Building an Ensemble Step by Step

By: Jessica Meyer

Note from Edna: At a recent conference for career development officers (NETMCDO), I met a dynamic young woman who was invited to participate on a panel of “guest musician entrepreneurs”. Her approach to career building and  her intriguing website “Chops Beyond the Practice Room” inspired me to invite her for coffee. I discovered that violist, teaching artist, ensemble coach and workshop leader, Jessica Meyer, was a veritable superwoman and the quintessential networker. Not long after we met, I read a glowing review of her composer/performer collective, counter)induction, now in its 13th year and excited to be releasing its first cd, “Group Theory”,  on April 29. I thought that Jessica’s general career insights and specific experience in building an ensemble would be of value to our readers. It is my pleasure to welcome her as my first guest blogger.

I am very grateful to Edna for giving me the opportunity to tell the story of counter)induction and how it has attracted a growing audience and critical acclaim for its new music concerts since its inception in 1999. The successful evolution of the ensemble has depended in equal measure on hard work, persistence during difficult times, a clear sense of identity and artistic focus, tireless networking efforts, and of course, a dash of serendipity. Let’s go back to the beginning and explore the seemingly random ways in which some of our five performers and three composers came together.

I got to know composer Douglas Boyce during the few summers I spent in Aspen in the 90’s. During our last year at Juilliard, clarinetist Benjamin Fingland (now my husband) and I took day trips to Philadelphia to perform Doug’s pieces at the University of Pennsylvania. We subsequently booked a few concerts in Philadelphia, including the Fringe Festival, and additional concerts at the University where we first worked with c)i composer-member Kyle Bartlett. Also while at Juilliard, Ben and I were invited to perform undergraduate compositions at Columbia University. It was then that we met Deborah Bradley, who was interested in building up the music department as part of her new job. I contacted her several times without much luck but when she took the time to look at our website and explore what we were doing, it resulted in our first residency.

One of our first concerts in New York came about after I met composer Rika Iino at a random event. She was looking to present a multi-media opera that involved a string quartet and we signed on to the project. At that time, we were very intent on performing at Miller Theatre in New York, and inadvertently, getting to know her was a step towards making that happen. She introduced us to Bill Rhodes who was Director of Promotion at Carl Fischer publishing at the time. They were the publisher of composer Lee Hyla and Bill got us hooked on his music. Bill made the introduction to the theatre, and we wrote a proposal for their Composer Portrait series that revolved around Lee’s music. They wanted a more varied program that included some of his chamber orchestra pieces, so we took the responsibility of putting that together, even though we had to raise a fair amount of the money for the concert ourselves. This fundraising experience led us to the conclusion that we needed to get 501(c)(3) status if we were going to continue to fund and present our own concerts.

A chance cancellation at Merkin Concert Hall presented another New York concert opportunity and marked the start of a long series of (thankfully) favorable reviews from the New York Times. Our group continued to grow when our cellist, Sumire Kudo, happened to meet composer Ryan Streber at a recording session. She asked him to write a piece for her upcoming recital and later proposed that he write for counter)induction. After Douglas met composer Erich Stem of New Dynamic Records in an online social network for composers, we finally decided the time was right to apply for a Copland Recording Grant to fund our upcoming first release.

I know that reading this saga can be a bit overwhelming, but it is important to realize that significant things can happen in unpredictable ways and each can impact the other. There have certainly been some bumps along our winding road. A major funder backed out weeks before our big Miller concert, sending us into a fundraising frenzy. Major cutbacks in grant funding due to the 2008 financial meltdown kept some seasons pretty lean for a few years. Some concerts should have had bigger audiences. There were many times when we looked at each other and said, “What now? How can we get to the next level?”

Fortunately, our clear vision kept us focused. We wanted to always perform new music at the highest level and consistently create thought-provoking programs. We wanted to celebrate composers who were already in the public eye and also shed light on those who were emerging from the shadows of their early careers. We never presented concerts we couldn’t financially support and we worked hard to build our relationships with funders. We relied on each other to get the work done and to connect to like-minded colleagues and presenters to collaborate with along the way.

My advice to those who are starting out, or who are entering the next phase of their career, is to consider the following: What musically inspires you? Who shares the same passions as you do and might inspire you to play (and write) your best? Each time you meet someone new, what steps can you take to build that relationship in a meaningful way? And as you seek to expand the number of performances for your ensemble, what steps can you take to connect audiences to the music you so deeply care about?

 All of this takes a huge amount of patience, more than anything else, but it will be a great day for counter)induction when we finally tear through the shrink-wrap of our first CD, knowing that we have reached an important new milestone as a result of our collective efforts.

Note from Edna: After a week of holiday, I look forward to resuming the “Ask Edna” column on Thursday, April 19. However, please continue to send in your questions during this time!

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

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