Saturday, January 12, 2013

Jacob Smith: Bassoonist, Arts Administrator, Tech Entrepreneur, and Father

Readers, I am very excited to share with you this interview from 2011 with someone I consider a friend, role model -- and inspired me to start this project. I think Jacob must have a Time-Turner to do everything he does. Enjoy!  --AM

Jacob Smith is principal bassoonist with the Academy of Vocal Arts Orchestra and plays frequently with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and is a substitute with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He is a former member of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He studied with Nancy Goeres at Carnegie Mellon University and Danny Matsukawa at Temple University. 

Jacob is also Director of Development and Marketing for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) and Marlboro Music Festival and School. He also owns a web company, Dinkum Interactive. He resides in Philadelphia with his wife Meghan and two sons, Rory and Duncan.

What is your typical schedule? 

It’s rather atypical! Kids really add a whole level of uncertainty to any sense of a normal life or schedule – whether it be sleeping, practicing or working.  It’s a little bit more haphazard -- but it’s becoming less so as my jobs become more familiar to me and my kids get older (they are now 4 and 6 years old).

I’ve been at PCMS/Marlboro five years now – these two jobs really add up to one job. PCMS and Marlboro are separate organizations but part of the staff is shared. Marlboro is mainly a summer festival and PCMS is mainly a Fall/Winter/Spring series. 

During the day, I work at PCMS/Marlboro, which is located on Walnut Street in Philadelphia – near Rittenhouse Square. I’m allowed a lot of flexibility here to do business meetings or phone calls to support the business that I own. That flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit is in the DNA of this organization. Tony Checchia, founder and artistic director, was running Marlboro before he started the Chamber Music Society. Our other manager in New York, Frank Salomon, is a pretty auspicious artist manager who also runs the People’s Symphony concerts and the New York String Seminar. So there’s a little bit of a tradition of entrepreneurship here. 

An important part of balancing my work and musical lives is that I’ve managed to move to just doing the music gigs that work for my schedule. For instance, I really enjoyed playing with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, but over time I realized it simply didn’t work well for my schedule. It was a lot of daytime rehearsals for only two performances. The opera is quite the opposite - with three or four daytime rehearsals and then anywhere from five to eleven shows. 

For the past two years, I served on the board of a major nonprofit called PhillyCarShare until we sold it this summer to Enterprise Holdings (the parent of Enterprise and National Rental Car companies). I was chairing that board for the last year, which was a lot of pressure because it was a very small board and a very difficult situation in terms of some really bad financial problems there. That was a good eight months worth of work, as a volunteer, but it was important to me, so I fit it in. 

Can you tell us more about your web company? 

Sure!  I own a business called Dinkum Interactive, in which I’m a partner with another person. Originally, about 10 years ago now, I started a company called Whiteboard Media, which my wife and I founded when we were trying to figure out how to afford to be musicians. She’d been playing in an orchestra in Mexico and had a lot of free time on her hands. I was auditioning for orchestra jobs and we didn’t know what we were going to do or where life would take us – so we thought this would be a useful tool.  Finally, we decided we were going to move back to Philadelphia and “settle down.” 

We started Whiteboard purely to make cash to afford to be musicians. I mean, we always had ambitions for the company, but when we started it, we never thought it would grow into what it did.  Anyways, it grew and grew and then about two years ago I took ownership of a search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing firm called Dinkum Interactive. I started ramping down my involvement at Whiteboard, and now we’ve merged the two companies completely.

We have about eighteen people at Dinkum, so it’s a lot different than when I was running my own small “mom and pop” business.  Not only do we have bigger clients (universities, tech companies, etc.) but I no longer have to do all the various things I was doing before: maintaining Quickbooks, answering all the emails, taking care of each client.  We have a great team of people here in Philadelphia (they are all virtual), as well as satellite offices in Argentina and Indonesia, where we do software development and other things. 

While on the surface it seems completely ridiculous, running a web company has really enabled me to bring incredible value to my jobs at PCMS and Marlboro – where the internet, marketing, and audience development are more complex than ever.  The advanced things I learn through my company and its clients really give our small nonprofits a leg up and keeps life very interesting. 

Do you have formal training in computer science? 

Nope. I went to Carnegie Mellon, which is a total techie school. While I dreamt of being a computer science major (they were all getting job offers freshman year and dropping out) I’m not really good at coding or programming.  Instead I did a business minor in entrepreneurship at CMU and took the time to obtain a minor in English Literature. 

While I do have an instinct for marketing, I feel that it’s a strength I’ve developed over many years of learning on the job.  I recall that my first bassoon teacher told me that learning to make reeds was easy: just make 1,000 of them.  Basically, the same is true for anything and for me it’s been that way with websites, internet marketing, SEO, analytics, etc.  So while I have no formal training, I have a good amount of “on the job” training! 

How do you keep track of your schedule? 

All of my calendars are all melded together with Google apps. 

Are you able to fit in practicing and reed-making? 

Danny Matsukawa used to tell me that he made reeds only a few times per year. I thought that was insane, and didn’t believe him because when I first started studying with him I was making reeds like mad. But I made a lot of bad reeds.  I’m not sure if he sustains the same pace now, but I’ve been actually able to adapt that (obviously I play a lot less than a full time professional).

The most important thing for reducing my need to make reeds and to practice all the time was changing my bassoon - I feel I have a great bassoon now, a 7,000 series Heckel that I got from someone’s closet in Amsterdam. Previously I had an “okay” bassoon (a 12,000 series Heckel which I nicknamed “Big Bertha”), but now that I’m on a more responsive, intuitive setup, I don’t need a perfect reed like I did before with my old instrument. I can get away with a lot more! 

So, these days I make reeds once or twice per year – a whole bunch of them – and then refine them slowly as I play and practice, but never quickly.  I’ve always felt that was a better approach. When I was “ruining reeds” for a living, I was always trying to make them what they weren’t ready to be. The idea of letting a reed settle into its potential was not possible because I needed that reed. Now I don’t need that reed so much because I don’t play all the time. 

In terms of practicing – for me it is now a very enjoyable experience.  It’s like how some people do yoga!  It’s like free time. While I don’t practice every day, I’m always aware that a couple of weeks before I’m going to play an opera run or something, I start up again so I don’t embarrass myself. But it’s just such a pleasure because it’s such a focused activity – totally in opposition ot the crazy life I lead most days. 

Do you ever take a lot of time off from playing, and if so, how do you get back into shape? 

This past summer was very busy at Marlboro. We had our Reunion and 60th Anniversary Campaign. PCMS had a 25th Anniversary campaign, and that’s when I was working for PhillyCarShare. So I didn’t take my bassoon to Marlboro at all. I didn’t play for almost four months! 

I actually try to think of time off in a really positive way. For instance, I’ve always had trouble with my embouchure – I felt like it was undisciplined and probably wrong…never comfortable. So now when I come back to playing after a long break, I try to start with the embouchure first and remember what Nancy and Danny and everyone else always told me – basically to start over. Without the muscle memory, you don’t have the bad habits (or the good ones) and you have a chance to rebuild. 

Nancy used to always tell me to take a month off every summer. I always thought that was a bit odd – she was telling me not to practice!  “Go hiking, go travel, get outside,” she would say.  While I should probably hike or ride mountain bikes more (like Nancy does in Aspen each summer) it’s really been good for me to put the bassoon away for a while each year. I’m a far better musician and player, in fact. While I have to get back into shape, which is hard, I do feel I have a process now for rebuilding the core things -- breathing, support, embouchure --  it just comes right back. It’s a humbling experience, but enjoyable to me. 

How do you stay sane? 

Well, music’s a big part of staying sane for me. I feel I have a lot more appreciation for the act of making music and listening to music because I didn’t choose to do it all the time. Playing makes my schedule crazy and is tiring to add it on top of everything else I do.  But while I really love all of my various jobs, playing the bassoon is in fact the only thing I’m truly qualified and trained to do.  Picking it up, even during a busy time, makes me feel productive and at home and so it’s a very important part of  balancing things out. If I didn’t play the bassoon anymore, I think I’d have a harder time what that -- even though I’d have more time. 

Are there aspects of your musical training that help you out with your work in other areas and vice versa? 

The obvious one for me is that I spend my summers at Marlboro, which can’t help but to make you a richer and more insightful musician. I live in a cabin nearby to Richard Goode and share meals with great people like Frank Salomon, Benite Valente, Mitsuko Uchida, and all the others that congregate there during the summers.   There’s a lot of good music around me, and good musical thinkers that I like to absorb from. I would like to think that I can phrase a little bit better because I have spent five amazing summers surrounded by truly world-class musicians and music. 

And certainly the other way around. I think being trained as a musician really enables me to do what I do in business and in running the administrative aspects of Marlboro/PCMS that I help with. The culture at PCMS/Marlboro, and the culture at my companies, is self-motivated and continually striving for improvement. Very much a musician’s mindset. 

Also collaboration and teamwork, listening, and being sensitive to what is going on. There are a lot of very successful instrumentalists who go into other careers and I think there’s a reason for it beyond them being smart and talented people who happen to not end up doing music. I think there’s something to musical training and the artistic mindset that provides a lot of value in the business world. 

Did you ever want music to be your only career? 

No, and I never have. I’ve always been a little split. Some of the early conversations that I had with Nancy Goeres when I was choosing to go to Carnegie Mellon were about how I liked to do other things. And she thought that was positive. In fact, she has an English degree from Boston University, I believe, which really is what convinced me to attend Carnegie Mellon instead of my other options at the time -- the opportunity to explore areas outside of music. 

I don’t mean that just music can’t be satisfying. I just wasn’t able to focus that much on only one thing. And when you’re in the orchestra, you’re not the boss.   

Who are your role models? 

That’s a good question. While I never met Rudolf Serkin, he’s a big ghost over the shoulder here at Marlboro, Curtis, Philadelphia in general.  As such, I feel I’ve learned a lot from his personality and others at Marlboro. 

One of my roles at Marlboro is to work with the archives and put together all the photos and the recordings and stuff – as part of that you get to know the people a little bit. You see a different generation of musician (Sacha Schneider, Serkin, Isidore Cohen, Pablo Casals, etc.) and it feels a little bit of a golden age with a principled focus on music, the composers, family, and taking care of each other.  That has been inspiring to me, the balance between the great and the small things in life. 

I also really love and respect Chris Macatsoris at AVA. I think he’s a genius and he’s just awesome to work with.  And I really respect my brother, who was also a musician and went on to be an entrepreneur. He’s got offices in Singapore and Beijing and New York. 

Finally, Tony Checchia (my ultimate boss and mentor here at Marlboro/PCMS) is an outstanding role model because he was a wonderful bassoon player before he became a legendary presenter and manager. He played with the Baltimore Symphony and other places. But he was always looking for something else to do, and I’ve got a similar sort of bent, where I want to do a little bit more.   Let’s hope it turns out half as good as it did for Tony! 

Do you feel criticism from your musical colleagues because of your careers outside of music? 

I love seeing my colleagues. It’s a lot of fun for me. However I do worry that they look at me and go, “Oh, man, that didn’t sound so good, you should be practicing more!”  In fact, I had someone ask me if I had quit playing the bassoon since they hadn’t seen me in two months. Luckily, I’m still playing with a lot of the same people, because I’ve kept a core set of gigs. I really respect them as musicians and people and so it really motivates me to keep my standards high.

What advice would you give to people who are considering careers in music? 

My first bassoon teacher sat me down and said, “I can’t in good conscious recommend that you go into a career in music.” And I respected him for that enormously, because he told me the truth. And it’s more competitive now than ever before. However I think studying music was one of the best things I ever did, or could have done.

I would just recommend that musicians – especially those leaving school and figuring out what to do next - not to undervalue themselves. When I first entered the business world, I was charging people $200 to do a website and I should have charged $20,000. I was doing work that was worth $20,000 but I just didn’t know it, because I was in the musician mentality of “hoping to get a gig.” And the hardest thing for me to do over the last ten years has been to raise my prices. 

Even though the marketplace doesn’t value bassoonists (or oboists!) at the same level of investment bankers or whatever – they tend to have a lot of very marketable and desirable skills and talents.  They have an immense self-directed focus on quality, and an aptitude for learning new things, or communicating with other people as part of a team.   These are incredibly valuable – and difficult to teach – characteristics. 


  1. He resides in Philadelphia with his wife Meghan and two sons, Rory and Duncan.Texas mobile homes

  2. Very Useful information Thank you!!

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