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The Strata Festival’s Student Composer Symposium: Training young artists during a challenging time

Saskatoon, SaskatchewanSaskatoon (Saskatchewan)

Story Seeker: Kelly Hill
Person interviewed: Paul Suchan, Artistic Director
Interview held: July 28, 2021

Saskatoon-based Strata Festival of New Music has three prongs to its programming, all of which are focused on composers from Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada: 1) live performances of classical, jazz, electro-acoustic, and other contemporary musical forms; 2) unique performances featuring works that require unusual venues and configurations of instruments, such as a concert for seven pianos or one featuring the lowest acoustic instruments in Saskatchewan; and 3) educational and professional development opportunities for musicians, typically in the form of in-person workshops or masterclasses. The small festival has a total budget of less than $25,000, including in-kind support.

The Innovation: Creating an online composing symposium – in a month

In 2020, for the first time, the Strata Festival offered an online Student Composer Symposium as its educational component. Students had the opportunity to compose a short piece of jazz under the mentorship of well-known Canadian composers, including David Braid, Mike Rud, Beth McKenna, and Alexis Normand. The student compositions were recorded live (with physical distancing in place) and received an online premiere.

Artistic Director Paul Suchan noted that this inaugural Student Composer Symposium was delivered “about a month” after Festival organizers came up with this new idea for a “mostly online” workshop experience during the pandemic. While he recognized that “exciting” might not be the best word to use during a pandemic, Paul indicated that “there was something sort of exciting about it, in trying to organize something like this. It was new, and we had never done anything like this before.”

Students at a pre-pandemic Student Composer Symposium.

One unintended benefit: the Symposium drew the interest of a large number of composers and musicians, because it was happening just as many artists had lost all of their creative and performing opportunities. “We were able to search out some of the best jazz composers in Canada, and they all jumped at the opportunity,” Paul said.

Student participation was relatively high in the first iteration of the Student Composer Symposium: 20 participants in 2020. In 2021, after Zoom fatigue had set in among many, there were 14 participants.

Paul indicated that the digital format allowed for more in-depth interaction between students and teaching composers:

I think that, overall, the educational benefits are greater with this symposium [than with an in-person masterclass]. It’s more time that [the students] get to write a new piece under guidance, from a guest composer. They have lots of chances to interact. It was four or five sessions, whereas a masterclass is just one session, maybe 10-15 minutes with your piece.

The Challenge: Learning to livestream – in a month

The Strata Festival had a steep learning curve to climb, and quickly: “We had never livestreamed a concert. We never video-recorded a concert. We had never premiered a concert online,” noted Paul.

Money was not a significant challenge for the Festival, because it had a grant from SK Arts (previously known as the Saskatchewan Arts Board) which could be used for nearly any purpose related to new music.

Once the Festival decided to have an online symposium, the challenge became finding the right people to help out within their budget range. According to Paul, the Festival’s audio needs were easily taken care of: “The audio part of it, we had that cased. We have good people in town here that like to work with us, so that was no problem.”

As he put it, finding the right video expertise was more challenging for a festival lacking in online experience, particularly with its strong emphasis on paying artists:

If you have enough money, it’s really easy to get really good video from really good video editors. But then, at what point does that start to eat up enough of your budget that you’re taking it away from maybe performers or composers, or you’re increasing the fees. So thought has to be put into ‘we want this to be good quality, but where’s the line for us’. That was kind of tricky, to know how much money to spend on an extra thing that we had never done before.

Despite being able to offer the online symposium in both 2020 and 2021, Paul still believes that there is value in the human interactions that occur during in-person encounters. As such, the next edition of the symposium will likely follow a hybrid model:

We will have probably two or three of the composers still online and then maybe bring one or two [to Saskatoon]. There’s still something intangible about actually having a human being in the room with you. You know, it’s just not possible to replicate that. The hangout aspect of festivals is actually more important than people give it credit for. How many ideas are hatched when, after the concert, you’re hanging out with the composer or some of the musicians, and you’re talking about how it went? You don’t do that with an online concert in much the same capacity. People tend to hit “End Meeting” right away.

Beyond the next symposium, the Festival may return to masterclasses, at least in some circumstances. For example, the development of a piece of classical music would take longer than developing a shorter jazz piece (which is what the Festival focused on in 2020).

The Strata Festival did not offer a live performance in 2020 (other than the online performance of the student compositions) but did livestream a “low instruments” concert in 2021,which reached a larger audience than the Festival would normally attract. An in-person concert exploring the relationship between visual and aural art was also presented in 2021. Some mix of livestream and in-person concerts will likely continue in future years.

The Financials: Provincial operating funding and cost savings from being online

The Festival was able to pivot quickly because it had stability in its main funding source, SK Arts. The provincial arts funder asked the Festival to keep its staff employed, even with reduced programming in 2020. SK Arts also extended the Festival’s two-year operating funding (of $10,000) by an additional year, meaning that the Festival would only have to re-apply in the spring of 2022 for activities starting in 2023.

The Student Composer Symposium charges a fee of $100 for each student.

Because the Festival was virtual in 2020, it had lower costs for travel, distribution, and marketing. Regarding travel, the Festival did not have to pay for the flights and accommodation of composers from Montreal, Toronto, and British Columbia. (However, composer-mentors were paid a higher fee in 2020 to reflect the increased time spent mentoring students.) To distribute its livestream, the Festival used YouTube, which is free. Most of the Festival’s 2020 and 2021 marketing needs were met through Facebook, which was less expensive than the costs that they would normally incur to print and distribute posters and pamphlets.

The Takeaway: Staff and funding flexibility are key

For Paul, funding flexibility…

really opens up the world for innovation…. We didn’t know if we would actually have enough registration funds to pay for all the teachers, but with enough funding from [SK Arts], we didn’t have to worry about that. We could sort of jump in the deep end of the pool and say ‘okay, let’s just do this’.

The funding flexibility allowed the Festival’s part-time, seasonal staff members to stay in touch with the Festival and keep it in their calendars for 2021. Paul indicated that his staff members represented the second key aspect of flexibility: many of them pivoted quickly or even took on different roles in 2020. For example, even with quick turnaround times due to the sudden shift online, the Festival’s marketing person was able to create and post Facebook ads quickly.

As Paul summed up, “those two things basically ensured that we were still able to do something in 2020, and they also set us up for 2021.”


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