Have you ever stopped to think about what the term “reaching out” really means? We talk about reaching out to our audiences, to new communities, to new patrons and to new donors all the time– but I think it is time that the arts community take a fresh look at what reaching is and is not.
Full disclosure: I dislike the terms “community outreach” and “reaching out”. I don’t like what they imply, that somehow our audiences or the community needs us to graciously step down from our dais of cultural superiority and (shudder) mingle amongst them.
These terms are elitist. Thank goodness that in recent years the arts world has begun to shift in lingo, now giving these same kinds of programs names like “community or audience engagement initiatives”.
But I’d like to argue that a name change isn’t enough. There has to be a sense of authenticity in the way arts organizations interact with and develop relevancy to fellow citizens of their communities.
So how can you do this? How can an organization ensure that its community engagement initiatives are really connecting with people in the community? How do you provide real value to others through your art? The following are some basic guidelines for community programs that are actually– well, engaging.
Be mission driven.
The first step is to compare your community program with your overall organizational mission. Community programs should simultaneously provide benefit for others as well as raise an awareness of the artistic work of your organization. Don’t send a mixed message with your programs. For example, an orchestra who runs a program in the public schools that teaches an introduction to all the performing arts is overreaching. Protect your mission and your budget by sticking to programs that promote your brand of artistic work.
Help your organization personify the values of a model citizen.
Did you know that for-profit corporations have the same legal rights as a real person? I was shocked to discover this and it got me thinking, what if non-profit organizations behaved like a person? What would their habits be? Thinking in terms of human characteristics can help us guide our arts organizations to be model citizens in our community. Do we help out in times of need? Do we donate time and services to people in crisis? Are we active in city government regarding arts issues that would impact our community? Is our organization a pessimist or an optimist? Are we an activist or a pacifist? These questions help us to create a new lens through which we can view the work that we do and how it is perceived by our community.
Showcase artists as community members.
If you were able to answer yes to some of all of the questions in the previous section, then chances are you have members of your organization who are active citizens at the individual level as well. Showcase them! Get the word out to the public about the great work these dedicated artists are doing. It’s a win-win situation. Your artists and/or employees will feel their work is being appreciated and the community will have an increased awareness about the work these great people do in your community programs. The community will begin to see the people behind your programs and can develop meaningful relationships with them.
Identify a need and consider how your art can address it.
One of the great things about musicians is that we can use our art to influence positive change in the community. Consider important issues in your community and use your musical gifts to help raise awareness of an issue. Get your hands dirty and show the community through action what issues your organization supports.
Let’s consider for a moment that your organization has an engagement program that is very costly, but seems to be underperforming. Many organizations are afraid that if they cut the underperforming program they will be seen as in crisis or as taking away valuable services from the community. Perhaps it isn’t as black and white as that. There is an alternative, which is to cut the poorly performing program and break apart that program’s budget to support a wide range of one-time issue based events.
If hunger is an issue for your commmunity, you could use the funding to help sponsor a food drive by providing a concert for the kick off event. Another portion of the former program’s budget could be to help send small chamber groups (made by members of your orchestra) into veteran’s centers, retirement communities, or public schools to bring music to audiences outside of the concert hall. Suddenly, a program that was formerly a budget black hole has now been transformed into a variety of one-time projects that tackle important community issues. Your organization becomes a civic activist while simultaneously improving its image. It’s another win-win.
Consider the impact your organization’s art will have on other arts in your community.
When designing community engagement initiatives, this can be a difficult consideration to assess. Especially in large urban and cultural centers, it is both a challenge and a necessity to project how your plans will impact other cultural organizations. However we must remember that at the most basic level, if you are a non-profit then your mission trumps your bottom line.
I know that I’m going out on a limb by saying that, but I do believe it. David Handler, co-founder of la Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, said to me in an interview last year that concerning arts organizations “…there is room at the table for everyone…” Don’t make your aim to provide the same program better than another organization. Don’t focus on competition as much as providing service. Those who provide real service will be the ones who are ultimately recognized as outstanding.
Lastly, drop the pretense and be genuine.
As a final note, I urge all arts organizations, administrators, and artists to be humble. Try to forget notions of position, class, influence. As artists, we are all cultural stewards. We are servants to our art and the people who experience it. Don’t ever forget that, no matter how successful or challenged your organization may be. Never be afraid to get your hands dirty. But most importantly, never belittle anyone– ANYONE, in your organization or your community. We are servants. Realizing this is the only way to begin to serve our communities in ways that truly matter.
There is no singular path toward achieving the goals you have for yourself– and there are certainly no shortcuts. What kind of career do you want? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind– an artistic legacy? A philanthropic legacy? When you are standing at the crossroads of life, I guarantee you that the right path is the one that you and you alone make the decision to take. Others may try to point you in one direction, but it is in my experience that personal intuition is always the best guide in unknown territory.
As an artist, a thought leader or other kind of creative person, you have most likely already experienced that nagging pull within in you that influences your decisions. For me, that’s my inner artist guiding me towards decisions that benefit its agenda for my life. The worst decisions I ever made were those when I tried to ignore my gut instinct– because I “knew” more than it did.
The reality was that I didn’t actually know more than my instincts. We seldom do. Often, it is the fear of the unknown that motivates us to make decisions that are against our will. When you are trying to choose your own path, ask yourself if the reasons you are considering a certain option are reasons that you came up with– or did they come from an outside source? While spouses, partners, friends, family, teachers and coaches can make good advisers; they can often be biased. In truth, it is your feelings that matter most. Your choice to go down a certain path will create a new reality for your life and you have to be okay with it.
In order for you to thrive as a creative person, you have to honor your instincts. When you do decide to listen to your instincts, your impulses, and acknowledge your intuition— you own the decision. The path you take becomes YOURS and not “theirs”. No matter what path you decide to travel, there is no guarantee for smooth travel and easy going. But, when push comes to shove and the struggle to achieve your goals begins remember this: it is always easier to lean into the storm when you have decided to be there than it is when you are there against your will.
Building a career, whether in the arts or in any field is both a worthy pursuit and a challenge. The pursuit will cause you to make choices, take risks, and fight for what you believe. In music, you face years of criticism, years of disciplined practice, and the challenging of constantly re-inventing your performance while staying relevant to your audience. In the face of so many possible paths from which to choose, the best path is the one you feel good about.
Like I said, it really is that simple.
The central thread that runs through each and every aspect of the Tuxedo Revolt can be boiled down to relevance. First, let’s all get on the same page as to what the word relevance means:
Definition of RELEVANCE
a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence<giving relevance to college courses>
: the ability (as of an information retrieval system) to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user
When relevance comes into the conversation about performance and the arts, I’m really thinking of the definition 1b (above) and the question it poses. How do the performances we give have practical and or social applicability to our audiences?
In conservatory, I learned a lot about music. I learned about the theory and structure of musical compositions, I learned about the lives and the histories of the people who composed these great and monumental works. I learned how to break a piece of music down and digest its form and many melodies, and of course how to be technically sound in my execution of the performance. However, nowhere along the way did anyone teach us about how to apply relevancy to the skills we had acquired.
This revelation is a recent one for me. Nowhere along my path of education was I ever offered instruction with regard as to how to ensure that the creative work I was toiling away at with my music was relevant to my listeners. This doesn’t make me angry or bitter about my education. But it does illuminate a serious flaw in the way we train artists these days.
There is a concept I have mentioned before, called cultural insulation that exists among artists in a certain discipline. For the sake of example I’ll use musicians in the conservatory. You have 300 to 1,000 musicians learning alongside one another. There is no need to explain to your friends and colleagues why music is relevant to everyday life. Music already holds a special place in the core values of each music student, and this insulation from other viewpoints causes the belief that everyone should/could/or does value music in the way that we as professional musicians do.
Not much thought is given to training young artists, (or even established ones for that matter) how to explain and justify the need for art, for music, and for our craft to non-musicians. When it comes to learning how to fully articulate the importance of the arts, we must all be able to explain our raison d’etre in a way that is both meaningful and doesn’t rely on cultural cliches like, “Because the arts are important” or “Because the music is the universal language.”
Granted, it is a tall order to train young musicians how to talk about the arts in an intelligible but user-friendly, colloquial way. It is demanding to seek out justifications for what we do, then back them up. Yet, this is the age in which we live. In the face of doubt and cultural stereotypes about the future classical music, live performances, and the arts in general, we must be able to speak with confidence and conviction.
Stay tuned in the coming posts about how to do this, do it well, and with confidence.
Ok, ok, maybe it isn’t that cut and dry. But certainly, learning about music helps you to understand the world in a completely different way. Usually, this is the point where I jump on my soapbox on the corner of 85th street and Amsterdam Avenue to talk about the reasons why all children should have the opportunity to study music. But today is a new and different spin: I’m going to talk about the reasons why adults should be encouraged to either begin or resume musical study.
There are many similarities between why children and adults should study music, so for the sake of this post, I’ll give you the quick and dirty reasons why grown-ups should learn how to play an instrument:
1. You don’t want to get old. Yep, that’s right. The study of music by adults has been known to increase and/or maintain brain function well into old-age. Actor Anthony Hopkins picked up the piano late in life and continues to practice daily in the hopes of keeping his mind as sharp and as crisp as ever.
2. Making music for yourself, by yourself is cool. Come on, you know you wish you could just pick up a guitar and play something, channel your inner Jack Johnson. Learning and instrument is unique and breaks the mold or normality. It is a great conversation starter, and it will help you add depth to your personality and character. Not only for those you meet in life, but mostly for you. You will understand that you have abilities that you have never tapped and that you are capable of much more than you once thought possible.
3. Music is relaxing and it heals. Too much cortisol? Much in the same way meditation is relaxing, when you practice your instrument (no matter how you sound at first) your mind enters a place of thought, focus, and excellence where you explore what you are capable of and y0u check your daily stresses and worries at the door. It can be a great way to depart from normal life each day to give back to yourself.
4. Music is a great vehicle to create lasting memories with friends and family. When you feel confident enough on your instrument, you can have small at-home recitals with dinner parties, invite other musicians over to jam with you, play with or accompany your children if they are learning and instrument also, or pull a 50 Shades of Grey and serenade your spouse or partner with your own original composition. Somehow, these experiences are stronger and more meaningful than many others. They are not easily forgotten.
5. What instrument should I choose? For the adult beginner, I would recommend: Guitar, Piano, Harp, and Voice (yes, your voice— a little coaching goes a long way). These are the instruments that I think you may see the most gains in the fastest amount of time. (which is important so you don’t lose interest) Learning an instrument is after all, a learning process. It will take time, but the journey is half the fun.
I wish you the best of luck. If you have any additional questions, you know where to find me.
Until next time,
- Love’s Old Sweet Song (pattytmitchell.com)
- Learn guitar any way you like… It’s all good! Just don’t forget to practice… (guitargear.org)
- Through the Piano (pathfinderscommune.com)
- Why My Kids Will Always Be Involved in Music (5minutesformom.com)