Teaming up to deliver innovative music education

Southern Exposure, SAVVY Musician partner to bring top contemporary performers to campus

For nearly 20 years, the Southern Exposure New Music Series has brought top-tier contemporary classical musicians to Columba to perform for the university community and the general public.

Since 2013, the SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge conference has taught musicians from throughout the country entrepreneurial skills like marketing and writing business proposals.

This year, Southern Exposure and SAVVY Musician team up to present a joint program: the SAVVY competition finals, in which several contemporary groups perform and are judged not only on their musical skills but also their creativity in designing an event for the public. The three finalist groups are Beo String Quartet, RighteousGIRLS and Founders. The winning group will earn an ensemble-in-residence position at the university this fall. The free concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 at the School of Music Recital Hall.

We spoke to School of Music professors Mike Harley, director of Southern Exposure, and David Cutler, director of the SAVVY Musician, to learn more about this joint program and how it benefits UofSC students.

Entrepreneurship is an increasingly important part of music education, and UofSC is active in preparing its students to be entrepreneurial. How does an event like the SAVVY competition finals help students appreciate the value of entrepreneurship?

David Cutler: Outstanding technique is obviously important for musicians. Yet to stand out from the crowd and build a following, it may not be enough.

The SAVVY Chamber Competition has the dual criteria of artistic excellence and creative event design. We seek ensembles that expand beyond the traditional concert paradigm. This can mean many things: multiple skill sets, visual elements like staging or set design, interdisciplinary collaboration, film integration, multiple genres. Over six competition seasons, we have witnessed extraordinary exploration.

Observing these forward-leaning groups helps students examine their own personal voice. It encourages them to consider not only what makes them good, but also how they might become interesting to an audience. 

Southern Exposure has built a very dedicated audience over the years with its innovative concerts. How does this concert fit into the broader tradition of Southern Exposure programming?

Mike Harley: What all three of these groups are doing is the very definition of innovation in chamber music. It’s very important to me that Southern Exposure bring the most interesting, engaging music-making happening in the field today to Columbia. These three finalist groups are at the very leading edge of classical performance: They were selected from the more than 50 ensembles that applied not only because of their excellence as players, but also because of the creativity with which they approach the concert experience and the music they play.

The opportunity to learn from successful young artists who are forging their own paths in music in outrageously creative ways has the potential to be transformational for our students.

Mike Harley, music professor

Creativity can mean many things. In this case, the groups have actually written or arranged many of the pieces on this concert, and are responding to pre-existing music in very personal ways, including improvisation — which is not always a part of classical performances. Creativity is also involved in the way the music is presented — how to engage the audience and make their experience as rich and meaningful as possible.

In addition to being fantastic players, these folks are good communicators. That’s something I always consider when selecting artists for the series.

Students from UofSC and throughout the country have learned arts entrepreneurship through the SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge over the years. What are some of the most interesting paths you’ve seen participants take as a result of their experience with SAVVY?

Cutler: SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge is unlike anything most participants have experienced. This immersive event is a week-long innovation game that challenges highly diverse teams to solve a problem related to the arts, and then compete for awards. To succeed, they must collaborate with teammates from different backgrounds while grappling with issues like product design, prototyping, finance, research and pitching.

We often hear from alumni how the SAVVY experience has impacted their work and life. They become more meticulous planners, pursue increasingly ambitious projects, and form non-traditional partnerships never before considered. Applying our problem-solving methodology within home communities, they choose more collaborative paths. Suddenly, conventional wisdom is questioned, with new realms explored. Foreboding obstacles are viewed as spectacular opportunities. 

Why is cultivating business savvy for artists increasingly important?

Cutler: Few artists today walk into predictable, full-time jobs. Instead, they juggle portfolio careers involving multiple income streams. To succeed, musicians have no choice but to market themselves, create demand, oversee logistics, design sustainable earning models. They must build a platform, while becoming experts on time and project management.

The good news is that entrepreneurial artists have tools at their disposal never before imaginable. Virtual hubs allow anybody to distribute and disseminate their art. From where I sit, audiences are more open-minded than ever before, and hungry to experience the new and meaningful. But in order to take advantage of these potential opportunities, it is essentially to cultivate innovative perspectives and practical business skills. 

How will UofSC students benefit from having a winning ensemble-in-residence in the upcoming academic year?

Harley: The opportunity to learn from successful young artists who are forging their own paths in music in outrageously creative ways has the potential to be transformational for our students. Think about the example the winning ensemble will be modeling while at UofSC in terms of performing artistry, creativity and innovation: Our students will make personal connections with leading artists in the field, be able to measure themselves against a successful ensemble — so, this is what it takes to succeed in chamber music — and get a whole swath of new ideas that can influence their own musical paths moving forward.

We try to stress to all of our students that a diversity of skills is important to make one’s way in music today. In other words, it’s not usually enough to just play your instrument beautifully. That is a non-negotiable starting point, but students also need to be caring human beings and versatile artists and teachers in the fullest sense of those words: thoughtful, involved in the creative process, able to draw upon a wide breadth of musical and non-musical skills — from technology to teaching to administration to marketing — and skilled at communicating the significance of their art to others. The winning group’s residency will help bring home the importance of all these things.

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