December 12th, 2016
Each month, Chorus America profiles one of our members in our Meet A Member interview series. To mark the season of giving, we changed things up a little bit for December and spoke to a Chorus America donor, Michael Pettry, executive director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, who has also been known to be generous with his time and talents. President & CEO Catherine Dehoney spoke to Michael about his latest work with the Symphonic Choir and what inspires him to give.
What got you hooked on choral music?
MP: I wouldn't say that I come from an especially musical family, actually. My family appreciates music, but we don't have any choristers among us that I'm aware of, unless some are holding out on me. Like a lot of people, I think, I had a middle school choir director who was profoundly meaningful to me: Mary Jane Gregen. And then I had a high school director who built on that, Eric Van Cleave, who taught me even more about leadership than what he did for me musically. I was a solid B- student—I will own that. But it was music that made it exciting and worthwhile to come to school. It was the reason that I would get up in the morning.
How did you first get involved with Chorus America?
MP: My degrees are in music—my undergraduate is in organ performance and my master's is in choral conducting. I knew I loved the scale of the choral-orchestral masterworks, and that's what I wanted to study in graduate school. Then I fell into the job with the Symphonic Choir—
it was just the right place at the right time. It was clearly nothing that I did—we were willing to work our tails off with a group that was ready to grow. And so, it was when I took this position with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir that I turned to Chorus America, initially to get an understanding of what it takes to run a choir. I soon learned the depth and breadth of resources Chorus America offers.
What is one thing that you would like to see Chorus America do more of to help today’s choruses?
MP: I love the data. The metrics, the surveys, the annual Chorus Operations Survey Report. We begin every single grant and most corporate proposals with the statistic that more than 35 million Americans sing in a choir. So often, choral music is incorrectly perceived as a stepchild to the symphony and the opera, when in actuality it is perhaps the most profound artmaking opportunity for anyone in the country. Whenever there is new data, specifically when you can drill down, that's always helpful.
Besides making a gift, what are other ways you support Chorus America that you find meaningful?
MP: Aside from giving financially, I’ve actually enjoyed – yes, that's right! – facilitating conversations with my peer choral leaders at Chorus America conferences over the years. The unmatched dedication our choral community has for the art form is inspiring to me, and I dare say it motivates me to go the extra mile. I also find myself mentioning Chorus America to other choral people I meet, encouraging them to visit the website for resources, utilize your social media posts as fodder for their own channels, and (with a not-so-gentle nudge) attend whatever Chorus America Conference may be around the corner.
What convinced you to give to Chorus America?
MP: This my 13th year with the Symphonic Choir, and I see, in very specific ways, what Chorus America has done for this organization—and for me. It's the go-to place when we have a question about a best practice. When we've never tried something, we wonder what Chorus America would say. I know how helpful it's been for me and the Symphonic Choir here, so I can only imagine how helpful it is for others. I think there's always more and more that can be done in the name of choral music. I want to see a bigger Chorus America. I want to see Chorus America thriving. I hope to give more in the future. I just want to make sure that Chorus America is here to do for other people what it's done for me.
You’ve had some tremendous success in fundraising at the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, and you call your approach “relationship-focused fundraising.” Can you talk about the keys to your success?
MP: To use a metaphor from the music world, I think it's a mix of improvisation and knowing the scales—an art form and a science, both. Just like jazz or any music, you have to know the scales, chords, arpeggios, and so on before you can depart from that structure and improvise. In the same way, we plan out everything in our fundraising pretty far in advance, with the understanding that opportunities or "aha moments" will creep up that we can respond to quickly. As boring as it seems, I think one of the secrets to fundraising is working so far ahead. That helps with relationships—we're able to spend more quality time with a donor if we reach out further in advance.
For each performance, whether it's self-produced or we're the hired choir, we try to divide and conquer as a staff so that before the show, each staff member and executive member of our board meets somebody in the lobby for a pre-concert dinner or cocktail. During the show, I'll sit with a different couple, and at intermission I'll meet with another couple for a glass of bubbles. After the show, I'll see someone else and bring them backstage for a little tour or something. That allows one person to see six or eight different couples in one night. And we’re spending time with them—rather than running into them in the lobby and hoping you have a conversation. When you multiply that across our staff, that suddenly becomes a lot of meaningful touchpoints in one evening.
The Symphonic Choir has had an exciting fall with a trip to Carnegie Hall and a CD release. Tell us more!
MP: Talk about a mountaintop experience. Eric has been wanting to bring the Symphonic Choir to Carnegie Hall since he started with the choir—literally for 15 years. I think the opportunity was transformative for the whole institution—not just musically. It was incredible to watch us step up all around. We had 75-80 non-singer donors with us in addition to the 225+ singers, so we used it as a cultivation opportunity. We're hooked! When can we go back?
As for the CD, we've never been on a major record label before. The disc is on Naxos, and it's one of the projects they're featuring this holiday season. It was only because Eric Stark, our artistic director, wanted to take on a pretty bold commissioning project in Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio Zabur that we had the opportunity to be on the label. It was a learning curve for us—how do you produce a recording like this? How do you market it, what's realistic to expect—both financially and in terms of media coverage? But like the Carnegie Hall experience, we're hooked, and our goal is to do more recordings on distribution like that, perhaps every other year or so.
When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?
MP: Somehow it seems like food and beverages always sneak-up into Symphonic Choir-related activities. One time, when we were trying to secure some airtime on the local morning shows before a concert, I ended up making eggnog on the “cooking” segment. And then soon thereafter, we were doing a segment about sparkling wines to accompany a cameo before another concert. If great wine is an entry into arts coverage, sign us up.
This spring I will go to Europe for a little while to play some organ concerts. That's my creative outlet to keep my toe in the musical waters. I wonder if other executive directors have an outlet like that outside of their own ensembles. I certainly hope so!
Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.