The Symphony Orchestra’s Gold Mine: Part III

I got up on the other side of the bed yesterday, and everything that could go wrong did!

The National Endowment for the Arts released recent data about what the decline of arts education means for arts participation, and the picture they paint isn’t pretty. The NEA research revealed that there was steady growth in access to music education from the 1930s to the 1970s which helped to create, nurture and sustain the audiences who would shape the cultural landscape of America. During the 1960s, the hunger for artistic growth in orchestras took more musicians out of the community and put them in concert halls to perform more concerts and earn more money, deservedly so. Our community music programs began to shift their focus to artistic growth, and we slowly forgot to implement programs that socially engaged the entire family.

We now pull out our tape measures to size up the problems that orchestras are facing at increasing rates, and many of us are completely missing the picture. We’ve measured economic and participatory impact… but what about social impact? Since the early 70s, what has happened to the children who have been denied an arts education? This is not a question to the benefit of putting butts in seats. This is not a question of how many millions are not being spent by orchestras, because we don’t have the money. This question is about what happened to a generation and a half of American youth who did not have access to arts education? What has society paid because a kid in the inner city held a gun instead of a trombone? What has society paid because a kid on the other side of the tracks held a joint instead of a bassoon reed?

According to the Pew Public Safety Performance report, the prison population in America increased 700% from 1970-2005. In 2005, we had approximately 1.5 million people in prisons and it was projected to add another 192,000 inmates through 2011. Those 192,000 inmates were projected to cost society $27.5 billion: potentially a cumulative $15 billion in new operating costs and $12.5 billion in new construction costs by 2011. The projections were wrong. We went from a 1.5 million prison population in 2005 to a 2.4 million prison population by 2010. Do the math. Almost three times that amount of people are under correctional supervision, and the costs, as we all know, are self-evident. And prison costs pale in comparison to the millions spent on government subsidies and welfare.

Locally, we have discovered through the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Cultural Engagement Index that 1) cultural engagement is highest for Philadelphians 18-34 2) parents are active with engaging their families in arts and cultural activities with the majority of activity in education 3) engagement levels of people of color increased more and continue to be consistently higher than those for Whites 4) personal practice activities continue to increase in importance. Do you see the connections yet?

While my heart tells me to help the people around me by using my love of classical music, the data above proves to me that the way I seek social change in these kids will work. The communities are ready for them. The children desperately need them. And all of those families would appreciate our efforts. We can quantify by hour how much money we could save society and generate when these children participate in programs that share our musical process through a sustained relationship-building effort throughout our communities.

To simply serve 500 children for the majority of their educational careers (10 years), would cost Play On, Philly! $15 million. To put those same children in mainstream programs with no comparable outcomes or impact would cost almost $29 million. By earning $2 million per year more, saving almost $1 million a year in prison costs, and saving $2 million a year in health care costs, it would take those 500 students less than five years to repay society every cent of the ten-year investment they received. And how much could we expect in return when they become tax payers for the rest of their lives when we thought they would end up in prisons or on permanent government subsidies?

If a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, it does not make a sound. However, it does send out a vibration (energy) but it requires an ear that can receive that vibration so it can be interpreted as sound. Orchestras are busy making vibrations all year, but those vibrations are not reaching the ears that can build a compelling enough case to answer the question “how would your city be damaged if the orchestra were to disappear tomorrow”? It is not about how can we get our vibrations to more people’s ears, but rather how we can get those vibrations into their blood and hearts so that classical music can live up to its true meaning of art as a skill in scholarship, and learning as a result of practice.

In my last blog post, I explained how the problems our orchestras face are not society’s most compelling problems. Many people say that it is not the orchestra’s responsibility to do these types of things. Others have told me that orchestras would love to do this work, but will face too many obstacles along the way. When I look at the problems facing orchestras in the US, the situation encourages me to question what we are not doing and what will we need to adjust. I never question what we are doing – we need to continue to make music at the highest level possible. However, that has come at the expense of creating two types of musicians: those that make the music and those that share the music.

Since an organization like Play On, Philly! shares the musical process with our most vulnerable and engaged communities, we have been able to impact the lives of hundreds of children and tens of thousands that are inspired by their hard work. We are busy discovering more ways to bring classical music into the lives of people that wouldn’t otherwise experience the art. We face the same challenges that any other non-profit has to deal with, but the musical product is simply a side-effect of sharing the musical process.

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