Orchestra and Community

Bridging the Gap

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 13, No 3 (Fall 2002)

Penelope McPhee

For more than a decade the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been among the nation's leading supporters of symphony orchestras, based on a longstanding commitment to help orchestra institutions strengthen, deepen, and broaden the relationships with their audiences.

In 1994 the foundation launched its Magic of Music1 Initiative, a significant effort to create more vital relationships between artists and audiences, and to encourage closer ties between orchestras and their communities. An investment of eight years and some $10 million in grant funds has led to innovative programming and organizational change at many of the fifteen participating orchestras, as well as new insights into the nature of orchestra companies and the ways they connect — or fail to connect — with their communities.

At an April 2002 Magic of Music retreat in Portland, Oregon, orchestra representatives heard from Knight Foundation's Penelope McPhee, who has played a pivotal role in conceiving and developing the orchestra initiative. Following are excerpts from her remarks.

Today I want to speak from a personal perspective about what Knight Foundation has learned over the course of the Magic of Music. I want to share what I see as successes and talk frankly about our failures. Eight years and $10 million into this initiative, it is time to set ourselves to the difficult task of assessing what we've learned and figuring out how to apply and share those lessons.

My goal here is to look at the big picture — to talk about shared values; about assumptions, right and wrong; and about mission, implicit and explicit.

Knight Foundation brought to the creation of Magic of Music several fundamental values and beliefs that formed the bedrock of the initiative. The first is that symphonic music is a powerful art form with timeless appeal that can bring joy and spiritual renewal to human beings everywhere — and, therefore, its creation, production, and dissemination should be supported. Certainly, musicians and other orchestra professionals share that value.

The second belief is that to be whole and healthy, a community must have a vibrant and relevant orchestra. One of Knight Foundation's most firmly held values is the belief in the importance of community. Our symphony orchestra initiative grew out of our deep concern that if we allowed struggling orchestras in our communities to die, the community would be diminished.

Today, I would argue vehemently that communities don't need an orchestra just for the sake of saying they have an orchestra. The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to its vitality. Communities need vibrant, relevant orchestras that give meaning to people's weary, humdrum lives.

I am increasingly convinced that orchestras that are not relevant to their community do not contribute to its health and vitality. I'll go even further — the more orchestras peel off three to four percent of an economically elite, racially segregated fraction of the community, the more they'll be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The caliber of the playing, the renown of the conductor, the architecture of the world-class hall mean little or nothing if the sound doesn't resonate throughout the community.

It was these two bedrock values — about the music and about community — that led us to some assumptions ten years ago when we were first creating this initiative. I'd like to share some of those assumptions with you now, as well as why I believe at least a few of them were flawed.

The most important flaw was a theory of change that inextricably linked our two fundamental values — music and community. The link was the local orchestra. We assumed that by helping orchestras think simultaneously about the art and the audience, we would both reinvigorate the art form and sustain a valuable institution that contributed to the artistic, social, and economic vitality of the community.

What was wrong with that key assumption?

One of the many compelling findings from the orchestra research we conducted this year is the disconnect between classical music listeners and local orchestra patrons. These two variables are far more independent than I ever imagined.

The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to its vitality. Communities need vibrant, relevant orchestras that give meaning to people's weary, humdrum lives.

While nearly 60 percent of adults express at least some interest in classical music, and nearly one-third of them fit classical music into their lives regularly, in their autos and at home, less than 5 percent of the adults interviewed in fifteen communities are regular patrons of their local orchestras.

The data brought home to me a parallel between orchestras and another industry with which Knight has a long history — newspapers. I think some of the lessons may be transferable.

Both endeavors are focused on meaningful content that people care about. Both have a set of values and a belief system that transcend that content. And in both, I contend, those closest to the business too often confuse the content with the delivery system.

We all would agree that dissemination of accurate, well-reported news is vital to sustaining a democratic society. But we also must acknowledge that accurate, well-reported news can be found in a newspaper, on NPR, on CNN, or on the Internet. Many of us get our news and information from a combination of all of these sources, depending on convenience, what we're specifically looking for, availability, and our mood at any given moment.

But newspaper journalists, decrying diminishing sub- scribers, worry that democracy is at risk because people aren't getting the news — from them.

Orchestras, being mostly led by tyrants, aren't concerned with the death of democracy. But they do believe the very fabric of western civilization is at risk if people don't get classical music — from them.

Schools aren't doing a good job teaching kids to read, say newspaper journalists, and therefore there's less demand for their product. Sound familiar?

How can you really understand the implications and nuances of the news if you only get it electronically? Does this ring any bells?

They're confusing the content with the delivery system. In fact, people are getting much more news, much more quickly, than ever before. The difference is that the content is coming from many different places, and newspapers no longer own the franchise.

Orchestras — and Knight Foundation when we began this initiative — also confuse the content with the delivery system. The data tell us about orchestras the very thing you might stipulate as obvious about newspapers: Many people are seeking the content, but only a few are picking your delivery system.

So if our assumption about the link was flawed, what does it mean? To me there's a simple answer. We can't just assume that the connection to community exists. But if we think it should exist — if we believe it's important — we have the information and the power to make it happen. The successes of many Magic of Music orchestra projects prove it. But it will not simply occur if we keep doing business as usual.

Newspapers have realized they can't keep marketing to a diminishing subscriber base. They have to radically re-invent their product. If you have seen The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks, you know they have.

Most newspapers have recognized that it's not either/or. They haven't given up delivering a hard copy to a subscriber's doorstep every morning, but they've also put their content on the Internet where large parts of it are available at no cost to non-subscribers.

And here's another important parallel. They've given up on the crossover idea. They are no longer expecting readers who get their news on the net to decide to subscribe to the traditional paper. The Internet news is not a marketing tool for the “real thing.” They have thousands of new readers for the “new thing.” If our Magic of Music experience does nothing else, I hope it will put to rest the idea of crossover and adopt the idea that we can sell multiple products to multiple audiences.

One of the promising findings of our market segmentation research is that it demonstrates that there's a vast potential audience of living, breathing individuals with different — but real — connections to the art form and to our orchestras. These aren't uninformed rubes who need us to show them the light. Neither are they look-alike, think-alike mannequins receiving the canon as dictated by us. These are individuals who make purposeful and highly personal decisions. Some of them have actually tested our product and found it wanting. The question is, are we listening to the very clear signals they're sending? And, are we willing and able to let go of our prejudices and respond to the message in diverse and innovative ways?

The data tell us unequivocally that whether we want to strengthen, deepen, or broaden ties to the orchestra, we need to do something fundamentally different from what we've done before. We need to put everything — repertoire, musical genres, ensemble configurations, venues, performance times, guest artists — everything, on the table for review and negotiation. The data also make it clearer than ever before that there is no one solution, no magic bullet. Different folks need different strokes. We must be nimble, flexible, and open enough to allow for that.

Which brings me to our second flawed assumption. We assumed as part of this initiative's theory of change that rational people (in this case, orchestra decision makers), when faced with deteriorating prospects, would embrace new ideas — even risky ones — to change their future prospects.

But change is hard even when people are well meaning; even when organizations are entrepreneurial; and even when the current model isn't working. It's difficult to find new models, particularly in organizations that, quite frankly, haven't traditionally valued entrepreneurship.

Back at the beginning of the Magic of Music Initiative, when Knight Foundation first invited orchestras to propose ways to reinvigorate the concert hall experience, not one of the invitees put forward a major innovative idea. We were more than disappointed. We were shocked. We turned down every proposal and started over. But we learned our first lesson in the initiative.

We learned that transformational change in orchestras does not occur unless all the members of the orchestra family are involved. Lasting change can't be imposed by any single group within the orchestra, and it certainly can't be imposed from the outside by a funder. The music director, trustees, musicians, and staff must first buy into and then participate in the planning and implementation of major change.

Over the course of our journey together, things have improved. There is today a greater openness to take on new ideas. I don't mean to claim this is all due to Knight Foundation and the Magic of Music. Other funders and many voices within this group of orchestras and within the orchestra field have contributed. But I'd argue that we still have further to go than we've come. And until we can stop whispering and start talking out loud about the big structural issues like absentee music directors, intractable musicians unions, and the confusion between quality and convention, we're not going to make real transformational change.

Trustees, if the music director is not there to help you lead the change, fire him. You need his full cooperation. And I can tell you, it's much more important to your orchestra for him to head the United Way campaign in your town than to be guest conducting around the world.

Until we can stop whispering and start talking out loud about the big structural issues like absentee music directors, intractable musicians unions, and the confusion between quality and convention, we're not going to make real transformational change.

Musicians, you are the union. Make it happen. Or you're going to be playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship goes down.

What makes change especially difficult is that to agree on change strategies, stakeholders first have to agree on what the problems are. Often that's harder than coming up with solutions. It requires trust and mutual respect; it requires stakeholders to put aside their own agenda for the sake of the organization; it requires belief in a common mission.

Which brings me from values and assumptions to mission. This is the fundamental conversation.

Unless and until orchestras decide their mission is to serve audiences in the ways audiences want to be served, they will never attract more than the current three to four percent. And I would argue that as demographics change, they won't even be able to retain that.

How orchestras use the data we now have will very much depend on individual decisions about mission. No two will be the same.

Is the mission to support artists and enable them to hone their talent to the highest level of virtuosity?

Is the mission to become a world-class touring and recording orchestra?

Is the mission to bring classical music to new and diverse audiences in your community?

Is the mission to be the go-to place for music of all kinds in a community?

If you nodded your head to all of these, you're in trouble. Because the data tell us unequivocally that while any of these missions is possible, and while each of them may be valid in its own right, they are often mutually exclusive. Until each individual orchestra examines its mission statement and eliminates the elements that are at cross-purposes, it will be impossible to develop change strategies that work.

Over the years, Knight Foundation has been clear regarding what we think the mission ought to be. The entire Magic of Music Initiative has been premised on strengthening, deepening, and broadening the relationship of orchestras with audiences in communities. I believe wholeheartedly in that mission, and I do not believe for a minute that listening to audiences is pandering or diminishes quality. It's just good business.

If you agree, and accept this as your mission, you first have to fundamentally change your attitude toward your audience. You have to stop blaming them and start looking inside your institutions for answers.

From my perspective as an outsider who loves the music but is not an expert, I'd argue that for the most part, orchestras have nothing but disdain for their audiences. The whole notion that doing it differently is “dumbing it down” is disdainful. The attitude you communicate to us audience members is that you're doing us a favor by letting us pay you to play what you want to play. You want us to pay our money and eat our spinach because it's good for us.

Not only do you want us to eat the spinach, but you want us to choose it over ice cream every time; you want us to eat it in your restaurant at 8 p.m.; you want us to like it the way you've seasoned it. And, God knows, you want us to eat it pure, not in a soufflé or a salad. And oh yes, if we've never eaten spinach before, we're barely worth serving anyway, because if we've gone this long without tasting it, we must be rubes anyway and we'll never appreciate it.

If we're going to be serious about serious change, we first have to get serious about this question of mission.

As we think about the lessons Knight Foundation has learned about our own grantmaking during the course of Magic of Music, one of the most important is that we rushed straight into making grants for activities before we really had a deep and probing conversation about mission.
We have learned other big picture lessons as well.

• Lesson one: Musicians are essential to making the connection with the audience. If orchestras are to raise the level of engagement, musicians must take the lead. And training at skills other than playing their instruments is essential, so they are better prepared for this role. We need to give them a new job description.

This also means that, for the field to change and for musicians to be prepared adequately for their changing roles as ambassadors for classical music, not only orchestras but also conservatories must change. Many — Curtis and Juilliard among them — are recognizing the need to rethink the training they provide.

• Lesson two: Music directors can be major obstacles to transformational change. In one sense, they are the individual embodiment of the institution from a public perspective and this gives them great power. Yet internally, they often function like absentee landlords. They have many responsibilities and often are not around enough or motivated enough to become members of a team thinking about change.

• Lesson three: Thoughtful, well-thought-out programmatic innovation simply cannot happen when an institution is in the midst of a financial crisis. All of its energies are focused on keeping the institution afloat.

This was a flaw in Knight's theory of change. We hoped by stimulating real structural change in unhealthy orchestras, we would make them healthy. I don't think we had any idea how close to the edge some of the orchestras were when we started. Orchestras struggling to make payroll can't take on transformational change. Orchestras in trouble cling to traditional approaches, which is counter-intuitive, since if there is ever a time to try something different, it is when you have little to lose.

• Lesson four: Strategic change cannot happen without strong, consistent leadership. Another flaw in our theory of change is that we did not anticipate the huge amount of turnover within the orchestras. Among the fifteen orchestras that have participated in the Knight program, there have been fifteen executive director changes in the eight years of the program. Music directors have also turned over and trustees, by their very nature, serve limited terms. Ironically, the greatest continuity appears to be among the musicians, but these individuals are often least involved in planning and implementing new strategic directions for the institution.

• Lesson five: If Knight Foundation were embarking on this initiative again, we would try much harder to articulate from the start what we thought the outcomes should be. We never effectively expressed what we meant by “transformational change,” so that orchestras could know when they were hitting the mark. Not wanting to get in the way of good ideas by being too directive, perhaps we erred on the other side by not giving enough guidance.

• Lesson six: Dollars turned out to be only part of what Knight contributed to the orchestras in Magic of Music. All of us take great pride in the ongoing dialogue exemplified by the annual retreats and the way they convene so many people willing to think seriously about these issues, by the consortium concept that our participating orchestras have taken very seriously, and by the provision of research capability, evaluation services, and general consulting help. These other forms of assistance may have a longer-lasting impact than the dollars themselves. If one measure of a foundation's effectiveness is that its dollars leverage other forms of support, then this program has been a success.

• And the last lesson I'll mention, though there are many others we could talk about, is that we were undoubtedly overly ambitious in expecting change quickly. We expected that with relatively large grants and a three-year time frame, we would have been able to see significant change right away. The fact that we didn't has been a valuable lesson to Knight and has fed our strategic thinking in our other programs. We are making longer commitments and not expecting miracles.

The fifteen orchestras who have been part of Magic of Music have shown commitment, thoughtfulness, and courage. They have put themselves on the front lines of change, and that's a dangerous place to be. They have been more open than ever before with us and with one another, and that's risky. We have come a long way in eight years and have experienced growth and some wonderful insight by many remarkable people. We have come to understand much better the role of musicians and other creative people in orchestral institutions. More than ever, we value their talent and imaginative power.

Penelope McPhee is vice president and chief program officer, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Notes
1 The name “Magic of Music” is used with the permission of The Magic of Music, Inc., which creates special moments through music for thousands of critically/terminally ill and handicapped children and adults throughout the United States.