Jefferson Todd Frazier is the director of the system center for Performing Arts Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital. He is also a professional composer, and an active non-profit arts leader in Houston.
I chose to do my profile on Mr. Frazier because it was important to me to choose a leader in a field related to music, as that is a field I am quite familiar with. I met Mr. Frazier in October through one of our class excursions in the ARLD6395 class of the Arts Leadership program.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Are you originally from Texas, or did you perhaps grow up somewhere else?
I’m from Houston, born in Houston, and aside from going to college and graduate school in New York I’ve spent most of my professional life here. I came back pretty quick after graduating.
You were a music major in college, is that correct? Where did you go to college, and what made you decide to go in that direction?
Yes, yes, that’s right. My undergraduate in composition was at the Eastman School of Music, and then I did two graduate degrees and a teaching fellowship at the Julliard School of Music after that. And I am still an active composer, always working on some projects. But my career path has lead me to arenas where the arts can find new value, or broaden value with the help of expanding the vision of professional success for artists. What has kind of driven everything I’ve done is wanting to give artists more professional opportunities, than at least the ones that were available when I was finishing music school, and it hasn’t really changed that much since then. That has led me to try to forge new relationships and build new bridges between different types of industries where the arts might be a sort of a key factor, or key support.
I work now in a world we call the world of arts and health. It’s the result of the emergence of arenas of science, medicine, health, humanity, the arts and creativity. That is a very wonderful arena, and there are a lot of exciting things going on there. A lot of them take place in a healthcare environment. We have some music therapists that treat patients clinically here, and we also have a lot of artists that share music in different settings in our community. These are new arenas and new career paths for artists, and they are really well supported and well-funded. These are just examples of things that most students, going through a traditional music school college curriculum, would not be exposed to. Some of the work I am doing, and I am doing a lot of this work with UH, are some courses where I am trying to expose students a little bit more to the wide range of opportunities that are here and are emerging, so that they can think about their future. That is kind of what got me into this.
At first, I had been very compelled by the fact that the arts weren’t being well supported across America in our K-12 public schools. When I finished Julliard I entered the community and tried to look at why the arts weren’t treated as an integral part of the curriculum, and that lead me to starting a music program, which in my eyes could make it possible for young people to get a chance to realize their potential in music. You might have heard of the organization called the American Festival for the Arts, AFA. It’s a summer music festival here in Houston, and it serves elementary, middle and high school students. I started that program in 1993 when I was finishing graduate school, and I worked at the program to really try to engage the school districts and communities, families and young people who really loves music. I wanted to give them this opportunity during the summer, and hoped that it would kind of transcend into something more and eventually putting more leaders and role models back into the schools. The program is still going very strong and I am very proud of it. It serves lots of students every year, and that is an example of a community-based music program designed to ensure and safeguard these really special opportunities that allows for young people to explore their potential in music. It is not really set up to create professional musicians, but of course lots of students have gone through AFA and ended up going into music, because they want to do what they love. A lot of students from the festival have gone to UH, and a lot of them have gone to the Texas Music Festival, so we have kind of a nice feeder connection there.
I realized that I was very happy with that program, but I also realized that I felt that it needed to be stronger and more science based research that the school districts could use to feel more of an incentive to advocate for the art in the year-round education. This made me start to draw on some expertise here at the Texas Medical Center, to look at some schools that were using the arts with a more scientific eye, and look at how that was benefiting the education in various ways. We also did some work in special education. That drew me to thinking about this broader connection to arts and health, education, brain development and sort of life, you know, and even the bigger idea of it.
This hospital had been looking for someone to connect them to the arts community in various ways, and I was reaching out to them to do some assessments with music programs. They were looking for a way to more formally connect to the arts community here. They already had a program in place, which gave more of a health care program for artists that might be injured. They invited me into this program to think of other ways artists could share in this health care environment, but also how we could use the arts in ways that are therapeutic as far as the patient recovery, and the entire patient experience. That was just really timely for me and I found a great place to move and end up in. I still really care about the ideas of arts education, and about the idea of broadening the opportunities for artists, and I think all the work that we are doing here will ultimately support that. We are certainly broadening opportunities. We have hired, since I have been here, three full time music therapists and two administrative roles. All these five folks had performance majors as undergrads and still wanted to have arts in their lives, and kind of came into this unique area. We also have five staff pianists and they play throughout our public areas and our hospitals.
We hire instructors seasonally to come in and do certain staff arts enrichment classes, and we hire about 100 professional ensembles throughout the year to perform at our concert series in the hospitals. I’m glad we get to provide more professional opportunities for artists here in any kind of setting. We are also opening doors to new arenas for the arts within patient care and therapy, but also within staff support and employee satisfaction. We have a series of courses that the medical staff take right after work, which are wonderful ways of self-expression. Especially when you work in a very challenging and extreme environment like this, the arts can be a wonderful way to process what you do, and make a meaning of what you do. So we have creative writing classes and photography classes and those kinds of things. It’s a unique opportunity here, and a unique center. I haven’t found any that are like this, but there is a big need nationally. There is this renaissance feeling of the connection between the arts and health, and how this can be a wonderful thing that needs to have greater support.
I’m also, as well as being the director here for the Center of Performing Arts Medicine at the Houston Methodist, also the president of the national organization for arts and health. I like to think they elected me because they see that we are doing some unique things here in Houston, and we are really connecting and leveraging different arenas with the arts. Working together really can offer a wonderful experience to the patients, their families and the visitors here, but also for the staff. Also the community itself transcend to a health community.
Do you think there are any special leadership lessons that can be learned from having a background in the arts?
Yes, I like to think so. The more and more I kind of reflect on different careers and systems, the way companies work and the way universities works, you often find real change and innovation are associated with a creative approach. A creative approach to problem solving often means thinking, as we like to say, outside the box. This really means thinking outside the sort of normal pathways of a system and an institution. For example, at a university, it is very normal for the different departments to become what we call “siloed in”. It’s not their fault really, everyone has much to do, and they focus on their work, on their immediate colleagues, their immediate systems and the hierarchy. It is often smart to step back and to think outside of that and really think. It’s not that people never try to do that, but when I go to see groups that have either made extraordinary progress, or have changed how people think about certain things, there is often someone in this group that you might even call disruptive, or somebody with a different background that would think differently. I think people from the arts are uniquely equipped to do this, and partly it starts right after finishing colleges where you think: “look, there aren’t really that many set paths if I’m going to have a real career in the arts I’m going to have to figure it out somehow”. Right from the beginning you have to be a creative problem solver career wise. This is not a new thing, and risks are not something an artist would be averse to. An artist would look at all the opportunities in the broadest way, and how they might share their passions and talents. In a lot of ways you fin artists carving their own paths, and creating several things together in unique and creative ways, to get to that end result. The artistic curriculum requires creativity, teamwork and communication to actually work, and you are rarely in any isolated environment. If you are playing in a string quartet, or if you are working with an accompanists or a collaborative pianist, a lot of the process of producing the best results possible is coordinating, communicating and compromising. This is mandatory, so it is not really an option for artists, and especially performing artists. It is sort of a mandatory part of your training.
I think a lot of those skills like being in a team, looking at things in different ways, working together, communicating creatively and looking for ways to solve problems together, are important. Off course a conductor is a great example of this as well in a unique way. There are elements about the training itself, and paired with the fact that there aren’t many established and set career paths for artists, which encourages creativity. Many artists have to be creative professionally as well. Some will create new arts organizations to fill needs in a community, because they want to be a part of a solution rather than leaving it up to chance. I guess that’s what I did with the American Festival for the Arts, I really did not want Houston to fall in to a category of other large, major American cities where all the music programs would be cut from their schools.
I thought it was a way too important thing to risks, so we needed to create some sort of safeguard. So whatever happened to the school programs, if a students still knew that he could come to the art program in the summer, they would still have this program that would give them the opportunity. Maybe it would even make them a better person, and make them realize their full potential in whatever they may do. So I guess that’s sort of an example of a creative solution. If you look at folks in many different disciplines like in medicine and science, you often see those moments of discovery and leaps of faith. I find that those are the people that really drive change, and that is part of the reason why I get frustrated with the curriculum for not introducing a wider variety of career paths to artists while they are undergrads, so that they can start to think about possible career paths to go in to. They might not be playing on their instruments every day to make money, they might go in to education, or maybe to arts and health, or maybe to art and the environment, or arts leadership with administrative opportunities, or to public service.
Most major cities have offices for cultural affairs, and in Houston there is a visual artist employed there. The relationship between the city and the art is a very important one. There would be no students coming out of a graduate or undergraduate study that would really understand what that position really was, and would be equipped to interact in that sort of political world in arts and cultures. These are challenges that all universities faces, and things are hard to evolve when they are already set in stone. I see a lot of opportunities were artists really would be the ideal employees, and so that is most what I have been doing with my life trying to get this information out.
After having interviewed Mr. Frazier, I deeply admire how he manages to combine being an active composer with his job at the Methodist hospital, and that he still manages to have several arts and educational projects on the side. I especially find it interesting that he wants to change the conservatory curriculum. Having studied at several conservatories myself, I know the importance of this, and how important it can be for music students to know what options there are out there.