“Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras…”

I wanted to post a quick note linking to Tony Woodcock’s blog post about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and fundraising woes, Motown Blues.   Some quotes are particularly relevant to the whole issue of Orchestras’ legitimacy:

I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestral world…Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras – the constant demands, the needs, the on-going and unresolved problems.  They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s  philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce.   They are questioning musicians’ passivity within the symphonic organization and the community when, in fact, it is musician leadership and initiative that will be needed to make real change happen.  They are asking these questions with a degree of serious concern that should make everyone think creatively about relationships, structure, and community for the future. Why? Because these are the investors rethinking their priorities.
[S]ociety has changed….Societal changes present huge challenges to our conservatively held views of what constitutes an orchestra.  We can blame society and national leaders and the media but that’s not going to get us very far.  We are where we are and everything is moving forward with or without us.

We are forever talking about the issue of relevance.  Clearly, the performing arts’ relevance has declined as measured by the sheer drop in attendance figures as well as the arts’ ever more superficial penetration in the community.  But I want to change the term from relevance to legitimacy which presents a much bigger issue. I use “legitimacy” here almost in the political sense of an organization deriving the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people.  So when we consider “legitimacy for the performing arts,” we must ask ourselves the question: Is playing excellently enough?  For too long, we have believed the maxim: “Play well… they will come.”  Doesn’t happen–anymore.  I have been to so many great concerts performed to empty halls.  Legitimacy must be authentic.  It is bestowed, not taken.  It must be re-examined every single year and not taken for granted.  It must address key issues such as why do the majority of people feel increasingly excluded from the arts, and also why do the arts matter?

What may turn out to be a lively discussion about this blog is starting at the Cello Chat forum.

To counterbalance the negative message, Tony had posted a blog earlier about the success of the Memphis Symphony’s recent initiatives–well worth a read:

Name a famous musician from Memphis

More information about Tony Woodcock maybe found here:


Thanks to Greg Sandow for pointing out Tony’s blog.

I’ll get back to responses to things after my show tonight.  Cheers!


13 thoughts on ““Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras…”

  1. Just read through the forum you posted the link to. Not sure I feel like blogging on such a public forum being lil’ ol’ me, but it reminded me of SacPhil again. I know someone who is a student at Sac State (not in music) and she and a few other students were asked to be interns for SacPhil. The idea was that young people would have better ideas on how to get the younger generations into the concert hall and then as these new younger people would grow old and donate money in the future. But it was all about getting young people to come listen to the status quo. Any suggestions of change in terms of the orchestra itself were immediately rejected. Not because they were unwilling to try, but apparently they already had. The result was that young people never showed up and the older folks were mad and stopped donating and stopped showing up. So what should be done in *that* situation?


  2. The cello by night forum would probably be the better choice for you–and hell, I don’t even generally like posting at the cello chat forum itself. I’ve been at the forum off and on for almost ten years and nothing’s really changed.

    I would like to know more about that SacPhil situation. Do you have any idea roughly what year(s) they tried that?

    I think the Memphis Symphony has gotten it close to right. Problem is, the cost of running the Memphis Symphony versus the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is likely to make the Memphis Symphony’s efforts only effective when operating costs are relatively small. For some reason, I believe the Chicago Symphony is still one of the few top-tier orchestras running the in the black, but that might also only be a local phenomenon. I don’t think any one solution is going to completely work for all orchestras–it may take many different strategies in tandem!


  3. I don’t know what years — all my info is second hand from someone who was just an intern, so she didn’t have all the info either. SacPhil is actually the third(?) professional orchestra in Sac. It went something like the first died, a while later another was started, it died, then SacPhil was started. I know SacPhil has funding to complete this season and next season, but after that they have no idea. Honestly, though, I don’t think having more information in this case would help.


  4. Just discovered the Folsom (suburb of Sac) Symphony. Not sure from its website if it’s a professional or community orchestra, but it seems far more relevant than SacPhil. And they perform at the Folsom Community College theater, which is far new and nicer than Sacramento Community Theater. I apparently sells out of its tickets within the first few weeks of them going on sale. While SacPhil is lucky to fill half its seats. Hmm. Gotta look into this one! Also, wondering about that community college which has a better music program. It’s a bit further of a drive from here (45 miles!) but if it has an orchestra (unlike my community college) it could be something I could maybe someday eventually be involved in. Hmm!


  5. Jon, have you seen the Music After 50 page or the film Virtuoso that was made? Here’s the link: http://www.musicafter50.com/2009/09/cellist-shatters-misconceptions-about-adult-learning/

    This cellist has a studio for adults (Never2Late) which looks interesting. It seems that her mission is more about older people learning to play at all, though, not about pushing the boundaries to see just how good of players the students can be. Her web presence isn’t the greatest, but she has a website: http://www.bianakovic.com/index.html

    Curious to know what you think. I still refuse to believe that a true virtuoso can’t be made out of an adult student. Unlikely in the extreme, yes, but just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t. You mentioned in another comment thread that adults learning new things, such as languages, have to piggy-back on the neural pathways already in place. But here’s the assumption that you made, that I think everyone makes: the neural pathways needed to be good at music aren’t already there. Maybe I’m totally off-base here, but what if they actually exist already, but are vastly underutilized and undeveloped.

    Here’s a story for you: last semester when I took the pre-theory class the professor did an interesting experiment near the beginning of the class. What’s important to note is that most of the people in the class did not come from a musical background and many had never even tried playing any instrument, even a crappy recorder in elementary school. (The class counts for a GE.) The level of musical experience in this class was such that I, having been playing cello for 7 months at the start of the class, was the most advanced musician there. I was one of two people who even knew what a major scale was and how it should sound when he did this experiment. He told us he was going to sing something and he wanted us to finish it. He sang do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti and the whole class finished correctly with do. Now this isn’t musically sophisticated, but he started playing on his trombone more complicated pieces (generally jazz pieces that the students didn’t know,) leaving off the last note of the phrase (not necessarily the tonic) and having the class finish. Every single person in the class could do this accurately. They still had no idea what a major scale was and in fact most didn’t even know what the heck half and whole steps were, but they knew what notes to sing to finish scales or songs or phrases.

    What do you think?


  6. No, I hadn’t heard of that film, nor of Biana–thanks for the links! This adult student world is still a vast unexplored territory for me so I welcome anything you come across!!

    As for the piggy-backing comment–that’s basically what’s happening with secondary language acquisition. The neural structures are demonstrably different for different languages because of how differently they are structured in the brain. Think of the brain as a set of mental muscles. Languages that use suffixes to determine grammatical structure (like Latin, Italian, Spanish) will look a whole lot different in the brain than a language that uses lexical tones (like Chinese and my native Thai) because you’re constantly exercising different “mental muscles.”

    Its the same thing with music. I don’t know if you had a chance to listen to the cello taksims I posted on Sunday but I suspect if your teacher were to have played in a Turkish scale (the Makams I mentioned in the link) leaving off the karar (final note) I would suspect you and your classmates would have picked out that note with little better than chance occurrence since many makams don’t start on the same ‘pitch’ as they end.

    This study shows what I’m talking about from a rhythmic standpoint:

    Basically Bulgarians and Macedonians have little problem processing the complex rhythms found in their folk, art, and even pop music in ways that most Westerners can’t. This phenomenon has even been replicated with classically trained musicians–they can process the complex rhythms little better than non trained Westerners–meaning pretty much at chance levels. But notice that the article discusses that infants are able to comprehend the rhythms but eventually “lose” that ability if their musical culture doesn’t reinforce it–their brains start to develop structures to understand the musical environments they will be surrounded by.

    This really takes a bite out of the Utopian idea first coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that “Music is the universal language of mankind” –it’s as universal as language is, meaning that every culture has both, but so much of both are relatively unintelligible to someone outside of the cultures.

    All this Western music we’ve been surrounded with all our lives, jazz, Anglo-American pop, classical music, church hymns are all based on a common harmonic musical language–once we get outside of the Western world and look at the other 90 percent of the world’s music, there’s as much diversity there as we’d find in the languages!


  7. I think what I’m saying is that because we already have our ears trained to listen to western music, we already have the pathways in place to play western music. But I agree, we’d all be pretty damn stupid in another musical culture.


  8. Ah, that’s pretty much a given.

    And I just realized earlier that I do know of someone who has reach the level of a virtuoso having started playing an instrument as an adult. Raquy Danziger. Plays the darabuka (Turkish goblet drum) and only started that after having made a trip to India to learn some Indian tabla techniques after she was introduced to that relatively late in life. She regularly goes to Egypt to perform on Egyptian television and in concerts with master percussionist Said El Artist and his troupe and regularly tours throughout the US and lately worldwide. Here’s a video of her during one of those Egyptian events a couple years ago:


    As for the the ability, without explicit training, to complete scales or songs on cue–that’s mostly because of the implicit exposure to the musical language. It’s the same with language. And I guess in a way, Adult Students of the cello in the US already have some of the basic aural skills as well. On the otherhand, if you’d have grown up in Turkey, the musical language you’d be laying on the cello would be the ones of makams and microtones and melodic, rather than harmonic, complexity.


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