The Symphony Orchestra’s Gold Mine: Part II

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Over the past decades, a few commentators in the musical world have spoken and written about the decline of symphony orchestras, locating the cause in a single factor. The majority, however, attribute the dwindling numbers to a combination of factors, such as: musician unions, increasing pension obligations, fewer charitable donations, the effects of the changing economy, technology, deteriorating relationships between administration and musicians, and lack of community engagement and support. Last year, I attempted to look at some of the facts and my opinions to form some recommendations on how we might move forward stronger:

“I believe that there are people out there who would be willing to invest in orchestras taking a more aggressive stance on proving their impact [to society]. Tomorrow’s healthiest orchestras – literally tomorrow’s – will rest on the foundation of building sustainable societies. How many more stories of another struggling orchestra do we need to hear before we shift our focus from “we play so good” to “we demand that our art (all those good notes) be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings, stronger communities, and sustainable societies”? With that mission, could we find those to invest in our survival?” [full blog post]

The dream that I have for orchestras around the country is that we take the high-quality performances to a new level; that we make it our number one priority to share the musical process through a sustained relationship-building effort throughout our communities. Do not mistake my dream for my absolute love of classical music and deep-seated respect for the hard work of my colleagues as teachers, freelancers, and members of our smallest to largest orchestras around the country. I believe with all of my heart that if we turn our attention outwardly and meet the basic human needs we all share, we can tear down the wall of accessibility and make a compelling case to supporters of all types to sustain the work we do.

In the late 70s and early 80s, America changed. We saw a tremendous amount of growth in our country throughout the 20th century as most people believed, and many experienced first-hand, that if you followed the rules, worked hard, and taught your children, that you would be rewarded with a place at the table: a decent life and a brighter future for your children. Not everyone was completely welcomed at this table, but our country had a way fixing our flaws.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the best examples for the point I want to make can be found within the framework of the civil rights movement of the 60s. The nonviolent protests of a handful of leaders in the south encouraged our country’s greatest institutions such as Congress, court systems, churches, schools, organizations of all types, and businesses to come together and fight for basic human needs. The leaders of the civil rights movement had a dream of social peace and equality for all and that focus allowed them to make lasting progress to promote the rights of African-Americans and lay the groundwork for many who are still waiting for their fair shot at this American dream.

As professional musicians, we are looking to our community’s greatest institutions and resources to keep the art alive. Many of us are convinced that our city’s biggest problems are the lack of access to music education and our struggling arts organizations. Detroit is broke. Philadelphia can’t find the money to open their public schools. Dozens are shot each weekend in Chicago. A quarter of New York City residents live in poverty and struggle to feed their children. Residents of the Dakotas have the hardest time finding work. The Twin Cities have the fastest growing achievement gap in the country. The problems American orchestras face are nowhere near the top of most compelling problems in their local community.

If government agencies, foundations, philanthropist, and concertgoers want to spend their time and money doing other things than support us, then what would you say to win them over? How would your city be damaged if the local orchestra(s) were to disappear tomorrow?

Isn’t this an awful way to wake up in the morning? We can’t go through another terrible economic meltdown like we saw a couple of years ago, nor wait for the next generation of philanthropist who may not invest in us. How about waking up on the side of the bed that demands that our art form be dignified for something greater than the notes we play so well? What if each orchestra took the three most compelling problems in their communities and built their entire organization around solving them?

Music itself won’t feed a starving child or stop a bullet for taking a soul from this Earth. Music won’t employ an entire town or put the needed support staff in a school building. However, taking our young people through the musical process and giving their community something to have pride in has been proven to help develop the skills they will need for future success. If unlocking the technique needed for musical success and the sense of accomplishment created by the final chords of a Brahms symphony does not help to solve some of our most compelling problems, then I’ll be damned to know what will.

We should use our art form to teach a community how it should function. As Dr. Jose Abreu defines an orchestra as “…a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself.” We should use more of our talents as professional musicians to teach children resilience, mental focus, delayed gratification, goal-directed behaviour, and executive functioning skills. If we could accomplish those two things, do you think we could encourage our greatest institutions to support us in that mission side-by-side with presenting our art on the highest level possible?

What would the side effects of that focused mission be? Would we save society a lot of money while producing a new generation of responsible citizens? Would we make a lasting impression on a community never exposed to classical music? Would we break down the barriers of accessibility? Would we gain new supporters of all types because we gave them all something new to invest in? We are sitting on the solutions our society desperately needs and as musicians we must not forget that the “symphony” of the old European cultures meant “a unison of harmony”, not just a collection of performing musical instruments.

Wake up on the other side of the bed. I’ll explain in my next post what that could look like.

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  1. Byron Hanson says

    Bravo, Stanford. You’re looking in the right direction; now we all have to find specific things we can do to work effectively in that direction. Our orchestras generally consist of well-trained artists whose privilege it has been to be well-paid to do what they love, but too often that has become an end in itself, and the larger goals have become lost. It’s a situation parallel to those who take for granted we can have a democratic government working well without intelligent effort on the part of everyone to make it so through (among other things) on-going education and more thought given to the consequences of our actions everyday.

    • david zaiss says

      Community music can happen anywhere anytime. In the 80’s I started an elementary/high school band program at the smallest K-12 school in British Columbia. A few students came mostly out of curiosity, supported by their parents, whose curiosity inspired me to start a community band too. Before we knew it we had a choir, then a jazz band, then a dance band. Thirty years later those musical footprints are still being filled in the remote foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and some of my old band members are still playing. Musically, whatever we choose to do, as long as we continue to do it, “with intelligent effort on the part of everyone” can change lives.

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