That time when the orchestra put their collective foot down

I was talking to a longtime colleague recently, when we both remembered a rehearsal day from many years ago that was truly unusual:

Singing a large work with a world-class orchestra, the artistic director raised his baton after the break and shared with all of us an open letter signed by most of the members of the orchestra. In response to some very unprofessional behavior in a previous concert on behalf of a different guest choir, they were calling on the organization to ONLY book our professional choir from now on. They made it clear that they didn’t want to work with anyone else.

Needless to say, we were touched. It’s not something that happens often. It was wonderful to be acknowledged so deliberately by these musicians that we all respected, and to know that that respect was returned.

But as some of you will have guessed, nothing came of it, at least not in the long-term. To this day, that orchestra still books a variety of choirs and other groups, as well they should. (And yes, that is why I’m not naming names, cities, states or other details. It would be the same just about anywhere, anyway.) While the validation was lovely, it was clear that the organization could never actually follow through. Too much was at stake. (I’m told, however, that the offending “other” choir was informed of the orchestra’s reaction. That may have been valuable on its own, so the orchestra’s gesture was far from empty.)

But this story has a purpose. I share it not out of nostalgia or any kind of wistfulness, but out of the appreciation I gained for what large orchestras do for our communities. Smaller organizations and individual artists have much to learn here.

Lessons in marketing and management

“Outreach” is too often belittled as a way to get grant money, but those who look down their noses at pro/community fusion are really, truly missing a huge point. Reaching out to those around us is the only way to continue building our audiences, feeding future talent, and building a vibrant atmosphere in the areas where we work and dwell. It’s all about the numbers: let your actions and marketing touch more people, hopefully a LOT of them, and they’ll be more likely to pay attention next time. They’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends… (thank you, Heather Locklear)

By working collaboratively with many different entities throughout the season and over the span of years, they build links, one by one, not only with those organizations, but with every participant who was involved. Those events are remembered by the performers, their families and friends in the audience, and even those who couldn’t attend. Even if they couldn’t remember the details, they’ll feel a stronger connection to the city, the building where such beautiful things take place, and some of that excitement becomes a little tug at the back of their minds whenever they see or hear about those things. That one connection can have a powerful effect that touches many people, and lasts for years.

Our mission

The reason local governments invest in large arts organizations (at least we hope they do!) is that music and performance and visual arts really do bring people together, and we should ALL be looking for ways to connect with our community and work with as many people as possible over the course of a career. Grants exist for such projects, as do private donors, and a lot of people who just want to help. Not every event needs to be all-pro, but it should certainly contain as many pros as the repertoire needs and the presenter can afford. I’ve sung with a wide variety of combined choirs, and it’s almost always a lot of fun. The best part for me is seeing the volunteers and passionate amateurs light up as they go through the process. That sense of wonder is infectious, and we should all grab onto it at every opportunity. It’s not just another room to sing in, yet another performance of a piece we know well. Music is magic, and we must not only remember that, but do everything we can to infect others.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite marketing books: Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans. While this book isn’t strictly for the arts (and is, sadly, out of print), the principles apply in profound ways. The author, Peter Shankman, talks about being SO awesome that people not only show up, but can’t wait to tell their friends, bring their friends the next time, and share what you do with the world. (Wouldn’t that be heaven?) The trick is to get our audience members and collaborators so excited about the project that they “bite” other people and help grow influence way beyond the norm. It’s pretty simple, really:

  1. Be awesome
  2. Be excited
  3. Get other people involved
  4. Make sure they’re having a FANTASTIC time
  5. Hope they’ll be your fans, and bring you some new ones.

Bravo to all the organizations who are biting their communities with abandon.

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