The Age of Relevance – Lessons from a world away

I wrote this post ahead of the American Orchestra Forum hosted by the San Francisco Symphony March 17, 2012.  For video from the live event visit

“The souls of people, on their way to Earth, pass through a room full of lights; each takes a taper — often only a spark — to guide it in the dim country of this world. But some souls, by rare fortune, are detained longer — have time to grasp a handful of tapers, which they weave into a torch. These are the torch-bearers of humanity — its poets, seers, and saints, who lead and lift the race out of darkness, toward the light. They are the law-givers, the light-bringers, way-showers, and truth-tellers, and without them humanity would lose its way in the dark.” – Plato

Last spring and a world away this quote was read in mourning. Their numbers depleted by two, a group of journalists in Misrata, Libya gathered to eulogize a friend of mine, Chris Hondros, an world-renown photo-journalist, and his colleague, Tim Hetherington, director of award-winning Afghan war documentary Restrepo and conflict-photographer. Chris was incredibly passionate about classical music and it was the bridge that first connected us. As I transitioned from my career as a cellist into the technology space, I learned from Chris that our connection was more fundamental. Journalists, photographers, sculptors, musicians, entrepreneurs, inventors, and everyone who endeavors to interpret the humanity of which we are part, to preserve it, to share it, to move it forward, these, are the light-bringers, way-showers, and truth-tellers. We must embrace this role, not with hubris but with humility and realize that our accomplishments are not the reward for our dedication. Rather, our dedication is the price paid, and it is only a pittance, for the enormous privilege of “having been detained longer”- so that we might weave a torch.

Musicians, no less than historians, are stewards of our culture and our history – charged with preserving and interpreting the past. Music is a constant evolving culmination of the rich repository of human culture over the past hundreds of years. This is a deep brew – blending a vast number of societies and languages, and the composer’s intentions with one’s own voice, most often in tandem with others, to form a single, unique, interdependent expression.

Musicians, no less than journalists, are charged with bearing witness to the present and cataloguing and interpreting it for future generations. Our local and global communities need the arts, to process the world around, interpret it, share it with society, and make it personal, and thus relevant. Our tradition desires active participants and not passive observers in our society at large.

Musicians, no less than scientists and entrepreneurs, are inventors and innovators who will bring us into the future.

A career in the arts, be it as an orchestral musician, composer, teacher, booking agent, recording engineer, executive director, or any other capacity, is to dedicate one’s self to this set of ideals: Steward, Witness, Innovator. Just as doctors, lawyers, or engineers hue to and are bound by professional codes – so too are we as part of the artistic community. And in my mind to be a professional in the performing arts is defined less by the remuneration one receives for their craft than by the fealty to which they adhere to the noble underpinnings of our profession. Our world with its unprecedented rate of change will not be kind to those that do not recognize and balance the responsibilities of being a steward, witness and innovator.

Much of our education and presentation of classical music focuses on great masters of the past: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Wagner – the list goes on. We do so with good reason, because the themes and the beauty of their works transcend time and cultures. The call to action that is before us all today – is to cultivate and disseminate the resonate themes of our time, that are relevant now and into posterity. And just as artists of the past used the media channels of their time, so must we use the mediums of our time – the web, smartphones and tablets, social media and video.

Last April, on a day’s notice via email, my childhood friends from Curtis and Marlboro who have gone on to found Brooklyn Rider and The Knights, played Mahler and Schubert at Chris Hondros’ funeral (some of his favorites). Over 2000 people attended the service in Brooklyn. Another 1000 watched for free on joining in from Libya to Baghdad, Bagram, Beirut, Berlin and Boston. Technology enabled this music of the past to be shared with an audience that needed to grieve together, and pay tribute to a great witness of the present. Sitting in my home watching on my laptop, I felt connected to new friends watching a world away, and was deeply comforted by the haunting melodies from the great composers of the past, played magically by my old dear friends.

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I found my “Dream Quartet” in an unexpected industry.

My love for string quartets drew me to the cello, or rather, it motivated me to practice. It isn’t just the repertoire – I was hooked by the music the first time I ever heard the early Guarneri recording of the Cavatina and Grosse Fuge. I love the idealist concept of a quartet, and the feeling of playing an individual voice that joins together with three other voices to form a single interdependent expression.   I also love the cellist’s role in a quartet, as it requires a multitude of skills.  At once the quartet cellist is the anchor, sometimes quietly without notice, sometimes with declarative strength, sometimes a supportive counterpart, yet at other times is the prominent, docile melody. I have taken great pride in seeking the seemingly unattainable perfection of a dream quartet.

I am incredibly fortunate to have had three rewarding, multi-year quartet experiences as a cellist. The first was throughout my middle school years in Columbus, Ohio at the Jefferson Academy of Music (our first violinist, Dr. Noa Kageyama is now a performance psychologist and has a fantastic site The second was our “Montagnana Quartet – an assigned quartet at the Curtis Institute which turned out to be unbelievably incredible and with some of my oldest and dearest friends (Soovin Kim, chamber musician, soloist and teacher extraordinaire; Nathan Cole, the new Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Burchard Tang, violist in the Philadelphia Orchestra). Lastly, in my early twenties I had the privilege of joining the American String Quartet in its 31st year.

I used to talk a lot with my teacher, a founding member of the Guarneri Quartet, David Soyer about what made a quartet function. He said the ideal quartet is like a strong, balanced, three-legged stool:

  1. You respect, trust, and are inspired by the playing of your colleagues.
  2. You really, really like them as people.
  3. You share the same core mission and business acumen.

The more stool legs you have, and the greater the strength of each of those legs, the more chance you will have for group success – in whatever way you define success.

I was giving an interview recently and was asked why I moved from a career as a cellist to the technology and business space. I was talking about our team which includes three amazing engineers with whom I work intimately, when it hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.  I work a LOT more now than I ever did when I was making my living as a cellist, but I feel more fulfilled by the work I am doing.  Why? I found my dream professional quartet in the most unexpected industry – with three engineers (our dev team as properly referred to) – Evan, Ross and Zach.

I have incredible respect for Evan, Ross and Zach’s work, their time, their talents, and their opinion.  I trust them implicitly. They operate with the highest integrity both personally and professionally. I like them.  They inspire me to work to the best of my ability each and every day.  We have a shared core compass to keep us true to our mission, vision and principles, yet we are flexible.   I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to communicate to our public audience the incredible products they create, and to sustain us as an organization.  They also allow me to be myself (lord knows not a walk-in-the-park) and realize my own strengths.  Perhaps stemming from my training as a cellist, but I enjoy the plethora of skills necessary for my current profession – as a supporter, equal team-member and prominent voice.

Like any quartet, we certainly have “heated discussions” and are all opinionated.  It has taken time to learn how to effectively communicate, how each of us works and processes information, and how to support each of us so that we may flourish independently and as a group. But I have only recently come to fully appreciate and put into perspective, how rare our team is.  Our partner and mentor Bill Stensrud fortunately recognized the potential we had individually and as a quartet, paired us and has let us find this out for ourselves.

Why I am I writing about this? Because the seemingly unobtainable goal of finding a dream quartet may present itself in one’s life in an unexpected way.  You may not even know the opportunity is before you, or that you have found your quartet.  What each of us does have is the opportunity to influence the strength and stability of the three-legged stool in our professional (and personal) lives and create environments that enable you and your colleagues to flourish.

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I remember when I used to remember phone numbers.

One of my dear friends, composer David Ludwig, was able to maintain the same phone number throughout multiple moves during conservatory and thereafter. For about fifteen years he had the same number. I still remember it. Now he does not have a home line. I can’t recall my own home number now, come to think of it. Before long, we won’t need to know a person’s number, just their name.

I graduated from Curtis Institute in 1999, had a Macintosh Classic, a large Nokia cellular phone, used AOL for all my email and web browsing, and had an agreement signed with myself, taped to my wall stating that I would not play Tetris for more than 4 hours a week to ensure my cello practicing was not deterred by frivolous activities. Things have changed a bit since I left school.

2000 – The first Flash Drive is released along with Bose Noise Canceling Headphones
2001 – Wikipedia goes live and the iPod is released
2002 – Friendster goes live and Google News launches with 4000 sources
2003 – MySpace launches
2004 – Facebook and Flickr go live
2005 – YouTube launches with an 18 second video filmed by a co-founder at the San Diego Zoo
2006 – Twitter goes live and Google Calendar is released
2007 – The first iPhone & the Amazon Kindle are released
2008 – Wifi is available on select aircraft in flight
2009 – YouTube serves 1 billion videos a day
2010 – iPad & iPhone 4 are released along with Google Translator, Facebook outpaces Google as the No. 1 Search for the first time

Today, 3 smartphones are activated every second. Teens in the United States send an average of 100 text-messages a day and consider calling to be rude. 60% of the United States population is on Facebook. Very soon people will access the internet via their mobile devices more than through a fixed internet connection. So, why does this matter to cellists who have enough on their plate trying to play Arpeggione in tune with expression or deal with getting the bulkhead seat on certain aircraft?

Because at the end of the day, we (musicians) don’t practice most of our lives to play for ourselves – we want to use our instrument as a vehicle to express the composer’s intentions and our interpretation of the music to connect with people. In 1999, if you had told me that I would leave a career as a cellist to become a tech entrepreneur I would have said you were insane. Technology has caused a lot of disruptive change for our field, and while it is causing some long-time revenue sources to crumble, technology is enabling incredible new opportunities for our field – as daunting as it may seem. Like learning any musical language, technology and entrepreneurism is a language that one can become fluent in without being an artistic sellout. It takes time, experience, practice, guidance, personal questioning, and out-of-the-box thinking, but getting started is essential because the rate of change that is our “New Reality” will not be kind to anything else.

I am currently obsessed with a little equation (this is as close I get to mathematics):

Music humanizes cultures. Technology is bringing together thousands of years of rich culture and democratizing access to art in ways that were previously unimaginable. I want to share a Thomas Freidman quote to start this dialogue:

“In today’s wired world, the most important economic competition is no longer between countries or companies. The most important economic competition is actually between you and your own imagination. Because what your kids imagine, they can now act on farther, faster, and cheaper than ever before – as individuals. Today just about everything is becoming a commodity, except imagination, except the ability to spark new ideas.”

As musicians, we practice and prepare ahead of a concert, so that we are free to take risks in a performance or audition setting. This skill set is incredibly powerful and when harnessed towards other mediums can be equally powerful and meaningful to the creator.

This is the first of my posts that is part of a new site launching for cellists – CelloBello – thanks to the incredible cellist, teacher and leader, Paul Katz. I am honored to be a part of CelloBello and thank Paul for including me in this valuable platform. I hope to share my experiences as part of cutting-edge tech initiatives with the arts and to engage in a dialogue with artists about what it means to be a 21st Century Performer and Arts Ambassador.

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OPERA America Conference Presentation

It was a pleasure to speak at the OPERA America Conference this June in Los Angeles. I am sharing my slides from the presentation here. The objective was to look at –

1) What is digital media and why does it matter?
2) Designing a digital strategy
3) Going mobile! Creating a mobile application plan with a look at the LA Opera iPhone App.

Sharing the day with Ling Chan of Vancouver Opera, Ceci Dadisman of Palm Beach Opera, and consultant Marc van Bree was completely inspiring. Each is doing amazing, creative things and it was really fun to connect with this great group.

Hope everyone is enjoying a productive and rewarding summer thus far!

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League of American Orchestras Conference – Creating a Digital Strategy

It was wonderful to be a part of the League of American Orchestras Conference in Atlanta, June 15-19. I had the pleasure of doing a few sessions on digital media. My objective was to:
1) Start a discussion
2) Share what some incredible organizations are doing with limited staff and resources
3) Offer an approach for creating a practical, creative, affordable, time-saving digital plan to connect with fans, anywhere, anytime.

It was wonderful to collaborate with friends and colleagues for the sessions, so a huge thank you to Vince Ford of the New York Philharmonic, Mark Newman of the Indianapolis Symphony, and Ari Solotoff of the Philadelphia Orchestra. for joining me. I wanted to share the slides from the Digital Strategy session Vince, Ari and myself did for Executive Directors and Marketing Groups 3-8. The goal was to discuss practical approaches to creating a digital plan to produce and publish content that does not break the bank! We featured activities of the Portland Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, New York Philharmonic and called on folks in the audience to share their Facebook pages for an impromptu look at their strategy….thanks to South Carolina Symphony for joining in the fun — they are doing an awesome job!

The Slide Agenda:
– Quick overview about Digital Media – What is it, Where does it go, Who is online?
– Survey Responses from the EDs
– Creating a Social Media Plan! Vince & the NYPhil Twitter Shared document approach
– Creating a Digital Plan
– Getting Performance Rights Right
– Case Studies!
– Portland Symphony Orchestra 0-100mph in 4 months
– Indianapolis Symphony – A Digital Leader – iPhone App Walk-through
-Return on Investment

Digital media is an ongoing process, not a one-off event. And one size does not fit all. But most importantly, technology should be working for you! Take what you are already doing and re-purpose your content. The personal feedback from fans around the world via the internet reminds me why we are all trying to figure out how to connect with the 21st Century audience.

Thanks so much, Margo

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