Entrepreneurship and Career Development

Entrepreneur of the Month

Eric Stark

Entrepreneur of the Month

Eric Stark

By developing a professional life that combines performance, scholarship and collaborative leadership, Jacobs School alumnus and conductor Eric Stark has established himself as a leading choral-orchestral specialist. He is currently director of choral activities at Butler University and artistic director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. Project Jumpstart recently caught up with him to discuss trends in choral music, seek advice on how best to prepare for a career in music, and to see how he maintains his very busy schedule.

Project Jumpstart: Many thanks for being with us to answer a few questions about your impressive career. Can you describe what led you to your current role in the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir?

Eric Stark: I started my doctorate in the fall of 1992 and began singing in the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir about the same time. My teacher, Robert Porco, was the director and I had the hope that I could maybe be his assistant. He already had someone else, so I spent two years singing in the choir, singing great repertoire and getting to watch my teacher do what he does so well. The assistant finished his coursework and I took over as the assistant for the next few years, helping with rehearsals and getting to sometimes conduct performances. I also spent a lot of time doing the important behind the scenes jobs in terms of production. That gave me a valuable inside-out opportunity to see the workings of the organization. At the same time, I developed my own church choirs and a community choir in Muncie, so I had to leave that position after about four years but was so happy to come back years later as the artistic director.

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

PJ: Entrepreneurship seems to be an evolving field of interest, especially entrepreneurship in regards to the arts. How does entrepreneurship operate in your professional life?

ES: Thank you for highlighting an important aspect of being a performer. Our career path does not really ever follow a set route. Each performer has his or her own way to creating a career that is meaningful and fulfilling but also is sustainable, will pay the bills, and meets our human needs. So, I’m really glad to see schools like Jacobs putting an emphasis on this side of the equation. It’s not enough to just be the best singer, instrumentalist, or conductor we can be; we also must be smart, savy business people and managers.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error and the wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Collaborating with individuals and organizations opens up new artistic possibilities and provides a chance to see how others manage their affairs and run their business. For professional development, there are also other great resources, such as Chorus America for choral conductors that offer conferences and retreats, provide great information on board governance, marketing, audience development, budget preparations and various other logistic things that I didn’t deal with when I was in school. 

NFL Symphonic Choir

PJ: You are the Artistic Director of the ISC and also director of choral activities at Butler University. How do you balance these jobs and what recommendations do you have for students juggling the many things in their lives?

ES: Ha! If I had the answer to that I would be on the talk show circuit making millions with my book! Balance is the thing that eludes all of us at times in the performing arts. It’s important that we work hard and take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way that makes sense for us to explore.  At the same time, we need to take care of ourselves. The work comes when it does and we can’t pick when we are hired to do this or that, but we can be vigilant in the long view. It’s important to know that, if one is willing to work really hard and not be home for a while, one should always protect time 2-3 months down the road where one can do something that recharges the batteries. Sometimes even just an hour of doing something that is relaxing like exercising or sitting at the piano and playing something for fun can really just calm and refresh yourself for the next day.

One of the nice things about our field is that the performance schedule revolves around the academic calendar. Summers can be less crazy and provide an opportunity for professional battery-charging. During this time, one can do training programs and festivals that can really help one move forward on some of the projects that we might want to tackle during the year.

PJ: The ISC is a pillar in the arts community of Indianapolis lasting over 75 years. What’s a typical day like running an organization of this caliber?

ES: We have some great things ahead, but with that comes a lot of preparation work. It seems like every day I’m plugged into both the musical and managerial side of the ISC, whether it’s something like rehearsal planning, sitting down with our executive director Michael Pettry, or negotiating with some of our arts collaborators discussing what we can do together in future seasons, answering questions the singers may have, and then also making time to stay on top of everything musically that we are doing. For example next month we are performing a world premiere choral work titled Zabur which is a setting of Psalm texts in Arabic which will likely be recorded and released on Naxos. With an organization like this, there is always something that needs to be done and something to think about. 

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PJ: The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir has a wonderful partnership with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, but they are separate organization. Can you describe the partnership?

ES: In terms of what looks like to the community, we want the audience to know that, anytime the choir and the orchestra are joined together, it’s going to be an incredible experience regardless of who is on the podium, or who organized the concert. Behind the scenes, there are a lot of negotiations and logistics that are dealt with. Our position, in regards to the symphony is unique. Unlike Chicago, Cleveland, or Atlanta to name a few, we are not part of the orchestra. We are our own organization and we always have been. It’s the best of both worlds; I get to prepare my choir to sing for great musicians like Maestro Urbanski and guest conductors and have the opportunity to conduct and program performances for myself. 

PJ: Do you find yourself using certain skills frequently today that you wish you could have learned or capitalized on while you were still in school?

ES: If I could go back and do it again I would definitely do some MBA-like courses in accounting or economics and get a better understanding of those things early on, but I think in my position as the artistic director the skills that I use all the time have to do with communication and leadership. Those are skills that are important for anyone in an entrepreneurial situation. We need to be able to accurately communicate our vision and we need to be able to inspire and lead people to accept that vision as their own and do whatever they can to help achieve it.

In the case of the symphonic choir, each of my singers is expected to give about 250 hours of their time per year. In a performance week, they are doing choral music for about 25 hours. That’s getting close to a fulltime job. If the artistic director cannot articulate a compelling vision for why someone should do that, they aren’t going to be able to attract the number of singers required to make it possible. We all have to deal with people and it needs to be respectful, enjoyable, and productive relationship. Working with a positive and respectful mindset always yields the best results.

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PJ: Classical music has been going through various shift and changes. What changes or trends have you noticed in the choral world?

ES: Fortunately one of the things that has not changed and is backed up by professional surveys is that singing in choirs is still the number one hobby in the United States. Over 10 percent of the population actively sing in choirs, so we know that choral singing is a major part in people’s lives. I think what is changing is our strategy of how we can leverage that knowledge to expand the choral art form to a wider audience and wider base of participants. When we attract more people to our performances we remind them of their own experiences of singing and can establish a connecting point there. We can also use that opportunity to remind them that, even though they may not be currently singing, there are many young people for whom choral music can be a wonderful personal outlet and they can support that by supporting groups like the ISC. I think the biggest changes in the choral world now is an increase in the awareness of the universality of choral singing amongst the population at large and how that universality can possibly translate to a greater support of the arts as a whole. 

PJ: How do you try to keep the ISC relevant in today’s society?

ES: We try to make sure that we’re performing a wide variety of music in a variety of venues both in the kinds of venues we sing in and also geographically. We do things like Brahms Requiem but also things like pop concerts and Christmas concerts that contain lighter music. We are exploring ways to connect with the growing Latino population in Indianapolis and we also connect with the schools in the community. For example, each year we have a spotlight choir at our Festival of Carols concert that joins us and gives some of the best high school singers in the city the chance to sing on our stage, perform with the ISC, and work with a professional orchestra. 

PJ: Can you talk a little about the ISC experience with Madonna at the Superbowl and other NFL collaborations? 

ES: It’s a way for us to share the art form with a very wide audience and fun for the singers to have a new experience. It’s also bridge building with communities in two senses, the people that are NFL fans may or may not be frequent symphonic choir or classical music listeners and it’s nice to expose them to what we are doing, and at the same time Madonna fans just as much as traditional classical music listeners might not suspect a classically trained group like the ISC is capable of crossing over into lots of different styles like that.

PJ: A lot of your career revolves around education. How does education give you a level of fulfillment in your career? Describe the importance of the outreach you do.

ES: As an artist we are always learning and need to make a commitment to ourselves to never think we know enough, but always seek to learn more. We learn immense amounts from our own students by teaching and learning from them through their eyes. When I’m in a classroom, whether it’s at Butler or out in the community, I have an opportunity to learn as much from the young singers that I’m working with. That’s why the ISC makes a point to do outreach at least once a week. Through a new grant we have even been able to revive the Indianapolis Public Schools All City Honor Choir which had been absent for about a 12 year stretch of time. I hope to be able to model a lifetime of learning for all the singers and students I meet. That’s how we stay fresh, can come to a new level of artistry, and how the mysteries of making our art are revealed to us by experiencing these new possibilities. 

PJ: What was your vision when you started at the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and now after several successful years, and many more to come, what do you think will be your lasting impact?

ES: When I came to the choir they were not in the greatest shape; they had been without a regular artistic director for more than two years. For a volunteer choir to not have its own conductor for that amount of time has a bad effect on any group, because singers are very loyal to their choir director, so the connection to the organization began to thin. The membership had fallen which led to a fall in quality and also the donation amounts from donors had fallen substantially. My first job was to stabilize the organization and get back on track. The first few years were rebuilding years and then we got the funding and artistic quality to where we wanted. We continue to strive to do better and challenge ourselves to rise even higher.

The legacy I would like to leave would be one of the highest artistic quality possible at all times in everything we do and of an organization that is strong and well-funded for years to come. Beyond that, we need to be as fully integrated with the community as possible. I would like the people that live in Indianapolis and central Indiana to feel that we are their choir, just as much as Andrew Luck is their quarterback and that we can be can be a point of pride for all those who live here and a point of inspiration for those who don’t.

Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.