Origins Part 3: The Summer of Something

Snow. How is there this much snow? Seriously. I’m going to use, “Hey it’s snowing out so I’m writing another blog post,” for my next hundred blog intros. Here’s me rambling about last summer. The last post in the origin story before Phoenix actually became a real thing.

This post covers last summer in its entirety. Summer is a busy season for musicians. Festivals and freelance gigs dominated mine, but that doesn’t mean I stopped thinking about the new orchestra completely, just that time to get work does was scarce. I’m going to focus on one thing that happened each month. Three snippets of how work progressed during the summer.

[Editor's Note to the Reader: There are pictures of snow in this post because that's what I've been taking pictures of. They have nothing to do with summer. Or this post. Also there's a picture of chocolate chip cookies. Because I made them. And they were great.]

June

[Editor’s Note to the Reader: This is going to read like an advertisement for the EM department at NEC. Deal with it. The EM department is awesome.]

One of the fantastic things about New England Conservatory is the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department. Starting something new is hard to do, but it’s almost impossible to do without the right support. As the classical music business has evolved over the last decade, it’s become increasingly necessary for young musicians to create their own opportunities and often their own organizations. NEC’s EM department was started in response to that trend, to give the school’s students the support and know-how required to thrive in that environment.

I’ll admit that while I was actually a student at NEC I didn’t take full advantage of the EM department. Trying to study conducting while avoiding becoming an antisocial hermit was enough on my plate. But when I sat down to talk to Tom Novak about the orchestra I was starting in June of last year he immediately recommended I get in touch with Rachel Roberts, head of the EM department, to get her input on the project.

Rachel and I met for an hour or so on June 19th to discuss the nameless orchestra I was starting. It gave me another chance to try to pitch the ensemble in a concise way, something I was still failing at. I meandered around the point, talking about a more accessible and social experience. We talked about causal concert settings and concert dress, alternative venues and letting audience members feel more welcome at concerts.

At some point I started discussing my personal history with classical music. How I wasn’t brought up with this music and loved it because of movies and video games, how I wanted to try to create that sort of accessible experience for others. How I loved this music and wanted it to be more popular, to reach more people. I wanted the orchestra to be a gateway drug for those that had never considered classical music before. 

“That’s the most conviction you’ve spoken with,” I remember Rachel saying, “When you talk about your personal experience, why this matters to you, it’s exciting, and it’s convincing.”

As with most of the important lessons I learned in the early days of Phoenix, this one seems obvious in retrospect. Phoenix is more than a collection of changes to a concert format. Phoenix is personal. It’s personal to me and everybody else that works on it. Part of our mission is to make the orchestra more personal for the audience. It’s personal because we have control over everything, because it’s a representation of who we are as people and musicians. We’re only doing this because it’s important to us. So why shouldn’t the pitch be personal?

July

This one is a stretch. I lived with Dave from 2012 to 2014, so conversations with him about the new orchestra weren’t constrained to a particular month. But pretending they were helps organize this post. So let’s pretend.

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

[Editor’s Note to the Reader: Alright, so… Quoting Sun Tzu in a blog about your new orchestra is a bit extreme. Or odd. Or something. It’s also a lot like something I’d do though. In fact: I just did.]

When I decided to start an orchestra I knew one of the things I needed most was harsh criticism. As an organization part of our mission was to question everything. Every little experience a listener has when they come to a concert, we were going to break down, analyze, debate, and judge. But none of it would work if we didn’t also question ourselves.

Did certain elements sound gimmicky? Was it too much change? Did it separate itself from the normal orchestral model enough? Were we  really the right people to do this? Was a music video really the right way to launch the orchestra? Should the video be funny, dramatic? Aren’t dramatic classical music videos usually awful and cheesy? We needed a voice in the room that would ask those questions. Since the beginning, Dave Tarantino has been that voice for Phoenix.

Dave was my roommate when I was starting to have meetings with people about the orchestra. Every once and awhile at my request or of his own volition Dave would positively grill me on the new orchestra model I was working on. Some of the conversations were heated, most weren’t. They were all important.

When you’re starting something new it’s critical to have every viewpoint possible. Someone telling you it’s a great idea is encouraging, but not particularly helpful. Having someone that provides insightful criticism into what you’re doing is invaluable. Dave was that person for me. He’s still a large part of that voice in the organization today. We still strive to be our own harshest critics, and I can’t imagine where we’d be otherwise.

August

By August these ideas had had time to ferment in my head. I’d gotten grips on how much money it would take to launch the orchestra. I’d paired down plans that initially included three concerts and a music video to a more realistic season. We’d film the video in September, use the video to help launch the Kickstarter campaign in December and then have concerts in February and April.

That basic outline would stick around the whole season with some small changes. The video was delayed and the Kickstarter didn’t launch until January. We moved the Febraury concert to March… Probably the best thing that’s ever happened to this less than one year old organization. Putting together a concert in Boston right now would probably be as likely as me winning the Mega Millions lottery.

In August I scheduled a meeting with Tony Woodcock, the President of New England Conservatory. For the past couple of years President Woodcock has had a blog on Huffington Post that has peaked my interest and stirred my imagination. He’s written about new concert formats, the Met’s theater broadcasts, and a desire to see classical music become more accessible and welcoming.

It was also time I tried giving the pitch to someone that intimidated me. It was something that I’d have to get used to if I was actually going to do this and President Woodcock was the perfect starting point. Intimidating but kindhearted and supportive, the perfect opportunity to learn.

So we met, I gave him the pitch, and he gave me feedback. Shorter. More experienced-based. “What’s it going to be like to be there?” he asked. That reshaped the way I’d pitch this new concert experience from that moment on. Instead of a list of changes to an existing format it was about what it would be like to experience one of our events.

He also provided feedback about the concert model itself. This was at the time when the idea still involved some sort of pre-concert cocktail hour that featured the orchestra providing background music. “You should never be background music,” President Woodcock said. In retrospect, of course, it’s obvious.

We want to make it easier for people to love classical music. But in order to do so we need that music to be at the center of their attention. In fact, we need to be doing everything possible to help them pay attention, rather than distracting them with drinks and conversation while we’re playing. It’s a rule we’ve stuck by to this day, and that still acts as a guidepost during meetings.

What's next?

So things changed again. Over the next couple of weeks the model changed to something very close to what it is today. A concert with drinks, in a great atmosphere, where we talked and mingled with the audience a lot, but where we were never background music.

Soon it’d be September and we’d be sitting in our first real life meeting. After a lot of theorizing and thinking and long distance communication the core of the team would come together in person and get to work. And by the time we sat down for that meeting, we’d have a name.

Seriously. I promise. The orchestra gets a name in my next post.