Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thoughts on Community Engagement

I realize my last post was a wee bit unfocused after I went back and read it a few days ago, so I figured I would touch on the topic a bit more this time with (hopefully) more detail and clarity.

Cultivating new audiences has been a major priority for most non-profits in recent years.  As this new push has been gaining some steam and traction, it seems that orchestras stopped doing "Outreach" to reach new audiences and starting doing "Community Engagement".  I happen to be very passionate about community engagement so this is something I think about all the time.

Recently though, I've been rethinking about how orchestras approach community engagement and why it doesn't always seem to work as effectively as they hope for.  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm a big advocate for orchestras getting out of their big and fancy concert halls once in awhile and create a consistent presence all over their cities.  I'm not for a second suggesting that orchestras should totally ditch the concert hall, but I am absolutely suggesting that maybe they spend a little more time making music for other parts of the community.  If these organizations actually went out on a regular basis and established a true presence and connection with their entire community, it would create a much stronger bond with those communities and would build community engagement into the performance experience.

I'm fully aware that orchestras often do "neighborhood concerts" and similar things, but one performance in a neighborhood isn't going to do much in terms of widening your audience for the long term.  Perhaps that's not the point of these concerts, but I think they're on to something that could really make a big difference for them down the road.  Many orchestras have existing programs within their communities that could be used to usher in this idea.

For example, here in Philly, I intern with their School Partnership Program where they have teaching artists teaching every week in about six schools across the area.  In addition to this, orchestra members do come out to the schools as well musicians from other partner organizations.  Each year all of these schools are brought in to see performances at The Kimmel Center and other venues around the city, but what if in addition to them going to the orchestra, the orchestra members regularly came to them.  They could make a big fanfare about members of the Philadelphia Orchestra coming to perform in THEIR neighborhood.  This way the students, teachers, family, friends, neighbors in that community could not only see the work the orchestra is doing there, but it would also give them a chance to have the concert experience with one of the leading orchestras in the country in their own communities.  Even if this happened twice a year at each school with different chamber groups, over time I think it would give the orchestra the opportunity to leave a much larger mark on that part of the community.

In addition to the expanded community engagement, I think this idea would have a lot of other benefits for the organization.  The main one being that I think if this was really done right, I think it would open the organization up to new opportunities for sponsorship and grants.  If orchestras were not only reaching their usual audience, but totally new audiences as well, it would appeal to a much larger base of potential sponsors and donors.  There are a lot of untapped markets out there of communities that are just waiting to experience the trans formative power that classical music and any art form can bring to a community.  I think orchestras should be actively pursuing those markets to create a wider impact and a last impression on their communities.

These are just some of my thoughts for what we could do differently as we move forward.

What are yours?    

***DISCLAIMER***  The Philadelphia Orchestra's School Partnership Program is only meant to be used as an example.  This idea I'm tossing out could be applied in a variety of ways to fit in with what organizations are already doing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inspiration from Seth Godin. Another idea for orchestras.

Last night I finished Seth Godin's latest book, The Icarus Deception.  It was awesome.

For those of you that don't know his work (if you're a regular reader you'll probably notice I often mention him) he is very much in to the idea of breaking out of the status quo and doing things differently.  So naturally, the entire time I was reading this I was thinking about how it relates to the music biz.

Many of the examples he gives throughout his writings often share tremendous similarities with how the classical music biz seems to be progressing.

This past week I spent some time reading through the Minnesota Orchestra strategic plan for the next few years.  Maybe I was missing something, but to me there was little to no change at all in the works for the organization moving forward.  There is lots of talk about fundraising, capitalizing on renovations to their hall (which by the way cost about $50 million), new revenue streams, record cycles of Sibelius and Beethoven Piano concertos, and all kinds of other goodies.  All of this seems great, but to me it doesn't really seem all that different from what every other orchestra is already doing(and what they were probably doing already).  Everyone wants to increase fundraising, have nicer facilities, and make an international presence through tours and recordings, but to me that just doesn't seem like it is going to make the organization stronger.

The one part of the plan I did really like was the part where they talk about getting a broader and comprehensive community engagement strategy.  There are mentions of partnering with school districts and other local organizations to collaborate with.  This is great, but something I think would be great for more organizations to explore would be explore a larger variety of venues as a community engagement strategy.  Perhaps there wouldn't be as much income from doing performances in different parts of the city and surrounding communities, but surely they could find a variety of places to do performances that would be either free or much less expensive than their regular hall.  This isn't specific to Minnesota, but all orchestras and other performing arts organizations.

This is where I think organizations could take a little bit of a leap off the beaten path.  Maintain a regular presence in their normal concert venues, but also get outside of the box a little bit and directly engage other parts of the communities by bringing their art to them.  It would save a fortune on venue costs if you didn't have to rent the hall out as much and I think it would successfully reach a much wider audience.

I know a lot of you may point out that many organization (most, I hope) already do this in some way shape or form, but I'm proposing that organizations incorporate this more in to their programming moving forward.  I think the strength of an organization can be reflected by the community that supports it.  Many of these organizations already have a tremendous following within their own communities, but I hope to see that support not only grow for all arts organizations, but really become a priority as well.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview with Benjamin Zander

Hi everyone, I'm very excited to post this first interview!  I had the great pleasure of meeting Ben at the El Sistema Symposium back in early December.  For those of you that do not know anything about Ben or his work, I hope you'll consider checking him out!  He's an absolutely wonderful man and one of the most positive people I've ever met in my life.  Find more info about him here:

Ben's website 

Ben's very famous talk at TED

An Interview with Benjamin Zander:

Seth:  Hi Ben, first of all, would you mind introducing yourself?

Ben:   I have been the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra for 34 years and am now also the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which was founded last September.  I also have a career speaking to corporations and organizations across the world about leadership.  I am the co-author of a book with my former wife and partner, the psychologist Rosamund Zander, called The Art of Possibility, which has been translated into 17 languages.

I began the cello at 9 but started intensive study at the age of 15 when I left school in England and went to Florence, Italy and Cologne Germany for five years studying under the great virtuoso cellist, Gaspar Cassado.   I taught at the New England Conservatory for 45 years and was the Artistic Director of the joint program between NEC and the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass for almost thirty years

Seth:  Do you think of yourself mainly as a conductor, a teacher or as a speaker?

Ben: Well, I think of it all as one package.  When I'm rehearsing an orchestra, teaching a class, or speaking to 1500 corporate executives, it's all the same thing. It's about creating a community of people that are open to possibility.  It's about enabling people to break through the barriers and assumptions that keep them from being all they can be.

Most of the time, we are limited or stuck because of the assumptions we are making and don’t realize that we are making. For instance:  “The little old ladies who love classical music are all dying, so there won’t be an audience for classical music” is an assumption:  The “grey-haired” argument about the future of classical music holds sway with many people, including people who are responsible for planning, and funding classical music education.  But it’s just an assumption.  We live our lives through the stories we tell and since the stories are invented, we can always create new stories.  Here’s one: “there are more people listening to classical music in the world today than ever before”.  “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”   Look at China, where there are 30,000 pianists and 10,000 violinists, and Venezuela, where 750,000 children have gone through El Sistema, which is now spreading all around the world, or Boston, for that matter, where there are more people playing instruments than ever before and there are three thriving separate youth orchestra programs overflowing with young players!

The story we are telling will determine how we behave and how we speak.   Also, whatever we put our attention on will grow, so we should be careful what we put our attention on!  If we meet someone, we immediately invent a story about our relationship with that person.  It's nothing more than a story and since it is a story, we can reinvent it and retell it. We always have this opportunity to reinvent ourselves and the situations we are in.  And since we can always do that, life can be seen as a creative act that is in our control.   Roz Zander says “Possibility is always only one sentence away!”

Seth:  Could you talk a bit about your experiences with creating your own opportunities in all of your various professional endeavors?  And more specifically, how the experiences in music, speaking, and writing have worked together?

Ben:  Well I recently had a very dramatic experience.  I was fired from a job that I had had for 45 years and a youth orchestra I had conducted for 39 years. The circumstances aren’t important, suffice it to say that it was not because of something I did myself, but rather because I supported someone who had done something wrong twenty years ago. I'm 73 years old.  Many people would just retire after something like that happens, but it never occurred to me to retire. Instead I thought "What else can I do?".  So I and a couple of colleagues started a brand new youth orchestra from scratch.

Founding an orchestra is quite a big challenge, especially these days.  First you have to find the players and then a place to rehearse.  We found a place, but it was acoustically unusable, so we brought in an acoustician who redesigned it.  Then we brought in mattresses, acoustical panels, and now, mirabile dictu, it's an ideal space for our rehearsals!   We have a home!   Now we needed chairs and stands for 117 players, timpani, percussion instruments, harps and music.

Seth:  Could you elaborate as to where you obtained the resources to acquire all of these things?

Ben:  Oh yes, the funds!  We started fundraising and spreading the word.  Some people who had studied with me in the past helped out with generous contributions and other gave small amounts.   People are inspired by our vision and they want to be part of it.

We don’t charge tuition, because we don’t want to make a distinction between those that could afford it and those who couldn’t.  Also, we are not just teaching these students to play wonderful music.  We wanted to create an institution with a purpose beyond playing an instrument.  The story we are telling is that “it is not enough just to play a violin or a trumpet, you have to be a leader who can make a difference in the world”.  We are setting out to create future leaders through music.  That's our raison d’etre.  It’s a wonderful story that we are telling.  And lots of people, including many of the parents, are coming forward who want to support that.  Incidentally, in the process, the bad feelings and upset over the fact I was fired have dissipated into thin air. 

Every Saturday is a thrilling experience, eagerly awaited by every member of the orchestra, most of all by me.  I give them assignments every week: transformational assignments that ask them to take a leap from where they are in their normal lives:  such as “Come From The Power of a Child”.  That asks them to think about what is it about a child that will help them to be a more effective grown-ups.  “Attune yourself to others”; “Throw yourself into life like a pebble into a pond and watch the ripples”.  These are not assignments that they can accomplish in three steps.  They call on different parts of themselves. Doing these kind of assignments will help them in their lives because they bring out their intuition and their creativity.

We have “white sheets” on which the students comment about the music and the process at rehearsals and a website and Facebook and we are constantly engaged with each other over the social network,
So, you see, all the aspects of my life are combined in this one venture.

The first concert in November sold out Symphony Hall in Boston and was chosen by the Boston Phoenix as one of the ten best musical events of 2012!   They played Ein Heldenleben in two months. It was really incredible!  One very experienced concert-goer told me he couldn't remember a concert where the excitement in the audience was as great as that on the stage!  I think that is because we're constantly going beyond the playing and bringing to life the meaning of the music and empowering the players to release all their passion.  

Now all of this came from a disaster.  I was fired.  Should I have quietly retired to the country to raise chickens?   Of course not!  We started something new and launched a new story about what a youth orchestra can be.  Now we are planning a tour to Holland in June with a performance of Mahler’s 2nd in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and we are intending to help reinvigorate music education in Holland!  Who would have thought it?  We just went past the assumptions and the reservations and invented a new story.  It’s so exciting.

Starting something new involves many levels.  Most important is a clear vision.  Once we had the idea of an orchestra of kids from 12-21, which was about developing future leaders, everything else fell into place: fundraising, chairs and everything else. We are run by a clear vision - run by the desire to make a difference in people's lives.  

Seth:  Do you have any advice you could offer to the next generation of musicians and artists?

Ben:   The main thing is to bring enthusiasm and passion to what you do.  The word enthusiasm contains the word theo, meaning God.  So enthusiasm means being “full of God”.  Of course that doesn’t mean you have to believe in God – it’s not about religion.  For me, God is simply the power of possibility - the power to create something where nothing exists.  So if you have a great desire to make a difference, the opportunities will arise.  The energy which we need to accomplish the things we dream of comes from possibility thinking.  That’s a story, of course, like everything else, but it’s one that gets me up in the morning.

My other piece of advice is to suggest that if you are going to compete in life, give up needing to win. I myself have given up the success/failure game. I have invented a new game:  it’s called I am a Contribution.   Now I have a new definition of success:  for me success isn’t about wealth and fame and power, it’s about the number of shining eyes I have around me. If young people can shift their attention away from the usual measures of success (competitions, auditions, grades, reviews, orchestral seating, etc) and focus on a life of contribution, they are likely to be surrounded by shining eyes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What's next?

It's crazy how obvious the next big thing always seems once someone else thinks of it.  How did Blockbuster not see Red Box or Netflix coming?  They're both way more convenient and affordable for customers, not to mention probably way more cost-effective to run.  This just one example of the seemingly infinite brilliant business ideas that have cropped up over the last decade that have total blown away the competition and changed the game for those industries.  One question that is constantly on my mind is:

What will the next big thing for classical music be?

The industry as a whole seems to be floundering to keep its head above water, but you don't see too many organizations trying something new.  When I say "new", I mean really new!  A totally unique spin on the classical music experience.  I can't claim for a second to be aware of what every orchestra, ballet, opera, and chamber groups are doing, but those that are having the most success are probably doing something totally out of the box.  Most of the organizations out there present a similar product in the exact same way.  How many organizations in your city are presenting the same kind of content in the same way?  If it's anything like Philly, I imagine it's most of them fall into this category.  

Some organizations really succeed in this kind of marketplace, while many do not.  So why is everyone still trying to force this model that has remained largely unchanged for over a century to work?  I totally understand that it is difficult to steer these large institutions in a different direction and that it isn't something that can be done overnight.  But I'm just wondering if many organizations can afford to stay on this path.  Personally, I think these groups should start running a lot small experiments and see if anything seems to work and give something new a try.  Is it the programming, venues, concert dress, or is something missing?  

What do you think?  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My big idea.

I do a lot of talking on here about creating your own opportunities and today I'm going to throw my big idea out in to the world.  I'm hoping to get some feedback on this, so please feel free to message me, FB, Twitter, or whatever with your thoughts or opinions on this!

In the past few years, the orchestral world has been rocked time and time again by bankruptcies, salary cuts, and closings.  Until recently, I was totally ignorant to how these organizations were run and why they couldn't seem to get their shit together.  So I started reading books, blogs, and anywhere else I could start getting some information.  Once I did, it became clear to me (I like to think) why there are so many issues in these organizations.  The basic models of orchestras, to me, is fundamentally flawed and no longer works in this day and age.

To avoid this post being a mile long, I'll jump right into brief rundown of my idea.

What if orchestras and other performing groups were run completely by musicians?

The current system has it set up where there are basically three different branches to most orchestras:  musicians, administration, and the board/leadership.  Ideally this should work if everyone is doing their job well and the focus is on delivering the mission and vision of the organization.  But unfortunately (as we've seen time and time again with contract negotiations), there somehow seems to be a tremendous disconnect between these branches.

So my idea is that since these orchestras are all about music, the musicians should play a much larger role in the leadership and direction of the organization.  What if musicians were directly involved in the fundraising efforts, the marketing, community engagement, finances, and everything else?  This will immediately bring up protest from a lot of people, but that's OK.  If you've got a job and you're totally satisfied with just playing your part, then that's awesome.  But I think many orchestral musicians these days aren't exactly thrilled with the state of the business and also don't feel that their input is valued.

If every musician was making positive contributions and bring their other skills to the table, their work could help steer institution along.  Think about how much money organizations spend on having full-time administrative staff, in addition to a full roster of musicians.  If every musician was contributing more than just artistically they could be compensated for their performing and other contributions as well.  Obviously this could never be implemented into an existing organization, but moving forward this could make these organizations much more sustainable.

There are a bunch of groups out there that are already implementing this kind of idea in to the structure of the group so I'm really interested to see how those ensembles progress moving forward.  I still have a lot of things to sort out about this idea, but I really think it could work if every musician came to the table with the expectation of playing a bigger role than just a performer.  This would require a minimal staff to coordinate the administrative duties, but I really believe that the performers could almost entirely sustain every aspect of the organization with cooperation and teamwork.  It works for chamber groups, why not orchestras?

I know this is totally a radical shift in thinking from what many musicians know and maybe it wouldn't work.  But I think just about any reasonable idea is worth discussing as a possibility for change.  I think anyone will agree that there are some glaring faults in the current system and that something has to change.

What do you think?