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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.