I just spent the past three days in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, talking shop with a host of representatives from orchestras all over the great state of California at the annual Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO) conference. It was a fantastic and eye-opening experience. When you attend these kinds of conferences, often you hear the same buzz words being tossed around and around. The theme of the conference was Entrepreneurial Spirit: Balancing Risk and Reward, and although there were many new and innovative topics that surfaced, the topic that most resonated with me was the issue of community engagement.
This is a common topic in orchestra circles. We often talk about engaging with and enriching our communities through the power of music. Many orchestras (LACO included) incorporate a community component in their mission statements. However, there can be a disconnect between board and staff aspirations and the actions taken by the organization to carry out and implement that mission. As an industry, we need to stop and listen. We need to carefully examine our missions and our actions and identify those groups we wish to serve. We need to ask ourselves, what community are we trying to engage? Is it our subscribers? Our musicians? The denizens of our local geographic area? Community can be defined in so many different ways and it is imperative that we first hone in on who we wish to serve and then go out and have a real conversation about the interests and needs of that unique group of people.
Recently, LACO presented Play Me, I’m Yours, a large-scale project that placed 30 pianos throughout the Los Angeles area. These pianos were decorated by local artists and community groups and were placed in public places for three weeks so that local community members would have an opportunity to interact with music in a way that might not typically be available to them. The pianos were available 24 hours a day for anyone and everyone to sit down and play. This project was an incredible way forLACO to bring music outside of the concert hall and engage with the community in a real and tangible way.
Play Me, I’m Yours was a fantastic project that underscored LACO’s mission and brought music to many underserved areas, engaging parts of the population that would not normally have had any contact with the Orchestra. It prompted a great deal of conversation and a steady exchange of media. Basking in the afterglow of this exhilarating project, it is important for us now more than ever to question the public value and relevance of our Orchestra. Through PMIY, we certainly engaged with our audience and the community we seek to serve, but we cannot – and do not wish to – rest of the laurels of this spectacular effort. We need to look beyond this one project and examine how we can ride the momentum ofPMIY to continue the conversation and further engage our community.
As an industry, we need to move the discussion out to the public, with a focus on forging real and deep connections within our communities. We need real feedback in real time. We need you — our audience, our listeners and our communities — to call, email, text, tweet, message us and tell us what you really think and what you need from us. And we need to be ready to listen to what you are saying, whether it is good news or bad. It’s a different type of conversation, and a daunting one, but I know that LACO is up to the challenge.