The Power of the Orchestra

Mark Walter, President

What is the value of a community orchestra?

A typical perception of an orchestra is validated by research, which indicates that sixty percent of adults express at least some interest in classical music, and nearly one-third of adults fit classical music into their lives regularly, in their autos and at home, but fewer than five percent are regular patrons of their local orchestras. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation concludes that this gap exists because orchestras are not relevant to the community as a whole, in that their appeal is primarily to the richest, Whitest three or four percent of their constituents.

Some people think that if a community can simply say it has an orchestra, that’s enough. This way of thinking suggests that an orchestra’s value lies in bragging rights, wherein community leaders proudly point to their orchestra’s existence as an enticement to bring new businesses and residents into their communities. While it is certainly legitimate for a community to be proud of its orchestra, what purpose beyond community pride and a sense of exclusivity does an orchestra truly contribute?

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 undertook a field-wide initiative to improve the fortunes of American symphony orchestras. Motivated in part by the grim prospects of orchestras in several of the 26 communities where it serves as a local funder, the foundation sought a way to leverage change. It was not happy with its initial findings, nor with the way orchestras responded to its initiatives. Most orchestras resisted change, deeply committed to their traditionally heavy emphasis on classical music despite dwindling audiences.>In 2004, Penelope McPhee, vice president and chief program officer of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, stated that “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.”

In an article entitled Orchestra and Community: Bridging the Gap, McPhee states that the “Knight Foundation brought to the creation of our orchestra program 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, 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 symphony orchestra. One of Knight Foundation’s most firmly held values is the belief in the importance of community. Our orchestra initiative grew out of our deep concern that if we allowed struggling orchestras in our communities to die, the communities would be diminished. Today, I would argue vehemently that a community doesn’t need an orchestra just for the sake of saying it has an orchestra. The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to the community’s vitality. Communities need vibrant, relevant orchestras that give meaning to people’s lives.”

In order for an orchestra to be relevant it must be willing to connect to and serve the community, to be inclusive not exclusive. One way for an orchestra to exclude wide cross sections of a community is to only serve up music that is appreciated by a small portion of its population. Another way to be exclusive is to charge prices that exclude many people from being able to afford to attend. While orchestras most deservedly have a right to charge admission, they should also be out to connect to the entire community instead of only those who can afford the price of admission.

An inclusive orchestra finds ways to empower every member of the community with an affordable or free opportunity to hear live orchestral music. This can be done through free concerts, school programs, and diverse venues using the full orchestra, small ensembles and offering its musicians as music instructors and teachers. The community’s responsibility, however, becomes clear: They must financially and emotionally support the orchestra, its musicians, its programs and initiatives, and its growth, allowing the orchestra to expand its inclusiveness and its ability to connect.

Musically, the relevance of orchestral music is not only found in the music of the past but in current music. The majority of symphonic music being produced today, for example, is found in the highly popular music scores of the film industry. The popularity of film music underscores the ability of orchestral music to connect to a wide cross section of people in spite of often large social, economic, gender and age differences. Well rounded orchestral programs serve their audiences by presenting music from a diverse background. An orchestra that is connecting with its community is reaching out through the music it performs, instead of excluding people because of the music it performs.

The Bedford Community Orchestra is unique in that a smaller community the size of Bedford County typically does not have its own orchestra. Without an orchestra, children are raised lacking many of the advantageous music education opportunities that other children receive in more far-sighted school districts. Even with an orchestra there’s no guarantee, however, as evidenced by the lack of a strings program in the Bedford City/County School System.

Without its own orchestra, live orchestral music is only heard by residents willing to travel to larger cities. With its own orchestra a community can reap the benefits of an expanding awareness of the diversity of music, and benefit from an orchestra’s unique ability to positively influence creativity of thought, behavior, emotions, education and events.

The orchestra’s responsibility to its community should be multi-dimensional, not limited to only serving up music. An orchestra is a leader in demonstrating value and giving, being one of America’s foremost volunteer organizations. Highly unique in its approach to volunteerism, orchestras set the standard for volunteering, with women leading the way. According to the Symphony Orchestra Institute there is no organization in the United States that has such an overwhelmingly high degree of women-led community service as the orchestra.

An orchestra can help a community cope with the stress and pressure of change, by using music as a tool to teach and bring about the experience of harmony. An effective orchestra brings to its community musician’s who are experts in expressing the complexities, movements and contradictions of life in terms that are normally inexpressible, yet when heard and experienced are instantly recognized, often providing their listeners with an inspiration that lasts a lifetime.

“Music can affect us on many levels,” states Markand Thakar, music director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra. “A driving beat surely moves us on an elemental level (which explains to some degree the popularity of marching bands, and in fact most genres of popular music). On the highest level, music can provide no less than spiritual exaltation. For this kind of spiritual exaltation to occur, the composition must allow it, the performance must allow it, and the listener must be open to it.”

Musicians are unique in the degree of their training. Where most people don’t begin qualifying themselves for their job or life’s work until they are out of high school or even college, musicians almost always start at a far earlier age. Musicians practice when they are beginners, and still practice after 50 years of experience, forever dedicated to bringing their best efforts to their audiences.

Paul R. Judy, former President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wrote an essay entitled The Uniqueness and Commonality of American Symphony Orchestra Organizations. In that essay Judy states that “the small, local nature of symphony orchestra organizations, and the intense devotion which all participants have to them, provide a solid foundation for positive change.”

Orchestral music is a powerful art form that has the ability to bring about positive change and spiritual renewal. It sets the standard for volunteerism, and provides opportunities for in-depth music education and training. With its unique ability to bridge the gap in a community, an orchestra can be a strong catalyst for community improvement.

Supported by its community and essential to its health, an orchestra becomes a jewel of musical expression to enjoy and experience for generations. An orchestra gives meaning to our lives, and in the ears, minds and hearts of most people, that’s valuable.