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  • Paul Schrage

Need Something? Just Ask Them.

Symphonia Caritas recently announced its 2021 Composition Competition for First-Generation Students. With this competition we aim to support students who often have less support, fewer resources, and are more likely to face racism and other challenges. When putting together the jury, I decided to ask high profile conductors of professional orchestras. I wanted applicants to know they are getting their music in front of the people who have the power to program their music and help them with their career.


We have a fabulous jury and I wanted to share the story of how it came together because it illustrates the power of asking someone – even if you don’t know them -- in the right way.


Who is on the jury

I assembled a stellar jury of conductors with national and international stature. Upon receiving emails from me asking for their participation, most replied within 24 hours with a wholehearted yes. They are all volunteering their time. Here is who is on the jury:

  • Kazem Abdullah, freelance conductor and former Music Director of City of Aachen, Germany

  • Rei Hotoda, Music Director of the Fresno Philharmonic

  • Ming Luke, Music Director of the Merced Symphony, Principal Conductor of the Nashville Ballet, and Director and Conductor of the Berkeley Symphony Education Programs

  • Cristian Măcelaru, Music Director of the Orchestre National de France, Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester, and Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

  • Barbara Turner, Music Director of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra

How did I ask them – the order matters

Of the 5 conductors, I know 1 very well, 2 only in passing, and 2 not at all. I asked the conductor I know very well first. This person knows the quality of my work and became an informal reference for the next conductor I reached out to. After this person said yes, I then moved on to conductors who I knew in passing. Each time I asked a conductor to serve I included the list of who already had committed to the jury. Those who I didn’t know at all I asked last. At that point I had a pretty impressive list of conductors. This provided me with significant legitimacy.


How did I ask them – be specific

I wrote a fairly long, yet organized email, detailing not only what I was asking of them, but also what Symphonia Caritas is and why the competition is important. I made it clear I was asking them to volunteer their time. I also was very specific about how much time I was asking of them, and how the judging would work. Everybody’s time is valuable, and the last thing busy people will do is give their time for something that looks like it might be a failure. Clearly describing your plan will give them confidence you will be successful.


Expect some no’s – if you can reach them

A few conductors I asked politely declined. This is completely expected. Every conductor I knew personally or had a common connection with replied and at least gave me an “I can’t do it but good luck”.


Expect some radio silence – especially if you go through management or social media

I tried asking 2 conductors who are heavily involved in education and social justice issues. I thought judging this competition would be right up their alley. However, I don’t know them and don’t have any common connections. I wrote to their respective agents, and never heard back from either. I doubt they ever got my messages. I think the chance of radio silence is also much higher if you try to reach someone through social media. If you don’t have their email, it will be very difficult to get them to read your message, much less give you some time.


Leverage your network

If you just need a little of somebody’s time, having a big, weakly linked network is a real advantage. Generally people will be happy to help an acquaintance, but not a stranger. Even just meeting somebody after a rehearsal or at a conference could be all it takes to create that connection. Obviously the stronger the connection, the more you can ask.


If you don’t know the person, look for what second-degree connections you have. Again, those common connections don’t have to be very strong, but familiarity makes people more comfortable.


One of the best things about asking for somebody’s time is that you are also building a stronger connection with them. Even though they may be doing you a favor, it gives you a chance to show off, assuming you are doing good work that you’re really proud of. Whether you are showing off your work, your passion, communication skills, etc., it creates a virtuous cycle. So go ahead and just ask them.

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