Writing Is

Writing is an opportunity to learn something. You begin with a topic, a person, a thought. Soon you realize there are things you need to investigate, a context that needs to be defined, the ingredients for something thoughtful to emerge. There is always something.

Writing is an opportunity to discover something. It’s a process that forces you to organize your thoughts. Finding the words and the turn of phrase that sits well together. Realizing that it’s more fun to take risks than to play it safe. You dip your hand into the water to see what stirs.

Writing is a privilege bestowed by readers. I could be writing about the arts sector or the startup life. Instead I’ve been writing efforts mostly previews and human-interest shorts about the artists I want people to discover on BeMused Network. I am not interested in writing for myself.

The reflective writings intended for this blog will come; when it becomes more meaningful to write. Until then, come and discover the stories of Toronto’s performing arts scene.

Let me know if your story needs to be told.

BeMused: A Prologue

One of my motivations for conducting research on the transmission of music knowledge online was a desire to create and build something that will bridge the divide I perceived between those who know music, and those who wants to know about music. I was dumbfounded by all the ways people could be connected with the technology that exists today, but did not. I don’t blame it on the people, I attribute it to the fact that there are no tools designed specifically with these two groups in mind. This thought has percolated in my mind for some time, and unbeknown to me, it would be with the 100th post on this blog that I feel ready to share with you what has come of the long gestation.

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As I jumped back into the performing arts community in various capacities since last fall, coming up with a way of applying my theoretical knowledge to solve real life problems was always on my mind. I have been sharing my writing, design and communication skills to help local and independent groups gain a little more exposure and execute the marketing vision they had but for lack of resources and know-how. The more I became involved, the more I learned about the every-day challenges they were facing. My own independent research gave me further insight into the common issues that music professionals encountered. The more I listened, the clearer I heard and understood the everyday struggles of performing artists.

One door closes, another door opens


(It’s been over a year since I’ve written anything here, but first.)

Back in 2007, Kevin Lau and I were neighbours. I had just moved out a few years prior, and it was wonderful to live vicariously through his life as a composer, pianist and teacher. I jumped at the opportunity to be involved with his plans to form an orchestra with many of the musicians-in-training who needed performance experience, to perform his violin concerto which was accumulation of his Masters thesis in composition. He already had a partner-in-time with long-time friend Victor who is a jazz and classical pianist, who was pursuing his interest in conducting.

I don’t think I knew what I was getting into, all I knew that is that there was a variety of needs that this orchestra would address, and there was a potential to create opportunities where there was none, and a different experience of classical and contemporary orchestra music than what was available. An earlier experience in the founding team of an upstart chamber orchestra with an all-star list of classical orchestra performers provided me with a model, and some great lessons learned. Continue reading

Looking for a Boost


UPDATE: We got shortlisted. We’re in!!

I have spent the last few spring hanging out at the British Forum of Ethnomusicology. I’ve come to associate the change of the season with train rides in UK, B&Bs and catching up with old friends and new colleagues. I really loathed to miss this one, not only because it was in Belfast, but because I missed the chance to indulge in learning and discussing ethnomusicology in the digital age.

BeMused was the reason, and I guess a pretty good one.

Translating my research on online transmission of music knowledge into applied solutions was a goal I set for myself when I finished my masters, perhaps in lieu of continuing with a PhD. I still love research and writing, but I also see tremendous value in applied learning. Even though BeMused isn’t about online learning music, it is a participation platform for the performing arts community with a focus on Toronto (at least to start).

(By the way, I learned the term platforms for participation from Robin Chase in this TED Talk, and loved the way it perfectly encapsulates the way I am thinking about BeMused.)

[ted id=1632]
We’re in the running to get $30,000 as part of ideaBOOST, a business accelerator program. But we need your votes by April 25th! Click to find out how you can help.

Taking a Pause


The last four months has been anything but boring. Getting my feet wet in performing again, working behind-the-scenes for Sneak Peek Orchestra’s first concert of the season, holding a finished Centennial Portraits in my hand and organizing the book launch, and writing reviews for John Terauds’ Musical Toronto blog, all the while experiencing the growing (birthing?) pains that a business at the startup stage inevitably goes through. It’s hard to believe just over a year ago I was exploring an ancient forrest and not seeing another human being for hours on end.

As I crossed off many of the one-off commitments in the Fall (can you tell I signed up before I had any inkling of the project I would assign for myself?), it has become easier to prioritize BeMused, and we’re making good progress towards our beta launch. The hardest part has been recalibrating my brain to switch from a focus on researching and writing to planning and designing, something that is an ongoing effort.

It has been a whirlwind of a year, with a lot of change on the surface, but what anchors me has essentially stayed the same: a love of learning, a soft spot for the performing arts, and a desire to contribute something positive against the backdrop of doom and goom in the cultural sector.

Sincere thanks go out to friends and colleagues who have been so supportive and encouraging along the way; I’d like to think of the way my endeaveur has brought us together in various ways as a good omen for things to come.

Now, let’s squeeze some much needed R&R before 2013 gets here.

A Juggling Act

While I have been quiet here, it’s been anything but quiet in real life. Here are some of the highlights:

Extremely proud of my colleagues Kevin Lau (affiliate composer for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) and Tim Crouch (Marketing Co-ordinator for Tafelmusik) at Sneak Peek Orchestra. They are some of the most hard working and talented musicians I have had the pleasure of knowing, and they are very deserving candidates for their recent accomplishments.

Working with Mary Perdue on her photography book, Centennial Portraits, featuring images of Heliconian Club members as it celebrated its 100th anniversary, has been very rewarding. Mary is a pleasure to work with, and this book has great historical significance for Toronto and Canada. We are finalizing the book design this summer with plans to have a book launch in November.

Interviews with various musicians on their careers has been both eye-opening and reaffirming. Making a living in the arts requires a combination of talent, hard work, intrepidity, and a generous spirit. Seeing how their careers are unfolding,  the way they maintain a cheery disposition while confronting challenges with no easy answers, has been inspiring. Based on the conversations so far, a picture of how professional music schools are unwittingly letting their students down by not giving them at least some basic business training is slowly but surely emerging.

I’ve also dabbled in a bit of music criticism, writing two concert reviews on performances by the Zukerman Chamber Players and a reunion of Toronto-based artists for John Teraud’s blog. Writing on a journalistic rather than an academic deadline was a new experience, and it was one that I actually quite enjoyed.

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As other projects gear up for the fall, the rest of this summer will likely not be slowing down, but I am not complaining. One cannot take for granted the rare gift of being able to work on the things you love.

Embracing Randomness

As of late, an unlikely but inter-connected series of projects and pursuits have gotten me buried deep in all the things I really love to do. They’re community-based and local projects, I’m creating and executing research and business plans, making music and writing copy. Sometimes I look at my “To Do” list and think to myself how strange and wonderful to find such unlikely variety and unity across all the items.

Between now and the end of the year, I hope to share the results of the work that keeps me from writing too much for this blog. I am still writing, just in-progress and behind the scenes pieces that isn’t intended for public consumption. My plan is not linear, but interconnected in a way that makes it hard for me to articulate how they actually fit together. Perhaps I will write about the “eureka” moments that I experience (I have some in mind already from the interviews I’m doing for the Business of Music research). Perhaps from the random posts you will piece together a bigger picture of about what I’m working on.

The present is marked by feelings of excitement and anxiety and also of doubt as to whether I can actually make things happen; all the typical response we experience when we try something new. This feeling is familiar. I felt it on the first day I showed up for classes at the Faculty of Music, the first time I presented a paper at a conference, the first time I had to negotiate my wage. Right now, it also feels like a productive randomness, and I hope once I make some progress, I can look behind me and tell you retroactively what it was I was trying to do.

Until then, I will be busy embracing it.

BFE 2012

Greenwich UK(Where did April go? A much belated post. More general update to come. Photo courtesy my cousin Paul, taken at Greenwich on the day the clock sprang forward.)

My trips to the UK for the British Forum of Ethnomusicology is turning into a bit of an annual pilgrimage. The attendees are from all parts of Europe and beyond, and it is three days of ideas, conversations, and mingling with an inspiring group of people. Technology makes reaching out to people around the world much easier, but nothing seems to beat just one face-to-face interaction in terms of establishing rapport, and connecting a voice and a face to a name.

One idea being kicked around as a result of the conference involves looking at the ethics of preserving and ‘returning’ ethnographic research data, as a way to start articulating the different concerns researchers have when deciding what to do with their research data. The common response is, of course they want to share my work, but there are fundamental economic and ethical considerations with no easy solution. Each researcher seem to be dealing with challenges that are specific to their circumstances, but it is probably useful to have a way of conceptualizing the problem into a framework that can be broadly applied. There were also related conversations about how to design a platform to solicit and disseminate research beyond papers, and encourage the use of multimedia in research publication.

All things close to my heart, even though the people that I’m connecting with may be geographically a little further away.

The Business of Music

(Photo from a CBC blog post on unlikely classical music venues, featuring members of the Blythwood Winds.)

Once upon a variety of times in Western history, making a living as a musician was a reasonably straight forward affair. There were employment opportunities at opera houses, concert halls, churches, and schools. There were patrons of the arts who would commission new creations, and publishers who would canonize them. The musical training classical musicians receive today are based on very similar assumptions. That is, there are employment opportunities out there, as long as you are a well trained musician of the western classical tradition.

Today, musicians seem to lament the disappearance of those good old days, and struggle to navigate the latest social media technology that allows them to freely and economically reach out to an audience. They try every free service out there that promises to help them get hired. Some are lucky to have access to that kind of know-how in their network, or just have an intuitive understand of how it works. Others grapple with the proper balance of their time to their musical craft, and improving their bottom line.

Regardless of the era we find ourselves in, the principle of supply and demand will always play a role in how people decide to make a living. Seeing as we no longer live in a world where people go to operas as a pass time, classical trained musicians are hung out to dry with a rude awakening after they graduate; After many years of hedging a bet that they will ‘make it’, they noticed the world is changing quickly, and classical music has a heck of a lot more things to compete with as a pass time, with fewer and fewer secured employment opportunities when performing organizations prefer to stay nimble and flexible. Not that their teachers are addressing these real-life issues—that will be their own problem to solve once they get out there as professionals.

The concerns are familiar. The responses to these challenges? Not so much.

Bustling About

After a serious bout of spring cleaning at the office, the sun peaking out to suggest that days are getting longer, and a few well placed plants, I am getting an injection of inspiration and motivation. A few projects are brewing in my mind, and I’m really looking forward to sharing them with you once they are more presentable. They have to do with ‘music knowledge’ in a general sense, and helping people make connections with each other more specifically. I am looking forward to distilling the projects and ideas into a more refined form through conversations with a variety of people.

One such effort is my trek to attend the British Forum of Ethnomusicology later this month, which will be significantly more relaxed than my previous visits. I won’t be presenting a paper, but Kiku and I will have a ‘digital display’ of our on-going research on the transmission of shakuhachi online, building on what we had presented at the DIY Citizenship conference in Toronto. The next few weeks will be spent reviewing and editing some video footage, and producing the digital presentation and related collateral.

Now, let’s see if I work better with a clean space or a cluttered space.