Young Person’s Guide to Careers in Classical Music Part III: Outreach

If you’ve read my first in this series, and you’re back for more, I can only assume you’ve not given up. In that case, we better talk about outreach.

Every classical musician is called upon to participate in activities promoting classical music, but young people sometimes heed this call with reluctance. I like to think that the reluctance is less about the importance of the outreach mission, and more about the effectiveness or relevance of the outreach activity.

There are sound reasons for this.

Musicians young and old have done a lot of silly things in the name of outreach. Further, a young musician may struggle to muster the perspective or maturity to assess the effectiveness of the activity in question.

WHAT IS OUTREACH?

Outreach, at its core, is the mission to promote the arts through education. It stems from the belief that western classical music traditions won’t survive unless we actively and vigorously promote them. Whether or not this notion is well-founded is a subject for another post. (If you haven’t yet, read Bruce Ridge’s Autumn of Our Discontent.)

Outreach activities range from family concerts to appearing at the grand opening of your local Sprint store and performing Opus 59 Beethoven Quartets next to a noisy air-powered Gumby. (True story: From Carnegie Hall to the Sprint Store. I just haven’t written it yet.)

THE COMMODITIZATION OF OUTREACH

Beyond the ephemeral notion of promoting the arts, outreach also contributes to the bottom line of your orchestra’s budget. It’s been packaged and sold in a wide variety of incarnations in an effort to secure grants that help pay the bills. In order to stay on the up and up with the United Sates Government, the Board and Executive Director are thus charged with defining outreach so they can document where the grant money goes.

One portion is commonly ascribed to general audience building. Another is arts sustainability, or education. One of these is ephemeral, the other is not. This is where I imagine many orchestras go off the rails.

When an orchestra relies on grant money that doesn’t achieve results in the audience building component of its mission, what does it do? Does it stop requesting grant money? Of course not. It justifies its outreach component through the more ephemeral side of how it’s defined outreach: arts sustainability.

Fast forward a few years and a general downward trend on ticket sales. What has been achieved through its outreach efforts?

OUTREACH = RECRUITING AND TRAINING A FUTURE GENERATION OF PROFESSIONALS!?

I’m not sure if this idea is particularly original. I’ve been out of the loop for a while now. But suppose our outreach efforts are succeeding in the recruiting and training of professional musicians at a faster rate than it is building audiences.

This would appear to be a natural side effect of our outreach effort. After all, the clearest of outreach activity is education. Think of all the in-school concerts, instrument petting zoos, children’s concerts, etc. that happen in this country in a given year. These are all wonderful things, for sure. Also, I suspect they are functioning more or less as we want them to. That is to say that, some percentage of these folks will return to orchestra concerts when they’re older, remembering the experience from their youth. But before those folks’ hair turns silver, they go out and get themselves careers.

And now we’ve got an exponential problem on our hands.

While future concert lovers grow old, we’ve absorbed greater numbers from their generation into the workforce. Now, this is just a theory. But it’s a theory that strikes me as intuitively true. And, if I’m right, what can we do about it? Can anyone suggest that we not do as many children’s concerts, family concerts, petting zoos, etc., and risk losing a generation of music lovers? Ever greater numbers of professionally trained musicians flooding the market make it harder for veteran musicians to feed their families. We’ve already seen what Kevin Case, a Chicago based attorney describes as the “commoditization of classical musicians.”

Some management types undoubtedly see this through a Darwinian lens: The “weak” will fall away, and become future audiences. That’s a fair point, if cruel.

Still others will argue that these newcomers will find places in an ever expanding market place, pointing out the increasing number of regional orchestras dotting the countryside from sea to shining sea. I think we can all agree that is also a fair point.

But management needs to see that the door swings both ways. It’s a fact that many failed performing careers naturally transform into managerial ones, and this arguably seeds toxicity between players and management. How many lockouts might have been avoided if management were willing to make the same concessions it demands of its players? The general rise in management salary and the decline of players’ begins to look like latent jealousy in this framework. (I’m reminded of the recent contention in Atlanta, where management wanted to reduce its orchestra from 94 to 89 musicians, but employ 74 administrators. Maybe they should reduce musicians to 74, and each musician will have his/her personal administrative assistant?)

BACK TO SQUARE ONE: WHAT IS OUTREACH?

Outreach is everything. Seriously—I know it’s an important part of grant writing, it’s an important part of an orchestra paying the bills, etc., but I mean that statement literally.

Outreach is everything.

When you’re next to someone on an airplane who asks you about your cello: your answer is an outreach.

When you’re meeting a patron on the sidewalk after a concert, your comportment is outreach.

When you’re sitting in the doctor’s office making small talk with someone who asks you what you do for a living: outreach.

The commoditization of outreach is a slippery slope. In grant writing, you get to build the parameters of success—but this means you can choose to ignore, to an extent, what isn’t working. You can focus on all those great kiddie concerts instead of declining ticket sales, or ticket prices, year after year. Meanwhile, real outreach—in the sense that nonprofit circles consider it—doesn’t take a government grant at all.

The fact that outreach is everything puts a precarious trigger on institutional finances, and this is where the last post in this series may prove prophetic for future generations of musicians, in the event that the Federal Government interprets 501 (c)(3) consistent with the Milwaukee Supreme Court.

A friend recently informed me that the Seattle Symphony musicians’ salary are paid for entirely from ticket sales. How did they do it? What do their outreach efforts look like? Perhaps the League of American Orchestras should look to Seattle for real stewardship that doesn’t involve locking out musicians to finance another administrative job, a pay raise, or extravagant renovations on a concert hall.

Young musicians need to own outreach. You need to take it from the administration. Realize: you’re the commodity. You need to put your money where your job is and take it into your hands, in the way that they’ve done in Seattle. No, do it better than Seattle.

Practice talking points like you’re preparing for Fox News. Arm yourself with data. Memorize statistics on how kids’ SAT scores are better because they’re taking violin lessons. Follow the latest orchestral trends—what’s working, and what isn’t. Learn about orchestra management, the economy, how charitable giving works—all of it.

Your livelihood depends on mastering outreach every bit as much as you’ve mastered your instrument. Musicians occupy the fringes of society—so every contact you have with the outside world is, in a very real way, outreach.

For you enterprising young people, I’ll finish with some tough questions and branding problems. Answer these succinctly as if formatting to fit on a bumper sticker. Memorize the answers, and use them often. Promote them in forums amplified by millions.

1. What’s so great about classical music?
2. Classical music is boring.
3. Concerts are no fun.
4. I don’t get it.