Shaya Bendix Lyon was living in Jerusalem, trawling through a massive trove of classical music her sibling had dumped on her computer, when she found a song that stopped her in her tracks. It was the seven-minute andante movement of Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op.102, a soaring duet between a violin and a cello.
Lyon eventually tracked down a video of the piece on YouTube, and was blown away by the silent communication between the two soloists, the way they connected as if dancing with each other, the melodies of their instruments twirling in the air.
“I thought at that moment, I want to be in the room for this,” Lyon recalled. “I want to be experiencing that communication with my own body and my own eyes.”
Lyon searched online, but couldn’t find any information about a live performance of this specific piece.
Coming from a tech background, Lyon understood that the problem wasn’t the product, but rather the way it was presented to the public. There were plenty of classical music concerts in any given city, but almost impossible to search for that information in an intuitive way.
“I had worked on tools that help people search or organize information within a community, as a community, for several different internet companies,” she said. “I knew what can be done when people have knowledge in an area and can share knowledge in that resource.”
Lyon doesn’t play an instrument herself, aside from some piano lessons she took in high school. But she is passionate about promoting the work of musicians playing a genre she loves. During our interview, a six-member string sextet was using one of the rooms in her house for a rehearsal.
After three years of working for a of tech company in Israel, Lyon left the Holy Land for New York in 2009 and then Seattle in 2013. The Seattle/Puget Sound region has one of the highest rates of community orchestras per capita, with more than 50 orchestras in a four-hour radius around Seattle, said Lyon. There were plenty of concerts, but what was missing from the classical music scene was a way to connect music lovers with music they wanted to hear. Or, simply, a searchable calendar.
“Technologically, it’s not hard to put together a calendar and have it so people can search by their interests,” she said. In 2013, Lyon started collecting information about upcoming classical music concerts into a user-friendly, community-driven calendar for all types of classical and chamber music.
The Live Music Project website launched in March 2014 with the aim of allowing users to access information about classical music performances, as well as helping small orchestras and ensembles, notoriously strapped for money and publicity, connect with new audiences.
Classical music has a reputation for being too expensive or inaccessible to the general public. Unlike other genres of music, it’s difficult to follow your favorite composers or specific pieces that you want to hear. While you might be able to track down the schedule for your local orchestra, it is difficult to figure out which local orchestras are playing Beethoven in the month of October.
There is also the misguided assumption that someone who likes classical music will like any classical music concert. “Like in any other genre, there’s an aesthetic,” said Lyon. “We want to honor people that want to hear the music they want, be it Brahms or tuba concerts or kid friendly concerts. [The calendar] makes it possible to find a specific piece or a composer.”
There are many high quality local ensembles that play for free or next to nothing, said Lyon. But it is difficult to track down concerts unless you are directly connected to a particular ensemble.
The Live Music Project was the first time that all of the disparate parts of Seattle’s thriving classical music scene came together in a single, searchable place, Lyon said.
“It really blossomed into a community when we brought them into one place,” said Lyon. “Now, you don’t have to know about an ensemble. If you say, I like percussion, then I can find a percussion performance.”
The Live Music Project is also trying to reach new communities that frequently do not engage with classical music, including working with social services to obtain free tickets for immigrant families, or people transitioning out of homelessness or addiction. Last year, Live Music Project gave away $20,000 in free tickets with their Spontaneous Free Ticket program.
The project incorporated as a non-profit in 2016 and currently has three part-time staff (Lyon and the communications director work half-time and a calendar editor works a few hours a week), along with 30 dedicated volunteers. Lyon also works as a photographer and writer for Chamber Music Magazine.
Donors fund most of the budget, along with small grants from the city of Seattle and the state of Washington. A group of volunteer programmers is working on rolling out an updated website to offer national listings.
Connecting the Dots
In 2015, Lyon started working on Dots, a dynamic fundraising platform aimed at community orchestras and ensembles. Dots works like other crowdfunding platforms such as Headstart or Kickstarter, but instead of contributing to a general fund, donors are asked to sponsor a “dot” on a stage that represents one of the ensemble members.
“Dots connects the donor with a visual sense of what they’re contributing to,” said Lyon. “Aesthetically it’s fun in a way that most fundraisers are not. The visuals we’re used to seeing are like a thermometer filling up or pie charts. Here, you get to learn a little bit about this group.”
Donors are also likely to sponsor a dot they feel connected with, such as an instrument they once played or, if they know someone in the ensemble. Crucially, the Dots campaign website is simpler to set up than other crowdfundraising pages, said Lyon. Many community orchestras have no fundraising experience and can feel overwhelmed by other sites, which encourage slickly produced marketing videos.
What excites Lyon about the Live Music Project is that her efforts are easily transferable to any city around the country, and around the world. Israel, for example, has an advantage because the country is so small that a national calendar will enable community orchestras located in the periphery of the country access interested audiences in other parts of the country, she said.
The community behind the curtain
The website has turned into a virtual hub for classical music, with calendars searchable by instrument, by free concerts, by family-appropriate concerts, and with job and audition postings for musicians.
“The magic behind the community calendar is that there’s a community there,” said Lyon.
“It’s not just — hey, there’s technology, use it,” she said. “It was, there’s the technology, there’s the relationships, and this feeling of belonging, and that’s what makes it happen.”
One feature on the site that Lyon especially likes allows fans to subscribe to an update for a certain piece of music, so they will receive a notification if it is being played anywhere in the region. Not long after launching the website, Lyon got a ping that someone – now currently part of the string sextet rehearsing in Lyon’s living room — was playing Johannes Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op.102.
A few weeks later, Lyon drove across Lake Washington to see the piece performed. Two teenagers were playing the violin and cello solos.
“The teenagers were sisters and they had that same rapport,” Lyon recalled. “The two [instrumentalists] I heard in the video were among the top in the world, but these two sisters had that beautiful connection and communication.”
Years after first falling in love with the piece, Lyon was in the room, watching it live.