Third Place Music Festival: Making Chamber Music Accessible

This week on the EXCEL Log, we are featuring student project, Third Place Music Fest, organized by Wesley Hornpetrie (MM ’18), Kaleigh Wilder (MM ’19), and Clay Gonzalez (current MM student). Now in its third season, the Third Place Concert Series, curated by Wesley, facilitates monthly concerts in local Ann Arbor venues and businesses. This past summer, Kaleigh and Clay joined the team to produce the First Annual Third Place Music Fest. The Festival ran from May 8th to 11th and featured over 20 different acts. We got to talk to Wesley and Kaleigh about the Festival.

EXCEL: What is the mission of the Third Place Music Fest?

Wesley: We give an opportunity for local musicians to show their stuff in local third places. That’s where the name comes from. The Third Place is an Urban Sociology term. Everyone in communities, they have their first place — their home — and their second place is their work. And they need their third place, which needs to be a place to gather and to meet new people and old friends. And it needs to be affordable. This is our version of it via a music festival.

EXCEL: Who performed at the festival?

Kaleigh: We had over 20 groups ranging from your “typical” classical string quartet all the way to performance art. There was math rock, free improvisation, interdisciplinary acts that combined music and dance, and jazz. I personally think this festival is important because, while there are a lot of great opportunities here in Ann Arbor, this festival allowed us to showcase other musical varieties and flavors that you don’t always get to see. And, it was in really accessible public spaces.

Wesley: Third Place Music Fest is where quirky artists and artists on the fringes of the mainstream get to come out and be heard and feel accepted.

EXCEL: The Festival was such a good time, and it was only your first year! How did you set up the Festival for success?

Wesley: The TPMF was successful I think because of the combination of local artists in local spaces. The celebration of that intersection was something very special for the musicians, participating venues, and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor community. We brought the greater community to the next level of local arts scene I’m guessing the average Ann Arbor resident wasn’t aware even existed. This combination of financial and physical accessibility made it home grown and something for people to feel connected to in an authentic way.

Kaleigh: We also have to thank the EXCEL Enterprise Fund. Receiving those funds allowed us to book Kerrytown Concert House, which is a performance venue staple in the Ann Arbor community. It also helped us with our printing costs and just the logistical financial elements of the festival.

The Excel Enterprise Fund is a funding resource for SMTD students. The deadline for Round 2 of applications is November 8th, 2019. For more information, visit or stop by the EXCEL Lab in Moore.

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.

Interview: Rebekah Heller, bassoonist

Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic solo and collaborative artist. Called “an impressive solo bassoonist” by The New Yorker, she is fiercely committed to expanding the modern repertoire for the bassoon. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings (featuring five new pieces written with and for her), 100 names, was called “pensive and potent” by The New York Times and her newly-released second album, METAFAGOTE (also entirely made 1up of pieces created with and for her), is receiving wide acclaim. As Artistic Director and bassoonist of the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Rebekah performs all over the world. Not only is she committed to advancing the music of our time, she is deeply engaged in working with younger musicians to continue the ICE-y legacy of fearless exploration and deep collaboration. She is also a committed advocate, through platforms like ICEcommons (a free, crowdsourced index of newly composed music), for underrepresented voices and outrageous experimentation.

When you graduated from your undergraduate program, what were your goals and where did you see yourself headed?
I actually wasn’t so clear on that. I went to Oberlin Conservatory because they had a dual degree program, so I got both a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance. I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be in my life. I liked playing music, but I had a lot of other interests. I was at a crossroads. I was also broke (which many people are after college), so I auditioned for the Fellowship program at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a stipended program – a free masters program plus a stipend to work on things that were really interesting to me, such as commissioning a new piece with a professor, and doing research. I got that fellowship, and that’s a big reason why I decided to continue doing music. 

So I spent two years in Austin, then I moved to Chicago where I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra and freelanced for a year. From there I got into the New World Symphony. I was on a very traditional orchestral track. I played with them from 2005 to 2008. That’s the time when I was flirting with the idea of moving to New York and playing with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). I had visited a few times in New York, but I didn’t have a lot of contacts there yet, so I wasn’t feeling ready to make the move. I won the job as Principal Bassoonist in the Jacksonville Symphony and played with them for one season. Getting a job in an orchestra really made it blatantly clear that that kind of job just didn’t suit me. It gave the courage to move to New York and be broke, bartend, and wait tables while I sought out the collaborators and the music that I wanted to make, which at the time was primarily with ICE. 

Why did you decide to leave the orchestral world?
For me it felt really limiting being told on a weekly basis what I was going to play and how I was going to play it. The only agency you have in those situations is over your small piece of the puzzle. I was really interested in collaboration, playing the music of living composers, solo playing, and chamber music playing. It just wasn’t deeply fulfilling for me. I really wanted to be able to choose who I was playing with, what I was playing, and why. It became clear to me that I needed more agency, more excitement, and more connection with the music I was playing.

Do students need to move to New York to make a career in contemporary music?
There are audiences all over the country and all over the world who are hungry for new art and new music. I don’t think it is necessary to move to New York, or even a big city, but it is necessary to find that community and activate it and be active within it. I know a lot of young musicians who are starting new music ensembles in smaller cities across the country and are getting amazing responses from community members who are excited to see really relevant, new work being produced in their hometown. It’s really exciting what is popping up all over the country.

What are your current are your solo projects?

Rebekah with U-M Bassoon Students in Fall 2018

I am in the process of commissioning works for my upcoming album. This will be my third album, and it will be focused on bassoon ensemble as an instrument. My last album has a piece on it, Metafagote by Felipe Lara, for seven bassoons. It can be played live, or I pre-recorded all the tracks so I can play it as a soloist. I actually played that piece with University of Michigan students of Jeff Lyman’s studio during ICE’s residency in October 2018! It was a beautiful concert, and I realized it was a great way for students to dip their toe into the water of extended technique and experimental sound-making in the relative comfort and safety of the group. Not only that, the bassoon choir has an incredible sound. The overtones created by that many bassoons in one room is really strange; it almost sound electronic. I became almost obsessed with that sound, so I am commissioning a set of pieces for that ensemble. I’ll be doing a show to give the world premieres of all these pieces, and the album will come out next year!

What was it like creating your first two albums?
Each album was a slightly different process. Both were entirely made up of pieces written for me and in collaboration with me. They’re pieces that feel like belong to me just as much as the composer, which is really special and that’s what I love most about commissioning. Being able to record these works and memorialize them over time was really exciting. 

It was also really scary! I remember listening to the final mixes of both albums, and feeling all of these fears and insecurities about releasing this thing into the world. I was worried about how differently I played those pieces now because my interpretations have evolved since recording them. I had to start thinking of these recordings as photographs –  snapshots in time. Those recordings will always exist, but that doesn’t mean that’s the musician I am now. That part of the process was harder than I imagined it would be.

What advice do you have for current students?
Follow your gut. The safest thing you can do is to listen to that deepest part of you that tells you why –  why you want to make music, why you want to choose this path. Follow that and let that be your leader, because that’s the only thing that matters in the end.

New Young Creatives Book Club Tackles Imposter Syndrome

How do you find the confidence to get past imposter syndrome and get down to business?

Right now, the new Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) is tackling this big, relevant question. The book of discussion is Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk: and other truths about being creative by writer, artist, and curator Danielle Krysa. Check out her TED Talk on the topic here!

Here are Danielle Krysa’s 4 Strategies for dealing with your inner critic:
1. Copy the experts.
2. Give your inner critic a name.
3. Say “thank you”
4. Translate & Rewrite

The idea to launch this book club was conceived by Melissa Coppola, a DMA Student and EXCEL Program Assistant. She says, “The aim is for like-minded, creative SMTD students to meet, socialize, and have fun through a communal learning experience. The staff has been thinking for the past two years about how EXCEL can host more casual gatherings of students interested in the topics of entrepreneurship in a welcoming and casual environment, and this idea has stuck with me. I’m so excited to be helping to lead the new program!”

Young Creatives Book Club Sticky note activity!

The first meeting of the Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) was Tuesday, September 17th. The group watched the TED Talk, then they followed Danielle’s advice to answer the question, “What are the things your inner critic says?” They then put them into the various “Buckets of Lies” that the book describes as primary categories for these thoughts. Finally, the group reflected on how similar many of these thoughts were, and then took the post-it notes back to turn them into positive thoughts. For example, “I’m not good enough” might be turned into “I am trying my hardest and am exactly where I should be right now.”

Participants of the first session really appreciated the opportunity to discuss self-criticism with other artists. “I love the community formed,” one student shared. “We are not alone. We all struggle with these sometimes paralyzing thoughts.” Another student commented, “This topic is very important but rarely touched on in school.”

Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) meets again on Tuesday, October 1st at 7 pm in the EXCEL Lab. Anyone is encouraged to attend, even if you weren’t at the first meeting or haven’t started reading the book! RSVP for the meeting on Handshake so we know how much food to order.

For an exciting culmination of the series, the third meeting will be Wednesday, October 16th at 7 pm. AND, author Danielle Krysa will be joining via Skype! YCBC is crowdsourcing questions for Danielle, so you can add any of your questions for her to this Google Doc. You do not want to miss this exciting event! BUT – for those who are interested but unable to attend, the Skype call will be recorded and available to watch later.

We hope to see you at a YCBC meeting! Questions about the Young Creatives Book Club? Stop in and ask at the EXCEL Lab, or email

Michael Malis on Self-Employment and Living In Between Genres

A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Michael Malis (b. 1988) is a composer, pianist, and music educator based in Detroit, MI. He performs as a jazz musician, composes for the concert stage, and contributes to multidisciplinary collaborations. In 2019 and 2018, his compositions were commissioned by organizations such as Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, and the Great Lakes Music Festival. In 2017, he released an album of duets with saxophonist Marcus Elliot, entitled “Balance.” The album was praised by the Detroit Metro Times as “contemporary jazz of the highest order, a benchmark for where the genre can go.” He has been lauded for his scores for film and theater, which have garnered awards, critical acclaim, and have reached international audiences. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Marcus Belgrave, Tyshawn Sorey, William Hooker, Jaribu Shahid, John Lindberg, Dave Douglas, A. Spencer Barefield, Ken Filiano, J.D. Allen, Andrew Bishop, Dennis Coffey, and Marion Hayden. He is currently adjunct faculty at DIME (Detroit Institute of Music Education) where he teaches piano and music theory.

When you were at U-M, what program were you in?

I did a double major in Jazz Studies and English.

Were you involved in the classical side of the school at all?

Not really. I took piano lessons from a classical DMA student and took a couple composition classes, but generally speaking I wasn’t involved at all. That entire strand of what I am doing only came in the last 3-4 years. Of course I’ve always listened to and loved classical music, but I wasn’t involved in it until recently.

What inspired you to start playing and writing more classical music?

I think what it has come down to is that I’m interested in finding new sounds and following my ears. This is just where my ears have led me. When I decided to go back for my Masters at Wayne State University, I knew I didn’t want to go for a jazz degree. Not because I don’t love jazz, I mean, it’s the central area that I work in, but I wanted to treat it as an opportunity to do something that I’ve never done before, to really grow, and to find myself uncomfortable again. I had started to feel complacent in what I was doing so I needed something really different. That’s what drew me to being in a composition department, and being in composition opened me up to a whole lot of different things.

Were they receptive to you navigating between both genres?

Yeah. I was able to write whatever music I needed to write and do a lot of different work within the school. I even did a lot of work with the jazz department, including a trip to Japan with Chris Collins with a group from the Detroit Jazz Festival. A lot of the work that I was doing at WSU was focused on improvised music. Working at the border between composed and improvised music continues to define what I do. To be clear, I am by no means a classical pianist. I play a little bit at home for fun, but I would never do a recital of classical repertoire. That’s just not who I am. But I really respect people who can go both ways and I try to work with musicians on both sides of playing.

So when you were an undergraduate student at U-M, what did you see yourself doing for a career?

I wanted to play for a living. I wanted to be working as a jazz musician. I don’t know that I had the foresight to be thinking about a career. I was thinking only one to two years ahead, and I was thinking, I’m going to move to Detroit and I’m going to try really, really hard to work with older musicians, because I wanted the mentorship of older musicians. So that’s what I did. That period of time was when I really started discovering what it is I want to do and how I want to do it.

Is there anything that you are doing now that you never would have thought you would be doing for a living?

Yeah. For starters, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be writing chamber music. That concept would have been totally foreign to 21-year-old Michael.

What would have also been surprising is that I’ve had to really learn how to relate to 6-year olds. I’ve had to get good at teaching young kids how to play piano and read music. My first gig out of college was teaching at a music school and I had around 40 students. I continue to do a lot of private teaching and I have a wide range of students. Some are adults getting back into playing, and some are serious musicians working on music theory skills, but other than that it’s mostly kids ages 5-15. I’ve also been able to do some really cool interdisciplinary work with theater and dance, which has felt really good and I’ve tried to do as much as I possibly can.

How did you get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations?

The first meaningful collaboration was with a theater company called Fratellanza. The founders, Paul Manganello and Jim Manganello are brothers and both U-M graduates. I’ve worked with Fratellanza on two shows and with Paul on another, which we just wrapped up at Cleveland Public Theatre back in April.

What else do you do as part of your career?

I spend a lot of time just gigging. Often times it is creative, and sometimes it’s not. For example, I play organ at a church and I also play weddings. But if you want to be a working musician, you have to be able to create your own opportunities. It can’t always come from the top down, sometimes it has to come from the bottom up. That DIY, entrepreneurial spirit is one of the hallmarks of the city of Detroit. I feel like every time I book a show under my own name, it has come from the mentality of me just getting out there, pounding the pavement and making it happen. You need to decide how important this is to you, and are you willing to put yourself on the line to make it happen.

How do you network?

Oh man. I feel like I’m bad at networking when I’m trying too hard at it, and always better when it’s happening organically. The best thing you can do is just be honest and genuine and be yourself. Doing things that are just good things to do that might not seem like networking can actually be the best networking, like showing up to people’s show, being a substitute for someone, or giving somebody a ride to the airport. Be the person that can show up for people. The music business is a people business, so you have to be a person that others want to be around. You have to make the people around you look good, feel good, and sound good. Just be a friend.

What is your advice to current SMTD students?

Get yourself financially literate as soon as you possibly can. In this business you are probably going to be self-employed, and self-employment means all the finance stuff gets even harder. And it continues to get harder as you make more money and you take on more responsibilities. It is never going to get easier, so start implementing systems that work for you as soon as possible. Money is a huge stressor, especially for people in our profession, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. That’s something that 31-year-old me wishes he could go back and tell 21-year-old me.

Malis is recording an EP of original music this fall. Look for a winter release date!

Interview with Hannah Marcus, Dancer

Hannah Marcus (Dance BFA ‘20) is a dancer/creator/collaborator originally from Oak Park, IL. She loves working with artists across disciplines and has structured her time at Michigan by working collaboratively with other SMTD students. She is currently interested in exploring how the body can be supported and deconstructed through the employment of visual design and theatricality. Hannah has performed and/or created work at UMMA, the Power Center, Hill Auditorium, the North Campus Research Complex, Hankinson Rehearsal Hall, and of course good ‘ole Betty Pease Studio Theater. She is the Dance Student Assembly vice-president this year and is a new member of Arts in Color within the dance department.

Hannah assisting FluxFlow Dance Project. Photo credit: Mathilde Gilhet

So Hannah, tell us about your internship.

Well, I received funding from EXCEL to support an internship I did this summer in Columbus, OH with a relatively new dance company called FluxFlow Dance Project. I spent three months as their administrative intern and artistic apprentice, getting involved in the various events and classes they provide for their small community. My duties included helping manage their studio and assisting with company specific projects like press kit creation, promotional research, and content development. As a dancer, I took their company classes and worked with them on three artistic projects– a residency in OSU’s Dance Department Motion Lab and two weeks of a process-based creation period that culminated in different informal performances. I assisted the artistic director, Russell Leplely, as he created a work for Flux + Flow’s adult clients, and I accompanied him to the annual Dance/USA conference in Cleveland to network with arts presenters. It was a summer of major growth for me because I was mentored graciously and became deeply immersed in their work as a company. 
Support from the EXCEL Internship Fund covered my living expenses while I spent my summer in Columbus. Without this resource, I wouldn’t have been able to work at FluxFlow for three months as an unpaid intern. I’m grateful to EXCEL for allowing me to explore my interests at a company that I admire and within a community that welcomed me with open arms.

That sounds awesome! Seems like you have been busy, because you were also studying abroad recently, correct?

Yes, I studied this past Winter semester at the London Contemporary Dance School. I took classes in ballet, contemporary, improvisation/partnering, Gaga, composition, psychoanalytic theory, and professional development. In my composition class, I built a piece with my friend from Finland and we performed it at primary schools around London. I also made and performed an improvisational solo in an informal studio performance. 
I was inspired by the dancers and teachers I was around – constantly learning by observing, listening, and getting lost. My experience in a new, unfamiliar city was rich and full of self-exploration. I saw a ton of amazing shows and explored many art galleries, installations, and events. My commute to school was in the heart of the professional work commute, which was quite an experience!

Hannah in London!

What was challenging or interesting about this program?

The biggest difference about this program was the number of students that I was around all the time. Compared to Michigan’s small, tight-knit dance department, the London Contemporary Dance School had about twice as many dancers. It felt way different to only scratch the surface of getting to know everybody and their work within the conservatory, which was challenging to navigate at times. Also the fact that I was only there for one semester out of their three terms a year made it difficult to explore everything the school had to offer.
What I found to be most interesting about LCDS had to do with the specific nuances and systematic structure of the program. I found the layout of classes and the approaches of each teacher to be super logical and hugely beneficial. I also loved noticing the dancers I was around and acknowledging that many of my European peers had more experience in contact improvisation and floorwork than I had. I gained so much by observing them and understanding how they really eat up space and soar in the contemporary dance context.

What career coaching and arts leadership experience did you have on the trip?

I took one course called Professional Studies where I had to develop my CV according to UK standards, build an application for a project opportunity, refine my artist statement, and learn about different funding systems within the UK and beyond. We talked about differences between repertory companies and project-based companies, as well as how to cater my CV and past experiences to each one. I learned about different residency opportunities and festivals within Europe, as well as resources for learning about these opportunities. My professor in this class emphasized the fact that many contemporary dance companies are looking for mature artists that have at least a couple years of professional experience already. Instead of getting discouraged and not applying for a specific opportunity, she talked about using professional-calibre experiences in school as a way to talk about skills and experience you’ve gained. Through conversations like these, I learned how to demonstrate the depth of my experiences and not discount the value of what I’ve done previously.

How did your view of the dance world evolve because of this program? 

This program, the people, and my exploration of the performing arts outside of the conservatory exposed me to new, multilayered ways of presenting the body. I got to see my peers’ work, the third year students’ theses, masters students’ work, and professional companies throughout London. I’ve always been curious about dance theater and the merging of theatricality with physicality, but I’m now hungrier to keep digging into possibilities of interdisciplinarity. Similarly, I witnessed different projects framing the body in relation to technology, architecture, and visual art, which has pulled my interest more in that direction than ever before.

What advice do you have for any students who are about to go abroad on how to make the most of your experience? 

I kept a journal throughout my time traveling to help me collect my thoughts, and that was the biggest thing that served me in my time abroad. It was important to me to write down moments, phrases, feelings, and experiences that inspired me and that I was grappling with. I use this journal now to look back and break down my experiences, and it continues to be a great reference in my current artistic processes. I would encourage anyone that wants to travel and study in a different country to take the risk and do it alone. At times I felt a bit lost to have to fend for myself all the time, but the vast majority of my time abroad was filled with eye-opening experiences that I don’t think would’ve made as significant an impact if I weren’t on my own.

Hannah Marcus ( left) performing Phulkari by Kiran Bhumer in 2018. Also pictured are dancers Micky Esteban and Johnny Mathews.

Are you taking any EXCEL classes this year?

Yes! I am finishing up my PAME minor and am currently enrolled in the DIY Marketing minicourse and the Teaching Artistry workshop. I am also enrolled in a 3-credit independent study as a follow-up to my internship with FluxFlow Dance Project this summer where I’ll be synthesizing everything I learned through a research paper.

What else is coming up for you this year?

I’m already starting to think about my Senior concert happening in April! My initial inspirations and ideas are coming straight from the experiences I had this summer and the previous semester in Europe. My physical research for this project has already begun, and I’m stoked to continue developing my ideas. Besides my thesis, I plan to work with a guest artist in the dance department (auditions are this week) for our annual Power Center shows. I also hope to follow the momentum I’ve built thus far at Michigan by continuing to collaborate and work on various projects with music students and other dance peers. Who knows what else will transpire this year!


Featured Photo by Stephen Harvey

5 Ways my Arts Entrepreneurship & Leadership Training is Shaping my Career

Hi everyone, before we dive into this week’s post, just a reminder to please SUBSCRIBE to our blog! Students who subscribe get one free item of EXCEL swag including water bottles, coffee mugs, bags, stickers, and more!


Allow me to introduce myself! I’m BethAnne and I am the new blogger for EXCEL. I graduated in Spring 2019 with an MM in Saxophone Performance, an MM in Chamber Music, and was among the first class of students to graduate with EXCEL’s Graduate Certificate in Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship. Now I work full time at ArtOps (an arts management services provider in Metro Detroit), play in a sextet called Virago, teach private saxophone lessons, and work with EXCEL on this blog. So far life in the performing arts workforce is a whirlwind but I am loving the ride. 

Food is an EXCEL Tradition – especially on Taco Tuesday!

I can confidently say that I would not be where I am today without EXCEL. Students, you might be wondering, “what can the lab that always has free food do to help me build my career as a performing artist?” Well, here is what I gained from EXCEL (besides my weight in tacos):

1. A foot in the door. EXCEL’s slogan is “Do Stuff.” While at SMTD, I adhered to that advice and became involved in everything I possibly could, both musical and administrational. Frequent meetings with Jonathan or Caitlin to get feedback on my application materials, cover letters, and resume helped me to always present my best work when going for an opportunity. I would also check in with them to find out about new opportunities by attending information sessions. In my two years of grad school I interned at UMS, The EXCEL Lab, The Ann Arbor Blues Festival, The Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, and even simply sold tickets and CDs at the door for my professor’s quartet shows. I realize now how many new skills I gained from these different experiences. Most importantly, I made countless professional connections of which I feel I can reach out to at any time.

Through Immersion Trips, EXCEL Talks, the Career Expo, and other kinds of networking opportunities, EXCEL helps students make connections to all kinds of professionals in many fields.

2. A diversified skills portfolio. Throughout my administrative interning, I gained experience with Patron Engagement, Artist Services, Front of House, Back of House, Artistic Operations, Fundraising, Social Media Marketing, and DIY Graphic Design. I also took EXCEL classes on the Music Industry, Grant Writing, Running an Arts Organization, and Arts Leadership. 

An excerpt from the 2019 EXCEL Report about the “Running An Arts Organization” course with the Akropolis Reed Quintet. Click the image to read the full report.

Today, many artists build a career by having multiple streams of income based on their collection of skills and interests. EXCEL’s classes, Open Lab workshops, and coaching sessions are available to students to help us build up our repertoire of skills beyond our craft.

3. A venture. During my time at SMTD I started a brand new ensemble called Virago.  This group is just a year old but we have gained momentum very quickly! From this project I realized what a huge administrative workload is involved in running a chamber music group, and all of my previously mentioned new skills are being used for this venture. We are grateful to have been supported by EXCEL, as well as different grants available to U of M students from Arts at Michigan, ArtsEngine, and Performance Engagement Educational Residencies (PEERs). As I walked across the stage at commencement, I had upcoming performance dates set and projects in motion with this group. What a great feeling!

Virago members Megan, Ellen, Wesley, Kaleigh, Sofia, & me!

Through the Enterprise Fund, the EXCELerator mentorship program, and the EXCEL Prize, students can apply for the funding they need to take projects or ventures to the next level. This not only provides students with experiential learning opportunities, but also the funding and mentorship needed to become self-sustaining in the long term.

4. A passion with a purpose. Entrepreneurship doesn’t just mean starting a venture with an idea of how to get rich; it can be used to serve a higher purpose for the greater good. Social Entrepreneurship is the term for using entrepreneurial skills and resources for social impact. The 2019 EXCEL Career Expo was focused around Social Entrepreneurship and featured speakers from a variety of social entrepreneurs in the community.

Playing with students at Virago’s Brave Performance Workshop!

In this spirit, Virago created our Brave Performance Workshop – a workshop which empowers students to be creative and fosters listening and communication skills through musical improvisation. EXCEL referred us to Performance Engagement Educational Residencies (PEERs), which connected us to our first partner school for the workshop. Later we also partnered with Girls Rock Detroit. We cannot wait to do it again soon!

5. A sustainable life in the arts. Since graduation, I have started a full-time Development position with ArtOps (an organization where I interned), expanded my private teaching studio, and continued performing and doing outreach with Virago. I feel well-equipped to go forth in these roles, and to continue my portfolio career as an arts administrator, performer, and educator for years to come.

While all students at SMTD have different passions and interests, we are all here in hopes of building a sustainable life in the arts. The EXCEL Program has certainly helped me achieve this. If you are interested in (or even just curious about) Arts Entrepreneurship & Leadership, stop by the EXCEL Lab to see what they might have in store for you! They can probably help to shape your career too.

Me with Jonathan Kuuskoski, Director of the EXCEL Lab and important mentor to so many SMTD students!

EXCEL Kicks Off the School Year With New Classes, Events & Resources

Jonathan (right) chats with SMTD student and 2019 UMS 21st Century Artist Intern Zion Jackson at EXCEL’s “Taco Tuesday” event

As Director of the EXCEL Lab, Jonathan Kuuskoski helps students self-start their careers. He oversees EXCEL’s wide range of professional development resources, including career advising, workshops with diverse arts leaders, and the annual distribution of $100,000 in student project, venture, and internship funding. He also teaches a variety of courses focused on performing arts career development.


Here’s what Jonathan wants SMTD students to know about EXCEL:

What can EXCEL do for students?

The mission of EXCEL is to provide resources so that every SMTD student feels prepared to build a life in the arts. These resources are inclusive of but go beyond typical career services–preparation for interviews, reviewing job materials, searching for internships. We also help students explore and advance big professional goals, and provide assistance in turning those artistic dreams into reality. 

That’s because a life in the arts means something very different for each student, driven always by their personal background, interests, and aspirations. Just like a private studio, or any other area of SMTD, provides mentor-driven pedagogy, we strive to be as adaptive as possible and provide individualized mentorship to meet the various needs that our students bring to the table.

What EXCEL resources can students utilize?

2019 EXCEL Report (Issu)
Click here to view the official 2019 EXCEL Report

Studying the performing arts necessitates experiential learning. As musicians, dancers, theater artists, and scholars, we know practice is core to honing our craft and developing expertise. The same goes for entrepreneurial skills. EXCEL provides coursework, workshops, immersion trips, and funding to provide students with broad opportunities for experiential learning. That might look like attending an EXCEL Talk, where students can meet and talk to artists who can share specific professional insights, or utilizing EXCEL funding to take on an artistic project or internship that would not otherwise be possible.

What is EXCEL most pumped about for this school year?

It is hard to believe this will be EXCEL’s fifth year! Having constantly listened to feedback from students and faculty, at this point we are looking to better understand how we can expand on our core programming to better serve diverse constituencies. A great example of this is the Open Lab, which launched in fall 2018 as a series of 6 sessions with new formats including interactive “gamified” workshops, relaxed drop-in sessions, and fun social events. This year, we are doubling those offerings to include several mini-series on event production, financial planning, work/life balance issues, academic careers/success and even a book club!

We are also launching two new courses this year, which are sure to be transformative. In the Fall, we are bringing back our Teaching Artistry course in collaboration with UMS, taught by master teacher Hilary Easton. After the course, students will actually have the opportunity to implement the skills they learn through an independent study, delivering engaged learning exercises in our local community under the supervision of UMS Teaching Artists! In the Winter, we are thrilled to launch an all-new course focused on the role of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion within arts leadership training. Lead by Afa Dworkin, this course will explore the past and present landscape of DEI practices and take students behind the scenes of the Sphinx Organization, where students will work on real projects alongside Sphinx staff.

Finally, for the first time, we are collaborating with our Theatre & Drama colleagues on an immersion to The Windy City! The Chicago Immersion Trip will take 20 SMTD BTA students to the city for a weekend of activities in September 2019. The visit will include meetings at Victory Gardens Theater and About Face Theatre, a panel discussion with Chicago Dramatists, and networking events with SMTD alums. This trip expands on EXCEL’s robust immersion program, which has included trips to New York City and Detroit.

How can students stay in-the-know about news and events through EXCEL?

There are many ways!

Look for our email newsletter every Monday. Check the SMTD Instagram every Thursday for our EXCEL Takeover. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @SMTDEXCEL. Check out our events on Handshake. View our website for information about funding and deadlines.

Last but not least, subscribe to our blog! We are giving away a FREE item of EXCEL Swag to any student who subscribes.

Any advice for starting a school year on the right note?

HA! I should give advice that I should listen to myself, right? 

Here at the University of Michigan, there are so many amazing opportunities. So many that it can be overwhelming! Going through a school year is like riding a train; once it gets going, it doesn’t slow down. That ride is demanding and crescendos steadily until May. It’s what we love about U-M, but there are times when life gets tough and we wish it would slow down.

So my advice is to give yourself time to reflect. Acknowledge the mountain you are about to climb, and have gratitude for the incredible things you are about to do. Prepare by catching up on sleep, exercising, and enjoying the beautiful weather we will only have left for a short amount of time. Maybe kick off the term with a free taco at our Open House (Tuesday, September 3). Then buckle in and try to enjoy the ride. 


Subscribe to the EXCEL Log and get free swag! Stop by the Lab to claim.

EXCELcast: Project Trio

Project Trio is an eclectic group from Brooklyn, NY, whose music defies genres and expectations. In this EXCELcast with Jonathan Kuuskoski, the group discusses tactics on establishing a unique performing business, the “cosmic whole note,” and some important aspects of their work as a group.

The Trio also discusses how they were founded. “We all had an eclectic taste in musical styles that we like to listen to,” mentions Peter Seymour, group member, “We take from rock, hip hop, and the methods that bands use to come together to learn how to run our business.”

Listen to this EXCELcast for more great advice and to get to know the amazing Project Trio.

EXCELcast: Christopher Koelsch

In this EXCELcast Christopher Koelsch, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Opera, talks about his own position as well as transitioning from a performing arts student into an entrepreneurial role.

Jonathan Kuuskoski, Director of EXCEL, discusses ideas and themes with Koelsch such as: going into such an important and powerful position, making a change within an organization, dealing with discipline in entrepreneurship, and simple first steps to make progress in the arts from day one of studies.

Check out this great EXCELcast, which gives fascinating tips to aspiring artists and entrepreneurs alike!