Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It's About Making the Effort

I often write about my orchestra, and I refer to it as mine because I am a performing member, so I can claim a certain level of ownership. This isn’t someone else’s orchestra, a philharmonic that serves someone else’s community. It’s mine, and it serves the community where I live.

Last fall, the board of directors saw fit to invite me to join them because it would be good to have a performing member at the table, so now I claim double ownership. Not only do I get the privilege of sitting in my seat on stage and making music with talented musicians, which is benefit enough, but I now get to be officially involved in the planning of things, the promotion of things and the nitty gritty of things.

Good thing, too, because months before I joined the board, the conductor and I began having private meetings with people around town—newspaper editors and people from other arts organizations, for example—looking for new ways to promote our non-profit group that relies on benevolent financial support and the sale of tickets for its bread and butter.

The arts are slipping across the board. Government funding on all levels has dried up, and everyone, even the giants, is feeling the squeeze. It’s not that people don’t listen to classical music anymore or that our particular orchestra isn’t worth hearing. It’s that modern Americans have lost interest in sitting still in a concert hall for a couple of hours and listening to a live performance. Such activity requires having to dress in something other than schlubby clothes, sitting still without fiddling and fidgeting with a cell phone and keeping your mouth closed, both to talking and eating. Such activity requires effort. And frankly we’ve become lazy.

I, for one, think we could all use some sitting still. We could benefit from less fidgeting, less talking, less lounging around in sweats with our feet on the coffee table. What we could do with is some activities that require effort. People often say to me, when I invite them over for dinner, “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.” And my response is always this—I absolutely should have gone to so much trouble because the people I invite into my home are worth the trouble and deserving of the best I can offer.

The same is true when listening to great music—it’s worth the trouble, the best we can offer, to put ourselves in the frame of mind to hear it, not as background noise to our other activity, but as the central focus. And in no other setting can we pull that off than when we seat ourselves squarely in front of a group that is offering the music to us, just for us, going to a lot of trouble to give us their finest.

Well, stepping off of my soapbox, my orchestra’s board is trying some new things to convince more people we are worth the effort. For example, we’ve created some wrap-around events that coordinate with the concerts to encourage people to see our concerts as social gatherings—we’ve given a children’s party before a Halloween concert, provided cookies and punch for people to enjoy while greeting a guest performer, created a coffee house for teenagers to meet a young musician, and hosted a barbeque before a country concert.

We put our children’s chorus in the Christmas parade, riding a float and singing along the route. We’ve stepped up our presence in the local newspaper, and the conductor has recorded some special spots at the radio station. Last weekend, we gave commemorative T-shirts to the 130 high school students who performed with us; this week we’ll be distributing special table tents to a bunch of local restaurants to draw in country music fans; and we’re in the middle of the May Festival that promotes fine arts events all over the county this month alone.

We instituted a newsletter that is emailed to more than 1,100 fans, introduced pre-concert chat videos that are online and are aired in the hall lobby before each concert, given comp tickets to tons of people to help break the ice, and networked with other local arts organizations to make plans for the future.

Will all of our efforts pay off? It’s too soon to tell. But we made the effort and learned from our successes and failures. In today’s financial circumstance, compounded by a dwindling attention span and amplified laziness, survival is about All Hands on Deck, All Ideas on the Table, Try New Things. See What Works and What Doesn’t. It’s mostly about making the effort.

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