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Natalie Johnsonius Neubert, executive director of the Berkshire Music School, says that like with untold numbers of businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has had its impact. "We're in a year of change, so, the pandemic has allowed us to slow down," she says. "We had most of our lessons and classes online last year. It really gave us a chance to think about what are we doing, what are the programs, and with me being new and having a slightly different view of the organization."

PITTSFIELD —  Natalie Johnsonius Neubert grew up a classically trained musician in a country music kind of town. Paris, Tenn., a small town located near the state's border with Kentucky, is known mostly as the home of the world's largest fish fry.

But, learning one style of music in a place that is not known for it gave Johnsonius Neubert a deep appreciation for other styles of music, which she honed while attending Sarah Lawrence College outside New York City.

Living in New York also led her into other facets of the performing arts business, including fundraising, curating and directing, fields in which musicians don't always tread. 

Last year, Johnsonius Neubert brought all those skills to a new position, executive director of the Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield, which was founded by Winnie Davis Long Crane in 1940.

We talked with the Lenox resident recently about her background in the performing arts, how she became involved in so many aspects of the field, and where she would like to take the Berkshire Music School.

Q: You have a lot of experience in fundraising and curating and directing, yet, you're also a classically trained musician. That seems like an unusual skill set for someone in the performing arts. It's usually one or the other. How did you get involved in both?

A: I started playing piano when I was very young [age 4].

I grew up in a small town. I was very traditionally trained in classical music. Then, when I was looking for colleges, I was interested in music, theater and writing. I went to Sarah Lawrence, and Sarah Lawrence allows you to do all of those things and focus on a high level of artistry. By doing all those things, you don't get pigeonholed into one category.

Q: Is that when you began to branch out?

A: When I got to Sarah Lawrence, I started working with musicians that weren't just Western European classical musicians; a lot of contemporary and new music came out of Sarah Lawrence.

I had a mentor, and he introduced me to new music and what they used to call avant-garde music, like Bang on a Can, Meredith Monk, John Zorn. ... At the same time, I was doing a lot of device theater, and I played saxophone. I had a lot of different angles coming at the same thing.

Q: How did you get involved in the administrative side of the business?

A: When I was in college, there was a presenting house in New York called "The Kitchen." That's where video art, contemporary music and literature take place; it was one of the first avant-garde producers in New York.

I took an internship there and got very close to the executive director. She gave me a chance to see all the files of the history of the organization, all the musical files, the video art. It was eye-opening, and I really learned a lot about other types of art. ...

I was really interested in how art evolves and morphs and how one can be an artist and a performer and not be pigeonholed into being a classical pianist, knowing that there's a foundation for everything. She's the one who taught me that as long as you find the money for it, you can produce anything you want. That's when I started raising money and producing as a means to say this is how I want to create and how can I make it happen?

Q: What attracted you to raising money?

A: I spent most of my 20s in New York. It's very, very hard to get seen and break in as an actor, as a director, as a musician, anything. But, there are also a lot of small venues.

A lot of people will give a small artist a chance if it's not going to cost them anything, right? So, if you're able to find the money and work hard at a way of producing art, then you can get a foot in the door.

I just worked very, very long hours in my 20s. If I wasn't in rehearsal, then I was working a day job, and all my day jobs fed into my art itself. My day jobs were raising money, doing public relations, doing marketing and curating. ...

Because I was so young, I had a lot of early successes. One of the first shows I produced won a Bessie (The Bessies, named after esteemed choreographer and dance teacher Bessie Schonberg, recognize work by independent dance artists in New York City). So, that opened a lot more doors for me to curate and put on the kind of art that I was interested in.

Q: What do you like better, the performance or administrative side of the business?

A: It sort of depends on the day and the phase of my life. It's also important for me to have a family. We live up here for a reason. ... So, sometimes it's family time and sometimes its time for management.

In the last several years, I've been trying to incorporate those things more and to be more concerned about what projects I want to take on, what do I think will make a difference in the community.

When I went back to grad school, one of my professors said that the way you can be the best artist that you can be is to find the story that needs telling and tell it only the way you can tell it. Sometimes the reason is, I'm the best sound designer. Sometimes it's I'm the best producer for it.

I'm not the most talented musician that's going to come out of Berkshire County, but I can easily see a niche that the Berkshire Music School fills, that I can help achieve.

Q: Based on your previous experience and the Berkshire Music School's mission, it seems like this job combines everything you like to do. Am I correct?

A: Absolutely. When the job came up, I had been working part time at Shakespeare & Company as their fundraiser. This came up right at the time of the pandemic (Johnsonius Neubert was named the school's executive director in May 2020).

There was something about the position and it being a small organization where I could see the chance to make real change to the community through the organization. ... I know "artist" means a lot of things to a lot of different people. When I think of "artist," it's using any means necessary for change for growth to cultivate beauty. It's not just about playing Mozart. It's about seeing that music in this community is more than the sum of any of its parts.

Q: How does all of that factor into what the Berkshire Music School's current mission is?

A: We're in a year of change, so, the pandemic has allowed us to slow down. We had most of our lessons and classes online last year. It really gave us a chance to think about what are we doing, what are the programs, and with me being new and having a slightly different view of the organization.

[The Berkshire Music School] was started by Winnie Davis Crane. Her idea was that there should be a music school, music education, for the entire community, not just people that can afford it. To me, that means music lessons, that means group classes, that means bringing people together.

It became very clear this year that the social aspects of music were just as important as the artistic aspect of music. Just the act of bringing people together to make something together is very important to me.

So, the Berkshires are changing. Western European music is an important foundation, but we have a lot of musical voices here. ... It's important to me that the music school reflect all of those voices and that we inspire all of those people and meet them where they are, so you don't need to be on your way to Juilliard to be a classical violinist. That's great, that's fantastic, and we're going to keep encouraging those musicians as well.

But, African drumming reaches a different audience, and what they used to call global or world music reaches another audience. Electronic music reaches another audience. Everybody benefits from having participated in music.

I would like to see us go across the whole county. We started as the Pittsfield Music School and then it was changed to the Berkshire Music School, which has made it a little bigger. But, I would love to see us all the way up in North County and all the way down in South County in Sheffield and everywhere in between. ... If we could get artists from all over the community, that would be very special to me.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.