By Jessica Dunnavant
When, as a teenager, I began to think about a life in music, I pictured my life revolving around performing, with maybe a little teaching on the side. That’s pretty much as far as my imagination went, and while my adult life and career do bear out those dreams in lots of ways, I could never have imagined all the work it takes behind the scenes to pull off any public artistic venture. Someone must set and maintain a budget, which sometimes involves fundraising. Someone must choose the program, gather and prepare the music, hire the musicians and communicate with them throughout the process. Someone must advertise and promote, create and print programs, be a liaison with the venue—all of that—and not one of those tasks involves learning, rehearsing or performing music. In my experience, it’s almost always the musicians themselves who end up filling those administrative roles, whether or not they would ordinarily choose to do so.
I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a musician cry off trying something because they don’t feel qualified to do it (meaning, often, something like this: “but my degree is in piano!”) But the truth, especially with small festivals and ensembles and societies, is that there is often no one else to do a thing. I certainly do not have an arts administration degree, but in the twelve years that have passed since I finished my DMA, I have been a grant writer, a fundraiser, and emcee, a PR writer, a graphic/web designer, a personnel manager, an event planner and at times even a caterer. I’ve trolled the IRS website for rules and regulations, and written and revised by-laws. I’ve learned Robert’s Rules of Order and presided over board and committee meetings. All that, and I have three degrees in flute performance. All that, and then on top of it also all the practicing, rehearsing and performing that I expected.
In truth, the most valuable skill you can have when you’re putting a toe into these waters is this: can you take a big project and turn it into small, manageable tasks? If you can do that, you can start a chamber ensemble, put on a festival and deal with the financial ramifications of existing as a business entity. Here are a few other ideas I have on how to get the job done.
- Discover your natural aptitudes. If public speaking is needed, are you comfortable doing that? I am a natural, card-carrying extrovert. Just give me a mic and an audience, and then hope I know when to shut up! If that’s not you, can you fake it? It’s really important to do this well, if you are the mouthpiece for your group, either on public media or live at concerts. When someone explains to the audience that their performances could never happen without generous donors, that someone needs to be able to look at the audience and radiate confidence and sincerity.
- About faking it: sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do. Does your group need bylaws? Are you planning to apply for 501(c)3 status or register with your secretary of state? Use the internet. There’s a lot of reliable information there, especially on irs.gov and your state’s secretary of state website. You may also have local resources that you know nothing about. Here in Nashville, we have a group called the Center for Nonprofit Management. They are a fount of information, offering courses and networking and even a jobs website for those looking for full or part time employment in the nonprofit sector.
- Use your passion! The person who speaks for any organization ought to be someone who is passionate about it. Likewise, the person who plans the small details of a concert, who designs the promo posters and promotes the Facebook posts, ought to be someone who legitimately cares deeply about the product or performance on display. Is there anything worse than listening to someone apathetically describe why the public should support an event? If you don’t care…why would anyone else? If it’s stressful to think of exposing your passion to strangers, just think of it as another performance. Write down exactly what you want to say and study it so that, in the moment, you won’t have to read it word for word. That sincerity and personal connection is still the most important thing.
- Know when to ask for help. Delegating tasks to other people is an invaluable skill. If there are specific things that need to be done, or larger more abstract roles, look around you and see the people you’ve got to work with. What are their aptitudes? And if no one is offering to help, that doesn’t mean they’re not willing. Just ask.
One of the best parts of membership in a small ensemble or an association is that everyone matters. Every donor, every performer, everyone who comes in contact with your group has a role to play. I always say to donors and volunteers who are associated with one of my groups that if you want your donation and your time to matter, because of our small size, no one will ever appreciate you more than we will. That sense of community and belonging doesn’t just keep the musicians of the group together. It also keeps people coming to our concerts and volunteering their time to help us succeed. And in the end, isn’t that sense of community and belonging the best part of any event?
Flutist Jessica Dunnavant is a freelance musician and teacher. An early music specialist, she is a member of Music City Baroque and teaches Baroque flute at Middle Tennessee State University. She has performed and taught across the country, including academic appointments at Florida State University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. As a modern flutist, she performs with the Jackson Symphony in West Tennessee and teaches a large, successful studio of pre-college students.