Sell yourself. Practice your “elevator speech.” Negotiate high.
These phrases, formerly restricted to corporate America, have been newly drilled into conservatory musicians. Classical artists are facing a shifting jobs landscape where “traditional” orchestral and performing careers are increasing in scarcity, and America’s music schools have taken notice. Entrepreneurship is the latest panacea to this problem in conservatories, with many career offices in music schools across America being appropriately rebranded as “entrepreneurship centers,” providing networking and financial resources to juice efforts by students to build unconventional careers.
But the musician-entrepreneur has made it on their own before, and there is perhaps no greater case study than Theresa Kim, a trained pianist whose scrappy summer music festival has grown to have a reach and impact that echoes across continents. Kim soon will be launching the seventh year of International Music Sessions (IMS), a non-profit music festival that has sponsored hundreds of students that hail from both the United States as well as multiple countries abroad to learn music from the world’s top tier musicians.
As is becoming a theme of those who National Sawdust Log thinks you shouldbe following, a little help from her friends has made all the difference in building a great idea. Full disclosure: I confess that I write this from a first-person perspective – Kim has employed me for two years as IMS’s Program Manager – but it is from this first-person vantage point that I have marveled at Kim’s hustle, persistence, and unapologetic ambition.
Kim’s flagship music festival, built from the ground up, is a remarkable story of grit, perseverance, and deeply affecting experiences for both children and the musicians who teach them. Kim taps into a juggernaut network of A-List musicians in the classical scene: violinist Charles Yang, pianists Peter Dugan and Alpin Hong, Imani Winds clarinetist Mark Dover, and even former You Should Be Following subject Drew Alexander Forde– all within one or two degrees of separation from Kim – have served on the festival as faculty, guest artists, or both. “IMS wouldn’t be around if not for these transformative individuals” Kim says. “None of this would be possible.”
While IMS is a relatively small festival that services around 30 campers, its ripple effects are tremendous. The model uses donor funds in tandem with local tuition to sponsor young performers, often from musically starved areas, including such disparate countries as Afghanistan, Tunisia, Israel, Kenya, Congo, India, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, and Bolivia. These visitors also join local students from the Hamptons – ironically, despite its wealthy reputation a locally underserved musical community for the pre-conservatory level – to create an experience affecting not just musically, but also personally.
“One IMS student from Iran openly wept as we drove by some of the bays on Long Island,” Kim recalls, “because he had never seen a body of water before. The two boys we’ve sponsored from Kenya, originally incredibly shy, blossomed during IMS, and have returned to their communities to become leaders.”
In addition to taking private lessons and learning subjects like Rhythm, Improv, and even Yoga from the faculty, students experience a social environment they often have never encountered before.
“Just as important as the world-class musical instruction IMS students get is the peer exposure,” Kim says. “Our business model puts together locals from the Hamptons, students who typically have more access, together with these students from environments that have been much more challenging. To see the two groups of children from differing racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds laugh with one another and become friends – treating each other as true equals – is beyond rewarding.”
Creating IMS wasn’t a straight line for Kim. After she graduated from Juilliard armed with her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, she fell back on the only thing she knew how: teaching and freelance performing. Though giving private lessons as a pianist was for her a highly lucrative endeavor in Manhattan, she found it unstable ground, giving her neither security nor a full sense of meaning in her life. Eventually, she knew it was time to make a change.
“I had been teaching for nearly a decade, and I felt a desire to work with students who didn’t have access to people like us,” she says. “In addition to creating a scholarship program, I had to sit and ask a number of more granular questions: would IMS be a year-round school, or a summer program? Where would it be? After combining market research with my vision, I settled on having a summer program located in the Hamptons, and never looked back. While running IMS year in and year out has always been challenging, I was driven not only by the prospect of providing this opportunity for underserved kids, but also being able to employ and work with my friends, who are some of today’s most exciting performers and dynamic young teachers.”
Kim also saw needs to fill for American kids, sparked by the students in her own studio, who often expressed curiosity about “what else was out there”—a curiosity she felt parents would have a vested interest in addressing.
“The parents I would see every week would worry that their kids were growing up in a sheltered, sometimes privileged bubble in New York City,” Kim explains. “At a place like IMS, I knew I could serve the needs of American students, while also providing a meaningful experience for the scholarship fellows [from abroad].”
Kim still marvels at the mountains she had to move to begin the journey.
“I was literally driving up and down Route 27, using the voice recorder on my iPhone to mark venues that looked like possibilities for IMS to be housed: churches, schools, community centers. When I got home, I wrote everything down in a notebook (which I still have), looked up the phone numbers of the venues, and cold-called all of them. There were more no’s than yes’s, but no one was going to stop me.
“I still can’t believe I did that. But when you are starting something from the ground up that you believe in, there’s nothing you won’t do. The impetus at the start-up stage is so powerful.”
Still, Kim acknowledges that a lot of help was needed to get to the finish line. She repeatedly cites two close friends as instrumental to the camp’s beginnings, people who were willing to get their hands dirty while also dispensing the advice she hadn’t received practicing scales and learning concerti.
“The first year after I did my drive-by location hunt in the Hamptons,” Kim says, “I went back to promote and recruit with two friends who really believed in my concept of IMS, even though it was just a far-fetched idea at the time. These friends went with me from door to door on Main St. in East Hampton as we told shop owners about IMS. As recent business-school grads, they taught me about how to pitch, how to sell, how to face rejection, and how to follow up with interested parties. We posted signs—and even got yelled at by the police for trying to nail one to a tree. Their belief in me gave me the confidence and strength to pursue the concept.”
Now IMS is cruising toward its seventh year, and during its festival employs over 35 musicians and staff annually. Demand for the festival has sparked an avalanche of momentum, inspiring a first-time expansion from two weeks to three, and a West Coast IMS satellite program in La Jolla, California.
But Kim sees much more in her future. With an recent education doctorate from Columbia University in hand, she is determined to revolutionize the educational system from within, actively pursuing open positions in several New York institutions. Kim is fiercely determined to give students the mentorship and skill set she wishes she had learned in school, and she is uniquely positioned to do so, with an impressive trifecta of qualifications: a full conservatory background, a doctorate in education, and a half-decade of success as a DIY entrepreneur.
“Music conservatory students pay just as much as students who go to the Ivy Leagues,” Kim says. “We deserve a shot at an equally rewarding career.”
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