Classical for the Masses: When a Musician Doubles as a Community Ambassador

In light of the Wallace Foundation's epic $52 million plan to identify best practices in audience engagement, we'd like to ask for your patience over the next year or so. That's because while Wallace continues to forge ahead with its project, we continue to stumble upon cool engagement strategies in real time.

One recent example is Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's three-year, $1.2 million initiative at Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching museum and Art Gallery to boost audience engagement through the perspective of identity and race.

Another comes from the League of American Orchestras' Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a program supporting orchestra musicians and the work they do in their communities. The program is made possible by the Ford Motor Company Fund. 

As we noted last December when the orchestra launched the fund:

This community work is defined as "meaningful service through music: education and community engagement programs at schools, hospitals, retirement homes, community and social service centers, places of worship, and wherever people gather for civic, cultural and social engagement." Those served may include low-income/at-risk populations, homebound elderly, immigrants, veterans, prisoners, and students of all ages, as well as members of the general public who may not otherwise have access to or are not traditionally served by orchestras.

Approximately four months later, the orchestra has announced its five inaugural winners:  

  • Penny Anderson Brill, viola, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Music and Wellness Program
  • Shannon Orme, bass clarinet, Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Neighborhood Residency Initiative
  • Jeffrey Paul, Principal oboe, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's Lakota Music Project
  • Brian Prechtl, percussion, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKid
  • Beth Vandervennet, cello, Oakland Symphony's Music for Excellence Program 

The five orchestra musicians were selected by a panel of industry professionals through a competitive nomination proces. They include a $2,500 grant to each musician, as well as an additional $2,500 grant to their home orchestra to support professional development focused on community service and engagement for its musicians.

The awardees and their orchestras will receive their awards at the League's National Conference in Baltimore, June 9-11, 2016. The musicians will also participate in a conference presentation and separate webinar, providing the orchestra field opportunities to learn from their experience.

Just look at the winners' respective home organizations and you'll see that these these sponsoring groups resemble community outreach organizations and not your traditional classical troupes.

Other music organizations should take note, as the program's efforts echo other recent efforts built around the simple theme of bringing classical music to the masses and dispelling, once and for all, the perception that it's an expensive leisure activity for tuxedo-clad city dwellers. 

Much like the Mellon give to the Tang Museum, the program demonstrates that effective audience engagement can be less about embracing "innovative" tactics and more about coalescing around a powerful theme.

It's all about the theme, people!