by Elizabeth Morrison

"A new relationship between CMNC and OLLI"

OLLI  |  History  |  New Plan  |  Signup/Fees   

At the February 13-14, 2016 workshop at San Francisco State, participants saw many signs of a new relationship between CMNC and OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes). I want to bring you up to date on what’s going on and what it means for our workshops, and to respond to the many thoughtful comments and questions we received on the evaluation forms and in conversation.

The relationship with OLLI is very good for CMNC. There were certainly a few issues (which I’ll get to), mostly attributable to the newness of what we were doing, and the benefits were not necessarily out there on the surface where you could see them. But they are very real. I’ll start by telling you what I’ve learned about OLLI. It is a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 by Bernard Osher, a wealthy banker, to offer non-credit courses to what OLLI calls "seasoned" adults (they mean older, i.e. over 50.) There are now OLLI branches at over 120 colleges and universities throughout the country, all founded by grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation. The first OLLI was at the University of Southern Maine, the second at Sonoma State, but it turns out that the inspiration for OLLI was the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at San Francisco State, an organization Osher greatly admired (and which still offers courses at SFSU to this day). So in a sense SFSU is the original home of OLLI.

Back in 2011, CMNC had already held a few workshops at San Francisco State, but as an outside organization we had only a tenuous relationship with SFSU’s administration, which made using their rooms and pianos difficult and expensive. Then Sandy Wilson, the cellist of our good friends and supporters the Alexander String Quartet, had the inspiration that CMNC should become an OLLI class. Since OLLI was part of SFSU, if CMNC were part of OLLI we would also be part of SFSU and could use the rooms, pianos and support staff on more favorable terms. With Sandy’s help we worked out a four-year agreement with SFSU to hold workshops there under the OLLI umbrella.

However, during this period the relationship between CMNC and OLLI was minimal. We simply provided OLLI with a list of workshop participants, along with a $25 enrollment fee for each person. Apart from a few emails we received from OLLI from time to time, that was it. Then, three or so years into the relationship, OLLI administrators came to the realization that our workshops did not fit the mold of an actual OLLI class. OLLI members could not sign up for a CMNC workshop (unless, of course, they played an instrument and met our entrance requirements), nor did CMNC participants feel any real connection to OLLI.

At the same time a new set of administrators at SFSU questioned whether CMNC, as an only vaguely OLLI class, should be given such favorable access to their space. There was even a possibility that we would not be able to have our spring 2015 workshop there. Fortunately we had the agreement from 2011, but it was about to expire, and it was unclear what our status would be after that.

Once again the Alexander String Quartet came to our aid. Sandy set up a meeting with Christopher Hepp, Director of Development for the College of Liberal and Performing Arts, who turned out to have a strong vision for the way CMNC and OLLI could connect at a meaningful level. Through Chris we got together with Gwen Sanderson, the new OLLI Director, and we began looking for ways CMNC could become a real part of OLLI, while making it clear to SFSU that we were truly part of the university and not just an outside organization out to use their facilities. Both Chris and Gwen have shown themselves true supporters of CMNC, and we are very grateful to them. (Chris, a fine pianist, even participated in the workshop.)

What we want to do, and must do, is to connect CMNC workshops to the community of lifelong learners who are OLLI members, without losing the workshop experience that means so much to us. The February 13-14, 2016 workshop was our first attempt to do this. OLLI arranged to offer our workshop, which they called a “Chamber Music Intensive,” as part of a 6-week lecture course called History and Masterpieces of Chamber Music, to be taught at SFSU by Peter Susskind. OLLI members who signed up for the lecture course were invited to join our workshop for the Alexander String Quartet concert and dinner on February 13. The lecture by Peter Susskind that we heard during dinner was billed as an extension of this lecture series. CMNC workshop participants were also invited to join the lecture series, at no additional cost because it was part of the same course.

I attended the lecture series, as did Randy Paik. There were a dozen or so other participants. A few weeks into the series I had the idea of informally inviting them to attend a master class at the workshop. I first checked around with the participants in that class to be sure that it would not be a problem to have a few outside people in the audience. My master class included the Martinu Nonet, so it was a pretty large group anyway. No one seemed to mind, and in due course three or four people from the lecture series actually did show up.

I wasn’t sure how it would work, but they loved it! They said afterwards that it had been eye-opening for them to hear our groups play and listen to the coaching. Attending a professional concert is thrilling, and the skill levels on display are fabulous. But here they heard, well, actual human beings approaching the masterpieces of chamber music in the appreciative, loving way we amateur musicians do, something they could even picture doing themselves if they got that clarinet or viola out of the closet where it’s been since high school. Their reaction was so supportive and interested that I was very glad I had invited them.

After the master classes we were joined at dinner by about 25 more people, including some more OLLI members and a few from other campus organizations such as Sixty Plus. Together we enjoyed the excellent Alexander Quartet concert. Then, during dinner, Peter Susskind gave a talk to the whole group on “Great Amateurs.” Unfortunately, during dinner is not an ideal time for a lecture. Many people commented that dinnertime is for socializing; it is the only time we have to revel with our colleagues in our great day of chamber music, catch up with those we haven’t seen since the last workshop, and arrange for freelancing. We really did not want to feel we were being rude to a guest speaker when we ate or talked, or that we were interfering with the enjoyment of those who wanted to watch his YouTube videos.

But if having a lecture at dinnertime wasn’t quite right, remember that it was our first try at integrating OLLI and CMNC, and we can learn from it. It worked really well to have OLLI members at a master class, and that could be a possible direction. OLLI might offer a talk on Saturday for participants in the lecture series, to be held while we are having our Saturday afternoon coaching session. The lecturer could give background either on the pieces that would be played at the coaches’ concert, or those we would be playing in one or two master classes, which they could then join after their lecture. Not everyone wants to have an outside audience at the master classes, so we would have to organize in advance to find out which CMNC participants are comfortable with it, but that is doable. And judging on the experience in February, it would be fun for both sides.

Then, after the master class, OLLI and CMNC people could then proceed on to the coach concert and dinner, where we would relax and socialize together. We could maintain our workshop schedule, become more part of the OLLI community, and all learn from each other. There will certainly be other ideas, and we will continue looking for ways to interact. Your suggestions are welcome.

Another issue that received comments was the new signup procedure. OLLI is no longer able to sign CMNC participants into OLLI en masse. Each person must register with OLLI herself the same time as she signs up with CMNC. This was experienced as anything from a minor inconvenience to a medium-sized hassle, but it is necessary, and it will get easier now that we’ve been through it once and understand the process.

We also must each pay OLLI the full fee for an OLLI class, which is $95.00. However, this payment did not increase what we paid for the workshop! A few people commented that having to pay $95 to OLLI made for an expensive weekend. But CMNC subtracted $95 from our part of the fee, so what you paid was the same as you paid last year. Part of the workshop fee just went directly to OLLI. In return, OLLI paid some of the expenses that CMNC would normally have paid to SFSU. Participants requesting financial aid still had the option of paying just $25 for the workshop (this fee to be paid directly to OLLI.) Financially, the arrangement worked out fine and did not increase either our cost or our fees.

Another part of our arrangement with OLLI is that we need to have two workshops at SFSU each year. So we will be there in both October 2016 and February 2017, and will not go to Mills College in Oakland in the fall. We are sorry to leave Mills. It’s been great having an East Bay venue, and Mills is a truly special, beautiful campus. On the other hand it does have some significant issues for us. For one thing, the campus is very spread out. We need to use 11 different buildings, not all of which are accessible, and this means a lot of time and energy are expended in getting around. This is especially hard on those of us who don’t get around as well. The pianos are also far flung, and several of them are in public rooms, not in the music building, and often need tuning. And finally, Mills is more expensive than our other venues. We might have continued there once a year anyway because we enjoy it so much, but we also need SFSU, and we must be there twice to use it at all, so there it is.

Looking ahead, there is much benefit from CMNC moving closer to OLLI and SFSU. After the workshop we were invited to a meeting that included Gwen Sanderson, Chris Hepp, Kirk Schiable (the excellent facilities manager) and Dean Michael Behrens to discuss ways they could help us more with our workshops. This level of support is wonderful. If we can plan our workshops more easily on the facilities side, it frees our energy for the parts that matter most—the groups, coaching, and music—and we can make the workshops more fulfilling for everyone.

It is also intriguing to contemplate CMNC becoming more open to the community. We’ve been putting on our workshops for 26 years, and outside of our chamber music colleagues, few people know anything about us. Even at SFSU we have been a bit of a mystery. Sandy Wilson told Chris that we remind him of a nomadic tribe that shows up, pitches its tents for the weekend, then folds them again and disappears without a trace. I had to smile, but there is truth to it. Our amazing workshops and coaches, our enormous library of standards and rarities for uncountable musical combinations, our newsletter, our special projects like the women composers’ workshop, and above all the affectionate, loyal community that we have formed in our years together, do not have to be just our secret. OLLI has much to offer us, and we have much to offer OLLI. We look forward to a long and fruitful collaboration.

© Copyright by Elizabeth Morrison 2016