Orchestras Canada’s COVID-19 Response and Services

A letter from our Executive Director, Katherine Carleton

Dear members,

In the last four weeks a wave of cancellations has spread across the country in the wake of lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. Every one of our approximately 130 member orchestras has been affected.

It has been nothing short of inspirational to see the adaptability of Canadian orchestras who are now creating more online content than ever. Orchestras Canada has also increased our level of online activity to support our members going through these unprecedented challenges. We know that orchestras are stronger together than they are alone, and we have been expanding and adapting our four mission pillars to help orchestras respond to the current crisis.


Over the last month OC has convened online meetings with a number of stakeholder groups to exchange information, ideas and to design collective responses to the current shutdown. We have held meetings with orchestra CEOs, youth orchestra leaders, personnel managers, and with groups of marketing and education staff. We’re making plans to continue and expand these meetings. Let us know what you need.


Our advocacy committee has been hard at work assessing the best way to approach federal government decision-makers and make them aware of orchestras’ needs. We’ve written a letter to several government ministers, and are encouraging our members to share the letter with their local MPs. For obvious reasons, we’ve focused on emergency short term measures. We’ll continue this, even as we consult with you to develop re-launch and resilience strategies for Canadian orchestras.


We are issuing frequent updates to our members with news that directly affects the arts sector, as well as resources and tools to equip you to respond to the current situation. We’re also happy to share your initiatives and triumphs. You can read these updates on our COVID-19 page, or by signing up to our email list.


So far we have run two surveys that have measured the immediate impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns on our members, and have reported back with some initial insights from our statistician, Steve Smith. This data collection is an ongoing process: while we’re aware that you’re being approached we’ll be collecting and analyzing further data.

I encourage you to take a look at what we’ve been up to, and encourage you to get in touch with us to share resources, brainstorm ideas, or just to check in. Take care,

Katherine Carleton C.M.
Executive Director
Orchestras Canada/Orchestres Canada

Orchestras Canada Digital Strategy Survey Results

Last fall, Orchestras Canada, led by our Digital Strategy Task Force, asked leaders of orchestras across the country to tell us about their use of digital tools and the state of digital strategy at their organizations

General Information

This survey was distributed to Orchestras Canada’s primary contact at each orchestra, usually the CEO/Executive Director for orchestras that have professional management, and a board member at orchestras who don’t. Youth orchestras were not included in this survey. Of the 105 contacts, 60 responded; 22 at orchestras with annual revenues over $1,000,000 (hereafter referred to as larger organizations), and 38 at orchestras with annual revenues of under $1,000,000 (hereafter referred to as smaller organizations). The two groups mostly responded to the same questions, but there were several differences which will be discussed below.

Themes and Trends

The survey responses demonstrated a level of excitement in the opportunities that digital technologies presented, but also strong concerns about the challenges in integrating these into an organization. There was less of a difference between the larger and smaller organizations than one may have thought; many organizations of all budget sizes are stressed about the money, risk, time and people involved in integrating new digital technologies in their organizations.

In terms of opportunities, respondents acknowledged that digital might allow them to tell their story better, and to better identify, reach and enhance the experience of their audience. Respondents also identified the opportunity for better operational efficiency, the ability to segment and personalize their operations, and to better measure the impact they have.

Participants also identified many challenges in integrating more digital technologies at their organizations, with many being skeptical of the value of digital technology when compared to the cost, time and effort. There was a feeling of having to acquire a lot of knowledge quickly in order to be where we should in terms of digital literacy.

Participants also identified strong needs in beginning a digital transformation; many wanted to know best practices, and what audiences expected from orchestras in terms of their digital engagement. Many times it came down to needing more money to invest in these tools. There was a strong sense of frustration: people can see and feel potential and pressure to engage, but are challenged to prioritize then start. Responses often felt opportunistic rather than strategic. Participants would spend the money if it came to them, but haven’t prioritized this in their long-term planning.

Finer Detail
Basic Information on Digital Technologies

The survey’s opening questions focused on the level of familiarity with digital tools and initiatives in the respondent’s organization. The majority of respondents (68% of larger organizations and 79% of smaller organizations) felt their organization had “some familiarity”, but not a strong familiarity with digital technologies.

The financial investment in digital activity had generally increased, with 45% of larger organizations (but only 26% of smaller organizations) saying their investment had significantly increased. No one in either group was actively reducing their investment in digital technology.

82 % of larger organizations and 66% of smaller organizations said that digital was a priority for their orchestra, though it was explicitly mentioned in only 50% of the larger orchestras’ strategic plans and 44% of the smaller groups’: more on this later. Many of the comments in this section cited digital technologies as a way of reaching new and diverse audiences and better relating to their community, as well as increasing administrative efficiency among orchestra management. Organizations who said that digital was not a priority often explained that this was due to a lack of time and funds, or because of a cynicism in its effectiveness.

Digital Technologies and Long-term Strategic Planning

Of the orchestras who had a current strategic plan (all of the larger organizations, and 42% of the smaller organizations), there was an exactly even split between those whose plans explicitly addressed digital opportunities, and those whose did not.

We asked respondents about what they’d do if they were suddenly given a pile of cash for new digital initiatives. 59% of larger and 68% of smaller organizations had “a few ideas” about what they would do with this money; another 27% of larger and 5% of smaller organizations had these ideas specifically written into their strategic plans. Very few respondents (no larger, and seven smaller organizations) had no idea what they would do with this hypothetical cash influx.

Digital Literacy

The majority of respondents (77%) self-identified as digitally literate, with similar results seen in both versions of the survey. Larger organizations were asked about where they acquired this expertise; there was a wide variety of responses, with learning in both formal (courses and seminars) and informal (trial and error) settings cited.

For smaller organizations, there is no clear trend as to whether digital literacy is made a priority when recruiting or hiring new staff or volunteers, with a 50/50 split between those who were looking for this and those who didn’t explicitly address it. At the larger organizations, digital literacy was given more priority in the hiring process, with 41% saying that this is a priority, and 59% saying that this depends on the employee’s role.

Larger organizations were asked an additional question about how they supported developing digital literacy for their staff. 15 of the 22 organizations (68%) had some kind of professional development funding available, with two of these organizations having this done in-house.

In a similar vein, smaller organizations were asked if they had identified a ‘digital champion’ in their organization recently. This was again split evenly with no clear trend; 17 of these organizations had, and 18 had not.

Learning and Successes

Survey participants were asked what would be useful to them in shaping their orchestra’s digital work. Responses were varied, with responses ranging from things that would give our member organizations basic digital literacy, to how to begin more complex projects such as live-streaming and reaching new audiences with digital tools. The question of how to apply for funding for all of this was also brought up. Participants responded to this question in particular both in terms of what digital might mean for their organizations artistically, but also in terms of marketing and in the day to day management of their orchestras.

We also asked who else’s digital work participants admired. Particularly notable among the smaller organizations was the consistent mention of other Canadian orchestras such as Tafelmusik, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The larger organizations tended to look further outward to arts organizations such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and also to non-arts organizations entities as varied as Apple, YouTubers, and WestJet.