Eric Oberstein: Producer, Arts Administrator, Musician, Educator, Consultant

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.

Photo: Alex Boerner

Photo: Alex Boerner

Eric Oberstein is a GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY-winning producer, arts administrator, musician, educator, and consultant. Oberstein currently serves as Associate Director of Duke Performances, the professional performing arts presenting organization at his alma mater, Duke University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member in Arts Management in Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program. A New York-born and raised saxophonist and drummer of Cuban American heritage, Oberstein is an accomplished music producer. His albums have been named to “Best of” lists by NPR Music, iTunes, DownBeat, JazzTimes, and The Village Voice, among others. Oberstein previously produced six albums with pianist, composer, and educator Arturo O’Farrill, ranging from solo piano to big bands. Oberstein has won one GRAMMY Award and two Latin GRAMMY Awards, and his productions have earned seven nominations and four wins. Prior to returning to Duke, Oberstein served as Executive Director of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, the New York-based non-profit that supports the work of the GRAMMY-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, directed by O’Farrill. Oberstein is currently collaborating with Cuban drummer, composer, educator, and MacArthur Fellow Dafnis Prieto on the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, serving as Producer on a debut album, Back to the Sunset, released in April 2018 on Prieto’s label, Dafnison Music.

What does living a creative life mean to you?

I approach that question in different ways because I live a life of slashes and dashes, meaning that [I have] different creative outlets and pursuits. So one moment I’m thinking as a music producer, one moment [I'm] an arts administrator, the next moment I’m thinking as a musician, the next moment I’m thinking as someone teaching arts management or consulting with or for artists or arts organizations.

Oberstein in the studio (Photo: David Garten)

Oberstein in the studio (Photo: David Garten)

So for me [living a creative life means] how can I create a creative environment or help to create an environment where artists can thrive and do their best work? So often the way that I get to use my creativity is in being thoughtful and intentional about the logistical side of the creative process.

When we record an album with a big band and we have 17-20 musicians in a room and we have a finite amount of time and a finite budget, I need to be thinking 100 details and 100 steps in front of everyone so that they can, without even thinking, walk into that space, review the game plan quickly, and then be off and running.

So sometimes it's assembling all the pieces, sometimes it's raising the money, sometimes it’s believing in the artist and encouraging them, being a sounding board for them, an editor of sorts, giving feedback on what’s good and maybe what’s less good, being a therapist at times.

The fun part for me is that even though I started as a musician at a young age – and I love that and I still do it – I realized at some point that I was never going to be virtuosic at it, but I realized these other managerial, leadership, producing tendencies in myself. I was very organized from a young age and I thought, well, maybe that’s my role where I can still be close to the art and the artists but support that process in another way.

I get satisfaction from being behind the scenes and seeing something executed with great intention where there is an outcome of incredible quality that moves people and provides them with inspiration. Even curating the arc of a semester [as an instructor is a creative act]. It’s a lot of living in the details.

So why should someone take two hours of their Friday evening to go sit shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers in a room to experience a performance? I think there’s something really beautiful and democratizing about that experience, of being next to other folks you may not know, and then you’re also in the room with an artist who is trying to communicate something to you, some truth that they have been working on deeply.
— Eric Oberstein

And I bet it’s a lot of creative problem solving. Thinking about, okay, we have this budget, how do we use that most effectively, et cetera.

I think growing up playing jazz and improvisation taught me that you have to be ready to respond at a moment's notice because you’re always taking the temperature of the room and you know the players and you can anticipate their needs and personalities and what they need to succeed. [For example,] if I know that this musician really loves coffee and he or she plays best when they have their coffee, then I’ll have that coffee for them when they arrive. Some people might say, I’m above that, it’s not my job. But actually it is your job. Making somebody comfortable is a sign of respect.

Oberstein in Abdala Studios in Havana Cuba (Photo: David Katzenstein)

Oberstein in Abdala Studios in Havana Cuba (Photo: David Katzenstein)

As an audience member I usually don’t think about who plans the performances and when I listen to a record, I don’t often think about what it looked like in the room and which creative choices were made to make the final product. And so I think in both of your roles you’re thinking about the user experience.

We are always thinking about the audience but at the same time the first stop on that process is with yourself. And with the artist. And you need to use your judgment, taste, sensitivity, all of the information amassed in your experience to tell if [the production or recording is] coherent enough.

We talk a lot in our office [at Duke Performances] about coherence. [Coherence is not the job of] the performance-goer or the listener. So I don’t fault anyone who hasn’t thought deeply about the experience they’re about to have. It’s our job to do that advanced thinking so [the audience] can be fully immersed in the experience. And that thinking about coherence happens ages before [they] ever touch or experience that thing.

Oberstein in the studio with Dafnis Preito (Photo: David Garten)

Oberstein in the studio with Dafnis Preito (Photo: David Garten)

Most of the albums I produce take a year or two from when the artist and I have our first conversation about the dream or the idea to the moment it actually hits somebody’s ears or hands. And, very early on, it’s a conversation about concepts. We actually write it out, we do a one-page treatment because we know that if we can articulate [what the story is] on paper, then we’ll be that much more equipped to think about what it requires artistically or how we might raise money for it.

And the same thing goes for presenting a performance. Aaron [Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances] is the programmer so he’s making the decisions about the artists we invite. But he’s working closely with me and our team, getting our feedback on “in what venue might this artist work” or “what sort of audience in our community would be into this,” “what’s the vibe of the presentation,” or “what night of the week [would fit best]?”

And those are all creative decisions.

Yes. In both my producing and our presenting at Duke Performances, the quality of the artists is world class, or at least that’s what we strive for. So we know the artists are incredible, we never have to worry about that.  It’s more like what are the conditions that will help this succeed. At Duke Performances Aaron [Greenwald] was very intentional from the get go about realizing that Durham had this whole range of venues, so to not just be presenting performances on Duke’s campus but also recognizing there are a half dozen really great venues we could use in town as well.

Part of our mission is that we have one foot on campus and one in the community. While we are Duke University’s presenting organization we feel that Durham is as much a part of our audience as Duke is, and that we want to be presenting artists that speak to Durham and also reflect Durham, in terms of their diversity, their range, their artistic backgrounds whether that means ethnicity [or] gender, and artists that are grappling with the same questions that Durham is grappling with as a growing community.

How do you think we can get this country to value the arts?

Some of my earliest most beautiful, most memorable moments were being in the backyard of my great aunt in Queens and them playing salsa or merengue or some sort of Latin music and sitting there dancing or drumming on my legs and just thinking man I love this.
— Eric Oberstein

That’s the million dollar question. This is perhaps my life’s work. And I say that not because it’s just mine, it’s so many of my colleagues as well. I think about it in the context of looking at other countries and cultures where the arts are a given and celebrated as a necessity and part of everyday life. Everybody values it, whether or not they work as an artist. And for all sorts of reasons, in this country it’s a different dynamic and we have to constantly prove the value of the arts and fight for them.

I am fascinated by the benefits of the arts and not necessarily the benefits that are quantitative. I think those are an important part of telling the story, but I’ve seen the effect that the full gamut of art in every medium can have on people. And I think a lot of people consider it as “soft” and I consider it some of the most powerful stuff that we can ever encounter in this life.

So why should someone take two hours of their Friday evening to go sit shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers in a room to experience a performance? I think there’s something really beautiful and democratizing about that experience, of being next to other folks you may not know, and then you’re also in the room with an artist who is trying to communicate something to you, some truth that they have been working on deeply.

And it could entertain you, it could challenge you, it could move you to tears, it could make you laugh, it could make your day a little lighter. And I think that’s incredibly powerful. And we all sort of know it, but some people don’t want to admit it, or they say, well, that’s fun but I need to be doing something else with my time … or … I’d much rather be studying this or that in school because it’s more practical, or I don’t like “insert name of this art form” or listen to this type of music. But I think that orientation comes from a place of fear as opposed to somebody actually knowing whether they actually like something or not.

And I see it tied to current events. Our President and the political climate we find ourselves in now comes from a divide that was created out of fear. We have created this county and culture of opposition. But why can’t we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Maybe we don’t have to agree with them but we can see them on their level. And for me the arts are all about seeing each other on the same level and sharing an experience that makes us less foreign to one another.  

If you’ve laughed or cried next to someone because you were moved by a work of art, you have already shared something. And maybe that person next to you isn’t so bad.

It’s so easy for us to label people because we struggle to live with uncertainty. My favorite thing to do when I am discussing my production work with jazz and Afro-Latin Jazz is when people will say I don’t really listen to jazz. And I’ll say, OK well what have you listened to? and they’ll name an artist and I’ll say, well that’s one artist, but have you tried this or that jazz artist? And then you play the music for them and they might say, oh I like the groove of this or that really moved me. And it’s less I don’t listen to jazz music … it’s wow I just learned there is a whole new side of this music.

I am all about bursting people's preconceptions. That’s my favorite activity. Not to put people on the spot or make fun of them but to just broaden their world, and in the process I am also learning something about them that I didn’t know.

Getting back to your very first question, I hope that I am always learning forever. If I am staying curious and growing then I like to think I’m doing something right. Because there is so much out there.

I think that’s a way of seeing the world where you are indulging and making way for that artistic curiosity. That’s another way in which the arts can be beneficial -- it makes you hold onto that curiosity.

For me the arts are all about seeing each other on the same level and sharing an experience that makes us less foreign to one another.
— Eric Oberstein

Yes. And I think sometimes people say, well the artists are over here and the rest of us are over there. But I don’t see it that way. Yes, professional artists work incredibly hard at their craft and they have amazing talent. But I think we all have varying degrees of artistic and creative tendencies and it shouldn’t be seen as so separate [from what professional artists are doing.] Every decision we make in our lives can be creative in some fashion; the way we problem solve or dress or design [our] homes. It’s not an “us vs. them” thing, and we can share.

Tell me a little bit about your creative influences or resources you’ve enjoyed along your creative journey.

I was in a household that valued the arts. Neither of my parents are professional musicians but they played instruments as teenagers. My mom played piano, my dad played guitar. Also on both sides of the family there was a love of music and the arts. My mom is Cuban and was born in Cuba. My family came from Havana to New York after the Revolution.

I experienced Cuban culture through the music, food and language, so some of my earliest most beautiful, most memorable moments were being in the backyard of my great aunt in Queens and them playing salsa or merengue or some sort of Latin music and sitting there dancing or drumming on my legs and just thinking man I love this. It was fun for me because it was when our family came together.

My brother is a huge influence on me. We grew up liking different types of music but he was always driven and taking leadership roles in music and then I was following his lead. I credit those leadership experiences – whether I was choosing them or people were recognizing my potential – those early experiences were some of my first arts management and producing experiences.

Two of my first CDs that I got in 4th grade from my dad … I can still see the covers of them now … one was The Essential Charlie Parker because I had just started playing alto sax. And the other one was called Bird and Diz and it was a Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie CD. And I remember I used to go to bed at night and I had my Discman and my little headphones and I’d fall asleep listening to those CDs. I suppose there weren’t many eight year olds listening to Charlie Parker. (laughs)

Being an artistic omnivore was the best education … A healthy dose of constantly listening to new artists and seeing new work [has] helped me redefine my sense of what’s possible and has inspired me, whenever I think what’s next, what’s the next project, who do I want to be collaborating with?

If you’re feeling depleted or coming up against a creative challenge, what are ways that you move past that block?

If I feel like I’m in a creative rut, or feel like I don’t know what I want to do next or who I want to work with next, I try not to force it. The amazing experiences and moments I’ve had in my career were sort of the result of chance encounters or taking a leap and being intentional but not forcing it. [For example] calling Dafnis [Prieto] out of the blue two years ago, or meeting Arturo O’Farrill. My personal mantra is to be open to opportunities and that’s how I try to live my life. As hard as it is for planners like me, I try to be present. And to not be so rigid or fight the thing that might be pulling you a certain way.

It’s important for artists and creative people to do the thing that gives you energy because the work is hard. And if you’re going to do it you need to really love digging into it.

I don’t like to be in that rut for too long. In some ways I feel like I don’t have the answers yet. The projects I’ve been fortunate to work on were the result of interests that I had and being fortunate to meet and collaborate with these great artists. But I feel like I’m still scratching the surface … There are so many projects and questions I want to explore through my work.

Just know that whatever you’re working on isn’t going to be perfect right away, or forever. Perfection isn’t real ... Embrace the mistakes and the early work.
— Eric Oberstein

What advice would you give to young people wanting to use their creative gifts?

Just start creating. Even if [you] don’t know what that means. Making, collaborating, sometimes the creative activity is solitary but most of the time it’s collaborative. Find your people, find a community, hang out, build trust first. See all sorts of work. Develop your tastes, what you like, what you like less. Challenge yourself to see things you think you might not like.

Seek out those people you admire and reach out to them. They’re just human beings and you realize in your mind they’re unbelievably talented but they’re also just people. And they were probably just like you once upon a time. And just know that whatever you’re working on isn’t going to be perfect right away, or forever. Perfection isn’t real.

A mistake isn’t necessarily a mistake. Sometimes a musician might be slightly out of tune or miss a note or play in the wrong spot. And you listen to it and you keep listening to it over and over again and then soon you don’t know that song any other way now and you grow to love that. Sometimes the things that you think are mistakes are actually the best part. Embrace the mistakes and the early work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.