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In the long term, increasing the relevancy of orchestras will help save them

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Sthefany Serrano, 6, a member of the Alma Llanera Hospital Care Program's orchestra for sick children, performs during its first anniversary concert in Caracas, Venezuela. The orchestra is part of El Sistema's program.

We are at an important juncture in the Minnesota Orchestra management-musician impasse. With the beginning of a new season looming, the impasse threatens the future of the Minnesota Orchestra. Lost in the immediate crises is consideration of a larger and long-term issue: the relevancy of the orchestra — here and across the country.

Nathan Davis

Increasing the long-term relevancy of the orchestra, here and elsewhere, is key for saving it. With audiences and interest declining, the industry knows that new approaches are needed for an institution — born out of age-old European traditions and coming of age during the rise of the 19th-century middle class – to be a relevant 21st-century cultural force. With forward vision, the Minnesota Orchestra could be a national leader pointing to a sustainable future for both itself and the industry as-a-whole.

The pathway to relevancy is through audience development, a term that means far more than increasing attendance at concerts. It’s about developing mutually beneficial relationships with the public and customer-patron stakeholders (including business, education, civic, and nonprofit partners). Here are approaches to consider:

Education outreach: (Why not use sports as a model?)

Take a lead from sports by connecting youth/amateur and professional-level activity. The progression involved in attaining high-level skills (evident in sports) would similarly capture public interest for the orchestra world — from 5th-grade public-school programs through world-class professional symphonies. For starters, orchestras could present school, community, college and semi-professional groups in pre-concert cameo performances — a way of connecting with their supporters and cultivating new fans and patrons. They could also organize youth festivals/division-level competitions, and develop communications representing the full gamut of skill and age-level involvement. The London Symphony Orchestra’s “LSO Discovery” is a good model for just these kinds of programs.

Partnerships: Connect with other sectors

Build on the growing relationship of the arts to human service, health care, education and entrepreneurial economic development initiatives. Create policy-level partnerships with government, community centers, senior living homes, hospitals, schools and businesses. Besides leadership coalition building, orchestras could 1) present smaller ensembles in a variety of partner organization sites; 2) work with community centers to develop arts education-based and human-service focused programs, (such as El Sistema from Venezuela); and 3) provide expertise to memory-care facilities for using music to improve care-giving and quality-of-life. Participation in civic economic development initiatives is also key.

Engagement: Create interactive experiences for audiences

Foster the magic of live performance (at home and outreach venues) to enhance connections with performers. In selected repertoire, experiments could be made to bring back 19th century audience traditions of in-performance applause to express spontaneous excitement and appreciation. Using technology tools such as clicker devices would garner immediate feedback directly after a concert, and permit audience voting to choose repertoire selections for upcoming concerts.

Recognizing musicians’ value

The essence of what an orchestra means to American society can be distilled through how its musicians model training and preparation, deferred gratification to achieve long-term goals, and high-quality team-generated results. Musicians’ contributions are essential for creating new audiences, new revenues and new relationships.

Focusing on lowering salaries diverts attention from developing plans to increase support through becoming more relevant.

Finally, institutionalizing new ideas takes time and requires change. However, orchestras, such as ours in Minnesota, must reach more people from more walks of life, and their support will increase through ticket sales, donor contributions, grants, corporate sponsorships and sharing costs with partners.

Banish the ‘shrinking pie’ idea

Why can’t the orchestra be a model for entrepreneurialism and exponential growth, banishing the belief that there is a shrinking pie to be sliced into increasingly smaller pieces? I believe that in Minnesota, we can have a world-class orchestra that represents the best of past musical traditions, along with forging new ways to serve the public for centuries to come.

Nathan Davis works with arts, education and audience development on a state and national level. He has served as a professor of music (cello) in the MnSCU system, provost of Tri-College University, executive director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and worked for the Brubeck Institute in Northern California. Davis holds a Ph.D. from New York University.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Kelly Carter on 09/11/2013 - 11:02 am.

    I think some clarification is needed…

    My name is Kelly and I am a supporter of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. I am also the executive director of ACME – El Sistema Minneapolis.

    In response to your article, I’d like to provide some clarity to the “considerations” you offered:

    Education Outreach
    I have had the pleasure of organizing 2 previous school presentations performed by Minnesota Orchestra Musicians and am fortunate to have 2 more in the works. These presentations were and will be performed at Nellie Stone Johnson and North High School – 2 public schools in North Minneapolis. The response from our audiences have been overwhelming.

    This does not include their previous 18 concerts performed at schools and community venues across Minnesota, the El Sistema Instrument Ceremony, or the hours of support they provide to young musicians and educators by judging and performing at various youth festivals.

    Partnerships: Connect with other sectors
    Without the support of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, El Sistema Minneapolis would not exist. Like Venezuela, El Sistema Minneapolis is a crime-prevention, social services program that fights violence with music. They have personally provided a consistent, volunteer-based classroom. This means that there are musicians in our classrooms Monday through Thursday all year round – including summer vacation. And they’re all coming back to volunteer again for year 2.

    The orchestra also greatly supports musicians at an amateur and semi-professional level by performing with and providing educational opportunities to other community orchestras; such as the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Youth Symphony, GTCYS and Young Musicians of Minnesota.

    Engagement “Foster the magic of live performance (at home and outreach venues) to enhance connections with performers”

    On this Monday, September 16th, Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will perform “Magic of the Symphony” to support El Sistema Minneapolis. This concert will be performed at the North Minneapolis YMCA Youth and Teen Development Center – the only YMCA youth development center in the world. Here, audience members will learn with the orchestra and Manny Laureano what constructs a symphony. This is the 2nd annual concert ever performed in North Minneapolis and was completely musician-organized after the lock-out. Management was not interested in an El Sistema initiative nor reaching out to that community.

    Recognizing Musicians’ Value “The essence of what an orchestra means to American society can be distilled through how its musicians model training and preparation, deferred gratification to achieve long-term goals, and high-quality team generated results.”

    I hate to keep tooting the El Sistema horn but you just listed 3 very large key focuses in the El Sistema curriculum that musicians are teaching.

    I’m sure you can agree that children and families living in North walk very different paths than those of suburban areas.

    Banish the ‘shrinking pie’ idea
    The musicians have been overwhelmingly generous to the community of North Minneapolis and El Sistema. They engage and keep in consistent communication with their local, national, and global audiences and donate their services and skills to improve the quality of life for all of them.

    Management, despite thousands of letters and phone calls, do not want to listen or talk with their community or their players!

    The musicians are already relevant to the hundreds of thousands of people they touch – and management doesn’t care.

  2. Submitted by Kelly Carter on 09/11/2013 - 11:09 am.

    One more thing

    You especially should already know that the musicians are involved with El Sistema Minneapolis since MinnPost did a photo shoot at the Instrument Ceremony and all…

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