Nicole Davis

August 15, 2012

Adapt, Invent

As an employee of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Eastman alum Nicole (Cragin) Davis works in an environment that capitalizes on adaptability. Davis received a BM in cello performance and a certificate in Arts Leadership in 2011. An ALP-sponsored summer internship helped Davis develop a connection with the MSO and she currently works as the Patron Engagement Manager. Davis describes the MSO as, “one of the most innovative and experimental orchestras in the country,” because of the orchestra’s ability to adapt to the culture of Memphis and provide a variety of entrepreneurial programs. On a day-to-day basis, Davis works to market MSO performances, update and expand online and social media projects, and improve the patrons’ concert experience. As a freelance cellist and classical music advocate, Davis’ personal goals align with the mission of the MSO: to create meaningful experiences through music.


What ALP classes did you take and how did these classes prepare you for your job with the Memphis Symphony?

I attempted to take every ALP course that I possibly could, because I knew that the skills and knowledge I gained in ALP would directly enhance my career in performance or administration. I took courses in public speaking, outreach, grant writing, entrepreneurship, self-promotion, studio teaching, problem solving, realities of orchestral life, and keys to healthy music. All of the ALP courses helped me to experience the decisions that administrators and teachers are faced with, allowed me to express my musical nature in a new and previously unexplored fashion, and expanded my ability to think abstractly about the issues facing the music world today. It’s not a stretch to say that every course I took aided me for my position with the Memphis Symphony. Every day I am expanding my skills as a marketer, a writer, an entrepreneur, and a problem solver.

The goal of ALP is to “prepare students for an ever-changing musical world.” In your opinion, how is it changing and what skills are essential for students to acquire?

What with technology consistently changing and the problems facing the arts world ever increasing, the most important skills are adaptability, problem-solving, and the ability to learn quickly. Musicians are at an advantage in this regard, as we know how to think quickly on our feet, be a team-player, and take the lead as a soloist. These principles hold true for business and administration as well.

What advice do you have for music school students who are looking to create careers that combine performance and arts administration?

One thing I learned very quickly was to not downplay the skills that I bring to the table as a young person fresh out of college, particularly as a performance major. Trained musicians are naturally fast learners with long attention spans, capable of multi-tasking and handling stress. This is essential for any administrative job, as typically non-profit arts groups are under-staffed and over-worked. The same methods that successful and disciplined performance majors use to juggle rehearsal schedules, develop new performance techniques, learn and retain hundreds of pieces of music is not a far cry from what I do every day as an administrator. My experience as an administrator has given me valuable time to develop skills that directly aid my performance life. I can network, communicate formally through any medium, and market myself. Performing well for basic gigs is really only half the battle. The other half is being a reliable performer and courteous colleague with a smart personal business plan.


Can you describe the musical culture in Memphis? How does classical music (i.e. symphony orchestras) fit in?

Memphis has a long and proud history of music, no matter the genre. If the symphony expected Memphians to conform to the traditional model of exclusive and high-brow music, there would not be a symphony. Years ago the board and staff recognized the weakness of the symphony and they asked themselves, “Would anyone notice us if we were gone?” This lead to a complete change in the organization, and our mission statement is now to create meaningful experiences through music. In other words, the symphony seeks out the patrons by adapting to the culture and giving to the community. We expand our collaborations by pairing with community organizations and sometimes with artists who are generally not paired with the symphony. We encourage our musicians to be “citizen musicians” – musicians who are willing to make a positive change in the community through their role as teachers, artists, and human beings.

How does the Memphis Symphony exemplify entrepreneurship?

The Memphis Symphony has a few programs that I’d point out as great entrepreneurial efforts. The first is the Opus One series, which was spear-headed by MSO musicians. Opus One pairs nontraditional artists with the Symphony in unconventional concert venues. A great example of this collaboration is hip-hop artist Al Kapone performing in the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. This is the kind of concert that could be seen as a gimmick, but the musicianship and great execution made this performance a success. It’s this kind of risk that makes entrepreneurship so unenticing to a lot of orchestras.

Leading From Every Chair® is another entrepreneurial program the MSO developed. Participants learn about the different kinds of leadership styles by cycling through workshops, composing and performing short pieces of music, and experiencing a professional orchestra rehearsing on stage.

Entrepreneurs find a potential market and capitalize on it by making calculated risks and adjusting the plan based on the initial outcomes. Memphis Symphony never stops searching for these kinds of opportunities. This is part of the reason why we are so innovative.

The MSO website describes several concert series and various outreach initiatives. In both categories, which programs have been most well-received?

I could give you numbers, but it’s really the heart and soul of the programs and music that makes something well-received. Patrons really love the music. The musicians and Music Director Mei-Ann Chen have taken great musical strides this season, and it’s fun for the patrons to be a part of the experience. The administration has been working hard to showcase the wide variety of educational initiatives. The MSO has its hands in every part of the community. MSO musicians mentor public school kids, quartets play in airports and nursing homes, ensembles partner with libraries to present our Family Tunes & Tales series (reading combined with music for young children), and musicians teach music history and educate the masses on the radio. In addition, our Opus One Connections program was presented in English and Spanish to reach out to minorities. Our Leading From Every Chair® project is designed to help businesses recognize their leadership potential through the experience of an orchestra. This is all designed to bridge the gap between people within this city.

In your opinion, what is the ideal model for orchestras of the future? What direction do you hope the Memphis Symphony will take?

Now that I’ve spent months in a heavy customer-service atmosphere, I can tell you what the patrons want. In the end, it’s their interest and feedback that will develop the orchestra world. Patrons want flexibility. Some patrons disdain the use of technology in the concert hall, and other patrons are always interested in experimenting. Orchestras will need to abandon the traditional model of series based on musical genre (big symphonic works vs. pops) and start to base it on the experience they’re giving their patrons. Perhaps there should be an entire series dedicated to experimental concerts with technology, performances in non-traditional venues like coffee shops and bars, or a series that minimizes the new ventures and focuses solely on the music. Above all, there needs to be the ability for patrons to pick and choose which concerts they want to attend, regardless of how the orchestra clumps their series.

The Memphis Symphony is already one of the most innovative and experimental orchestras in the country. We’ll continue to learn what it is our patrons want and while we won’t be able to please everyone, we’ll be able to take the risk and adapt to the times.

Many people are working on these challenges, and there should never be a “cookie cutter” answer. A lot of it depends on what the orchestra’s patron base and community looks like. The real death of the American orchestra will come when all orchestras base their entire structure off of one successful orchestral model and expect that to work for them without any alterations.

Since the start of your job as Patron Engagement Manager, what skills have you 1) Built on that you learned at Eastman and 2) Acquired that you didn’t learn in school?

My knowledge of classical music has been very helpful to coworkers and patrons. I was given the opportunity to write some of our One Minute Notes for our program book. I loved using the skills I learned in my music history courses to explain to our patrons the best bits of every piece they were about to hear. My teacher, David Ying, always told me that I could learn the most from my colleagues. Outside of academic courses and performances, I learned a lot of abstract things at Eastman like discipline, confidence, and humility.

Most of what I’ve learned on the job has been learning how to market effectively to the masses through print ads, emails, and social media. Consumers like to know exactly what they’re getting into with as few words as possible. I’ve also had to learn my fair share of technology. Any media we acquire falls on my plate, so I’m good at converting files, putting them online, and using systems like Photoshop. I’ve still got a lot to learn!

What did you learn in your summer internship with Memphis Symphony? How did you know it was an organization you wanted to work for?

I had a really great experience as an Artistic Engagement (Operations) intern with the Memphis Symphony. I started off with a lot of tedious computer work, but the staff recognized my talent and my drive, and they allowed me to expand my role. The staff was also very hard working, positive, and at the time the experimental Opus One series was launching. It was reassuring and inspiring that the administration was willing to encourage their musicians to take the lead and develop a program they had a vested interest in. The staff here has always recognized talent and makes a point of developing future leaders. I appreciated this as an intern and I appreciate it now as a professional.

Can you describe the Audience Growth Initiative? What is your role in expanding the audience base for MSO?

The Audience Growth Initiative is a plan to churn our single ticket patrons into repeat buyers. As an organization, we want to make our patrons feel significant and appreciated. We give yearly holiday ticket vouchers as a thank-you to subscribers, we occasionally upgrades patrons’ seats for free, and we hold various receptions. My job is to contact many of our patrons after every performance and send them an opportunity to subscribe at a 50% discount. I also give our newest patrons a brief survey they can fill out on their MSO experience, at the end of which they are given a code to receive four 50% tickets to upcoming performances. Patrons really appreciate the opportunity to voice their opinions and they love feeling like they’re worth enough for us to send them a thank-you offer.

In general, everything I do is to expand the audience base for the MSO. I strive to give exceptional customer service, I promote our concerts in print and online, and I capture interest through our social media sites and blog.

The Patron Engagement Manager duties seem to involve a significant amount of artistic skills (graphic design, powerpoint, etc.). Have you always had a “knack” for visual art or did you develop these skills on the job?

My amazing boss seemed to recognize my artistic eye before I accepted that my meager talent was useful. I have a love for photography and art, and my time spent as a trained consumer taught me what the big-time marketers were using to draw in customers. I am constantly learning from my colleagues and our fantastically talented graphic designers. What little design work I do is very basic in comparison to our hired designers. I take their art past its intended print use and multiply its impact through technology. For example, I created our Opus One blog, which is really more of an interactive site. The design itself is edgy, but I designed the site content specifically to promote the series and sell tickets. I suppose I have a knack for visual art, but it’s very calculated.