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).

An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: I

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she advocates for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. 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

Over the last twenty years I have played for children and adults with special needs, dementia patients, hospitalized children, grieving parents, and veterans in rehab or hospice. The number of musicians ranged from one to a hundred players. Audiences varied from ten people to thirty-five thousand. Some events were onetime only. Some were a series of interactions over a period of months.

Each interaction, no matter the scale, has the potential to improve our connection to each other, to reveal how our differences can be strengths and to reaffirm our common humanity. Ideally we all grow from these experiences.

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 see the urgent issues that a neighborhood faces, and look for ways to be supportive.
What does connection or engagement look like? Below are four recent examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. While interactions utilizing Individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, each of these four settings require some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 1: Twenty years ago I first started playing for patients and their families in the radiation oncology waiting area of a local hospital and under the guidance of a music therapist in the transplant area of another hospital. In addition to acquiring and learning a large amount of music I didn’t previously know, I observed that:

  • The people in the waiting area weren’t talking to anyone before I played, but began to talk to each other afterward.
  • Some wanted to share their stories, and playing music was the start of that conversation.
  • They were listening to my sound and musical intention, not how I played technically.
  • When I was teamed with the music therapist I was more effective at picking the right music and aiding the patient or family than when working alone. I could support and enhance what the music therapist was doing. 
I could see that playing and interacting in those settings completely changed the atmosphere from one of isolation and anxiety to one of connection and relief.

Example 2: Just this week a staff member and I interacted with a group of fifteen Alzheimer study members. They sang rounds, moved to music, and practiced deep breathing using some methods we adapted from the teachings of former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Arnold Jacobs. By the end of the session the participants were visibly more relaxed and interacted with or were more aware of each other. Through connection and engagement with us, our interaction helped them with the social, cognitive, physical and artistic goals of the program.

[Next week, Ms. Brill will provide more examples as well as advice about the role musicians can (and perhaps should not) play in this work.]

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).

Co-Creation in Dance

by Clara Pinsky, Program Coordinator; Krissie Marty, Associate Choreographer;
Allison Orr, Artistic Director
Forklift Danceworks

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

allisonelvis21The need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and build relationships with new audiences is a compelling question for us at Forklift Danceworks. When we are asked this question, we often answer with a question: Who loves Elvis?

In 2007, Forklift’s Artistic Director Allison Orr choreographed The King & I—not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but an evening-length, contemporary dance performance work to address her curiosity, “Just what does Elvis Presley have to do with you and me, anyway?” In making the work, Allison knew she needed to find a way to get input and inspiration from the Elvis community. She sought out to find, “Who loves Elvis?”

Meeting the dedicated Elvis tribute artists and hearing stories from fans, Allison decided to loosely structure the performance of The King & I on Elvis’ last concert. Thinking even more about the fans who love Elvis (who also love to get together to talk about their love for Elvis!), she decided to perform the dance over three weekends around the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. Through collecting stories about Elvis’ life and work, performances of his songs and of course, choreography that included his iconic moves, this show with three professional dancers and five Elvis Tribute Artists was really a collaboration with many others, with inspiration and input from the Elvis-loving community.

In the years since The King & I, we have choreographed dances for trash collectors and their vehicles, electric utility workers and their equipment, forestry technicians and a heritage pecan tree, and baseball players and a historic field. The key to the success of each project has been asking, “Who loves Elvis–or recycling, or electricity, or trees, or baseball?” and finding the community that already has a stake in the dance we are making and inviting them to join us in the creative process.

In essence, community engagement is inherent in our process of making dances. We hang out, talk and ask questions, and most importantly we listen. We get really excited about the knowledge that exists in the groups with which we collaborate. Each specific community has had an abundance of ideas, expertise, and resources to offer our art making process. Practically, the only way to make a great dance with trash trucks is to work with someone who has been driving a trash truck for years. In the same way, the only way for us to make a great dance about Elvis is to work with people who love Elvis, too.

Our other trick? The people we work with become co-authors of the dance and the stories we tell within it. Baseball players have choreographed the action of 10 pitchers throwing in a circle; linemen have choreographed hanging electrical wire by hand and dropping pulleys in canon. Our projects share the story of our determined community with a wider audience and we often ask about, and listen for, what our community wants the general public to know.

For us as artists the exchange between ourselves and the community we are partnering with is reciprocal. We also ask ourselves what do we have to offer the community we are working with? What is the value add for them? And this ultimately encourages us as artists to make better dance. We want to make great dances, and by seeking relevance, connection and engagement from the get go—we give ourselves an even better chance of making that awesome dance.

And it just gets better. Working in this way—where relationships and listening are central to our dance making process—continues to provide us with rich material for art making. With each project, we engage with a new community that tells us even more about our city. Honestly, we feel blessed. How else could we have learned about what it is like to free climb a 100 ft transmission tower, or prune one of Austin’s oldest trees, or hit a home run in front of thousands of fans?

Our art making is what allows us to deepen and build relationships. So our advice…go find out “who loves Elvis?!”


Photo: by Sung Park [Donnie Roberts, left; Allison Orr, right]

Artists and Relationship Building

by Laura Zabel

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

ZabelHeadshotThere is a lot of work right now on building demand, value and interest in the contributions of art and artists to places, social change, economies and communities. This is the long overdue work to knit our creativity back into our daily lives and the way we address and confront the issues and inequities that face us. I am a true believer in this work and its many forms and structures. I also believe that it is not enough to work on the demand for this work – we also need to work on the supply of this work. Essentially, art comes from artists and if we are building the demand for artist-led, community-engaged work, then how are we supporting artists to build the skills and capacity they need to fulfill this demand?

Things that hold us back:

6 artist syndrome: At Springboard, we travel a lot and we’ve started making this joke that every community has 6 artists. There are usually about 6 artists that everyone in a given city points to as the exemplars of work that engages community. We call on them whenever we need a mural, a community created play, an innovative project with the city. These six artists do amazing work, work that is powerful, important and in need of support, but they can’t do everything. By relying on the same people over and over again we’re not building systems of investment, support and training that would allow more artists and more communities to make creative change.

“Of course, this work is not for everyone…”: People say this to mean that OF COURSE not all artists are interested in community-based work, or creative placemaking, or engaging in social issues. I’ve said it myself. But the more I think about this idea, I think it is wrong. ALL artists need relationships, ALL artists need to understand the context in which their work happens, ALL artists are trying to communicate and connect. In repeating the “this work isn’t for everyone” trope we are reinforcing a binary between artists who have a studio practice and artists who have a social/civic/community practice. This perspective narrows down the ways in which artists contribute to community life to a fraction of the full possibility. Yes, some artists work intentionally to co-create work with community members and other artists work alone in their studio. But the reality is that most artists do some of both. Our communities benefit from multiple ways of approaching and defining artistic impact. Even the most studio based artists need relationships with their community to inform and support their work.

Artistic quality vs. community engagement. Honestly, I can’t even bring myself to write about this conversation anymore. This tedious, insider argument serves no one.

What we need:

Expansive definitions: Artists are everywhere and every community has creative capacity within it. We need artists from all backgrounds and all walks of life to be recognized, supported and celebrated for their contributions. There is room for everyone. There are a lot of different ways for artists to build relationships, support communities, use their artistic skills to make contributions. For example, a singer-songwriter who lives in a neighborhood that is changing rapidly and is worried about displacement of longtime residents might write songs with her neighbors, or she might write her own song about the neighborhood and perform it on her national tour, or she might be intentional about playing gigs at bars and restaurants that are important institutions in her neighborhood—these are all equally valid ways to make an impact.

Multiple on-ramps and opportunities: We need to provide opportunities for artist training and learning, and, more importantly, low-risk opportunities to try new ideas and ways of working. Opportunities for artists to build new relationships and test ideas. This isn’t work that can be learned in a classroom alone, artists need an invitation and a charge (and resources) to find partners in their community and begin a relationship. At Springboard our artist-training in community development is almost always coupled with financial support to try out a small project. People learn by doing and when it comes to building relationships, only the experience of actually doing something together gets you farther down the path.

Mechanisms that make it easy for communities to find and connect with artists: In the arts we consistently underestimate how opaque it is for those who are not steeped in this work to navigate our systems and jargon. Here’s a conversation I’ve had approximately one thousand times:

“Hi, I’m calling from a community development organization/city agency/private business and we are working on an exciting new project to build affordable housing/address health disparities/get community feedback and someone told me we should work with artists.”

“Yes, absolutely, you should do that!”

“But how??”

Because we’ve had this conversation so many times, at Springboard we’re kind of obsessed with mechanisms: how to make the bridge between two people or two sectors easy to see and easy to cross? We recently launched a project called Ready Go that is a roster of artist-designed projects purpose-built to pique curiosity, prompt interaction and are available for hire. Our goal is to make it just as easy for a community organizer to work with an artist as it is for them to rent a bounce house. We hope Ready Go is a mechanism that introduces more people to the idea of working with artists, and also introduces them to actual artists.

There is so much opportunity right now to help communities understand and value the role creativity can play in supporting the agency and power of people, in building new social connection, in contributing to health, equity and happiness. So many of our challenges need and want artists’ contributions. We need to make sure we’re supporting, challenging and resourcing artists to make these contributions.


Laura Zabel is the Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, which operates Creative Exchange, a platform for sharing free toolkits, resources, and profiles to help artists and citizens collaborate on replicating successful and engaging community projects.

An economic and community development agency run by and for artists, Springboard provides programs that help artists make a living and a life, and programs that help communities connect to the creative power of artists. Based in Minnesota, Springboard’s projects include: Community Supported Art (CSA), which is based on the Community Supported Agriculture model and connects artists directly with patrons; the Artists Access to Healthcare program; artist entrepreneurial development; and Irrigate artist-led creative placemaking, a national model for how cities can engage artists to help reframe and address big community challenges.

An expert on the relationship between the arts and community development, Zabel has spoken at leading conferences and events including the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Urban Land Institute, and Americans for the Arts. A 2014 Bush Foundation Fellow, Zabel’s insights on industry trends have also been featured in outlets from The Guardian to The New York Times. Zabel serves on the board of directors of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers.