Entrepreneur of the Month:
There's no better way to kick off the new year than with an inspirational interview with cellist Allegra Montanari, a Jacobs alumna who has created a vibrant, multifaceted career for herself. Read on for more about her career path, her inspiration behind the community outreach organization Sharing Notes, and how she makes time for a happy, balanced life while having so many irons in the fire.
Micah Gleason Photo
Allegra Montanari graduated from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and completed her Masters at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University where she was a student of John Sharp, Principal Cellist of the Chicago Symphony. As a professional cellist, Montanari has performed with ensembles and artists across the country in venues ranging from United Center to Symphony Hall. Recent engagements include concerts with Ilya Kaler, Corky Siegel, Kygo, and the world premiere of Stuart Folse’s ‘Slane’ at Roosevelt University.
In 2012, Ms. Montanari created Sharing Notes, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, that improves quality of life for hospital patients through engaging, interactive live performances across Chicago. Sharing Notes has been featured on WGN’s “Different Drummers”, ABC 7 Chicago, and WYCC PBS Chicago, and has received the 2013 Friends of La Rabida Award for Community Partnership in honor of outstanding service to their patient population, as well as the 2019 Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee Excellence in the Arts Award from the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. To date, the organization has served over 25,000 hospital patients with the power of live music.
Within Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts, Allegra combines her background of teaching, entrepreneurship, and performance to serve as founding Director of the newly launched Center for Arts Leadership. For her experience with community engagement, Allegra has also led presentations for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, and the College Music Society’s National Conference in 2016.
PJ: How do you feel that your time at Jacobs shaped you into the person and musician you are now?
AM: Hands down, the relationships made the greatest lasting impression and were the most significant resource a place like Jacobs has to offer. The friends I gained from Jacobs are some of the people I continue to lean on and learn from to this day. In addition, the network of IU grads in Chicago is strong so having that Jacobs connection was really important to help get my foot in the door with work in the city.
One of the reasons I chose Jacobs, which did not disappoint, was the chance to immerse myself in a huge pool of incredible artists while being in an environment that valued strong academics. The sheer size of Jacobs and the numerous specialties opened my eyes to the various definitions of "musician" and gave me the chance to explore that on my own. As a freshman fairly new to the idea of cello as a profession, I could also see Artist Diploma students who were in the midst of their careers working with master teachers, giving me a clear idea of the range of talented artists in the field. I’ll never forget performing in the concerto competition in front of all the faculty amongst such great musicians and what a learning opportunity that was. You can’t escape the reality of competition in this field and it was drilled into us that this is not an easy career, particularly with the orchestral path. The sheer number of cellists on campus and being in competitions/ensembles with more advanced students as a young cellist was really important for me.
I’m also very grateful to have had the chance to study at the Kelley Business School and add a minor to my performance degree. Spending time in the business school helped me expand my perspectives, allowed me to experience leadership, and helped me gain basic business skills I’d use later when starting my own organization. The chance to get beyond Jacobs was significant: it opened my eyes to the ways that non-music majors viewed classical music and to consider my audience more broadly with how I talked about music. Jacobs was just starting to consider introducing business mindset, but was nowhere close enough to helping me when I needed it. I’ve loved seeing the incredible growth of the OECD over the past years and would have greatly appreciated having that on campus when I was a student.
Allegra performing at the sold-out United Center for Kygo's 2018 "Kids in Love" tour
(photo by Joshua Hoering)
PJ: Sharing Notes, your non-profit that brings classical musicians into Chicago hospitals, has garnered many TV features and awards and brings music to thousands of patients each year. What inspired you to start this organization?
AM: The decision to form Sharing Notes was a lightbulb that went on telling me I needed to find a way to remember why I fell in love with music in the first place. I started the organization when I was a graduate student at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. I was working toward an orchestral career, studying with John Sharp, Principal Cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and was so focused on technical excellence, that I had become disconnected to the joy of music making and beauty of the cello that prompted me to pursue this path. We can objectively say that we need this kind of beauty in the world, but when you are privileged to be in a place like the music conservatory, where you are surrounded by really good musicians and music all the time, it is easy to forget that you have that beauty within you to share. Many people don’t have access to that on a day-to-day basis--what we have is very precious.
Another huge influence was the church I attended at the time. I was part of a church with a strong commitment to activism and social change. In one of the Sunday sermons, our pastor, Phil Blackwell, said “love transforms talent into a gift.” That shook me up a little bit: I had lost the love of music and I certainly wasn’t treating it like a gift. It was really humbling. It dawned on me that though Roosevelt University had a strong tradition of living out social justice, we had no community engagement initiatives within the music conservatory. I began to have a kind of internal awakening with the exploration of access and meaningful engagement with the arts that would redefine where I wanted my career path to go.
Our first visit with Sharing Notes was the first time I had ever performed in a hospital. I went with one of my friends from CCPA to play cello duets. They were so basic, just little Haydn transcriptions that I could have played when I was in middle school. But people came out crying, so moved by the music. In that moment I thought that it was the simplest thing that we could do, but floored by the impact. I knew that it meant a lot for me as a musician and it meant even more to the patients, their loved ones, and to the hospital staff. So we kept going and have been going for eight years!
Receiving the 2019 Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee Excellence in the Arts Award for Sharing Notes
PJ: What were some of the practical steps you took to transform Sharing Notes from an idea into a reality?
AM: Sharing Notes began as a student organization. My very first step was to write to the Dean of CCPA, then Henry Fogel, stating my intentions to create this initiative and asking for a meeting to gain his support, consider next steps, and brainstorm resources and ways that this could be most meaningful. Then began the “megaphone process” of telling the world (or at least my little world) that you’re starting something.
As a founder, you have to be so passionate about what you’re trying to do. You have to be the person who says, "I believe in this so much, will you join me?" You have to make the connections with partners and sustain them. So many thank you notes. You really have to have that gut feeling of "I can’t not do this." It’s really exciting, but there’s a lot of responsibility and work that comes with it.
Starting an organization is like giving birth to and raising your first child. (Full disclosure, I have never had a baby, but bear with me here.) There was a time when the idea needed to incubate and then my gut knew it was time to push. Then there’s so much joy, you think, "Wow! This is incredible - I’m making a difference!" But then as a new parent, you have to figure out how to nurture this thing you’ve created. And it was scary because I didn’t know what I was doing or if I had what it took to foster my baby through those tumultuous first months into successful years.
I was learning pretty much everything for the first time: branding, web management, financial management, what a nonprofit is required to do by the IRS and when to file as a nonprofit, how to communicate to articulate your mission in a way that makes people want to support you, how to create a budget, and how to train/manage a team. I was very surprised by how much I had to learn, but I was so excited about it. I was driven. I felt like I had a purpose. It felt like something I was meant to do, but it was a lot of work.
My advice would be to get a good team. I got people on board and I learned to delegate along the way. It’s scary when you’re starting something new because you feel so responsible for it. You don’t want to ask too much of other people, but I think if you learn how to find that balance and delegate, you get a really good team to support you.
We started performances in April 2012 by visiting just once a month for patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Lurie Cancer Center. It was just once a month and even though it was just a little student group, I took it so seriously. Sometimes you give up a lot to pursue a passion, including other amazing opportunities, to show others how committed you are. One time I turned down playing with Emanuel Ax and the New World Symphony to do a Sharing Notes event...I was so hard-core about it! Though our programs started in 2012, I waited a few years to incorporate until I felt I was ready. I think part of me wasn’t ready to admit that Sharing Notes was making me more excited than the idea of a full-time performance career. Then there was also the realization that we needed to be bigger and to reach musicians outside of Roosevelt. Then, I lined up the Board of Directors so that we were ready.
PJ: What's one of your favorite memories from your work with Sharing Notes?
AM: Over the past eight years, I’ve seen music bring people together in such beautiful ways. Sometimes it’s seeing a kid have the chance to be the star and sing every song from Frozen karaoke-style while you accompany them. Sometimes it’s seeing that our music encouraged someone struggling with their cancer treatment to come out of their room and take a walk for the first time in a while. But the memories that stick with me the most are when people invite us to be part of the most intimate moments of their lives as they prepare for a loved one to pass. I’ll share just one of those that I’ll never forget.
A few years ago, I was wrapping up my visit to the Cardiac Care Units of Northwestern Memorial Hospital when a family member in a room close to where I was playing stepped out and said “Guitar, come on over!” (Close enough, right?) So I entered the room, introduced myself, and after a song or two, the woman (who was turned on her side and being attended to by a nurse) asked for some religious music. I started playing one of my favorite hymns, “It is Well with my Soul.” Two of the family members came over to join me and sang along. When the woman was able to sit up, she said, “Ok now, Miss Allegra. I want you to play that hymn again with the intro a cappella and then you ladies will join to sing the third verse” (Can you tell she had a musical background?) And so we did as she asked. I didn’t know it then, but she was rehearsing us for her funeral. I received the call later that week that it was one of her wishes that I perform for her service. And I did. This was the first funeral Sharing Notes was asked to play. Since then, we have been mentioned in several obituaries as bringing joy to the last days of loved ones' lives.
These people, our audiences, bring us into some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. The music – our work – is that important that they trust us with those precious moments. As musicians, we have a duty to never forget the power we have to bring beauty to others. Caring through music and creating access to this beauty when it is needed most – this is the work of Sharing Notes.
PJ: What are some of the experiences in your past that helped prepare you for your job as founding director of Roosevelt University's new Center for Arts Leadership? What are some of the new lessons you’ve learned jumping into this role?
AM: Three major experiences helped prepare me for leading at Roosevelt: 1) what I experienced in my own music education, 2) having a freelance career, 3) founding a nonprofit.
It’s amazing to look at how college music education has started to shift over the last ten years (the OECD at Jacobs is one example!). As a student who went through two performance degrees before the music school revolution, I had to learn a lot on my own that we now believe is important enough to belong in the curriculum. Being a part of changing that mindset at both CCPA and with others in the industry is exciting as we figure out what the role of conversatory education is for the 21st-century musician.
Orchestra auditions, wedding gigs, teaching students in college and elementary school environments, consulting, opera/musical pits, working with new music/jazz, being a blogger for a classical website, and more helped me gain great context for what faces our students today. I had different environments to learn the source of my energy/what I was passionate about in addition to appreciating what it takes to be a successful professional by experiencing each of these careers firsthand. I can take my own experience and relate to my colleagues and students now as I work to create curriculum and programs that help prepare them for their own paths.
Though there are parallels to the founding of Sharing Notes as founding director, the process of creating within a larger institution (and one in higher education, which has its own unique flavors) has challenged and taught me so much over the past three years.
I’ve learned (and continue to learn) how important it is to admit that you don’t know everything and to ask for help when you need it. Guess what? No one expects you to be everything to everyone. When I first started as Director, I was worried about trying to do a little of what I thought everyone wanted in my target areas of social justice, professional development, and community engagement (not an easy undertaking). What I forgot was, they hired me for a reason. When I decided to stick to my strengths and focus on doing a few things really well as we started to build, things began to click much better. You also have to care about and believe in what you’re saying.
Not that this is completely new, but it’s been remarkable to note how much the culture of a place impacts the ability to work, learn, and grow. This past semester I had my first opportunity to teach a seminar class on “The Professional Musician in Society.” It was exciting to create an environment where students could learn not just from me as their teacher, but also from themselves and one another. Whether it's with my staff or my students, the chance to foster an environment that’s collaborative and encourages communication and individualism in different ways has been very meaningful.
This coming year, I look forward to more experiences as a classroom teacher, collaborating to innovate our overall vision for Roosevelt, and doing research on the portfolio musician to be published this fall. It’s such an honor to be the founding director of the Center for Arts Leadership. I get to build something each day that I believe in and see impacts both the students and the culture of the college.
PJ: Besides running Sharing Notes and the Center for Arts Leadership, you're also an actively performing cellist and a marathon runner! What tips do you have for finding balance in your life (and making sure that you have enough time to practice)?
AM: Finding balance means something different for each person, so self-awareness is key. What helps me, or anyone else, recharge is not the same for you.
Simply put, if you don’t have any oil in your lamp, you cannot be a light to anyone else. I learned the importance of balance the hard way after experiencing some pretty bad burnout. Jobs that require a high degree of creativity, responsibility, and empathy are incredible but take a toll on you personally. Having quiet time is really important for me because I get worn out after being “on” all day. Even if I get invited to an amazing concert, sometimes I just have to say no in order to take care of myself. Being clear with your priorities matters: We think of that usually in a professional context, but it matters for self-care as well. You have to choose what is important to you and saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to something else. On that note, I am really picky about what gigs I take these days because of my limited time.
It’s so important to cultivate your identity as larger than your profession. Caring about your work is beautiful, but having your passion be your profession can be tricky. I learned that to sustain my ability to live out my passion, it could not be my entire identity. I had to find things that spoke to the parts of me that were beyond “Allegra, leader of Sharing Notes” or “Allegra, the cellist”. I needed to be “Allegra, not on the job”. Being with people I love (family, friends, my boyfriend, my cat) who bring out the sides of me that don’t require me to be “on” as one of those professional identities is essential.
I started running because I needed to feel some kind of forward motion at a time when I really wasn’t sure which direction my path was going, so I took that forward motion literally! Running helped me see linear progress (something that music very rarely allows you to see), to feel strong, and then to experience pride in myself for something outside of cello. I’m also a very goal-oriented person, so having something like the marathon to challenge me fuels my fire and translates into reinvigoration in other parts of my life too. This year, my challenge is a 70.3 IronMan Triathlon!
This is an exciting time for me as I transition out of my role as Executive Director of Sharing Notes. After eight years, it is time for the organization to have new leadership to take our mission and programs to the next level.
PJ: What advice do you have for students who are looking for ways to connect more to their community, but don't know where to start?
AM: Define community broadly and know that starting small is better than not starting at all. Successful community engagement relies on building good relationships. Take time to think about who you already know that you can connect with further. Then, consider where you may have gifts within the three “T's”: time, treasure, or talent.
One thing to beware of is the “Drive-by Beethoven” syndrome in performance: a string quartet tasked with an outreach gig goes into an elementary school, lists a few fast facts about a Beethoven string quartet, plays the piece, bows politely and leaves. This metaphor is not a knock on Beethoven or string quartets (both have been seen to be incredible when used appropriately). It is a knock on the outdated form of community engagement that essentially plucked musicians out of a recital hall to put them in another place. No real engagement of the audience, no collaboration with on-site partners, no connection with that community after the drive-by performance, and certainly no interaction during the presentation itself. This deficit-based type of performance assumes that simply by dropping musicians in, something meaningful will have happened and does not take into account the audience’s perspective, strengths, or interests. There is so much potential for meaningful engagement! If you’re going to perform in a new place with a community you aren’t familiar with, ask a few simple questions to help you consider what programming will work. Examples of questions could be: What do you hope to gain through this program? What has this audience responded to well in the past? What tone do you think our program should set to be most effective in engaging them?
Lastly, think beyond your instrument. Music may be the medium through which we connect with one another, but it is not the end goal nor is it the only thing you have to offer when you are connecting with your community.
Sharing Notes playing in a cardiac care unit