Musicians always have to be a bit entrepreneurial. Even when they join an orchestra, many moonlight in side ventures like a conducting gig, chamber music concerts or recitals, teaching or writing about music.
The musicians of the Decoda Chamber Music Institute — already part of Ensemble ACJW, a group that has given annual concerts and master classes at Skidmore College since 2007 as part of the college’s partnership with Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Music Institute and the New York City Department of Education — wanted more.
“We wanted to leave a larger imprint than just as a performer,” said bassoonist Seth Baer, one of seven musicians who will be performing as part of the institute. “We wanted to find a way to connect with audiences ... to show the power of music.”
Three seasons ago, when the 30 musicians who then made up Ensemble ACJW knew they would disperse, they formed the Decoda Institute. The idea was to offer up to three-week residencies and work with local musicians to give concerts and make connections with audiences who might never have heard live classical music before. That meant going into nursing homes, prisons, detention centers and homeless shelters, or to countries where this style of music was not culturally as available.
With support from Carnegie Hall, Decoda hit the road and found success. Now, having traveled to locales such as Abu Dhabi, Iceland, Japan, Mexico and Switzerland, Decoda came to Skidmore last Sunday to begin a three-week residency as the college’s first chamber music institute. Besides giving a few public concerts at the college, Decoda will visit Prestwick Chase and the Saratoga Senior Center in Saratoga Springs.
For this residency, Decoda members chose 22 musicians ages 15 to 27, who are coming from as far as New Zealand and Mexico, through an online application process. The group also worked with the college on the curriculum. At previous residencies, the presenters chose the students.
“There’s a public service component to the program, so we asked each applicant to answer three questions: Who inspired them and why; what was their most memorable experience; and what they expected from the program,” Baer said.
Talking about music to people not familiar with classical music can be a challenge for musicians, so part of the residency is spent developing public speaking skills, learning how to choose a repertoire for specific audiences and empowering the players to take more of a leadership role in their careers and service.
“We want to be artist citizens,” said clarinetist Alicia Lee, “to determine what role music can and should play in life and to offer it to audiences.”
Being adaptable and staying cool were skills players developed when they were new to the Ensemble ACJW program, where each artist had to be in residence at a New York City public school. They also visited nursing homes, prisons and detention centers in the metropolitan area with professionals such as social workers, psychologists and theater people to learn how to handle various situations, Bryant said.
Now that Carnegie Hall has designated the Decoda Institute as an Affiliate Artist and made them an independent entity, Decoda has hired an executive director, singer Betsie Becker, to oversee and develop partnerships.
“There’s a lot of momentum behind the group, and already I have 20 projects scheduled for next season,” said violinist Owen Dalby. “We all want to see it work.”
On Wednesday, a few students took time from rehearsal to talk about why they’d signed up. All were between ages 19 and 25 and had heard about the program through their teachers and social media.
“With so many distractions, how can we make our voices heard?” asked violist Drew Forde, a student at The Juilliard School. “It’s very important to play for people to show them what we’re about and being able to articulate and explain music clearly.”
Pianist Liam Wooding, who traveled from New Zealand, where he studies at the University of Auckland, said he thinks he’ll learn how to make better and more meaningful connections with audiences. Oboist Jasmine Daquin from SUNY Purchase said she liked that she would learn how to get out of her “personal comfort zone” to make better contributions, and clarinetist Manuel Ramos of Northwestern University in suburban Chicago said he wants to make classical music as interactive as jazz or pop.
It still comes down to making classical music appealing to everyone, Forde said.
“Classical music is like a food group. You need a balanced diet with jazz and pop,” he said. “It’s not about competing [with those styles]. It’s more about sparking interest.”