The Spirit of Entrepreneurship Is Strong at SFCM

Rayna Chou (PSD ‘20)

Conservatory students create new ways to share music before and during the pandemic

Written by Alexandra Simpson ‘21

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged arts institutions to adapt and create new ways to connect audiences and performers. At SFCM, with its culture of fostering entrepreneurial spirit, students and alumni responded with innovative and audacious projects—some of which had already been in the pipeline since their time at the Conservatory.

Virtual Music Lessons For All

DuMarkus Davis (BM ‘18) founded Musicbuk—what he calls “Uber for music lessons”—while still at SFCM with a grant from the Professional Development and Engagement Center (PDEC). Originally intended to connect students with the best teachers in their area, Davis shifted the platform to virtual operations during the pandemic and now brings high-quality online lessons to students regardless of their location and connections. Musicbuk has raised over $250,000 in funding from companies like Google, OHUB, and Techstars, and Davis was recently recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree in music.

Healing Quarantine Woes Through Music

Rayna Chou (PSD ‘20), brought listening to music to a new level with her creation “Hear the Light.” This year, she created an immersive art experience that combined a recording of Mahler Adagietto with light, shadow, and nature together in a warehouse in her home country of Taiwan. Chou’s goal was to physicalize the darkness we are experiencing and show the power of music. Visitors described the exhibit as “heavenly” and “hopeful”; an otherworldly experience to take people from the bleakness of the pandemic.

Chou has an impressive record for creating unique musical experiences. In 2016, she founded “Concert for One”: an opportunity for an audience member to receive their own private 60-second concert from a musician. In 2019, “Concert for One” partnered with the Celebrity Series of Boston to put on 5000 mini-concerts in a shipping container in public spaces around Boston.

Entrepreneurship at Any Age

Like Chou, Michail Thomson (BM ‘22) is also bursting with new ideas to present pandemic era concerts. Before Covid, Thompson Michail and SFCM alum Hayden Victor (BM ‘20) launched UNA, an experience pairing courses of gourmet food with movements of classical music. To ensure the safety of the audience and performers during the pandemic, however, they have created new ways to experience UNA.

Most recently, they created a virtual Nutcracker experience for corporate off-site activities. Michail and Hayden worked with local vendors like Dandelion chocolate to put together a box of courses to pair with pieces like “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which were recorded at SFCM by students. They even (safely) brought in a dancer from Seattle to complete the experience. The incredibly popular concert led to a sold-out show on December 18.

In Thompson’s view, students should start making opportunities as soon as possible in their career:

So many people get stuck in the student mentality, but these are the years to take risks.

Fundraising for Local Causes

On the local scale, many SFCM students have brought music to their neighborhoods throughout San Francisco through outdoor concerts. Michelle Sung (PSD ‘21) created the “Open Air Music Festival,” which raised thousands of dollars for the Equal Justice Initiative, and reached hundreds of people at venues like Stern Grove and Sunset Mercantile. Kody Thiessen (BM ‘21) also took action for a cause, raising money for wildfire relief with a concert at the Palace of Fine Arts. Both of these projects brought SFCM students and alumni together to play chamber music, often for the first time since the initial lockdown. These projects brought together the Conservatory and individual neighborhood communities to safely share meaningful musical experiences even as the pandemic continues to isolate people.

SFCM’s Musical Start-up Culture

It’s unsurprising that these SFCM students have responded to the pandemic with inventive solutions: entrepreneurship and professional development are part of the schools’ ethos. Students are encouraged to think outside the box and create their own opportunities—whether that means starting a concert series at the school or launching their own business.

Entrepreneurship is also literally written into the curriculum. Each student is required to take classes from the Professional Development and Engagement Center, a unique department geared toward giving young musicians the skills to, as Michail Thomson says, “be the person you want to be today.”

These classes teach real-world skills: how to organize and plan a show or project, how to create a budget, how to create a website with SEO optimization, and even how to navigate the confusing world of taxes. Each year, the PDEC department offers grants for innovative ideas and professional development which both fosters a startup culture within the school and teaches valuable skills like applying for grants and presenting a project idea to a panel.

The Conservatory Connect class also gives students the opportunity to see the value of community engagement as a performer by facilitating performances at non-profit organizations throughout San Francisco. Students learn how to adapt to uncomfortable or unfamiliar performance settings and audiences, opening up students to the idea of performing outside the concert hall.
SFCM also offers a special program of taking an internship at a local arts institution like SF Symphony for academic credit. Leah Froyd (BM ‘20) credits this program with giving her the skills necessary to thrive at her current position as Administrative Manager at LyricaFest Boston.

“I got so familiar with general admin work—organizing concerts and events, talking to donors, selling merchandise,” says Froyd. This community-oriented chamber orchestra has a similar ethos to New Century Chamber Orchestra, where Froyd interned while at SFCM. Like many SFCM students and alumni, Froyd has been helping to organize virtual and outdoor concerts for LyricaFest.

As concert halls remain closed to the public, these skills have become essential for all performers. Using the kind of skills and adaptability taught at SFCM, students and alumni have continued connecting with people in safe ways, both virtually and at outdoor and unexpected venues. As the music world moves forward and begins to recover from the dramatic disruption brought by Covid-19, SFCM students and alumni will continue to be leaders and innovators.

Hear how other SFCM alumni are choosing their own career success.