The Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO’s) community outreach has been on the upswing over the past two years, in more ways than one. Like many orchestras, the CSO has been sending ensembles into the community for decades. But in the aftermath of serious financial troubles, which began in 2008, the orchestra has re-defined itself as more of a community service organization. The CSO board considered this the best strategy for justifying the continued existence of the orchestra and inspiring the necessary support.
With outreach becoming a new priority, funding was sought for new initiatives. An anonymous donor from the CSO board of trustees stepped forward to fund an endowment specifically for outreach. The donor’s stated intent is “to offer support for sending small groups out to create new audiences, raise funds, and raise our profile in the community.”
Musicians volunteer to perform for the CSO’s outreach program, and each musician is usually paid $150 for a non-ticketed event or $300 for a ticketed event. (Our CBA states that the fee must be at least $100 for non-ticketed and $300 for ticketed performances.) The outreach services are not part of our service count and may be scheduled either during a work week or a non-work week. Half of our full time musicians have been participating in outreach performances over the past two years. Sometimes musicians come up with ideas about where to perform, but personnel manager Linda Oper does most of the planning.
Linda was hired by the CSO a year and a half ago, and her experience with outreach was an important part of the interview process. Fortunately, she had been in charge of scheduling the Houston Symphony’s outreach performances before she came to Columbus.
When Linda arrived in Columbus, she found an unimpressive outreach program in place, but that was about to change. Linda was asked to create outreach services for the musicians, since the outreach endowment had just been established. She began by making cold calls to local organizations and businesses, explaining what the orchestra’s small ensembles had to offer and asking those organizations if they would be interested in a performance.
Since then, the musicians have been performing at the Columbus Museum of Art, Nationwide Insurance headquarters, Cardinal Health headquarters, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, The Ohio State University James Cancer Center, Franklin Park Conservatory, shopping malls, community events, retirement communities and the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center. Also, at Linda’s insistence, educational “informances” and coaching sessions were added to our roster of possible outreach services.
The musicians requested signage so that ensembles playing in large public spaces would be recognized as CSO members. Management provided those signs, and now there are banners, brochures, and sometimes even symphony tickets for sale at our outreach performances. We have reached thousands of people during the past two years of outreach, and now that management has become more involved with signs and handouts, the musicians have the impression that our efforts are highly effective. With these changes, no one in the audience doubts that we’re representing the Columbus Symphony!
Many of the outreach events also offer opportunities for the musicians to speak with the audience. Such interaction, along with the chance to see and hear the musicians up close has created stronger connections between the musicians and the community we serve. The musicians performing in these events feel that our relevance in the community is increasing by leaps and bounds.
Now that funding is in place, the number of small ensemble outreach performances presented by the CSO has more than quadrupled from an average of around 10 per year to the projected 44 this season. (This is impressive for an orchestra that nearly disappeared due to financial crises in 2008 and again in 2010.) Also, the CSO presents many other performances as an orchestra that may be categorized as outreach, so the total number of outreach concerts is much higher than stated above.
On January 31 the Columbus Dispatch published an extensive article entitled “Playing the Field” about the CSO’s outreach initiatives. Public response to the article has been remarkable; it’s no longer necessary for our personnel manager to search for performance opportunities for the musicians. Ever since the Dispatch article appeared, the CSO office has been deluged with requests for outreach performances. The success and popularity of the small ensemble outreach program will hopefully result in new contributions for the outreach endowment.
Our new music director Rossen Milanov has inspired several community engagement initiatives for the full orchestra, such as the CSO Instructs program, which is being piloted this season in partnership with PlayUSA program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute. This program connects CSO musicians with Columbus City Schools students for private music lessons. The Link Up program, also introduced by Rossen, provides interactive educational concerts serving thousands of elementary school students in central Ohio. A couple of years ago the CSO began offering Community Side-by-Side programs that have been wildly popular. We had already been presenting regular Side-by-Sides with the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, but the community version was an unexpected hit which will now be presented annually. Our video entitled “Side by Side with the CSO” has received worldwide exposure.
Rossen has also encouraged the musicians to volunteer without our instruments in the community to further establish our relevance. To that end, we have been donating items and serving meals to the homeless. All of these efforts have secured our position and importance in the Columbus community, paving the way for the board and the development department to garner support for the orchestra.