think globally, act locally?

I was taking part in a meeting this past Wednesday of a task force of players, board members, and management personnel which has met off and on for the last 7 months to discuss the future of the Oregon Symphony. It’s been a pleasure to serve on this committee, and there have been no shortages of good ideas, lively exchanges, and eye-opening revelations from all comers.

While I can’t go into any specifics about what we’ve talked about, our last meeting concerned the future of the Oregon Symphony’s education initiatives. Many of you probably aren’t directly affected by the education arm of the Oregon Symphony’s mission – so I’ll give you a quick rundown on what this vital arm of the organization presents to students both in Portland and around the state during the 2007-2008 season.

Full Orchestra Activities

Smaller Ensemble Activities

  • 300+ Community Music Partnership residency visits in La Grande, Cove and Estacada
  • 36 Kinderkonzert performances in Multnomah and Washington counties
  • 16 Symphony Storytime visits (4 per month at 4 Multnomah County library branches)

Plus, Preludes and Backstage tours.

The Youth Concerts are aimed at students in grades 3-6, while the Kinderkonzerts are designed for students grades K-2. Together, these concert programs are designed to help students and teachers meet the Arts Content Standards curriculum objectives, set by the State of Oregon.

The Symphony Storytimes are aimed at pre-schoolers and their parents, and feature an OSO musician performing music along with a story, and is followed by a craft session and instrument petting zoo (where kids get to try making their first sounds on a real musical instrument). This year’s events take place at the Hollywood, Woodstock, Central and Midland branches of the Multnomah County Library system.

The Community Music Partnership (CMP) is the largest portion of the OSO’s educational budget. It is aimed at bringing crucial resources to bear music education resources to communities of under 30,000 people.

Here’s how the Oregon Symphony’s education department explains how CMP came about:

The Oregon Symphony has toured the state extensively throughout its 110-year history. Too often, however, its presence in Oregon’s rural communities was fleeting at best, making a lasting impact on music and music education virtually impossible. In 2001, Oregon Symphony staff, musicians, board, and past community partners undertook a comprehensive review of its statewide presence to answer the question: “What does the ‘Oregon’ in the Oregon Symphony mean?” One result was the creation of a program designed to challenge communities’ understandings of how the arts enrich schools and the broader community.

The communities involved in CMP are not simply selected by the OSO and visited based upon our criteria, rather they are solicited to submit a grant application to become the resident community, and through that process bring the entire community’s resources together to promote the many visits by the smaller ensembles, culminating in the Spring with a visit from the full orchestra.

Through this process the OSO discovers what the community’s educators identify as their pressing needs, and so the program becomes unique to each community selected. The residency spans a 2-year time period, with initial visits by smaller ensembles representing all of the instrument families of the orchestra (strings, winds, brass, percussion) and a full orchestra concert in the first year, followed by intense planning for sustaining the programs initiated or strengthened by the OSO’s partnership. In particular, communities previously involved in CMP have been able to either restart or buttress struggling string programs in their public schools (often the first type of arts education to be cut).

Ok – that was a lot of background.

Now to my concern, and one which is shared by many of my symphony colleagues. The Portland Public Schools have no string program, and very little in the way of full time arts instruction in music. The PPS is largely in a state of turmoil and in a funding crisis, and this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

The Oregon Symphony institution, and an overwhelming majority of its members and staff reside in the Portland Metro area.

Where are our future audiences most likely to come from? Portland and its metro area. Where are the vast majority of those people going to have gone to school? Portland Public Schools and surrounding districts, many of whom have little or no full time music education curriculum or staffing.

If one of the primary aims of education arms of arts organizations is to nurture future audiences, why aren’t we doing more right here in our own backyard? It would stand to reason, that if we have a poor music education system (or a non-existent one), then we will have a much more difficult time cultivating audiences and growing our organization. So why isn’t more being done on a partnership level with the major school districts of the Portland area?

The answer is money.

The CMP is funded entirely by a grant from the Ford Family Foundation. They won’t fund an initiative that is aimed at the major population centers, but are very interested in doing so in rural areas of the state.

I can understand that they have their priorities for funding, and certainly reaching out to the rural areas of the state is a noble and rewarding enterprise for the OSO and its members. That is not at issue. However, it is troubling that there does not seem to be a major foundation which is interested in funding the same sort of in-depth partnerships between a major musical arts organization and an urban school district. Especially since most foundations seek to fund activities which not only enrich the communities that are being served, but which also help to improve the conditions in which the funded arts organizations operate.

It seems like a no-brainer for some aggressive, progressive foundation to put some serious money behind the idea of an orchestra serving the under-served or neglected in its own potential future audience pool. The kids being educated right now in Portland Public Schools will have little or no chance to experience a string quartet, symphony orchestra, brass ensemble or percussion group in their entire K-12 education career. If their elementary schools have principals who are energized advocates for the arts, they might get Kinderkonzerts in their school once before they go on to middle school, or they might get bus funding to go to one concert at the Schnitzer before middle school.

Sadly, this is not the case at most elementary schools, where Every No Child Left Behind is the driving force behind decision making, and music and the arts are a low priority, if present at all.

It seems so obvious to me – why isn’t someone taking the lead on this?

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