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Flutist Invites Audiences to Create Art During Performances

Flutist invites audiences to connect with the classics in a new way.

James Brinkmann wants people to express how music makes them feel by encouraging them to paint, draw or sculpt while he plays.

This spring, the MSU master’s student in flute performance launched a series of eight workshops to help audiences connect with classical music. Held at the MSU Broad Art Lab, “8 Elements of Art and Music” invites adults to engage with music and art in a relaxed environment. Participants learn about a visual element like line, shape or color, then create a two- or three-dimensional piece while listening to a live performance.

“Isn’t that the beauty of music? That it helps us to express things, even as listeners?” Brinkmann asked. “As a performer, we can’t control other people’s feeling, but we can create an environment that gives them tools to have fun or meaningful musical experience.”

Fixing the disconnect

Brinkmann selected the MSU College of Music for his master’s after earning his bachelor’s from DePaul University and working as a musician in the Chicago area. He had always loved the flute and loved practicing and playing. But despite feeling a strong personal connection with musicianship, he felt disconnected when performing with a large orchestra.

“It didn’t feel very personal,” he said. “We were on stage, there’s a huge auditorium filled with people, and I felt that wall between performers and audiences you sometimes hear about.”

As shared in his talk at TEDxDePaul, Brinkmann often asked people what they thought of a performance and rarely heard more than “it was really beautiful” or “I enjoyed it.” He wanted to hear more, and to know what they liked or what moved them. Most people couldn’t say, or simply said “I don’t know anything about music.”

To Brinkmann, that disconnect felt like an existential crisis.

“You’re trying to establish that music connects everyone,” said Brinkmann. “But I wasn’t feeling that connection.”

So Brinkmann set out to explore relationships between music, art, and storytelling through teaching. He encouraged adults and children to sketch or write when he was performing, and he began to see that people were having fun and feeling inspired. He self-produced concerts and performed on streets in downtown Chicago—providing poster boards, markers, and space for people to listen, draw or dance.

“It was fascinating to see that kids responded differently than adults,” Brinkmann said. “I started to see that adults have so many complex life experiences they can channel through a music listening experience. I began programming more things for adults, realizing there was an untapped potential for self-awareness as listeners.”

Forging connections

At MSU, Brinkman found the support he needed to further examine the audience-performer connection. The series at the Broad Art Lab is both an artistic endeavor as well as a basis for graduate research.

Caroline Delahoussaye works as a community catalyst and graduate assistant at the Art Lab through the MSU Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. She helps select and oversee art projects through the Community Open Call program: an experimental platform that invites community members to initiate unique arts and cultural programming at the lab. Brinkmann’s was among the projects picked for Spring 2019.

“I love James’ project,” said Delahoussaye. “We love that he’s working toward bringing art and music together. We’re also trying to build new connections between the campus and community. His project does that very well.”

Brinkmann held his first “8 Elements” workshop in March. Subsequent workshops run through May. About eight to 10 people attend each event, listening to music and exploring concepts that include point, line, shape, form, color, value, texture and space. The last three will be held in May (check the schedule here).

Musical performers include Brinkmann, soloists, and student and professional groups like Silverwood Ensemble. Attendees can also display the artwork they created during and immediately after each 90-minute workshop.

“It’s been very exciting to see how James relates with the participants and breaks down concepts,” said Delahoussaye. “His project and research has definitely strengthened my realization of all the connections there are between visual art and music.”

Christine Beamer said that Brinkmann’s workshops reflect his commitment to audience engagement and participation. As the College of Music director of career services and music entrepreneurship, Beamer met Brinkmann when he proposed and received funding for a similar community-based project through the 2019 Running Start Competition.

“James is driven and self-motivated to create opportunities for himself,” said Beamer. “He is unafraid to forge relationships with others, and creatively brainstorm ways that his work might overlap with others.”

Professor of Flute Richard Sherman said Brinkmann’s eyes lit up the moment he told him about the College’s entrepreneurial program. As his primary instructor, Sherman recognized Brinkmann’s passion to bridge the gap between audiences and performers of classical music through his innovative projects and initiatives.

“James is undaunted and has this wonderful spirit of positivity,” Sherman said. “He feels if he’s making a difference in someone’s life, then it’s all OK.”

For Brinkmann, MSU gives him the foundation he needs to further his research and build a career that combines music performance, teaching and community outreach.

“Not all of us will get orchestra jobs, and we’re not all getting university jobs,” he said. “Flexibility is key from a career standpoint. When you’re doing creative work, it’s important to let things evolve as they want to organically.”

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