09/09/2014 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Do We Perform For?

Every September at New England Conservatory, we kick off the new academic year with an all-school assembly we call "Convocation." This week, in my brief cheerleading moment, I counseled our young musicians to not only delve deeper internally--that is, into music's expressive world and their own creative response to it, but to think externally of their responsibilities as citizen artists. The following post is an elaboration of those Convocation remarks.

It is always wonderful to welcome all you students and faculty back to NEC in September. You have no idea how boring it is around here when you leave for the summer! I always look forward to Convocation when I have my one chance each year to wax idealistic and "inspirational." This year, I'd like to call your attention to a program here at NEC that offers a marvelous opportunity for musicians to reflect on their role in the world.

2014-09-09-KimforMfF.jpgIt is Music for Food, the chamber music series that raises thousands of dollars to bring relief to people who are hungry. The brainchild of our faculty violist Kim Kashkashian, Music for Food Boston is now entering its fifth season and we are honored to partner with this organization and host many of its concerts.

Most of us, unthinkingly, associate hunger with the Third World, something which is distant, unimaginable, in a part of the globe that we have problems finding on a map. But it also exists here in America and in Boston. Indeed 50 million Americans, including children and families, are food insecure, which means they don't know where their next meal is coming from. Think of that! Try not eating, or not eating enough. Think of the effect on your energy, your morale, your sense of well-being.

2014-09-09-MusicFoodBannercopy.jpgKim's campaign is supported by many faculty, musical friends from outside NEC, and also by students who perform and help organize. We should be really proud of that. This project casts musicians as concerned citizens, contributing to social justice and betterment. It's an activity that restores a critical and pertinent layer of social meaning and impact to music that has often been overlooked. That's powerful. Over the last four years, Music for Food has provided 100,000 meals through donations from audience members, supporting 14 hunger relief organizations like Food for Free and the Greater Boston Food Bank.

In so many ways Music for Food challenges us to question our roles and responsibilities as musicians. Why do we perform? Who do we play for as musicians? Ourselves? Other musicians? The so-called Elite audiences? Or is our role far broader than this and therefore more important?

My deeply thoughtful colleague at London's Guildhall School, Peter Renshaw has written: "Music is socially real, but socially marginal." If that is true, we have a duty to bring music in from the margins and into the center of society because music is our passion. We are convinced of its transformative powers and that the powers of music, like food, should be accessible to all as one of the most critically important components of our lives.

NEC is many things. I see it principally as a laboratory for exploration, experimentation. It allows you to explore, have adventures, find your voice, and have the freedom to become the best artist from within yourself. But being an artist is not an abstract endeavor. It needs direction and purpose and application. This is why I feel optimistic and energized by NEC and our contribution to the way music is gradually changing. We are moving music and music-making away from being an endangered species--up there with the African elephant and Indian tiger, to something far more vibrant and life-enhancing.

Many good things are already in place:

Our Entrepreneurial Musicianship program is pushing boundaries. Among numerous projects and initiatives, it offered students the opportunity to create an "unconservatory" concert last year, which will be repeated this year. Students were put in charge of all aspects of performance, programming, and promotion, and given the freedom to change the paradigm.

Community Performances and Partnerships. Under director Tanya Maggi, we have 250 students engaged in programs for homeless shelters, senior centers, hospitals, schools, and youth programs. Last year these programs reached 14,000 people and 6500 school children.

Quartetutopia. Violinist Nick Kitchen, a founder of the Borromeo String Quartet and one of the most innovative minds I know, has begun implementing a vision he has in which a string quartet -- an easily transportable musical entity -- becomes the nucleus for musical development in a community.

2014-09-09-ProjectLENS300px.jpgProject LENS is a student-led initiative experimenting with new presentation of an idea, theory, or story; and a MusicThread spun of works from the classical repertoire.

A Far Cry is a "conductorless" professional chamber orchestra, comprising many NEC alums, whose passion and connection with the community and audience is breaking new ground.

Already some of this ferment is bubbling up outside NEC's "laboratory" by alumni, who are implementing many ideas generated here out in the professional world.

2014-09-09-Mattconducting300px.jpgFor example, there's Matt Szymanski, a conductor, who graduated from our Orchestral conducting program. He is trying to create a new orchestra, "Phoenix," that will realize his ideal of music reaching, touching, and being important to more people in non-traditional settings, outside conventional concert halls. He is eager to tear down the barriers that we have erected over the centuries--the formal concert dress, program notes, the stage separating audiences from musicians. He is a man on a mission, with deep passion and commitment.

So I want to issue an invitation to all of you: students, faculty, staff for the new academic year. I would like you to try out new ideas, engage in new collaborations, explore new terrain. Consider participating in Music for Food, CPP, or create your own platform. Consider trying new styles of presentation inside or outside NEC. Consider thinking differently about the role of musicians, just as Music for Food is doing.

This is not about dumbing down. You still need to practice. Excellence is the goal. Your course work needs to be handed in. But this is more about reflection and then defining your role as a musician. Consider how much more powerful and beneficial this role could be.

Joseph Polisi, who heads a music school a little south of here, has written, "We can't think that the only world out there is the world that existed. That world, to a great degree, has gone."

What could be more courageous, then, that in finding your deepest voice, you also make a difference? You can powerfully affect the lives of so many people, just by engaging, by harnessing music as a medium for change and transformation.

In a slightly more lighthearted vein, my remarks were followed by this video, which playfully captures some of the aspirational ideals of NEC. Thanks to our two Northeastern University video interns Chelsea Storino and Laura Hoffenberg, who created this little gem. --TW