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  Changing Their Tune

Practice, practice, practice. Conservatory study used to be all playing, all the time. But with the classical music industry in a serious state of flux, Peabody students are now learning the art of entrepreneurship.

By Dale Keiger
Illustrations by Serge Bloch

Meet the modern entrepreneurial classical musician. For example, meet Damon Ferrante, Peab '04. Ferrante, 33, composes operas. Established opera companies have not clamored for new works lately, so Ferrante founded a production company and stages his own. Or meet 31-year-old pianist Jenny Lin, Peab '98. When she first wanted to make a recording in 1996, she didn't have a contract with a record label. So she produced her own CD, which led to a commercial contract. Or meet conductor Benjamin Loeb, Peab '02. He studied at Peabody with conducting teacher Gustav Meier and wanted to continue working with him beyond school. So in the last year of his graduate study at Peabody, Loeb, now 38, founded the International Conducting Workshop. Next summer, the fourth annual convocation will involve 55 conductors from around the world, including Meier as lead instructor, and for the first time there will be a simultaneous music festival to perform the pieces conducted in the workshop.

Peabody Director Robert Sirota regards such entrepreneurial activity with more than approval. If classical music is to regain its vigor and maintain a central place in modern culture, Sirota says, entrepreneurship will be essential. Last September, at Peabody's opening for the new academic year, he told his audience, "In a profession that is besieged by doubt, by reduced funding for the arts, and by rhetoric from many corners that says serious music and music study are irrelevant, I am increasingly convinced that it is our responsibility at Peabody to bring the message of great music out into the world. As leaders in your field, what role will you in this room have in the transformation of the world's musical life?"

Sirota believes that role will, by necessity, be entrepreneurial, to an extent greater than in past generations of performers. If Peabody is properly to serve its students, he argues, it must find the means to devote some of its training to the business of making one's way as a classical musician in a troubled profession that increasingly demands not just instrumental chops, but creative ways of finding audiences and sustaining oneself. Of entrepreneurial skills, Sirota says to musicians, "Either you better get them, or you'd better become very good friends with someone who has them. One way or another, somebody's got to have a clue."

To the extent that one can think of classical music as an industry, it's an industry with what a business analyst would call problematic fundamentals. A majority of the symphony orchestras that for decades have provided some of the steadiest employment are awash in red ink; some have ceased to exist. Chamber music series and regional orchestras also are struggling, which means less employment for musicians. For years, public schools have been cutting music programs that employ musicians as teachers. The classical music recording industry has endured a long, serious decline that may be terminal. Tens of millions of people still pay to hear live music, but if they're under the age of 55, probably not in orchestral concert halls. Of those who do attend symphony concerts, fewer and fewer are season subscribers; orchestra managers literally do not know when, or from whence, their next dollar will come.

Sel Kardan, Peab '92, who books chamber ensembles as executive director of the Shriver Hall Concert Series on Hopkins' Homewood campus, says he receives publicity packets from as many as 10 ensembles a week. Pointing to the 792-page Music America, the directory of professional musicians for hire, Kardan says that with an already full roster of established chamber ensembles and soloists, he can rarely hire a single one for his nine-concert season. "I almost weep when I get this book," Kardan says.

"In 2003, there were 160 or so openings in orchestras, and 14,000 graduates of music schools," says Helen Kim, a consultant and the founder and director of Creative Edge, which tries to help performing artists fashion sustainable careers. Then Kim asks a question that lurks in the practice rooms, performance halls, and administrative offices of a school like Peabody Conservatory: "Where are they going to go?"

The answer is that many will create paths of their own design. They will assemble lives in music, sometimes following exemplars, sometimes lighting out for the territory ahead with charts written as they go. They will still need to know how to play, but they'll also need the drive and savvy of an entrepreneur. For Peabody, the challenge is figuring out how best to prepare them for what lies beyond their diplomas.

Never in music has there been a dependable system that fed the accomplished graduates of the best conservatories into secure, long-term opportunities with orchestras and talent agencies and recording companies. Graduating from music school has never been like graduating with an MBA or a law degree. But 40 years ago, even 20 years ago, there was more semblance of a path than there is now, especially in the recording industry, which was intent on signing and, over a period of years, nurturing new talent and developing careers.

For most of its history, Peabody has prepared students to fit that paradigm. Michael Kannen, chairman of Peabody's chamber music department, was a founding member of the Brentano Quartet in 1992. As he recalls, no one in the string quartet evinced the slightest interest in being entrepreneurs. "We were totally clueless," he says. "We were more the old-style dumb musicians who just played and someone else told us what to do."

For Brentano, it worked because the quartet had professional management. But it's not always so easy. Risa Carlson, Peab '00, arrived at Peabody about the time Kannen helped found the Brentano. She studied for eight years with master guitarist Manuel Barrueco. She says, "Peabody prepares students really well for an unrealistic job in music. Kids come in and think they're going to be a concert artist, and that's it- — you come out and you're magically going to find an agent and concerts. It doesn't happen that way."

Photo by Will Kirk In the absence of an industry that can provide secure employment, savvy young musicians are fashioning and managing their own careers. While a student, Zuill Bailey, Peab '94, won some prestigious competitions that included concerts as prizes. But as Helen Kim, the consultant, says, "You can't make a career out of debut concerts. You need repeat business." At each of his competition concerts, Bailey didn't just show up and play. "I've always been interested in how things work," he says. "I made a point of asking questions about the behind-the-scenes part of the business." He started building a network of people in the industry. "I think a lot of musicians simply do their craft and expect life to knock on their door," he says. "In my case, when I went on the road, I didn't just sit in my hotel room and practice. I went out and met people. Most musicians are waiting for something to happen, and if it happens they don't understand how it happened."

Jenny Lin had done well in several piano competitions, but was handed neither a concert career nor a management or recording contract. So she produced her own compact disc to promote herself with concert organizers. An Asian record label came across the recording and asked to distribute it commercially in Asia. That proved to be a great stroke of luck because the company, Sunrise Records, was also the Asian distributor for BIS, a well-regarded Scandinavian classical label.

BIS had committed to a project that was about to fall apart for lack of a pianist. They called Lin at three in the morning: Could she step in at the last minute? She said yes, made the record, then alertly followed up on her luck with a proposal for a second recording. BIS liked her idea and now she has a recording career, with five commercial CDs either in stores or forthcoming, that supports her while she works to develop a career as a concert artist.

Not having major-artist representation means Lin has to invest much time and effort to book her own engagements. "Sometimes I wish I had more help so I could just practice," she says. "[But] I think I'm one of the luckier ones. I'm always doing something. It works. It doesn't work great — I'm not playing Carnegie Hall yet — but hopefully it's been the right way to go."

A significant payoff has been her ability to develop an idiosyncratic personal repertory of works by underappreciated and contemporary composers. "I don't have a lot of concerts, but I have control of many of them," she says. "There is a whole group of us who don't want to be packaged by a third party."

Younger contemporary musicians often act as their own managers and publicists, skills they tend to learn on their own. As a composition student at Peabody, Damon Ferrante attended a seminar at which Sirota and other professional composers discussed how to make a living from writing music. They passed out a list of 25 possible career tracks, and Ferrante studied 15 of them. He read books on running small businesses and talked to lawyers, friends of his who ran companies, and musicians who had their own performance groups. Last year, he put what he'd learned into practice by founding his own production company, Steeplechase Arts & Productions. The company already has produced one of his operas, Super Double Lite. Later this year, Steeplechase will present, at Symphony Space in New York and the Theatre Project in Baltimore, Jefferson and Poe, a new opera that Ferrante wrote with poet and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein.

Musicians have long had to combine a variety of jobs in music to fashion a career. They still do, often creating new opportunities by founding their own ensembles and developing new teaching opportunities. Bailey plays 60 to 70 concerts a year. He's also part of a piano trio, performs as a duo with pianist Awadagin Pratt, Peab '92, teaches at the University of Texas, El Paso, and is artistic director of the El Paso Pro Musica Chamber Music Series and Festival. Conductor Loeb has headed to El Paso as well, to join the faculty of a new conservatory for middle-school and high-school students there. An accomplished pianist, he maintains a concurrent career as a recital accompanist. Carlson performs solo concerts, is half of a duo, and with husband Franco Platino, Peab '01, teaches guitar at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C., where she chairs the department. Together, Carlson and Platino are creating a graduate-level program in guitar at Georgetown University. Platino also has a solo and recording career.

"To promote yourself takes a drive at least as big as the drive to get better [as a player]," Platino says. "Personally, it's incredibly hard. I wish I could just practice, you know? I wish I could just make music and enjoy it. But I understand that it's really necessary."

Is it necessary for Peabody to teach its students to create their own professional selves, to be entrepreneurs? Or should the conservatory concentrate on making musicians and leave its graduates to figure out the business on their own?

"Most of us who entered conservatories had little knowledge of what a music career is," says Lin. "We were so sheltered at school that when released we lacked most of the practical skills of how to run a career. It took me so many years to learn how to talk to organizers and deal with people in the business. I didn't know anything when I got out of school."

"Entrepreneurialism is a simple matter of survival," Sirota says. "We are turning out graduates who in terms of their musical proficiency are the best ever, anywhere. But you have to ask to what end are we doing this? There's no point in doing this unless they are properly equipped for the realities of musical and professional life. We're looking at giving students range, flexibility, and the ability to roll with the punches."

Peabody has been cataloging what it already does in the way of practical instruction and career transition — classes in concert management and contracts, career development grants, fellowships that provide performance opportunities — to work on a more formal program of education in what lies in wait the day after graduation. This spring, Peabody is offering a new course, taught by saxophone soloist Gary Louie and Bill Nerenberg, former director of the Shriver Hall series. They plan to cover every aspect of the business's mechanics: how to secure management or else manage your own career, define and reach the market for your music, develop a business plan, raise money to finance projects, prepare publicity materials, and conduct public relations.

Sirota believes the school has more to do: "You can't just take a bunch of courses and declare that you've transformed your program. We have more than just a bunch of activities. We're beginning to achieve a kind of critical mass. But I will be the first to admit it isn't quite there yet in terms of true coherence."

One problem for the school is how to add to an already crowded curriculum that, if it is to succeed, has to remain focused on the most intense musical training. A conservatory is not a liberal arts college. As Ben Loeb says, "The students [at a conservatory] have made a decision to come to a place whose primary purpose is to focus the student, rather than broaden the student."

Yet the profession now demands musicians with minds sufficiently broad and inventive to realize diverse opportunites. Says Sirota, "Almost every imaginable aspect of the profession is being challenged. If you believe that, then training musicians to be more proactive in the promotion of both their careers and the profession is not merely a good idea, it's a necessity. The people who are going to solve this are not people who are once or twice removed from the music. They are musicians themselves who are trained as administrators and marketers and media experts, and who also have the connoisseurship about music to know great performances from ordinary ones. If they're not going to fix it, who will?"

For the conservatory, preparing students for the profession's reality is a delicate task. "For students who are 16 or 17 or 18, I think we have an obligation to put realism on the back burner," says Eileen Soskin, associate dean for academic affairs. "It's not that we don't want to give them everything they're going to need. But we would be quite remiss if we told our freshmen to forget their dreams. By the time they're juniors or seniors, they begin to have a more realistic sense."

Sirota insists on a realistic perspective at odds with conventional wisdom: The market for musicians isn't bleak, he says, it's simply changing. "I'm just so sick of everybody complaining about the death of the orchestra and the demise of this and the lack of that. To my way of thinking, without being too much of a Pollyanna, this is a really vital time. There's a lot of interest and resources out there, just not the same ones that were there 20 years ago. We've got to adjust to that. We can't be teaching students that there are no jobs and no prospects when it's not really true. It's just that the jobs are taking different form, and the way you break into the musical establishment is not the same."

Ferrante seems to share Sirota's view. "Most things are in flux now," he says. "Institutional structures are changing. But I'm an idealist. I believe that if you believe strongly enough in the art, and you're smart and you're sensitive to what's going on around you, things will open up. As long as you keep working on your art. It may take 20 years, but as long as you're doing it, things will open up."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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