In January, STYI hosted a backstage pass with cellists Hamilton Berry, Yves Dharamraj, Claire Bryant, and Caitlin Sullivan from Decoda focused on creative outreach. The insights that STYI gained from Decoda have been instrumental in planning Robyn Bollinger’s residency, less than a week away! Below is a transcript of questions by STYI and answers from members of Decoda.

How did Decoda begin? Could you tell us how the idea behind Decoda began and walk us through the process of how the group was formed?

All members of Decoda – at different times since 2007 – have passed through a 2-year fellowship program at Carnegie Hall called The Academy (aka Ensemble ACJW, aka Ensemble Connect — the name of the program has changed a few times over the past 10 years!). During this program, we performed chamber music with each other in different instrument combinations at different venues in the city, including many concerts at Carnegie Hall. We also learned the basic tenets of Teaching Artistry, based on the philosophy of Eric Booth and others, as well as exploring ideas about community engagement and entrepreneurship. The goal of this fellowship was to learn to become “21st century artists,” where we have the ability to interact with our audiences, advocate for our art, and become active citizens in our communities, rather than closed off or inaccessible to others (the classical music stereotype).

So, Decoda members all share a similar experience and basic teaching artist training through that program — however, when the two years were over, there wasn’t really a clear idea on exactly what we should do next. Some fellows started returning to the NYC freelance life, others started to take auditions, or otherwise try to figure out their next moves. And then we realized that, since we enjoyed working together and worked hard during that training fellowship, perhaps we should just band together and form an ensemble! Many Academy alums starting having lots of meetings together, starting email conversations, and getting a lot of dialogue going. We wondered, What would be the goal of our ensemble? What makes us distinctive and unique, stand apart from other ensembles? How could we take our training and make it marketable or appealing for potential presenters and partners? How do we incorporate a unique community engagement component everywhere we go to perform? Could we utilize as many of our personal contacts as possible to help us get us started? How do you become a non-profit? What’s a good ensemble name?

There was a lot to process and we needed to work through a lot of issues in order to move forward, and one of those issues was figuring out everyone’s commitment level for getting the ensemble off the ground, as well as how to create an internal leadership structure. There was a lot to do, and a small number of people valiantly led the way. More and more people chipped in, wanted to be involved, and this eventually established our roster of core members of the ensemble. We all committed a lot of time (unpaid!), whenever we could, to this cause — all of us were still juggling freelance careers, for practical reasons, as we still do! Decoda has now become a large part of our lives, a place to focus our most creative and passionate energy, and here we are, almost 5 years after our official launch! There is still MUCH to be done, but so far, that is our little story.

In all of your initiatives and outreach work, what have you found to be the most important in working as a team to accomplish your projects?

One of our training sessions with Ensemble Connect featured the comedian Rachel Dratch, who introduced the concept of “yes…and” from improv comedy. The basic idea is that, rather than immediately shooting down or replacing a colleague’s suggestion, the group should accept and add to it – I have found this technique to be particularly helpful in the early stages of group-planning a project. It’s a good way to keep the discussion open and collaborative. I think it’s difficult sometimes not to cling to one’s own vision for a project. The best teams I’ve worked with feature members who, even as they bring strong (and even conflicting) ideas or opinions to the table, are willing to drop or compromise them during the group process.

From your experience, what is most important to keep in mind when developing ideas for outreach projects?

Look for a strong concept that can unify your project. In the case of our recent trip to Chattanooga, we realized that the music on our program evoked different settings using the extended techniques of the cello. Exploring this theme helped focus our interactive concerts in the schools, and also informed our speaking from the stage at the Hunter and at a local retirement community.

If you could leave us with a single piece of advice as musicians and as advocates thinking about ways to use music to engage our communities, what would your advice be?

Before tackling this difficult question, I would tell musicians and advocates “to get to know your community (or your audience) as well as you can.” Pretend the community or audience is a person that you just met. What are their interests? How do they interact? Why do they meet and get together? Do they have any special quirks? Then I would try to see how music can fit in with those customs/habits/characteristics. Does your community have a big sports following crowd? Is there a creative way to bring the two — music and sports — together in a meaningful way? Is there a strong church following? Maybe there can be an interactive singing/call-and-response part to your music-making, or it could be tied to a charity event. I find that building an audience and engaging a community is first about learning about them, before they hopefully give a chance to “learn about you.” By no means does that mean you have to “give them what they want,” rather it is about understanding them first and finding similar interests — as if you were meeting someone for the first time and having a great conversation.

What drew you to playing the cello?

I was sick home from kindergarten one day and saw Yo-Yo Ma playing on Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood.

What is one of your most memorable experiences you have had as a musician?

Playing on SNL back in 2008 with Vampire Weekend was a lot of fun. The guys in the band were classmates of mine at Columbia, and we played on the show just as they were getting national attention. I remember one of the songs started with a string quartet intro, which I had to cue during the applause just after Amy Adams said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Vampire Weekend!” That part was pretty nerve-wracking…but we survived!

What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in music?

Embrace opportunities and projects that you’re excited about, even if they are in a fledgling or underfunded stage of development. I met many of my current colleagues on projects like these, often while we still were in school or just after graduating.

What are the best ways for students to be involved in classical music?

I think the best way is to find ways to do things together and have fun. Whether that means chamber music reading parties with pizza and silly shenanigans, or going to concerts together, or producing some cool event together. I think using classical music as a means to do something and bond is rewarding and long-lasting.