Reba Cafarelli is managing director for Third Coast Percussion, working primarily in booking, marketing, and day-to-day operations. The ensemble is incorporated as a nonprofit, and it has a board of directors and three full-time employees in addition to its four members. In May 2022 Third Coast Percussion plans to release its next album, which will include Perspective, a seven-movement piece created on commission in 2020 by footwork innovator Jlin.

As told to Philip Montoro

The primary role that I play with Third Coast Percussion is booking. So I represent Third Coast Percussion to potential presenters, partners at universities, performing arts centers. I work a lot with my colleagues on marketing and a little bit of finances and just keeping the organization running smoothly. 

Performance is one major activity. Another one is commissioning new music for percussion. The third would be education, from preschool to adults. Because we’re a nonprofit, there’s grants that we can apply for to help support commissioning. We release an average of one major commercial recording per year, mostly on Cedille Records

With the pandemic, many things changed. I started my job in October 2019, so I was just getting into the groove of booking the ensemble. Of course, the rug got ripped out from under us very swiftly. We have a mission statement that we looked at, and we said, how can we stay on mission? Which is to bring exciting and unexpected musical performances to audiences, and to educate. So we all just realized that digital was gonna be the way to go. 

We already had high-quality HD video equipment in our studio, because when the ensemble goes on tour, they tour with cameras, so that the audience can see projections of what they’re doing with their hands. We used that same strategy with digital. Our studio manager, Colin Campbell, took it upon himself to learn how to be a livestream producer overnight, basically. We upgraded our Internet in the studio, and one week after our last live performance, we had our first public livestream. 

Third Coast Percussion livestreamed in-person shows at Constellation on June 27, 2021. The program included work by Philip Glass, Jlin, Elori Saxl, and George Hurd.

We wanted it to be as close to a concert experience as possible. Like, the “doors” opened a few minutes before the concert so people could start chatting. My colleague Rebecca McDaniel and I would monitor the chat and answer people’s questions, and then we would collect questions for the ensemble to answer at the end.

One of the coolest things is that percussion music is such a new thing that almost every composer and music creator we work with is alive, and we could get video messages from the composers to speak directly to the audience about their piece. 

We really thought it through, like, we have to make this livestream world as engaging and interesting as possible. We knew at some point people would get tired of looking at their screens. But at the time, we were like, here’s an opportunity, let’s make the most of it. We solicited donations from our audiences, but we decided early on that we would not go behind any paywalls. 

Two times we did have fundraisers online, where we did have a ticket. We used to have in-person fundraisers that would be about $100 a ticket, and a small group of people who could afford a $100 ticket would come. But now our ticket structure for the fundraiser is pay-what-you-can, starting at $5. 

We beat our goal by going online and doing it that way. It made more than an in-person fundraiser! Another reason for that is the expenses—for in-person events, sometimes we have to rent the venue and rent a truck to move percussion instruments around. 

We had booked our 2020-2021 season prior to everything shutting down, and we were able to convert several of our canceled engagements. And then new ones came about—one of the great things about the livestreams that we did was they were public, so people were able to see for themselves that they were high quality. 

Again, no expense on our side other than our own staff time. It wasn’t anywhere near the amount we would bring in for a typical touring season, but every dollar was able to stay with us. And we did a lot of education work compared to what we would normally do. There are some organizations that hire Third Coast Percussion specifically to do K-12 classroom visits. This way we don’t have to be already flying to California to work with students in California.

Everything that we do with our education program is very specifically built so that it’s 100 percent participation—the ensemble will do a clapping game with the kids, get them up out of their seats doing something, even when it’s remote. 

One day early on in the pandemic, DCASE gave us a call, and they were working really hard to draw attention to the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund—it was clear that a free fall was happening. And they asked if Third Coast would do a live performance on the mayor’s Instagram story. It was Third Coast Percussion in the morning, and Jamila Woods was after us, and there was a DJ set with Steve “Silk” Hurley later.

We had a couple of presenters who paid us to do a livestream, and it wasn’t necessarily appropriate for us to ask for donations since we were being compensated. So we asked for donations for New Music USA’s relief fund for people who are hurting in the contemporary classical music world. 

Prior to the pandemic, everyone who worked with Third Coast Percussion on a new piece of music would visit the studio, come in and kind of do a sandbox session. It’s hard for anyone to wrap their brain around what Third Coast Percussion has in their arsenal of instruments—there’s just so many different ways to create sound on the wildest objects you can imagine. Using this great technology that we’ve built, composers can work with the ensemble remotely instead of coming all the way over to Chicago to get their hands dirty, so to speak.

We will definitely continue to embrace digital. The education programming that we do—we can prerecord something really high quality and then license it to schools and presenters. We’ve started releasing a new video every Thursday. To have a high-quality video to accompany all the new music that we’re developing, it reaches so many more people.

This ensemble, they built it really slowly and they built it right. Careful financial planning was important—the board of directors has been very hands-on in helping us build a reserve and making sure we have an emergency backup plan for any scenario. Without their support and guidance, it could’ve been a very different story.