One of my recent posts was about Play Us Forward, an educational initiative of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, a great example of community engagement for performing groups. Another model for an orchestra getting more involved in the community comes from Germany, where the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, looking for rehearsal space, moved into a school in a neighborhood known for high crime and poverty rates.
The partnership, viewed with unease at first by both the orchestra and the community, has been a great success. Kids and the musicians have lunch together, and the students come to rehearsals, sitting in between the musicians. There’s even been some collaboration:
The BBC article about the Bremen experiment points out the most compelling reason to do things like this: “the school’s test results have improved, its drop-out rates have fallen to less than 1% and the atmosphere in the wider neighbourhood has been ‘transformed.’ ”
In other words, simply by being there, the Kammerphilharmonie has improved the school and its neighborhood. What if every orchestra did something like this?
Now, cramming the entire Chicago Symphony into a high school gym to rehearse might not be such a great idea, but what about smaller orchestras (like ProMusica, for example)? We sometimes rehearse away from our home hall – why not rehearse at KIPP Academy once in a while, or spend a whole week there?
Another example of an orchestra strengthening its connection to the community comes this week from the Houston Symphony, which has created four new full-time positions for string players who will play about 25 performances a year, but whose primary role will be “community engagement and music education in area schools, neighborhood centers and health-care facilities.”
The article goes on to say: “The symphony is seeking musicians with varied ethnic backgrounds and who are fluent in at least two languages.” Orchestras have long been trying to diversify both their memberships and their core audiences, with limited success – this seems like a good way to help.
This hybrid of playing and teaching is something I’d love to see expanded and replicated in every orchestra, with one important tweak – more members should do both.
Someday, I would love to see a “full-time” orchestra whose entire roster teaches as part of their job. What if part of your work as a full-time orchestra musician was to teach one day a week in the same inner city school, week after week, year after year?
I can imagine there would be resistance to this idea from some orchestra musicians, who would view it as a major change to their job description. I can’t argue that point – it would be. However, many orchestra musicians teach on the side already, and I bet the teaching part of the job could be factored into the workload in a way that didn’t raise the service count, at least not much. Maybe the dual responsibility of performing and teaching could be phased in with new hires, or offered as an option with extra pay.
I also think this would help the bottom line. All orchestras, no matter how many tickets they sell, rely heavily on contributed income to survive, and were they to become known for civic engagement on this scale, I bet they’d attract support from individual donors, corporations and foundations who may not have given them much attention before.
Most importantly, it would help orchestras to be seen as essential parts of their communities, and not just something for the rich, which, sadly, is often the image they have.
I am working on starting something combining playing and teaching myself, on a smaller scale with a string quartet in Cincinnati, and to learn more about how to go about it, next month I will be attending the Institute for Musicianship and Public Service, hosted by one of the standard bearers of community arts engagement, Community MusicWorks, in Providence, RI. I’ll post more about that soon.
Till next time,