambia, a network of conservatories that take music into prisons; and Decoda, a chamber ensemble that courts audiences in schools, hospitals and jails as well as concert halls.

How did social activism get so popular? Ruth attributes the shift to two factors: a social media generation that’s used to connecting with a wider community and the hard fact that conservatories are turning out more musicians than there are orchestra jobs. From a practical standpoint, there’s a reason why these ensembles last: The social component that involves kids and education attracts funders, too.

A handful of schools have fueled the trend by offering courses in entrepreneurship, some of which have a precise focus on community engagement. “The programs themselves may be having an impact,” Ruth says. “Doing socially engaged work doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to making a high-level and satisfying career.”

For some, that means figuring out how to create a nonprofit model that can affect change while paying its musicians, whether they perform in a prison, a storefront or Carnegie Hall.

The celebrated chamber group Decoda plays in all of the above. Founded in 2011, the group began as collaboration of musicians in the Ensemble ACJW program jointly created by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute. They remain an affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall. As part of its mission statement, 5-year-old Decoda is dedicated to inspiring a “new entrepreneurial model for today’s artists.”

Oboist James Austin Smith, co-artistic director of Decoda, says that the ACJW program is geared toward musicians who want to make a career in performance but are not “terribly interested in being in an orchestra.” By dividing its time between conventional venues and community locations, Decoda is able to pay its 30 core members for all of their performances.

“It’s all compensated the same way – it’s not charity,” says, Smith, 32. “I don’t mean to sound coarse, but we have a group of musicians who are highly trained and highly skilled. … The work that you do for charity changes the character of the work.”

For that reason, he says, Decoda does not like to use the word “outreach” because it suggests that concerts in nontraditional spaces are different from work in traditional venues.

Smith recounts a conversation he had with an older musician who founded a nonprofit with all volunteer musicians. “How does that work for the recent conservatory graduate who cares about society but needs to pay her rent?” he asks.

Sebastian Ruth’s Community MusicWorks has a somewhat different model. Inspired by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Chamber Music Rural Residencies program, Ruth wanted to create a long-term residency for a professional chamber group that would stay in one community. Launched as The Providence String Quartet, the ensemble now comprises a total of 12 musicians, all of whom teach, mentor and build community events.

Educational programs that serve, on average, 130 students constitute around half of Community MusicWorks’ annual $1 million budget. And the education extends further: Community MusicWorks also hosts conferences devoted to sharing their model with future music entrepreneurs.

Like Decoda, Community MusicWorks divides its time between traditional concert venues and community spaces. Paying the musicians is also important to this group. While the organization does not offer full-time employment, musicians receive a salary for 30 hours of work per week.

Violist Nathan Schram, another ACJW veteran, founded Musicambia because of an experience he had performing at Rikers Island while in the graduate program. “It was a flute quartet, which is not what you’d think would be the most interesting type of music to bring to 200 incarcerated people,” he says. “But we got to play for them in this big gymnasium, and it was an incredibly powerful experience for them. A light bulb went off: I went, whoa, this is too powerful an experience not to do more.”

Musicambia also pays its musicians for their visits to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. It’s not much: $200 per “module,” or prison visit, which includes travel to the prison, an hour or more going through security, and an intense two to three hours of teaching.

But Schram believes that even $200 can provide incentive to turn down a $300 gig elsewhere in favor of something more meaningful. Schram hopes to see Musicambia expand to all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Music For Food relies on high-level volunteer talent, which is easy to access because founder Kashkashian serves on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music. The nonprofit’s $40,000 to $50,000 operating budget comes primarily from foundation grants.

For each concert, 100 percent of audience donations fund food pantries. For most, this is a labor of love. Still, there’s a professional perk for students: the chance to share the stage with their mentors.

Vijay Gupta

Vijay Gupta

Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta, 28, participates in the Phil’s many outreach efforts, but he felt the need for something more when he founded Street Symphony, which plays free concerts in Skid Row homeless shelters and L.A. County Jail facilities.

What started as a group of Philharmonic friends getting together to eat, drink wine and read string quartets has grown in five years into a community of about 40 musicians including renowned jazz bassist Putter Smith and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (here known as the Street Symphony Chorale).

Gupta had a powerful inspiration: Through Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, Gupta met Nathaniel Ayres, who attended Juilliard as a double bassist but suffered a mental breakdown that shattered any hope of a career. Ayres’ story as told in Lopez’s columns was adapted for the 2009 movie The Soloist. For a while, Gupta served as Ayres’ music teacher.

“If there was even one more Nathaniel out there, we wanted to meet him,” Gupta says. “I can tell you with the women and men we’ve met on Skid Row, there are thousands of Nathaniels.” Gupta says that musicians sometimes share the stage with audience members so they can tell their stories.

This process creates a resonance between artists, the community and sometimes even the composers. “We took a Schumann quartet into Twin Towers Jail, to the mentally ill ward there,” he recounts. “Schumann had schizophrenia – he died in a mental asylum, and you hear his struggle in his music. We played this music for about 25 men, and they said, ‘My God, this music sounds the way I feel.’”

The nonprofit has received grants for specific projects, but players are volunteers. Gupta says students and freelance musicians can use the platform to network – or as inspiration to form their own ensembles with similar social purpose.

But it’s mostly about musicians discovering that marginalized populations are also their peers. As Gupta explains, “We are deeply changed by this work, and the people who are changed the most are the musicians themselves.”

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