A PRELUDE to Something Greater

Photo: Christian McBride with students of the Elisabeth Morrow School

I recently wrote a blog about the value of sponsoring an Open House as a way to activate arts and performance spaces and invite audiences to taste—sample your programs. This week I am paying homage to the value of pre-performance experiences that benefit the venue, the artists and the community.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) launched its PRELUDES program nearly 20 years ago. In recent years, the Community Engagement Department hosts PRELUDES to provide an opportunity for community-based, performing arts organizations, usually those focused on youth, to showcase their work in the lobby of NJPAC, as a prelude to a concert or dance performance. Coordinated by the Community Engagement staff, these organizations are provided this opportunity in exchange for selling a minimum of 50 tickets to the performance. These win-win partnerships are invaluable for several reasons:

1) For most groups, especially the young artists, this will be their first time performing in a professional venue.

2) Ticketholders receive information in advance about the PRELUDES performance and anticipate it as part of their overall experience.

3) The involvement of the organization, students, faculty and/or parents expands the existing audience base and plants seeds for future audiences.

4) Ticket sales create ownership and an investment in the future of both the venue and the organizations participating in PRELUDES. The 50 ticket minimum pays for the investment of staff time and the creation of collateral materials. Most groups exceed the minimum sale, and some have sold close to 200 tickets.

5) The professional caliber of the PRELUDES performers exposes ticketholders to community-based, talented artists, and provides these groups with the opportunity to expand their audiences.

6) The performers get the opportunity to meet the artists for whom they are “opening,” even if it’s just a brief encounter.

Since its inception, PRELUDES has been fulfilling NJPAC’s goal of offering a unique “night out experience” for ticketholders, as well as the opportunity to participate in the venue’s commitment to foster future generations of performing artists. At the same time, young artists get to challenge themselves to perform at their highest levels. They also get to see a great performance and interact with the artists. Participants in PRELUDES have included schools, dance programs, theater arts programs and gospel music choirs.

Allow me to share a “real life” example, based on a partnership we’ve forged with Elisabeth Morrow School (EMS), in Englewood, NJ. In my role at NJPAC coordinating the PRELUDES program, I’ve had both the pleasure and honor of working with the dynamic, creative and innovative Amelia Gold, the Chair of the Arts Department at EMS and its Musical Director. She is also the founder of the EMS Summer String Festival, where she teaches more than 300 young violinists and musicians.

Amelia is herself a child protégé, who began her classical violin training at the age of four. In addition to graduating from The Julliard School and having the opportunity to study with many renowned teachers, Amelia was the violin instructor for the film, “Music of the Heart,” where she worked with both Meryl Streep and Madonna. She has served on the faculty of The Kaplan JCC Thurnauer School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music pre-college division for the past 25 years. Amelia’s passion and commitment to her students has led to their winning numerous awards and competitions. They also have been featured on several, national television programs, including “The Today Show.”

When I first met with Amelia more than four years ago, I shared our institutional goal of engaging new audiences for NJPAC’s programs, particularly in the areas of jazz and classical music. She leaped at the opportunity for her students to participate. Amelia and I begin our planning about one year in advance to determine the artists for whom her students will provide a 30-minute, prelude performance in the lobby of NJPAC. We also discuss preliminary ticket sale goals for her students’ parents. Usually, we will select a classical show, such as Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, The Piano Guys or Disney’s Fantasia. But they’ve also performed in advance of a diverse array of big-named artists, including Wynton Marsalis, Mary Mary, Tasha Cobbs and NJPAC’s annual MLK tribute.

The EMS students have consistently given fine performances as an entrée to the main course on stage. Last week, the school’s stage band and rock band participated in PRELUDES before “Congas y Canto,” a Latin jazz performance featuring Eddie Palmieri, Sheila E and the Christian McBride Big Band. The students, who were in the 5th through 8th grades, also had a brief opportunity to meet Christian McBride, who serves as NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor.

When asked by one of the students about the key to establishing a performing career, Christian replied, “Smart people talk, wise people listen. Learn to listen.”

I could see how impressed and inspired these young artists were from their encounter with Christian. They also took group photos with him.  I imagine this was a life-changing moment for all of them. Previously, Joshua Bell has met with the students for a photo and “High 5,” and The Piano Guys actually allowed nine EMS students to perform on stage with them. The artists offered performance tidbits to the students, such as how to smile through the music and let their violins also smile. The light in their eyes after these encounters is a wonder to behold.

Amelia said PRELUDES “has been extremely significant for the kids because not only is it a beautiful place for them to play and share their music with the community, but it also is inspiring for them to be at the venue—in the atrium and on stage. At our school, we play in a gym so to have an opportunity to play with such beautiful acoustics changes them.”

She went on to share, “Being able to showcase their extraordinary talents and have a goal of getting to perform at NJPAC has become a part of our curriculum. Students get excited every fall to learn what artists we are going to get to experience. The idea that they are ‘opening’ for such unbelievable artists has a big impact on their overall love of music and appreciation of the arts.”

As for the future of her students’ participation, Amelia says, “ I would love to get the kids up on stage playing with the artists, as we have done with The Piano Guys. That type of student-artist collaboration is truly magical and changes the trajectory of the students’ musical experience.”

I encourage you all to offer your audiences a prelude performance or showcase, if you don’t already have one. This will provide you with an additional opportunity to activate your space with local performers who will not only contribute to your bottom line, but also foster in the youth participants an interest in becoming a patron, along with their parents. Let’s all look around our communities and explore possibilities. It could be the prelude to something greater for your arts or cultural institution.