Making it work — continuing

In my last few posts — here, here, and here — I’ve posed a problem (based on both things I’ve heard about, and my direct experience) about classical music and the community. (And thanks to so many people for so many thoughtful and supportive comments.)

The problem, very simply, is that many people in a community, knowing that classical music is being performed, will think that the performances are likely to be nice enough. Which then leads them to say that maybe they should go sometime. As opposed to saying: “From everything I’ve heard, the orchestra [or opera company, or chamber music group] is unforgettable. Everyone who goes there feels so welcome. And the performances are so exciting — you never know what’s going to happen. I’m going to go this weekend!”

Up to now, I’ve talked about the feeling welcome part of this. I’ve outlined ways — both dignified and raucous — to make an audience feel welcome. But I also outlined other things that, if we were lucky, people might think:

So how do we change this perception? Or rather broaden it. How do we move beyond people saying, “Oh, the orchestra is nice. I went to a concert once. The music was lovely”? And instead say, “It was unforgettable. I’ve got to go again. And you [talking to a friend] should go, too. Let’s go this weekend!”

And here are some other things that people — once classical music starts to function in the modern world — might say:

    • “There’s a feeling of excitement coming off the stage.”
    • “The orchestra cares about things that I care about.”
    • “I can tell that there’s excitement here, even if I’m just walking past the concert hall.”

What would bring about a world where people talk like that?

Let’s start with this — the orchestra cares about what I care about.

I’m getting here at the perception (which unfortunately is understandable) that orchestras or other classical music institutions are elite, wealthy, untouchable — and uninvolved in community affairs. This especially becomes a problem when (1) your funders say they’d rather spend what little cash they have these days on social causes, and/or (2) you try to reach an audience that’s used to pop music, and sees the biggest pop stars raising money for causes they believe in.

Yes, you might want to answer, the opera company you run also is a cause. It’s as much a worthy charity as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. But that may well sound hollow. And, out in the wider world, hardly anyone believes it.

What to do? Here’s one approach. More than a hundred orchestras — inspired by the film The Soloist – have been raising money for Feeding America, which they describe as the nation’s largest hunger relief organization.

This may well make them friends. But from another point of view, it’s a cause the orchestras dump into their community. Maybe others care about it, maybe others are doing something. But maybe not. Maybe other causes in the community seem more urgent, at least locally. And how many people care about The Soloist?

So maybe there’s another way to go. Orchestras might try to partner with groups and causes that are already active in their communities. Where I live, in Warwick, NY, the soup kitchens have been short of food. (I buy food for them every time I’m at the local supermarket, which supplies a bin for food donations.) And the high school sports teams are often at the supermarket raising funds. So if there was an orchestra here, it might contact the food pantries and the high schools, to see how it could help. (There are some chamber concerts. I wonder if the people who sponsor them ever thought of doing this.)

And, if you’re an orchestra or chamber group, ask what your musicians might already be doing on their own. Talk about that to the world. (If the musicians don’t mind you doing it.) Then ask how the institution can get involved in some of its musicians’ charitable work. The message you’d be sending is: We’re not elite. We’re people living here. We care, just as you do. And we’re doing something — lending our hearts, and our energy, and even our cash, to causes you already care about.

That could be one way to combat the perception that supporting classical music and supporting social causes are in opposition. Now, if you support the classical music institution, you’re supporting social causes, too.

(Has any group been doing this? I’d love to know.)

Next –one last post on all of this.

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