“I always had an internal question begging to be answered: ‘Is this as relevant as you can be to our world today?'”
Exploring the theme, Use Your Voice, Project Jumpstart named Nathan Schram their November Entrepreneur of the Month. An alumnus of the Jacobs school and a highly successful musician and entrepreneur, Nathan and his work at Musicambia have big things coming their way. Recently, Project Jumpstart had the opportunity to catch up with Nathan and chat about his experiences with Musicambia.
Hailed by the New York Times as an “elegant soloist” with a sound “devotional with its liquid intensity,” Nathan Schram is a composer, entrepreneur, and violist of the Attacca Quartet. Nathan has collaborated with many of the great artists of today including Björk, Itzhak Perlman, Sting, David Crosby, Becca Stevens, David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Joshua Bell, Simon Rattle, and others. He has premiered music by Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, Timo Andres, Elliot Cole and Gabriel Kahane. Nathan is also a violist in the Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall, Decoda and an Honorary Ambassador to the city of Chuncheon, South Korea.
Apart from performing, Nathan is the Founder and Executive Director of Musicambia. Founded in 2013, Musicambia brings music learning and ensemble performance to prisons throughout the United States. Through working closely with incarcerated individuals on performance, music theory, ear training and composition, Musicambia’s professional musicians build artistic communities that nurture the humanity of all involved. Musicambia currently runs a music conservatory in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York with other programs in Indiana and South Carolina. In addition to their work in the U.S., Musicambia has collaborated with projects in Venezuela and Scotland.
PJ: You and your work with Musiciambia totally blow us away. Could you give us some history of the program and its creation?
NS: Musicambia’s origin began when I was a fellow with Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect. As a fellow, I was offered the opportunity to perform in a number of community settings, including Rikers Island Correctional Facility in NYC. (This opportunity happened to be why I was drawn to Ensemble Connect in the first place). Performing at Rikers Island was a transformative experience for me. All my life I had been performing in concert halls for people looking for a good time. At Rikers I was performing music for people in need of music, and a relief from an oppressive and twisted system of incarceration. After this concert I began speaking to as many people as I could about how to recreate this idea for more incarcerated people in our country. This eventually led me to become the first American from the US to visit Venezuela’s Sistema de Orquestas Penitenciarias. In numerous prisons throughout Venezuela, this program has been teaching music to incarcerated people in one of the most thorough and intensive programs in the world. After experiencing the truly life changing effects of this program I realized that my goals would be to recreate this style of programming in as many prisons in the US as possible.
PJ: After you left IU, what course of action led you to becoming the Founder and Executive Director of such an impactful organization? What advice do you have for students who are looking to launch their careers out of school?
NS: After graduating from IU, I was very unsure of where to go with my life. I ended up moving to Madrid, initially to teach English and give viola playing a break. I quickly realized that I was much better at playing viola than teaching English and ended up at the Escuela Superior de Musical Reina Sofia. There I was able to go deeper into becoming the best violist I could be. During this time, I enjoyed deepening my exploration into classical music but always had an internal questions begging to be answered: “Is this as relevant as you can be to our world today?”
Towards the end of this year I received a serendipitous phone call from Carnegie asking if I would audition for the Ensemble Connect program. From there the story is pretty clear. But one detail is very important to share with IU students; the phone call from Carnegie originated from a single conversation I had with a visiting artist to the Jacobs School of Music.
During my senior year at IU, the Orion String Quartet visited twice and I was able to work with them intensively with my string quartet. At one point I asked one of the members if there was anything I could do if I wanted to come to New York after graduating. He told me, “I’ll put you on my list of good violists to contact.” And that was the end of that conversation. 2 years later, I find out he is the one that recommended me for Ensemble Connect.
I learned a quick lesson that day: You can never predict the connections that will change your life in the future.
PJ: It seems already, you’ve gained dynamic and diverse experiences in your artistic career; how do you find balance in your current work?
NS: Balance in my current life is an extremely difficult goal. Apart from running Musicambia, I am a busy musician in NYC. My most important role, both financially and artistically, is playing in the Attacca Quartet. In the quartet we travel nearly half the year touring concerts around the world. With this comes a tremendous amount of artistic and administrative obligations. I often find myself writing emails and working between rehearsals and before concerts. Even now, I am writing these responses backstage prior to a concert at Carnegie Hall.
The balance is not easy but everyone needs to find what works for them. Sometimes I feel I can work 20 hours in a day, sometimes only 6. If I stay goal oriented and efficient with what I am trying to accomplish I find I can get through much more than if I simply schedule times in the day to “work on things.”
Apart from this I am recently married and have had to address that my relationships and friends need my time and attention too. There’s only so many hours in a day and prioritizing what is important to you is the most important thing you can learn.
Lately I have been experimenting with some advice I received from a colleague: spend the first 3 hours of the day doing what is most important to you. If something comes up later and the rest of your day doesn’t happen as planned, at least you’ve already accomplished what you care about most. This could mean waking up at 5am and practicing and working out until 8am; it could mean waking up at 9am and composing until 12pm; or it could mean waking up at 8am, having breakfast with you partner, writing emails, and taking a walk until 11am. Your priorities are up to you. Just be sure to do them first.
PJ: Do you think the role of music within our society is changing? What changes are you seeing within your professional experiences?
NS: The role of music is certainly changing. I read and think a lot about the future and sometimes wonder if we’ve secretly been living in the golden age of music all along. Music hasn’t always existed and we shouldn’t necessarily assume that it always will. In my brief lifetime alone, I have seen music go from being an extremely valuable commodity, in the shape of Cassettes and CDs, to becoming nearly priceless, in the shape of Spotify.
We assume music will always be economically valuable to our society, but we mustn’t take that for granted. It is our obligation as musicians to share with our peers and community the value of music. Why does it mean so much to us? Why have we devoted our lives to it? Why is it of value to others?
Just as theatre and opera can become slowly out dated in our world, so too can music. We must learn to adapt to our society, not simply try to force society to bow to the level of our art. It is our obligation to adapt to the constantly changing human needs of our world and use our skills to serve our communities.
PJ: Can you let us know of any future plans for Musicambia?
NS: Musicambia’s future is ambitious. When I started Musicambia, our goal was to have programs in all 50 states within 20 years. Now, 5 years in, we are serving incarcerated communities in 4 states across the country. We are a little behind schedule, but in the next 15 years we plan to reach the remainder of our country and grow from there.
One way in which we are planning to increase our expansion is through intensive training seminars. Be bringing people with similar interests to our training courses, we will be able to franchise our concepts to create sustainable, locally run programs around the country.
PJ: Do you have any advice for students as they try to find their professional niche?
NS: Find what you love and work hard at it. But don’t rush finding what you love.
Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.