Scott Lykins

November 15, 2016

How were you able to start a successful music festival while still a student?

The first season of the Lakes Area Music Festival was in 2009. That summer I invited four of my friends and colleagues from Eastman to join me in Brainerd, Minnesota to work waiting tables, hang out on the water, and enjoy some relaxation over break. Putting on concerts was a bit of an afterthought and with three singers, a violist, and myself playing cello and piano, we were able to quickly put together a handful of programs, from German lied to opera and musical theater to string chamber music. We also invited a few other friends from Eastman to come out and visit and, after a shot-in-the-dark email to the personnel manager of the Minnesota Orchestra, we were able to get some professional string players to join us as well. Rather than “starting a successful music festival”, at that point we were simply taking advantage of the situation and creating some performing opportunities in small town, rural Minnesota.

Over the six concert series the community embraced what we were doing and by the last concert we packed a church with over 300 people. That community engagement was what made me step back and realize that we what we had created wasn’t just a few fun concerts, but was instead the potential for something great. When I returned to Eastman that fall to begin my Masters I was able to start the planning for the second annual season with many months more of forethought and begin to establish the formal organization that is now the LAMF.

While I was still a student, the LAMF was still relatively small. At that point we had a planning committee and Executive Director in Minnesota that focused on logistics while I organized the artistic planning from Rochester. After graduation I moved back to Minnesota and have spent my recent years as both Executive and Artistic Director of the organization, building it into a year-round performance and education organization serving over 10,000 annually.

How did your experiences as a student at Eastman shape the process of developing your music festival?

Thinking back to my experiences at Eastman, I think one of the unique things that I didn’t fully appreciate when I was a student was the emphasis on sharing music with others. As students, we of course put in our time in the practice room, lessons and studio classes, and large ensembles, just like any conservatory student would. But the music wasn’t confined to the walls of the school. I have numerous memories playing concerts through the Music For All program and with a student-led orchestra out in the community: public libraries, nursing homes, elementary schools, and the YMCA. At the time I viewed these activities primarily as public service. But I now value those formative experiences as they taught me the impact music can have on a community.

The most important factor in the development of the LAMF has been the profound community engagement and support, which has allowed us to continue to offer every concert free of charge through exponential growth. Creating world-class performances is the primary mission of the organization. But just like my experiences as a student, the activities out in the community reaching new audiences are at times the most rewarding. This past season LAMF musicians performed for inmates at the county jail, led a creative song-writing workshop at a woman’s shelter, led a drum circle for at risk youth, and provided underprivileged children with an instrument petting zoo. These activities build community beyond the traditional classical music audience, and I’m glad to have learned both the importance of that work as well as the experience of leading activities while a student.

Did any of your ALP classes or internships specifically help you to be better prepared for the career experiences you’ve had since graduation?

Rather than a single class or experience with ALP, I believe the program as a whole and its availability to me during my masters was instrumental in getting me to where I am today. Until starting the LAMF and joining the ALP my intent as a musician had always been to hit the audition circuit and hope to win a dream job in an orchestra. Through the coursework and my internship I came to discover my equal interest in musical entrepreneurship; learning about and gaining experience in a wide array of topics outside performing helped open my eyes to the possibilities for a career in arts administration. Luckily for me that career has also opened up numerous opportunities for me as a performer, as the network of colleagues I have created through the Festival have also provided me with an active freelance calendar.

Do you have any advice to current Eastman students?

There are a lot of different views – positive and negative – about the “future” of classical music. But one thing is certain: the standard career path for a classical musician is constantly changing. I have many friends and colleagues from Eastman and beyond who have been incredibly successful on a more traditional path than mine, whether winning a coveted orchestra job, navigating through young artist programs and into the professional world of opera, or receiving tenure as a professor at an esteemed university. But more and more I am seeing colleagues finding meaningful and happy careers by forging their own paths: founding touring ensembles, becoming teaching artists, curating festivals, concert series, or unique opera companies, or using their performance background to pivot into highly successful arts management roles. Entrepreneurship is now a necessity in our industry. Don’t feel like you have to wait around for an opportunity to come to you; sometimes creating your own opportunities can be even more rewarding.

Music students often lack a formal background in finance. How did you go about familiarizing yourself with the process of fundraising and grant writing to make these areas less intimidating?

I sometimes joke that the LAMF shouldn’t be as successful as it is: as Executive and Artistic Director, my formal training is in playing the cello; by not charging for concerts we have eliminated one of the main revenue streams of most nonprofits; and we have established our organization in what was recently named the poorest area in the entire state of Minnesota. None of these things should contribute to a thriving financial situation. But in just eight years we have raised well over a million dollars for classical music in rural Minnesota.

My job experience far outweighs my specific training, and over the years I’ve learned a lot about a variety of topics I never thought I’d need to know: finance, development, marketing, managing personnel, etc. And one of those areas can be incredibly intimidating! Any nonprofit has a board of directors and in creating that board, so I was never alone figuring things out. I’ve also taken advantage of various training opportunities and surrounded myself with mentors who can guide me.

As musicians, we also have tremendous value in fundraising that is easy to forget. As the people playing the music, we have the power to engage that audience member on a whole new level through something as basic as talking to them after the concert about our unique lifestyle and stories. At the LAMF we have created numerous opportunities for the audience to connect with musicians. While many people from our community come to enjoy the music, it is the personal connections built with the musicians that motivate them to come back and support our programs.

Which specific factors do you feel have been the most integral in the growth and overall success of the Lakes Area Music Festival?

I think the most significant factor to our success has been our ability to engage community.

From the beginning, the local community was invaluable in making everything possible. In order to make our performances accessible to everyone we don’t charge ticket fees; as a result we rely on the community to financially support our organization. People also become involved through hosting musicians in their home, providing meals or transportation, serving as ushers, etc. and each year over 300 volunteers make our programs possible. This profound commitment of the community is the vote of confidence that we are doing something meaningful and valued, and has allowed us to expand and improve our programs year after year.

Just as important is the community of musicians that come to Brainerd every summer. We have curated a roster of musicians – many of whom return year after year – that is equally invested in the local community, what our organization is doing in this area, and in being good colleagues. After this past season we conducted a survey where 100% of musicians who responded said they would like to return next year. As a result, lasting relationships between members of our audience and the musicians on stage have been forged and inspire a feeling of ownership in everyone involved.

When both of these communities are engaged, committed, and valued, the result is something amazing and I look forward to seeing how everyone involved contributes to continued growth and success in the many years to come.