Category Archives: Op-Eds

How To Make $4 In 4 Months

Meet Myah Paden, a Masters in Music student at U of M studying voice performance. Read her fabulous op-ed on her experience starting the Thorne & Thistle podcast.

This summer I started a podcast to cope.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you; 2020 has ultimately been a pretty good year for me, all things considered. If that makes you want to immediately stop reading this, I totally get it, but if it makes you feel any better, it did not start out that way. At the start of 2020, I was officially 2 months on antidepressants to treat acute symptoms of what was quickly turning into, arguably, the worst year of my life. 

I graduated from my undergraduate program in August of 2019, moved across the country from the Deep South to the suburban Midwest, lived alone for the first time in my life, and started a Masters degree. I said ‘yes’ to every opportunity which happened to be exactly too many. I became consumed in grinding, and lost my sense of self in the process. By Winter semester, I was running on the fumes of clinical perfectionism.

The news cycle was pretty dismal then, too (do you remember when just Australia was on fire?). Spring break came and went, and I considered just giving it all up, moving to a foreign country, and recreating my identity anew as an eccentric young savant. I was begging the Universe for a break.

And then the world went still.

All at once, I was completely distanced from the friendships I had just barely begun to form and the life I was beginning to build. All of that disappeared in an instant, and I was alone with my thoughts and my emotional support cat dutifully keeping me company. The first month was the most surreal. Slowly, the apocalyptic haze that settled over the world began to clear, and I, too, began to settle into what would months later become “normal”. The moment I felt like I was finally lifting the thick quarantine depression from my shoulders–it was then that I heard about George Floyd.

Peep Myah’s beautiful emotional support cat

Like most Black Americans, I have been desensitized to the brutalization of Black bodies and the apathy of white America. I am, to a degree, used to the cycle of grief that plagues my community every year or so when our trauma is a hot topic. The social media “activism” that follows and its companion of false allyship–these things are not new. Watching a Black man be unjustly murdered in front of my eyes and having distant Facebook friends perpetuate the gaslighting of the Black community under the guise of playing “devil’s advocate”–this is not new either. The crucial difference between George Floyd’s execution and the litany of Black names that flood our timelines year after year was timing.

It was the lack of ability to turn away from the screen and to move on. We had to look, and for many that was the first time bearing witness to the perverse reality of Black life in this country. For me, it was a tipping point.

To be clear, this is not an article about George Floyd. This is about identity, trauma, and healing. This is about me, and it’s about us. 

I hit my breaking point watching the footage and fallout of George Floyd’s murder. I had so many emotions overflowing from me and spilling over tainting the simplest things in my life. I couldn’t cry or laugh or scream. I was numb. I only watched the video once, but I saw it played out thousands of times whenever I closed my eyes. Each time, the face of George Floyd was replaced by a Black loved one–my brother, cousin, father, myself. I could feel all of the similar traumatic moments I’d seen over the years crash into me at once. To make matters worse, I lived alone, so there was no consolation for me that wasn’t filtered through a Zoom call.

Like all good creatives do, I turned to art. I opened Audacity (free recording software) and just spoke. “Um…a lot is going on right now…,” I began.

I gave into my stream of consciousness and released the emotions I had been repressing without the expectation or desire that they would go beyond my IP address. I experienced an intense relief in the process. When I finally stopped the recording, I realized in the following silence that so much of what I was feeling was helplessness, and suddenly, I no longer felt helpless.

I am not built for protest. I have too much Anxiety to be at the frontlines of a movement.

What I have is a voice and the ADHD-given ability to present full oral dissertations to an invisible audience. With those spurring me on, I flung my story into the digital void for both no one and everyone. I released all of it, and in the face of a global pandemic, white and conservative apathy, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I felt catharsis. This was my protest.

People began to reach out and share with me their feelings as well, stories which were nuanced–colored by each individual experience. More joined and months later, what began as a digital diary entry eventually grew beyond me. 

The whole experience is teaching me something pivotal: our intersectional experiences, those points of life at which the multiplicity of identity and community meet, color our pain different shades of the same color, but ultimately, we are connected in the sharing of grief and hope. 

So, that was June.

Since then, I decided to take a leave from school for a year. I started therapy for the first time since moving from Georgia, and I’ve started feeling my sense of self return to me after being lost for the last year and a half. 

I have connected and shared conversation with truly amazing people through my growing platform like non-binary music artist and producer, London Beck, and internationally acclaimed biracial classical singer, Julia Bullock. I have deepened connections with friends and induced connections with strangers. In healing my own spirit and sharing my story, I have gained the platform to share the stories of others and facilitate empathy and healing together. 

This has become the mission of my podcast Thorn & Thistle and my reason to continue: Cutting through the thorns and navigating a path through the complex griefs, joys, and experiences of life with the understanding that everyone’s path is unique. Some are steeper or more treacherous than others. All paths lead forward. 

No doubt, this year has more in store for us. As a Black, neurodivergent, lesbian woman with a Bachelor’s degree in Music, I am sure to have plenty of content to keep my podcasting career afloat. I don’t mean to boast, but in the four months my show has been running, I’ve racked up a whopping four whole dollars. I guess you could say I’ve made it.

As voting rights are expressed and suppressed throughout the country, there is something intense and probably disappointing on the horizon no matter your political alignment. 

Unfortunately, there really is no inspiring takeaway in this article. My story isn’t altogether profound, but it is honest.

I thought about how to write this in so many ways. I wondered if I should tell you all of my experience meeting and chatting with Julia Bullock who is one of my favorite living classical artists of the modern age. I could type my fingers numb expounding on the guiding philosophical principles which are, in some part, foundationally responsible for the creation of Thorn & Thistle (for the record: Womanism and Intersectional Feminism). I could write a very poignant piece on the plight of the Black Woman in America™ or on queering the classical space. I could talk about a lot of things because that’s what I’m good at, but to be perfectly honest, that’s what my show is for. 

Check out Myah’s episode with Julia Bullock, really amazing!

At its core, my podcast exists as a kind of group therapy session for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. I no longer create mission trip-esque content for white, cis, and/or heteronormative audiences to attempt to absolve guilt by deigning to listen whilst oggling at the natives like ravenous spectators at a human zoo. 

However, on this platform, I wanted to share a story that shows me as I am: a person wrapped in complexity which uniquely colors my experience. A person attempting to do something good in a world where those in power profit from our helplessness and fear. A curious mind with a passion for storytelling and nurturing the connective tissue between myself and you. 

I invite you to fearlessly follow your voice through the chaotic, thorn-covered bramble of the state of the world we’re in. Maybe you’ll find new connections or refresh old ones. Maybe you’ll start a podcast. Or maybe you’ll find, like I did, that we are never truly helpless.

-Myah Paden


EXCEL Highlights is a series where we feature students and faculty at UM that are changing the world and creating dope art! Make sure to look for the next post an interview with the amazing Arts in Color dance group. If you’d like to see your project featured, and get some free publicity, send an email to srosew@umich.edu!

It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled* Part 1

*Disclaimers

*Disclaimer #1: I’m not an expert. I’ve spent ~19 hours doing intensive google searching, 3 hours debating with friends, and most of my life thinking about what does and doesn’t sit right with me. I value experts and their opinions and so I’ve tried to include as many resources and quotes that I thought were relevant to give you the opportunity to investigate on your own (though I of course did curate the list so there’s some bias there I can’t do much about). I encourage you to disagree with me, educate me, question me, change my mind, and help me to grow. PLEASE write your thoughts in the comment section and I’ll do my best to engage with all of your ideas. I genuinely think this a deeply complex topic and I’m not done exploring it, but I have a deadline so this is what I have, please come on this journey with me!

*Disclaimer #2: I am aware of the precedent where people hide racist and hateful rhetoric behind the guise of critiquing “cancel culture” and advocating for free speech. I personally think that’s deplorable, and this is not that (I would love to be able to reclaim free speech as a less polarized topic, but that’s another post for another day).

*Disclaimer #3: I’m also aware that the internet is all about condensing context and finding sound bites and quotes that are inflammatory and controversial. I realize that I have no control over how people quote or condense this post, and that talking about any controversial issues increases the opportunity for nuance to be lost in favor of sensationalism. This is a post about nuance so to be quite honest I’m terrified of being misquoted but I think that this conversation needs to be had so I’m trusting you all to step into the abyss with me (Can you tell that I’m a performance major? The drama right?).

Cancel It

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one day my college career was forever changed when my friends and I discovered Joanne the Scammer. For those who haven’t seen Caucasian Living, this will be a much-needed brain break from your regularly programmed lives. 

In this viral video, Joanne the Scammer sneaks into someone’s mansion, the epitome of “Caucasian Living” and gives a tour pretending that she lives there. This hilarious video had some of the most iconic quotes of my college experience. Shakespeare, Goethe, Adiche, couldn’t compete with the literary prowess that went into “welcome to my Caucasian household.” But the quote that we latched onto above all the rest was the infamous “It’s over, it’s done, it’s canceled.” 

Brandon Miller a.k.a Joanne the Scammer

You see, when Joanne flippantly “canceled” a fancy espresso machine that refused to work, she inadvertently gave me and my friends the power to cancel anything we set our minds to. Thus commenced months of our college career where you could find us huddled together at a table, cackling loudly, as we canceled– our homework, any teachers who assigned too much reading, racism, ableism, stubbing our toes, being ghosted on dating apps (I mean who in their right minds would ghost us, their phones must have spontaneously combusted… only possibility), the word moist. Literally, any and everything was up for canceling, and we would laugh ourselves into fits finding the most ridiculous and mundane parts of life to cancel. 

Short History of Canceling

Like many good things that start off on black twitter, it was only a matter of time until it got ruined…

…sigh (is there a term for twitter terminology gentrification? If not there should be). 

While “canceling” was only intended to be a flippant and humorous phrase without any associated behavior or moral code, it quickly spread from black twitter to the internet at large and merged with “call-out culture”. Once the two were melded together “cancel culture” was supposedly born– where people on the internet, publicly shame, ostracize, and distance themselves from an individual who has done something deemed as socially or morally reprehensible.1

Cancel Culture. What does it even mean?

Between now and then “Cancel Culture” has become an incredibly politicized term with arguments ranging from it endangers democracy to “it doesn’t exist.”2

The Daily tackled cancel culture and described it as “a suitcase term, people will end up packing a whole variety of completely disparate terms and ideas into this one phrase,”3 this makes discussions about cancel culture incredibly frustrating at best and impossible at worst. How can one possibly know what elements are being referenced when cancel culture has been used to refer to calling people out online, boycotting celebrities, cyber bullying, the “very definition of totalitarianism”4, mob rule, the powerless seeking accountability from the powerful, doxing, swatting, seeking long-overdue accountability, educating people on places for growth interchangeably, and more. If a term can mean so many vastly different things and there’s no way to deduce someone’s intentions or an audience’s associated connotations, then from a practical perspective the word is rendered meaningless.5

So I find myself faced with a problem of trying to discuss a topic that’s riddled with confusing and charged language.

  • Option 1: Follow in the footsteps of famous writers and simply make up a new word to fit my own selfish purposes( I’m not saying I’m of the same caliber of Dickens or Carroll but there is a precedent).
  • Option 2: Stand in solidarity with my black twitter ancestors and demand reparations for this verbal gentrification. Use this platform, foolishly entrusted to me, to set out to do what no man has done before– reclaim the term “canceling.”

Needless to say I’m choosing Option 2.

So from here on out I’m talking about canceling the negative association with “cancel culture.” Any association with doxing, swatting, or the end of democracy– is over, it’s done, it’s cancelled, forget her name. I’m optimistic we can all agree that that’s less than ideal behavior and should not be condoned. The ends simply do not justify the means.

I’m interested in looking at what responsibility we have to respond to artists, living and dead, that have created art that we enjoy and have also committed acts that go against our moral codes and values. I’m interested in looking at what that response would look like in an intentional and responsible world. I’m interested in exploring how we might use “canceling,” hereby and henceforth defined as public awareness, public pressure, boycotts, shaming, and or fundraising, for good. 

Benefits of Canceling

While at first glance promoting my newly reclaimed term “canceling” may seem like a shoddy euphemism for internet vigilante justice, the distinctions are important and noteworthy. First, canceling artists in terms of raising public awareness, building public pressure, establishing boycotts, and shaming has been present in human society since humans had two pennies to rub together and spend on art.

“Henceforth and forevermore ye canceled!”

While the internet and particularly social media have acted as a catalyst for the speed and reach of canceling movements, using the power of public opinion to shape society is timeless, and not inherently bad.

1. Community Growth

In a truly incredible article by Chi Luu, a computational linguist who investigates cancel culture, she writes of the societal benefits of canceling (It’s really taking all of my self-control not to copy and paste the entire article here so please, please, PLEASE check it out for yourself if you have a minute, she’s amazing!). She argues that groups calling out unacceptable behavior and publicly discussing what will and won’t be allowed is critical to community building and growth.  “Public call outs may not be always what a community wants to hear. It’s certainly not nice, but it’s what needs to be said for the same values to be debated, formed, shared, and upheld by everyone who belongs to the group.”6 She even goes on to discuss how dangerous using language like “mobs, witch hunts, and vigilante justice” for groups that seek to call out or change the status quo can be.

Coded language like mobs, sends connotations that the group’s beliefs are irrational, criminal, or anti-democratic, often justifying the use of government force to suppress them. And while “no one could argue that it’s pleasant to be the bottom of a pile on, virtual or not. It’s true that people can band together for the wrong reasons, but, funnily enough, they can also band together for very good reasons.7 Case in point: The March on Washington, The Boston Tea Party, The Women’s Suffrage Movement. All examples of rational, logical, pro-democratic groups of people banding together to use the power of public opinion to reshape society, who could easily have been labeled mobs and vigilantes.

Vigilante justice never looked so hot

2. A Platform for Marginalized Voices

One of the strongest arguments in its defense highlights how canceling gives power to the otherwise powerless — people from marginalized communities. Social media has allowed individuals from marginalized communities to influence societal norms and to directly address problematic behaviors from people whose privilege previously protected them from public critique.8 Social media undercuts gatekeeping tactics from traditional outlets of power and allows for BIPOC people to have a seat at the proverbial table. And while some argue that “canceling” has a puritanical silencing effect on public figures,9 others argue that–

“When people who believe cancel culture is a problem speak out about its supposed silencing effect… instead of reckoning with the reasons I might find certain actions or jokes dehumanizing, I’m led to one conclusion: they’d prefer I was powerless against my own oppression.”

“Cancel Culture is Not Real- At Least Not in the Way People Think” Time Magazine by Sarah Hagi

I think it is applaudable that many in our society seek to denounce racist, transphobic, ableist, sexist, and bigoted behavior, and I don’t think that would be the case if it wasn’t for canceling and social media’s ability to highlight the voices of marginalized identities. 

So if canceling has such incredible potential, why does it so often go wrong? What pitfalls have given it such a bad reputation? Is there a way to learn from them so we can keep the good effects and lose the bad?

The Dangers of Canceling

Natalie Wynn is a social commentator with degrees in philosophy from Georgetown and Northwestern, who created the youtube channel ContraPoints. In ContraPoints, Natalie uses philosophy, her own life experiences, and witty humor to produce extremely nuanced, critical, and darkly humorous video essays on race, politics, gender, ethics, and other controversial topics. Wynn, a trans woman, was canceled in 2019 for a twitter controversy where she was accused of being a transmedicalist10 and made an EPIC (I use that in the literal meaning of the world), GROUNDBREAKING video on canceling in response.

It’s almost 2 hours long so while you should definitely watch it, maybe save it for date night this weekend, it will spice up your relationship and definitely give you all something to talk about beyond how your day was (I mean we’re in quarantine all of our days are the same, I know you’re desperate for something new to talk to each other about. You’re welcome).

In this sundance worthy film, which you are so going to watch later, Natalie talks about how as someone who is committed to anti-racism and anti-transphobia she is deeply concerned and increasingly disillusioned with the way canceling on social media is used to “escalate conflict instead of promote understanding,” and by how it’s “weaponized to destroy people who have made mistakes, but maybe don’t deserve to be destroyed.” She meticulously researches various examples of canceling that went wrong. Where individuals who may have made a mistake were demonized, ostracized, punished, and denied an opportunity for rehabilitation. There’s a difference between criticism and condemnation.

Natalie goes on to note that the impact of canceling, rarely has long-term effects on celebrities’ lives. Assuming that this is an example where the individual didn’t break the law but rather broke socially acceptable actions, people with privilege usually have a short period of discomfort and then their careers survive to be canceled another day. However, canceling in actuality has the most damning effects on individuals from marginalized communities who may not have any other resources when they’re canceled from their community. Natalie shares stories of sex workers and BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people who relied on internet communities for support, whether emotional or material, and were canceled to tragic effect.

The feeling of being canceled as a vulnerable identity is described as–

“…making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in a chorus of condemnation which cannot be silenced, and you are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self.”

Trashing by Jo Freeman

Luckily, Natalie is a goddess come to earth in human form to show us the way (join the fan club yes we have T-shirts), so she deduces the 7 traits that define toxic and counterproductive canceling. I, as a hopeless romantic and eternal optimist, hope that if we can be aware of and avoid these problematic pitfalls, we can through intention and awareness of our actions, maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.

The 7 Destructive Tropes of Canceling

1. Presumption of Guilt

When canceling weaponizes the progressive slogan “believe victims,” it abuses a well intentioned model that can allow the dichotomy of victim and abuser to be placed on situations that don’t warrant it. Additionally because canceling isn’t a legal proceeding, accusations can be equated to truth with little to no proof, and in the world of twitter, often zero context. 

We all know no one is the victim here!

2. Abstraction

-“Abstraction replaces the specific, concrete details of a claim with a more generic statement.”-Natalie Wynn

Social media and internet culture lend themselves to a constant collapse of context as information is shared so that the original specifics and intention are often lost as information is shared. Thus one line of a tweet, pulled from a larger thread, can be abstracted from what it literally says, into someone’s interpretation of that line’s intention. 

“Girl he LOOKED at me. So you can start planning the wedding now!”

3. Essentialism

Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person’s actions to criticizing the person themselves. We’re not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.” – Natalie Wynn

He’s a failure!

4. Pseudo-Moralism or Pseudo-Intellectualism

Providing a phony pretext for the call–out designed to make people feel justified in their harmful actions, and less guilty.

The point is Pseudo-moralism is that it often disguises an intent of unflattering motivations, behind the guise of righteous indignation to be more palatable to a wider audience, a dangerous combination.

“I know slavery sucks but it’s God’s will for you all.”
(*sigh* Shall we create a drinking game for every time the bible is problematically used to oppress people? Too far? I’m a pastor’s kid, do I get a free pass? What if we drink communion wine? Ok ok I take it back)

5. No Forgiveness

What is the point of canceling again? To hold people accountable? To educate people with privilege on how their ignorance is “dehumanizing” to others’ existence? So then the ultimate goal would logically be an apology and changed behavior in the future. 

However Natalie describes dangerous trope number 5 where apologies are dismissed as insincere, whether convincingly written or delivered, and past mistakes are compounded together while ignoring any growth or apologies.

6. Transitive Property of Cancellation

“Cancellation is infectious. If you associate with a canceled person, the cancellation rubs off. It’s like gonorrhea, except doxycycline won’t save you this time sweetie.” – Natalie Wynn

Do you all remember how upset people got when Chance the Rapper tried to support his friend Kanye through rough times? People tried to cancel Chance! Chance!?!? He has a heart of gold, he wrote a song about how much he loves his grandma! But the transitive property of canceling says he must be thrown in the trash as well. 

7. Dualism

Binary thinking means people are either good or bad. We should “interpret that [any mistake made] as the mask slipping, as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness.” 

“All bad people are equally bad.” so associating with someone who was cancelled is as bad as having done the action yourself.

Sometimes people aren’t all good or all bad. Adam Driver I am LIVING for your shades of gray!

If you disagree, have questions with, or want to discuss any of these tropes. WATCH THE VIDEO. This post is already way too long and my fingers are tired so I can’t get anymore into it but here is the link again (wink, wink, hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Watch it for yourself)!

But What Does It All Mean?

So maybe the frivolous canceling of my teachers, my homework, my hinge dates, has to give way to a more responsible model. But what does that look like concretely? I have questions!  Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act (I’m looking at you R Kelly)? Do I have to stop listening to Michael Jackson and boycott any Met productions of Wagner’s ring cycle even though they’re dead? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art? 

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will answer all these questions or die trying (cue nervous laughter, good thing I never bite off more than I can chew. As a grad student and a supposed adult I’m really glad I learned how to stop overpromising, otherwise these next two weeks could be really stressful for me).


If somehow you made it to the end of this incredibly long post and still want more (you go glen coco), here are all the articles I referenced and a bunch of articles I wasn’t able to fit into this post but had really interesting points to add to this discussion. Check them out!

Resources for further exploration

Articles

https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7

https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/

https://daily.jstor.org/collapse-of-meaning-in-a-post-truth-world/

https://daily.jstor.org/cancel-culture-is-chaotic-good/

https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2020/07/03/trump-cancel-culture-farleft-fascism-totalitarianism/

https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/2426389939/D274353F6D7B4AB0PQ/1?accountid=14667

https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

https://www.wired.com/story/r-kelly-black-twitter/

https://news.virginia.edu/content/black-twitter-101-what-it-where-did-it-originate-where-it-headed

https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/#:~:text=Cancel%20culture%20refers%20to%20the,the%20form%20of%20group%20shaming.

‘Cancel culture’ origin: History of the phrase and public cancellation

Trashing by Jo Freeman

https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/

.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/17/opinion/sunday/cancel-culture-call-out.html

https://theconversation.com/is-cancel-culture-silencing-open-debate-there-are-risks-to-shutting-down-opinions-we-disagree-with-142377


The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists

https://www.pride.com/firstperson/2019/10/21/what-does-contrapoints-controversy-say-about-way-we-criticize

Videos and Podcasts

Extra credit for the super nerds like me

Virtual Visionaries Week 10: Engaging Communities

About the Authors

Pianist, scholar, and educator, Dr. Leah Claiborne, promotes diversity in the arts by championing piano music by Black composers in her performances, research, and teaching. Dr. Claiborne received her undergraduate degree from Manhattan School of Music where she received the Josephine C. Whitford graduation award. She received her Masters of Music and Doctorate of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Michigan. Dr. Claiborne currently teaches piano and Music of the African Diaspora at the University of the District of Columbia

Sydnie L. Mosley is an artist-activist and educator who works in communities to organize for gender and racial justice through experiential dance performance with her dance-theater collective Sydnie L. Mosley Dances. She is a Bessie Award-winning performer who danced with Christal Brown’s INSPIRIT, improvises with the skeleton architecture collective, and continues to appear as a guest artist with the Brooklyn Ballet. Among her recognitions and funding, she received a special citation from Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for using her talents in dance to fuel social change. An advocate for the field, she sits on the Dance/NYC Advisory Committee.

From Leah:

Breaking Points, Breakthroughs

Every person has a breaking point. These are the moments in your life where you make a decision that you will no longer continue to accept the current state of events. One of those breaking points for me came at an unusual time in my academic career, but nonetheless, it became the most pivotal and perfect time for reaching a breaking point, or should I say, breakthrough. 

In 2015, I began the DMA program at the University of Michigan in piano performance and pedagogy. It was also the same year that Freddy Grey was murdered in Baltimore. Baltimore: my family’s pride and joy of a city. Freddy Grey was murdered for being Black in Baltimore. This truly “hit home” for me, and although I was outraged and wanted to join my friends in protests, I had to take a moment of pause to ask myself, “what abilities do I even possess to effect some form of change to address the racial disparities of Black people in America?” My breaking point with toiling with the challenge of how to create impactful change became my breakthrough.  

For me, I knew I had to focus my time and talents on uplifting the next generation of Black youth through a vehicle that was true to me- music. More specifically, piano pedagogy. Through the wonderful support of my advisor, Dr. John Ellis who was Dean of partnerships and the mentorship of Dr. Willis Patterson, founder of Our Own Thing Music Program, I created a community piano program that allowed youth in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to come to the University of Michigan SMTD to study classical piano music for free each week while also learning about the important contributions that African American composers have had in the field of classical music. 

At the time, I felt that I wanted to give whatever talents I possessed to make an impactful change in the community that I currently lived in- and I believe that absolutely happened. Students in this program grew and expressed themselves each week in some of the most powerful ways that solidified my quest for becoming a pedagogue. 

Now looking back, I realize what I actually was doing was creating a space and a world for the next generation that did not exist for me.  

I never grew up having teachers who looked like me, nor did I study music by composers who looked like me. While attending the University of Michigan with all of its wonderful faculty, not a single faculty member for any of my classes was Black, nor were there any other Black students enrolled in the classical piano department during my six years of study at this institution. I desperately needed to allow the next generation to know that there are people who look like you who have done incredible life changing work in this field of classical piano music. I needed these students to know every week that they belonged in this space, at this school, in this community, in this world. Finally, I needed these children to know that whatever rooms they walk in throughout their lives, they have a beautiful voice that deserves to be heard. 

When I think about the word “Visionary” I believe it is a term we all have the ability to possess. For me, a visionary is someone who can see a brighter future and acts in the present as if that future is now. We all must take our talents and gifts and act now because America has passed its breaking point. I believe what we are experiencing right now in this country is the realization that America has reached its breaking point, or dare I say, breakthrough. What an incredibly pivotal and perfect time for all visionaries to act- and we must act now. 

From Sydnie:

Sydnie L. Mosley Dances (SLMDances), the dance-theater collective I founded and run, found our footing in our art-making practice creating community-engaged and accountable works. Our mission — to work in communities to organize for gender and racial justice through experiential dance performance — began to manifest in 2011 when we started developing The Window Sex Project. Born out of my own desire to walk down the street and not feel like I was being “window shopped” like a mannequin or other sexual object on display, I used my dance-making practice to organize amongst young adult women in my Harlem neighborhood to create space to share our stories, celebrate our bodies, and offer one another resources and strategies to assert our humanity and liberation in public space. 

Since developing The Window Sex Project, I have embarked on an ongoing journey of deepening my practice as a community-accountable artist. Here are five points of consideration that I follow when moving from idea to action with any community-engaged art project, along with some resources that have helped me think more deeply about each.

ONE: An Invitation

adrienne maree brown teaches us that “Relationships are everything.” SLMDances only considers art-making in communities that we have a personal stake in, or where we have been explicitly offered an invitation to collaborate. We understand ourselves in relationship to those various communities that we are rooted in; we nurture and remain accountable to them through collaboration. Any community we engage with is involved at every level of process. We believe that mutually beneficial partnerships are the mode to serve and uplift the needs and wants of all those involved. 

To learn more about entering communities with integrity engage with Urban Bush Women’s EBX: Entering, Building and Exiting Community Workshop and Summer Leadership Institute

TWO: Deep Listening

Ebony Noelle Golden introduced me to the idea of deep listening. She says: 

“Deep listening is a whole body process.  It is a type of fact gathering that requires cultural organizers commit to a community’s cultural practices for an extended period of time.  Deep listening requires multiple conversations, community walks, interviews, meditation, and cultural participation without judgment, recommendation, evaluation or expectation.”

As a movement artist, I have developed a physical practice so that I know what it means in my pores and nerve-endings to listen to community with my whole body. When you are a community artist, it is as if you are navigating your collaboration with eyes closed. You don’t move until the community moves you; until you feel their touch, nudge, pull, push. You are in total consideration of their needs and concerns. Based on your participatory listening, what do you know they want and need? Sometimes community will move in a way that you hadn’t planned for or in a way you were not interested in going. You can follow the impulse and see where the work takes you. If it’s not for your leadership and skill set, pass the work onto others who are better equipped to follow community needs/requests and be in dialogue about how/when/why your collaboration with the community needs to transition.

Where do we start getting immersed in community? Try the Community Mapping Workbook by The Laundromat Project.

THREE: Asset Mapping & Resource Sharing

As artists, part of what allows us to create is who is in our networks and the resources we share with one another. This way in which artists often function can model a utopia of mutual care and aid for our communities. Working from a place of abundance, we already have everything we need. 

We understand that money is not the only resource. If you consider what resources you REALLY need, you might come to discover you don’t need money for event space rental, when in fact a collaborator has access to event space and can offer it to you free of charge. 

We understand that those who hold positions of leadership in formal structures (i.e. the Executive Director of an organization) might not be the most important stakeholder or person who holds the most power to get your work done (i.e. the custodian with the keys to let you in the building).

As an art maker, it is also urgent to consider how your skills in your practice lend itself to working on this particular project. As a dancer, I am always asking: How is this work embodied? What tools do I have as a mover that may be essential to this work? How can dances do the things we need them to do? How can my dance practice not just present a problem, but creatively solve a problem?

Mapping your assets and engaging in ongoing processes to exchange resources is essential to meeting the needs of all collaborators. Check out this resource for Asset Mapping by Diane Dorfman. 

FOUR: Collaboration in Project Design and Execution

It is essential to define shared values, objectives, and communication practices when relationship building with community members. This means defining and clearly articulating your own values before entering into conversations with collaborators to see where your values intersect. SLMDances begins all of our work with an articulation of our values: Dreaming, Humanity, Community, Activism, Learning, and Transparency. We have found that naming our values upfront helps us to engage in healthy collaborations more frequently. Shared values often leads to clearly defining shared objectives to fulfill mutual missions. 

Next, no partnership is functional without the definition of roles and clear communication. How do you make decisions? How is everyone involved in the making? How is feedback facilitated? What are your boundaries? One of my favorite rules of thumb is that everyone has a job. There is space for everyone to contribute and in fact, the work will be better when we are working collectively. Defining the processes for working together as a collective are just as important, if not more important, than executing the project itself. 

Take a look at this Interpersonal Communication Rubric to dig deeper into your communication practices. 

FIVE: Sustainability

How have you and your collaborators defined success? What is the life of the project beyond its first iteration? What are your plans for evaluation and assessment? How are you documenting the process throughout? How will you maintain an archive of your documentation? These are just a few questions to consider for the sustainability of your work. 

For SLMDances, the projects we choose to engage in are long term — whether it is responding to sexual harassment in public spaces with The Window Sex Project, or addressing economic justice in the NYC dance field through our work BodyBusiness. We are clear that sustained, responsive creative practice for the socio-political issues we are invested in will strategically move our communities toward a more liberated and just world for us all. 

Want to hear more?

Join Leah, Sydnie, and the EXCEL Team this Thursday, August 6th from 5-6 PM EDT via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 9: Portfolio Careers, Then and Now

About the Authors

Katherine Banks is a Midwest based actor and educator. Last season, she reprised her role as Joanne in Mindhunter (Netflix) directed by David Fincher. She performed Every Brilliant Thing at Tipping Point Theatre (Wilde Award – Best Performance in a One Person Show). In Chicago, Katherine appeared in the Jeff Award winning Men Should Weep with Griffin Theatre and in the sold-out production of She Kills Monsters at the Steppenwolf Garage. Katherine teaches at Greenhills Middle School in Ann Arbor and works as a freelance corporate spokesperson and communication trainer. She is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan.

Bill Kalinkos, clarinetist, has been called “a powerhouse” (San Francisco Chronicle), “a superb performer” (San Jose Mercury News), and his playing has been lauded as “ethereal, yet grounded” (Oakland Tribune). His performance of Aaron Copland’s Concerto was praised in the Oakland Tribune: “Kalinkos played casually, with the mysterious ease one hears in an accomplished musician.” Bill enjoys a diverse musical career as a member of critically acclaimed groups such as Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Signal, Deviant Septet, Eco Ensemble, and Splinter Reeds. Recognized by the Washington Post as a “notable contemporary music specialist,” he has been fortunate enough to work with and premiere pieces by many renowned composers. Bill was most recently featured on the New York Philharmonic’s “Nightcap” series performing Yann Robin’s “Art of Metal II” for solo contrabass clarinet and electronics. As an orchestral player, he is the principal clarinetist of the Oakland Symphony, a member of both IRIS Orchestra and the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra, and he has performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, and the Kansas City Symphony. Bill has served on the faculties of the University of Missouri and the University of California at Santa Cruz and Berkeley. As a recording artist, he can be heard on the Cantaloupe, Nonesuch, Euroarts, Naxos, Mode, Orange Mountain, Albany Records, Deutsche Gramophon, and Harmonia Mundi labels.

From Katherine:

When I was a BFA acting major at the University of Michigan, I received many pieces of great advice that I still reflect upon when thinking about my craft and my career, but today, I’d like to share the most questionable piece of advice a professor ever gave me: “If you can do anything else, anything at all, then go do that thing, because acting is so, so hard.”  I understand the good intentions behind this sentiment. (I really do.) Acting teachers seek to instill a reverence for the craft, to nurture a seriousness of purpose, and to prepare students for the challenges of a career that not only requires you to expose your most vulnerable self in order to make art but also asks casting directors, agents, and critics to place a value on your raw, naked self. Also, there aren’t a lot of jobs. Totally! Acting is difficult, but I also think that the all in or bust model is outdated and ultimately does not help a young person fully expand into their unique self. It denies the actor’s identity as an entrepreneur, as a family member, and as a complex artist with multiple channels available for expression. All in or bust sets you up for a single path towards success, but that path does not work for every person, and as we’ve seen in the last few months the path can quickly disappear. 

Let me clarify: I’m all in for you following your dreams. Please do add “make Broadway debut” and “star in episodic” to your vision board, but what happens when Broadway shuts down for a year? What happens when the TV industry isn’t making space for your gifts? Well, here’s what I don’t want to happen: I don’t want you to quit because your career doesn’t currently look like you had planned five years ago. I don’t want you to quit because your career doesn’t look like somebody else’s. I don’t want you to devalue yourself or dim your brilliance. My advice to you: Don’t quit, but do re-define what it is that you were thinking about quitting in the first place. Broaden your identity from actor to artist,then figure out how you (unique and glorious YOU) can be that. 

There isn’t one right way to frame a portfolio of artistic pursuits. (Have you figured out that no single right way is a personal favorite of mine?). You might spend time crafting an artist’s statement or a values list that provides clues as to how you want to spend your time and energy. You might come up with an umbrella theme or line of inquiry. You can try on identities and collect those that are true to you and support your mission and reject those that don’t serve you in this moment. 

I am an artist. That can be broken down into actor, educator, and communications specialist, and further broken down into theatre actor, on-camera actor, voiceover artist, classroom teacher, teaching artist, drama teacher, dance teacher, writing tutor, corporate trainer, corporate presenter, and speech coach. Through all of these jobs, I’ve found a web of interconnected ways to work that help me explore my changing lines of artistic inquiry. How do we strive toward clarity and specificity in expression? How is an individual able to reveal their unique point of view in service of an ensemble or greater community? These guiding questions help me when I’m designing curriculum for a preschool ballet class and they help me when I’m coaching a sales representative on how to make connections with customers. 

In cataloguing the actors I know who work a great deal in theatre and film, I find a career coach, an event planner, a sommelier, a home stager, a web designer and video editor, and multiple arts organization administrators and fundraisers. Of these people, none of them refer to their non-traditional acting work as a 9-to-5 or a survival job because that’s not what it is to them. They are artists who have been able to find a wide array of channels for their creativity.

It is certainly a challenging time to explore how you want to relate to the world as an artist when many of the aforementioned channels for creativity have been temporarily shut off or limited. I was watching a webinar recently in which an actor expressed fear about aging out of certain parts that she wanted to play before the pandemic is over and another actor discussed his grief at losing all of the positive momentum he had gained before productions shut down. For actors, there was so little in our control before the pandemic and now there’s even less. It stinks and I’m sorry.

In pondering what I can control right now, I’ve been thinking a great deal about starting at the end of my now. Educators will be familiar with backwards design, the approach to curriculum creation that asks teachers to consider desired learning outcomes first and then work backwards to choose instructional methods. Similarly, many theatre artists are familiar with the text Backwards & Forwards, which teaches you how to read a play starting at the end and working backwards to understand how it can be shaped onstage. As a classroom drama teacher who had to transfer my instruction to the remote sphere, my goals for my students didn’t change, but the instructional methods certainly did. As a theatre artist, perhaps performing in stageplays is your endgame, but I encourage you to find a deeper objective. Why do you want to do theatre in the first place and how do you fulfill that desire right now? Art is still happening, so how are you going to go about exploring the human condition even when we can’t gather in the same room?

So many questions, so few answers, but I would like to leave you with two things:

Keep creating! You got this!

From Bill:

What am I going to do now? That is a question that has frequently occupied my mind since I played my last live, in-person concert on February 29th in Berkeley, California. I have spent most of my adult life building a unique career in music that, in turn, has shaped my life – where I’ve lived, where I’ve traveled, who I’ve collaborated with. In the past few years, it was not uncommon for me to spend somewhere between a third to half of the year on the road. I left a university teaching position I had occupied for two years and turned down another tenure-track teaching position that was offered to me. Instead, I spent the next year traveling from gig to gig, not even needing to pay rent. Now, there are no gigs. What am I going to do now?

My portfolio career began to develop organically during my undergraduate studies. A breakthrough moment playing a piece by Xenakis in the new music ensemble opened my eyes and ears to the existence of sound worlds previously unknown to me. Enthusiastically embracing these sound worlds led to collaboration with so many inspiring musicians and composers, many of whom I am fortunate enough to call my friends and colleagues today. Alarm Will Sound, Splinter Reeds, Deviant Septet, Oakland Symphony, IRIS Orchestra, New Hampshire Music Festival – these are a few of my musical homes. They are places that embrace adaptability and musical openness. I am happiest when playing live music with these folks and others in as many different scenarios as possible. But now, how do we play live music together? What are we going to do now?

We’re going to figure out ways to continue sharing music with whomever will listen to us. We are digging through our archives to find music to share with our followers. We are creating silly music videos that we had been talking about making for years but now finally have the time to do so. We are attempting to raise money so that we can continue to commission works from people whose work we admire. We are figuring out how to get every member of an 18-person band set up at home with decent audio gear and attempting to play music together, in real time. As someone who is technologically averse, absent on social media, and dislikes looking at screens, making music during Covid times has been challenging for me. I will continue to try to adapt. I know that I can rely on my collaborators to push me in the right direction.

On May 17th, my wife and I welcomed our daughter Amelia into the world. She is our first child and has made these few months in lockdown not just bearable, but incredibly enjoyable. Being stuck at home with nothing else to do is probably the best time to have a newborn. Life has slowed down and become much simpler. Having the space to focus solely on life’s essentials is a joy. For instance, not traveling to play in a festival in July means being able to tend to the garden in the backyard. Doing some volunteer work in the past few weeks has me thinking about ways to become more involved in the community where I live. What am I going to do now? In actuality, that question has always occupied my mind; it has shaped the career which has shaped my life. So I will continue to do what I have always tried to do: see what the future has in store for us, adapt as needed, and move forward with lots of help from my friends.

Want to hear more?

Join Katherine, Bill, and the University of Michigan EXCEL Lab on Zoom this Wednesday, July 29 at 3:00PM EDT. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 8: Art for Social Change

About the Author

Currently serving as Composer-in-Residence with the storied Philadelphia Orchestra and included in the Washington Post’s list of the 35 most significant women composers in history, identity has always been at the center of composer/pianist Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California (September, 1972), to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Gabriela explores her multicultural American heritage through her compositions. In 2017, Gabriela founded the award-winning Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, a non-profit training institution held on her two rural properties in Boonville, CA for emerging composers from a vast array of demographics and aesthetics.

It began in a practice room

If ever there was a time for social activism, this would be it: Thus far, 2020 has birthed a planet-wide pandemic, cataclysmic economic decline, and a chilling reckoning with historically-embedded racial violence. In my native California, we also face a predicted worse-than-usual fire season, already made hellish these past three years from climate crisis which ominously predicts more pandemics in the future.  

Yet, it wasn’t until last week when my husband and I buried Beau, our canine companion and surrogate son of eleven years, that I finally lost it. Digging a spot on our mountainous property and burying our gentle giant, a golden-hued Pyrenees mix with an impossibly worried brow, I cried so much that I gave myself hives. At my age, that’s a particularly demoralizing first. And one that somehow elicited a weak chuckle: Now 2020 is taking our boy, too. What else can go wrong?  

While embers may burn in our civic psyche, it may take large and unmistakable events symptomatic of unbelievable times to stir one to change life habits. I am seeing this in beloved friends, spurred by recent social unrest, chagrined to realize how indebted their safety and overall good fortune are to white privilege set at our nation’s founding. When inequity hums along at an insidiously quieter pace, however, and criminality is not in plain view, social activism may, too, burn privately, witnessed only by a few.  

My first day as a freshman music composition major proved that to me with an early painful lesson that seared into my soul. I was seventeen, blessed to enroll at a music conservatory, having only discovered that such institutions even existed the year before. Thrilled, I spent the morning wandering the practice halls of a brand new state-of-the-art building (They built this just for me!) before selecting a room with a Steinway and a view. After warming up, I placed Ravel’s Jeux d’eau on the stand, beginning on page three with the perilously wide black-note arpeggios that only flow if anchored by a relaxed thumb.  

I was mesmerized, so much so that when the door flew open to reveal a scolding faculty piano professor, my brain wasn’t able to immediately skip track —“What are you doing here? What are you doing on that instrument? I’ll be talking to your supervisor!”  Dumbfounded, I realized he’d seen me through the small window in the door, and mistook me for cleaning staff, one of the largely Mexican workers who flitted in the backdrop of the school as shadows. My skin color and build has always carried the imprint of Latin America, from which my mother hails, and which didn’t pass the professor’s litmus test for inclusion.  

I was calm. And I explained. He apologized, angry. I thought, And would it be so bad if I were indeed a cleaning lady, enchanted by the instrument?  

Decades have passed since that initiation by fire when I learned that simply by existing, I might be a phenomenon. It took some years to realize that by moving beyond existing to excelling, I was doing the work of activism, rare as Latinas were who brought their heritage into a western classical canon while, say, quietly volunteering at a men’s prison with a considerable Latino population. Yet more years passed before I learned that widely impactful activism, affecting people beyond my small sphere, meant doing the work on as public a stage as possible, and, crucially, paying it forward to other artist-citizens — Three years ago, I formed a music academy that supports emerging composers from a vast array of demographics and aesthetics while offering an urgently healthier way to approach Mother Earth. It has been a transformative experience, more than equal to my professional successes.  

Activism, for me? It began in a practice room and stretches into 2020, a simply unbelievable year, one for the history books. My internal compass tells me the work isn’t done (Why, you think struggle is for the past?) and as I’ve stepped into the second half of my life, I’m resolved to retain my humor and joy through it all. It is the best possible work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Gabriela Lena Frank, July 7, 2020

Want to hear more?

Join Gabriela this Thursday, July 23 from 3:00-4:00PM EDT via Zoom.This conversational session will delve into her post in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with the author in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 7: Leading Beyond Crisis

About the Authors:

Omari Rush has engaged the arts as both a passion and profession, and in each mode, he continues to enjoy discovery and deepening impacts. As executive director of CultureSource in Detroit and as the governor-appointed chairman of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, he advances efforts to have creative and cultural expression thrive in diverse communities. Complementing that work, Omari is a board member of Arts Midwest in Minneapolis and both the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Association of Performing Arts Professionals in Washington, D.C.

Laura Zabel is the Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development agency run by and for artists. Springboard provides programs that help artists make a living and a life, and programs that help communities connect to the creative power of artists. Springboard is a nationally recognized leader in artist-led community development, creative placemaking and cross-sector collaboration. Springboard’s work has been featured by the New York Times, PBS, Wall Street Journal, Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Guardian and directly impacts over 25,000 artists each year in their home state of Minnesota. Through their free toolkits, training and resources Springboard’s programs have been replicated in over 80 communities across the U.S. and internationally. Zabel has been honored with numerous awards, including the YBCA 100, Gard Foundation Award of Excellence, Common Future Local Economy Fellowship and the Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship. Zabel is on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers and serves as an advisor to Dakota Resources, The Laundromat Project, Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the University of Kansas Department of Theater and Dance.  

From Omari:

What is happening?

In an environment as volatile as ours right now, this reflection question has been an essential starting place for much of my strategic action in the past four months. As I have processed this question with peers, mentors, and partners, our responses have been cartographic, illuminating in real time a landscape that is requiring new levels of adaptation to navigate.

COVID-19 has been a society-quaking event: the structural integrity of institutions has been compromised, lives and livelihoods have been lost, and tools for resuscitation and repair are limited. As an arts service organization, CultureSource is committed—especially amid this tragedy and destruction—to doing our work to advance creative and cultural expression. And as the organization’s executive director, I think of myself less as leading through crisis and more learning through crisis, constantly asking questions—including, What is happening?—and supporting our team in generating multiple answers and multiple actions.

Despite the exhausting process of living in and working through the current environment, my inspiration is surging. I see incredible opportunity for progress in relatively short amounts of time given spiking tolerance for change, sharing, experimentation, unity, and investment. As time is compressed in this crisis, we skip over some of the careful and risk-averse courting and jump right into the messy work. It is both an energizing and unnerving period. 

Below are three of the ideas I’m using this time to process and act on:

Expanding the inclusivity of arts and culture

Our field has been full of traditional or expert-created borders, antithetical to the creative spirt of our work, and the quakes of COVID have been revelatory in showing who is in and out, who has access and who doesn’t. The hard lines must be erased.

Being and artist should not be a luxury

Click to view article in Detroit Is It

One of many effects of social stratification and widening income inequality is that it is exceedingly difficult to dedicate one’s life to artistic pursuits. A personally memorable scene with Lauryn Hill from Sister Act Two highlights the either-or decisions facing families with budding creatives. Being creative in our society should be an aspiration, not a risk.

Digital organizational and audience development

Using digital platforms for the creation and distribution of art has been thrust into mainstream artistic practices of organizations and artists working to survive the COVID crisis without access to physical venues for audience connection. There now exists a need to offer support to adapt to new paradigms of art presentation and simultaneously support audiences in their awareness and engagement of those digital resources.

While COVID-19 pervades most decision making now, the economic recession, systemic and pandemic racism, and census 2020 undercounts all hang in the air and sit on our shoulders as worrisome forces that call on me—and I hope you—to continue asking, What is happening?, and then getting to the  good, hard work of responding. No answers, just learning and doing.

From Laura:

The last three months have been the most intense and complicated of my entire professional life. We have found ourselves living through and responding to multiple connected and compounding crises. A global health crises in the form of a pandemic; a national economic crisis that exposes systemic gaps and threatens the livelihoods of culture workers; a national call to reckon with our racist systems and the reality that our country is built on stolen land by stolen people; and the local murder of a Black man by police in Minneapolis and the anger and grief and destruction that resulted. 

Springboard for the Arts is a 25 year old nonprofit organization that builds systems of support and value for artists and creative workers. Our work is rooted in the idea of creative people power. We know creativity and culture will be necessary ingredients for a just and equitable recovery. In the last three months we have raised and distributed over a million dollars to over 2,000 artists in Minnesota in emergency relief funds; we’ve shared a toolkit and helped emergency relief funds get started across the country; we’ve hosted community painting days for Black artists in our neighborhood to tell their own stories of anger, hope and grief; and every day we’re helping people navigate unemployment, legal, healthcare and other resources. 

What I’ve learned from these and other emergencies is that the only way through crisis is to be as useful as possible. Focusing on how to make our work relevant to this moment is both what is necessary to fulfill our mission and the only path towards sustainability. Like everything hard, there will also be opportunities in this challenge. I’m learning more each day about what it means to meet this moment with our work, so I’m sure this list will grow and change, but today, here are a few of things that we’ve learned about how to make work to address multiple crises at once:

Know your principles and priorities ahead of time. An organizations’ values and principles should be a guiding force in the best of times. In a crisis, they are essential. All of what we’ve been able to build in the last 3 months rests on the deep and shared understanding of our guiding principles. In the early days of the crises these principles acted like a kind of muscle memory, helping us jump into action, adapt to new ways of working and communicate clearly even before any of us understood exactly the challenges we were facing. 

Use your existing structures where possible to do new things. We already have systems and structures – both administrative and programmatic—imagining how you can repurpose these systems around new challenges saves time and helps you lean in to the places where you are best suited to make change. Like the many stories of costume shops making masks and other PPE, Springboard was able to quickly repurpose and expand our existing emergency relief fund program to scale to meet a new emergency. 

Communicate often – internally and externally. Even as much as we had existing principles and structures to work from, we found we needed to check in a lot to keep things moving and changing at a pace that could meet the moment. Especially right now, when in person communication isn’t possible, our scheduled and impromptu zoom sessions help us talk through challenges, incorporate feedback and share the heaviness of holding people’s trauma. We’ve also found that external storytelling is vital – helping to make sure that people understand the impact of a crisis on your community is crucial to attracting support and finding the right partners.

Laura Zabel on a rooftop patio at the Springboard for the Art’s new St. Paul headquarters. Click to view their article from StarTribune.

Build and change while you go. (don’t do a survey.) Please don’t do a survey. You can gather information and provide services at the same time. Think about how to build simple data collection into programs. The persistent culture that tells us we need to know everything before we start doing something (or that if we just had the right data we’d be credible) is irrelevant in a crisis (and probably all the time.) We’ve focused on building the systems we need in real time, while people are using them, which ensures that what we’re building is useful and relevant.

Support the people doing the work. Taking care of the artists who make up the staff at Springboard is always fundamental and it’s extra important right now. The work we are doing is practical – about healthcare, emergency support, unemployment, business planning, but it is also very personal and the staff has to be able to manage and hold people’s fear, uncertainty, anger, and grief for their livelihoods, for their communities, for their work. We can’t do that unless we take care of ourselves. 

We’re still learning and changing every day. We know creativity and culture will be necessary ingredients for a just and equitable recovery. It is clear that our systems don’t need to be fixed, they need to be wholly reimagined and to do that we will need the world building, collaboration, cultural relevance and meaning making that artists can provide.

Want to hear more?

Join Omari & Laura this Wednesday, July 15th at 3:00PM EDT via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 6: Art Inspired by Identity

About the Authors

Dr. Donia Jarrar (she/her) is an Arab and Muslim-American composer, pianist, and interdisciplinary artist. Born to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, she grew up between Kuwait City, Alexandria, Ramallah, and New York. Her personal experiences have strongly shaped her compositional voice, leading her to explore themes of intergenerational memory, trauma/healing, identity, exile, displacement, and cultural narrative in her work. Dr. Jarrar was recently awarded the 2019 Discovery Grant for Female Composers from the National Opera Center of America for her work Seamstress, a documentary multimedia opera based on oral history interviews conducted with Palestinian women and girls from her community. She has been commissioned by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and is a featured musician on the Emmy-award winning series Arab American Stories. She is currently working on an album trilogy under her experimental sound project moniker Phonodelica, highlighting the different sides of her spirituality and sexuality as a queer Muslim woman, both light and dark. The project debut album, Hidden Assemblages, unpacks the isolation and trauma of Islamophobia in all its forms while critiquing the racism that plagues Arab and Muslim communities and celebrating the Black-Palestinian solidarity movements. In December 2019, Hidden Assemblages was featured on Spotify’s editorial cosmic playlists, curated by astrologer and author Chani Nicholas.

Rosy Simas (Seneca, Heron Clan) is a transdisciplinary artist. “The culture, history, and identity stored in my body is the underpinning of all my artwork. Creating is a spiritual act for me, rooted in nature, formed through my link to my ancestors and the land of which we are made.”
Simas’ projects merge movement with media, sound, and objects for stage and installation. She unites cultural concepts and images with scientific and philosophical theories to create work that is literal, abstract, and metaphoric. Her work weaves themes of personal and collective identity with family, sovereignty, equality, and healing. She creates dance work with a team of Native artists and artists of color, driven by movement-vocabularies developed through deep listening.
Simas is a recipient of Dance/USA, McKnight, Guggenheim, First People Fund, and Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowships, as well as a Joyce Award. Her work has toured Turtle Island and France with the support of NEFA National Dance Project, MAP Fund, and National Performance Network.

From Donia:

I am writing this sitting in my small studio in Los Angeles on the day Israel plans to annex the remainder of my homeland. We are over three months into social distancing, back in lockdown, and have been banned from traveling to 54 different countries. Pride month and the moment when over 50,000 folks marched for All Black Lives on June 14th in Hollywood, might have passed us by, but the Black Lives Matter movement is only growing stronger in the face of systemic oppression and police brutality. To write briefly on my experience as an artist and how my identity is woven through my own personal creative journey at this time leaves something to be desired. The truth is, I cannot sit here in good faith and have a conversation on art and identity without addressing the role academic institutions have played in their upholding of white supremacy through a lack of Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color representation and a Eurocentric curricular structure. As a young composer I realized at some point that I would have to claim my identity for myself in order to not participate in my own erasure. There was no single moment that led me to this realization, but rather, a series of microagressions and offenses that forced me to take the matters of my creative pursuits and endeavors into my own hands. 

I embody multiple identities within myself. In the weeks leading up to this post I spent some time speaking with family, friends and colleagues on identity and the pressure to conform to certain notions of what it means to be:

Brown. 

Queer. 

Muslim.

Egyptian.

Palestinian.

Arab. American.

Third-culture. Immigrant. Composer. 

At one time I even identified as refugee, but that shifted out of my vocabulary when I realized the Gulf War I fled in 1990 and my experiences thereafter were nowhere near the struggles and traumas faced by those of the current refugee crisis. 

In my experience as a Muslim woman composer and an Arab, I’ve been approached several times by artistic directors and independent musicians or curators who want to commission me just to fill their quota, without ever having done the research of listening to or exploring my work beyond that, just because they want to feature Muslim voices in their shows. They are then baffled when they discover I write experimental music and in fact do not play the oud and cannot teach their Arabic Music Ensembles. 

“I don’t need someone to tell me to “be more Arab or be more Palestinian” composer Felix Jarrar says to me on a Facetime call earlier this week. “Because I’ve been very vocal in my music about what I do, I’ve never been asked to write something about my heritage.” He puts an emphasis on the last part, before revealing the many times he has been asked to represent Black composers by different commissioners, because they actually don’t understand that he is not Black. He has to then explain to them that he is of Palestinian and Sri-Lankan origins, and then do the labor of pointing them towards Black composers. I’ve dealt with similar experiences because many white composers have mistaken me for Latinx. 

For students, staff, and faculty of color, it is expected that their white colleagues, professors and mentors will not be not familiar with their ethnic background and the complexities of navigating white supremacist structures within the institution. They therefore end up carrying the burden of becoming representatives of their race. It is not only white faculty who are guilty of this transgression, but faculty of color who struggled with similar issues as their students and want to see them embrace their identity through their racial and/or ethnic heritage because they also grew up with the onus of being the sole member of their race in their cohort, their class, or their department. I know I’ve had my fair share of women of color composers mentor me towards becoming a cultural ambassador for Palestine, or Egypt, depending on the day. Our parents and our mentors experience identity and erasure in different ways, and so we struggle to find common ground. But it is imperative that faculty mentors allow their students freedom of expression, and do not burden their students of color with the idea that they are cultural ambassadors. Just because a student identifies as Arab, for example, it doesn’t mean that they want to write songs for the revolution. It doesn’t mean they want to take the Music of the Middle East course offering, and as faculty members, it certainly doesn’t mean that they should be hired to teach that course either. The unfortunate reality is that outside of these borders and within the walls of academia there is often not much room for us and our work. And while we’re on the subject, the entire labeling of regions through a Eurocentric lens presents another issue. It is why at this time I no longer identify as Middle Eastern, but rather, Arab-American and North African, an artist of the SWANA Diaspora (Southwest Asia/North Africa). 

As I grew into my voice and identity as an artist, these differences of opinion with mentors made me seek out writings on identity and spirituality, on how to navigate these personal borders and boundaries of our Bodies and our Selves, when each individual experience is so unique. When I realized the problem was an intergenerational one that led me to seek out writings by other queer academics and artists of color. I scoured through the University of Michigan’s Music Library to try to find other Palestinian, Egyptian or Muslim women composers to relate my work to, but it seemed there were none, and so to the writers, visual artists and musicians of Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and Black heritage I went, because that was all I could find on the shelves at the time. 

Students of color need to see themselves and their identities represented in as many ways as possible, and that means allowing those students and giving them the resources to express themselves fully beyond the boundaries of what is deemed their role as cultural bearers and representatives of their race. Their identity is not to be appropriated, misused, or tokenized, especially when they are facing a war of identities within themselves and their own communities. In the words of Latinx author and scholar Yvette DeChavez “faculty and administration are in a position of power, which means it’s up to them to do the work of making themselves better, of holding themselves accountable. Read books! Read the internet! The tools are everywhere and absolutely available—it’s up to them to make use of them. Additionally, there are tons of academics of color who are doing the work of decolonizing and diversifying. Hire us! Hire us for teaching positions, hire us to speak to faculty and administration, hire us to host workshops.”

I leave the reader with an essential passage from Gloria Anzaldua’s Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality:

It’s not race, gender, class, sexuality, or any single aspect of the self that determines identity but the interaction of all these aspects plus as yet unnamed features. We discover, uncover, create our identities as we interrelate with others and our alrededores/surroundings. Identity grows out of our interactions, and we strategically reinvent ourselves to accommodate our exchanges. Identity is an ongoing story, one that changes with each telling, one we revise at each way station, each stop, in our viaje de la vida (life’s journey).

From Rosy:

Can you talk about an early work you created that catapulted your desire to make art infused with your identity, and some of the things you’ve learned since?

One misconception about Native artists, is the assumption that an artist who is Native is not a Native artist unless they are dealing with subject matter that is recognizably Native to others. And by others, I mean non-Native folks and even other Native people who have been influenced by pervasive stereotypes of Native people (the Nobel savage, the Indian maiden, the drunk Indian, and the Big Bad Indian).

All of us are impacted by colonization and the images and ideas that history books, films, and literature have created are pervasive through the settler-colonial gaze. These idealizations and inhuman representations have been created primarily by explorers, missionaries, ethnographers, filmmakers, musicians, historians, and poets. A Native artist today finds themselves sorting through these problematic assumptions on a daily basis, as they attempt to make a living, creating and sharing their work as an artist via presentation, exhibition, grants, fellowships, and/or sales.

My story likens to this scenario.

I didn’t begin my public biography with “I am “Seneca, Heron Clan,” or even just “Native American,” until I was in my 30s. As a young choreographer I wanted my work to stand on its own, without subjecting myself to tokenism or being used as a diversity pawn, as I’ve witnessed within the dance communities I worked in. I was very adamant about starting the first company for women and girls of color in Minneapolis in 1994. I did that – yet it was short lived, as the actual interest in such a radical shift in the ideals of dance were not welcomed, yet.

I understood that from the day I set foot in a dance studio in 1981, that these spaces were reserved for white bodies. And not just white bodies, but a specific kind of white body. I understood I didn’t have that body, and there were probably moments I tried to have that body – but that it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. By the time I entered the dance and theater world I had a solid foundation of who I was. I had been raised to be an urban Native. My family is Seneca and I grew up around other Natives and Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) elders (Minnesota is Dakota and Anishinaabe territory). 

Until I was in my early 40s, my work was not outwardly recognizable as “being Native”. A few artists of color recognized my identity within my work. Yet, to other Native people my work has always obviously been about identity. 

In 2007 I developed a work, Have Gun Will Shoot, in response to the Gulf War. I departed from my non narrative work to create a 90-minute dance about women in the military. Specifically, the story followed one individual from their early idealism about serving until their eventual death through war. To prepare for this work I trained with the ROTC for a year and brought these movements and the comradery of military women into the choreography. 

I didn’t use any recognizable Native symbolism and I didn’t write about the main character being Native in the program, but this piece was specifically about a Native woman. I come from a long line of individuals who have served in the military, Seneca military – from the Revolutionary war where they sided with the British to uncles who served in WWII and Korea. The drive to defend Turtle Island, and specifically Haudenosaunee (Six Nations of the Iroquois) is in my DNA.

What are some of the challenges you’ve found in creating art that is so close to home? The joys?

In 2012, I decided to research and develop a work inspired by my grandmother’s life and her side of our Seneca family. I was interested in where she remains within my body and how my body responds to the events of her life. What I found were clear movement patterns and gestures that were not in my current physical vocabulary. She was, as well as other family, ancestors, in my bones, organs, spirit, – and in order to engage with them, I had to listen deeply. This began a practice of deep listening, which I still use within my work today, in solo context as well as when I work with other performers. 

I worked with a composer on making sound and film recordings back home on the reservation in New York. From these images and sounds, the composition was crafted.

This work was toured to over 14 venues and our artistic team worked tirelessly to bring the work to Native audiences – even if only a handful of those in attendance were Native within any given city or town. 

How does your cultural identity change the way you experience art?

I don’t really know how to answer this question because I have always been Native and so my view of the world has always been through a Native lens. 

What has shifted over time is how I engage socially and politically within the arts, specifically within the fields of dance and visual arts. There is a misconception that Native people who grow up in Native families know everything they need to know about Native history, culture and arts. I don’t know where this assumption comes from, but it is obviously not true. There is also the idea that if you want to learn more about your Native culture, there is something wrong with how you were brought up. Nothing could be further than the truth. The pursuit of knowledge about one’s culture and history through the body, mind and spirit should be encouraged and supported fully. It is not a defect. Most Nations don’t have cultural systems of learning available to the majority of people who belong to a tribe as most tribal members of any given tribe live away from reservations and communities.

The more I learn (because there is much to continually educate myself on) about Native law, history, activism, and culture, the more I am able to position myself semi-safely within a world that is predominately white.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, July 9 from 4:00-5:00PM EDT via Zoom.This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 2: Forging New Paths with Tanya Kalmanovitch & Ryan Muncy

About the Authors:

Tanya Kalmanovitch is a Canadian violist, ethnomusicologist, and author known for her breadth of inquiry and restless sense of adventure. Her uncommonly diverse interests converge in the fields of improvisation, social entrepreneurship, and social action with projects that explore the provocative cultural geography of locations around the world. Ryan Muncy is the saxophonist and Director of Institutional Giving of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Ryan & Tanya are colleagues at the New School‘s College of Performing Arts (Mannes School of Music)

As part of our Virtual Visionaries series, here they share their reactions as artists to COVID-19, what the future might hold for the performing arts, and some practical advice for artists during this time of disruption.

From Tanya Kalmanovitch

Two days after the 2016 presidential election, I came to Mannes straight from LaGuardia Airport. The night before I was in Whitewater, Wisconsin, where people were celebrating. That morning, in New York City, people were crying on the subway. I had a class to teach, and as I walked into my office, I was preoccupied with the question of how to best address the political event. 

My office mate, Elizabeth “Betsy” Aaron, professor of Techniques of Music, possessor of an enviable widow’s peak and a 60-year history at the school, caught my expression through the open office door.

“Why the long face?” she asked.

“Oh, you know,” I said, waving my hands vaguely. “The election.” 

“Please,” she shot back. “I had my phone tapped during McCarthy. I lived through that, and you’ll live through this.”

The people in Whitewater were celebrating, in part, because of a failure of imagination. They feared difference—immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on—and could not imagine a nation in which differences could make us stronger. Progressives in New York were mourning because of failure of imagination, too. They could not imagine a nation where Donald Trump could become President. 

I’ve thought of Betsy’s words often since Covid. In tone, they are the opposite of “challenging,” “trying,” “uncertain,” and “unprecedented” — the insipid adjectives institutions use to describe the times we’re in. Betsy’s crisp tone has nothing to do with “now, more than ever,” “the new normal,” and groundless assertions that we will “get through this together.” Her voice left no room for failure of imagination. When I hear her voice now, it is as an exhortation: to reevaluate our priorities, to imagine the possibilities of a world without the forces of Trumpism and Covid. 

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. My cousin David did not live through Covid. So far, 100,000 people in the United States have not lived through Covid. But I believe that I will live, or I believe in my will to live, and I know that I care for the lives of others, and for the lives of those who are connected to their lives by love. That belief, that caring, and that love is what guides my actions. It’s simple, though the outcomes of my actions will always be uncertain.  

Betsy believed in keeping the office door open. It was important to her that she see and be seen, and our open door was a standing invitation to the unexpected. When she retired three years ago, we gradually started to shut the door. Then the administration moved us to another floor. And then the whole school was closed, and the basic premise of music—being together, to hear and be heard—was revoked. 

I’ve been asked here to offer advice to musicians entering the profession, which is difficult because Covid poses an existential threat to our profession, while making plain the systemic racism and inequities that are the enduring structural flaws of the nation. It feels like we are at a constant tipping point. It feels precarious, and sometimes the best I can do is to hold my ground. 

I remind myself not to be afraid of uncertainty, because that is where all the possibilities live. I remind myself that I believe in music, and in my will to make music. I have given my life over to it. I care for musicians, and I care for all of us who help music do its work in the world. Helping music is a life-affirming act, and it’s in this light that I offer a few loosely-related pieces of advice to those of you starting out in the profession today.

  1. Recovery may be slow and uneven and may take considerably longer than our leaders let on. Ask them tough questions. Prepare for a longer road. Think in one- to four-year scenarios. 
  2. Figure out how to move forward without resorting to knee-jerk positivity. It’s okay if Covid feels awful. It’s okay to feel isolated. It’s okay to find streaming sets unengaging. It’s okay to set practice goals and then fail to meet them.
  3. We learn to think of history, or catastrophe, as something that happened to someone else, somewhere else. This has the effect of making these things unimaginable in our present. It blinds us to our own experience and to the experience of others. Imagination and empathy are critical political skills: cultivate them.
  4. A practical thing: don’t try to make Zoom into a concert hall or a club. You might think of it instead as a curious theater in its own right. Think about your audience, and how you might appeal to their senses. Check out what theatre directors are doing. 
  5. More practical things: How you make your living does not define your worth as an artist. Don’t conflate your worth with what you get paid. Find a way to save a few months’ living expenses. Research other models for building strong communities: they are there, waiting for you, in the fuller history of American music. 

From Ryan Muncy

Part One: “Things can change overnight.”

In March, I learned that this household proverb—suitable for everyday use, making regular appearances in conversations around the globe—will, unfortunately, do nothing to lessen the shock if things actually do change overnight. 

The week of March 9th seemed normal. On Monday, I taught classes at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (Mannes School of Music). Tuesday through Friday, I worked in my role as Director of Institutional Giving at the International Contemporary Ensemble, specifically meeting with our new Executive Director to iron out an internal calendar for upcoming deadlines. I carved out some practice time to prepare for our April debut at the Théatre du Châtelet in Paris, and there was a rehearsal for an upcoming production of Ashley Fure’s The Force of Things. Throughout that week, my roles—performer, teacher, and administrator (or, as I prefer: bandmate, mentor, advocate)—and their respective demands felt normal.

At our weekly ICE staff meeting, I do recall some discussion of likely event cancelations due to a virus outbreak. Over the weekend, things escalated quickly. 

The week of March 16th began with the closure of the ICE office. The New School’s classes went remote. Stay-at-home orders were delivered in New York. All live concerts and traveling through the end of summer—totally canceled, overnight. I fully understood the gravity of the situation a few days later with the announcement that The New York Community Trust and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, along with a coalition of funding institutions, would immediately release $75,000,000 in emergency support to local arts organizations—the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund—as a measure for short-term survival. This was an emergency. 

Creating the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund was an obvious necessity, though I viewed the actions of these institutions as nothing less than radical. I’d never seen foundations form such a coalition or move so quickly in designing an application process.  Proposal reviews began the same day the funding was announced. 

By the end of the week, most funding institutions had announced the specific measures they would take in response to the crisis. Seeing the collaboration, the streamlining of procedures, the restructuring of current grants, the speed in producing new emergency funds, and the relaxing of expectations that an arts organization should have or know the answers—was not only surreal, but also signaled a change of essence and role of these institutions, and turned my 12 years of professional experience on its head. Overnight, they became our leaders. It felt so uncharted and unprecedented, just like the crisis we were experiencing. 

Part Two: “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

This coalition building and strong leadership was deeply inspiring and provided a model for Tanya Kalmanovitch and I to form our own coalition to reimagine and redesign the course we teach at Mannes School of Music (five sections of The Entrepreneurial Musician with approximately 50 students total). 

We team-taught. My two weekly lectures became five weekly lectures. Overnight, the coronavirus crisis elevated The Entrepreneurial Musician from being “a degree requirement” to something more critical: an opportunity to engage with the active and urgent application of the skills that students were developing in our class work. Tanya and I instinctively felt that we had to combine our knowledge and experience to pull this off.

The challenging moments were offset by a lot of laughter and joy—so much, that the students began realizing that we had made a decision that laughter and joy, as well as the healing they bring, would be part of our teaching space. Some students began making similar decisions in their own lives, and together we felt how carrying out such a commitment on the tiring and largely unjoyful Zoom platform began feeling like a rebellion.

Part Three: Re-entry

As I write this from my apartment in Brooklyn, we are still under “stay at home” orders. We cannot reliably plan one month ahead, let alone one year. Though we are eager to understand the totality of the effects this crisis will have on our field, we are still stuck at the beginning, unable to predict when live concerts will resume. 

What we can do is spend more time listening, watching, and trying to understand the world around us while it changes so quickly. We can use this opportunity to imagine a world we want to live in. We, as artists, can use this opportunity to imagine an arts ecosystem we want to participate and work in. We can imagine a future for our artform that is less racist and more inclusive.

This crisis has revealed that artists, freelancers, and arts organizations in the United States are extremely vulnerable. The arts ecosystem noticed. New advocates are strengthening their voices and eventually there will be rebuilding. If artists across the field are able to engage with this type of imagining as a precursor to the rebuilding, can we become instigators of the large-scale change we wish to see reflected in the rebuild? 

Back in March, funding institutions provided us a model which demonstrates that significant changes can be made quickly when collaborating in the service of a common goal. If that is any indication of what artists have the potential to accomplish in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, then who knows—maybe things could change overnight. 

Want to hear more? Join Tanya, Ryan, and the University of Michigan EXCEL Lab on Zoom this Wednesday at 2:00PM EST. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Virtual Visionaries Week 1: Artist’s Many Roles with Tara Faircloth

Unbeknownst to many of us who make our way through music school, becoming a classical musician in America means signing up to be the Chief Executive Officer of a very specialized, niche company whose sole product, work force and administration is a party of one. In addition to all the many, many important artistic skills one must acquire to even start this “company,” the positions of marketing and publicity manager, head of human resources, head of finances, research librarian, director of communications, website developer, digital content manager, and IT guy, not to mention travel agent, administrative assistant, and barista are all going to be filled (at least in the early days) by one person… you, the artist. Oh, and also, you’ll need to make incredible music with a unique flair that sets you apart from your competitors.

It is a lot. It really is.

an artist's many roles 1For a working artist in America, the idea of toiling away alone in a room (or maybe a ruggedly fashionable loft) wearing all black and eschewing the norms of regular society is just a fantasy that has very little to do with the nuts and bolts making a living in the arts. Reconciling the fantasy (whatever yours may be) and the reality does not have to be painful, and it starts with baby steps. How do you write a symphony? One note at a time.

What does not work? Doing nothing. Learning nothing. Pretending that if you close your eyes long enough, these challenges will go away. The fact is, choosing to do nothing is still a choice, and I have seen too many young artists give up on their musical dreams because they did not take the steps to make sure their physical/tangible/practical needs were addressed, either on a business OR personal level.  

I think the important thing is to start where you are, and, much like making exciting music, be willing to make a few (well-informed) mistakes at the beginning. You don’t need to have a forty-year plan for achieving financial independence laid out this afternoon, but maybe you could sketch out a realistic monthly budget. Maybe you could find a well-written financial education blog and commit to reading one post a week, on any topic that catches your eye. Open an online savings account and put a dollar in it every week. One day you will be able to increase that deposit, but for now you are working that savings muscle.

You don’t have to roll out an award-winning website tomorrow, but maybe you could start a professional page on Facebook or Instagram, or poll your friends about the best microphones to make excellent at-home recordings. You don’t have to apply to every summer program in the country this fall, but maybe you could make a list of young artist programs, what they are doing this summer, and what their application deadline and requirements are. Set a reminder on your calendar to make a firm decision about which five programs seem the most in line with your current skills and needs, and then set a reminder to make those applications.

You don’t have to be a superhero, but surround yourself with people who are interested in greatness, not just in the performance hall, but in life. You want to know people who are determined to get things done and who have skills you do not have yet. Make friends who inspire you. 

Mostly, don’t let your beautiful work go to waste. Yes, the practical challenges to working as an artist in America are great, but if you have something special to share with the world, don’t let these things stand in your way. You are perfectly poised to develop the skills needed to become the CEO of your company of one.  It is a responsibility, but it is also a privilege, and taking control of all elements of your career now means becoming a better artist, a better person, and literally making the world a better place.

-Tara Faircloth

About the Author

Director Tara Faircloth’s work has been seen widely across the nation. In recent seasons, she created new productions of The Little Prince (Utah Opera), Ariadne auf Naxos (Wolf Trap Opera), Il re pastore (Merola Opera), Agrippina (Ars Lyrica Houston), and L’incoronazione di Poppea (Boston Baroque). With a thriving career in regional houses, Faircloth also has a passion for financial education and offers a popular workshop entitled “Freelance Budget 101: What They Didn’t Teach You in Music School.” She is a drama instructor for the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and regularly coaches at Rice University. 

To hear more from Tara, join us for her presentation, “Personal Finance for Artists” on May 28th, 2020 from 5:00-6:00PM EDT! The session will take place via Zoom. Click here to join!

Virtual Visionaries is a 10-week series in partnership with several of our peer programs at institutions across the country. Starting the week of May 25 through early August, this series brings together professionals across the performing arts for weekly virtual discussions on Zoom. We’ve selected a diverse group of leaders at various stages of their careers to engage in open conversations about topics ranging from personal finance issues, to developing identity-driven work, along with a variety of entrepreneurial approaches relevant to young arts professionals. Each week our guest speakers will also author a blog post, providing a sneak peek of the virtual sessions and providing a basis for our virtual discussion.

Tim McAllister’s 8 Tips for Success

Hailed by The New York Times as a “virtuoso…one of the foremost saxophonists of his generation”,  “brilliant” (The Guardian, UK), and “a sterling saxophonist” (The Baltimore Sun), Dr. Timothy McAllister is one of today’s premier concert soloists and soprano chair of the acclaimed PRISM Quartet. He serves as Professor of Saxophone at The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Additionally, he spends his summers as distinguished artist faculty of the Interlochen Arts Camp (MI), and regularly performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra. He has recently been featured with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, St. Louis Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, National Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Tokyo Wind Symphony, Dallas Wind Symphony, and United States Navy Band, among others. McAllister’s work can be heard on the Nonesuch, Deutsche Grammphon, Naxos, OMM, Stradivarius, Centaur, AUR, Albany, New Dynamic, Equilibrium, New Focus and innova record labels.

Last month, University of Michigan SMTD Academic Affairs and Wellness Initiative hosted a Student Success Workshop. Dr. McAllister, Professor of Saxophone, served on a Faculty Panel on the topic “Advancing Your Artistry.” He started by explaining that “Failure should become the most important ‘F-word’ in your life! It’s a truth in everything you do. You have to embrace it, explore it, solve its problems, grow from trial and error. Everyone grows from that point.”

His other tips included:

Dr. McAllister speaking at the SMTD Student Success workshop

1. LISTEN to great artists. Open your ears! Daily/weekly listening to music’s greatest models in all genres. Develop ears for other instruments, voices, musical styles (i.e., David Shifrin, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.) Pay attention to the greatness around you and connect it to what YOU do.

2. Know the HISTORY of your instrument/genre/what you do. Know the origin of your traditions. (Who are the early legends of the opera? Where does your instrument come from?) Revere your history, know how others have walked the path of your art.

3. ACOUSTICS: Have the skills needed to navigate performance spaces, practice rooms, instrumental equipment, how intonation and projection works. You make must transform the space for your audience – change the room when you start playing/singing! Does the ‘noise’ you make, make people weep?

4. MUSIC: Expand your concept of what is going on around you and in the larger musical world (i.e., composers, musical trends, other ‘schools of thought’ in your field)

5. EAR-TO-HAND SKILLS through technique. Apply theory to technique. Get away from the printed page! Build simple improvisation skills – connect the hemispheres of your brain. Good resource: Jerry Coker’s Patterns for Jazz.

6. Be a problem solver. Every challenge is an opportunity to create.

7. Set macro goals for your career and micro goals for the next 3 hours.

8. Don’t skip class to practice. Organize your time and do both.