Pitching ideas, finding support

Running Start Competition builds community among entrepreneurial artists.

MSUFCU Assistant Vice President for Lending Blake Johnson and Dean James Forger present a check for $2,500 to Altin Sencalar (left) and Chris Glassman, masters students in Jazz Studies who won the 2019 Running Start Competition.
A crowd of about 40 people gathered in 120 Music Building on a Sunday afternoon in February to watch eight Running Start Competition finalists make their live pitches on their projects while about 100 people tuned in live online.

Altin Sencalar admits he is more used to playing music in front of crowds. Talking to an audience about ideas is a whole different story.

But Sencalar found the chops he needed to pitch an entrepreneurial project with fellow trombonist Chris Glassman through the MSU College of Music’s 7th Annual Running Start Competition. Taking the stage at the MSU Music Building in early February, the two master of jazz studies students persuaded a panel of judges on the value of their community-oriented project. A seated audience of nearly 40 people watched as did more than 100 people through the college’s Livestream channel. A few hours later, the two heard they had captured the competition’s top prize in the event that aims to advance student entrepreneurial projects in music.

“It was a great experience to see how to present your idea and get it funded,” said Sencalar. “That’s a very important skill to have as a freelance musician.”

Glassman agreed, saying having the chance to deliver a pitch in “real-time” to a well-networked and influential panel was invaluable. He also credited his peers and faculty mentors who helped him get there.

“The atmosphere of the competition was simply incredible,” he said. “Sometimes competitions are cutthroat. This one was all about the greater good and helping everyone get their idea polished and funded.”

Running Start Competition finalist Anna Montgomery (MM Voice) presents her project while the judges (left) listen. Eight finalists in all made their presentations at the Live Pitch event.

Delivering the pitch

Sencalar and Glassman were awarded $2,500 to expand an educational outreach tour that targets elementary and middle school students. The city-wide “Welcome Home Tour” currently engages students in East Lansing schools in free, interactive performances about blues-based jazz. Students attend one-hour assemblies that include an interactive performance by the Sencalar-Glassman Quintet, that features call-response, rhythmic, and dance activities. Launched earlier this winter, the tour will culminate in a community performance at East Lansing’s Valley Court Park in May.

Sencalar and Glassman had already secured a $750 grant from the City of East Lansing to get the project moving. The Running Start Competition, they said, offered a chance to garner additional funding to execute the project. Their ultimate long-term vision is to supplement arts education in schools state-wide, and help more students gain a cultural and aesthetic appreciation for jazz.

“We want to have a lasting impact,” said Glassman. “Our hope is to broaden the outreach beyond East Lansing to other parts of Michigan—particularly areas and school districts with fewer resources.”

Running Start Judge Anne Ruffley said Glassman and Sencalar stood out for their focus on bringing jazz education to children, and for their understanding of arts funding in schools. The second-year panelist admitted that the caliber of all Running Start contenders made it tough to decide on who or what group would receive the top prize.

“All of the students participating in the live pitch were extremely strong,” said Ruffley, the institutional giving officer for ArtOps in Southfield, Michigan. “Every year, as the competition grows, in turn the process becomes more streamlined. It was difficult last year to decide on the top prize. It was even harder this year because students are upping their game.”

College of Music Director of Career Services and Music Entrepreneurship Christine Beamer has helped shape the scope of the Running Start program for the last five years and hosts the annual Live Pitch event.

Finding resources

Christine Beamer has a front row seat to the increasing number of quality entrepreneurial ideas emanating from students. As the college’s director of career services and music entrepreneurship, Beamer has helped shape the scope of the Running Start program for the last five years.

In 2013, Beamer suggested adding the live pitch component, and invited advocates from music education, economic development, arts administration, and the commercial music industry to participate. Students submitted ideas to the competition in three broad categories focused on production, education or performance. Judges and panelists then had the opportunity to review and select projects for the live pitch.

“We decided to add the live pitch in 2017 because we wanted the Competition to be just the beginning of these students’ journey toward their project,” she said. “Part of the goal of the Live Pitch is to have them connect with the judges and panelists, and to understand the process of securing funding through persuasion and building consensus.”

This year, eight projects were selected as finalists to compete for varying levels of grants to jumpstart their creative concept. At the end of the one-day event, $8,000 was distributed among the eight finalists, as well as an additional $250 People’s Choice Award.

“The pitch represents a culmination of mentorship from faculty, staff, MSU alumni, and external stakeholders,” Beamer said, mentioning that many college faculty made themselves available before the event to mentor students on their presentations. Finalists also toured the MSU Hatch to get a sense of the opportunities and resources available for students launching entrepreneurial projects.

“Students really did their legwork to get their ideas moving,” Beamer said. “I was very impressed by how collaborative students were before and during the event. Students weren’t in it to compete against each other, but rather to build a community that wants to promote change and forge career paths.”

Ken Szymusiak of the MSU Broad College of Business has helped select Running Start finalists for two years. He said the competition gives students a platform, and validates that their ideas are worth pursuing. The competition also reinforces the importance of fostering an entrepreneurial mindset across all disciplines—including the creative arts.

“Nurturing that entrepreneurial mindset is a campus-wide initiative,” said Szymusiak, the managing director of the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “If you’re in the arts, it’s incredibly important to think about how you will use your skills to create value and generate income. It’s exciting to see how students are pushing the boundaries of the musical arts and education.”

Master’s student Tyler Young said the Running Start competition gave him the chance to explore the career potential of a unique approach to classical performance. The second prize recipient observed that as a freelance musician, he sometimes feels it’s impossible to break out of a system that fails to provide adequate reimbursement for his work. Gaining entrepreneurial skills, he said, can help.

“Arts entrepreneurship feels like leveling the playing field,” he said. “It gives us the tools we need not just to create art, but to get paid doing it.”

Major funding for the 2019 Running Start Competition was provided by the MSU Federal Credit Union, the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, Cynthia Kay & Co., and MSU Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“We’ve committed to increasing resources so we can increase the number of ideas that go beyond the proposal stage,” Beamer said. “Students have such terrific entrepreneurial ideas. We want to be the agents who enable those ideas, rather than be a funnel that limits them.”

2019 Running Start Finalists and Awards

Finalists for the 2019 Running Start Live Pitch competed in three different categories and presented projects or business ideas centered on creative approaches in performance, music education, and production.

Running Start Competition finalists show their support for Altin Sencalar and Chris Glassman (both MM Jazz Studies) as they embrace immediately after learning they took first prize in the 2019 competition.

$2500 first prize:
Chris Glassman and Altin Sencalar (MM Jazz Studies)
Project: Welcome Home Tour
To conduct an East Lansing city-wide tour that engages elementary age students in free interactive performances about blues-based jazz, culminating in a community performance at the end of the school year.

$1000 second prize:
James Brinkmann (MM flute)
Project: Concerto for Audience
To commission a piece that invites an audience to participate in making music with the orchestra during its performance.


$1000 second prize:
Kayla Green (MM Violin)
New Venture
Project: GrandStand Music Festival
Melding the arts and human rights to form an event that features exceptional artists in a performance designed to raise funding and awareness to help combat sex trafficking in West Michigan. Festival scheduled for Sun., May 5, 2019 at the J.W. Marriot, downtown Grand Rapids.

$1000 second prize +
$250 People’s Choice Award:

Colleen McNickle (PhD Music Ed)
Project: “Take A Breath” program
To create a program for future music educators that trains them to integrate health and wellness research and yoga and mindfulness practices into their future classrooms.

$1000 second prize:
Tyler Young (MM Saxophone Performance)
New Venture
Project: New Music Festival of the Pines
To bring multiple communities together through a festival in North Carolina that features improvisation in classical performance (with William Hueholt, piano).


$500 third prize:
Apothix Trio: Rachel Fredericksen, SoHyun Moon and Andrea Silverio (DMA Bassoon, Oboe, and Piano)
Project: Cross-Cultural Commission
To work with MSU composition faculty Ricardo Lorenz to write a cross-cultural piece that showcases the talents of the all-female, culturally diverse trio, and take the piece on tour in the Southwestern US in fall 2019.

$500 third prize:
Chris Kaminski (MM Theory and Composition)
Project: Church of Quesadeity Heavy Metal Opera
To write a heavy metal opera for chamber ensemble and heavy metal band, and create a promotional video to promote the opera and recruit donors to fund the premiere.


$500 third prize:
Anna Montgomery (MM Voice)
Project: Orpheus and Euridice: Myth Meets #MeToo
To foster discussion on the #MeToo movement and sexual assault through an event that leverages the power of musical performance, art and creative writing to advance social change. Event is scheduled for April 26, 2019 at 5:30pm in 1300 FRIB (MSU Facility for Rare Isotope Beams).

The 2019 Running Start Competition and Live Pitch was supported through College of Music Partnerships with the MSU Federal Credit Union, the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, the MSU Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship, and Cynthia Kay & Company. Judges and panelists included John Churchville, Ann Arbor music educator; Madison Dugan, assistant director of development, College of Music; Thomas Fehrenbach, community and economic development administration, City of East Lansing; Jerry Norris, co-founder of The Fledge; Joe Steinhardt, founder of Don Giovanni Records, Anne Ruffley, institutional giving officer at ArtOps; and Ken Szymusiak, managing director of the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

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