Catching Up with John Beder and His Documentary, "Composed"
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to reconnect with John Beder, who I first met through a friend last fall, interviewed in February for the blog, and who has since been hard at work at his documentary project Composed. Since I first featured him, John has interviewed many classical musicians in top orchestral and chamber ensembles, and met some truly astonishing musicians, thinkers, performers, and writers, including some of my own teachers and colleagues. After 9 months of interviews, I finally met him at person in Austin, TX and we were able to discuss some of his recent adventures.
Kayleigh: In the 9 months since we first connected, you've done a ton of interviews- how many, exactly? And how many hours of footage have you collected?
John: I’m excited to say we’ve just reached 52 interviews for the project. The latest addition being the Time for Three string trio who we met with last week in Philadelphia. I think this brings us to over 90 hours of footage, which I still can’t wrap my head around.
K: Has this mostly been in the US or have you also traveled outside the US?
J: This past August we had the chance to travel to Ireland and the UK for some outsider perspective. It was an incredible opportunity to contrast all that I’ve heard in the US and was our first and only trip abroad so far. Throughout the production though numerous musicians wishing to participate have contacted me, but sadly live somewhere I just can’t get to. In an ideal scenario I’d meet all of them, but I’m thankful to have gone and met some amazing musicians across the pond.
K: How has the interview process been so far? Have many musicians been resistant to the project? Or have they been intrigued?
J: It’s so funny to look back on this past year to see how things have changed. The process has had its ups and downs for sure but at this stage I only have a few more to go. Musicians have certainly been more open to participating with the growing cast list, but I’ve still had every response. Sometimes people can’t wait to talk, others say “no but I can’t wait to see it”, some say ‘yes’ and then ‘no’ or ‘no’ and then ‘yes’, and most don’t respond at all. Recently I’ve been focusing on reaching big name soloists to fill out an important perspective of the film but have only made it through to the “Agent” stage. Generally if I have to go through an agent it’s met with little to no response. After six emails to Yo-Yo Ma’s agents I finally got a response that I’d hear back if he was interested but nothing if he declined (it’s been a couple months). A few however, like Mimi Stillman and the Time for Three trio, have jumped at the opportunity to join the cast so there’s still hope for more.
One thing I will say about resistance is that I’ve probably felt it more from institutions and soloists than anyone else. I absolutely recognize that these people need to be careful about who they get involved with, but I also think it’s easier to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’. Don’t get me wrong schools like Curtis, Shepherd, and Colburn welcomed me in, but others to this day have not replied at all to my attempts at connecting. I should mention that often I’m looking for a venue to conduct interviews at music schools when contacting them, but also have looked for more involved partnerships.
K: Have there been any stand-out interviews that were particularly unusual or unexpected?
J: After 52 interviews you’d think that there wouldn’t be much left in the unusual or unexpected category, but without fail I’m surprised every single time I sit down with someone. People sharing some harrowing details of nerves that I’d never expect is still shocking after hearing it over and over again. A few people certainly have left me speechless with their advice and stories of triumph and failure. Actually, I just remembered something unexpected that’s happened a few times now, which is for the interviewee to get incredibly nervous during the actual interview. It makes sense when you think of it of course, but it reminds me that this is something we face in in all kinds of scenarios and is an ongoing process in most cases.
K: What is perhaps the most interesting thing you have learned throughout the process?
J: I’ve learned so much throughout this process it makes my head spin. When you start talking about anxiety with people you realize more and more how it applies to everyone. The self-doubt, anxiety, and fear musicians might feel are the same struggles we all have, being a musician just puts it directly in your career path. This and how it applies to the very process of making a film is probably the most important thing I’ve learned. Creating something artistic for an audience, be it in a cinema or on stage, is daunting and truly embracing the fact that you’re sharing a gift is one of the most difficult mental challenges of being an artist. I am constantly in awe of my cast and can’t wait to share.
K: How has the focus of the documentary shifted- it seems like you started by talking about beta-blockers, and you've now shifted to address performance anxiety as a whole?
J: When I started this project my focus was on beta-blockers as a way to answer some of my own questions but to also bring to the surface the conversation surrounding them. Even in the past year I’ve noticed a lot more people talking about beta-blockers now, but it’s also on my radar more than ever. After even the first couple interviews though it was clear to me that this was a much broader topic and that if I wanted to help people, focusing on beta-blockers was not the only way to go. Don’t get me wrong, we’re talking about beta-blockers, but as one of many ways to address performance anxiety I realized I had to show more of what I was hearing from everyone. Beta-blockers lead to conversations about anxiety, stress, auditions, performing, and on and on. These themselves lead to other conversations about wellness, mental health, and daily life. You could continue to open it up, but with the understanding that focus will make a bigger impact in the community of music, I’ve chosen performance anxiety and classical music to try and help people.
K: Where are you now with editing and post-production, and when do you expect the project to be completed?
J: Right now I’m heading towards the end of production and want to begin editing this winter. This however has also become a pivotal phase as I’ve recently taken up fiscal sponsorship with a non-profit organization to allow for donations. We’ve made it so far on a $4500 budget from a Kickstarter campaign back in February, but sadly that money won’t take us to the end. Education, corporate, and private sponsorships/donations are the only way we can finish this film, so that’s a big focus right now too. I’ve started the conversation with a few schools and companies and am hoping they might see how important this film is to musicians and want to get involved.
K: What is your hope for the finished documentary- where would you like to premiere it, what sort of audience do you want to connect to, who might it benefit?
J: My number one goal is to share this film with musicians and performers. People who know this cast and know these stories as their own. I’m planning on a Boston premiere hopefully summer 2016, but after that my goal is to tour the film all around the US at schools, organizations, and music festivals where young musicians can easily see it. This will take some coordination but have already started the conversation with a couple major music institutes around the country. After touring, I’d love to get it distributed in some wider online capacity, making it even easier for those wanting to watch. I truly believe that there are messages and lessons in this film for everyone in this, not just musicians, but anxiety is a huge topic that you can’t fully cover in 90 minutes so my aim is to help musicians and maybe everyone else along the way.
K: One last thing- tell me about ICSOM(nternational Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) conference and the new musicians' health survey! How did that connection come about?
J: The 2015 Musician’s Health Survey came about from us realizing that after 28 years we really needed some up to date data on what’s happening in today’s orchestras. When I was first starting out people commonly asked about the statistics of performance anxiety and the methods to address it. I had no real answers, only guesses, which I knew wouldn’t be good enough. So I started the process of contacting ICSOM about an update to their 1987 study about the health of their musicians. It was not an easy process as I’m not a psychologist, physician, or researcher, but I knew some and knew where to look. Dr. Noa Kageyama was instrumental in pointing me in the right direction and that eventually led to some great resources to consult with and an old professor of mine, Aaron Williamon. Professor Williamon and his team at the Royal College of Music are the brains behind the survey and are currently going through the results! This survey certainly wasn’t easy, but without the full support of ICSOM, this thing would never have happened. They’ve really shown a lot of interest in this film and it was great to present a few clips at their conference and hear from so many delegates how excited they are to see it. You can forget why you’re working so hard on something sometimes, but this past August at the ICSOM conference, I had over 30 people come up to me individually to say ‘thanks for doing this’ which meant the world to me. The results of the survey will take some time to be analyzed. We’ve gathered 450 responses. Some data will be presented in the film and also published by Professor Williamon and his team at a later date. I can tell you now, there are some big surprises from the results I’ve seen.
K: Thank you so much for all of your work, and I look forward to seeing the finished project-I'm so impressed by what you've accomplished this year.
Composed is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Composed must be made payable to Fractured Atlas only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
For more information please visit the Composed page on Fractured Atlas.