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The 21st Century Music Ecosystem

It’s a tough time to be a classical musician.

Of course, it always has been.  When I started conservatory, everyone was upset that the opportunities for American string players to work in Europe were drying up.  And then there were funding cuts!  Many were worried (rightfully so) about cuts to the NEA.  Five years later, when I played at the White House for the Congressional Picnic during the Clinton administration, we were all (still!) talking about cuts in funding.

And here we are today, again looking at potentially devastating cuts in funding.  Of course, now we are looking at major government cuts to so many worthwhile programs, so the NEA and NEH aren’t getting that much attention.

Small ensembles like ours depend on our earnings from concerts, the generosity of our supporters, and small grants to survive.  Like most other ensembles our size, we have never received any money from the government.

So why should we care about the NEA and government funding?  Because we are all a big community, or to paraphrase my friend Judith Insell (Music Programs Manager for the Bronx Arts Ensemble), an ecosystem.  What impacts one part of the community will trickle down, to use a Reaganism, and effect us all — for good or for bad.

So right now, as we should all be hunkering down, preparing for the oncoming storm, we have decided to start a competition for composers.

Logically, it’s not the best idea— it’s not the most financially sensible plan.  But we think it is a necessity.

When you decide to follow the path to be a performing musician, you know that your chances of a stable income and security are unlikely.  Even less of a “sure thing” is becoming a composer.  Only a handful of classical composers are able to make an actual living composing.  The large majority do other things: they teach (music and other subjects), run publishing companies, work regular day jobs, and a host of other things. They spend a lot of time alone, composing, hoping to get their works performed.

This past September, we had the good fortune of performing at Tulane University.  There, we got to meet a number of composition students.  Writing for an ensemble like ours wasn’t something most had considered.  We had a great time talking to them about our group and what’s possible with a mixed-instrument ensemble (i.e. a group that mixes instruments from different families, as opposed to something more homogeneous, like a string quartet).

When we left, all three of us felt that we wanted to work more with student composers.  To that end, we have decided to launch our first competition.

We hope to accomplish a few things:

1) Selfishly, we of course hope to encourage more works for our trio’s combination of instruments.  So many great composers have written and continue to write for us, but inspiring more composers from across the country and the world has to be part of our motivation.

2) Keeping modern classical chamber music a high priority for composers.  Let’s face it – what money is out there for new works often goes to the large arts organizations, like major symphonies and opera companies.  Because of this composers are encouraged to write large scales works for relatively well funded groups. But chamber music is the life blood of classical music.  Chamber music, by design, is intended for smaller, more intimate audiences.  How better to build a direct connection between performer and audience then in intimate environs of a chamber performance?

3) We decided to not put an age limit on our competition, but open it to anyone working towards a Bachelor, Master, Doctorate or doing Post-Graduate work.  We’ve been together as a trio for almost twenty years, and in that time we have had amazing interactions with so many composers who have written for us.  We feel, and most of the composers we have worked with would agree, that the exchange of ideas brings about better pieces and better performances.  We want to bring this opportunity to composers whom we might never meet without the incentive a competition provides.

Of course, competitions cost money.  For the first prize, we’re planning to premiere the work at our annual Fall concert in New York City and a small stipend for the winner, but there are plenty of other expenses.  We need to advertise the competition — much of which can be done on line, but a hard copy mailing to colleges is advised, and we’ll need to buy advertising in printed publications.  We need to pay our adjudicators for sorting through and judging the submissions.  Speaking of the submissions, we need to set up an electronic means for scores and recording to be uploaded and have a project manager to make sure everything runs smoothly and fairly.

And more…

All of this brings me to fund raising.  I hate fund raising.  We all do.  We hate asking for money.  But in our current environment, we know that funding for a small chamber ensemble isn’t coming from the government or some large grant.  It’s coming from the individual, local donor who believes chamber music is important.

That’s why we hope you will join us at our Benefit on Sunday, March 19 at 4:00 PM.  We will be performing a short program, including music of Graun, Jaime Zenamon (a work from our first concert together!), a new work by Spencer Synder, dances by our good friend, Tony Price, as well some of our own tango arrangements.  There will be tapas and sangria as well!  For more information, and to purchase your ticket, please visit: http://eightstringsandawhistle.com/in-concert/please-join-us.html

Can’t be there on the 19th?  You can still make a donation.  Just follow the link and look to the bottom of the page.

We hope to see you there.

 

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