Sunday, December 29, 2013

Your Personal Mission Statement

It helps a business define its core purpose and goals. It is the guiding principle of an organization. What is it?  A mission statement.  Businesses typically have these to delineate their range of activities as well as to guide future decisions.  You can usually find an organization’s mission statements on its website listed under their “About” or “Mission” header.

What does a mission statement have to do with being a composer or musician?  Everything!  Just like an organization, we too have activities that comprise our core purpose (be it composing or music-making), as well as goals for our future (such as composing an opera or winning an audition for a professional orchestra).  And similar to companies, we should have a mission statement to keep us focused on our current activities while also taking steps now to ensure the realization of our future goals.

The first step to writing your personal mission statement is to research how companies write theirs.  What kind of activities does each organization cover?  How general or specific do they get in defining these activities?  Here are three great examples of mission statements from Chicago organizations, each of which has approached their statement in a slightly different manner (click on each header to view their webpages):

Chicago a cappella is a creative enterprise devoted to furthering the art of singing together without instruments.”  Chicago a cappella follows this with their ensemble biography.

“Fifth House Ensemble taps the collaborative spirit of chamber music to create engaging performances and interactive educational programs, forging meaningful partnerships with unexpected venues, artists of other disciplines, educational institutions, and audiences of every type.”  Fifth House then lists their five core values that support their mission statement.

“Cedille Chicago is dedicated to producing classical recordings of the highest quality featuring outstanding musicians from Chicago. Our purpose is to enhance the world’s catalog of recorded music by exploring new and under-represented compositions and documenting important interpretations of standard repertoire. The extensive dissemination of these recordings is designed to bring these artists to a worldwide audience, thus enhancing their reputations and careers, and to benefit as great a listening public as possible.”  Notice how Cedille’s mission statement starts with a broad sentence, then fleshes out its mission in the second and third sentences.  Cedille follows this with a section on their history.

Once you’ve researched a few organizations, make a list of what kind(s) of music you’re creating and/or performing, as well as the your range of musical activities.  Add your goals to this list, both short- and long-term (think of this in terms of projects that you want to do in the next 12 months, in the next 5 years, and in your lifetime).  Now that you’ve got a list, figure out what are the most salient details that comprise what you do and use these to craft your mission statement. Revisit your mission statement every so often to see if you still agree with it; tweak it as your goals shift over the course of your career.

Your personal mission statement is something that you can keep private, or can be incorporated in part or full into your official biography that you post on your website, in concert programs, etc. Ultimately, think of your personal mission statement as a rudder that can help navigate the course of your musical career, keeping you focused on your short- and long-term goals as you go.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is all self-promotion shameless?

When I was an undergraduate composition student at the University of Michigan, I observed two composers who were masters of self-promotion: Michael Daugherty, my composition teacher, and Derek Bermel, a graduate composition student.  Both had the confidence and ability to walk up to just about anyone and engage them in a conversation about their music.  Both composers’ promotional abilities were amazing to watch, and very difficult for me to emulate.  Granted, I hadn’t been composing as long as either Daugherty or Bermel to have much experience in promotion, nor did I have as many pieces to peddle.  But it was more than this – I was very shy and found it painfully hard to talk up my music to others.  Over the years, I came to terms with my shyness, and have found my own groove for promotion given my personal strengths and limitations: I employ a mix of email cold calls, monthly newsletters, meetings over coffee, and good, old-fashioned concert-going and hand-shaking.

Exploring my own past makes me wonder, what constitutes “shameless” self-promotion?  Are all forms of self-promotion shameless?  What’s non-shameless?  And by whose measurement?  Let’s consider an example.  A fictitious composer writes several new works.  No one knows the music exists except for a few of the composer’s friends and family.  He decides to program the works at a local venue that he rents for an evening.  He then starts a social media campaign via Facebook, Twitter, and emails with an increase in announcements during the weeks leading up to the concert.  He purchases advertising time on a local classical music station, hangs posters at some local universities and stores, and sends out personal invites to music critics and supporters.  Is anything that I’ve listed shameless, or just good business?  Or is shameless doing something beyond what I’ve described? 

Over the years, I have met several individuals that expressed the opinion that if someone is a composer, then this must mean that he/she shamelessly self-promotes.  There are certainly people out there (and not just composers) who many would feel go over the line; for instance, they hound concert presenters via emails and phone calls to be programmed on a concert series, sometimes multiple times per year (or even per month).  While it is important to get one’s name in front of presenters so they remember you when they make their programming decisions, at what moment do your actions cross the line?   

Each of us should occasionally assess how much self-promotion we’re doing, and how people are responding to it.  If you are very aggressive in your promotion, but find your attempts aren’t turning into that many performances, then perhaps you need to tone it down.  Alternately, if you aren’t getting a lot of performances and aren’t promoting your work at all, then you need to step it up.  Ultimately, we all need to find our own self-promotion groove that not only works for us, but also for those we are trying to interest in our music.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hey Jealousy: Learning from our perceived rivals

The Gin Blossoms, Black Crowes, and John Lennon have sung about it.  Ross and Rachel’s relationship on the popular 1990s TV show “Friends” was constantly thrown into turmoil over it.  Siblings struggle with it daily.  We have all experienced it, but often have a hard time acknowledging it – jealousy.  In the professional world, this occurs in a variety of manners, but can be more or less distilled into a single thought: why is he (or she) getting that opportunity instead of me?

I first experienced this thought when I came face-to-face with other young composers in college (it is easy to be a big fish in the “little pond” of high school when you’re the only composer in town… until you move to a much bigger pond).  On the surface, it looked to me like my peers weren’t doing anything different than what I was doing, and yet they and their music were getting a lot more attention.  I failed to realize two important points: 1. Those composers undoubtedly worked A LOT behind the scenes to promote their music; and 2. I could learn from these people and make their opportunities become mine too.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a strategy for getting past jealousy: research the composer who’s getting the opportunities.  Check out his biography.  Do you recognize all of the competitions he’s won?  Are there ensembles or musicians that you’ve not heard of?  Do you see any connections from one achievement to the next, such as a conductor who performed the piece with a few ensembles?  Try listening to the composer’s music.  Does it do something unique that you find interesting?  Then turn your research into action: do internet searches on anything you don’t know; enter all competitions you qualify for; find out if those ensembles program new music on a regular basis and might be open to getting materials from you.  Even try composing using musical parameters gleamed from the music and see if this leads you to compose in a new direction.

Like Ross repeatedly experienced on “Friends,” no good can come from jealousy.  I’d also suggest the same is true about passive behavior.  So try taking a proactive approach.  Congratulate your colleagues when they win a prestigious award or receive a notable commission. Then learn how they got the opportunity.  Ultimately, careers are a mixture of great composition skills, a strong business sense, a healthy amount of networking and concert-going, and research.  Jealousy has no place in this mix.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Composers and Kickstarter, Part II (7+ tips for a great Kickstarter project)

In my previous blog, I discussed four effective Kickstarter projects that involved composition-related projects.  In this blog, I offer seven tips for making a standout Kickstarter campaign. In full disclosure, I have not yet personally run a Kickstarter project, but plan to in the not-so-distant future and have been conducting research for my own entry into the Kickstarter arena. I present these seven tips from the premise that you have put together a compelling project and possess the musical skills to do what you propose. 

For all Kickstarter projects listed below, click on the project titles to link to the Kickstarter website.

1. You will connect better to your prospective funders if they see you and hear directly from you on the video. Watch Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 4: Bliss. Whitacre starts his video by looking at the viewer right in the eye; he also spends quite a bit of time in front of the camera throughout the video. I have found plenty of videos that lack this quality face time. Instead of coming across as an artist who is passionate about your project, you run the risk of having potential funders view your video like an informercial or documentary, particularly if you use only voice-overs in lieu of video footage.

2. Be genuine. Try to be relaxed on camera. If you appear anxious or you’re trying to be something you’re not, viewers will pick up on this. Once again, watch the opening of Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 4: Bliss. Notice how relaxed Whitacre is as he talks.  He doesn’t hurry his words, and he takes pauses between sentences. If you scan enough Kickstarter projects, you’ll start to see what works for you and what doesn’t.

3. Explain what you are requesting right away on the video, and at or near the top of your project description on your Kickstarter page. Don’t make the prospective funder wait until the end of the video to find out what you’re asking for, or make them scroll too far down on the screen. The funder could lose interest along the way.

4. Get creative with the pledge gifts. Every Kickstarter project offers an array of gifts offered to meet a variety of price points. Many projects have several typical gifts, such as pre-release digital downloads, autographed CDs, and printing a funder’s name on an organization’s website, CD liner notes, or concert program. While these standard gifts should certainly be included, don’t miss an opportunity to think outside the box. For instance, the choir Cantus (A new work for Cantus by composer Byron Adams) offered a signed and printed photograph of the entire choir holding up the funder’s name and the words “thank you!” Composer Rene Orth’s pledge gifts (The Red Thread) included Orth writing and recording the donor’s own personal theme song (very unusual and fun!). Composer Andrew Norman (Play) offered a composition lesson either in person if the donor lives in NUC, or otherwise by Skype. All three gifts are items that don’t take much of a composer’s or ensemble’s time, but yet can be very unique and meaningful for a funder.

5. Learn from other people’s projects. Find projects that you think are effective and figure out why. Look over projects that failed to reach their funding threshold and see what you can ascertain the cause. Kickstarter keeps all funded and unfunded projects on their server, so you can peruse past projects.

6. Consider donating to other people’s Kickstarter campaigns. When you create your Kickstarter project page, people will be able to see how many campaigns you’ve personally backed. Some prospective funders might be turned off by an artist who has never supported anyone else’s project. It doesn’t take much to be supportive of others, and being generous with others may persuade others be generous with you.

7. Study Kevin Clark’s website. Clark is a composer and a Kickstarter project guru. His website contains valuable insights and information about how to plan your budget, craft your pledge gifts, and cultivate your list of funders. He also includes a very useful Excel spreadsheet that you can download and use when you plan your campaign.

My last bit of advice is be sure to set aside time every few days while running your campaign to work on it. You’ll need to raise awareness of your project with your family, friends, and supporters. Depending on how much money you’re trying to raise and over what length of time, you will likely need to send out a steady stream of email/social media reminders throughout the campaign to get people to donate. One intriguing strategy employed by singer Patrice Michaels (Intersection: Jazz Meets Classical) was to give short-term goals for prospective funders, such as if she reached a target dollar amount within 24 hours, she would post a new video online of her singing a song from her upcoming album. She also offered to sing happy birthday over the phone (or emailed as an audio file) to three people of the donor’s choice for anyone who pledged $50 within a special promotion period. Michaels reached her goal and made it fun along the way for her prospective funders.

So get creative and craft your own Kickstarter project!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Composers and Kickstarter, Part I (4 composer-based projects)

Kickstarter, the most popular online crowd funding resource, has come a long way in a very short amount of time. Created in 2009, the website has helped people raise $881 million dollars (and counting) in project pledges, with over 52,000 total projects funded. Over five million people have backed projects. Not bad for a company that’s only four years old! Most remarkable is how Kickstarter and other similar companies have revolutionized the way in people conceive of fundraising; anyone can raise money for a project, and anyone can fund one.

How can composers best utilize Kickstarter? After searching through a large number of composer-oriented projects, I found several common themes: composers raising money for professional recordings (or organizations who want to record composers’ works), performers wanting to commission a composer to write a piece, and organizations asking for money to fund a special concert or project featuring a composer. In a future blog, I’ll address some of the finer details of crafting a Kickstarter project, but I’d like to start the conversation by discussing four projects that I feel make great use of the Kickstarter format and were all successfully funded. The first two are composer-initiated, whereas the last two are ensemble-oriented that incorporated composer-based activities (click on the project titles to visit their Kickstarter pages):

• Eric Whitacre - Virtual Choir 4: Bliss (click title to view Kickstarter project)
This is the latest project in composer Eric Whitacre’s popular and innovative “Virtual Choir” series in which singers from around the world send in videos of themselves singing his piece Bliss, which Whitacre’s audio and visual teams then piece together into a single video renditionWhitacre’s creation of a worldwide, communal choir is not only helps to spread his music around the globe, but also excites singers about tackling new music. Whitacre has built a brand around his choral music, and choristers everywhere readily identify with it.

Most impressive about Whitacre’s project is his Kickstarter video.  He starts the video by looking directly into the camera and appealing for assistance. Whitacre then gives a brief history of the virtual choir concept and furthers why he needs support. His use of storytelling, facial close-ups, and direct gaze gives one the feeling that he’s having a personal conversation with the viewer.  While it takes hiring a professional crew to pull off the quality of video that he has put together, we can all learn tips from Whitacre’s successful project to incorporate into our own.

• Daniel Knaggs – 5 new choral works performed and recorded professionally!  (click title to view)
Knaggs’ video isn’t quite as shiny as Whitacre’s – indeed, there are several segments in which he talks while standing or walking in a parking lot, accompanied by background noise and some shaky camera work.  The pacing is also a bit slow in comparison to Whitacre’s video. But Knaggs’ approach pays off – he comes across as a young, genuine, and very likeable composer, and his choir music that accompanies the video is quite beautiful.  Knaggs’ video builds the case that this is someone who has great music to share and a plan to make it happen, and needs our support to help him achieve this.

For me, the strength in Knaggs’ project is in his concept: he wants to raise money to hire 20 professional singers to perform five of his choral works on his doctoral recital.  This is a project that any entrepreneurial-minded student composer can (and should) do.  Composers need good recordings to send to choirs for performance consideration.  In college, it can be especially challenging to build a choir of one’s own (it can be difficult to even get four student musicians together, let alone twenty!).  Knaggs figured out how to build is own professional-level choir, and without any expense to himself.

• Palisades Virtuosi – New American Masters, Volume 5   (click title to view)
Palisades Virtuosi consists of the unique instrumentation of flute, clarinet, and piano. In large part due to their instrumentation, the ensemble has a “mission to commission” composers for new works that the ensemble then premieres and records. They’ve successfully used Kickstarter twice to fund the making of recordings completely dedicated to recording new works.  This particular Kickstarter campaign raised money for the fifth volume in their “New American Masters” series.

Experience pays off. The ensemble’s video is effective and concise; you quickly understand the importance of the ensemble’s mission as well as of their proposed CD project. The video features various pictures of the ensemble posing with six of the seven composers featured on the CD; we can see the personal connections between the composers and musicians. Donors can feel comfortable that they’re supporting a well-organized and composer-friendly organization.

• Chicago Harp Quartet – Debut Album  (click title to view)
The Chicago Harp Quartet project’s goal was to raise $10,000 to cover production costs of their debut CD.  This project caught my eye for two reasons.  First, their video is very compact (2 minutes, 48 seconds) yet gets all pertinent information across clearly.  The ensemble also incorporated great footage of their hometown (Chicago) into the video, as well some humor via sped-up footage of the harpists as they comically try to figure out how to best arrange their harps on a concert stage. 

The second reason is an interesting challenge that they added to their campaign – if the Quartet could raise an extra $3,000, they would commission French composer and harpist Bernard AndrĂ©s to write a new piece that would be included on the CD.  The Quartet successfully raised the extra money and all backers benefitted by getting a preview digital download of the work. Having an extra challenge for donors to reach for is an intriguing strategy and it serves as additional motivation to support the project.

I’ll further the Kickstarter discussion in a future blog. In the meantime, if you have found a particularly effective Kickstarter composer-based campaign, or if you have started a Kickstarter campaign of your own and would like to share it, please post it in the comments below!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

First Impressions

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you notice about his/her attire? Does he look comfortable? Professional? Do her clothes fit well, or are they too loose? Do the clothes’ colors stand out in a crowd, or fade into the surroundings? Are you too distracted by his attire that you can’t be completely focused on his personality? We are constantly sizing up people when we first meet them, collecting information on how they wish to present themselves to the world. And others are doing the same to us.

The same is true about music scores. Recently, one of my graduate composition students showed me the score of a student composer from another university. The notation was akin to a poorly dressed man whose clothes are rumpled, oversized, and spotted with coffee stains. Notation errors abounded everywhere – a large number of musical notes and elements were colliding into each other, symbols were used incorrectly, and the document was poorly spaced. Talk about a poor first impression! I mentioned to my graduate student that given the lack of attention to notation, this undergraduate has some work to do on the score before sending it out to people. My student replied that a graduate student had written the piece. (Oops.)

None of us knows whose hands our scores will reach. The student of the poorly notated score might be chagrined to learn that a professor at another university had seen it. If I hadn’t been so distracted by the notation and instead impressed by the music, this piece could have become something I would potentially champion. What if I had been in a position to program this piece at a performance venue?  What if I was so struck by the music that I wanted to hand it to professional performers who might share my enthusiasm for it?

Making sure that the scores you create are carefully and cleanly notated should be the standard for all of us, students and professionals alike. Even the first copy you give out to your performers should be clean. The graduate student might have had a beautiful piece buried somewhere in the rubble of that score, but if the composer couldn’t take his music seriously enough to present it clearly, then neither should I.

As legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.”