Guest Blog: Music for All Abilities in Canada’s Capital

Child trying out a flute at a Music Circle event In recent years, there has been a tremendous increase in recognition of the need for access to the arts and music for the special needs community. Music is part of the human experience and all people have a right to be a part of that. Yet, traditional concert events have barriers that are difficult to overcome: bright lights, loud sounds, high cost, and the expectation of proper concert etiquette and behaviour can make attending orchestral concerts impossible for many with special needs. Arts education opportunities that are truly accessible are also few and far between. Physical accessibility is only part of the equation; true accessibility involves removing all barriers, which requires creative thinking on the part of arts organizations.

Child with earmuffs trying a horn at a Music Circle eventThe benefits of taking part in accessible music making and concerts goes beyond just the music (which is a great incentive in itself!). Participating in an accessible adapted music program can facilitate social skill development through encouraging turn taking and engaging with peers. The sensory stimulation provided by making and listening to music in a controlled environment can aid with self-regulation and promote well-being. For parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to engage with the arts in a way that is comfortable for their child is priceless.

The National Arts Centre in Ottawa has taken up this cause with dedication to creating a welcoming and adapted environment for the special needs community. Since 2012, the NAC has offered their groundbreaking Music Circle program. This hybrid music education and concert experience is designed to meet the needs of special needs patrons. Small groups participate in a series of hands-on workshops featuring an instrumental family (brass, woodwinds, strings or percussion), followed by a sensory-friendly concert featuring those same instruments. The environment is comfortable, with various seating options, space to move, and a quiet area for breaks as needed. The workshop material is developed to meet the needs of each participant and allow them to interact with the instruments and each other in a way that is comfortable and meaningful for them. The concert is carefully planned to prevent sensory overstimulation. For many, participation in this program has also served as a bridge to attending regular orchestral concerts, and the NAC has facilitated this by offering sensory-friendly pre-concert activities at family concerts. Through the Music Circle program, hundreds of patrons of all ages with special needs have come to learn about the orchestra and have attended concerts designed to meet their needs. As a result, a love of music has been sparked in many, and they feel welcomed and comfortable at the National Arts Centre.

Thank you to Erin Parkes from the Lotus Centre for Special Music Education for writing this guest blog. Erin will be at our national conference talking about orchestras and social inclusion with other experts in the field including Ian Ritchie (Setúbal Music Festival), Faith Scholfield (Windsor Symphony Orchestra), and Elizabeth Simpson (NAC Orchestra).

From Development to Engagement

Donna Walker-KuhneAs part of OC’s National Conference, in Ottawa this June 11-14, we will be welcoming Donna Walker-Kuhne as one of our keynote speakers. Donna is currently Senior Advisor of Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre (NJPAC). Started four years ago by Donna, the NJPAC community engagement department is small (with a staff of three), but is seeing some stunning results. With over 200 events, and some 30,000 people through their doors each year, the NJPAC is actively working to bring the arts to a more diverse audience, and engaging them in many different ways.

Successfully engaging community

Early in their community engagement work, Donna and her department decided to more extensively activate the advisory council of community members already in place at NJPAC to help guide their work. “We have an amazing advisory council that creates events that they find are of interest to their community, that introduce the arts, engage people in the arts, and educate people about the arts,” she says. The joint work of the community engagement department and the advisory council has changed the way that the NJPAC operates. “It’s had significant impact, not just in the audiences, but also in the opportunities we can present to our corporate funders. Because we are able to give them a footprint in the community, they are allocating additional dollars, and in certain instances exclusively funding our department.”

Measuring success

It can be challenging to measure the impact of this work on communities. Donna spoke about measuring success at NJPAC through the actions of their partner community organizations and associations. “Buying a ticket is not one of our measurements. We are not a sales entity,” she says. Rather, they look at how deeply they are engaging with the organizations they serve, on something of a ‘ladder of engagement’ that shows different kinds of interactions with NJPAC events:

  1. Attending free events
  2. Promoting NJPAC events (taking fliers, sending e-blasts, helping NJPAC reach people that they might not otherwise be able to)
  3. Bringing groups to events
  4. Volunteering at events

Once organizations are doing three of these four things, they are described as engaged partners, and tracking these is a key measure of success. NJPAC currently has 122 engaged partners.

Audience Development and Community Engagement

Photo of NJPAC with a packed crowd outsideHow has this work changed over time? “It’s an evolution. I’ve been involved in this work since 1982,” Donna says. “At that time we didn’t have any terminology for the lack of diversity in audiences, but there was a conversation.” It took a while for organizations to move on what they heard. In the 1990s, people started using the term audience development, and some foundations started putting funds towards this. Over time, audience development became to be seen as a term more concerned with sales, i.e. developing an audience to purchase tickets. The term community engagement represented the next step. “First we have to cultivate the community to be interested in what we’re doing,” Donna says.

While the terminology has changed, the desire to become more deeply engaged with our communities is still strongly felt in orchestras and arts organizations. However, building this work into long-term plans is challenging. We need to allocate time and money from within our organization to make it happen. “It has to be a priority,” Donna says. “It has to be something that the board and senior leadership have embraced.” It’s important to have ways to measure success, and to be cultivating connections that last longer than one particular project or staff member. It’s not easy work, but it opens up our orchestras to all kinds of interesting, rewarding and long-lasting relationships with our communities.

At our National Conference, Donna will be giving a keynote address and leading a workshop that will explore best practices in the field of community engagement, present success metrics for these programs, and look at how to build and expand multicultural arts audiences. Visit the Conference area of our website for more information.

Building a Digital Organization

The word Digital invokes a wide spectrum of reactions from arts administrators, from screams of delight to… just screams. Whether capital ‘D’ digital is something that is embedded into your organization’s DNA, or just something that you think the staff millennial does, orchestras are engaging with their audiences on digital platforms in ways that are new, exciting, and scary. In preparation for our National Conference, taking place this June, we sat down (digitally, naturally) with Fiona Morris of The Space to discuss the opportunities and pitfalls of  embracing digital technologies in the arts.

Fiona is the Chief Executive and Creative Director with The Space, a UK-based commissioning and development organization that works with artists to create new projects in the arts, and supports other arts organizations in their digital strategy work through mentoring, training and consultancy. Along with her colleague John White, Fiona will be running a pre-conference workshop on building a sound digital strategy.

So why Digital and why right now?

Photo: People discussing around laptopsAlthough conversations about integrating digital technologies into our arts organizations are nothing new, the way we speak about it needs to change. “The term Digital is one of those zeitgeist-y terms,” Fiona says. “It’s a disastrous term that makes people feel inadequate. It’s okay not to know what that word means, because it doesn’t really mean anything.” We tend to use the term as a catch-all for being active online, but don’t always know what this looks like. Orchestras want to be digitally active, but it’s not as simple as just livestreaming everything we do. We need to strategically choose what we present online in order to get the most impact from our limited time and money.

Digital isn’t something that we need to ‘do more of’. Fiona explains this term as “a way of connecting and communicating with audiences that is utterly revolutionary.” The increasing number of digital tools available to arts organizations and their audiences is game-changing, and means that our audiences can be thousands of miles away, or as close as our front door; an exciting and unsettling combination of the hyper-local and the global.

Opportunities and Challenges

As we know here at Orchestras Canada, arts organizations have concerns about how to properly start using digital technologies with limited time and money to put into them (check out the results from this survey we ran last fall on digital strategy at our member orchestras).

This is a great time for cultural organizations. We can engage with our audience in ways we never have before. “For cultural and creative organizations, the opportunity to talk to audiences in detail, and get immediate feedback from them is extraordinary,” Fiona says. Interestingly, it’s a relationship where the audience has all the power. Our audiences consume an overwhelming amount of digital content every day, and they increasingly have the power to decide what they consume and what they ignore. We need to do be purposeful in why we’re asking our audience to engage with us digitally.

Often arts organizations turn to digital platforms (where they have little familiarity) to try and attract younger audiences (with whom they have little experience in communicating). Fiona encourages us to do one or the other of these things well first, before venturing into doubly unfamiliar territory. We need to be very clear and consistent in what our message is to our digital audience, who they are, and why they want to hear it.

Approaching and Integrating Digital

We asked Fiona for some examples of traits that show up in organizations that have successfully transformed their digital work. She mentioned that these organizations all have clarity in their messaging, and gave a series of questions that digitally literate organizations have strong answers to including:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Where is the audience?
  • What conversations are they having?
  • Why should they come to us? (i.e. What makes our orchestra’s podcast/livestream any different than anyone else’s?)

Fiona also emphasizes that a digital strategy needs to have roots in every aspect of your organization. “Most arts organizations are very siloed; the Marketing people don’t talk to the Creative people, who don’t talk to the Fundraising people. Digital means that everything is integrated and everything is moving towards one goal.”

Fiona and John from The Space will be leading a pre-conference workshop on how to integrate your strategic and business plans with a digital strategy. Visit the Conference area of our website for more information.

Guest Blog: A Benefit for Kerry Stratton

Guest blog post by Catriona Delaney at the Italian Canadian Symphony Orchestra

Maestro Kerry Stratton is our friend and a friend to classical music lovers across the nation, and internationally due to his incredible career. He is a household name in Toronto; in addition to being an extraordinary conductor, Kerry has been a broadcaster for three decades at the New Classical FM. For the last five years, Maestro Kerry has energetically lead the Symphony in the Gardens at Casa Loma every Tuesday night of the spring, summer, and early fall, playing to an audience of thousands each week, many of whom had never experienced the wonder of an orchestral performance. Kerry’s conducting is magnetic, energetic, fun, impassioned, and vigorous…the perfect foil to lure in unsuspecting and budding classical music lovers and they return, in droves.

In January 2018, Kerry slipped on the ice and broke his wrist. It didn’t heal, so tests followed. This was the slippery slope to a harrowing diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  There is no cure; eighty percent of people with ALS succumb to the disease within two to five years. Despite this, Maestro Kerry, continued to conduct an entire season, adapting as ALS crept through his body and stripped him of the vigor we know so well.

In the course of his international career, Stratton has conducted orchestras in Europe, North America and Asia. In 2001, he became the first Canadian to conduct the St. Petersburg Camerata in the Hermitage Theatre at the Winter Palace.  In 2004 he debuted with the Beijing Symphony at the Forbidden City. There is so much more to tell of his dedication to classical music. Kerry has regularly toured and guest conducted for orchestras internationally and speaks to wall-to-wall crowds because he has been gifted with the delightful ability to make the stories behind the music you love as entertaining as the music itself.

The real magic in Kerry lies in his witty, wickedly, knowledgeable mind, which ALS cannot affect. And so in his third iteration, Maestro Kerry, Artistic Director, will continue to program beautiful entertainment for as long as he is able.

Kerry is a devoted husband and father of three and this beautiful family needs quality time together. The Maestro’s Gala is a benefit concert at Casa Loma with such musical guests as Tenor, John McDermott. It will be an extraordinary event and we will surprise Maestro Kerry with some favorite pieces in a gorgeous, intimate setting while providing much needed support. Join us and give back to one who has given so much to us.

I am hurt but I am not slain.
I’ll lay me down and bleed awhile,
Then I’ll rise and fight again.

Kerry Stratton, final broadcast The Oasis, The New Classical FM.

Guest Blog: Ontario Resonance Mentorship Program at Esprit Orchestra

Esprit Orchestra’s Ontario150 Community Celebration Program, Ontario Resonance, engaged, nurtured, and promoted a young group of composers, musicians, and students in a project that created awareness of Ontario as a vibrant place to live through new orchestral compositions combined with innovative explorations in sound. Esprit engaged a group of Ontario emerging composers and partnered them with different student groups, fostering new relationships with and between locales and communities. The emerging composers mentored students to create pieces – often their first compositions for orchestra – which celebrated and reflected Ontario’s places and spaces, environments, and communities. At the same time, the mentor composers composed their own new works, creating a cascade-like process wherein writing their own works was taking place at the same time as guiding young student composers in their composing. Ontario’s heritage was highlighted by music portraying human activity, ethnic cultures, natural environments, cityscapes, and historic buildings. Esprit Orchestra musicians were hired to act as mentors with each student group, providing valuable one-on-one mentoring with student musicians and composers and their teachers, as well as performing alongside student musicians to enhance the experience for the program participants.

Esprit Orchestra in concertOntario Resonance ran from September to November of 2017, culminating in seven performances in schools and venues across the GTA, with student compositions performed by a combination of student performers and professional Esprit musicians. The mentors’ works were showcased in an all-pro finale concert at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre on November 23, 2017 – a high energy ending to the program with a full audience in attendance.

The Ontario Resonance program created a way for artists to serve the province’s population in an imaginative, meaningful, and lasting way. It encouraged recognition of and reflection on the places where people live and environments and communities they are surrounded by. Newly created compositions by high school students and mentoring composers, all written and premiered throughout the program, now exist as souvenirs of their experience. Inspired young composers and student musicians, with their pieces having real purpose, are now encouraged to continue pursuing projects of similar nature as they navigate their studies and move forward into adult life.

All participating parties in Ontario Resonance – mentoring composers, teachers, student composers and musicians, Esprit staff and musicians, recording engineers, volunteers, and audience members – have commented on what a creative, and engaging way the project celebrated Ontario’s 150th anniversary year. Esprit is grateful to the Government of Ontario for their support of this enriching, unique project.

Thank you to Amber Melhado at Esprit Orchestra for guest blogging for us.