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What’s In a Name? The Orchestra and Its Community
Image: Ehimetalor Unuabona

What’s In a Name? The Orchestra and Its Community

Names influence our lives in a powerful way. Our first names give us our first inklings of individuality. Our last names can connect us to family members across generations. The names of our countries, states, and cities are the foundation of our sense of place and belonging. We are urged to live with purpose and dignity to bring honor to the names of our families and hometowns. Ultimately, a name is a legacy: a vehicle through which we relate to the world and the world relates to us. It is the label on our life’s work and the signature on our past behavior.

To do something in the name of another, then, is an immense responsibility, which poses a challenge for locally based organizations. The name of an individual reflects on one person, but the name of a city or state can encompass millions of people. Thus, from the inception of their titles, groups from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony hold an obligation to represent and to serve their namesake communities.

While the titles of most modern American ensembles accurately designate what they are, they do not convey who they are. It doesn’t take a seasoned musicologist to see the disparity between the communities inside and outside of the concert hall. Older white people dominate the demographics of the average American symphony orchestra, both on and off the stage. Despite the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States, only about ten percent of orchestral players are people of color. This demographic manifests in the music itself, too: the works of dead white men top the bills of major orchestras, which still rarely venture outside the Western classical canon. Symphony staffs across the country are working towards increased diversity and inclusion, but the integration of these principles is a slow and sensitive process. In this absence of adequate representation, ensembles must double their efforts to honor their namesakes through service.

I do not point out this obligation because of a lack of effort on the part of American orchestras. Most larger ensembles have staff dedicated to education and/or community engagement who plan outreach events such as benefit concerts and free performances in hospitals or schools. The struggle to serve lies in the divide between the orchestra and its community. Despite widespread budgeting woes, the orchestra remains a cultural symbol of wealth, which stands in stark contrast with the sleeping bags and shopping carts on the sidewalks outside many metropolitan concert halls. This socioeconomic gap is compounded by the homogeneous demographic of the orchestra, which can create tension between the ensemble and the community at large. With the right mindset, however, one can set a foundation for a healthy relationship between a city and its orchestra.

The key: don’t help. Instead, serve.

Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

I first encountered the difference between help and service at a community-based learning conference in Holyoke, Massachusetts. As a panelist described the dangers of programs like Teach for America, which put underprepared white teachers into “at-risk communities,” he described their exhibition of the white savior complex—“the perception that wealthy white individuals are the benevolent benefactors of helpless ‘others’.” This definition can apply to well-intentioned orchestral representatives who enter low-income communities of color with the intention of “helping.” They provide resources such as free concerts and musical instruction to underserved populations, but rarely cultivate or maintain genuine relationships with these audiences after their generous work has been publicized to patrons and donors. Instead of being empowered, the population in need often feels belittled for needing to be “helped” at all, ultimately encouraging the systematic power dynamics of race and class which separated the concert hall so prominently from its surroundings in the first place. Service, on the other hand, implies a mutually beneficial relationship founded on equality, collaboration, and respect. Community partnerships are just that: a healthy give-and-take between one party and another. Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a fantastic example of a group which thrives in service. After a difficult season of musician strikes in 2010-2011, the DSO was forced to reassess its priorities and restructure its organization. Dangerously low on resources, musicians, and patrons, the orchestra turned to its community for survival. Accessibility and community engagement became the defining tenets of the DSO. The orchestra refocused its efforts on community performances in hospitals, churches, and senior centers in metro Detroit.

Increased visibility of the orchestra among new, diverse audiences in conjunction with “patron-minded pricing” caused subscription growth to increase by nearly 25% in three years. The DSO has since integrated free webcasting and extensive educational programming to truly become the “most accessible orchestra on the planet.” Their success is a direct result of healthy collaboration. The ensemble did not enter its community in a self-congratulatory or belittling manner: instead, the DSO simply reached out in its time of need, starting a legacy of mutually beneficial community partnerships. Most importantly, the organization brands itself as “a community-supported orchestra,” not merely an orchestra that supports its community. The DSO is living proof that community engagement is integral, not additive, to a successful ensemble.

Between relentless budget cuts and the increasing struggle to make classical music relevant in a fast-paced world, American orchestras are seeing a steady decline in concert attendance. Ensembles are often far too preoccupied with survival to focus on any sort of community service. However, I’d like to suggest that service is a fantastic avenue to improving the financial and organizational health of symphonic ensembles. The consistent formation and retention of mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations will inevitably improve audience attendance and diversity. Furthermore, interactions with peer organizations and community members offer multiple unique perspectives, which can be invaluable in making programming decisions. Community service isn’t just an obligation: it is a promising avenue for the visibility and vitality of the American orchestra.

Cas Martin is a rising senior at Smith College. An avid trombonist, educator, and activist, Cas focuses his work on making music accessible to young people in all communities. He is currently the Ensembles Manager at the Smith College Department of Music and a Public Policy Intern at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). 

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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