Community outreach – ideas for guidelines

It appears that a big reason that the Detroit Symphony potential settlement fell apart was a dispute over $2 million for community outreach. I am sure there is more to it than that but if there is still a spark of hope embedded in that concept it is worth taking a closer look.

The term “community outreach” (also referred to as “community engagement”) has acquired a negative value load for musicians. The concept flies in the face of the union’s traditional stance against orchestra splitting. The union’s concerns are valid and center around the often dubious quality of outreach events and the potential for unfair competition with local free-lancers. On the other hand, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with having symphony musicians play chamber music in non-traditional settings such as nursing homes or local charity fundraisers. Community outreach activities can be wonderful. It is not necessary to have 100 musicians on the stage to bring meaningful and excellent performances of great classical music to people in the community who might not otherwise have access to them. Outreach activities are a good thing when the events are properly supported, are respectful of the musicians involved, and are consistent with the strategic objectives of the organization. As is often the case with long-standing differences of opinion, there is merit on both sides of the debate.

The quality issue is a real one. The sad truth is that, more often than not, outreach events are just plain awful. They suffer to the extent that they happen for the wrong reasons. The vernacular for such events is “garbage gigs” – a designation that is well-deserved when musicians are dispatched to a noisy shopping mall with instructions to “bring your own stands, bring your own music, plan your own program and never mind about any health and safety concerns that might arise.”

Hard to believe? Sadly, it happens all the time.  It happens when management’s motive is something other than community outreach. It happens when management believes that musicians don’t work hard enough. It happens when management wishes to escape from the expense and hassle of producing full orchestra concerts but cannot be bothered with filling unused services with meaningful activity. It happens when outreach events devolve into “make work” projects that do not respect the music, the musicians, or the community.

I believe that it is possible to create a community outreach program that addresses these concerns. My simple guidelines may not resolve the DSO strike but hopefully they will create some common ground for managers and musicians who are grappling with this issue.

  • Outreach events should serve a purpose that is consistent with the mission of the organization, which hopefully has something to do with presenting excellent performances to engaged audiences.
  • Outreach programs should be governed by a joint management-union committee in order to ensure musician input and buy-in. Think about involving community representatives as well.
  • Participation should be voluntary with appropriate incentives. Not every musician will be effective in an outreach setting.
  • Outreach events must be properly supported by the organization. This includes program development, music procurement, arranging services, logistics, health and safety.
  • Outreach events must be respectful of the musicians, not least because concertgoers deserve an experience that seems wonderful, not commonplace.
  • Outreach programs and events should be non-commercial in nature and should not take work away from area free-lancers. If free-lance musicians are making their livings by performing in certain schools and nursing homes, don’t go there.

About the author

Laura Brownell

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