Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Good Life: Creating Pikes Falls Chamber Music

Susanna Loewy

Every so often, I say I'm going to quit.

Things aren't working out, it seems. Take the auditions and advance to the next round or don't, but that isn't even really the point. The problem: the process, for me, has become entirely too negative, too self-deprecating. Music is a large part of my identity, and when that identity continually gets hit over the head with a hammer, well... eventually you just want to move out of the way.

I should know by now though, that I'm not going to move. Hammered or otherwise, I'm always going to be a musician.

During the fall of 2012, I again started feeling that pit in my stomach... The pit: it's a heaviness that starts way down inside and eventually crawls up through my chest, and god -- by the time it reaches my head it's a screaming snake-monster, disabling anything other than frustration and bitterness. [I've spent my life in a practice room for THIS?!?]

But this time, I stamped on the little worm before it could render me pathetic and angry. I decided... Hell, no. I'm 30 now; enough of this melodrama. Official orchestral job or not, this is what I'm doing with my life; it's time to figure out how to make it work.

So, let's see... I have friends. Many of these friends play music, and they're really good at it. I like to spend time with these friends, and I certainly like to play music with these friends. So, what's the problem, really? Let's just do it. "I wouldn't sit around and just wait for a guy to call. Why am I doing it with my career?"

My family has a cabin in Southern Vermont. It's a tiny little 2-room cabin that we visit each summer. Whether we make it up to Vermont for a week or a month, it is always my favorite part of the year. I've always wanted to be a 'real' Vermonter, and daydream about moving there. That probably won't ever happen, but last fall the Vermont sentiment combined in my head with my musical aspirations, and I figured out the perfect solution. I would start a music festival in the town of Jamaica, VT. I'd raise some money and plan the week and invite my friends up and we'd play some concerts. It couldn't be that hard, right?

Well... it's hard. It's list upon list and damn begging for money is really horrible. It's busy work that I would usually avoid at all costs, but somehow it just felt... right. When you believe in something, when you have ownership and pride in what you're doing, any menial task takes on meaning. Concert programming, I learned, is both difficult and enjoyable. Staring at lists of repertoire and musicians and thinking about how people and music will work together is inspiring and fulfilling in a way I never imagined. 

I'm lucky enough to have a remarkably supportive circle of friends and family, and with the addition of some corporate sponsorships, I managed to raise the budgeted $20,000. That money paid for the hall, advertising, the musicians (we might not be musicians because we expect to get rich, but we should get paid for what we do), the housing, the food, the programs, an intern, an art collaborator, a cinematographer to make a short video of the week, along with every other little odd and end... and I ended up with about $4,000 in the bank to start the second year on the right foot. 

During the first year, the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival (named after the town's waterfall) put on 2 evening concerts and an afternoon family concert. We had a community potluck and an open rehearsal and a music/art collaboration for kids. All the events were fully attended, and the week was one of the best I can remember. Did it all go perfectly? Of course not. I certainly learned a lot. Namely: try not to schedule 10 hours a day of rehearsals. People get tired. 

This year, we expanded just a little. Over the course of 10 days, 16 musicians and artists held 3 evening concerts in addition to the family concert. We performed a fundraising concert to raise money for Hurricane Irene restoration, and of course still held the potluck, open rehearsal and music/art collaboration event. To kick everything off, we performed a musical Flash Mob at the Farmer’s Market on Sunday morning. I’m thrilled that we once again had full houses at all the events, and that the community support and involvement continues to grow so beautifully.

Of course, raising the money was difficult. The first half seemed to come naturally via grants and donations, but the remaining amount took an intense Kickstarter campaign. For next year, of course I wish someone would just hand me a check, but I know that whether or not that happens, I'll figure out a way to make it work. 

My ideal: I would love PFCM to become a lasting part of Jamaica's artistic community. By the 2020 season, I aim to hold a 3-week summer series (with a week of touring around Southern Vermont) in addition to educational-based winter and spring weeks. I’d also love PFCM to be a complete collaborative arts festival, with components involving drama, dance, and (as well as continuing music and visual art, of course). Exciting news on that front: we're currently talking to the Vermont Poet Laureate about a joint effort for next year! We’re also hoping to perform a family concert at the Jamaica State Park.

Through this year and last, the embedded positivity though, is what makes me most proud. Throughout the planning and the actual festival, I felt... happy, satisfied, complete. It wasn't just me; other musicians and audience members described the festival as "a nirvana-like experience" and said it brought "tears of joy to their eyes." 

The audition-spurred monster of pity and despair was never even a consideration. Instead, we were able to concentrate on what was important: the music, the friendships, the community. Because, isn't that why we initially wanted to do this? Maybe we wanted to communicate the incredible mastery of the composer, maybe we wanted to be part of a team, maybe we wanted to share with audiences what we know we have inside. Regardless, it's always about something positive. Certainly none of us ever sat around and thought "Well, I'd like to feel miserable, underappreciated, and stifled for the rest of my life." In one way or another, it's about desire and sharing, and how the two interact. 

It might have started as just one week in 2012, but it has turned into so much more. I'm now part of an amazing chamber orchestra in the DC area now has a recording contract with Dorian Sono Luminus. I've found new and lasting friendships, musical and otherwise. I feel as though I'm able to contribute valuably to a community. 

Initiative is a funny thing. Sometimes people look down upon it, as though being self-made is somehow bad. I've found though, that followed-through gumption is something that actually draws people in. People want to be around it, and people want to be a part of it... and for good reason -- it works. And so I think that's the most important thing that starting PFCM brought me: the knowledge that I can and will do this, and be generally happy in the process.

I might take more auditions, but if I do, it'll no longer feel desperate or impossible. Now I know that I have other options, other paths, and I'll be able to see the orchestral audition for what it is: a chance to play for a panel of musicians and see if you're the best fit for a particular position. It does not define you any more than that.

Music careers, in our current 21st century world, are difficult. We have to learn that they won't necessarily take on the form as that of our role models, our idols, our classical music rock stars. And you know? That can be hard to accept. But once you do, once you realize that you really can make your own opportunities, the musical world is so large and bright. You can create situations that truly fit who you are, personally and musically; you can shape your career to be exactly what it needs to be. Because, no matter what the career model, our world will always need music. We've evolved as musical beings, and that's not going to go away. If anything, humanity is starving for more; it's up to us to put it out there.

*To learn more about Susanna Loewy, visit her website at:

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