Today’s orchestras are an integral part of the communities they serve, but this was not always the case. The orchestra that Haydn knew was very different from the orchestra of today. In the late 1700s, a group of professional players only worked together regularly if a rich patron desired their services—Haydn wrote for such an ensemble. The musicians that the Prince of Esterhazy hired, including Haydn, lived with the prince at his country retreat. They performed at his pleasure on any occasion for which he desired music. The musicians were treated as talented servants.
But imagine that you lived near the prince and you heard about his fine collection of musicians. Imagine further that you wanted a skilled flute player to teach your child. Wouldn’t it be natural to contact the flute player working for the prince, and ask if he might be interested in accepting your child as a student?
Or perhaps an important city official died, and a large funeral was planned. Who would perform music at the funeral? The prince himself might have offered the services of “his” musicians and attended the grand funeral—thereby showing off his fine sense of civic responsibility, and ensuring that everyone appreciated both his wealth and his sense of culture.
We no longer have princes footing the bill for arts (perhaps we’d be better off if we did!), but we do have collections of musicians in mid-sized and large cities: our professional orchestras. Today’s symphonic musicians are better trained than at any time in the past, and they are sought out by those who want music in their church, lessons for their children, or chamber music at a fund-raiser.
Today’s orchestras don’t exist in isolation, such as Haydn’s orchestra did. They are an integral part of their larger community. Communities that support an orchestra are richly rewarded because the orchestra contributes much more to the community than just concerts. Orchestras provide many “added value” benefits.
The three examples I named above (church services, lessons for students, music at a fund-raiser) are the most obvious, but by no means the only, types of music- making that extend outward from the orchestra’s central mission of providing concerts of classical music in traditional concert halls.
The Role of Musicians in the Community
I grew up in a non-musical household, so I didn’t learn about being a musician from my family. I didn’t hear an adult practicing at home, I didn’t hear adults talking about music, nor see them arranging rehearsals, scheduling lessons, buying music, etc. I learned to do those things by hanging around with other musicians because I was lucky enough to live in a community that had both a part-time symphony and a youth orchestra. I have no idea what I would have chosen for a profession if I hadn’t had that exposure to music.
When the tradition of making music at home died out, largely due to the advent of radio, and later TV, it became apparent that audiences were becoming older and more conservative. Presumably this audience was made up of adults who had been exposed to classical music as children, and had continued listening all their lives.
Soon after TV became ubiquitous, the era arrived in which schools cut funding for music programs. Luckily, even parents who think music at school is frivolous often want their children to learn about classical music, so orchestras have been giving concerts aimed at student audiences for decades. With the cuts in school funding, orchestras quickly realized that their relatively low-priority children’s concerts should perhaps assume a higher priority, if for no other reason than to assure themselves of a future audience.
Without designated music teachers in schools, savvy educators turned to their community’s professional orchestra for help: “Do you have a small group that could come to our school and perform for our students?” Home schooling families often unite with similar families and actively seek out daytime concerts, often in small venues that are perfect for chamber music performances. The demand for orchestra-players-as-educators (OPE) was born.
Here at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, we got into the OPE business in a big way in 1992 when we undertook our first American Residency in the state of Alaska.
This residency project came together for many reasons: political, educational, artistic. Others can comment on those reasons better than I can, but I can offer a firsthand description of the experience itself. What was it like for the musicians that first year? A bit frightening, if you want to know the truth. Of course I had played string quartets—it was an important part of my training as a professional cellist. But I’d never been in a quartet that was being stared at by a group of 5-6th graders and asked, “You’re using too much vibrato for Mozart, aren’t you?” That was a total shock. (Yes, that really did happen!) Before we started doing residencies, I had never been put on the spot by a teacher in front of her class: “You mentioned that Ravel was influenced by the sound of a gamelan—what’s a gamelan?” (I had done enough research to come across that sentence in Grove’s dictionary, but I hadn’t bothered to learn what a gamelan really was. Me, the visiting “artist”—I felt like a student who hadn’t done her homework.) And I had certainly never played Dvorak’s American quartet in a cafeteria accompanied by the sounds of dishes being washed and the aroma of stale fish sticks.
Our experiences during residencies in the following years were better, but we were learning as much as our audiences. In Maine, the group I was playing in learned that we could play the same program for 5th graders that we played for adults by talking about it in a different way. In Louisiana we learned that we were best off if we targeted a narrow age group for our concert (only to have one school send their entire student body, aged 6-18!) These experiences were hardly what my heady conservatory days had prepared me for—this was more like being a confused freshman in a large high school all over again! (How dare they interrupt our concert with announcements over the PA system! How do you talk to 18 year olds and 6 year olds at the same concert?)
The Challenges and Rewards of Orchestra-Players-as-Educators
These residencies brought hidden talents to the fore among my colleagues. Some of them loved arriving in our residency state, getting a set of directions and a rental car, and being told, “You’re performing in this school tomorrow at 10.” Others felt that was asking too much. Some players don’t mind talking to an audience; others don’t want to talk at all. Some enjoy adding theatrical elements to their performances; some don’t. Some musicians enjoy meeting students who ask tough questions—others felt they would do better teaching a master class, or talking to adults about the orchestra’s evening concert.
Over the years the musicians have chosen their own strengths and requested opportunities they felt most comfortable with. We now offer an amazing array of “services” when we go to a new state: master classes, youth orchestra coachings, Alexander classes, workshops for those teaching handicapped students, chamber music concerts, music for church services, speakers at luncheons, ensembles that play in schools and retirement homes—the list goes on and on.
Last season we totaled the number of people that we reach in a typical season—it came out to be an astonishingly high number—over 26,000. That’s just through our “teaching” work. That does not include the usual orchestra subscription concerts that we give at home or on tour. It does include our children’s concerts and all the residency activities I described above, plus the teaching that orchestra members do on an individual basis when we’re home. Again, that “teaching” runs the gamut from private lessons in our own studios or on a college campus, to being involved with a youth orchestra, playing for church, or coaching chamber music at a summer festival.
We are all active and visible in our many communities, and we’ve gotten very good at what we do. We used to have only 3-4 groups who actively presented educational concerts in schools (whether at home or on tour). Now there are at least twice that number, reaching different age groups. One group specializes in working with special needs students. Another is geared toward pre-schoolers. I design chamber music programs aimed at middle-school students.
Most conservatories today are aware of what students will be asked to do if they get an orchestra job. Of course you have to be able to play Beethoven 5th and Don Juan (with minimal rehearsal), but can you also offer something to the orchestra’s outreach program? How are your public speaking skills? How do you talk to 18 year olds and 6 year olds in the same program? And how do you make Dvorak sound relevant while plates and spoons are being washed in the background? Would you be comfortable performing in costumes?
I think the need for powerful performer-educators is going to grow. The challenges are many; luckily the rewards are great! I used to feel disconnected from audiences when I sat on the stage during subscription concerts. Not any more. I’ve gotten acquainted with hundreds of people in our audiences through my educational work. They inspire me to read more, listen harder, teach better, and explore new areas of interest. I think all performers need the energy that we get from an audience that is listening hard. They’re out there—it’s partly our responsibility to nurture them.