Last May I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the New Music Gathering, an assembly of music makers in the new music field who have been meeting at locations across the country for the past few years now. It was a wonderful experience and is still a highlight from 2017 for me.
Near the end of the three-day event, I remember having a conversation with composer Aaron Jay Myers and violinist Nicole Parks during which we laughed at the idea of a conference full of self-identified introverts who were suddenly behaving like extroverts.
The nearly universal feeling seemed to be, “These are my people. I must meet them all!”
For those of us who do find ourselves on the introverted side of life, such concentrated social activity can be exhausting. While speaking with Aaron and Nicole, I imagined all the attendees returning home and retreating to their studios to live in silence for a week just to recover.
And can you blame them? Being around people is a lot of work for the introvert. It’s not that we don’t enjoy other people. Quite the opposite. It’s more that we take people in controllable doses with large chunks of alone time. The smaller the groups of people, the better.
The reality about the New Music Gathering (and all conferences, really) is that we can’t space the doses of people out. Conference organizers, especially the NMG organizers, design the event to be an intensive incubator of ideas, performances, meaningful conversations, and networking. And this is a good thing!
Sadly, I am unable to attend the 2018 gathering. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot and wanted to pass on many of the strategies I’ve used to make conferences such as the New Music Gathering powerful and memorable experiences.
Below is my guide for the introverted composer or performer attending this year’s New Music Gathering in Boston May 17–19.
The focus is on the New Music Gathering because it is just around the corner. More than that, if I was the kind of person to make bets, I would wager that nearly everyone I have met at NMG would self-identify as an introvert. To do what we do as composers and performers requires the ability to spend many hours in solitude.
The truth is that most people are ambiverts who exhibit both introverted and extroverted qualities depending on the context and situation. The difference between introversion and extroversion is a matter of degrees—think of it as a sliding scale—and we all have a natural inclination to be on one side or the other.
I hope this guide is universally helpful, even for the extroverts. The ideas can easily be applied to any conference or networking event. But if you self-identify as an introvert I wrote this for you. I hope to encourage you to get the most out of the conference. You do not need to feel pressure to do all the things. Nor should you feel guilt for doing only some of the things.
Set a clear intention for the conference
Decide in advance what you will get out of the conference. Last year I wanted to meet some people, deepen some relationships, and, in general, just observe. It was great! Setting an intention or two allows you frame the experience in advance. I know people who have used intentions to have better relationships and experiences. You can do this at NMG, too.
Do you intend to become better informed about trends in new music? Do you want to learn more about a specific topic/idea? Do you want to lay the foundation for a new collaboration? Do you hope to meet and network with performers?
Plan your schedule in advance
The NMG organizers have already published this year’s schedule of events. You can find it on the NMG website: http://www.newmusicgathering.org/.
Except for the evening concerts and the keynote address, there are multiple events within each session block. Look at the schedule and consider in advance what you most want to attend. Taking the time to plan things out now will reduce the stress of having to make a last-minute decision. Decision fatigue is a real thing—especially, when you’re hungry, tired, or overwhelmed by the previous session you attended. Take the time now to map out the things that are of interest to you. This will also give you a good sense of the range of things happening at any one time, and will likely allow you more energy to be flexible once you’re there!
Build in alone time
One marker of introversion is that alone time is what recharges, energizes, and makes you feel capable and sane. It is okay to plan an hour or two in your schedule to be by yourself. Maybe you want to take an early afternoon nap. Maybe you need to spend an hour in the local coffee shop.
My experience is that conferences like NMG are inspiring and life-affirming, yet they require a high level of engagement. They require meeting and speaking with many people. They often include discussions of high-level topics that are not easy to parse or even talk about. In fact, reading through the schedule I see many sessions that promise to provide these very things.
There are also evening concerts and performances throughout every day of the conference. I’m positive you’ll want to listen carefully to the work of the composers and enjoy the skill of the performers. As I’m sure you’re aware, giving a performance your full attention can be both inspiring and taxing—and I don’t mean in a bad way! Nothing inspires me to compose more than attending a concert, but actively listening is also exhausting.
You may find, like me, that just taking an hour to be alone or with only one or two others is all it takes to be ready for the next session or concert. You want to get the most out of each session.
Give yourself permission to skip something
Some of my favorite memories from last year’s NMG, as well as the many other conferences I’ve attended, are the spur-of-the-moment opportunities to grab a coffee with someone I just met or to have deep, meaningful conversation over an extra-long lunch. These are the times when you have to throw your schedule out the window.
And when you do that, you have to give yourself permission to miss a session. Whether you’re recharging by yourself or building community, don’t beat yourself up when this happens.
Yes, you want to be at everything (which is impossible). Yes, you wouldn’t want anyone to skip your session (but people do for a number of reasons). But it’s okay to miss something.
I used to feel enormous guilt after returning home from a conference because I didn’t do all the things. I realize now that that is a ridiculous expectation to have. Be present. Be involved. But also give yourself permission to miss something.
Don’t network in order to get, network in order to give
NMG is an ideal place to meet new people who love new music and who are interested in making it happen. In fact, they encourage it! Every year the organizers host a Speed Dating event where performers and composers can meet each other, share information, and see if there would be ways to work together.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the Speed Dating event is the only networking opportunity at NMG. Every interaction you have is an opportunity to build a relationship. And that’s how you should view networking.
For some of us introverts, networking can feel like we have to put on armor and go slay a dragon. From just outside the door, it appears to be a heroic and difficult task—but it doesn’t have to be! If every interaction is networking, then the first step is to just enjoy each interaction. The next step is to work to add value to those you’re meeting and interacting with. Don’t network to gather the names and contact information of people you can ask something of. Instead, network to give to others. Network to build relationships with people who live and work in communities far from yours.
Some of the best tips I have for networking include being genuinely interested in other people; searching for ways to help other people, either with your skill set or other connections; and truly listening. The worst kind of networking experience is when you find that other people only want to talk about themselves.
As Dale Carnegie said in How to Win Friends and Influence People (one of the oldest books on networking), “To be interesting, be interested,” and “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Networking is also more than building the connections you have. It leads directly into the next point: network to build community.
When Lainie, Daniel, Mary, Matt, and Jascha founded the New Music Gathering, they intended for it to be different from any other conference available to composers and performers of new music. As they say in their mission statement, the conference is a way to “focus on the needs and desires of the community directly.”
This is why you will not find vendor booths or anyone selling anything at NMG.
Some of my friends have described NMG as a breath of fresh air. I have experienced this myself. It is a place to be with like-minded individuals who want to make music, explore ideas, and support each other.
By attending NMG you are participating in this community. Your networking, conversations, and interactions are all part of the bigger picture.
Work to build the community by developing your own relationships, by participating in the discussions, by attending sessions and concerts, and by encouraging those who have put in many hours of uncompensated work.
Some of you are thinking that the above work doesn’t fit in an introvert’s guide to NMG. If you are truly an introvert, sometimes the idea of building community can be terrifying. It requires engaging with others. It requires showing up when you don’t want to. Sometimes it requires engaging with those who you would rather avoid. More than that is the fact that the community that NMG supports extends across the nation and even internationally. Many introverts build rich and supportive communities around themselves with a small circle of friends. The introverts I know, including myself, can name a handful of people they’d enjoy seeing and spending time with. We can be, at best, ambivalent about everyone else.
At the New Music Gathering, however, you have to leave the small community mindset at the door. It’s important to join and be a part of the larger community. It will benefit you in ways you can’t imagine, and it benefits others because they need to hear your voice, too. The community needs you to show up, contribute, share your music and ideas, and offer your support. And it might mean that you will go against your natural inclinations about engaging with others to make it a reality.
The gathering, as are most conferences, is only three days long. Set the intention to join and participate in what normally could be an uncomfortable setting. You can choose to make the community building an exciting and energizing part of the conference.
Don’t be negative
It’s trendy to be snarky. The mocking sarcasm can be most biting on social media. I’ve had to work hard to avoid trying to appear smart or clever by expressing sarcastic statements that come at the expense of others. Sure, they may be funny, but they certainly are not building community.
It’s normal, and even expected, to dissect the sessions and performances you attended. But I’ve participated in too many of these conversations where the snark becomes negative. The mutual dislike of a composition, topic, or presenter turns into an excuse to sling mud. Instead of building up, we tear down.
This doesn’t mean you have to like it all. I’m not sure that’s even possible. Just be careful with your words.
One question I’ve found helpful with this is to ask, “Is this the person I want to be?” When I find myself saying the kinds of things that the person I want to be would not say, I stop. You can literally flip a switch and start acting like the person you want to be.
Just because you’re an introvert does not give you the excuse to belittle those who are putting their work and ideas out into the world. If you dislike what you hear, start a more constructive conversation about it. This, too, will build community.
Lastly, have fun! If you go to NMG with the intention of having a great experience, you will. If you go thinking about how hard it will be to sustain conversations and network, that is what you will experience. Henry Ford supposedly said, “Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.”
I encourage you to choose to enjoy yourself. Go into NMG expecting to hear great music brought to life by superlative performers. Look forward to meeting interesting people who are doing interesting things. Expect stimulating discussions on topics that matter.
Go with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time!
Many of my composer friends have commented on how spending three days attending NMG has provided them with enough fuel and encouragement to sustain them for months afterward. If you want, you can also be so inspired.
Look at networking as an opportunity to help others with your unique set of skills. Choose to think of community building as an energizing experience.
And don’t be afraid to give yourself some self-love with the occasional break. It will make the other things so much easier.