Classical Music Buzz > Choral Music Never Had It So Good
Choral Music Never Had It So Good
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Funny how the world works.  When I tell people that Octarium is in its final full season, the first response is usually an understanding nod and the question, “Artistic differences?”

And it just makes me laugh.  Because the answer is, “Yes, we have artistic differences.  All the time.  But that’s not why we’re ending.  That’s why we began.”

Over the past ten years, I’ve had the privilege of working with 18 fantastic singers and fantastic human beings;  Ty Abrahamson, Michael Coakley, Andrea Coleman, J. Seth Farrow, Andrew Graves, Leah Hamilton, Megan Helm, Kate Lohmann, Shannon Marsh, Jason Parr, Lucas Pherigo, Brady Shepherd, Renee Stanley, Jaime Tanner, Jay Van Blaricum, Amy Waldron, Ashley Winters and Benjamin Winters.  Each of those individuals brings their time, talent and artistic treasure to the table when we sing.   They also bring their opinions and their choral baggage.  And the balance between all of the artistic treasure and the choral baggage is what makes Octarium special.  The founding eight and I worked together to find a relationship that became the sustainable format for our ten years; what we call a “Democratic Dictatorship.”

And it wasn’t easy. There were disagreements (we call it “disagreeance”).  And fights, even.  But there were also moments of discovery of a surprising and sublime level of choral teamwork that we began call “musical synergy.”  It was those sublime moments of synergy we tried to build on.

We weren’t always successful but we succeeded enough that now, ten years later, Octarium is considered a force in choral music world.

But building it was hard enough that considering starting over, with new singers, as I would have had to inevitably do eventually, was daunting.

See, when I first started Octarium, all the singers lived in the Kansas City area and were young, poor college students. I could get them to come sing anywhere, anytime, for three nickels and a sandwich. And an occasional donut.  Now they are in their early 30s and their priorities have changed; they are lawyers and CPAs and bankers and opera singers and arts administrators and nurses and teachers.  They are having families.  Some live on the west coast.  Some on the east.  Three nickels and a sandwich doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

I’ve always felt kind of bad for harpists because they have to lug that huge instrument around but my instrument is 8 human beings with dietary restrictions, the propensity for motion sickness and busy schedules.  The harp is looking better and better.

Currently, Octarium has a core of 12 regular singers but, even with 4 extra singers, it’s hard to gather a quorum for performances, particularly performances that require in-depth rehearsal.  That’s why the holiday concerts are easier than most; we have a deep repertoire of holiday music and, for the most part, any combination of the 12 I have can pull a holiday concert together in one or two rehearsals because most of them have sung most of the music before.  But we can’t learn new repertoire or do big projects like Art Local or Should Have Been Choral or Masstiche in three days.

About five years ago, I decided to stop auditioning new singers.  My current singers were still engaged, still passionate, but I could see the writing on the wall.  Eventually, we either had to be all in if we were going to take Octarium to the next level, whatever that next level might be.  And none of us, including me, were all in.  Many of us had families to support by then, so we needed jobs with a reliable income.  And Octarium wasn’t that.  As wonderful as it has been, it’s never been financially sustainable.  So as I started to struggle to bring together a group of eight to find the musical synergy in piles of new repertoire, I made a decision; I’ll take Octarium as far as it can go with the singers I currently have.  I knew I was putting a shelf life on the group when I made that decision.  No one really wants to scale back but no one, including myself, can make the kind of life commitment it would take to continue to grow.  I cannot pay any of us enough to leave our law firms and our banks and our families to sing full time.  So we scale back.

Putting together this final concert serves to prove I’ve made the right decision.  Because of work schedules and new babies, we will have one rehearsal before we trot this concert out to our listening public.  One rehearsal.  One.  Who does that?  We do.  We have to.  The other choice is not singing at all.  And that’s not really an option.

I keep saying we’ll be like Cher and Brett Favre.  We’ll “retire” in quotes.  And that’s true.  We’ll sing holiday concerts for at least the next four years.  I still have a couple of recording project ideas rattling around in my brain, plus a project that is in process right now but not yet done.  I also have a couple of live performance projects I’d really like to make work in the next five years.  We’ll see if I can leverage enough funding to be able to compensate the singers to make it happen.

So it’s the end.  But not the end.  We’ll be around.

Krista Lang Blackwood, Artistic Director

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5 years ago |
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As a singer in Octarium, preparation for Art Local has been both exciting and troublesome. There really is nothing better in our Octari-world than learning new music, which “forces” us to spend hours and hours with nine of the people that we love most. On the flip side, however, there really is nothing worse in our world than learning new music, frankly, because it’s really hard, and this program is, umm, “challenging”.

After the first weekend of rehearsals, fear was the overarching emotion. Fear that so much of the music wasn’t, at first glance, “Octarium-esque”. All the pieces were epic undertakings (we assume all the composers decided to give us their “best shot,” I mean who writes a choral soprano range from a low G to a high C???, and is that extended technique? We don’t do extended technique!) And, most challenging, how were we going to market this program. The only unifying threads were that the music is new and composed by people that live within a 25-mile radius of KC. No common theme in the poetry, genre, or styles, no story to tell, no programmable program for which Krista is rightly renowned. We kicked around ideas about marketing to area choral professionals (“come hear and pick a piece to take back to your own choir!”), composition students at the area schools (education, education, education!), but what about our faithful fans? Just warn that this wasn’t going to be the typical Octarium concert? This troubling question set me, as is my nature, to brooding, this time about how to make this concert relevant and exciting for everyone.

Like most musicians, I tend to have a soundtrack playing in my head at all times. A few weeks ago, whilst making beds, I was noodling through some Britten, comparing it to Faure’s Requiem and then to Mozart’s C Minor Mass. Then thunder struck when I realized, it’s all “art local”. At one point in time, every work we now call a masterpiece was ART LOCAL.

Prior to the invention of the recording industry and easy score publishing, people experienced brand new music regularly, mostly because that was the only way to experience any music. Patrons, for a variety of reasons, commissioned music and then would host a party or underwrite a concert. The composer would come play or conduct and the result was the new Mozart piano concerto or Beethoven symphony or Handel concerto grosso would be the talk of proverbial water cooler for the next several weeks. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like to be in the audience the first time Chopin’s nocturnes were played, or to be sitting in church hearing the kapelmeister’s version of O Sacred Head Now Wounded? Granted, it’s probably naive to believe that most music performed at that time was “new”, but there was a huge culture of new musical creation and it was all LOCAL. Cities took pride in and promoted their local talent, and people from all walks of life flocked to cities like Vienna, Mannheim and Paris, among others, to experience and participate in what was happening. ART LOCAL grew communities, enriched city coffers, and gave us, today, those “masterpieces” that most folks would drop serious cash on to see performed at the Kauffman.

So I’ve come to realize that our initial fears were unfounded. First of all, lest you worry, the music is all very “Octarium-esque”. There are thrilling and amazing moments (yes, the high C is one of them), and the gorgeous harmonies that you love to wrap yourself in are numerous. The collaboration with the composers has been amazing. The amount of personal investment by each singer is unprecedented. If for no other reason, you should come because it is simply going to be a great concert. I believe, however, that we can give you more than just a great concert. We encourage you, our faithful and ever supportive fans and audience to be a part of Octarium’s and Kansas City’s history. Octarium’s Art Local project is about as unique a presentation in the 21st century as you can find. This is an opportunity to grow our community, to enrich our lives, to take pride in your ART LOCAL.

P.S.- Bring a friend!

– Ashley Winters, soprano and founding member of Octarium

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March 2, 2012
The State of Choral Music in an American Idol Age; A panel discussion with Art Local composers

Join Octarium Artistic Director and composers Rich Campbell, Ian Coleman, Robert Pherigo and Ingrid Stolzel for a lively discussion.  Octarium will be in residence performing parts of the Art Local program.  You don’t want to miss this very special look inside the Art Local process.

Kansas City Public Library
Central Branch
14 West 10th Street?Kansas City, MO 64105
6:30 p.m.
RSVP here (space is limited)

March 3, 2012
Art Local - The Concert

The current locavore trend encourages us to eat local, not only to support our local economies but to enjoy food that is fresh. With that in mind, we should also art local; support art being created in your own backyard; fresh art, new music. Octarium has commissioned four new unaccompanied choral works from local composers, as well as sponsored two student composer competitions and worked with two composer interns from local colleges.   Come hear the fruit of our labor and the home-grown music!

Community Christian Church
4601 Main St
Kansas City, MO 64112
7:30 p.m.
Tickets Online

6 years ago |
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(this blog was originally published in December 2010; updated in November 2011)

William J. Bratton got a lot of press in the mid-90s for his unconventional ideas about how to revive blighted areas. One of the main theories he implemented was Broken Windows; if one window is broken, more will be. Blight begets blight. Minor blight escalates to major blight. But if the minor blight is fixed, the major blight never happens. If the broken window is fixed, and kept clean, more broken windows will be fixed and kept clean.

This theory has, of course, been revered and reviled both. But it makes sense to me; the messier your house is, the messier it gets. It’s easier to consider not cleaning when there’s too much to clean. The more dirty and disorganized a home becomes, the easier it is to begin to live with it and not notice it. Until relatives are arriving for the holidays; then, suddenly, you see your house through their eyes. Then you roll up your sleeves, get to work, and promise never to let things go that far again.

Figurative Broken Windows. We have a lot of them in Kansas City. And the most glaring of them reside on the street that palpably divides our city; Troost Avenue.

The history of Troost Avenue is a long and interesting one. Named for a Dutch slave owner, the area was an Osage Indian trail, then a 365-acre slave plantation, then an upscale residential area, then a thriving business district flanked by lavish neighborhoods inhabited by the city’s most wealthy and influential residents. Then in the late 1890s, a real-estate boom and bust allowed African-Americans to obtain property more easily and white flight slowly began. I have a map in my home of the 1917 plans for development of “The Country Club District,” the area between Belinder on the west, Brookside Boulevard on the east, Meyer Boulevard on the south and Brush Creek on the north. This area cuddles right up to Troost. And it is described on this map, designed to lure buyers, as “1,500 Acres Restricted.” The advertising blurb at the bottom of the map boasts of the “…comprehensive restrictions safeguarding the permanence and desirability of your surroundings…” Just one example of the exodus. By the 1950s, the Troost area was mostly inhabited by wealthy blacks. Then MLK’s assassination and the subsequent race riots caused many of them to leave and thus cemented Troost Avenue as a racial dividing line.

There is much on Troost Avenue to be celebrated and restored. The neighborhoods are still beautiful. Or have the potential to be. The churches, if repopulated by congregations, could evoke powerful good change. Once hubs of neighborhood community, many of Troost’s churches now lie in disrepair, as does much of the infrastructure along the avenue.

Enter Durwin Rice, who, in 2006, founded Tulips on Troost. Rice’s organization works to change the face of Troost Avenue by engaging in a Broken Windows activity; planting one million tulips along the street. Rice hopes that simple flowers, in honor of the Dutch doctor who gave the avenue his name, will inspire and motivate the citizens of Kansas City to recognize the value of neighborhood revitalization and beautification of Troost and other areas. For Rice, tulips are just the beginning—the deep-rooted goal is to use a beautiful, accessible thing like a tulip to represent positive change on Troost and to let the city know that Troost is worth time, efforts, and resources. In 2010, Rice formed a committee, named it Friends of St. Mark, and organized a concert; a Lessons and Carols service nestled comfortably into one of the once beautiful neighborhood churches that now struggle to make repairs and stay open for the community; St. Mark Lutheran Church at 3800 Troost. Octarium brought its beautiful choral music to this service, free of charge. All proceeds benefited the church.

In the year since that concert, St. Mark Lutheran Church has grown from only 12­ active parishioners worshiping with a lay pastor to almost 100 active parishioners worshiping with their new, permanent pastor, the Rev. Donna Simon. Renamed “St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran,” the church is increasingly active in the community. While not the sole credit, the Lessons and Carols service performed by Octarium in 2010 was certainly a catalyst to a very successful collaboration between a multi-denominational community and a Central States Synod who all recognized the importance of preserving Kansas City’s architectural treasures, churches and her historic communities.

So what do Choral Music and Tulips have in comming?  Both are a beautiful, accessible thing that can represent, and even create, positive change in our world.

This is a service not to be missed.  December 11, 2011.  3800 Troost Avenue.  3pm.    Buy your tickets online today.

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6 years ago |
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I’m vlogging this year for Polyphonic On Campus, a website run by the Eastman School of Music with the mission of “enhancing the professional development and broadening the perspectives of young musicians.”  One of the website’s main stated goals is “to encourage musicians to learn skills, obtain insights, and participate in a learning community with their peers, which will enable them to become more involved, contributing, and effective stakeholders in the musical world.”

So every two weeks, I am charged with uploading a video of me waxing eloquent about something I think might be important for young musicians to know.

Which puts me in a really good frame of mind for reflecting on my artistic past and planning my artistic future.   My next vlog, which will be posted around September 15th, will contain nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned over my 25 years as a performing artist, teacher, arts administrator, impressario, producer and lover of arts.   Here they are in a nutshell.

Continue to seek out learning moments after you finish your formal education. Most of what I know now I did not learn in school.    Near the end of his life, Michelangelo drew a a sketch of an old man and scribbled “Ancora Imparoin the margin; loosely translated, I am still learning.”  Make that your mantra.

You can always learn something from someone else.  And keep in mind that sometimes you learn more from someone who is doing it wrong than from someone who is doing it right.  Learning what not to do can be as instructive as learning what to do.

Don’t piss people off on your way up the ladder.  Be strong, be opinionated, be passionate.  But be open-minded, collaborative and patient, too.  We often don’t realize that the ladder is actually horizontal and we’re going to run into these people again.  Cultivate your relationships because they can benefit you later.  Or bite you in the nether-regions.  Which they do is up to you.

Remember that there is always someone in the audience who knows the difference.  And there’s always someone in the audience hearing it for the first time.  It is never o.k. to phone it in and give a lack-luster performance.  Never.  Whether there be five or five thousand, the audience deserve your best.

You are a living, breathing, walking, talking advocate for the arts.  Watch what you say and how you say it because someone is always listening.

Keep your promises and do what you say you would do better than they thought you could do it.  Be reliable.

Always question and evaluate what it means to be an artist.  Being an artist sometimes often means doing menial tasks;  it isn’t all going to be transcendent.  But those transcendent moments make the menial tasks worth it.

Of course, this isn’t advice just for young musicians.  I am far from young but I am still learning, obtaining insights, and participating in a learning community with my peers.  So should you.  So should we all, whether we be ninteen or ninety-nine.  So this is advice for us all to live daily.

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7 years ago |
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Is she STILL talking about that convention?

Yeah.  I sure am.

So there I was on a beautiful June afternoon in San Diego, sitting inside at a session called “The pARTnership Movement.”  I tore my eyes away from the window and tried to pay attention as the President of ArtsMemphis described their relationship with AutoZone;  and the presentation got me.  I stopped looking out the window and started listening.  The pARTnership was a match made in heaven.  Then the gentleman from AutoZone gave a presentation.  And it became clear that he, as an individual, didn’t have much appreciation for the arts.  His title, Vice-President of Government and Community Relations, belied the priorities assigned to him as a representative of AutoZone; a big net of which the arts is necessarily only a small portion.   His comments about not attending arts events gave clues to his priorities as a person; his tastes lie elsewhere.

There was some palpable grumbling in the room as this southern gentleman with one of the most resonant speaking voices I’ve ever heard (someone should have gotten him singing when he was 13 … but I digress) dropped inadvertent hints about the arts not being his only priority.  He said things as awful as “It’s not about the arts; it’s about our bottom line.  I may not attend the ballet but when AutoZone is trying to hire quality people, the town’s cultural footprint is important in attracting the right kind of people.”  In short, “I don’t really care about the arts themselves;  I only use them as a tool to make sure we get quality employees.”

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

But wait.  Why is that so bad?  It’s something we don’t talk about near enough these days;  the arts as a quality of life issue.

We’re so busy tap-dancing around trying to draw up pie charts about the direct economic impact of the arts that we often forget about the stronger argument;  the arts and their indirect impact on the economy.  We should concentrate more on the arts as a tool for creating quality of life;  good schools, good public transportation, safe streets, a lively arts scene, trash pick-up, recycling.   All of those things, in combination, makes for a vibrant community.  And a vibrant community attracts vibrant people.  Who make it more vibrant.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Would we grumble loudly if the government decided to stop picking up our trash?  Damn straight we would.  It’s a quality of life issue.  What if the government stopped funding our schools?  We’d be upset,  even if we didn’t have school-aged children, because the quality of life in our community is at stake.   It’s the same with the arts.  I may not go to the ballet but I know that it contributes immeasurably to our culture in Kansas City.  So why do we even give credence when people insist that the arts are not in the same category as schools and cops and trash pickup with regards to government funding?

But that’s delving into the political.  And we all know I never, NEVER, do that.

So let’s get personal.  We get so angry when people won’t fund our art.  Right?  We make the ask and we are denied.  And there’s anger.  And resentment.  And righteous indignation.  But think of it this way;  you’re only mad because you’re trying to be a cog in a capitalist machine;  money means value.  If you give me money, you value my art.   If you don’t, you don’t.

But is that really true?  Sure, sometimes people don’t value YOUR art.  But they still give money to THE ARTS.  Think of Auto Zone;  the priority is always their financial bottom line.  But they see the value of the arts and they are willing to pay for them.

However, a group like Octarium isn’t a big symphony or a big opera company or a big art museum.  In the realm of Chamber of Commerce marketing, we are small fry.  Ergo, big companies would not likely pARTner with us.  THE ARTS is often funded when Octarium is not.

And that’s ok because we still create a wonderful product without big-time funding.  One that is remarkably more popular outside our home base of Kansas City than it is within the city limits because Kansas City won’t use Octarium in its promotional materials until we can become useful to them;  we won’t be in the brochures or the presentations because our presence isn’t economically-defendable in those larger terms that politicians and businessmen like to talk about.

And that’s ok, too.  It’s to be expected, really.  But we, like many other small arts nonprofits, are a part of the mosaic of the Kansas City arts and if one tile is missing, the mosaic is incomplete.  Think of a car;  it has a transmission, a radiator and a battery.   It won’t run without those big pieces.  But it also won’t run without tiny spark plugs and fan belts and transmission fluid.  Octarium is an artistic fan belt in the Kansas City mosaic of arts and culture, mixed metaphor notwithstanding.  Octarium is a small part of what makes the artistic engine of Kansas City run.  Though we cannot compete with the opera and the ballet and the symphony on levels of community impact, the arts culture in Kansas City would be less diverse, and much less interesting, without us and other small arts nonprofits like us.  Kansas City just wouldn’t run as well without fan belts.

So when you’re defending THE ARTS in your community, remember groups like Octarium.  We’re small but we’re mighty.  And the car won’t start without us.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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I have written many posts about arts funding and even created a couple of extremely popular xtra-normal videos expressing the woes, and inherent humor, of raising money for the arts.

What I haven’t done is make it personal; make it about the individual artists.  In this blog entry I dipped my toe into the personal but chose not to go very far with the idea.

But when Ben Cameron spoke at the Americans for the Arts National Convention, he uttered the phrase, “we need to give our artists economic dignity.”  And a light went on.

One chooses a life in the arts because one is driven by a desire to create beauty, or poke fun, or make philosophical points through art.  But should one be financially punished for this choice?  I am a wife and a mother.  I’m also an artist.  I should be able to create my art AND feed my family.  Right?

Well, too often, I cannot do both.  The term “starving artist” is almost a badge of honor in many circles.  Thinking of artists as bohemians who care nothing for those basic needs on Maslow’s pyramid may be romantic but it’s also highly inaccurate.  We need to eat.  We need homes.  We need to feel safe.  And if we can’t fulfill those basic needs through the creation of our art, eventually we burn out and abandon it, and then the world misses what could have been created because we’re now working in cubicles doing data entry so we can afford insurance and swimming lessons for our children.

So we artists cast about for ways to make art “valuable.”  We play the pie graph game and talk big about how the arts are economic drivers, and throw about terms like “return on investment” and “job creation.”

That’s all well and good but don’t make us spend more time justifying our art using economic variables than we spend actually making our art.  Octarium isn’t about numbers;  it’s about music.  The overall effect of good music on our society and culture is something that cannot be drawn on a pie graph.  It’s like trying to measure why we love someone using formulas on an Excel spreadsheet.  Art, like love, cannot really be measured.  And if we can’t measure something, we can’t put a price on it.

But does that mean it doesn’t have value?

Heavens, I hope not.  So what it really comes down to is deciding to value artists enough to truly value them; to give them economic dignity.  Ben Cameron works for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, an institution founded with the mission to devote all its energies to the “care of actors, singers, dancers and musicians in the presentation and performance of their work.”  For most people this translates to “make sure the art is financed.”  But it should translate to “make sure the PEOPLE are financed.”  Because people make art.  And people won’t make art if they don’t have anything to eat.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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I attended the Americans for the Arts convention in San Diego last week mostly to listen to the conversation and get my finger on the pulse of the state of the arts in the United States.  I came away from the conference with many thoughts, lots of ideas, some angst, some anger, some inspiration, some astonishment and somewhat overwhelmed.

I promised I’d blog about it but I don’t think it would behoove me, or you, to try to encapsulate the whole experience into one blog;  you’d need caffeine and I’d get writers cramp.  So I’ll break it down and start at the end;  the closing keynote.

The word “keynote” comes from unaccompanied singing; because singers don’t have buttons to push, someone has to give pitch to determine the key in which the group will sing,  hence the “key note” played before the performance.  The use of the term “keynote” for conventions and conferences implies that the opening speech will set the stage, so to speak;  it will summarize the ideals of the convention and lay the framework for the core message of the gathering.  So a closing keynote?  Does that imply that we need to check back with ourselves and make sure we didn’t wander too far away from the original key?  That we didn’t get so excited that we started to sing sharp?  Or so disgruntled and discouraged that we began to sing flat? Or that the piece was such a mess that no one could save it and we stopped singing all-together and had to start over?

Perhaps all of the above, particularly in this case.  The closing speaker, the guy tasked to blow pitch for us to see how far away from our entry-ideals we had wandered and to charge us to go home humming in the right key, was Ben Cameron.  Mr. Cameron is the Program Director at the  Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, where he supervises a $13 million grants program aimed at the theatre, contemporary dance, jazz and presenting fields.  He wore jazzy shoes and infused his speech with an energy that other speakers could not muster.

His speech, his closing keynote, was so sound-bite worthy that it could be broken down into multiple blog entries but I’ll start with a quickly-told anecdote Mr. Cameron imparted, at top speed, during the question-and-answer session.

Mr. Cameron used to work for Target and tells the story of one of their training sessions;  each person is asked to find a partner and stare at him for sixty seconds.  Then each person turns his back on his partner and changes three things about his appearance.  When people turn to face their partners again, the task is to determine what has changed about your partner.  Then each person is told to repeat the exercise and change 5 more things.  Then 10 more things.  Then 20 more things.  Then, when it’s over, they sit back down to discuss.

The lessons in this exercise are manifest;  people resist change (invariably, when asked to change the ten more things, someone says, “DO YOU WANT ME TO STRIP?”) When the exercise is over, everyone works hard to return to normal; put the watch back on, the tie, the high heels, the bracelets.

But the most important lesson was that change inspires people to become competitive.  The first thing each person did when they turned their backs on their partners was try to stump them;  what can I change that she won’t notice?  How can I stick it to her?   The participants, not knowing the end purpose of the exercise, tried to win.

And they didn’t work together.  When it got to the “change 20 things” people mostly stood there, stumped.  Often no one thought to cross the room and borrow someone else’s tie or shoes or watch and, likewise, give his tie, shoes or watch to someone else. Usually people didn’t think to put their shoes on their head or their socks on their hands.

So change becomes competitive;  not collaborative.  And the threat of overwhelming change causes creativity to disappear.

I find it interesting that artists, ostensibly creative persons, react similarly to change;  even at this convention, new ideas were often met with bristling, fuddy-duddy reactions (the word “no” or the phrase “it will never work, don’t even try”) so much so that a person who described himself as an “emerging leader” got up during the closing forum and told the already “emerged” leaders to get out of the way.  Certainly, change for change’s sake only is never good and emerging leaders sometimes shake things up just to have something to do.  But, on the other hand, change can be wonderful and inspiring and give new life to old ideas.  But change needs many things to succeed; not only a sense of energy but also a logical purpose and quantifiable goal, as well as a thoughtful and responsible plan of action (yes, I may be a fuddy-duddy but don’t tell).

However, change can make us insular, competitive and territorial.  It can highlight our failures, make us defensive and throw us into preventative mode rather than collaborative mode.

Imagine a small vocal ensemble wandering collaboratively a half-step flat; change, right? An artistically undesirable change, granted, but change nonetheless.  Now imagine one person in the ensemble fighting that change actively;  stubbornly staying in the original key while the rest of the group goes abroad.  The result?  Cacophony.  Yes, that person was right in the end but what did fighting do?  It ruined the performance. Had that person given his talent to the change rather than fighting against the change, the performance would have been saved.  It would not have been perfect but it would have still delighted most of the audience, for whom a half-step is entirely unnoticeable.

Then there’s the person, we all know her, that lady in the alto section, who starts stomping her foot on the risers when the tempo is too slow.  This is not collaborative.  This is dictatorial.  And extremely annoying.

Now I’m sure some of you are thinking “she wants us to just lay down and go along with change; be thoughtless automatons who are so collaborative that we don’t assert our own identities.”  No.  That’s not what I’m saying.   Sometimes we are confronted with change that we cannot immediately control and being collaborative, rather than preventative, is the better choice.   Like in that performance when your fellow singers are wandering out of key;  you may fight it for a while but there comes a point that fighting will only make it worse and winning becomes not singing the right notes with pitch-accuracy but working to create a performance that resonates despite its flaws.  After all, there’s more to music than being in the right key and singing accurate pitches;  some of Octarium’s best, most heart-felt performances, have been in the wrong key with wrong notes.  But don’t tell.

Out of all the arts, unaccompanied vocal singing without a conductor may be the most collaborative; it doesn’t work unless the singers cooperate with one another.  The individual singers don’t try to win; they work for the greater good of the ensemble.  There are lessons to be learned here that are applicable not only in the arts but in politics and business as well.  Don’t try to win; collaborate so that we all can win.  Hum together.  In the same key.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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This week, Kansas governor Sam Brownback won his fight against government supported arts by executing the Kansas Arts Commission with a budgetary line-item veto. “The arts will continue to thrive in Kansas when funded by private donations, and I intend to personally involve myself in efforts to make this happen,” Brownback said.

I could argue and argue the merits of government funding of the arts. Of course, I HAVE argued and argued the merits in this very blog. But the writing is on the wall. Brownback sees Kansas as a trend-setter and fully expects other states to follow suit.

We can waste time until the end of time arguing about this. But that’s not what I want to do in this blog. This blog is about “What Now?” What do arts nonprofits do in the face of situations like Brownback and Kansas?

We use our creativity to find more ways, better ways, to finance our art.

And we depend more on you.

Seems like Brownback gave you the shaft, huh?

But just as Brownback has pledged to personally involve himself in making sure the arts survive, so should you.

And here’s yet another way to do it.  An easy way.   Sooo easy.

First, a personal question; how much money did you spend today? You don’t really need to answer but let’s say you got a cup of coffee for $3.50, bought lunch for $18.25 and then picked up a new pair of shoes on the way home for $58.60.

What if you could round up each of those purchases to the nearest dollar, and donate the spare change to Octarium?

Well, you can. Our newest partner SwipeGood allows you to do just that: maximize your loose change for a good cause, helping the nonprofit arts survive. And while the resulting $1.15 from today’s purchases might now sound like a little, it adds up to over $20 in donations over the course of the month - without any extra work on your part.

All you have to do is go to our page on SwipeGood and sign up your credit or debit card. SwipeGood rounds up your purchases to the next dollar, and lets you donate the change to Octarium. You can even cap your monthly donations, so you are in complete control of the amount of money you donate each month.

How good will it feel to go about your every day shopping knowing that each purchase you make helps the arts survive?

So what are you waiting for?

So follow Brownback’s lead; personally involve yourself. Learn more, enroll your credit or debit card today and change the world around you, one purchase at a time.

Donate to Octarium via SwipeGood

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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Yesterday, many of my Facebook and Twitter contacts posted the following video;

An impassioned plea. And a mostly well-stated one; except for that Churchill quote, which is almost surely a falsification.  And now bloggers are posting that Spacey made it up, though he is not the source; I heard it a over year ago, thought it too good to be true and did some research. In the version I heard, Churchill was being briefed by the Direc­tor of the National Gallery, Ken­neth Clark, who sug­gested that the paint­ings in the National Gallery be sent from Lon­don to Canada. Churchill stated his opposition emphat­i­cally; “If we’re not fighting for this, what are we fighting for?”

Except he didn’t say that. He actually said, on this particular occasion, “No, bury them in caves and cellars­. None must go. We are going to beat them.”

In the version of the story Spacey told on MSNBC, Churchill’s emphatic support of the arts came when it was suggested that England cut arts funding to free up monies to support the war effort. This version is wholly undocumented.

So when you google “Kevin Spacey, Arts Funding, Churchill” the video that gets top billing is entitled, “Actor Kevin Spacey Makes Up Churchill Quote To Demand Tax Payer $ For Arts.”

And this is a damn shame. Because now Spacey’s statements supporting the arts have a taint; Lincoln was a devoted theater-goer, a dollar spent on the arts provides a remarkably healthy return on investment, we ought to be as patriotic about our arts as we are about other aspects of American life, countries may go to war but culture unites us as a human race.

Poof.  Points well-made lost because of an erroneous Churchill quote.

We have to be careful as we fight for the arts. We have to be logical and calm, emphatic but not judgmental, reasonable but passionate. We have to check our facts.   We can’t just preach to the choir;  we must find a way to resonate with those folks not in the choir.  And get them to join the choir.

And we have to watch how we quote. I use quotes to highlight support for the arts all the time on Facebook and Twitter. They are a fine tool for our sound bite society. They put large ideas into few words and then give those ideas integrity through attribution to a respected historical figure. But quotes can also be twisted all out of proportion.

Some time ago, I wrote the following in my personal blog;

Buzzword propaganda never gives us the whole story. Obviously. But the media caters to our hunger for abbreviation and gives us buzzword propaganda instead of news. And though we might think that this is a recent development (and, certainly, it has gotten more epidemic with the onset of 24-hour news channels and web-based news), I would guess that, since the dawn of human communication, purveyors of news have understood that people crave easy answers and condensed digests of simplicity rather than the cluttered aggregate of reality that would leave us free to form our own opinions. Thomas Jefferson said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

And I just did what I’m railing against; I quoted Jefferson and made him support my point. Propaganda. It turns out that I can make Jefferson support a variety of different ideas.

Jefferson is a Liberal
“Aristocrats fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society.”

Jefferson is a Conservative
“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

Jefferson is an Atheist
“Question with boldness even the existence of God”

Jefferson is a Spiritualist
“Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”

Jefferson is a true follower of Jesus
“Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus Christ] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence…”

In every one of these instances, we’re missing context. And context changes meaning.  Kate Walbert, in her novel A Short History of Women, wrote, “Conversation is now just approximations of opinions adopted from other opinions that were approximations of opinions, etcetera, etcetera. I’m just trying to be real when everything is an approximation.”

When we’re arguing for the arts, let us argue with context.  Let us argue with thought and research and facts.  Let us argue with passion and heart and soul.  Let us argue with our own ideas.  Our own beliefs.

Let us be real in a world of approximation.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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In January, I read about something called Kickstarter in the New York Times;  a website that presents a way for artists, designers and musicians to scare up financial support for their work. I went to the Kickstarter website immediately and applied to submit a project. My project was accepted a day later.  A week later, I had a project page up and running.  Then I sat back and watched the pledges come in.

And it was easy. I posted periodically on Facebook and Twitter and sent two email blasts to my mailing list. I found a matching donor whose presence inspired a flurry of giving. And as we neared our target, the flurry increased. We’re fully funded and still getting pledges.

Why does Kickstarter work so well?

Several reasons, really. One is the reward system. Kickstarter encourages project creators to give donors something of value for each level of giving. And they’re not talking about a $25 coffee mug or a $100 tote bag.   Something of real value to the donor. Octarium rewards donors with CDs at each level of giving. While this might seem like an even exchange, the fact that fully 75% of our music sales are now digital makes our physical CDs a perfect gift;  it’s cheaper to order them in quantities of 1,000 so we always have extras lying around.  CDs, then, are a perfect fit with the idea that donor-nonprofit exchanges should be a mix of commerce and patronage; a project backer should get something (a product, an experience, access, etc) in exchange for the pledge.

Another reason Kickstarter works is its emphasis on crowd-funding; lots of people pledging in small amounts can lift a project off the ground. As Kickstarter states in its FAQ; “Small amounts are where it’s at: 83% of successfully funded projects have a reward priced at less than $20. It’s not about hunting whales, it’s about amassing support.” I have written about this same idea several times in this blog; exponential growth in giving. Lots of people giving small amounts equals a game-changing amassing of funds.

But then there were many folks who pledged for no reward;  they just pledged.  These people are inspired by being in on the ground floor of something exciting.  Supporting art as it is born.  Being in the in-crowd of an idea that intrigues and inspires.  Knowing that the project will come to fruition, in part, because of their pledge.  Ownership.  Pride.

And by golly if it doesn’t work;  we got the game-changing funds.  Huzzah!   But we also got something else;  support.  Not monetary support.  But just plain old “we’re behind you” support.  The first FAQ answer on Kickstarter is this:


Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative projects.

We believe that:

• A good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide.

• A large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement

I read this before I launched the project and admit that I blew it off.  But as the project became funded, the amount of money tallying in the total became less important to me than the tally of the number of backers;  the “encouragement.”  Sure, the money is important.  Without the money, we couldn’t do what we plan to do.  But the feeling that people out there are excited enough about this project, and about Octarium, to take the time to pledge became equally as important as the campaign progressed.

And all of this feeds into my previously-stated ideas about giving but adds a new angle;  lots of folks giving in small amounts provides exponential financial support, absolutely.  But this model also provides a tangible source of encouragement.   An implicit pat on the back.  A “keep on keeping on.”

And in the end, that’s as important as the money.

We have less than 60 or so hours left in our Art Local Kickstarter campaign.  You can give us a “keep on keeping on” pledge by clicking on the box below. And thank you for your support. And encouragement.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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7 years ago |
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