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Why Memphis Matters to Every American Orchestra

America’s struggling orchestras face a double need with a single obvious but controversial solution.
The first need is to play fewer concerts. In countless communities, large and small, the concert supply outstrips demand. Orchestras are burdened with contractual obligations that compel them to produce – laboriously and expensively – concerts without a ready audience. Fundraising and marketing resources are overstretched and stretched again.
The second need is for orchestras to define themselves less narrowly as concert producers and more broadly as education providers, engaged with schools, universities, museums, with the community at large.
The obvious but controversial solution is “service exchange.” Mandated services – typically rehearsals and performances – are swapped for, say, visits to high school classrooms.
Service exchange is not a new idea and has for some time been implemented to a marginal degree. Musicians – and their unions – tend to resist it as a dilution of the roles they have been trained to serve. But with the realization that symphonic jobs are scarce and getting scarcer, the training of young musicians is rapidly changing. And one adventurous orchestra has managed to implement service exchange so substantially that it may be said to have re-invented itself.
The orchestra is the Memphis Symphony and the testimony of Ryan Fleur, the CEO, was a highlight of the recent Orchestral Summit at the University of Michigan. Eighty per cent of the Memphis Symphony’s 36 fulltime musicians engage in “approved partnership activities” totaling up to 45 of 266 contracted services per season. They mentor students at an inner-city charter school. They furnish “leadership training” for local corporations. They produce performances outside the concert hall, replacing traditional subscription weeks.
I asked Ryan what it all means. A “cultural shift in thinking,” he replied. How did he sell service exchange to his musicians? “It took a while to build a culture open to the concept. The musicians, the staff, and the board view this as a complete redefinition of what it means to be a musician, rather than an ‘exchange of time.’ Musicians have sold the concept to fellow musicians because they believe that by doing so they have become equal partners in the orchestra’s success. And they believe this redefinition is essential to the survival and necessary transformation of the orchestra, so we can remain a vital part of Memphis’s cultural life.”
I also discovered at the Ann Arbor conference at least one union representative who, in private conversation, seemed prepared to advocate service exchange to reluctant constituents.
There are many other Memphises, big and small – cities that have changed, demographically and sociologically, in ways that are making the traditional symphonic template anachronistic. Will the Memphis model work? Will other orchestras adopt it? I cannot think of any questions more important to the future of classical music in the United States.


  1. It is a wonderful way for orchestras to personally outreach within their communities on a broader line than the educational concerts and some visits to schools. This sounds more comprehensive. It may also depend on the way schools and community organizations are set up in various cities–all may not be the same, so this approach would need to be flexible and tweaked based on the educational, corporate and community needs. Quite a fine concept, though. Similarly, when we as visiting guest artists go to these cities, it should be expected that we do the same. In the 1980s and early 1990s, as a pianist, I participated in the Xerox Pianists Program through Affiliate Artists, which brought us as close into the communities as possible–hospitals, prisons, schools, corporations (lunch time ‘Informances’), master classes, recital, chamber music etc.

  2. Here from Greg Sandow’s blog:
    In other words, the “orchestra” is no longer working as a group of 100 silent obedient people responsible for realizing one person’s vision of the music (the conductor), but is instead a community of active musicians.
    I don’t know how many of the biggies will go for it … nor how many will need to. There’s probably always going to be a niche for the “100 people in penguin suits playing Mahler” or whatever. (I say this with affection; I’m from Phila, and we’re a bit patriotic toward our orchestra and the idea of old-world Culchah.)
    Bit the orchestra itself is, I think, more under siege as no longer sustainable than “classical music” itself. I’m not sure what people mean when they say “classical music” is in trouble, when what they seem to mean is that the 19th century model of the symphony orchestra is in trouble. But an awful lot of good concert, theater, and art music was written before that model got off the ground.
    I guess I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s a pressing question for the future of “classical music” so much as for the future of the symphony orchestra model of delivery …
    Enough of my blather.

  3. This could turn into work not associated with music at all. This concept is not new and has been tried in the past with programs such as music in the schools etc, however this usually involves public money and is the first thing to be cut.
    Institutional image marketing is the key. It’s all about associations and relate-ability. We must find new ways to create the image and sell it. We live in an Idol worship society. Celebrity endorsements are a good start. There must be more than the music. It’s an Aura of excitement that must be present and promoted in many ways such as romantic,philosophical,mysterious,organic etc

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