From Wild Child to Pioneer: How the Classical World (eventually) Invited Me In

You may come to a point in your creative career where you ask yourself: 

  • Should I follow the established path? 
  • Or should I try something completely different? 

Trying something different means employing both a creative and destructive force. 

To do something truly unique, new, and creative, you have to disrupt an old model. 

You have to destroy an old way of doing things. 

Welcome to the world of creative disruption. It may feel lonely and uncertain at first. 

But I’d like to share my experience with forging new paths, against the grain of my creative community.  

What is Creative Disruption?

According to Wikipedia, Creative Disruption is: 

“A radical change in a marketplace brought about by the overturning of existing conventions.”

Can you think of a few examples of this we’ve seen in the last 20 years? 

  • Online Shopping
  • Streaming film and television
  • Social media platforms coming, going, and changing

How about changes like this we’ve seen in the classical music world? 

  • Concerts in casual spaces
  • Music sold on records, then tapes, then CDs, then streaming and downloads
  • Relaxed, conversational audience interaction

These are all changes almost everyone is used to by now.  

But think back years ago and this must have been a lonely road for the pioneers of these changes. 

Why Does Creativity Involve Destruction? 

In the 90s, the news reported year after year about how online services were part of a bubble that was about to burst. 

Many musicians were dragged kicking and complaining to each new platform for selling their music. 

The complaints, doomsday predictions, and howls of indignation accompanied the early days of each of these innovations. 

If you can’t see the creative force that can emerge beyond this destruction, these changes can be painful and frightening. 

But if you understand Creative Disruption, we know that every new innovation emerges from something that needs to be left behind. 

Our world of creativity is a cycle of destruction and renewal, without which we would all be at a standstill with no way to be truly creative in our lives and work.  

How Going Rogue Made Me Mainstream

Flashback to quite a few years ago when my life revolved around being a highly trained classical flutist. 

I had stacked up my credentials

  • Masters and Performance Diploma from conservatories
  • Freelance career working with several symphony orchestras
  • Audition track record that landed me in the final rounds of national auditions

And then I thought, screw this. 

The whole system was making me miserable. 

I thought the way that we were playing in auditions and performances as symphony orchestra musicians was safe, boring, and at the same time stressful. 

I didn’t feel any joy in the creativity of making music.  

And I don’t think our audiences did either. They were certainly heading for the exits quickly enough to tell us we were doing something wrong

The Punk Revolution for Classical Musicians

So I joined a growing number of musicians that were heading into bars, clubs, apartments, and the streets to take their music directly to their communities. 

Places like The Revolution Cafe in San Francisco and Le Poisson Rouge in New York were joints where adventurous classical musicians and fans could meet away from the gatekeepers and stifling traditions of the classical world. 

My colleagues and I at Helix Collective took our band in an entirely different direction. (Even using the term “band” for a classical ensemble is a quiet revolution.) We played bars, clubs, coffee shops and that experience broadened our musical horizons

I captured everything I’d seen and learned in a self-published book, “Clubbing for Classical Musicians.” 

Working outside the standard way of doing things led me to be more casual, entertaining, and eclectic in my musical taste and output.  

We were growing and changing exponentially while much of the classical world stood still.  

Ignored. Vilified. Imitated.

For a while it was a relatively lonely pursuit within the classical music world. 

We did our thing. The symphonies, classical music series, and music schools ignored it.  

Then, suddenly people started paying attention. Early adopters within the mainstream classical music world started to take notice. 

From my perspective, I was invited to give speeches and feted at conferences, quoted in the New York Times, invited to visit music schools, and my book was picked up by more and more music school libraries. 

Suddenly people really wanted to hear what I had to say

At the same time, those who didn’t want to see change in the classical music world drew out their claws. 

Some People Don’t Like Change

I’ve endured my fair share of nasty, belittling comments.  

After an extremely emotional, revealing speech for a crowd of classical insiders about my journey of heartbreak and renewal in the classical music world, a fellow speaker at the same event said, “All you had to do was swear and now everyone loves you.” 

My innovative program for flute and electronics was dismissed by another musician saying, “I’m not into this karaoke thing.”  

An entire album of new dance music commissioned by Helix Collective and toured in clubs was called “that thing where you add drums to baroque music.” 

Don’t get me wrong. These comments ticked me off at the time. 

But they were just the whimpers of those who were being left behind. They were clinging to the old way by resenting the disruptors forging a new path. 

Eventually, the whole team started to catch up. 

New Innovations Go Mainstream

Now we’re all getting used to the changes those pioneers of a more inclusive, casual classical world got started. 

You can go to the San Francisco Symphony’s casual space to chill with friends, drinks and classical music. 

All the major music schools are teaching entrepreneurship, and many are emphasizing casual spaces and direct-to-audience marketing and programming for musicians. 

Soloists and conductors are no longer cultivating a super-human image of the infallible, distant artist but are sharing themselves – their foibles and fears – with their audiences in a more authentic way. 

The whole classical world has shifted and it’s easy to take it for granted. 

But looking back a lot has changed and a lot still needs to change. 

Why I Recommend Creative Disruption

It didn’t just work with the classical music world.

When Helix Collective moved to Los Angeles we saw a lot we didn’t like about the way film and television music works. 

Performing musicians were at the bottom of the barrel, beneath an entire hierarchy of funding and decision making that painted recording musicians as replaceable. The system created terrified musicians, many of them underpaid, some locked out of the whole system, and others engaging in despicable behavior to maintain their place. 

We thought, screw this. 

We went our own way. Helix Collective started a live film music festival to pair filmmakers and composers. We put musicians at the top of the decision making hierarchy and made the whole system more equitable for everyone involved.  

Our projects are partnerships where musicians and their contributions matter.  

And all the really good opportunities have come from forging this new path

Not from the standard way we were taught to break into the business by being quiet, not offending anyone, and begging for scraps from more successful players. 

We found a better way. And now Helix works with film schools, film organizations, composer organizations, and many others to build creative projects from scratch. 

We work in a world where performing musicians’ contributions matter. 

But we had to build it. 

From Disruption to Success

So now I have a track record of moving from creative disruption to success and acceptance.  

I’ve done this long enough to see a pattern.

If you see something that’s not working…

If you see a better way that things could be done…. 

Then by all means, do it! 

Courage and perseverance pays off.  

Follow your instincts. Step off the beaten path.  

Try it. Why not? 

The only thing we have to lose is the old way of doing things. The cycle of creativity will subsume that eventually anyway. 

Why not be out front? 

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