Thoughts on outreach

Philip Kennicott's long article is full of ideas. One area of his concern was that orchestras are straying from their principle goal. to play great music, and spending too much (wasted) time on outreach. He talks about how in 1993, orchestras were "strong-armed" to "think about their community's needs, not their traditional role as custodian of a musical tradition." For Kennicott, this equated to pops orchestras proliferating. He discussed how subscription services had the many Beethoven loves subsidizing the minority of listeners and their "idiosyncratic" tastes. And he later pointed out the fact that the St. Louis Symphony, with all it's focus on education, still had very few African Americans in the St. Louis Youth Symphony.

I see these as two distinctly different problems. In one part, I agree with Kennicott--pops orchestras have proliferated, and those are indeed somewhat separate from the main service of the orchestra. Pops are the new subscription service subsidy. Why wouldn't a group like the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra do almost an entire month of holiday concerts? I'm sure it generates more revenue than their "Lily Series" (funded, of course, by Eli Lily). Kennicott views the cultural and financial problems as being intertwined.

I do not.

I see a different problem in outreach. When I see empty seats during a "classical" concert, I wonder why. When I see sold out concerts to the pops, with many of the same faces around me as the classical concert, I wonder why. And when I don't see many African Americans in the audience or the groups playing, I wonder why.

I think the problem is outreach. For one, I don't see pops concerts as outreach at all. And if orchestra management views them that way (which Kennicott says, and he does have insider information, as his article was written in response to the orchestra league meeting), then that is a major problem. I wholeheartedly agree with Kennicott there. But, if they're such a bad thing, why do I see the same subscription faces at the pops as I do at classical concerts? Because Kennicott and many others really need to face a harsh reality: the group of listeners that are really into Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, classical and contemporary classical music, and all the "serious stuff" and only the serious stuff, is incredibly small. It is definitely the huge minority.

I like to use my grandmother as an example. She's in her late 80s and enjoys orchestral music, though she is far from a raving fan. She likes Beethoven and many other Classical and Romantic composers. You know who she loves? And I mean absolutely adores?

Andre Rieu.

You know what else she loves? Jazz orchestras. Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk. The old guys. She absolutely adores them.

In fact, she is much more likely to go to a show similar to those than Beethoven, even though if you ask her she'll say she likes Beethoven. And I don't have a problem with that. I don't have a problem with an orchestra playing a bunch of holiday concerts (which my grandmother also enjoys. Her favourite of all favourite things is Andre Rieu's New Years concert).

Now, I don't like Andrew Rieu. I'm always reminded of this article in the Daily Mail. But Andre Rieu is not outreach. No pops concerts are outreach concerts.

What, then, is outreach? Or, perhaps a better question, what should be outreach?

My first thought is one toward Kennicott. He obviously dislikes a large swath of "contemporary classical" music. He definitely dislikes music that is more than purely instrumental. And genre crossing. So, my little brain with its continuously spinning wheels (driven by some sort of bandicoot, I assume).

This kind, not the Crash kind.
from http://www.wildlife.org.au/wildlife/livingwithwildlife/image/bandicoot.jpg
My first thought is there's a good chance Kennicott, and many others, hadn't heard anything like this until long after their formative years. And, by then, it may already be too late. Not everyone can remain incredibly flexible in their thinking and appreciation. Slowly we all start to get "set in our ways." It's not entirely a bad thing.

Then I start thinking about a presentation by Benjamin Zander. If you're a classical nut, or in the Boston area, you've probably heard of him. He conducts the Boston Phil, among many other things. If you're into Ted Talks, you may have also seen this:

Every single board member, executive, and administrator in a symphony needs to watch this. Ya know what, go ahead and have the musicians watch it too.

While I don't agree with his overly Romantic language at times, and priming everyone with the "remember a dear one you miss dearly" is a bit of a cop out,* it's a video that strikes to the heart of the matter.

Stop. Producing. For. 3%. Of. The. Audiences. And STOP. WISHING. FOR. 4%!

I, personally, think outreach with listeners of all ages (but especially younger listeners), meaningful talks and presentations, MORE CONCERTS, and open discussion will bring in new audiences. I'd guess Zander would agree. We may get along...Though he's much nicer than I am (at least as a public persona).

A final kicker on outreach--Do you know why there aren't tons of urban youths in the St. Louis Youth Symphony? Or in most youth symphonies? Money. Not money for the symphony.

Money for the kids. Listen to this from NPR

String instruments are incredibly expensive. The setup cost is fairly prohibitive for many low-income families. And where do low-income families live? Urban and rural areas. Toss in cost of travel to/from rehearsals, the lessons needed to even pass the audition process, the cost to be in the symphony (many are not free, though you can fill out a wonderful form that can often get you some scholarship) and all of a sudden things are getting priced out of the range of many students.

Schools make up for this by giving instruments to students. This is fantastic. Most schools don't have enough instruments. Programs regarding use range from "you can take this and use it as long as you need it/play professionally" (I can think of a great program in Dallas like this), to "well, we all have to share, so, you can sign out days to take it home...maybe." And that's often for larger instruments, like cellos and basses. In the brass world it's often euphonium/baritones, horns, and tubas (the three most expensive beginning instruments).

Take it from me: my brother is just starting down this classical musician road. He's older and paying for everything himself. Right now he's leasing a $2100 student cello. By the end of the lease, he will have paid double for the instrument. But a single guy, on his own, going to school and working p/t as best he can can't really afford $2100 for the cello, plus another $100 or so for the cheap bow, straight out of pocket. So he, like many other younger performers, is making due as best he can. In his case, he's got an instrument on rental. For many other poor performers, they're on loan from schools.

And that is a disservice, and a place for outreach--free or inexpensive lessons (maybe less often, $10-$15 a half hour), donation of instruments (either permanently or on an "as needed basis"), sectionals (free), outreach concerts, etc. Tons of room here to grow.

Some orchestras are great about this. Some do well in their immediate metropolitan. Other, small groups don't do well with this at all. I never once met an orchestra musician in HS. There was a local orchestra in the nearest town, and I never met any of the players. Maybe it's because we didn't have a string program? Maybe I would have been interested and switched if I HAD met someone. Maybe not--but the experience was never there. I never heard a string quartet live till college. I heard a symphonic work...once? And I think that was a 6th grade trip to see the Nutcracker.

My experience isn't unique--it's the norm for rural areas. Rural areas get the shaft just like urban areas, just in different fashions.

Suffice it to say, I really think groups--not just orchestras but pretty much all arts organizations--do need to do a better job with outreach. The US is a country that isn't investing in education. Arts education is the first to get cut.

And this is where professional artists, musicians, dancers, actors, directors, theatrical technicians, and any strong amateur groups NEED to step up. We need to be giving concerts and talks in schools and in the community. We need to be offering opportunities and helping people of all ages enjoy music, not just in the concerts we present, but through a chance for them to perform, and opportunities to work with master musicians for as small a cost (or free) as possible. This isn't about "making money"--that's what the symphony gig, teaching job, compositions, etc are for. This is volunteer work, like what many others do with non-profits every year. It's about growing the arts community through action, not just exhibition. Because if people are reached at this point, and are given chances to go see concerts, they will support the groups, see the shows, and even donate money. But FIRST they have to think it's important.

Because art and music isn't for 3% or 4% of the people. It's for 100%. Most people just haven't had a chance to open their ears in a legitimate experience multiple times in their lives.

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