Jack of All Trades, or Master of One? How Musicians Make an Impact as Artists and Administrators

Note from ACSO: The author of this blog, Leslie Schlussel, is ACSO's Summer 2018 Conference and Membership Intern and her internship is supported by a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. She is entering her senior year at UCLA, majoring in Music Performance with a minor in Music Industry. She aspires to be a professional horn player in a symphony orchestra as well as work in arts administration.

What is my role as a classical musician in today’s world? In what ways can I help protect orchestral music’s integrity and further its efforts to address audiences’ evolving needs and expectations?

As a music performance student nearing graduation, I can’t help but ponder these questions while considering my next steps, especially during a period of rapid change in the orchestral world. As the tide of art culture shifts from exclusivity to inclusivity, orchestras are fighting harder than ever to embrace accessibility, equity, and deeper audience engagement. My desire to contribute to this cause and maximize my impact has led me to consider broadening my passion for music to encompass more than horn playing.

In a quest for answers, I sought insight from professionals who’ve created their own multifaceted careers as musicians, educators, and administrators. At the 2018 ACSO Annual Conference, I interviewed Julian Dixon, senior director of community engagement and education at the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, and Maia Jasper White, violinist at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and artistic director at Salastina Music Society. I had the immense pleasure of listening to their stories and learning about how they use their work to bring awareness and positive change to their communities. Their ideas shed light on what it means to advocate for classical music in this day and age.

 What pushed you to explore other work, in addition to music performance?

Julian: “I got focal dystonia and had to stop playing the tuba for five years. Here I was at the peak of doing what I wanted to do, gigging with orchestras and my quintet, and I couldn’t play. It made me look deeply at why I do what I do.

What brought me to tuba playing? I played the tuba because I could be creative, positive, expressive, and I love people. I love being out with people and performing and bringing pleasure to folks. I realized that’s still who I am, even if I couldn’t do it through tuba. It’s not like what I was doing defined me. I had to change my vehicle, but I was still the same driver.

I went into the wireless industry, and after almost seven years of this, I started to get my playing back and I started getting gigs again. When Verizon Wireless moved up to Sacramento, I started teaching at Sac State, I started gigging and subbing. I came back. I realized, I still had my limitations, but I was embracing performance again and engaging people. The Sac Phil recognized this, and asked me to be their Community Engagement Manager, working with the Education Director on their programs. After a year, they asked me to be the Director of Education and Community Engagement. I thought, this is great! I’m still a performer and musician, and now I’m doing administrative work.”

Maia: “When I had the desire to start a chamber music series my sophomore year of college, I thought I should have a job where I see what that’s like on the administrative side. So I worked for the LA Opera’s community programs. I really liked the people I was working with, but not so much the work itself, and I thought, ‘No, I really prefer playing.’  But, I had such strong ideas about presenting music that I felt like I would again look at the admin stuff as a means to an end. One of the great surprises about my adult life is how much I truly enjoy it now.

And now, I’m so into it! I just took this course through the League of American Orchestras, Essentials, and it was great. I drank it up. There was a clarinetist from Essentials, Alex Laing, and I adopted his wonderful approach; I consider my practice and work as a musician as not being so divorced from the administrative side, as not just locking myself in a room and practicing, but advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts. Doing this has taught me a lot of humility as an artist about how hard people on the admin side work to bring the music to other people. I’ve developed a tremendous respect for people who do their work to connect people to an art form that they themselves don’t directly generate.”

What value do you see in having a well-rounded career?

Julian: “If I’m doing this administrative work, I’m still creating opportunities. I remember how important it was for me to have the experience of trying an instrument and saying, ‘Oh! This resonates with me.’ And I know the importance of creating opportunities for folks to see what resonates with them. It's not always just through having a great performance. I can be creative and come up with these programs to get our musicians out into the schools.”

Maia: “It’s imperative for musicians to think critically about how else they want to give to the craft and the world. It’s not just about what you want from the world, but more so what the world wants from you. So, if I’m a nerd and a talker, and I like making things happen and building things, I should not be a violin jock alone. That would be a disservice to myself and a disservice to what I have something to give towards. While it can be a lot to balance, to wear so many hats, it does add up to a meaningful musical life.”

How do you use your diverse skill sets to make an impact in the orchestra community?

Julian: “What needs to happen with our music today is to make it more connected and relevant. Culture is supposed to be reflective of people. If we’re not connecting our music to people, it’s going to get stagnant and struggle.

I’m fortunate to be in a position where our organization is starting to embrace this, you know, from the board leadership, to get our musicians out in the community. I’ve been doing small chamber ensembles. We’re working in transitional housing, hospitals, libraries, farmers markets, street corners, unique places. We’re getting out to after-school programs. We go out to unique places, where you don’t expect it, where people can hear us, talk to us, ask questions, see our musicians. We created ‘Instrument Discovery Zones,’ an interactive activity that creates an experience, whether you’re a child or an adult, to come explore an instrument.”

Maia: “Classical music is an art that’s meant to inspire. What I think is truly inspiring is when you dig up some piece from the past, by Rebecca Clark, or whoever, and you treat it with the same care and respect that you would a piece by Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven. And you share the story of why nobody knows who she is. If anything shows you what humanity is capable of, it’s not hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony 200 times. It’s realizing that there is this vast, vast treasure chest of music that is truly awe-inspiring.

Part of what we’re trying to do [through the Salastina Music Society] is inspire wonder, and I think that it has to be not just from commissioning contemporary works. Opening art music up to underrepresented communities through contemporary music alone isn't enough. It does nothing to address the legacy of inequity from the past, which has buried hundreds of years' worth of inspiring material under layers of dust. You can’t pretend to open it up now and insist on leaving the canon the way it was. You have to reconcile with the history of the art if you have a chance of being sincerely relevant to people now. You have to be consistent.”


Julian and Maia’s stories share a major overarching theme: they give back to the community not only through performance, but also through progressive programming, and they use their administrative roles as a vehicle in which to make classical music more inclusive. Their stories affirm my belief that musicians can effectively use their creative power both on the stage and in the office, and that artists should take an active role in contributing to their craft’s forward momentum.

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