The Time I Started A Music Festival

the time i started a music festival

A friend called me the other day to ask me, “Can I pick your brain about starting your own festival?” I said sure and before I knew it, I was surprised to find myself talking a mile a minute and thinking, “Huh, I have a lot of strong opinions about this. Who knew?”

The experience of starting and running a festival has been similarly surprising and fun. In 2011, my friend, Judy Hurtig and I got together at her home in Marlboro, VT and over the course of an evening (and many bottles of wine) we came up with the idea for MusicIC.

Since then, I have been its Artistic Director and Curator of all the programming. I’m super psyched that we drew the attention of Chamber Music America Magazine (we’re listed number one in the article “Seven Ways to Curate a Festival”).

Why start your own festival?

The idea of starting a festival was born out of three things: boredom, frustration and curiosity.

I was bored with presenters who only wanted ‘traditional’ programs; a classical piece, a ‘modern’ piece (I put modern in quotes because, if you can believe it, there are still presenters who will cringe and suck their teeth when faced with programming anything later than Debussy), intermission and some big romantic thing to end. Don’t get me wrong, these are nice programs, but they are also old-fashioned and predictable.

I was frustrated, waiting for someone to come along and ask me to play the kind of programs I imagined playing. Programs that tell a story, have a narrative or a thread that can both delight and enlighten the audience and the performers.

And I was curious to see if I could create the kind of festival where I could play and present the programs that would interest me and also serve my community.

The Classical Musician Mindset

Most classical musicians I know are not natural self-starters. It’s not really our fault. We are steeped in a tradition of ‘appointment’. Or maybe ‘anointment’ is a better word. We enter the audition or competition or job interview, play our asses off and then, well, we…wait.

We wait until someone decides we are good enough to be ‘allowed’ to make music on a regular basis.

Perhaps you are frustrated by the limitations of this model. Perhaps you are not the kind of player who succeeds easily or often enough in this paradigm. Or even if you are, maybe you’re tired of having to win the lotto every damned day to earn the ‘right’ to make music. Or maybe you, as I was, are just tired of handing over the reins to someone else. If any of these are true for you (or even if they are not), I encourage you to start something yourself. Something of your own.

Define your mission

Starting a festival can seem like license to just play whatever you want, like when you were a kid and you called all the neighborhood kids over to put on a show in your backyard. The thing to keep in mind is that even those kids knew what kind of show they wanted to put on.

I’ve seen too many generic festivals across the country and while I am in full support of live music in every town, I think if you are hoping to build a fan base and some longevity, a festival that lacks a clear idea of its identity is a lost opportunity.

MusicIC, grew out of an interest in exploring the connections between music and literature. In our first season, I programmed Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (Book of Revelation); a new set of piano works by Ryan Francis based on Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (poem by Richard Dehmel). A strong identifying thread in programming gives your festival shape, direction and an entry point for your audience to understand your mission, your reason for being.

Know your community

Iowa City, where MusicIC is based, is a huge literary community. Home of the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (featured in the Season 3 finale of HBO’s Girls), it is also an UNESCO City of Literature (the only US city to be included in this exclusive club of seven international cities). So, creating a chamber music festival that tapped into this foundation of readers and lovers of all things literary made very good sense. We partner with the amazing Summer Writing Festival and fill a need for classical music in the city’s Summer of the Arts, now in it’s 25th year.

Figuring out what your community needs and aligning it with your festival’s mission can create a real foundation for your project. Maybe your community is filled with contemporary artists; or wine connoisseurs; or knitting clubs; or dutch cloggers, i don’t know…

One word of caution, however: don’t manufacture. That is, don’t start a festival based on something you don’t care about. This is key. I’ll keep touching on this point as we go on.

Choosing your artists roster (Part 1)

This can be a heady experience for most classical musicians. What the heck…you mean I can ask whomever I want (or at least, whom my budget will allow) to play with ME??

YES, this is part of the point.

But be careful about who you ask and be aware of your motivations for asking. Don’t be surprised if for the first few seasons people cancel or flake out when something better comes along. This will happen for awhile but don’t be discouraged. Once you’ve built up a history and your festival starts to have its own identity and legs, your artist roster will also become clearer, as you will learn who you work best with and also enjoy working with the most. After all, that is part of the raison d’etre for starting your own endeavors; to play what you want with the people you have the most fun with.

Choosing your artist roster (Part 2)

Treat your artists well. I really credit Judy with this caveat. She was the presenter for Hancher Auditorium for many years and she really knows her stuff. She learned (and I learned from her) that classical musicians are the worst at knowing their worth. We can be so grateful to be playing that we don’t know how to negotiate and put proper value on what we do.

Some presenters might take advantage of this trait but Judy, bless her heart, actually looks out for her artists. Her motto is that the majority of our budget will always go to artists’ fees and this is how is should be; after all, there is no festival without the musicians.

This translates to happy artists who do their best work and then return year after year. This is how you will start to build word of mouth and a good reputation for your festival.

Don’t dumb down your programming

I hate programming that panders to audiences or expects the worst of them. A friend of mine mentioned a term, “defensive programming”, meaning, programming with the idea that everyone hates classical music so we have to make it as easy and palatable as possible.

To me, this is the aural equivalent of baby food.

I believe in the opposite: start from the assumption that audiences (even those filled with actual babies) are inquisitive, intelligent, thoughtful people. It is possible that a lot of the people there are not regular concert goers. In fact, it is my hope that MOST of the people there are chamber music novices.

MusicIC is programmed with high-impact, high intensity performances that are meant to create opportunities for dialogue that will happen, post concerts. Literary sources are an entry point that people can hold onto, a way into a world of music that is perhaps new and different from what they are used to. Classical music is dense and it is up to us to find a handrail for our audiences to participate in the experience.

This is why a clearly defined mission is so important. It will help your programming.

It’s like writing a haiku; at first you might freak out when you think of how few words you have to play with and how many rules you have to follow. But intense structure allows for creativity to abound in ways you will not expect. When the boundaries are drawn, you will find that your programs will develop such transparency that audiences will begin to surprise you. Case in point: our audiences now make requests for Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Webern, no small feat when it comes to a programming music for a small town in the Midwest.

Let your community help you, too

As they say, a successful relationship is a two way street and your relationship with your community is no exception. Over time, you will identify (or they will self identify) people who are truly passionate about your festival. These are your avid fans. Try to involve as many of them as you can in different ways. Have a hospitality committee. Find people who will open up their homes for fund raising events, or housing artists or do airport pick ups. If appropriate, carefully select a steering committee to help you solidify your festival’s place in your town’s identity.

Support your local businesses. One summer, we involved a local bakery when we asked them to make madeleines for our evening of Proust and Saint-Saens; another time we asked a restaurant in town to donate a huge plate of their amazing trout pate for our concert featuring (yep, you guessed it) Schubert’s Trout Quintet.


This is a toughie, and the least fun part. The hardest part will be getting your festival past the three year point. This is an important marker because most grant giving organizations require that you demonstrate three years of operational history before they consider funding your project.

So, at first you will need to be especially creative in funding your project. You may have to start very, very small, perhaps with one concert. You will probably need to go to private funding; your friends, family, local supporters; partnerships with other local organizations.

This is even more of a reason to be extra thoughtful about defining your project’s mission. People are more likely to support your idea if it’s a clear and viable one. Not many people are going to want to fund any old chamber music festival, so make yours distinctive.

After the three year point, the grant gates open and it’s still not super fun. You will have to write a lot of grants. I’m not the most experienced at grantwriting but I’m lucky that I have people around me who are. And this brings me to another point…

Surround yourself with the right people

There are a lot of things I do well. There are also a lot of things I am terrible at or just plain ignorant about. And there are, alas, only 24 hours in a day. I also have a full-time job.

This is when it’s important to know when to ask for help and to choose the people who you are working with wisely. I’m truly lucky to have amazing people in my corner, helping me to make the whole mechanism work. I know I couldn’t do anything without the help of Judy, our Managing Director and Saffron Henke, our Managing Assistant.

So, I work my tail off at the things I know how to do and ask for help with the things that I suck at. And always, try to learn more stuff so you can do more stuff in the long run.

Create interactivity opportunities for your audiences

Even if your project is mostly performance based, don’t neglect to think about education. And education doesn’t have to be just about learning how to play an instrument.

People don’t want to just come to a concert, admire the experts and then go home. This is why the old concert model doesn’t work anymore. People want to get involved and grow and participate. Academic environments like Iowa City are wonderful places for this very reason. You can enlist the help of professors and local artists to create lecture series or drawing classes or basic instruction in music or writing.

Keep dreaming bigger

Challenge yourself to grow the festival every season in some way. With MusicIC, we have been pushing the boundaries in a couple different ways:

1) We have a theatrical production every year which feature the music and musicians in a very central way. Last year we presented Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale with the libretto by Kurt Vonnegut and this year, we are developing a project around the Kreutzer Sonata (Beethoven/Tolstoy/Janacek).

2) We commission new works every other season. Last year was a new work for string quartet and soprano by David Gompper with poetry by Marvin Bell. My quartet, the Gesualdo Quartet, performed this work with the great soprano, Tony Arnold.

The hope is that we will eventually extend out commissions to include not only new music but new literary works in prose or poetry, as well.

But most importantly…

Be sure the project is deeply meaningful to you

Running your own festival is a lot of hard work and there will be challenging setbacks at every turn. Ask yourself what you really want to do and don’t do it just to feed your ego.

For me, I write and I’m fascinating by the writing process. I am curious about creativity and how to enhance it. But I am farther along in my musical training than my writing, so it makes sense that I find a way to combine the two. MusicIC feels genuinely me.

If your festival mission doesn’t feel authentic enough, meaningful enough, YOU enough, then rethink it, redefine it and narrow it down until it does feel authentic to you.

Choosing your OWN adventure

We need festivals and concert series and we need you to create them. But they have to be substantive and REAL. Something that can sustain you and can sustain itself. Use this as an exercise in finding your meaning and funneling a vision you have for how people listen to music and understand your art.

So go out there and start something. Start something great.

photo credit: Exit Festival via photopin cc

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