Leadership InSight: Interview with Noah Bloom

In our Leadership InSight series, we ask arts education leaders to share advice and the experiences that have helped them become successful leaders. Noah Bloom is director of programs at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT. He has also served as associate director at Church Street School for Music and Art, and has been a professional musician and music instructor.

What led you into the field of community arts education and how long have you been in your current position at your organization?

My passion for music education began at a young age after hearing numerous stories about the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia which was co-founded by my great grandmother—my mom's grandma. Stories about her were relayed to me with intense family pride, so I was deeply attracted to the idea of working in this environment. But before I got into the world of arts administration, I worked as a performer and teaching artist for many years. The transition to arts administration was logical for me because although I love making art, I realized very early on that I didn't want to devote my life to being a professional musician. In addition, every place I ever taught I was always thinking about how the institution could better serve their teaching artists and make deeper community connections. Arts education provides a great platform for me to explore my love for people, education, arts, and community. So that's pretty much how I got into this field.

I came to Neighborhood Music School from New York’s Church Street School for Music and Art in 2012 as the first ever director of programs. I served one year here as the interim Executive Director but now am happily back in my role as director of programs.

Are there qualities you find necessary to being a leader in community arts education that are unique or different from those qualities needed in other fields?

The whole perspective that is required of a leader in community arts education is unique, particularly with old schools like Neighborhood Music School. Your eye has to be on the long game and building relationships, and that takes a lot of patience and optimism. Neither the business model nor the culture allows for sudden U-turns, unlike leading a startup or a sports team where the mentality is “it's my way or the highway” and you can make big trades or cuts and start over.

The culture that you find within a community arts school is unique because there is a strong, complex, and amazing web of faculty, staff, donors, students, parents, and community members that are all intertwined. It takes time to understand the culture at a community arts school, especially at a place like Neighborhood, which has been around for 106 years.

The makeup of the school faculty is particularly unique. Many of our faculty have been here between 25 and 50 years. NMS is a huge part of their lives, yet because of the nature of teaching, most on a part time basis. It's also only part of their professional lives. The only way to lead in this particular environment is to build trust, which only happens over time. It takes lot of time.

What professional projects or training experiences that you’ve been a part of were impactful on your leadership development?

Being a professional musician contributed a great deal to my philosophy of collaboration. Unless you're blessed with a really sexy belly button or something that will sell videos, being a professional musician requires freelancing, which requires adapting to many different situations. As a band leader in New York, I was really lucky to get to hire some incredibly talented musicians, and that process taught me a lot about leadership. It taught me to have conviction in my own ideas and to be open to all of the other talent in the room—when to lead, when to listen, and when to give others a chance to shine. As a performing jazz musician, collaboration skills are refined on the bandstand. And as an administrator, my approach is definitely informed by those same things.

I've also been blessed to work under great mentors like Lisa Ecklund-Flores, who founded and runs Church Street School for Music and Art. She is a great example of leading through both innovation and perspiration. I remember many times watching her teaching a packed class, meeting with local politicians, fixing the toilet or a light bulb, finding time for teachers or parents, and writing grants all within one day. She did whatever was required with no ego whatsoever and that inspired me and taught me a lot about leadership.

In addition, I attended CAELI [the Guild’s Community Arts Education Leadership Institute] in 2013 and that was a major turning point in my life. I learned to better understand my own nature and lead from a position of strength. There are obviously so many ways to go about things. Personally, I like having interactive conversations much better than making speeches. I like asking questions. I like the process of building consensus rather than dictating a plan. CAELI taught me that my style was not only acceptable, but a valuable way to lead. It crystallized my desire to always work to grow into my better self.

What was one piece of advice on leadership that particularly resonated with you and how have you put that into practice in your work?

One piece of advice that stuck with me is to make space for things to move around. One day at CAELI we were given an example of one of those little plastic puzzles that has a picture on them and you shuffle the pieces to put it all back together. This only works because there is one piece missing which creates space. The example we were given is that you need that space for things to shuffle and move around, but most of us are on the floor looking for a missing piece to put back in; yet things can only move around because there is space. I love that metaphor. 

For me this translates to creating a reflective practice of renewal and making space and time for myself. My dad is a Buddhist practitioner who meditates every day, and as a musician I practiced the trumpet for hours and hours, for years and years, so I thought I knew what it meant to make time. But I when I looked at my current life several years ago, I realized I rarely allowed myself to slow down and take time to reflect.

There was one memorable day at CAELI when we were asked to take some time to sit quietly and write in a journal. As I began to write, I grew so uncomfortable with the silence that I actually tried to sneak back into the dorm and take a nap. But James Horton [the Guild’s director of learning and leadership development] caught me and held me to task. This was really eye opening, because I'm asked to serve people every single day, but I had forgotten how to serve myself. CAELI brought this idea front and center and reminded me of the importance of creating space in my own life and that there's a big difference between understanding and doing.

Finally, for you personally, what does it take to be a strong leader?

The first thing that pops into my mind is to listen, but to also make sure you hear others. These are very different things. You can certainly listen and not hear, but if you're hearing, you have to listen. It’s important to be humble, to continually grow, to admit mistakes, to laugh at yourself, to invest in others, and to have a strong support network. Leadership can come from anywhere, and you're always stronger when your team or others around you contribute and thrive. It’s not always going to be top-down, so giving everyone an opportunity to come to the table is critical to running a strong organization.
Finally, as a leader, one of my main goals is to always inspire participation. Although this means different things and different approaches with different people and different situations, the goal is always to inspire participation from others.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations about participation at different levels of our organization: how do we get the faculty more involved, what do we do with the staff or with our board, or with our students and donors?  And it dawned on me that the goal of inspiring participation is the same for everyone. We can't be angry with the board if we feel they aren’t doing their work. It's our job to inspire them. Same goes for the faculty. They work to inspire students and they need to be inspired too. And the board and faculty need to inspire the staff as well. The goal remains the same for all of us: Inspire Participation. This creates a shared culture of ownership and gives everyone the ability to make a positive impact.

Published: February 26, 2017