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The Evolving Symphony Orchestra

Creating an Atmosphere of Inclusiveness Within a Multi-Cultural Environment

1995 Little Beck Music

A Perspective by: James Kimo Williams, Composer,

Presented at the Columbia College Symposium on Cultures, Communities and the Arts

Chicago Illinois December 2nd, 1995

Symphony Orchestras over the last 5 to10 years have realized that they can no longer live in a community
all of themselves. They must now more than ever before develop broader relationships with heretofore unneeded and sometimes unwanted communities that are multi-cultural.


The shake-and-bake early answers were to identify the community make-up and then provide auxiliary token gestures of inclusiveness such as "Jazz at The Symphony" or special program presentations during cultural celebrations. These programs, aimed at specific ethnicities, brought [that] community together for a one- time presentation, but rarely did these programs (or series of programs) bring substantial new cultures to symphony orchestra concerts through-out the year.

The orchestra managers and their trustees then tried other programs such as: taking the orchestra out to the community; creating the so-called "out-reach" programs; having black or latino composers, musicians and conductors talk to the audience that they are trying to bring to the concert hall. Is it working?

Do these programs really have an impact on broadening the audience base for American Orchestras? The orchestra and its' entire organization should realize that inclusiveness can only come about when they genuinely want it. They can not implement successful inclusiveness programs without first identifying their community and the audience that they wish to serve and then creating programs that will enable these cultures to come together.

The traditional white middle and upper-class audience must become an equal member of the orchestra community, or the"let's do this for them" syndrome that separates the audiences into "haves and have-nots" will persist, and other cultures will continue to stay away.

Orchestras must seriously want these cultures to be included as part of the orchestra family. Programs addressing inclusiveness can not be based on special funding or corporate sponsorship: it must come from the orchestras' basic operating budget.

We must create an environment in the concert hall that will make all members feel welcomed. To do this, the orchestra community must have a better understanding of the different cultures that make up the community. Many orchestras develop education programs for minorities to understand minorities, for black children to understand their heritage and the many contributions of their race, yet very seldom will these education programs go out to the white middle and upper-class schools to present the history of black composers and their contributions to classical music.

The educational goals of orchestras that are concerned about inclusiveness must include educating all the members of their community. Programs should provide insight about the nature of all the cultures that make up the community.

The typical orchestra audience members' knowledge of other cultures is mostly from what they see on TV, and this is all they generally have to go by in understanding cultures outside of their own. Symphony Orchestras are no longer the property of the rich or the elite.

Economics have changed so drastically that now the ordinary tax-payer has an investment in the presentation of music at the concert hall. Many orchestras count on government grants to present their programs. In order to get this government funding, orchestras draw up community-based programs that are one-time shots and many times have no lasting affect on continued growth of the orchestras audience. Orchestra organizations must learn more about their potential orchestra community and its' cultures.

For example: For the majority of the non-white community, music is traditionally more of a participatory communal event. It is not something to sit in a seat quietly and admire. Once orchestra management understands the relationship of music to these diverse communities, they can better develop effective programs dealing with inclusiveness.

Orchestras of course must not lose their subscribers. These consistent attendees may only want a social event, and if the orchestra changes these subscribers might lose their interest in attending concerts. This is where the importance of a solid education program will reap benefits. The board and the entire orchestra organization must be committed to change and be ready to create change for the betterment of the organization.

Many affluent concert-goers may not want to mix and mingle with people of different races or cultures. They may not like how loud they talk, or the way they dress, or fear that they may talk during the performance. By understanding what the concerns of the community are, orchestras can address each concern and reassure current community members as well as new members that they have nothing to fear. As the orchestra and the audience grows with this new cultural mix, there will be adjustments made, and a better understanding of each others' cultural make-up will hopefully be realized.

Why should orchestras feel a need to create an environment of inclusiveness that may be perceived as artificial? Perhaps the culture they want to include is not interested in being included. If the organization as a whole is committed to creating an inclusive environment, there will be no artificial or pretentious patronizing, and the potential new audience members will sense this and know that they are a viable part of the orchestras' community. Terms such as "outreach" or "underserved" tend to lump the African American audience into the so-called 'ghetto" (also a negative non-inclusive term) mentality and the orchestra leadership need to addressed this in a significant way to minmalize the negative impact that these terms have.

A national survey of American Orchestra staff personnel was conducted to determine what issues were most important in developing plans for the future of the orchestra. Mission definition was rated number 1 and community issues was rated 5th. Many conclusions can be drawn from these results. However, as related to this perspective, the results show that community issues are thought of as separate from the orchestras' mission statement.

Many times the orchestras' mission statement will include some type of general community educational rhetoric that is hard to define and even harder to implement. To insure an orchestras' concert and social environment perpetuates inclusiveness, the orchestra and its' entire organizational body must commit to making a change. Where does an orchestra start to create this environment? The answer is simple: The organization should draw up a document that becomes a part of their mission statement.

This addendum must be without the broad-based rhectoric that is prevalent in so many mission statements. In this document a timeline will be drawn that will address issues relevant to each specific organization that hampers an environment of inclusiveness, and provide milestones and completion dates for resolving issues or implementing plans. In order to do this the community must have input to this document and support it. The organization must deal with issues that are not dependent on funding.

The issues of inclusiveness must come from their operational budget and be budgeted for each year. This will create an on-going commitment and not the one-shot "clear our guilty conscience" syndrome. A serious program will not succeed when funding "drives the train". If the orchestra does not commit to such a document, they should seriously consider abandoning their community inclusiveness programs. Any thing less than this document is a continuance of politically-correct patronizing.

Abandoning these one-shot efforts will save time, energy and money into programs (many are good individual programs) that will not have a lasting affect on changing the environment at the concert hall. Once inclusiveness plans are implemented, many of the programs that orchestras have in place will pay dividends in better community involvement and continued support from a wider cultural diverse community.

Until orchestras understand and know their cultural communities and then commit to including these cultures into the fabric of the orchestra family, inclusiveness will only be a vision unattainable.

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