Ask Jason

June 7, 2020

Jason asks…

This week we have a question from… me. And I say…

"I enjoy Columbia Orchestra concerts very much, but it seems like the orchestra and the audience aren’t as diverse as the community is. Considering everything going on right now, what will the orchestra do to be sure it’s serving the whole community and not just part of it?"

Good question.

I was not planning to do one of these this week because right now frankly, I think we should all be focused on Black Lives Matter and everything else just seems like an unnecessary distraction. Certainly aging white dudes talking about antique violins seems very tone-deaf right now.

That said, the flip side is a lot of us who work with institutions that have a history of underserving people of color generally and black America specifically need to have some accountability and need to be able to say that they’re going to change how they do things moving forward to make things better.

I can’t speak for the whole Columbia Orchestra right now, but I can say that this issue is a significant part of what we talk about and what we work on. It is a problem for us; it’s a problem for every orchestra. I won’t make it a bigger problem than it is: it’s not that we don’t have any black people in the orchestra or don’t have any diversity in our audience but it is certainly not reflective of the whole community and that’s the way it should be.

One of the great things about the Columbia Orchestra is what we play: our actual programming, the music that we do is very reflective of the community we serve. On our series you will hear the music of Black composers, and Latino composers, and Chinese composers, and women composers… A lot of voices that have historically been underrepresented in orchestra concerts. We don’t fall into that mold of playing just the old, dead, white European dudes.

But we’re not playing those pieces to try to attract a Black audience, or a Latino audience per se; we’re playing that music because it’s fantastic music and our job is to tell the human story, the whole story. And the fact that we’re doing that doesn’t mean that Black people will suddenly show up because we have a few black pieces and thee black soloists on the concerts. However, if we don’t feature music by black composers and if we don’t feature black artists why wouldn’t they leave?

So the ways in which we are addressing these issues… We’ve started the first stages of creating a new strategic plan for the organization. We were in the midst of that when COVID-19 hit, so the last eight weeks have not been on the timetable we had planned. But there are three initiative areas we’re exploring in that plan to reach underserved audiences.

The first of them is really listening – I mean in actual listening sessions where we are trying to create opportunities to meet with the community we serve to let them tell us how we can serve them better, how we can build bridges, and find out from the people we’re not reaching what we need to be doing better.

The second area is kind of a challenge because we use the traditional orchestra model: we rent a concert hall, people buy tickets and come, and we play a marvelous concert, and they love the music and hopefully it’s life-changing. But if you have an issue where you are not able to get part of your community to come to that concert hall, you have to turn around and go to them.

And that can be a challenge. Certainly taking a full orchestra is a challenge. And it is a challenge for us as a community orchestra because there is a ceiling on the amount of events that we can do because our players are all volunteers, so doing this may mean no longer that and that requires some tough evaluations of what we invest our time and energy in to make real change.

A third thing is also a little scary because it changes the way we go about doing our mission. As an orchestra, historically we follow the model where we find great music, we learn that music, we rehearse that music, we perform that music, you come and get it and you love it. We love that model and it has worked well for a lot of things for a long time.

But right now we are in the middle of COVID and Black Lives Matter and a thousand other social issues and non-profits are going to have to change the way they think. We are used to saying “Here’s what we have. Come and get it,” and now we need to say to our communities “what do you need from us?” And that’s scary because I know how to pick out the good music, and I know how to play it, and I know how to give concerts, but learning something new is scary. But something new may be what our community needs from us right now, and I know that when our artists are forced to reinvent themselves, they often come up with their very best work and that’s our job right now.

So that’s not the answer, but that’s all I got. That’s it for today. If you’re interested in working with us going forward, if you’d be interested in being part of those listening sessions, you know how to find us through our website columbiaorchestra.org. In the meantime, be kind to each other, take care, and Black Lives Matter. We’ll see you as soon as we can.

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