Meet the Innovator: Rebecca Smithorn of The Listening Lab

Rebecca Smithorn, founder of The Listening Lab

The Listening Lab is part of Social Innovation Lab’s 2016–17 Cohort. To learn more about SIL and the cohort, click here.

SIL: Tell us about The Listening Lab in just a few sentences.

Rebecca: The Listening Lab is a music education program that teaches students concentration, awareness, and listening skills through a series of classroom sessions and live orchestra concerts. ​We’re trying to do two things — teach students cognitive skills that they can use in many aspects of their life, as well as increasing their interest in the arts.

SIL: Why did you decide to start this? Where did the idea come from?

Rebecca: I developed a set of informal exercises to help my students listen to music without being bored or disengaged. As I experimented with different techniques, I realized that sustained attention and awareness were key skills to music listening, and in a happy overlap, those skills also contribute enormously to students’ everyday lives. As an orchestra conductor, I’m always trying to think of ways to reach young audiences, and this seemed like a great fit.

SIL: What would you consider success for your venture and how would the world be different if it is successful?

Rebecca: Success would be ​reaching every school in Baltimore with this program, and bringing the program to orchestras around the country. The ability to listen to music deeply corresponds with thoughtfulness, appreciation of nuance, and the ability to listen to anything — including other people — deeply. I think the world would be a better place if our kids learned those skills.

SIL: Tell us about yourself? What got you interested in this issue? Any work experience or past professional/life experience that informs your work now?

Rebecca: ​I’ve had a really varied past life. I started as a performing musician and then found myself needing a day job. I stumbled into a grant-writing position right out of college with the Rochester Philharmonic, where I spent a ton of time reading and writing about orchestra education programs. That’s where I first started to see that these programs could be better. Later I studied orchestral conducting at Peabody and also started teaching with the BSO’s OrchKids programs. It all kind of melded together to form The Listening Lab.

SIL: What’s your favorite place or thing to do in Baltimore?

Rebecca: I go to see a movie the Senator whenever I want a chill night out, especially since I can grab a beer next door at Clark Burger. True confession: I always stay until the credits are over so I can watch the nifty Art Deco curtains close over the movie screen. I’m easily amused.

SIL: What advice do you have for would-be social entrepreneurs thinking about starting a venture?

Rebecca: Give your ideas time to percolate. The first time I had this idea, I was out of town at a music festival, and I called my wife and said, “I want to do a concert series about listening to music!” And she was like, “Yeah… you’re going to need to be more specific.” ​It took a couple years of talking to people and laying awake nights to figure out what that meant.