Suppose in 10 years all problems that orchestras have will be solved!
Suppose that orchestras have a vibrant young audience, that people all over the country are talking about what orchestras do. Suppose there aren’t funding problems. And that all of this has been accomplished without the slightest artistic compromise.
How — looking back now from this imagined 10-year perspective — would we have gotten there? What would have changed?
That was the conversation I led four years ago at a League of American Orchestras national conference. You can watch the entire session, if you like, since the League filmed it, and put the video on YouTube. Thanks to everyone there for that!
And thanks to my invaluable assistant for transcribing the workshop. You can read the transcription here.
But I thought I’d share the outline I made in advance — my script, if you like (though I was more than ready to toss it away if discussions erupted that were better than anything I’d planned).
I’m sharing this — recycling (though with a few changes) — a post I did just after the conference, because the session was a great success. Because the questions it asked proved to be very useful.
And above all because I’d like to do this workshop again. As an internal discussion for an orchestra, or any other classical music institution. I could even do it long distance, via Skype, though it’ll be much stronger in person.
Here’s what happened at the League.
Outlining the dream
It has a large, new, excited young audience. College students go to your concerts on dates. Not a crazy idea. I’ve seen reports of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts being hot items for date nights back in the 1950s.
So your orchestra builds on that. You have special nights for area colleges, and students turn out by the hundreds.
Again not crazy. A century ago, the Boston Pops had college nights. MIT students snakedanced through the streets — all the way from Cambridge, across the Charles River — to get to their evenings.
When it was Harvard night, the Pops asked for extra police, because the Harvard students were rowdy, loudly demanding to hear the Academic Festival Overture. (These priceless details come from a 1940 book, Our American Orchestras and How They Are Supported, by Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger.)
In 10 years, your community talks about everything you do. The buzz is amazing. You measure it — people are tweeting about your orchestra every day, whether they go to your concerts or not.
Though of course people do go to your concerts. They also listen to them online. They buy your recordings. They buy your merchandise, which isn’t just sold at your symphony store. They can buy it in stores and shops all over town.
You have no funding problems, and, as I said, you’ve done all this with no artistic compromise. In fact, you’re in a better artistic position than you’ve ever been in, more able to play whatever music you want. That’s because your support is so solid, and also because so much of it comes from younger people, who welcome hearing new music.
Why aren’t we there now?
I freely admitted — as of course I’d have to — that this is a dream. But dreams can be useful. They offer goals that, for all anyone knows, just might be achieved. They help us think in new ways. They jog us loose from preconceptions that, we might discover, are holding us back.
I quoted “Happy Talk,” a song from South Pacific:
You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?
And then I moved on to the first exercise of the session. I asked the participants — more than 80 had signed up, and the room must have held around that many — to quickly write down three reasons why the dream wasn’t true right now. Why, I asked them, isn’t your orchestra having this kind of success?
To be honest, I was expecting some difficult replies. Attacks, maybe, on popular culture, how it’s destroying appreciation for any kind of art, classical music included. Or maybe orchestra staffers would blame their unionized musicians, given the ugly labor disputes we’ve seen this year. Or maybe musicians (a few were there) would blame orchestra managements.
I was ready — gently — to resist negativity, to suggest we put problems aside for the hour the session would last. To suggest, also, that if we put them aside, we might come up with solutions. That we should be wary of blaming others for our problems, not least because that might blind us to things our orchestras could do on their own.
And I had examples of success, most of which will be familiar to faithful readers here.
- The Toronto Symphony, which really does have a youngish audience, one-third of it younger than 35.
- The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in London, where a large young audience comes to specially-branded late-night concerts.
- Present Music, a new music group in Milwaukee, which for decades has had (if what they told me some years ago still is true) a subscription base of 200 or so people, with as many more, sometimes, showing up for their concerts.
But I didn’t need any of this. When I asked what people had written down — either waiting for hands to be raised, or else descending on people who hadn’t raised their hands, because I’ve learned from long experience (I do this each week in my Juilliard classes) that their thoughts are as valuable as those coming from people eager to speak — people just about universally blamed their own orchestras. Blamed them for not doing enough, for being stuffy, for not reaching out to their communities.
Here’s some of what they said:
- We have a dysfunctional board and an absentee music director
- We embody the classic definition of insanity. We keep on doing the same things, and expecting different results.
- We have a limited staff, and we’re not involved enough in education or in the community
- We operate day to day in crisis mode, and don’t do enough long-term planning
- We don’t have any risk capital — money to spend on new initiatives that may or may not work out
- We’re afraid we’ll offend subscribers and long-time supporters, if we do something new
So the people at my session were ahead of the game. They thought (hope they don’t mind me putting it this way) that they themselves were the problem. Which meant they were ready to change. Orchestras aren’t where they could be, because they haven’t done the things that would take them there.
Though I’d add one more reason. We aren’t in the bright place I imagined because we don’t really believe we could be there. Which then means we don’t put muscle behind major changes, because deep in our hearts we don’t believe they’re going to work out.
That’s enough for today. I’ll continue this post tomorrow.