This interview continues to celebrate and explore where the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center has come during its ten years of operation. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary all year, and to understand MYAC’s story, I’ve been talking to key staff and supporters who’ve been here since the beginning.
Fran Richman is former Executive Director of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO). She led that organization for 25 years, and co-founded MYAC with Rob Goodman during her tenure.
Fran has since retired from her role as Executive Director, but remains involved with MYSO and MYAC. This is the second part of our interview. You can read the first part in a previous blog post.
Kaye Herranen: You talked about this a little bit already, but how did the move to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center impact MYSO?
Fran Richman: It’s perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but in some ways it changed almost everything about MYSO.
In a sense, MYSO kind of reinvented itself with this move. We added a number of very exciting, new programs, and with that we added a diversity element that had been sorely lacking. One of the things that both MYSO and First Stage developed as part of the capital campaign was our community partnership programs. And I really think that incorporating that concept into the project in such a prominent way was an Elizabeth Meyer idea, as well.
Both organizations were starting up new programs and/or ramping up our scholarship offerings in existing programs, doing things that we hadn’t done before, to help increase our diversity and to make sure that we were serving kids who were interested, so that no interested or capable student would be denied access to the programs. MYSO had always had that as a mission tagline—that every student who could successfully audition into MYSO could participate fully, because we would make sure that they had tuition assistance and private lesson assistance. With the building, the new programs, and an enhanced commitment to diversity, we broadened that access tremendously.
It was putting these programs under the umbrella of community partnership that gave us opportunities—including important fundraising opportunities—that we wouldn’t have had before. We discovered that that pragmatism connected beautifully with the whole vision of what we wanted this space to be and do; it allowed MYSO to grow from about 600 students right before we moved in here, to more than 900 in just a few years.
Before MYAC, MYSO had a rabbit warren of office space. It was one large room with a number of small room dividers; we crammed about 6 staff people in there, and we had timpani and string basses and a lot of other percussion equipment and our music library up in the front of the office. When someone walked in, they couldn’t see anyone, just timpani and large percussion. So they would yell over the cubicles to see if anyone was there. And then people would poke their heads out, like prairie dogs popping out of holes. We were thrilled to be located in the Marcus Center, and they did their best to help us maximize our use of the space; but it was not ideal for our purposes. We entered our old office in an “Ugly Office” contest and were stunned that we didn’t win.
But in spite of the space, we managed to run some truly extraordinary programs, and people liked the idea of coming to the Marcus Center, knowing that so much of Milwaukee’s arts community had ties to it. It screamed “performance,” and that was fun. But the rehearsal halls were really too small for our large ensembles. We were often putting 100 kids in a space that was meant for 50. Sometimes kids were actually hanging out the doorways into the hallway. But it was what we had, and people thrived and grew and turned into fabulous musicians. So it couldn’t have been too bad. So enter MYAC! In addition to giving us a place to store all of that important equipment, it allowed us to take donations of instruments and to buy some equipment that we sorely needed.
KH: What was the original vision or dream for MYAC?
FR: I think the goal was to ensure that children from every background, regardless of their financial capability, would have an opportunity to—in our case—study ensemble music in a setting that was educationally appropriate and high quality and which could play a key role in preparing them emotionally, psychologically, and musically, for whatever they wanted to do.
We sort of joke about the fact that early on we had this idea, and we wanted to vet the idea around the country to make sure that we weren’t wasting a lot of resources re-inventing the wheel. We felt strongly that if there was something out there, we should tap into it, take advantage of what others could teach us. But we gradually discovered that there WAS no wheel—we were it—this concept didn’t exist anywhere. The combination of an urban-based collaborative venture; seeking to create high quality space; not focused on performance but rather on education, training, and rehearsal—all of those things made it unique. And that uniqueness was a pretty compelling argument; I think the idea that Milwaukee was developing a new arts model was something that really helped tremendously with the fundraising.
The community did not embrace the concept [of MYAC] initially. I think there were a lot of people who felt that nonprofits have no business building or owning facilities, and certainly that two relatively small arts groups don’t have any business doing that. It took a long time and was a perplexing concept—people couldn’t quite get their arms around the idea of what we were doing—because it was new, it was different.
You know, when we first started the campaign we had some wooden boards lined up against a wall, which we called the wall of dreams. I hope the pictures exist somewhere. There are some really great quotes on there of what kids thought this was going to be. And they’re wonderful! The kids were pretty eloquent—I think they understood the concept better than a lot of the adults! If that wall is still around, it would be a fun thing to integrate into this retrospective.
When we launched the project, we had a $12 million capital campaign. A measure of the success and of the extent to which people ultimately “got it” is that the campaign raised over $15 million. The “extra” was almost entirely for the new programming being proposed. People said that not only did they think this building was important and great and wonderful, but that they needed to give money to support the kind of programming being developed because of the location and the mission and the notion of community partnership.
So the campaign raised several million dollars extra, largely from Dick Burke, but from a number of other generous people as well, to support the diversity initiatives and the scholarships.
That’s a very successful campaign by anyone’s measure. It was very slow getting going; it was not an easy campaign for a long time, but then gradually people caught on.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story about Dick Burke. A couple of people from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation worked with Dick to help direct his philanthropic giving; they wanted him to come and hear about this project, wanted him to come and see the space. This was when it was still a big warehouse, pretty much a concrete football field. After a lot of effort, a Foundation officer finally convinced him to come and see it. But what he was hearing from Rob and me was all about arts programming, arts and the kids, etc. He made no bones about being a self-professed non-arts guy. And he later joked about wanting to bolt when he got here; he was just not all that interested. After some time he said that he would be willing to give some money for the programming that he cared about, the things that would directly help disadvantaged urban youth. That was wonderful news--he was willing to commit $1.8 million. That sounded absolutely fabulous, but then we had to work very hard to help him understand that unless we had the building, none of that programming was going to happen.
I think it was a good six months after he committed to giving program money, that he committed to making a capital gift, money that would go toward the brick and mortar part of things. My sense was that he loved the place and was pretty sold on it but that he had to be sure it would serve the needs that he saw in the community. He later played an important and active role on the MYAC board of directors. I just loved the fact that he said, “For my $3.6 million can I un-name some spaces? I don’t want anything named after me—I just want to be sure some key spaces remain un-named.”
When you inform someone that you’re studying the arts, either at the high school or college level, many people respond with the question, “…And what are you going to do with that?” In this blog series we’ll be profiling several careers in or related to the arts.
We spoke with Megan Ley, a music therapist who works with adults with intellectual disabilities at the Milwaukee Center for Independence.
What music or arts programs were you in growing up?
I started in choir--that was primarily what I did. I was also in orchestra through middle school and high school, so I play the violin. I was part of the Lacrosse Youth Symphony Orchestra. I was also in show choir and took piano lessons.
Do you play any other instruments?
With the music therapy program you do learn how to play guitar as part of the main curriculum. So I play guitar, piano, I picked up some other random instruments like ukulele—once you learn how to play guitar you can branch out pretty easily. The ukulele is really useful in that you can carry it anywhere, you can play a lot of different styles of music on it. Sometimes I play the autoharp, or just weird stringed instruments.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to the University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. I didn’t know about music therapy at all in high school, and I didn’t really know about it going into college. It was after my first semester of college, my mom works at the hospital in La Crosse, and there happened to be a music therapist who worked there. So she kind of heard about it, and thought that I should check it out. I set up a job shadow, I followed her around for the day. On that day she was in the oncology unit, so she was going around to people who were getting chemotherapy. Which was pretty powerful, and I got to see the effect that music had on people at a pretty dark time of their life.
So that was how I got to thinking—wow, I really need to do this. I transferred into the program at the University of Minnesota. Luckily they have a really great music therapy program there. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in at the time, but then I stumbled into music therapy and was like, yes this sounds like something I want to do.
Music was a big part of my life, and I had heard from so many people “What can you really do with a music degree?” and that kind of negative “is it really practical?” attitude.
What was the program like at University of Minnesota? What type of classes did you take?
It’s a four year, undergraduate program. You’re in the music school, so when you start out as a freshman you’re in basically all the classes that the other music majors take. You take Intro to Music Therapy to get an overview of what it is, all the different things you can do with it. And then as you progress through the program it became more specific to music therapy and psychology. Also in your Junior and Senior year—and I think this is the same throughout all music therapy programs—you do a practicum. Every semester you go to a site where there is a music therapist and you shadow them, and help them there.
Did you have a favorite part or aspect of the program? A favorite class?
The thing I liked the most about where I went to school is that it was really hands on. Instead of just talking about music therapy, we were always doing things in class like role playing. At the time I didn’t really like this, but we had to videotape ourselves a lot so we could watch it and improve. And they had a lot of other opportunities for practicum with different populations—with children, with older adults, and everything in between.
What are some different types of music therapy? Is it by age group, or different approaches?
Sometimes it’s hard to describe music therapy, at least for me, because there are so many different things you can do with it. There are different philosophies. The University of Minnesota is very cognitive behavioral, so focusing on goals and accomplishing those goals in a timely matter, measuring something. There are different approaches that are more psychoanalytic, more improvisational. There’s also neurologic music therapy. So there are different, more specific schools of music therapy.
Music therapists can really work with anyone, from premature infants all the way to older adults in hospice care. Music therapists work in hospitals, schools, treatment facilities, rehab facilities, even correctional facilities. Lots of variety.
Generally, what is your job like? What are the things you do on an average day?
In general, music therapy is using music, but we’re focusing on things that are not musical. So that’s where we differ from things like music education. You’re not focusing on whether or not someone’s playing an instrument correctly—it’s not really about the music. At my job, I have a lot of groups. I have two groups a day, and we’re working on a lot of things like social skills, communication, expressing emotions.
What are some of the activities that you do with clients?
Each group I have has a different focus. Like I said, we focus on social skills. For one group we might do a hello song just to welcome everyone to the group and let them know that we’re getting started. It’s a structured way for people to work on greeting a peer, this is how you say ‘hello’ or ask about someone’s day. Or this is how you answer those questions. So that might be something we do to address a pretty basic social skill, something like saying hello. Another thing we might do is I’ll say “We’re going to write a song today, I want you to tell me what we’re going to put in the song. What style is it going to be? What instruments do you want to use?” It’s about making decisions, listening to other people’s input, coming to a compromise, working as a group, working with others.
Playing instruments is a big part of it. Taking turns, impulse control. Just choosing an instrument.
A lot of times I’ll be playing something on guitar to lead the group and I’ll have other people playing instruments with me. It’s a collaborative group effort, not just me singing the song. I want people in the group to be doing something active and working on something.
What’s your favorite part of the job, favorite stories?
There are so many great things about being a music therapist. Even just creatively, there are so many opportunities to be creative musically and do so many different styles of music—I’ll do anything from folk songs to Taylor Swift, in one group maybe.
One of my favorite things about this job is seeing someone who might not in other aspects of their life respond to things--maybe even look up or smile--do something musical or hear something and interact and engage. That’s really rewarding and something I really enjoy about being a music therapist.
If someone is interested in music therapy, what would you say are some required skills or experiences? Do they have to have a musical background before college?
I think it helps to have a little bit of a musical background, but I think it’s more important that you have to be interested in people and that aspect as well. Being flexible is a big thing. A lot can happen in any group of people, you need to be able to think on your feet, be flexible, be in the moment.
Do you have advice for people interested in music therapy?
I was going to mention that if someone is interested in music therapy, going to the American Music Therapy Association website would be really helpful. It’s a good place to start, it has all of the schools in the country that have a music therapy program, basic information about music therapy.
It’s a really great opportunity to be creative. And if you play a really weird instrument and think like "Oh, I’ll never really use this,” chances are you can find a way to use it in music therapy.
Something that’s really rewarding about music therapy is that I found that music is something that touches a lot of people regardless of their functioning level and it can have an effect on really anyone of any background.