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Bringing it Home

For a pianist without high-level management, organizing a tour can feel like an impossible undertaking. There are many reasons why touring is harder than ever before: venues for classical and jazz music have been shuttering their doors all over the country, audiences are far from guaranteed even at the most reputable venues, most major papers no longer have music critics promoting upcoming shows, CD sales have ceased to be a reliable way to pad one's revenue, and many venues choose the economy of a digital keyboard over the majesty of an acoustic piano. 

When I released my chamber jazz album, Finger-Songwriter, in 2012, I wanted my trio's new music to be heard. So, despite the challenges, I set out to create a tour. Instead of pursuing the traditional route of booking jazz clubs and small concert halls, I decided to revamp a tradition from the 1800s and organize a series of salon-style house concerts. My group, "The Housewarming Project," has since played well over 100 house concerts in more than twenty states across America (as well as a handful in Europe). Not only have I found house concerts to be a workable way to tour as a piano-based group in the 2010s, but I also believe that they can provide experiences for audiences and performers that are often more meaningful than traditional performances. 

I'm not the only one to have the idea of house concerts and I certainly don't claim to be the first. 

A trend towards salon-style concerts has been burgeoning in the last few years. Classical pianist Kimball Gallagher travelled all over the world giving house concerts as part of his 88 Concert Tour; organizers and venues such as Jazz- Vox (Seattle), Jazz at the A Frame (Los Angeles), and The Q Quintessential (New York) present regular concerts with houses as primary venues; and house concerts have even inspired the formation of tech-based startup companies, such as Boston-based Groupmuse and Copenhagen- based Low-Fi, who are trying to make hiring a string quartet as easy as calling an Uber.

But back in 2012, still a house concert novice, I asked my ensemble members to reserve 17 dates on their calendar and went to work. First, I set ground rules for the concerts. The host is responsible for providing the audience, which must consist of at least twenty people. There must be a recently-tuned acoustic piano for the performance. The concerts are free for the hosts, but a $20 donation will be suggested from each audience member. (We advertise that audience members get a "free" CD with a $20 donation.) Hosts are not required to let us stay at their homes after the concert, but we appreciate a place to spend the night if they're willing. We don't require hosts to provide food or drink, but most folks choose to have some appetizers and wine when they have company over. Lastly, this is not background music! The audience is asked to be seated and attentive. 

Siskind (left) poses with his Housewarming Project trio, vocalist Nancy Harms (center) and woodwind specialist Lucas Pino (right).

With the ground rules set, the biggest question became where I might find seventeen people across the country to host such an event. I started with those I knew—former students, fellow piano teachers, friends from college. I targeted families I boarded with during piano competitions, family friends who had recently purchased pianos, and musicians I'd stayed in touch with from summer camps and festivals. My pitch played upon people's yearning for adventure and excitement—"Do something unique this summer! An in-home concert is an event your friends and family will never forget!"

Audience members socilialize before an in-home concert in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Lloyd Merrium.

With a few tour pillars set on the calendar, I expanded to contacting friends of friends—"surely you must know somebody who owns a piano?" "Who do you know in the greater Chicago area that would enjoy an individualized concert experience?" "Can you connect me with someone who loves music near Philadelphia?" Then, I started posting on Facebook (I'm sure I became a bit of a nuisance to my social media friends) and eventually even reached out individually to piano teachers via MTNA local chapter websites, piano technicians by searching for qualified techs in targeted metro areas, and piano stores to ask if any recent piano purchasers might enjoy having a concert in their home. 

After hundreds of emails, scores of phone calls, and weeks of pursuing concert hosts with a dedication which might fairly be termed "maniacal," I was able to find seventeen concerts to fill our seventeen open dates. The tour exceeded all my expectations—not only were there seventeen living rooms with full audiences interested in hearing our concerts, but these audiences were more engaged, more responsive, and more generous than those I was used to playing for in traditional venues. Many people even told us they wouldn't think to go to a jazz or classical concert, but that they found the music powerful once they showed up. These people were the most inspiring to me! "We didn't even know we liked jazz," wrote one audience member in our guest book, "but you made our hearts melt!" "We came to support the host but thoroughly enjoyed [it]." Wrote another, "We think we're converted." "Never did we realize we loved jazz so much," wrote a third. 

We also found our hosts and audiences were more generous than we expected. If everyone donated the required $20, each performer would squeak by with about $100 per performance after expenses—not a bad haul for a young musician, but a pretty thin margin to work with in case anything went wrong. And if we had to pay for hotel rooms, that thin margin would quickly disappear. But everywhere we turned, we discovered that our audiences consistently donated over and above the minimum $20 required and our hosts were enthusiastically willing to let us sleep in their extra bedrooms, basements, and attics. At the end of the tour, we actually had surplus money—quite a bit, in fact—to divide among the members of the trio. 

Since then, I've organized a handful of similar house concert tours throughout the U.S. and started augmenting isolated public performances with additional house concert dates. My trio has kept at it because, frankly, these tours are amazing adventures for us! Over the years, we've ended up putting with our hosts on a golf course in Kentucky, meditating at a yoga studio in upstate New York, enjoying a massive potluck picnic in Virginia, looking at the stars in an open desert in New Mexico, smoking Cuban cigars in the Netherlands, admiring a collection of hundreds of fish-related neckties in Maryland, taking a midnight swim in Lake Michigan, and learning about the future of Alzheimer's care in North Carolina. We have made hundreds of long-lasting friends and have had countless discussions about art, music, and life that have helped to shape my worldview. 

... one host had to drive our saxophonist to the ER after he broke his foot in Tacoma.

Of course, these tours have had their negative moments too. One of our host's dogs pooped on our "stage" just as we were getting ready to play in a Chicago suburb; there have been last-minute cancellations which have left us stranded and financially in the hole; we've had hosts who misunderstood their duties and haven't provided an audience; one host had to drive our saxophonist to the ER after he broke his foot in Tacoma; and once I even put an incorrect date into my calendar, so we showed up for a performance at a house that wasn't expecting any musicians that night! But mostly, these concerts have reinvigorated my love of making music. Truth be told, I used to feel selfish about being a professional musician. After all, at a time of shrinking audiences and waning interest, what could the world need less than yet another pianist vying for attention? After discovering in-home concerts, however, my attitude has changed. The people we've met absolutely needed every single moment of music we gave to them and playing for these appreciative audiences made it clear to me that being a musician, in fact, is a selfless and essential endeavor. "I currently listen to EDM [Electronic Dance Music]," wrote a young concert attendee from Olympia, Washington, "but as I sat and listened, tears ran down my face. This is a first for me! Come again!" 

I don't know if you think music-making is selfish or selfless, but I'd love to talk with you about it. How about after a concert—at your house? 

Housewarming Project members Siskind, Harms, and Pino in concert.

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