Getting big orchestras more connected

My life changed quite dramatically when the orchestra I played with for 13 seasons, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, folded in 2003. Yes, my life changed, but of course also the lives of the other 80+ full-time FPO musicians, as well as all our full-time & part-time staffers, the hundreds of FPO volunteers, the tens of thousands of audience members, and finally the hundreds of thousands of school children who suddenly lacked a full-time, fully-professional, world-class symphony orchestra to have as their source of inspiration. Not to compare apples to oranges (or sports cars), but just imagine how the hundreds of South Florida youth football programs would be affected if the Miami Dolphins were suddenly to close operations.

Anyway, that tumultuous event in May of 2003 set me off on a path that I would never in my life have thought possible. But that’s another story – one to perhaps be included with my bio!).

This posting is to discuss how big orchestras can be better connected to their communities. In the case of my ill-fated FPO, one of our issues was that we served the largest geographical territory of any other orchestra in the US, even though by budget we were about the 20th largest orchestra in the country. That’s quite big, even though our huge annual operating budget (huge by orchestral standards) was less than $12 million was in 2003. So when the ‘excrement hit the airboat propeller’ in May of ’03, one of the key things we lacked was a specific community that would step up to the plate and say, “No sir, we’re not gonna allow this cultural jewel, serving one of the wealthiest areas in the US, to go down in flames.” Instead we had 6 separate S FL communities saying “Wow, we’re all really sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to prevent this cultural Armageddon.”

What I’m proposing here is the idea that, had the FPO been better connected with S FL’s school music programs, its youth orchestras, and its several universities, then perhaps it would’ve been an even tougher proposition for the S FL public to give up so easily in 2003.

I sincerely believe that public and private schools are all basically comprised of children whose parents want them to grow up able to recognize beauty and quality. Parents want their kids to know more about arts and culture than they were taught, not less. But it really is the responsibility of the large cultural institutions to see that their primary missions are focused on educating children – and this is particularly true with symphony orchestras, opera companies, and ballet companies.

The “education departments” of these larger institutions have historically been relegated the smallest portions of their overall budgets, and I’m suggesting that they by apportioned the largest portion. In fact, I’m suggesting that literally every department of an institution be tasked with organizing their individual missions around how they can most effectively serve and support the education department. It’s really the only way that the music most people ignorantly declare belongs in a museum can continue to be appreciated for more than its base historical value.

How to setup the educational mission of an orchestra in the way that I’m proposing will be complex to say the least. But nothing I’ll be suggesting will be worth one iota unless an institution is able to firmly commit to redirecting its focus entirely toward its education of children.

Much, much more to come…

  1. Dr. Cynthia Bennett-Valtman said:


    I understand your concern and your topic is also timely given the recent events sourrounding the San Antonio Symphony. While I’m not able to speak to the purpose of symphonies I do feel somewhat qualified to address the arts in public education portion as this was the focus of my dissertation. I also am a public school music teacher, private studio instructor and active member in a number of volunteer community ensembles who’s charter is educational and community outreach.

    Currently, there are a number of large and smaller symphony orchestras (as well as other musical genres) in the United States that do have educational outreach programs. Example of the large orchestras would be Minnesota that puts out a regular music education news letter for educators and maintains a website to access their archive or LosAngeles with Gustavo Dudamel and his more “hands on” approach. Smaller orchestras, even down to volunteer community groups, even without the same level of resources as their bigger sisters, do promote music education through child and family friendly programming and generate interest through small, informal groups and meet the instruments petting zoos. I as a music educator rely upon a variety of these resources at points throughout the school year but I do not create my curriculum around them. As an active musician I also participate with my community orchestra and have spoken with countless youngsters and their parents about the joy and value of music education as well as instructed at numerous festivals and camps. I firmly believe that am adding value to student’s lives and the community through my instruction and through my participation in community educational outreach. However, as rewarding as I believe these contributions are they more seem like a flashy parade or carnival; exciting and engaging but lacking the frequency and sustainability needed to make a cultural change. This brings me to my dissertation topic which invloved the rise and fall of a music department of a school district.

    The K-8 school district I studied had one middle school and three feeder elementary schools in a medium sized midwestern community that had a history of valuing the arts. While they did not offer a strings program they did have very active band program that involved about half the student body. Then, the State funding took a turn for the worse and forced the school board to re-evaluate priorities. Fortunately, this school music program was able to survive because of a high number of community music advocates as parents and holding school board positions. However, the survival was not a sure thing and, at one point, the arts were totally eliminated. Even though the music absence was short it took years for the program to revive. In the meantime the community and the school board changed. One of the changes noted was to the parental support of arts. No longer was there a large base of parents who had experienced music making as a youth and were not in philosophic or financial positions to support their own children’s music education. While the program has since been re-built it’s status within the community has changed. It is more of an extracurricular, the school board discourages the directors from promoting private lessons and the program vies with glorified sports travel leagues.

    Unfortunately, the retiree laden tax base of a place like South Florida sounds like it would need to be convinced that community outreach and education is a valuable use of their funds. Large metro area but again, without a history of supporting arts. You then need to develop resources and support for poorer families who they themselves did not have arts experiences and don’t have the finances or knowledge to advocate for their children. There also are the cash strapped schools who react to the latest federal mandate to focus their limited resources on what they are being judged which in the recent past has been only reading and math and a large number no longer offer music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in community outreach of accomplished musical organizations. I believe that they raise awareness and and as such, are much needed cultural ambassadors and I agree with you that they should feel an educational obligation to the communities they serve. However, what I believe needs to be done involves more than the occasional children’s concert or school masterclass. There really needs to be a focused effort on arts education; the type of arts education that most students are no longer afforded. This would involve a substantial revamping of how, in this case, a symphony orchestra prepares and allocates it’s resources but a significant and, most importantly, sustained outlay of time and money in order to create more than just entertaining glimpses of the power of music making.

    Dr. Cynthia Bennett-Valtman

    • Cindy: Thank you so much for your heartfelt reply. I’m honored to know you.

      Please know that my initial post was simply meant to initiate what I hope to be a long and arduous journey into a subject that I know is close to your heart, as it is mine. Much more to come!! -S

  2. tadgray said:

    Nicely stated Steven – I think you’re really on to something here. To me, it’s about going beyond traditional thinking about “community outreach.” And, just renaming it “community engagement” won’t fix it. It will indeed take a lot of imagination and creativity.

    • Thanks, Tad. I’m not an expert on this idea, by any means, but I’m becoming a passionate advocate.

  3. In the City of Carlsbad, California, where I live and serve as an Arts Commissioner, we are developing a Cultural Arts Master Plan and are finding better ways to integrate the arts into the lives of the people in our city. This plan, coupled with our existing arts support will help increase the awareness of the value that the arts has in a city, not just for the cultural benefits, but for economic benefits as well.

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