An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she continues her advocacy for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. (Part I of her essay was posted last week.) As she points out at the end of her essay, however, this work is not for all artists. In addition, for a variety of reasons arts organizations should not insist that artists participate in or lead community engagement efforts. (Let (Make) the Artists Do It (?)) The onus for commitment to and efforts in engagement must rest with arts organizations. Partnered with artists dedicated to and trained in engagement, their efforts can yield great results.


An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Repeated from last week: In a time of divisiveness, heightened awareness of inequalities, and lack of diversity, we as orchestral musicians have an opportunity as individuals, as part of small music ensembles, and as part of the full orchestra to collaborate with others in making a significant contribution toward positive change in our communities.

We can begin by asking” How can we help?” With the resources we have available in the form of contacts, visibility, and musical skills, how can we support pressing needs in the community? Can we collaborate in ways that will optimize use of our respective areas of expertise?

Our first step in answering that question is to go out into the community, out of our usual pathways, to observe and listen. We begin to see our city through other people’s eyes by spending time in their neighborhoods and noticing what issues they face. What does connection or engagement look like? Here are two more examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. Interactions utilizing individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, but each of these four settings requires some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 3: Over ten years ago, a string quartet of PSO players began participating in a memorial service at the local children’s hospital (CHP) to honor children who died there in the previous year. Spiritual Care, the medical team, support staff, the CHP music therapists, and administrators all contributed in one way or another to the service. Families contributed messages to their loved ones in the program booklet. Parents and siblings of children who died years before each talked about what life was like now. Our music, a mix of quartet arrangements and an improvised solo meditation, chosen to give hope, reassurance, and support, was an essential and powerful component of the service. The unspoken message of the service was that the whole community was working together to help these families through an unimaginably difficult time. Family members felt understood, connected, and supported.

Example 4: This past January the orchestra presented a creatively designed concert entitled “Lift Every Voice: Resonating Music, Words and Legacy” which was a long overdue recognition and celebration of African American talent, accomplishment, and culture. Narrated by Phylicia Rashad, it included the August Wilson Symphony by Kathryn Bostic, “Teenie Timeby Jay Ashby, Lyric for Strings by George Walker, 14-year-old Sphinx cellist Ifetayo Ali playing Lalo, and an inspiring, wide-ranging collection of other solo and ensemble pieces. This was a spiritually uplifting, unifying, and powerful shared experience with a remarkably diverse gathering of musicians and audience members.

Developing and implementing these kinds of group events challenges us to recognize what the audience needs, creatively find appropriate music, and identify musicians with the appropriate skills. This takes some time and much thought. But when we see positive results, we are profoundly energized, knowing we have connected in a very meaningful way. Our musical contribution is valued and has a positive impact.

Note: Not every musician is suited to participating in interactive, small group experiences: the musician may play an instrument that is too loud, hard to move, or unavailable at the venue. A musician may be uncomfortable working with the intended audience.
They may need help finding the right music, identifying the needs of the audience, discovering how to address those needs musically, or developing appropriate social skills to address the participants in an inviting manner. Because of the learning curve involved, the musician may not have the time, ability, or willingness to learn, follow someone else’s lead, or adjust as needed. But for those with a willingness to put in the time to listen and connect musically, this kind of interaction can be meaningful and uplifting.

There is ample opportunity to create programs as varied as the cities and the people we find to partner with. It takes a willingness to step into unfamiliar territory, listen, notice, create, and grow, but this work couldn’t be more necessary during these turbulent times.

Listen. Connect. Engage.

Penny Brill


Penny Brill is a graduate of Smith College and the Juilliard School and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s viola section since 1980. Previously, she taught at the Oberlin Conservatory for two years and played viola for one season with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ms. Brill was part of the AW Mellon Orchestra Forum as well as the Mellon Task Force, both of which were looking at the future direction of orchestras. She is the former Treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and chaired the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Committee. She is currently on the Board of U.N.-affiliated Music as a Global Resource, as well as the International Association of Music and Medicine (IAMM).