Imagining — last post

To finish my account of the session I led at the League of American Orchestras conference (and sorry for the delay)…

The story so far (clicking the link takes you to my last post, where I began this):

I asked participants to imagine that in 10 years, all the problems orchestras now have will be solved. They’ll have vibrant young audiences, eager support from their communities, no funding problems, and freedom to play any music they like. 

Yes, that’s a dream. But dreams can be freeing. As a first step toward examining this one, I asked everyone to write down three reasons why we’re not in this paradise now. Participants mostly blamed themselves and their orchestras. They hadn’t done enough to reach out to the world around them. (Go here to read the above in more detail.)

So then I started our imagining of good things. Imagine, I said, that you’re looking back, from 10 years from now. When you look at the first year of your evolution, what stands out? What started to happen in the first year, what did your orchestra do, that made at least some people feel that your problems could be turned arond?

Before August I’ll share transcriptions of what people said. But after this discussion, I pulled a surprise. Imagine, I said, that it’s Black History Month. The mayor of your city is asking every arts and community group to celebrate the ethnic groups in your town, and now it’s time for African-Americans. How do you join in?

I asked for ideas. “Play black composers,” someone suggested. But I tried to go deeper. Would the black composers be names the black community in your town would know? Does their music reflect black culture? And, most important: Are these composers you’d be playing even if it wasn’t Black History Month? 

I outlined what other groups might do. The theater company might stage an August Wilson play. The art museum might show stunning outsider art by local African-Americans. The historical society might do a panel discussion and exhibit about a 1950s black-owned record label in your town, featuring an appearance by the lead singer of the label’s most successful singing group. 

How do you stand next to things like these, which really do involve the black community? I suggested possibilities (you can read them here), including mounting an exhibit and holding a discussion of African-American classical musicians and music teachers, who were active in your town in the old days, when racial barriers prevented them from having professional careers outside the black community. You might even trump the historical society with this!

And why talk so much about Black History Month? For one simple reason, I suggested. If your community is going to be involved with your orchestra, in new and striking ways, then your orchestra will have to find new ways to be involved with your community. Which may mean going to places you’ve never gone before. 

You can watch a video of the entire session.

And now, to conclude:

I continued by asking participants to return to their happy future, 10 years from now, and to again look back, as they had before. This time I wanted them to imagine more things that would have happened, that helped to make this future real? And to write down three possibilities.

This was like the first exercise I gave them, in which they wrote down one early sign of change. Now I wanted them to imagine more substantial changes.

tabatha blogAfter that discussion, I pulled another surprise. Imagine, I said, that Tabatha Coffey comes to town! The name didn’t ring many bells, but when I said she has a reality TV show, Tabatha Takes Over, a ripple of recognition went through the room.

On that show, Tabatha — a hair stylist, salon owner, and entrepreneur, visits failing hair salons, and turns them around. An almost irresistible guilty pleasure, when I’ve run into her, as I’m flipping channels on TV. She looks like she could overthrow a third world country simply by showing up at passport control. And she has an acute understanding of both business and people.

Imagine, I said, that she’s come to your town to do an episode of her show. And that you have a donor who’s in the TV biz, who hears that she’s coming, and pays her to stay and work with your orchestra.

So she spends a week with you. At the salons she visits, she pounces on discourteous employees, bad customer service, unattractive premises, and so much more. I’ve seen her order the whole staff to show up early in the morning, to repaint their place. I’ve seen her telling them to dress more attractively (but not too trendily, which might scare customers away). I’ve seen her order staff to sweep and clean.

And in the last episode I saw, she visited a salon in Miami Beach. She decreed  — after much reform and redecoration — that they’d have a grand reopening. To promote it, she sent the entire staff out to the beach, where they talked to everyone. Everyone! Inviting them to the grand reopening, and offering a free haircut, right then, right there, right on the beach, in a tent she made the staff set up.

Brilliant marketing, I thought. So now imagine Tabatha coming to your orchestra. She observes you for a week. What would she say?

That was the last exercise I gave to my participants. (A lovely, smart, thoughtful group of people, I should add.) As I’ve said before, I didn’t write down the responses, but I now have a transcription of the video I mentioned, and I’ll do a post in which I recount the discussions that we had.

Here’s how I should have finished. I didn’t quite say this, but wish I had summarized the session like this:

You’ve been a great group to work with. Your comments show how ready you are to change. I’m impressed and happy. But this is just the first step. Now go out and do it!

I’d be happy to go elsewhere, and do this session for others who might want it. 

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