Community of Music Makers

Introduction Process Impact


About San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave its first concerts in 1911, five years after the city’s devastating earthquake and fire. Today, the SFS serves 600,000 people each year through more than 220 concerts. The SFS was the first orchestra in the country to record under its own label, and its recordings have been recognized with numerous prestigious awards, including 11 Grammy®s under the leadership of current music director Michael Tilson Thomas. In 2006, the SFS launched Keeping Score, a multi-year, multimedia program designed to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds.

About the Project

Community of Music Makers is a complementary platform of activities designed to support, encourage and sustain amateur music-making by adults in the Bay Area. The program is composed of workshops for instrumentalists (Play Out, Davies! in two versions: for strings and for woodwinds & brass players), singers (Sing Out, Davies! choral workshops), and chamber players (Chamber Music Workshops).

Starting Conditions

As the SFS approached its 100th anniversary in 2011-12, the organization was deeply engaged in strategic discussion about the future. In what ways might one of the country’s most established and distinguished orchestras celebrate its artistic, educational and community accomplishments while invigorating a renewed vision of service and community partnerships? Citing the rich environment for amateur musicians in the Bay Area—including community music schools, adult extension division classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a host of community orchestras and choruses—staff believed the answer lay in creating opportunities to connect with passionate amateur musicians. The SFS already served 75,000 children and families annually through extensive and successful education programs in Bay Area schools and communities, but the orchestra had done little to promote active music-making among adults. Therefore a program for adults seemed a natural next step.

SFS Executive Director Brent Assink says the idea was not an entirely new one. “Herbert Blomstedt suggested a subscriber orchestra in the early 1990s,” says Assink, “and while the idea resonated, we didn’t do anything about it for a long time.” As staff continued to talk about connecting the audience more directly to the experience of making music, however, they agreed that the symphony could indeed play an important role in encouraging ongoing musical expression among adults. “We didn’t want to duplicate other efforts, but add a new dimension that complemented them,” says Director of Education Ronald Gallman. “How could we enable all of those wonderful folks out there to be as actively involved in music as possible?”

The external environment seemed to support this kind of participatory approach. National Endowment for the Arts statistical research showed that while 65 percent of symphony audience members played an instrument as a child, audiences for concerts were declining; at the same time, an interest in playing an instrument was increasing. The Internet, which once was primarily an informational resource, was becoming a center for social interaction. A new emphasis on interactivity, creativity and participation among audiences meant that art was increasingly what people did rather than what they observed. Could the SFS deepen its relationship to its audiences and invite their involvement in a new, participatory way? With support from the Arts Innovation Fund, they would soon find out.

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Determined to be both creative and cautious in planning Community of Music Makers (CoMM), SFS staff concentrated initially on research, engaging a CoMM Program Adminstrator to consult with a dozen orchestras of all sizes across the US and abroad about their experiences in engaging adult amateur musicians. This information was crucial to helping to shape Community of Music Makers. The conductor would be responsible for setting the tone and focus of the group. To ensure access, there would be no auditions, although participants would pay a small fee to demonstrate their commitment. Rather than imposing explicit expectations, the SFS would emphasize flexibility and personal relevance for participants. Finally, there would be plenty of time to socialize with fellow amateurs and with the Symphony’s professional musicians.

Its initial research complete, the SFS began conducting more focused local research, including audience surveys and focus groups on Bay Area needs, internal focus groups (Board Education Committee, chorus and orchestra members), and visits to area choruses and chamber music organizations. Conversations with likely participants led to the final workshop design of the program—one which emphasizes coaching and mentorship by orchestra and chorus members, as well as a short performance for friends and family on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall.

After a year of investigation, SFS staff were ready to dive into the hard work of prototyping. The first three-hour choral workshop (Sing Out Davies!) was scheduled for June 2011 under the direction of Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. As part of the registration process, participants provided information on their current music-making activities, their vocal range, and their general ability. To everyone’s surprise, 232 people created chorister profiles by the end of the first day of registration, and within three days, the workshop was sold out. “Clearly,” says one staff member, “we had struck a responsive chord.”

In the following season, the SFS held two more choral workshops and piloted its instrumental program (Play Out Davies!) with one workshop for string players and one for woodwind and brass players, including an optional sectional rehearsal prior to the full workshop. These first instrumental workshops, led by Resident Conductor Donato Cabrera, began with a half-hour rehearsal, followed by a 50-minute sectional with SFS musicians (Symphony Mentors). After a break, the group gathered for a final hour-long segment including more rehearsal and a run-through of workshop repertoire for family and friends. Cabrera was stunned by the dedication and concentration of participants. “It’s amazing,” he says. “The progress in the short amount of time we worked together was remarkable.”

Choral and instrumental workshops continued throughout the year, and by 2012, the SFS was ready to pilot the final component of Community of Music Makers: a chamber music program designed for people who work together in advance to prepare for coaching by Symphony Mentors. Following an hour-long private coaching session, each of the four participant ensembles perform a 15-minute selection in concert for fellow musicians and for family and friends on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall. Held on four Sunday evenings following SFS chamber orchestra concerts, the workshops also provide an opportunity for participants to attend the concert and a reception with SFS musicians.

Shifts in Assumptions

Initially, SFS staff had expected to create an adult amateur orchestra that would perform periodic public concerts. Based on input they received during conversations with potential participants, however, they quickly dropped these expectations in favor of open workshops and short private performances. Not only would a dedicated orchestra require a huge time commitment from participants, it also would impinge on other activities in the community. “There are already a lot of amateur orchestras and choruses,” says one staff member, “and we learned we didn’t need to create another one. In fact, doing so might have a negative impact on the greater community of orchestras, bands and choruses.”

Focusing on workshops meant that public performances were no longer a priority. Instead, Community of Music Makers focuses on the performers, something participant Danielle Napoleon says is critically important. “The fact we don’t have a public performance is really ok,” she says, “because we’re not here to try and perform. We’re here to learn and to grow and to make music together.” Her mentor, SFS bass clarinetist Jerry Simas, agrees. “Being all about the participants is key,” he says. “I think having a big public concert would change the tenor of the experience. I want it to be fun. I want people to learn from this. I don’t want there to be a sense of competition or anxiety.”

For SFS artists, staff, and trustees, Community of Music Makers challenged some fundamental assumptions. Board members wondered whether the program was a legitimate part of the Symphony’s mission. There were initial questions about how to define excellence in a new context – focusing on educational excellence and the excellence of the participant experience rather than focusing purely on artistic excellence. Musicians, especially, had little idea what to expect. “We definitely talk about and practice artistic excellence here at the SFS,” says Gallman, “but in Community of Music Makers, excellence comes in the quality of the workshop experience.”

Cabrera defines excellence as accomplishing the goal that is set out for the evening, noting that although the level of playing varies among participants, the mentors “have been very inspired by the total joy and passion that (participants) have for music-making. It sort of rekindles the feelings we had when we first started playing our instruments.” He says there is “no difference at all” conducting Community of Music Makers workshops and conducting the SFS. “The level is different,” he says, “but not the sense of accomplishment, not the sense of taking the journey from discovering a piece of music for the first time and then performing.” Staff say they’ve done a good job when they “look out during the workshops and see all of the participants on stage really engaged, focused, and smiling.”

Obstacles and Enablers

Enthusiastic leadership from the Executive Director, starting small, and dedicating resources up front were crucial to the success of Community of Music Makers. Hiring a program administrator and developing a corps of dedicated volunteers to staff the workshops provided stability and continuity. Initial research helped avoid mistakes and ensured that the program appealed to potential participants. A willingness to be flexible allowed for important program refinements. Perhaps most important is the continuing enthusiastic commitment of symphony and chorus mentors. “It’s almost humbling to have this experience with these world-class players,” says Napoleon. “They’re just so generous with their time and talent.”

There are challenges as well, however. The SFS is a very busy place, and Community of Music Makers has had to find its place among multiple programs and initiatives. The competition for time in Davies Symphony Hall—seen by program administrators, musicians and participants as critical to success—is a significant challenge, but well worth the effort. Gallman insists that time on stage in Davies Symphony Hall is a huge enabler of success. “Having participants in a space that is dedicated to music-making at the highest level, an acoustical environment specifically designed to support music-making, is a great advantage for an amateur musician,” he says.

A central goal of Community of Music Makers is inclusivity—an ambition that is both an obstacle and an enabler. Cabrera says choosing repertoire for the workshops is “always a very serious, but interesting, challenge. We don’t want to pick music that is impossible for (participants) to play,” he says, “but at the same time we don’t want music that doesn’t challenge them.” Although the ability of participants varies, surveys indicate that they prefer an inclusive approach even if it means sacrificing a more technically challenging workshop. The SFS has addressed this issue by varying the repertoire and allowing participants to self-select based on the level of difficulty. For choral workshops, online resource materials help participants prepare, with listening tools including foreign language pronunciation guides.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Community of Music Makers was technology. In June 2012, the SFS launched its chamber music convening webpage in collaboration with San Francisco Classical Voice. The page included chamber music resources, suggested reading and listening, and a vehicle for finding musical collaborators. Unfortunately this collaboration only lasted a little over a year. The SFS is exploring other opportunities to provide an online pathway for participants to continue to be engaged after the workshops and for those in our program and in the community at large to connect with one another and to become more active in music.

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By the Numbers

By all accounts, Community of Music Makers workshops have been tremendously successful, with 84 percent of participants reporting they are “very satisfied” with the experience. Between June 2011 and July 2014, the SFS hosted seven choral workshops, 10 instrumental workshops, and 11 chamber music workshops involving 43 chamber groups. All were sold out. There were 3,546 participants, with approximately 60 percent attending more than one workshop. An estimated 2,500 people viewed workshop performances.

A growing number of SFS orchestra and chorus members are participating in Community of Music Makers as Mentors. Through June 2014, 41 SFS musicians (39% of the orchestra), 11 chorus members, and 15 regular orchestra substitute musicians have served as mentors in one or more workshops.

Whether the program is enlarging the number of amateur musicians in the Bay Area is difficult to determine, but staff cite anecdotal evidence that suggests an increased interest in active engagement. Over 40 choral workshop participants, for example, signed up to learn more about the San Francisco Chorus auditions; five decided to audition, and two were selected to join the Chorus.

While tracking the number of tickets sold among workshop participants is no easy task, the SFS reports some initial success. In 2012-13, for example, there were 786 unique participants in three choral workshops who purchased 1,894 regular-priced tickets to concerts. Program administrator Lolly Lewis says staff are working on a more effective system to track ticket purchases, especially purchases from previous non-attenders.

New Pathways to Mission

Assink considers Community of Music Makers a seamless realization of the SFS mission, and he says the program has enabled the SFS to test a whole new method of enriching, serving and shaping the community’s cultural life. Gallman calls the program a “win-win for everyone,” deepening the engagement of those who are already part of the SFS family and offering an opportunity for the music-making community—whether they have been coming to Davies Symphony Hall or not—to think of the Symphony as an aspect of their music-making lives.

If the goal of Community of Music Makers is to inspire passion among amateurs that deepens connections to the SFS, it has been wildly successful, according to Napoleon, who says she has gained confidence from participating in the workshops. “The experience is transformative,” she says. “It gets you more involved, more hungry—wanting more or wanting to play more, wanting to improve, wanting to make more music. It takes quite a while to come down from that experience.” The experience has changed the way Napoleon thinks about the Symphony, and she has begun bringing her friends to concerts.

Perhaps one of the most important, but possibly unintended, outcomes of Community of Music Makers is the impact it has had on members of the chorus and orchestra. By moving them to the forefront of the initiative, the SFS has established a powerful connection between professional artists and amateurs—a kind of two-way communication that makes better listeners and better performers. “What’s been really fun,” says Simas, “is that many of our participants are ticket holders. So now I see the clarinet students at concerts and they wave to me. It makes the performing experience all the more special, in my opinion. It removes some of the anonymity a little bit, and that’s a great thing.”

The emphasis on relationships in Community of Music Makers has opened fertile new pathways for the SFS. “San Francisco is full of people who have played a musical instrument or sung in a choir, and their lives are enriched dramatically when they have the opportunity to express themselves again in that way,” says Assink. “They come in as musicians, dust off their violins, and rediscover a great love of what attracted them to those instruments in the first place.”

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