[originally published at Orchestra R/Evolution]

As I mentioned the other day, I think it’s critical that artists put forth their art into the world in a way that reflects their authentic selves. So what does that mean for orchestras? I mean, let’s be honest for a second: aren’t there some, even plenty of orchestras who really want nothing more than to play the old warhorses to their heart’s content and not worry about anything else?

And who wouldn’t want to do that, after all? Playing in an orchestra should be fun: you get to be on stage, you’re closer to the music (both physically and figuratively) than anyone sitting in the audience, you play a key role in manifesting a dynamic, shared creative vision in real time, and if you’re one of the very best at what you do, it can be a pretty lucrative gig too. If being an orchestra musician sucked so hard (job satisfaction below prison guards and all that), you would have a shortage of players and orchestras competing fiercely with each other to land ones who were good enough. Instead, from what I hear, the virtuosity of the best orchestra musicians is at an all-time high and all that talent goes practically to waste since the repertoire they’re playing most of the time doesn’t stretch them much beyond what a good college orchestra is capable of. Yet here are all these amazing musicians who keep applying for these jobs. What gives?

A study published by the RAND Corporation a few years back, Gifts of the Muse, took a look at research on the benefits children supposedly receive from arts education. One of the overarching themes from the literature review was that the nature of the participation is important: sustained, active participation was a lot more effective in delivering benefits like higher cognitive abilities, more self-control, etc., than one-off, passive participation (think training over a period of years vs. seeing a concert once). If that’s true for children – and it is one of the most consistent and clear findings the authors of that study identified – why wouldn’t it be true for adults? That is to say, why are we expecting people’s lives to be changed from attending a concert, when I’d bet nearly all of people we know whose lives have actually been changed by orchestral music changed because they played it?

Here’s where I’m going with all this. A survey included in the Knight Foundation’s Search for Shining Eyes report found that of 74% of adults who said they were interested in classical music had played an instrument or sung in chorus at some point in their lives. I think that the real gospel of classical music ain’t about hearing it – it’s about doing it. I think what’s happening is that our dominant “engagement strategy” for classical music – offering sustained, substantive, professionally-oriented classical music training, including in such contexts as youth and student orchestras – has not been very successful at producing listeners/fans of classical music in my generation, but has been extraordinarily successful in producing practitioners of classical music. And the only plausible explanation to me, and the one that best jibes with my personal experiences, is that being part of the action at a classical music concert is about a thousand times more awesome than merely taking it in.

This reality (if I’ve described it accurately) puts the conventional orchestral model in a bit of a bind. After all, the most authentic way for most orchestras to express their art is to play a concert. But because so much of the magic of classical music comes from making it, there is little chance that the audience can experience that concert with the same passion, excitement, and fervor as the musicians simply by taking their seats in the right balcony. So who is the orchestra playing the concert for, really? And when I say the “orchestra,” I mean not just the musicians, but the conductor, the executive director – everyone whose life revolves around the orchestra. Aren’t they pretty much doing it for themselves?

Until the model can accommodate bringing strangers in not just to listen, but to do, I’m not really sure how much that can change.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I have been making this argument on behalf of jazz as well. Even the top jazz presenters like JALC have made more of an impact through their educational programs (Essentially Ellington, for example.)

  • Kira Campo

    Great post!
    It seems to me that the theme of this post is highly relevant to other art forms as well. The distinction you make between appreciating vs. creating is well-addressed in ‘The Everyday Work of Art’, written by Eric Booth. In it he suggests that active (i.e. deeply moving) arts experiences be described as the ‘VERBS of ART’.
    It is in the *doing* that art becomes something more.
    A very long, but worthwhile, recording which is relevant to this:

    I believe that creating opportunities for hands-on arts participation serves a dual function. The education or public outreach arm of an org can connect individuals with the arts in a way that other (less active) forms of engagement might not. I’ve repeatedly observed that professional accomplishments within a given creative discipline resonate more fully as a result of this deeper connection. Hands-on engagement enriches the individual, but also fortifies the cultural sector in a crucial way.

  • Kira Campo

    “Until the model can accommodate bringing strangers in not just to listen, but to do, I’m not really sure how much that can change.”

    Do you find that discussions about the need for such a model take place often or infrequently?

    • Kira,
      I guess we’ll find out the answer to that this week!

  • Sharon DeMark

    Years and years ago, in another lifetime, I presented work for young audiences. We created as many “entryways” into the work (for the students who came to the theater) as we could – most often in participatory ways.

    One of the most fun and successful experiences was when we presented the Kronos Quartet. We invited Dr Craig Woodson, an ethnomusicologist, to help connect the experience for the kids. Each audience member received a bag of everyday objects (rubber bands, straws, plastic sandwhich containers, etc). With Dr. Woodson’s help, the kids created instruments in their seats and then played along with the Kronos. A year later, Dr Woodson returned – he went to each school where students, in groups of four, created one note of a song. He transcribed this onto an overhead and the Kronos played this composition with its over 900 composers in the audience. Interestingly enough, when asked about it afterward, many students said their favorite part of the concert was not their composition, but others that Kronos played. I believe that their time with Dr Woodson and their preparation for the experience, brought them in and interested them enough to listen to the other pieces that the quartet played. I’ve always thought that adults would love and appreciate these opportunities just as much.

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