Making It in the (Chamber) Music World – with PRISM Quartet


Brittney Saline, assistant to Road of Creativity founder Connie Frigo, is the author of this behind the scenes glimpse into PRISM.

Last week we asked you if you knew what it takes to make it in the music world. Bassoonist Michael Harley and expert leadership consultant Meredith Kimbell shared with us their excellent insight into the foundations of “making it,” focusing on building relationships and taking risks.  Read their insights here.

Our appetites whetted, we thought we’d talk to another of our Music Entrepreneurship Retreat clinicians to get his unique and practical perspective on “making it” in the world of chamber music:

Matt Levy, tenor saxophonist of the acclaimed PRISM quartet, is an esteemed performer and composer. In addition to scoring four films, including PBS’s “Diary of a City Priest,” featured at the Sundance Film Festival. He appears frequently as a guest with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and his own works have been featured on NPR in Washington, DC, WQRS in Detroit, WQXR in New York City and WFMT in Chicago. 

In today’s music world, however, you need a broader skillset than merely the musical to make it – and there’s a whole other side to Matt and his path to success:

ROC: You’re a well-respected performer and composer. But we know that you also do a lot to manage the “business side” of PRISM – can you tell us a bit about what you do for the Quartet outside of your playing and composing?

ML: I’ve served as PRISM’s executive director for many years in a volunteer capacity, a position which is now paid and full-time, thanks in part to a major multi-year grant from the William Penn Foundation. Fundraising has been my primary focus, but I’m pursuing a whole range of responsibilities including concert and residency production, supervising staff and contractors, arranging recording projects, developing marketing collateral for our booking agents and conceiving of and developing major projects. Like most directors of small non-profits, I have to be a jack of all trades.

ROC: Musicians are devoted to their art, and many of us would like to believe that passion and practice alone will lead to success. How have your other skills and roles with the Quartet been integral to the survival and success of PRISM?

ML: Each member of PRISM has acquired a range of non-musical skills to further the group, including web design, bookkeeping and accounting and working with booking agents to manage the logistics of tours and board meetings. In my case, I focused on grant writing and development, recognizing that resources are key to the implementation of our creative ideas. I’ve also had ongoing interest in audio engineering, and taught myself to use a range of software programs and have edited, mixed,and mastered half a dozen PRISM CDs. It’s fair to say that the amount of time PRISM members devote to administration greatly exceeds the amount of time we spend rehearsing and performing.

ROC: Most musicians’ educational backgrounds are limited to musical subjects. However, you have a vast knowledge of the fundraising scene – how did you acquire such a large base of knowledge and experience in the realm of development?

ML: By attrition. I started by applying to Chamber Music America for a PRISM residency in the early 1990s.  We got the grant, and I began an ongoing process of prospect research and honing development skills. PRISM also received grants from the Philadelphia Music Project, now a program of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Pew eventually hired me to direct PMP and develop its grant making and professional development programs. There are lots of arts administration programs throughout the country these days, but I’m self-taught. Three fundamentals are important to this work: strong curatorial ideas, excellent writing and communication skills, and a thorough understanding of financials and budgeting.

ROC: PRISM has a loyal and large fan base, with regular concert series in Philadelphia and NYC.  These opportunities do not happen overnight.  What are three ways PRISM has built such a loyal audience over the years?

ML: Artistic excellence, innovative programming and marketing. Audiences have come to trust that they will have meaningful musical experiences at our concerts. The hallmark of our rehearsals is self-criticism, we put aside our egos and constantly refocus on the fundamentals. Each PRISM program explores a single idea, aesthetic, cultural sector, school of composition or unusual collaboration in great depth, which helps us to create program-specific marketing strategies. We put as much care into the creation of press releases and marketing materials as we do into artistic preparation, to maximize the potential for major press coverage, which in turn reaches potential audiences.

ROC: A major factor in getting support of all kinds is getting in touch with the communities around you. What’s one step a budding chamber ensemble can take towards establishing mutually beneficial community partnerships?

ML:  When PRISM first started it own residency programs in Philly and NYC, we tried to reach every prospective partner, playing at many libraries, nursing homes, community centers, schools, etc. You name it, we were there. We’ve subsequently opted to focus on a one or two partners is each city. In Philly, we “adopted” the Northwestern Regional Library in an economically disadvantaged section of the city, and are conducting several programs there in order to have a deep and and sustained impact.

Budding chamber ensembles should take the time to survey their communities and focus their efforts in a sustained and meaningful way on just a couple of partners whose mission and needs intersect with their own. If you work with 100 of the same kids several times a year, you are more likely to connect to and impact their lives. Foundations and government agencies that support arts education also subscribe to this notion.

Matt Levy and the rest of the renowned PRISM Quartet will be in attendance at the June 2012 Road of Creativity Music Entrepreneurship Retreat to share their experience and insight through workshops on the concepts of development, artistic identity, developing residency programs and searching and preparing for a career at academic institutions. 




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