Painting the Future for Musical Diplomacy

We have been avidly following the progress of Musical Diplomacy, the brainchild of From the Top’s Margaret Stewart Lindsay Arts Leadership Grant recipients Brian Kaufman and Michael Reichman. After an entire year of planning and organizing, their dream of using music to bring together leading policymakers, teachers, musicians, and concerned citizens was finally realized at the Fenway Center Auditorium on May 14. The event demonstrated both musical excellence and creative design, and was very well-received. We sat down with the two after the performance to reflect on the memories and values gleaned from their yearlong journey.

Brian after conducting Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: What have you learned during the course of developing Musical Diplomacy?

Brian: We learned a tremendous amount. We learned about what we’re capable of as artists, as individuals, what we have the ability to do if we put our mind to it. We learned a lot about how to put something together, how to organize things, and how to get a community excited about something. The whole thing was challenging—there was no part of it that was a walk in the park! There was constant negotiating, adjusting, and modifying original plans. To do something like this, you have to be really flexible.

Michael: What we learned is that if you have an idea and a passion, and hope to see it through, you can make it happen. There is no end to the possibilities of what you can do. No one had done what we did before at the conservatory, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t take something to the next level. For any artist out there, don’t let the world stop you from doing something that really interests you. It sounds so corny, but if you dream big, there is no end to the possibilities. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to be performing in front of three million people at Woodstock, but it does mean that this distant dream of a year ago has now become a reality, and we couldn’t be more thrilled about that. Anybody could do this.

Michael after conducting Jason Belcher's "Concerto for Improvisers and Orchestra" (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: So this being your second year of Musical Diplomacy, what new ideas emerged?

Michael: Last year what was novel about what we did was that we had a concert plus a discussion. We did that again this year, but it was also with additional effects, such as the audio clips, lighting changes, and seating changes – all things that enhanced the overall aesthetic of the concert and the musical experience. It’s about how you can change the expectations of what classical music can do, and how the music can be effective in ways that people never had thought of before. Your expectations of what classical music is can be quite broad and can be a lot of different things. It’s not just about sitting and listening; it’s about where it takes you from there.

Brian: In a standard classical concert, when the music starts the magic starts but when it stops it ends. Daniel (Daniel Bernard Roumain, or DBR) was open to any ideas that we had, but the audio clips were one that he liked that we could actually do. The lighting changes we did really made an impact as well. We went from all the lights up with the Bernstein to all the lights off for Caroline Park’s piece, a much smaller piece. This was very effective for people since it was such a big difference in aesthetic between the two pieces, and the lighting matched that difference.

Michael: The things that happened that we didn’t expect or anticipate, and ended up planning only a few days before, were a lot of these new aesthetic ideas that Daniel had suggested: an unorthodox concert dress, or in his words “dress like you are going to be on MTV,” and having some sort of creative transition between pieces so that the audience is constantly being engaged and stimulated in some way. The idea is that the concert experience should completely seamless.

(photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: How has this project related to your experience and education at NEC?

Michael: We served as conductors and music directors for this project, so we did everything from the musical preparation of score study to the logistical preparation of recruiting ensemble personnel, securing rehearsal locations, etc. That is all very much a part of what we did at the conservatory, outside this project. We’re using all those skills. NEC has begun a crusade to start an “entrepreneurial musicianship” program, and the NEC President is very gung ho about this idea of educating NEC musicians to be entrepreneurs. That goes along with not just being good artists, but knowing how to “think outside the box” on ways you can contribute to the community, wherever that community is. That just so happens to be what we’re already doing! So that ties into our education in that respect.

Brian: There was an incredible overall sense of accomplishment with everything we did. Michael and I talked about how this concert was, in many ways, a synthesis of the learning that we have done over our whole education, not just our two years at NEC. All of the organizational things: raising money, getting Daniel involved with the project, having Gunther Schuller on the panel discussion, having From the Top become a part of the project, getting 85 students to freely volunteer their time, having interest from the faculty at New England Conservatory, having the entire Conservatory come together between marketing and faculty and staff, all of these were really helpful and positive things.

(photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: How did you feel about the post-concert panel discussion?

Michael: It didn’t go quite as we had previously expected, and of course that had to do with a lot of last-minute replacements on the panel that happened the week of. You can formulate panel questions you would like the discussion to revolve around, but panelists feel things in the moment. Both Daniel and Donnie Perkins prefaced their speeches by saying, “I was going to talk about this, but having had this experience I feel compelled to say these things.” The format was having each panelist speak for about 8 – 10 minutes each, and then open it up for questions. I think one thing that we might want to consider doing differently for a similar formula in an event like this is to maybe have very specific questions asked by the moderator to specific panelists. That way, it becomes immediately more like a dialogue rather than a series of speeches. The momentum and the energy would be a little bit more kinetic and gets the audience a more engaged. It would also hopefully leave room for the audience to ask more questions, since we only had time for 2 questions from the audience.

Brian: This whole idea of music in and of itself, this idea that it transcends words and represents an idea that we cannot with words, is really powerful. I think it can be a powerful thing to react to that and discuss it: what did we get from that? How does it shape our thoughts? The idea of discussion is important, and the interaction between people is really important. As we move forward to do this in the future, we can begin thinking about how we can guide that discussion and make it as fruitful as possible.

Michael: The important thing for us to keep in mind is that we’re not political activists with an agenda or an idea to get across. For us, it was about guiding the discussion in a direction that made sure we were talking about where we are in our country culturally now that we have a non-white president. It was interesting that the conversation went in many different directions from that. Perhaps changing the format will make sure that not only is the interaction a little more lively between the panelists and the audience, but that the questions and issues that we intended to have raised in the event are, and that less gets left untouched.

Daniel Bernard Roumain conducting his piece, "Symphony for the Dancefloor" (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: There was a powerful moment in the discussion when an audience member challenged the panel on the issue of affirmative action. How do you think that affected what followed?

Michael: I think Daniel’s response to the question was an appropriate response, and that he responded to it as a musician and not as somebody who has his own political opinions or social opinions. It’s important that when you are trying to do an event like this to keep in perspective your perspective: I am reflecting and raising these issues as an artist. We are talking about America and the effects of racial integration culturally. We are asking “where are we in this country culturally?” We’re keeping in perspective how we’re asking the questions and who is asking the questions. I think it was good Daniel answered the question as a musician.

Brian: He didn’t just dismiss the guy for his anger, either. He really identified with his viewpoint by saying: “I understand where you are coming from, I don’t agree with you. Here are some things that I think differently, but I do understand where you’re coming from. There are parts of my experience that I cannot connect with where your experiences are, because I’ve had different experiences.” At the same time he was saying he didn’t agree, he was giving the guy’s argument value and understanding, which was really powerful. He wasn’t knocking the guy for his anger or his view, he was saying your voice is just as important a voice as any other voice, and it deserves to be heard just as much as any of the rest of us, as any of the five of us sitting up here right now (the panel).

DBR (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: What do you see in the future of this project?

Brian: Personally, I see someone giving us a $200 million grant to continue doing this. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I have my fingers crossed!

Michael: I think we have tapped somewhat of a niche market. Nobody is exactly doing what we’re doing in this way. We would want to continue doing projects like this—not necessarily in a concert plus discussion format, but projects that take music and set it in an illuminating context. In other words, taking art and getting people to think about it in a different way and continuing to produce events that do that.

Brian: We’ve both found that we have an interest and a passion for this kind of thing. We’re looking to keep that as a central part of what we do after NEC. In more detail, we’re looking to set up an organization that would put on these kinds of events, potentially a nonprofit.

Michael: It is definitely something we want to move forward with, and to keep thinking of new ways to be creative and enhance that concert experience, whether that be from the audience member’s perspective or from the performer’s perspective. Diplomacy through concert plus discussion only has to be one medium for that. It can take a lot of different forms, a lot of different concerts, and lot of different styles with the importance being that it’s wonderful music getting people engaged and enhancing the way they see and experience music.

Panelists Robert Gittens, Donnie Perkins, William Lowe, and DBR (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: Do you ever see it expanding beyond music and incorporating other arts?

Brian: Absolutely! I think collaboration is at the core of what we are doing. There are so many artists that are already part of this idea and that are doing things relevant to what we are thinking, and they would probably be really interested in being a part of this. The Internet is another way to make this available to everyone right away.

From the Top: Based on how this most recent experience went, what is the ideal picture you could paint for Musical Diplomacy?

Michael: Our name right now is Musical Diplomacy, and the key word to that is “music”. It’s all about making sure that the music gets you thinking or affects the way that you experience “fill in the blank.” It’s about how we can get music to get people thinking about the world around them differently. That’s the big mission, that’s what musical diplomacy is all about. The best success for us would be hearing: “Bernstein, that’s such a great piece and I’ve loved it all my life, but I never thought of it that way. Any time I listen to that music I am now going to think about it differently. And the next time I hear Barack Obama speak or Jesse Jackson or anybody in that sort of activism, I’m going to think about it differently because the music affected the way that I see this issue and how the issue either transcends or doesn’t.”

Brian: We are really interested in expanding on this idea of music as a platform for addressing social issues. It’s a really compelling idea that could make a huge difference and a huge impact for a lot communities and a lot of people. Aside from the concert and discussion, the question is that within this context of Musical Diplomacy how can we connect people to these ideas? What educational components can we bring in? How can we engage people in high school or middle school with this idea? How can we engage other communities? How can we bring this idea outside of Boston and into other parts of the country?

Panelist Gunther Schuller (photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: What advice would you give to younger musicians who are interested in getting involved in their communities and are inspired to do something similar?

Brian: Try to identify the components of what you’re trying to do. Once you do that, get advice from people who are good at those individual components. We’ve been very lucky. Even though we’re receiving credit for putting this concert together, we had a tremendous amount of help. The good news is that there are a lot of people out there who want to help you. You’re not alone in this. Whether it’s your teachers or other people in your community, I guarantee there are people out there who will help you with whatever you want to do. One example at NEC: we had to raise money for our project, and we were applying for grants. We were directed towards the grant writer for NEC and met with him. We explained what we were doing, showed him drafts of our grant proposals, and he gave us feedback. Asking advice from someone is almost the best form of flattery you can give them. Don’t feel like you can’t ask. Always, always ask! Most people would love to sit down and help you in any way they can.

Michael: I think that’s the biggest thing: ask for advice. You don’t even have to have a completely concrete idea. If you’re really passionate about something and you have an idea, talk to your teachers and your mentors. Tell them about your idea and ask whom else you could approach to get advice. Take those names and then ask them for advice. It continues from there.  You’ll start developing really good rapports and relationships and a support system. That’s all you need. As we were developing our network at NEC, Tanya Maggi, the Director of the Community Performances Partnerships Program at NEC, came across From the Top’s Margaret Stewart Lindsay Arts Leadership Grant. All because we asked somebody for advice!

(photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

From the Top: What does it mean to be an artist in today’s world?

Brian: Especially in classical music, there aren’t that many jobs out there. Being a 21st century musician is about being resourceful and using all of your skills, and not necessarily just musical skills. That could mean teaching, performing, or putting your own projects together. For us, being relevant and part of a community is really important, and it’s part of being a 21st century musician. To go along with that, you have to have a broad view of what being “successful” is. Don’t limit your idea of success to being a violin player in an orchestra, and that’s it. You’ll miss out on a lot if you do.

Michael: I went to a conducting workshop, and one of the speakers during a career seminar said, “there are no such things as jobs, only opportunities.” As a young artist or musician, that (along with asking for advice) is a powerful idea that you can take away. It’s all about forging your own career. You can create anything you want, and if you have a passion for it, you can find a group of people that will help you. That’s almost as important as honing your craft at a conservatory. Look at your education as training for the various opportunities with which you’re going to create for yourself. With this attitude, artists (any student, really, in any field of education) would look at their careers differently, and, I think, for the better. Everybody has something to contribute to society; it’s just a matter of figuring that out. If you see your education as a way to create your own opportunities and not just apply for a job, it will have a monumental impact on your outlook.

Brian: You can also think about it as being a contribution with your art. That changes the way you approach what you do. Art isn’t about you; it’s about contributing something.

(photo courtesy of Jesse Weiner)

This is the final installment of our Musical Diplomacy series on The Green Room. We will keep you posted on future developments and proposals with the project!