The Strength of Ideas

Pablo Picasso’s “Femme au Béret et à la Robe Quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter)” 1937

Many friends and colleagues have encouraged me to write more in detail about how ideas originate, develop, and are finally realized. In my book and previous blogs, I have discussed the building blocks of creativity, especially inspiration, education, and the skills needed to bring one’s ideas to fruition. This blog is the first installment of a new series that will demonstrate idea development through my experiences as musician, administrator, educator, and cultural entrepreneur.

My last blog spoke about the primary seed of creative ideas — inspiration. Something must inspire us in order to have the urge to create. Early childhood exposure builds interest and ultimately the direction of our life. A book, concert, artwork, sports participation, or subjects in school light a flame that turns into an inspiring moment that impacts us and is never forgotten.

I studied music and theater as a young student, but my inspirational moments came as I attended plays and listened to more and more music. During a performance on Broadway of Sleuth, my first exposure to the Beethoven Seventh Symphony’s second movement was inspirational. Seeing Picasso’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art were mind-expanding. Learning about theater under the tutelage of actors and directors hailing from New York’s avant garde — all of these experiences were life changing.

Ludwig van Beethoven (c.1818) by August von Kloeber. Image: Universal History Archive / Getty Images

As I attended college with a double major in music and theater, I found similarities in how one approached new subjects contained within a liberal arts education. Exposure was key, because otherwise, how would you know if you had an interest or aptitude? Learning Spanish helped with presenting concerts in Mexico, statistics were a useful skill while writing grants, and along the way, other subjects enhanced my career decisions.

Our parents, families, teachers and friends also inspire us in what we do and don’t want to do with our lives. My parents had their own business, a wholesale grocery, which inspired me to break out of freelance life to work with my husband to build something of our own. Coming from self-employed families, we knew that the juxtaposition of hard work with being your own boss reaped many rewards.

Artists become self-directed because of the demands of their discipline. Musicians need to practice, actors must memorize their lines, dancers work out daily to hone their muscles, and artists continually study their creative medium. This is not different for athletes or scientists. Creativity in any field comes from training, discipline and curiosity. My ability to realize creative ideas came from my teachers who encouraged skill development and the ability to be self-motivated.

Portrait of Austrian-born American composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) as he poses with members of his family, Los Angeles, California, 1950. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Some artists are natural entrepreneurs. Musicians create opportunities for concertizing and actors need to appear in plays. Most large arts institutions began with a few artists seeking to bring their work before the public. I directed my first play while a high school student. As soon as I went to college, I became part of a string quartet. Performing artists need an audience in order to realize their art.

As a young artist, I built my skills slowly. I ran lights for the Christmas show in high school. I attended a summer arts workshop with inspiring teaching artists. Orchestra performances were ongoing in high school and I won auditions for regional orchestras. I dabbled in visual arts and studied ballet as a young girl. I even appeared in a friend’s short film when he needed an actress at the last minute! It was an aggregate of experiences that built my skills steadily.

I also participated in my parents’ business by answering phones, adding the bills in the evening, and observing how my father, an incredible salesman, developed customers. My mother was steady behind the scenes, dealing with customers’ needs on Sundays (“I ran out of flour”) and working daily to cover the phones while my dad was out selling groceries. My brothers worked in the warehouse in the summer and I was envious that they were allowed to drive the forklift. It was a small family business, but a successful one. This gave me a model for self-employment.

However, there is a difference between self-employment and entrepreneurship. My father certainly had entrepreneurial skills as he set up his business. However, once established, it was more about supporting his family and growing steadily. He did not reinvent the wheel over time since the business was working for him. Entrepreneurship to me includes taking risks, seeking new paths, finding opportunities to grow, and always questioning the status quo.

Most theater and music people are not entrepreneurial. It is certainly not a requirement for artists to create their own opportunities. Most actors, musicians and dancers look for performance opportunities by taking auditions and connecting with colleagues. The artists who are entrepreneurial have an idea they wish to realize, and if successful, develop the skills they need to recognize their dreams.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

It is the idea that creates the entrepreneur. However, it is easy to have an idea. Determining if there is strength in the idea is the difficult part. Assessing what is necessary to realize the idea takes skill and experience.

As our ideas led us to create Southwest Chamber Music, the Summer Festival at The Huntington, the LA International New Music Festival, 30 compact disc recordings, and international projects, each idea grew from its original premise. Not one project ended where it began, and although most were successful, there were times that the ideas did not come to fruition. But we always learned something in the process that usually made the next project easier.

When my husband Jeff von der Schmidt and I met at Tanglewood in 1979, we both had ideas for our future. Jeff had produced the opening concert of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California, and wanted to found Los Angeles’ first resident contemporary music ensemble. I had already emulated my teachers in Boston who were in string quartets, such as violist Eugene Lehner’s membership in the Kolisch Quartet. One of my most influential teachers, Walter Trampler, had participated in founding the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. From our first discussions, it was obvious that Jeff’s small family restaurant and my parents’ wholesale grocery business gave us the model to present our art ourselves. At the time, I don’t think we even knew what entrepreneurship was, but we wanted to try to create something of our own.

Former home of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the
University of Southern California

In the meantime, after I moved to Los Angeles and married Jeff, we began to produce concerts in various locations. A Brahms Festival at Loyola Marymount University, faculty concerts at Pomona College (where we taught for a decade), and a special concert at the Thomas Mann home were a good start. We also participated in the prestigious Monday Evening Concerts, meeting composers and conductors who were active in new music.

Through a dear great-uncle who lived in San Francisco, Louis Freedman, we met the most eminent rare book dealer in L.A., Jacob Zeitlin. Due to his friendship with my great-uncle, he took us under his wing and we remember fondly many dinners with him and his wonderful wife Josephine. Their red barn shop on La Cienega had seen famous movie stars, writers and scientists come through the door looking for rare books. Jake’s stories and advice became evenings we treasured.

Photo of Jacob_Zeitlin by Amanda_Blanco 1978

There was a beautiful space that was available for rent in the newly renovated Old Pasadena that Jeff and I thought would be perfect for an arts bookstore that could also present concerts. Obviously it was something to discuss with Jake. He was kind enough not to laugh at us for trying to do something way beyond our skills. However, he gave us the best advice possible through the following questions:

“What can you do that is unique? Is there a need for this? Can you do your new idea out of your garage, as cheaply as possible? And, when you know what you want to do, who are the people you need to know, the ones who influence what you want to do?” Jake said “if you can begin your idea out of your garage, with support from your community, you will be a success.”

The arts bookstore was obviously beyond us as we knew nothing about book sales. We went home and began discussing many new thoughts that Jake had inspired. We knew that there had never been a professional L.A.- based contemporary music ensemble. All others were visiting, at universities, or only presented standard repertory. We had interacted with living composers and wanted to create an ensemble that reflected the contemporary music scene in Los Angeles, home to emigre composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. These two giants of 20th century music had influenced every musician in Los Angeles. And, we had our detached garage!

We began talking about our ideas to friends, colleagues and teachers. I already was in a string trio, which became the core ensemble for our new venture. We knew that we would have to become a non-profit tax exempt organization so that we could raise money to present concerts and commission new works. And we would have to figure out how to find time to develop our new skills alongside our freelance movie work, teaching, and participation in local orchestras.

Through my own experiences, I hope to demonstrate the building blocks of ideas. I am fortunate to have a multi-faceted career in a creative partnership with my husband that has seen many successful projects and ideas develop over the past 45 years. Whether a large or small idea, I hope that understanding how our ideas developed might inspire you to try some of your own.

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