Wednesday 18 October 2023

Tips for musicians setting up a music festival: Shiry Rashkovsky, founder of Up Close and Musical, reflects on festival creation

Shiry Rashkovsky & violinist Fenella Humphreys at Up Close and Musical in 2022
Shiry Rashkovsky & violinist Fenella Humphreys at Up Close and Musical in 2022

Viola-player Shiry Rashkovsky's Up Close and Musical festival returned to the Fidelio Café this month, opening with mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, pianist Ben Dawson and Trio Klein in a storm-themed programme of music by living, and mainly women, composers [see my review] and ends tonight, 18 October 2023, with soprano & composer Héloïse Werner, multi-instrumentalist Shri Sriram and cellist Max Baillie in Best of October House Records with music by Love Ssega, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Jonathan Cole, and Max Baillie [further details]. Shiry founded Up Close and Musical in 2020 to help demystify the world of classical music, combining intimate performances, artist-curated programmes, and artist interviews, along with food and drink [read my 2021 interview with Shiry].

In this article, Shiry reflects on the whole process of festival creation.

I founded Up Close and Musical at Fidelio Café because I wanted to give audiences a chance not only to listen to music up close but to hear from the musicians themselves about their daily lives through informal chats mid-performance with me posing the questions. The festival has evolved from year to year; in the second year I invited an all-female roster and focused heavily on female composers, and in this third year I extended the festival format to include a film screening and behind-the-scenes look at the 2023 Hollywood blockbuster Chevalier and integrated an even wider array of musical genres than before, spanning contemporary, folk, musical theatre, jazz and of course classical. It’s been a wild ride from the fraught first year in which I had to postpone thrice due to the pandemic, and the momentum it’s gained since then is staggering. I had wanted to bring this musical concept to life for some time, and am so glad I persisted. Here are some things that I learned, most of which I could really, really have done with someone telling me beforehand.

Establishing the project:

Do not be alarmed - this takes time, which seems like the sort of thing that someone with project management experience would know but that they forgot to tell us in conservatoire. I found that there’s a certain growth that can only come from the repetition of a festival (at whatever frequency you run it); people become familiar with the name and artistic concept through press exposure and word of mouth. By Up Close and Musical’s second year we had people returning with friends for more -  that kind of strengthening of your audience base is something that you simply can’t fast-track. It brings utter joy when you notice it.

Performing while Artistic Directing:

Your nerves will take a hit from this, but not in the way you might expect. Recently I’ve found that I don’t get nervous onstage but the split in focus that comes from preparing to perform and managing the smooth running of the day - ensuring artists have what they need and rehearsals run on time, sorting through kinks with the venue and ticketing, or any number of curveballs that fly at you right up to the minute you have to go and play - can be quite a stressor. You can mitigate this with assiduous over-preparation but ultimately the results are most satisfying when all you have to think about it your performance, and that’s a challenging environment to simulate when you are in charge of everything else all the time, so take it with a handful of salt when you can. Across the three years of Up Close and Musical I found it easiest to schedule any performance I might be in with Trio Klein at the start of the festival, riding the wave of pre-festival preparations and allowing for more space to engage with inter-performance matters as they arose later.

Artistic Directing while not performing:

This is less fun, for those of us who love to perform. Don’t get me wrong, I get a huge kick out of compering and interviewing the artists during their performances, and engaging exciting and well spoken artists to share their musical experiences is integral to Up Close and Musical’s artistic concept, but somehow I always feel like something is missing when I’m there without my instrument, like I’ve only expressed myself halfway. An odd feeling and certainly not a complaint, but worth bearing in mind.


Social media does work. No, it’s not the reason we became musicians; yes, I did cry on the day I finally shared the festival’s first promotional TikTok because meta launched Threads that very afternoon and it was all a bit much; yes, it will spread word of your festival and eventually translate into sales. It’s also useful to think about what exactly you are offering your audience - drinks or added activities included in the concert ticket price? - which I discovered in the first two years of Up Close and Musical can confound potential audiences. The clearer I was about the festival offering, the greater success I had in capturing concertgoers.


There will be people who buy tickets last minute; these people have absolutely no regard for your nervous system. There will be others who will buy tickets well in advance, and these are angels who will keep your faith in your paltry marketing expertise alive. Best of all, there will be those who will buy tickets to one performance, love it, and buy more for a subsequent performance. These are your favourites, and you treasure them and put them right at the top of your mailing list. 


Hire good PR. This is something I did for Up Close and Musical from the outset and it paid dividends. Don’t worry about it being naff or self-adulatory because you’re one of the performers, it’s just the most direct way for your festival to become established, and most importantly you want people to see the beautiful things you are doing. Ultimately it will only be complementary to your performance career which will thank you in a couple of years.


You may be constrained on this by the venue you’ll be working with, but I learned from Up Close and Musical that when the project takes place can have a significant impact on how many people come and listen. I found the best time of year is the end of Autumn, when the season is underway but Christmas is not quite around the corner (there’s really no winning against Handel). In the years that I scheduled the festival for the late Spring/Summer (notwithstanding that we were in 2021-2022 and people were still cautious about attending live events), it was much harder to win Londoners’ attention. The only snag of the Autumn is that you’ll be giving up some of your own autumn performances, which is something to consider. Oh, and don’t schedule anything on a Sunday. 

Project management:

You can rest easy that the skills we are taught from a young age will make us excellent at the vast majority of seemingly unmusical tasks of running a festival: always being over-prepared (don’t practise until it goes right, practise until it can’t go wrong, right?), having contingencies for everything (it helps to believe control is not illusory), always keeping multiple pencils and sellotape on your person (you’ll thank me eventually I promise), arriving early and being open to flow and to adapt to the unexpected. You’ll have to liaise with the artists you’ve booked - you already know how to handle musicians, on a good day at least - and people from a wide array of professional backgrounds on a variety of practical matters (think venue management, photographers etc.). In the first year of Up Close and Musical my greatest learning curve was adapting my communication style to be effective: friendly, direct, and clear about what I needed from each person - much easier with experience and ultimately rewarding when everything comes together as envisaged.


Much as we get booked well in advance as instrumentalists, you’ll want to start confirming your artists and vendors for the next festival pretty much as soon as the current one comes to an end, or even a bit before, if your festival occurs annually. But don’t forget about your own rhythm - I can’t recommend enough scheduling a break for yourself, where possible. In the years that I had taken on demanding performances straight after Up Close and Musical I was surprised to discover that I was more exhausted than I’d anticipated, mostly from the non-musical aspects of running the show. Take a moment to bask in what you have achieved, for your audiences, your artists, and yourself; you deserve it.

Kamila Bydlowska & Ella Rundle of Trio Klein, pianist Ben Dawson, Shiry Rashkovsky and mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer at Up Close and Musical 2023
Kamila Bydlowska & Ella Rundle of Trio Klein, pianist Ben Dawson, Shiry Rashkovsky and mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer at Up Close and Musical 2023


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