David Möschler – A Musical Adventure
Intro (0:10): There’s nothing quite like the experience of an orchestra concert. The power and the beauty of dozens of musicians all playing their instruments together, it can really take us on a musical adventure. David Möschler is a musician, conductor, and founder of the Awesome Orchestra. This isn’t your typical orchestra, folks – there’s no audition, no stuffy concert halls, and yet David and his orchestra make some really awesome music. We’re gonna dive into David’s work, the changes in thinking taking over the world of classical music these days, and how even a non-traditional orchestra can be changed a lot by COVID. Incidentally, all of the music in today’s episode, though it might sound like a few different groups, is actually all the Awesome Orchestra.
Dave (1:08): So, maybe we can just start out with your background a little bit. Like, where you’re from originally, and how did you get started in music?
David Möschler (1:13): Yeah, so I grew up on a cattle on, in Virginia. I mostly spent time growing up in high school and stuff, and went to college in North Carolina. I, I kinda got bit by the theater bug really, really hard in college. Specifically got into conducting through musical theater and opera. When I was in college I was a tuba major, along with Physics and-but this whole time I was playing in ensembles. They were all awesome, but what really got my brain excited and to the next level was conducting. And, as part of that sort of, like, organizing and producing, uh, musical events and pulling together people to go on, go on adventures. Musical adventures.
Dave (2:05): It’s funny to think about you as like a tuba player and a physics major. It’s just kind of, it’s kind of a funny combo. I don’t know, something about that.
David (2:13): (laughs)
Dave (2:14): I feel like you could be in a comic book or something with that character in there. But, uh, and what’s interesting is that for me – I’m a musician as well, I play trumpet and stuff, and I don’t meet too many conductors so it’s kinda interesting that you gravitated towards conducting in college, you said? And that was originally through musical theater?
David (2:34): Yeah, there was a lot of student theater and they had at least a dozen student theater groups of some kind, and I went up to one and said “Hey! I love- I played bass in my high school production of The Wiz, and whatever Guys and Dolls” and they said “Great, we’re doing this musical, do you want to be the musical director?” and I was like “w-w-what’s that?” (laughs)
Dave (2:52): (laughs)
David (2:52): I didn’t know, and then I was like “oh, conducting!” Well, I like getting people together for stuff and getting them all excited, and then, uh, it just never ended from there. So, there were a lot of puzzles involved in terms of, like, “ok, we’ve got this much space to fit in this many people, we’ve got this much rehearsal time, we have – as a student group – zero money”, and the problem solving inherent in conducting. How to choose a piece of music, how to find the players, how to rehearse it, where to play it, when to play it, what to pair it with, how to get audience there, and all that stuff.
Dave (3:32): Right. It’s like a whole art form in itself. Is, is really what it is.
David (3:35): Yeah, that’s my job as a conductor. To, uh, make musical decisions with other people. We’re just there to save time, much the same way a director of a film would. The director doesn’t always write the film. Uh, the conductor doesn’t always write the music that you’re playing. I’m not a composer at all, but I feel like I’m the conduit for it and I’m just there to make decisions with other people. Musical decisions, logistical decisions, big picture programming decisions, and do it in a way that’s gonna be moving and exciting and fun for people, and take people on a musical adventure.
Dave (4:11): You’re giving your audience an experience. It’s not just the music that you’re playing itself, but you’re kind of designing a whole sonic experience.
David (4:17): It’s an adventure. A musical adventure, a sound adventure, a personal experiential adventure. An orchestra is like a force of nature and to experience that live is, uh, just the greatest thing. It’s healing, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it brings people together… I love it.
Dave (4:36): Right, yeah. Well, let’s get into it. So, you founded and conduct the, uh, Awesome Orchestra, maybe you could kind of explain a little more about it, the idea behind it all?
David (4:45): So, Awesome Orchestra Collective is a fiscally-sponsored nonprofit group, uh, based here in Oakland and our mission is to create orchestral adventures that are accessible to our communities. Our vision is to sort of create a new model for orchestras to represent, serve, and inspire the communities. The idea is that we do that through playing in adventurous places, not playing in traditional places. You know, in BART stations, parks, libraries – playing all over the Bay Area, so there’s no auditions. People show up and what we do is we have these open reading sessions – we call them just open sessions. We usually do one a month, this is in pre-COVID times. It’s for a couple hours, at, you know, some publicly accessible place, usually kind of fun and funky and cool where there’s foot traffic and players sign up on a google form, we just ask them to bring an instrument and a music stand if they have it. They look at the music ahead of time, sometimes they are sight reading, sometimes they already know the piece, and it’s this sort of, uh, family friendly block party-type flashmob pop pickup sort of group.
Dave (6:00): (laughs)
David (6:05): It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s all about making an accessible… traditionally, there’s a lot of systemic gatekeeping that’s been classist, racist, sexist, homophobic, all sorts of stuff, and taking this art form and just-just blowing it up for as many people as possible.
Dave (6:26): Like you say, orchestras have kind of been confined to symphonies, symphony halls, prestigious events, so what you’re doing… You talk about performing like BART stations and in parks and in kind of these non-traditional spaces, it’s a revolutionary idea from my point of view, which is great. How have things kind of evolved over the years, you know, when you started it did you have one idea about how it might go down and has that changed?
David (6:50): When I moved to the Bay Area, I did a lot of theater, and still do that, you know, as a living, but my friends would do these… It’s a group called, um, The Emergency Arts Collectives where they would do like these really fun, like, kind of part cosplay, part flashmob secret– like, let’s meet in a secret warehouse at a art gallery and do parodies of, you know, Star Wars: A New Hope—
Dave (7:14): (laughs)
David (7:15): Mashed up with West Side Story, I mean just the silliest, zaniest, nerdiest stuff. And my friends were just like “man, this is really fun, like, we like playing in musicals, but, like, is there something here? Like, should we start a group, an orchestra? If we did, what would it be?” And eventually, we just said listen, let’s just get a tub of free beer and I’ve got a friend with this cool kind of recording studio he built in West Oakland, I’ve got a bunch of chairs, let me just print out a bunch of music that’s public domain and let’s read through it. And, you know, 50 people showed up to the first session and I didn’t know half of them.
Dave (7:53): Right.
David (7:54): It was just friends of friends, it was all word of mouth. As we started to grow, people said well should we-we want to play hard music, should we audition, should we-should it only be word of mouth or by invite only? Pretty early on, we were like no, let’s… We wanna make this for anyone. There’s so much competition and toxicity sometimes in classical music, so we were like let’s just keep it open and let’s just be silly and, uh, certain ideas became, you know, these core values of like accessibility, community and excellence, being excellent to each other.
Dave (8:28): Mmm.
David (8:28): You know, it’s kind of like the (laugh) intense “be excellent to each other”. It doesn’t matter if somebody messes up or screws up the solo, no one can get fired, no one can get hired. We have a group of about 20-25 what we call Awesome Ambassadors that kind of are the section leaders. Each section has its own challenges. You know, for the percussion, who’s gonna bring the xylorimba, ok we need coatalles or something…
Dave (8:57): Right, right.
David (8:57): Or, you know, who’s gonna take the trumpet solo on this piece. And they all help deal with that, so these, uh, these ambassadors, they embody the heart of the group. And, along with all the players who show up month after month to session after session.
Dave (9:10): That makes total sense and it seems like the organization that you have is-is pretty important, having those ambassadors in each section. I like how you’re calling them ambassador instead of, like, section leader or something like that so it gives a more egalitarian kind of tone to it. (laughs)
David (9:25): That’s the idea.
Dave (9:32): You know, this podcast is all about what’s happening now, which is of course the great pandemic here. March 2020, everything changed. How have you been, uh, keeping up with the Awesome Orchestra? Are you able to, kind of, keep going in any fashing, like, rehearsing online or…
David (9:49): (sighs) It’s been a whirlwind for us. Obviously, we haven’t met and done any live performances since then. The rest of 2020, we experimented a lot with doing online videos and performances and pieces. We created a sort of digital adventure series, we called it. But, where we created videos live that were actual rehearsals of a piece and say ok, we sent out the sheet music ahead of time, you just need to have the music printed out or downloaded, and then just watch the video and play along with it from home. And, you’re playing along with a recording and obviously not the same as playing live, but there was an element of people being able to join in from anywhere. We have a lot of Awesome Orchestra community members all over the– all over the world now, which is really exciting. So, a lot of people would join in and then we could have audience watching from all over. Uh, they’re all still on our YouTube channel and on our website, but we-we also did a handful of things like Awesome Trivia Night, we did listening parties where we would gather together and play through some of our old recordings and pieces and talk through them and answer questions from our community and chatroom, and, uh, we culminated at the end of December with a end of year concert where we did a whole lot of these things all together. And, a premier of a new piece by Oakland-based producer Annuka that we did with 50-piece orchestra and we all recorded and edited the video together and a more traditional type video that you see with a lot of orchestras now. With the news of the vaccine and sort of the rollout, we’re gearing up for in person sessions, for getting back to live music when it’s safe. It’s been wild taking a break for the last couple months, and not just, like, planning a million sessions in advance and not in the usual sort of hustle that Bay Area, uh, music scene is so accustomed to.
Dave (11:40): Yeah, yeah. Totally. How has that been, kind of, more on a personal level in terms of, and when COVID hit, at least for me, I was like, you know, should I be working harder now that I have all this extra time? Like, I guess I should stop and think about what’s happening. How did you kind of respond to the pandemic in that way?
David (12:00): You know, just through a rollercoaster of emotion. (laughs) It’s all these seven stages of, not dissimilar from like the stages of grief and everything where it’s just like shock and denial and anger and depression and acceptance, and I’m mostly someone who struggles with anxiety producing these events and trying to survive in the Bay Area. You know, it was quite a bit of, uh, quite a bit of depression to realize, um, how crippled the industry was. I’d also struggled with a lot of, you know, workaholism. Um…
Dave (12:33): Mhm.
David (12:33): …Over the last 10 years, and now all of a sudden literally having nothing to do.
Dave (12:40): Yeah.
David (12:40): And facing all sorts of income shortage and everything, and at the same time being super grateful that I had stable housing here, that I still did have some income through teaching and through some of the other places where I’m working on staff. You know, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, all the eye opening that’s occurred for a lot of white-led organizations, like Awesome Orchestra and theater companies I run as a cis, straight, white able-bodied man. You know, I’ve– there’s a lot of stuff that I need to deep dive, uh, reeducation I need to do for myself, uh, in terms of leading these organizations and stepping up on accountability, you know. It’s-we can’t just leave it to people of color and-and women and other, um, historically marginalized communities to-to fix all these problems that are super, super deeply entrenched in all of society, but especially the arts. We (laughs) have to step up and do it. We have to do the work and know when to step down and follow and when to lead and set the example, and I’m very grateful that we have been able to take a pause from programming and other stuff to-to deeply look at ourselves and commit to that.
Dave (14:00): Yeah, it seems like Awesome Orchestra already has some of the values that are super important to kinda implementing these ideas of equity, but I’m curious about because you’re coming from a, you know, the classical tradition which has always been pretty elitist – you think about most symphony orchestras and to this day they’re pretty darn white. (laughs)
David (14:21): Yep. (laughs)
Dave (14:21): So I’m kinda curious if you’ve done some thinking about that and, like, how do we kind of reach out and change that. I’ve read thoughts about this, like, for example, blind auditions which many orchestras use I guess, and that hasn’t really been the answer because it’s really more systemic, all the factors to get to that audition chair.
David (14:44): Yeah. People say “oh, the system’s broken!” No, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is keep people in power – keep white people in power, keep men in power, able-bodied people, um, straight people… A lot of what we look at as Awesome Orchestra, what do we care about? What is our mission? And, you know, we look back at our mission and our vision: creating a new model for all orchestras to follow, serve, and inspire the communities. Ok, that’s cool. That holds up. How much are we really doing that? What is our make up? Like, let’s reach out to our base and connect with them, not in broad swaths but also as individuals, you know? How can we be of service to you and your community, and really looking at how we can amplify marginalized voices. Uh, literally what we do as an orchestra is amplify voices. How can we create more equity and representation of them so that they’re there with the decision-making, they’re not just an afterthought, there’s no tokenism. Like you said, it goes way far back. It goes into education, it goes into young people, and look at all the things that orchestras need to exist. Even just an orchestral player, we think “oh, Awesome Orchestra. So chill, you just show up, doesn’t cost anything.” No signup fees, no auditions, very accessible.
Dave (15:58): Mhm.
David (15:58): Well, ok… How about we start with language barriers. What about leisure time? For people to actually practice their instrument. Or the show up-
Dave (16:08): Right.
David (16:08): What about child care? What about, uh, what about the ability to own an instrument?
Dave (16:13): Yeah, yeah. It brings up a lot of things and, I think from my point of view also, like, education is a super important function, um, to get instruments in hands and passion in hearts. (laughs) You also work in musical theater. I understand you recently debuted an outdoor COVID-compliant musical?
David (16:38): Yeah. (sighs) So, one of the companies that I’ve worked with over the last 10 years, uh, is a group called YMTC. They’re based in Berkeley and the East Bay. So, it’s a training company for grades- basically, high school and college students -and we do productions with profession directors and designers. So, last year we had all this time to just, not twiddle our thumbs, but say “okay, what’s coming back look like?” You can’t just wait till herd immunity, you can’t survive until that. I feel such despair, um, for young people who– if I was that age when this happened, I just, I don’t know the kind of effects that it would have.
Dave (17:16): Oh, yeah.
David (17:16): It’s so insanely hard to not be around people your age at such formative years. We got a COVID compliance officer, we had just built an outdoor stage. Last August and September we said “well, what if we did a small show?” What if we did something with-inside of Alameda county guidelines, state and federal guidelines… What if we-everybody got tested every week, no contact, socially distanced and outdoors, masked and we had mics on or under the masks. And, we pulled it off. We did a show called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We pulled it off, and there were-we did contact tracing, there was never- there were no cases and man, talk about an adventure. It’s-it’s wild. It- I wanted to cry, you know. I was-I was brought to tears the first moment we came back to actually meet and create art together, and-
Dave (18:10): Oh yeah, yeah.
David (18:11): It’s been challenging, it’s been rewarding, it’s been, um, exhausting and draining, and also totally worth it to give these young people the chance to be around other people their age. It’s just, it-it was like what we were doing before was somehow already challenging, but now to be like-
Dave (19:27): (laughs)
David (19:27): Wow, that’s gonna be easier? I never wanna lose that sense of gratitude.
Dave (18:32): Yeah, yeah.
David (18:33): For just like, when we get to do-make music without a mask on.
Dave (18:36): Yeah, I mean you talk about kind of like, it can be kind of emotional just to see, t-to get back to the rehearsal and I feel that, uh, exactly, you know, every time I see a musician playing in the park or something like that, I was like mean, I didn’t realize how much I miss this until, uh, (laughs) until I saw it.
David (18:54): We condition ourselves really quickly. Humans adapt like insanely fast, um, in ways that are-that we’re not prepared for, so we’re just like “ok, cool. We’re only talking to people online, great.” 8 months later, you realize I haven’t looked someone else in the eye – I haven’t made eye contact. You know, when you’re doing it online you’re not actually looking in their eye, you’re looking at a camera or you’re looking at a screen.
Dave (19:12): Right. Looking maybe like 5 years down the line, how do you-how do you see things will be, I guess both for the orchestra, for yourself, for the Bay Area arts scene, like, how-how’s COVID gonna shape our future?
David (19:27): I think there’s some silver lining in that people will say- there will be more taped live performances that people can join remotely. I hope accessibility in that way, you know, will stay in the minds of people creating, because I think that’s a good thing. And in terms of all the issues around equity and inclusion and systemic gatekeeping and marginalized communities. I hope so deeply that it is not just a return to normal, but that there’s a time for the leadership in the organizations and the people creating the content to continue to look at themselves and say “we can’t go back to normal.” Normal was just, didn’t work. It’s exciting, I mean, if we think going on musical adventures are exciting now, I mean, just wait till we can bring everybody along.
Dave (20:13): Yeah. That’s great, man. Thanks so much, Dave. Thanks for, uh, taking the time to chat and, yeah. Put me on the list for the, uh, orchestra next time here. (laughs)
David (20:22): Absolutely!
Outro (20:26): And if you were inspired to find out more and maybe sign up for the Awesome Orchestra, you can visit their website by checking out the link in the show notes. Thanks to David for his time and all the great music, and thanks to the Audium Listens crew, as always – Nate Tedesco on sound design, Odin Rosado on final transcription, and Emma Scully on storyboard. Next time we’ll be talking with sound artist Pamela Z about life in the “fast lane” during COVID. That’s right, she’s been dealing with lots of success and artistic commitments in a vastly changing world. Until then, stay safe and keep on adventuring.