Revelations from the Floor of the Chamber Music America Conference

Chances are if you are a NewMusicBox reader, you’re well familiar with Chamber Music America, an organization dedicated to the niche field of chamber music. What you may not realize is that there are a vast number of musicians, especially young people like myself, who are in the dark about such organizations. Even high profile music schools like Eastman, my alma mater, don’t impart to their students the importance of being part of the bigger network of music and resources out in the world. Maybe you have to go through that “out in the real world for the first time” anxiety to earn your wings. Not quite out in the real world yet myself, I felt lucky to attend my very first Chamber Music America conference in mid-January as the new intern of NewMusicBox.

Chamber music, at least from my own musical experiences, is an unusually social event for musicians who are, on the whole, rather reclusive. Think about it: you sit in a practice room for hours a day or sit quietly in an orchestra minding your own part. But in chamber music, you can move and nod to your fellow members, count aloud, and laugh when the music, or a slip of a note, surprises you. It’s one of the few modes of classical music where members relish the inexactness of live music and turn it into something completely unique, and where personalities fly off the page in a way the composer most likely never thought possible. This would be a perfect way to describe what I found at this conference.

Friday morning, I made my way through the always-crowded Times Square to find a similarly overflowing hotel, the Westin, where the conference was held. Instead of quiet, neatly organized exhibits and planned flows of people making the rounds, I found each table to be a social meeting place where conference-goers could chat with old friends, meet new people in the business, and charm the field with their eccentric personalities. My good friend and the violinist of my fledgling trio unknowingly called while I was walking through the crowds and asked if the Yings, the quartet-in-residence at Eastman, were there. I told him that two of the members were there, but that they were not performing. Despite the Ying’s presence, he said, “I guess they don’t need to go to these things. They already know everybody.” Though I’m sure the Yings would have been happy to be there and perform had they not played the year before, my friend’s comment put the conference into a different perspective for me.

Conferences are less about gaining knowledge through seminars, or even the organization itself, and more about making connections. Musicians are there to promote their performing talents. Composers are there to convince performers to play their music. Managers are there to lure musicians to use their promotional services to seem more professional. And the publishers are trying to sell music to performers. This revelation was topped by the simple fact that the cocktail events enjoyed higher attendance than any other event. It’s not that we’re all drunks, but when you make your career solely on music, it helps to have as many people on your side as possible. So why then are these events such a secret for anyone under 30?

One of the most frequent discussions I have with my classmates from Eastman is how we’re going to take our perfected scales, arpeggios, and flowing musical lines and sell them so that we can eat and have a roof over our heads. Usually, the conversations have a sarcastic, if not altogether negative tone. We don’t feel prepared to enter the world as professional musicians because we don’t know where to go after we graduate except to bounce around to orchestral auditions that might take years for us to win, if ever. Places like the Chamber Music America conference would be a great place to get your name out there and meet the people who might hold your career in their hands. If only someone would spill the beans about these events. This problem was magnified to me by the fact that a chamber music conference in a city with three major conservatories and a slew of college music programs had few, if any, student attendees.

Outside of pure socialization, I found this conference to offer solid advice for a successful music career during the sessions. Topics ranged from advice on building contracts to health insurance and stress management. Though some of the topics seemed self-explanatory for the already experienced groups at the conference, hearing the information repeated is like relearning a piece of music you performed years ago; there is always something you overlooked.

Showcasing seems to be one topic that I had overlooked. I had the general idea that chamber groups can go to conferences and perform in order to gain recognition. I was, however, unaware of the different types of performances that a chamber group could partake in, whether it was a showcase produced by the conference or an impromptu one in a hotel room. It would seem that a showcase produced by the conference would be the most efficient form of performing, especially since these showcase slots often have large audiences and the screening process by the conference would ensure that the performers were at a certain high level. However, as I found out, these types of performances are costly for an ensemble and are not always worth a ten-minute performance in an acoustically dead space. An ensemble might benefit more from setting up a performance outside of the conference during the same weekend where they have control over the length of time they perform and the space where they will be performing. Is it more important to control the variables and have a better performance, or to perform for a larger audience? Whatever your answer, it helps to know your options.

I was also pleased to see that even a chamber music conference would tackle a larger societal issue like blogging. Though there are blogs that rant on about almost any imaginable topic, blogging is the newest way for performers and composers to interact with their audience. Jerry Bowles, editor of Sequenza21, Drew McManus, writer for adaptistration.com, and composer Alex Shapiro discussed everything from how to start your own blog to the irony of joining a larger community while sitting isolated at your computer. The consensus seemed to be that blogs were enjoyable but also addicting, eating up our precious practice hours and distracting us from work. What I found is that the music business is really no less than a large-scale dialogue, and in the digital age that we’re in, blogs are a great way to continue that dialogue while still being a reclusive musician sitting in a practice room.

Now that I’m in journalism school, I’ve had mentors direct me to the necessary resources to be up on current issues and to write intelligently about the arts, but I’m positive if it weren’t for my interest in writing, I would have been as clueless to resources like Chamber Music America as any other recent conservatory graduate. I’m not sure how to resolve the issue other than increasing awareness of this need amoung teachers, especially at the collegiate level, but adding it to the grand dialogue on music should be a start. As for me, thanks to tips I picked up at the Chamber Music America conference I’m off to get professional pictures of my trio ASAP.

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