How GEMS Grad and Army Musician Sam Kaestner is Transforming Online Concerts

May 13, 2021
Sam Kaestner

Sam Kaestner, MS Strategic Design & Management, Global Executive '21.

West Point Band member Sam Kaestner was determined to increase classic music audience attendance – then the pandemic hit. He spoke to us about how his Global Executive Master's (GEMS) project turned into his livestreaming company Stretto, which was recently named as a finalist in Fast Company's World Changing Ideas Awards 2021.

How did you get started in your musical career?

Music was always just a part of my life. I really love music; I just really felt like I belonged in that community. I ended up going to Peabody Institute, the music conservatory of John Hopkins, from there went to Northwestern University and got a master’s degree. I ended up learning about the Army music program and I auditioned for the band I currently am in: the West Point band, which is one of the Army’s elite bands.

West Point Band

The West Point Band was established in 1817 by an act of congress and is the Army's oldest continuously active band.

What is the time commitment like being in the West Point Band?

Some weeks, there are four rehearsals, which are three hours a piece and then the concert. Concerts are a full day of work, from setup to soundcheck, to the performance, and teardown. We don’t have the staff positions that normal ensembles have. Everything we do, we do ourselves. I started working in P.R. and marketing when I first joined. And eventually worked up to running the marketing department with 14 people in it. We’re basically 100% responsible for whether or not we’ll have an audience. It’s a full-time job; it’s not a “play a couple of hours” thing.

And you kept it going full-time while completing GEMS?

I did. Actually there was a huge wrench in the middle of that. I moved out of marketing to work in operations for the band just as I was starting the (GEMS) program. And of course the pandemic hit right in the middle of the program which completely up-ended everything. I was running contact tracing for all of West Point. That was very difficult to pull off at the same time I was doing GEMS. A lot of early mornings, late nights. Not to mention I have three small kids… so that was fun too!

Sam Kaestner
What attracted you to the GEMS program and how did you find out about it?

My wife used to work for Mannes Prep. While she was there, I realized that I had this spousal tuition benefit. I started a certificate in design thinking – I ended up doing the whole thing. I knew I wanted a plan for getting out of the Army. Relying on a performance career is really hard so I knew I wanted to do something that was a little bit more stable but also creative. While I was doing the certificate, I learned about the GEMS program. It just seemed like a big expansion of everything I learned. It was really just like dipping my toe in the water.

How did you have to adapt your study and work habits during the pandemic?

In some ways there was minimal impact because most of the coursework was already remote and online. It ultimately turned out to be an incredible experience; the client [for the first studio intensive course] was the UN. Because of the pandemic and because we couldn’t go and physically talk to people, I think it kind of expanded who we would interview. I was on the team that did the Climate Superheroes project and we ended up interviewing people from like five continents. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to interview people in Australia and Dubai and all over the place.

How did you come up with your company Stretto?

Ultimately I think it was the pandemic that led me to this idea which ended up becoming this company I’m trying to launch. As part of the GEMS program, we have to do an independent study program that spans the entire degree. It can really be on anything; you just have to use all the tools that we’re learning and all of the courses to take it forward. My original project was looking for ways to increase classical music audiences. I’m really passionate about music – it’s what I devoted my life to – and it really pains me that audiences are shrinking. They’re getting older and not being replaced. People want to see the greatest art in the world but not everyone wants to hear the greatest music in the world. I was really trying to get to the bottom of that.

One path I was really going down was multi-sensory experiences. I went to the Atelier des Lumières exhibit in Paris with GEMS. I was amazed not only by the exhibit itself but actually by watching all the people in the exhibit and just by how transfixed everybody was. That was really powerful. While the visuals were incredible, no one really thought about the music as much as they could’ve. I wondered what could be gained if you combined those things in a more thoughtful way.

Through some code and some slick programming, you can have real-time interaction with the performer or audience. I was trying to design some sort of immersive, reactionary thing that was going to happen in real-time with a live audience in a real space. And then the whole world shut down. I was never going to prototype it by the end of the degree.

I [told a Parsons counselor] I needed a developer and she said “well we have a whole school full of them.” She introduced [co-founder and Parsons grad] Nic and I by email. He agreed to build the next prototype and I lined up musicians. He’s been along for the ride the whole time.

How did you use GEMS concepts when building your company?

Before I settled on this as a solution, I was very problem-focused. I was really trying to find ways that people would go to classical music concerts. I wanted to flip the script a bit. I was writing down all of these problems… I realized that it wasn’t just a solution to the one problem I was solving, it was a solution to the broader range of problems that all sorts of musicians were having.

I went through every single thing we worked on (in GEMS) and applied it to this – laying it all out in the design thinking process and getting as much feedback as possible. That’s been one of the challenging things of not being around other people. It started with my classmates and professors but now my focus has been user interviews. Making sure that as we’re building something, we’re building something people want to use, has been absolutely key.

Stretto

Using Kaestner's company Stretto, performers can customize their livestream concerts.

Tell us more about Stretto.

Stretto is for live streamers who want to create visually stunning broadcasts while having more meaningful reactions with their audiences. We provide a library of visual content that performers can use to fill their shows. Really the emphasis is on making things beautiful – really high production value streams. And also focusing on co-creation: I really believe that by enabling the audience to be a part of making the thing that they’re watching, they’ll be more connected to it.

What does “stretto” mean?

Stretto is a musical term that means when things happen in a cascade, just not in a fixed interval. Stretto can be random intervals – which is what our product is, in some ways.

How will you stay involved in your company as it grows?

I will be the CEO. One of the things that we had in GEMS was just a normal leadership class, which I don’t know if I ever had, even though I’ve been in the Army for almost 20 years. Really getting to the bottom of what leadership is, what makes a good leader, how to do it in a much more organic way. Through that, I had a lot of self-realization and I realized that I’m a pretty good natural leader. I’m going to be the person to bring it forward.

How can GEMS help entrepreneurs?

For someone who’s an entrepreneur, it will give them much better tools to make sure they’re building something that people want and will use. GEMS is also really good at teaching you how to pitch ideas. Getting practice at pitching things digitally is huge. We had worked for weeks on this project and had to present it to two people from the UN over Zoom. It was very daunting – there were so many things that could go wrong.

What makes GEMS a good program for creative professionals?

It gives you tools to focus your creativity. Being creative in very specific constraints – that’s exactly what musicians do. I mean, what sets one apart from the other? We’re literally playing the same notes, and some of them were written hundreds of years ago. To work within those constraints and make something that moves someone is a really interesting and powerful creative background.

Taking that creative background and putting it through the design thinking framework that gives you these tools to just gather vast amounts of information which you wouldn’t think to normally look at, and the tools to sort through that information in meaningful ways. The ability to seek out people who you wouldn’t normally put yourself on a team with because you know that you need those ideas, you need that diversity of thought in order for it to be successful. GEMS is a really great way to amplify all your creative muscles and focus it on something.

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