Sō Percussion’s Model of Success: The Collaborative Entrepreneurial Ensemble

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One of the highlights of my class at Yale is when I invite alumni from the School of Music to speak to the students about their experience. Since my class this semester is focused on collaboration, I was thrilled to invite Jason Treuting and Eric Beach, two of the four members of the percussion ensemble Sō Percussion.

Jason smallEric smallJason Treuting is the longest standing member of Sō and Eric Beach is the newest member of the ensemble. Together, they provided our students with valuable insights about how to form and run a successful ensemble, as well as how to collaborate in today’s world.

For over a decade, Sō Percussion has redefined the modern percussion ensemble as a flexible, omnivorous entity, pushing its voice to the forefront of American musical culture. Praised by the New Yorker for their “exhilarating blend of precision and anarchy, rigor and bedlam,” Sō’s adventurous spirit is written into the DNA passed down from composers like John Cage and Steve Reich, as well as from pioneering ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and Nexus Percussion. Sō Percussion’s career now encompasses 16 albums, touring throughout the USA and around the world, a dizzying array of collaborative projects, and a steady output of their own music. Sō Percussion also mentors young percussionists and composers through a variety of educational initiatives.  In 2009, they created the annual Sō Percussion Summer Institute on the campus of Princeton University. Its members are also Co-Directors of a new percussion department at the Bard College-Conservatory of Music. Most recently, they have been appointed the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University, working with both Princeton-affiliated composers and the broader university community.

Evolution of quartet:
Sō traces its roots to 1999 when Jason was a percussion student at the Yale School of Music in the percussion studio of Robert van Sice. Jason did not set out to found an ensemble but loved the “vibe “around chamber music at Yale. His 4-person student percussion group found that they really enjoyed playing together. They had a gig, came up with the Sō name  and decided to commit to working together. The group stayed in New Haven until 2003 when they moved to Brooklyn.

Initially, the ensemble consisted of the original four students at Yale. Two of the members left because of changing priorities, at which point Sō was picking up steam and people wanted to audition for the group. The group held auditions and ultimately hired a friend, Josh Quillen. They weren’t necessarily looking for the “best” percussionist but instead were committed to bringing together four people who see the world in a similar way. As it turned out, all four members are YSM graduates and therefore have a common language.

Eric, the most recent member of the group, did not intend to be a full-time musician. He started out at Peabody Conservatory where Bob van Sice ran the undergraduate percussion studio as a double major in recording and percussio. Eric was soon drawn in by the energy of playing chamber music at the highest level. Bob Van Sice convinced Eric to go to Yale and Eric thought that he would pursue a DMA and become a professor. Eric knew Josh and was invited to tour with the group, as was another player. Eric was selected because “it feels better [playing] with Eric.” At this point, Eric was in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and when he got the offer to join Sō, he finished out the semester and came home because he realized that this was what he was passionate about and had a sense that it felt right. His advice? You have to go with your passion when the opportunity feels right.

Sō Percussion’s Model:
Jason noted that when you start a group, it is important to find your own unique pocket of activity and grow it from there. For Sō, that niche was initially, “small and focused”: to commission and perform new work for the percussion.

There were 3 “no-no’s”:

  1. No improvising
  2. No hand drums
  3. No composing

The group made a decision not to play for percussionists and instead to go for broader audiences. Early on, they had a gig at an art gallery because a gallery owner loved Steve Reich and Sō played a lot of his work. Jason felt that getting in the door was the hard part and getting invited back was much easier.

As the group has grown, the activities have expanded, 95% as a result of the dynamic of the 4 members of the group. Jason now composes and improvisation has worked its way into their performing. And most important are the people.

Eric emphasized the importance of doing your own thing and not copying other people. Be clear on what you are about and have a sense of who you are.

All of One and One for All
In order to come up with a working model of how best to run the ensemble, the members of the ensemble sought out the advice of other ensembles, including Nexus, Kronos, Bang on a Can, and Amandinda to find out how to run an ensemble. Rather than a “top-down” model with one person as the leader, they decided on a model of “all for one and one for all” , with each member having a 25% voice in the decision-making.

Early on, they were so committed to this model that they often drew lots as to who would play what part. As the group has evolved and each member has grown, they are playing to strengths both musically and in how they run the business of the ensemble. However, they are committed to consensus decision-making and if one member of the group does not want to play a piece, they group will not do it. That’s because anytime you play you music, the end result is good only if everyone is on board. If someone feels lost, the group will not give its best performance.

That said, they exercise their “veto” power sparingly since they are committed to the best interests of the group as a whole. Otherwise, it sours the relationship. Eric summarized how the group operates as follows:

  • Choose when are you are going to advocate for something; and,
  • Know that you can’t always have your own way.

Eric mentioned that this model works with a small group. He had the experience of playing in a 13-member ensemble who attempted to decide by consensus but that model it did not work because there were too many people.

Ensemble Dynamics: Consensus, Trust, Respect
From their responses, it is clear that the group is united by passion, commitment, mutual respect and equality.

Jason and Eric both emphasized that the four members of the ensemble have enormous trust and respect for each other are and that their relationships are at the heart of the quartet. In their early years, the big decisions centered on music but as they grew older, the decisions got bigger and more complicated as they got married, bought apartments and houses and had children. Their mantra is “It’s just music. It’s less important than life.”

When they disagree about whether to play a piece or how to interpret something, they are wiling to try different approaches. It helps that they rarely play a piece once. Eric observed that if you express disagreement and are willing to try someone else’s ideas, you build a lot of good will by trying and then saying that it just does not work for you. Moreover, if you try someone else’s ideas, you must commit to doing your best. Finally, if two people genuinely disagree, it helps to ask someone else to make the decision.

Early breaks
We discussed how the ensemble became well-known and successful. The group had a few lucky early breaks, but also worked very hard to make opportunities happen.

Jason explained how he tirelessly emailed presenters all over the country, sending out literally hundreds of emails and being happy if he heard back from only a few. He feels that “the more energy you put into something, the more energy you get back.” He added that someone needs to hear their name 3 times before that person remembers them. For example, he emailed Steve Mackey at Princeton for 3 years and then met him at Yellow Barn one summer. Steve thanked Jason for all his emails and they became friends.  Their friendship helped pave the way for Sō Percussion to come to Princeton where they host their summer festival SoSI and are now the ensemble in residence.

Another early break happened when one of the original members of the quartet won a prestigious award at YSM which provided a tidy sum of money. The quartet decided to spend the money to commission new work. Jason was eager to work with David Lang (who at the time was not teaching at Yale), one of the founders of Bang on a Can. Jason emailed David at every possible email address he could think of and eventually, David responded, indicating that the money was not enough for a commission. However, it meant that David could write something that he wanted to do which at the time was a longer work. David knew that the group would work hard to give a great performance since he had already heard of the group thanks to a recording of Sō’s first professional engagement. The result was the 35-minute work, the so-called laws of nature, which has become one of the group’s signature works.

Another bit of “luck” was that Miller Theater was presenting an all-David Lang program and Sō was able to perform the so-called laws of nature on that show. The New York Times gave the group a very favorable review. This episode raised the group’s visibility and launched their career.

The ensemble works with many different collaborators including musicians working in other genres, visual artists, singer-songwriters and choreographers. They like to think of themselves as part of a larger community.

They select their collaborators by intuition. Typically, it takes time for a relationship to develop before the group collaborates with someone. For example, they are now working with Shara Worden whom they met a few years ago at a festival in London where they were both playing.They also collaborate with Bryce Dessner of the National and have allowed their relationship to “brew” and give things time to develop.

The Business of Running an Ensemble
Jason explained that the group has always divided up the business side of running the ensemble based on strengths. Thus, Jason is responsible for getting gigs, Eric writes grants, Adam does the PR and the writing and Josh is the point person for money and how it is managed.

Jason feels that before you start a non-profit organization, you have to define yourselves as a group. You should engage in activities before you create your infrastructure. Make the shows happen early on. He cited the Beatles who played together night after night for three years in nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany. That experience solidified their identity and they were then able to hit the big time.

Jason said that it took the group a while to figure out how to operate as an organization. They initially formed a for-profit company and then incorporated as a non-profit organization. Eric explained that most musicians are supported by donated money and he feels that it is important to be part of the funding community. Jason mentioned that funders are happy to talk to you about proposals and that you should get out there and talk to people about what you do. “There is no one in our world who will not sit down to talk to you”.

In terms of how to make money, Jason explained that they made a choice to make their passion their job. There are a lot of $0 gigs before your first paid gig. When you are doing your own projects, you have to play a lot for free in order to establish yourself. However, be sure to get paid if you are freelancing.

Jason advised that you should get a gig first and then talk about money. Ask for a fee and when the time feels right, you can increase that fee.

Community Engagement
Sō has recently committed to being a socially responsible organization because there are real problems in the world and they want to do their part to help. They also want feel that it is important to gain the trust and respect of their communities.

Eric observed that music could be integrated into the group’s community events and that music is inherently social since it brings people together which in and of itself is good for the community. Moreover, Sō seeks to bring positive energy when they perform and unite their audiences. Jason related the example of a festival where one of the performers sent out a very negative message by telling people to be quiet and listen to the music. When it was Sō’s turn to perform, they decided to turn things around and asked the audience to shout out “I love you, Jason.” People were so excited by the music and the good feelings that the experience turned out to be incredibly positive.

Their engagement activities go a step beyond performance. Last summer, they enlisted the help of their students at SoSI to organize a food drive. They also are paying into a fund to offset the cost of the carbon footprint when they tour.

Last words:
You are smart enough to do anything you want if money were your priority. If you are passionate about what you do, go for it!