The audiences’ primary challenge is distilling what’s good and what’s not and understanding what’s available to them, which really becomes a question of access. They have to discover their niche and their aesthetic, while appreciating the commitment the performers are putting into their performance, and form their own identity as an audience member.

Adam Sherkin is an active composer and classical pianist in Toronto with a newly released CD and a series of solo performances. He is also the founder of the Toronto Composers’ Collective. In this Q & A, Adam shares his thoughts on the challenges confronting both performers as well as audiences.

Profile picture of Adam Sherkin

Pianist/Composer Adam Sherkin.
Photo credit: Anka Czudec.

Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?

I’m a pianist and composer. My main training is as a pianist, and I did my masters degree in composition, so I now consider myself as both. My involvement has been mainly as a solo performer in Toronto over the last three years. I do a lot of freelance work and chamber work too, but recently I’ve been focusing more on solo repertoire.

I’d say my profile is basically centred around contemporary music; I focus on any major contemporary solo piano music that’s been written in the last 75 or 80 years. I prepare that in my programming with my own music. I write a lot of solo piano, and I’ll also offer some more traditional items from the classical canon. I might play one piece by Bach or Beethoven or Brahms on a piano program, often in complement to the newer pieces.

Can you tell us more about the Toronto Composers’ Collective that you organize? What is your motivation for starting it?

It started two years ago. My colleagues and I were at a new music concert featuring the music of Elliott Carter, a celebration of his 102nd birthday. We were talking about the fantastic pioneers of new music concerts, like Bob Aiken or Soundstreams with Lawrence Cherney, and how for 30 to 40 years these organizations have been doing excellent work cultivating interesting projects in Toronto. As inheritors of this tradition, we wanted to get together and discuss things, critique one another’s pieces, and create a warm, casual space to bounce ideas off of one another. That’s how it started.

We’re in our third season. Each month, there’s a topic on the table that’s agreed upon by the group, which consists of almost 30 different composers, although it’s also open to any performers or musicians who want to contribute. The idea is that people will bring a piece that they’ve written, or it could be someone else’s work. This year we’ve incorporated a 20-minute lecture at the top of each meeting. Our meetings are very open; everyone is welcome to come. It’s always on a Monday at 7:30.

The motivation for starting it was two-fold: one was to reach out and share our compositional thoughts and get to know one another professionally and artistically. Any solo pursuit, whether it’s performing or composing, can be a lonely business. The fact that many of us are working in different types of aesthetics and writing very different kinds of music provides a fascinating starting point for us.

The second motivation was getting collegial feedback. Our members are emerging composers ranging from those just finishing school to those who have been out of school for four or five years. We’re looking for some kind of critical mass for our work and to receive constructive feedback. That, of course, takes time. You have to feel safe about the situation and confident. Being able to bring a new score to a group like this in a safe place where we can share and bounce ideas back and forth is really valuable.

What projects or upcoming events are you currently working on?

I launched my 2012-2013 concert season in September. The first main stage event was on November 1st at the St. Lawrence Centre. That was a solo show called “Plastic Dawn” that focused on American piano music from the mid-20th century.

The most current thing that’s been happening is a CD launch. For about the last year and a half, I’ve been doing a project with CBC producer David Jaeger. Over five sessions at the Glenn Gould Studio, we recorded the complete output of what I’ve written—about 65 minutes of solo piano music. That’s been a really fantastic project, and it’s been a pleasure to work with someone like him. The CD has been released on the Centrediscs label, which is part of the Canadian Music Centre. It launches on Tuesday, the 27th of November*.

On the compositional side, I’m writing a short song cycle called Water Makes You Dream for soprano and piano. That’s going to be premiered at one of my own shows on April 4th at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. The show loosely addresses the theme of water in music. I’ll be premiering two new pieces by French composers on that show as well.

What do you see as the main challenges for those in the performing arts?

We all talk about this, not just in classical music but in all different genres. I think the challenges fall under three different umbrellas, applying to different fractions of the music industry.

One is the presenter and the role of the presenter or producer. The second would be the challenges of the performer or performing organization itself—what are you actually presenting on stage? And lastly it’s the audience.

So the first one, the presenter: Just 50 years ago, you could win a major piano competition at a very young age, and you’d have 10 managers or agents lined up backstage to sign you, and your career would take off. What that takes is doing what you do really well, that is, play your instrument and hone your skills. Everything else in a way was taken care of for you. That obviously has all changed.

From the point of view of the performer, understanding one’s audience has become paramount now. The old days of playing a very traditional program and assuming everyone in the audience is going to understand what you are doing and have the study scores in hand, or would have, let’s say, heard the Beethoven song that you’ll be presenting that evening 16 other times in the last two years—the profile of that audience doesn’t exist any more. A performer’s challenge is to meet those new needs and find all sorts of ways to do it. I think part of the problem is that the new formula is still not set, and a lot of different performers today are grappling to find it. So it’s an interesting time.

Lastly, the audience. They really do face a great challenge. We can’t really put too much responsibility on the audience. We just hope that they’re engaged and receptive. Their primary challenge is distilling what’s good and what’s not and understanding what’s available to them, which really becomes a question of access. They have to discover their niche and their aesthetic, while appreciating the commitment the performers are putting into their performance, and form their own identity as an audience member.

Do you have an example or examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a composer or performer? How did you overcome them?

Firstly, as a composer, I find this whole concept of being paid for your work becoming more and more difficult. The nature of commissioning is changing, especially in Canada. The old model of spending six months to a year writing a major work for symphony orchestra and getting a commission to the tune of $30,000, which would sustain you for the next year of your life, is becoming less and less of a reality, especially for young composers. Every once in a while, you’ll get a great big opportunity, but rarely.

I’ve poured hours and hours into something, and the commission doesn’t come through, but the work has to be performed. There’s never enough rehearsal time, and you’re not getting paid. This is a real challenge, and I find that that’s something that needs to be addressed. I don’t know how, but that’s certainly an example of a challenge faced that I’ve found in my own work.

As a performer, I think it’s really difficult to self-promote. I’ve learned how to do it over the years and basically self-produce. In a way, it’s really exciting because you’re liberated and you can do what you like. You can put programs together that you like, and you’re not really trying to fit any parameters that someone else is imposing.

By the same token, to be presenting a performance under the auspices of a concert organization makes things a lot easier because they have the resources and the infrastructure to support you. I think the concept of self-promotion and self-production is a great challenge because it takes time away from what you should be doing, which is practicing. And all the e-mails and the press releases, the flyering and making the posters, and all the social media take a ton of time unless you have a great team, which I do and I’m building that. All of it takes tons of time, while concert organizations have the resources and the infrastructure to support you in that way.

What would you like to see happen in support of the performing arts, and why should it be supported?

That’s kind of a tough question. I think there’s far more awareness today about the need for support on all levels for the performing arts, probably because the nature of it is changing so much. I would say connecting audiences to the performers and supporting performers in some kind of network. It’s not necessarily a specific organization or record label but almost a kind of socializing body that will support both the performer and the audience, as they’re all after the same thing. Of course money plays into it, but if there’s some means of supporting both interests and identifying where those interests combine and are the same, then it could be very successful.

What role do you see a service like BeMused playing in supporting the performing arts community?

I think, firstly, the fact that it’s a platform and network to share and post is, in and of itself, very valuable. Perhaps directing an audience to what is of good quality and offering a kind of standard. For example, something like the WholeNote is great, but there’s no vetting function on that or any other free listing service. We’re so grateful to the WholeNote and would be lost without them, but I don’t know if audiences always understand what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve even been guilty of this myself, especially in genres of music that I’m not too familiar with.

It would be really nice to know the actual quality or the background of the performer, or get a little more in tune with what your specific interests are. Let’s say someone getting their feet wet in classical music knows that they really like this one classical composer. For example, they love Tchaikovsky, and they’re bored on a Saturday night. They see on the listing service that there’s going to be someone playing some Tchaikovsky piano pieces. They’re going to go out and hear that. And because they already have the reference point, they would really enjoy it. But on the other half of the program, let’s say after the Tchaikovsky, there’s some composer that they’ve never heard of that’s being performed by young children, which is fine, but suddenly they’re involved in a situation that they didn’t sign up for. So that could be off-putting for someone who would only go to classical music concerts two or three times a year.

The idea is to get them to come back, and I firmly believe that you’ve got to engage them in a really visceral, exciting, high quality way and play into their intellect and sophistication—play into their need for something that is nourishing and powerful and, sure, demanding, but it can also be approachable. You don’t have to water it down. So I’m sure BeMused will help out in a few of those ways.

What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?

As cliché as it sounds, I think believing in yourself is a really important thing. We grow up, especially in classical music, in a teaching environment that’s very old-fashioned, almost outdated from when the level and competition were incredibly high, and the level of artistry and music making was almost insurmountable. So you were continuously striving and could never fully understand the true essence of Bach, or a Mozart sonata always somehow evaded you until you were an old man.

I think that kind of ethic can be really inspiring and wonderful. In a good way it teaches reference to these great masterworks that are much greater than we are, but in another way it can offer us some fear. And it’s that fear that I think people need to realize they can overcome if they just get out and do it. You can sit and wait for people to knock on your door, but to get out and promote yourself on your own and know and believe in your work—that’s some advice that I would have appreciated when I was younger, because it took me a while to figure that out.

*This interview took place a few days before the launch of the CD, As at First. For samples of pieces on the CD, please visit

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