Running Start Spotlights

Marianne Breneman

November Interview

Marianne Breneman, BM 1992

Marianne Breneman is an entrepreneur, chamber musician, and educator. In this interview she offers deep insights into creating opportunities and arts management. She also offers a list of 7 "must have" skills for serious musicians. Check out a track from her ensemble, "Conundrum," a non-traditional chamber ensemble.




How would you describe your professional identity in a sentence?

I am a classical musician, teacher, and entrepreneur, striving to inspire new audiences with thought-provoking musical experiences.

Can you summarize your current entrepreneurial projects in a sentence or two? 

I’ve recently formed the Triangle Chamber Music Collective, an organization featuring many of Raleigh’s finest freelance classical musicians for the purpose of showcasing our local talent in both traditional and non-traditional venues.

How have your career, projects, or initiatives been growing and developing since you graduated? Since last year? What are your next steps as you go forward? 

This is a tough question since I graduated 24 years ago. When I left MSU, I knew that I’d go to graduate school for at least one more degree, maybe two. I had set my goals on being an orchestral musician and I knew that I’d have a studio of advancing students, either as a faculty member of a college or in a private setting. I didn’t realize how difficult all of that would be. I earned two more degrees in music (Wayne State University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) and recently completed a certificate in Arts Management (UMass Amherst). I accomplished those goals, acting as a core member of an orchestra (and freelancing a lot) as well as teaching at the college level.  

In 2005, I formed a chamber music ensemble called Conundrum with three friends from Cincinnati. This was my first experience with arts   management since we each took on varying tasks to make Conundrum work. I learned a lot on the fly because I hadn’t done this type thing before. Grant writing, publicity, and searching the internet for places to play - all while planning interesting programs and practicing – isn’t an easy task. My colleagues were amazing and somehow we got it done.

Because we are a non-traditional instrumentation (soprano, flute, clarinet, and piano) we knew that existing repertoire would be limited and we’d have to collaborate with composers for new pieces. We also knew that we’d have to be compelling in presentation because we were so different. It’s been a wild ride, with lots of great friendships and collaborations with composers from all over the country, residencies at universities and colleges, and appearances at new music festivals. Over 10 years and two CDs later, we are still playing together while maintaining our separate projects.

In 2013 I went into arts management (for something other than handling my own projects) when I became the Executive Director of the Raleigh Boychoir. I really learned a lot about longstanding organizations and the personalities that make them run. I had a chance to hone my grant writing skills and learned to present in front of grant panels. It was a great opportunity that would ultimately lead me to my next job as Executive Director of Chamber Music Raleigh where I produced 20+ events in each season as the only employee (with help from some board members). While I enjoyed many aspects of this job, it became clear to me after 2 years that my heart was really in being an Artistic Director where I could play and not just plan for others to play! It was time for me to do my own thing in Raleigh and so I left in September 2016 to form the Triangle Chamber Music Collective.

I’m drawn to putting musicians together to play for people of all ages. I view every public performance as an “educational outreach” event because you never know who is hearing classical music for the first time. We have a unique opportunity and responsibility as musicians to make sure that what we do is important and intriguing to other people. Going forward, I plan to provide a creative and musically rewarding outlet for the musicians of TCMC while sharing chamber music with as many people as we can.

What gap or niche in the market do you hope your new chamber series could fill in Raleigh and the surrounding area?

The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) is a wonderful culturally rich area. We have several universities with outstanding performing arts series, a vibrant orchestra, ballet, and opera. There are many churches and other places of worship with a commitment to quality music. Still, there are many more talented professional musicians than opportunities! My goal is that Triangle Chamber Music Collective provides opportunities for these musicians to perform repertoire that is off the beaten path, in places where we can reach more people, and in a way that fosters collaboration among local arts organizations and businesses. I’d like to introduce classical chamber music to people who might not buy tickets to a straight up concert but who would enjoy an event that featured music, local beers, wines, bites from a local restaurant, etc. The Triangle is one of the nation’s fastest growing areas so there are plenty of new people who are looking to get to know their new city and attending one of our events is a great way to do that! I’m also interested in partnering with community centers for free concerts. Raleigh is lucky to have some amazing city-owned spaces where residents participate in a variety of activities; I think that is a perfect place to engage with the community and spark interest.    

How did the College of Music prepare you to embark on your career?

I had the good fortune of excellent teachers at MSU: in academic classes, ensembles, and within the clarinet studio. I was lucky to play lots of great repertoire with classmates who went on to be excellent performers and educators. One of the best things that MSU’s College of Music offered me was the opportunity to learn to teach! At that time, MSU music students had the opportunity to teach lessons in several local school systems and I went to Grand Ledge a few days each week to work with private students. I was paid more than I could have earned in a retail or restaurant job (in less time which allowed me to have a job and still practice a lot!) and I was able to work on the craft of teaching.  

I also met and married a terrific trumpet player (Brian Breneman) who has continued to play on a very high level while having a successful career in software. He is my best supporter and partner, often providing perspective that I wouldn’t see on my own. Brian is also a member of the Triangle Chamber Music Collective which is fun for us.

Both with your chamber ensemble, Conundrum, and your recent move to Raleigh, it seems like you have had to be very entrepreneurial in breaking into the scene and creating your own opportunities. From your experiences, what do you think are the most important skills to have as a 21st century musician? As an entrepreneur? 

I believe that the days of graduating with a music degree and going directly to an orchestra or a teaching job are over for most people. The market is flooded with excellent musicians and teachers and the number of “standard” opportunities are shrinking. I always tell my older students who are pondering a life in music that they need to create their career; no one is going to seek them out, knock on their door, and offer them a job in music so they need to be prepared.

In addition to being superior musicians, the following skills are a must: 

First and foremost, for everything: be on time, be prepared, be polite, and communicate clearly, effectively, and in a timely manner. If something goes wrong, apologize sincerely and fix it. Remember that a reason or excuse is not the same as an apology.

If possible, double on another instrument so you can competently play or teach the auxiliary instruments like bass clarinet, piccolo, all the saxophones, etc.

Be willing to take performing jobs of any kind at first. You never know who you will meet there and what collaboration possibilities will come from those meetings.

If you decide to teach privately, run it like the serious business that it is. Be on time, be prepared, communicate well with your students’ parents, and don’t cancel lessons unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Write well and concisely, both in electronic form and in print. This will serve you in grant writing, cover letters, and the correspondence that leads to great opportunities.

Seek opportunities to learn business skills like grant writing, computer programs, financial management, effective and responsible social media tactics, etc. Often there are free seminars that one can take attend to gain more knowledge or take it one step further and get a professional certification or Associates Degree in Business.

Don’t operate in a bubble! We can’t do this alone. Be active in your alumni groups and in organizations like the International Clarinet Association, International Double Reed Society, International Trumpet Guild, etc. This will keep you in contact with other musicians and let you know about activities in the musical world. Get a group of your musical colleagues together and talk about dreams and ideas; play with them and partner with local venues (traditional and non-traditional) to present concerts without worrying about the pay. Be a musician first and then figure out the rest later.

It seems like a lot of your focus is chamber ensembles. What role do you think chamber music and chamber ensembles will play in the next 20 years in the classical musical landscape?

My first love is orchestra playing and I discovered chamber music a little later in my life. I played some chamber music on my student recitals at MSU but at the time, the chamber music program wasn’t as well organized as it is now. Current MSU students are very lucky!

I think that chamber music plays a very important role in introducing people to classical music. It can be performed in smaller venues or in private homes (as it originated), it provides a more intimate connection to the musicians, and it can be less expensive to produce. I’ve been told by several first-time concert-goers that the chamber music experience was more comfortable for them than a large venue with 60-70 musicians. The opportunity for musicians to engage with audience members is key; the intimacy that comes from hearing the musicians speak, the closeness, and the ability to hear the instruments individually can provide an experience unlike any other.

As a musician who does programming, I love the chance to present music that isn’t being done a lot! There are so many amazing pieces that are not being played for a myriad of reasons. Playing chamber music gives musicians an opportunity to play pieces they love and don’t get to do very often; a big complaint from orchestra members is that they frequently have to repeat symphonies because those works sell tickets. Yes, classical music is a business and tickets need to be sold but when I can play something new, I’ll jump at the chance every time and I’ve found that audiences love it too.

Any other thoughts about being a professional musician and an arts administrator?

This business is not easy and I often wear more than one hat in any given day. It can (and does) make me crazy at times but I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I work with some amazing students and teachers, I’m always inspired by and learning from my colleagues, I’m still striving for a higher level of playing for myself, and I’ve found that people in all walks of life can be inspired by classical music. If you know what you want to do with your career, go for it. If you’re not entirely sure, look around and see what others are doing to gain inspiration for yourself. Remember that ultimately this is about the music and the art, not about us as individuals. There is room for all of us out there to do great work in classical music if we join together with sincere intentions.