Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Breaking Through

Breaking Through

By Linell Smith

Steeped in the entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed in the performing arts today, recent graduates of Peabody’s innovative curriculum are well-equipped to thrive.

Olivia Rainoff (MM ’20, Cello) remembers the excitement of embracing a job many would consider foolhardy: producing a classical concert in a Brooklyn cemetery at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the summer of 2020, as she juggled part-time gigs, the classically trained cellist began working as an administrative assistant for Death of Classical, a performing arts organization in New York that presents concert experiences designed to broaden their audiences and give voice to underrepresented composers and performers.

With her knowledge of logistics, and the administrative skills she sharpened in courses at Peabody, Rainoff helped to produce one of the city’s few live music performances in that disease-silenced autumn. “The only large-scale classical music public event in New York that entire fall was done in the moonlight in a cemetery,” she says. “It was thrilling to be encountering new things that I’d once have been told were impossible—or impractical.”

That experience, she says, has become an important item on her resume. Now working as the orchestra manager at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Rainoff credits her success at marketing her skills and expanding her vision of a performing arts career to the knowledge and encouragement she received at Peabody. 

In 2017, the Conservatory launched a comprehensive professional development program that is now essential to its performing arts degree. The Breakthrough Curriculum prepares students for performance careers by equipping them with the tools they need to performfor a broader range of audiences, with mandatorycourses in communication, audience development,community engagement, and ways to leveragetechnology (see sidebar, page 22).

Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute, underscores the importance of graduating musicians who can speak and write effectively as well as understand the sociological, political, and economic contexts in which they—and their art—exist. He says the Breakthrough Curriculum was created in response to the changing musical landscape.

“The people who run performing arts organizations are literally begging for the training of musicians to change,” Bronstein has observed. “The acquisition of new 21st-century skills is important, but more important is the mindset. That’s what has to change. We as musicians are all in the audience-development business, and we can’t grow audiences unless we do something differently and think broadly about our role.”

A Self-Starting Approach

Composer Bobby Ge (MM ’20, Composition) credits the Breakthrough Curriculum with exposing him to a variety of artistic possibilities as well as teaching him how to successfully market his music. His website lists commissions and performances with groups including the Minnesota Orchestra, the New York Youth Symphony, the Albany Symphony’s “Dogs of Desire,” the Harbin Symphony Orchestra in China, Music from Copland House, the Pacific Chamber Orchestra, the Bergamot Quartet, and the Boss Street Brass Band.

He is now pursuing his PhD in composition at Princeton as a Naumburg Fellow. “When by a miracle I got into Peabody, it was the first time I had ever had the chance to really write music as the main thing I did, to get feedback and validation from peers and a community of like-minded artists, and to explore music that was filled with new ideas,” he says. “It was a really good setting for figuring out what I was excited about. It’s hard for me to overstate how important it was when it comes to artistic development.”

Recently, Consonance Collective, the group of classical composers Ge helped to found at Peabody, released The Ocean’s Cry, a five-part video album that explores the underwater world through music, with footage from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Smithsonian Marine Global Earth Observatory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other ocean organizations around the world.

"The Breakthrough Curriculum encourages a self-starting entrepreneurial approach to our art making."

— Bobby Ge (MM ’20, Composition)

Before that, the Collective released Hearing Stars, a visual album of original string quartet works depicting the life cycles of stars. It was produced with support from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which provided photos, visualizations, and access to scientists.

Ge, who double-majored in music and physics, says he enjoyed collaborating with scientists. “The Breakthrough Curriculum encourages a self-starting entrepreneurial approach to our art making,” he notes. “So we asked ourselves: What’s a fun scientific thing we all enjoy? Let’s pick something, say, like stars . . . or the ocean. Then we would contact the organizations to see if they wanted to do a project with us. We’ve been consistently surprised about how willing they are to take us on.”

Before that, the Collective released Hearing Stars, a visual album of original string quartet works depicting the life cycles of stars. It was produced with support from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which provided photos, visualizations, and access to scientists.

Ge, who double-majored in music and physics, says he enjoyed collaborating with scientists. “The Breakthrough Curriculum encourages a self-starting entrepreneurial approach to our art making,” he notes. “So we asked ourselves: What’s a fun scientific thing we all enjoy? Let’s pick something, say, like stars . . . or the ocean. Then we would contact the organizations to see if they wanted to do a project with us. We’ve been consistently surprised about how willing they are to take us on.”

The Collective was able to secure grants for their projects from the Maryland State Arts Council and others, he says, “thanks to the know-how we got through the Breakthrough Curriculum.”

Ge praises Zane Forshee (MM ’01, GPD ’03, DMA ’11,Guitar), Marc C. von May Distinguished Chair of Professional Studies. Performing as a classical guitarist, Forshee also serves as director of LAUNCHPad, the career services office created and run by performing artists. Several years ago, he helped integrate LAUNCHPad into the Breakthrough Curriculum.

“If I was at the beginning of my artistic career, I’d want to talk to an artist who was a little farther down the road,” Forshee says. “Our students come to Peabody in order to study with faculty who are both artists and teachers. So, why not also have active performing artists in the career office, too?” 

“An important aspect for students to understand, and see modeled regularly by our faculty, is the multifaceted nature of being an artist—especially today,” he continues. “Frequently, students make the assumption that success as a performer is linked solely to time on stage and that if you’re not onstage, then you’re not really doing it. The reality is that success as an artist, regardless of the discipline, is comprised of a constellation of activities both on and off stage. The notion that a career develops only in front of an audience is a myth that needs to get put to bed.” 

Along with strengthening students’ performance skills, he says the Breakthrough Curriculum aims to give them “creative agency” and the necessary tools to pursue their ideas.

“We want to help them become artists who are project managers—project managers of their own destinies.”

Three people and one stands around a large table with multiple computer on it talking to each other
The working artists and educators on the Peabody LAUNCHPad team, such as Manager of Community Partnerships Khandeya Sheppard (seated, in white), help students and recent alumni forge diverse careers.

Confidence and Passion

Last year, Eliana “Elle” Krasner (BFA ’22, Dance) applied for a grant from LAUNCHPad to fund her capstone dance performance project, “Through Our Lens,” a 17-minute performance piece based on embodying family photos in an authentic way. The grant she received allowed her to rent space at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in Baltimore, hire two dancers, and purchase the materials she needed to mount a production complete with programs for an audience of about 75. Afterward, she also conducted an audience talk-back. 

She is now dancing in Palm Springs, California, through an apprenticeship with Nickerson-Rossi Dance’s Second Company, and considering an arts administrative job in the San Diego Unified School District. “I wouldn’t have those opportunities without having the skills that I learned at Peabody about how to brand myself,” she says.

Identifying herself online as a dancer–performer–mover–artist, Krasner numbers among the first 12 alumni to receive a Dance BFA degree from Peabody. She also founded and served as president of the Jewish Student Association at Peabody and delivered a stirring graduation address as the undergraduate student speaker.

Perhaps most important to her education, she says, is how the Breakthrough Curriculum at Peabody has expanded the way she thinks about herself as an artist. “I’ve gained a lot more confidence in choreography, but I’ve also found a passion for other kinds of leadership opportunities,” she says. “I could see myself working in arts administration or arts leadership for the rest of my life.” 

The Breakthrough Curriculum is designed to build skills in entrepreneurial thinking, leadership, project development, and citizen artistry in a sequence of traditional course work and curated project-based learning that is threaded into both the undergraduate and graduate degree programs. It begins with Exploring Arts Careers, a course that introduces strategies to enhance artistic development and outlines the attributes of professionalism, the breadth of 21st-century careers in the creative and performing arts, basic plans for individual career development, and the sense of place in artistic creation.

Students then take Building a Brand and Portfolio, examining traditional and new markets, diverse career paths in the arts industry, and professional communication skills. They construct a digital portfolio to refine over the course of their degrees and study topics including fundamental career skills, professional materials, personalfinance, networking, mentorship, and promotional activities. 

Students build on these existing portfolios in Pitching Your Creative Idea, the final course, where they develop and practice essential skills through designing, and often implementing, an artistic project for a setting external to Peabody. A written grant application and juried proposal serve both as the capstone for this class and an optional entry in a real competition for $5,000 in project funding.