Since assuming my new position on the Governing Board, I have been perusing past issues of Senza Sordino from the online archives. The history of ICSOM is a rich one, and much of it is chronicled in Senza’s many articles. One item that fairly jumped out at me was a message that our Chairman, Bruce Ridge, has been touching on for years, going back to his early days on the Governing Board. It’s a powerful message—one that bears repeating—that speaks to our relationships with our neighborhoods and communities.
As ICSOM’s member orchestras have matured over many years from community organizations to major professional ensembles, so have our ranks evolved: orchestras that once were predominantly local players are now made up mostly of musicians from around the country and even from around the planet. (To a large extent, this change is reflected in many of our orchestra managements, as well.)
This can sometimes become problematic if many of us, new to a particular city, don’t move a bit beyond our initial social circle of musicians to integrate with others over time. Without this process, the extent of our relationships within the community can become restricted to simply performing for folks on weekends at our concert halls, and at that point we’re not so much communicating with people as at them.
This is precisely what Bruce has been addressing in so many ways over the years. It is what he meant almost a decade ago when he borrowed and re-tooled the phrase, “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” from the theatre industry. The Fourth Wall refers to the imaginary wall that separates the performers from the audience, with the shell of the stage forming the other three walls. In theatre, the fourth wall is broken when a character, suddenly aware of his ‘fictional state’, begins sharing insights directly with the audience. (Kevin Spacey’s character in the current House of Cards series provides a wonderful TV example of this.)
Bruce applies this directly to our own industry, imploring symphony musicians to break the wall by reaching out in various ways to our audience members, and beyond them to the community at large, so that our stages don’t morph into bubbles. Of course, this is exactly what many musicians have already done, and it is reflected in the extensive teaching, outside performing, and volunteer efforts by many of us nationwide.
All of this ties in to an interesting question I’ve been fielding recently—beginning with our most recent ICSOM Conference—coming from delegates and from folks involved with their musicians’ PR efforts back home. They represent orchestras that have successfully hammered out new contracts in the past couple of years, and they ask about the importance of keeping the outreach (online and otherwise) going after ratifying their CBAs.
It’s a crucial question because many orchestras began their outreach efforts during contentious contract talks; the musicians realized they needed to move quickly to get their own message out to the public and counter what their managements were saying about them. They did so by launching e-newsletters, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube sites, and in the process, they created a media infrastructure with a local, regional, and even an international reach. Then with negotiations suddenly behind them, musicians in some orchestras expressed confusion regarding how—or even whether—to continue with all these efforts.
In the past, the traditional practice has been to re-focus all our energies on our music-making for a couple of years after a new CBA is in place, and then gear up for negotiations once again in the last year of the agreement. But that was before we began directly engaging with our fans and our communities. As experts in the entertainment industry have often said, fans can be fickle and, over time, we run a risk of being perceived by the public as selfish and disingenuous if we reach out to our fans only when we need them. It is essential to continue making use of the PR infrastructure we have built to inform, entertain, and engage people (beyond simply making music at our halls), regardless of negotiations.
It’s easy to understand why there may be resistance to this notion from within our ranks. Whether it involves organizing outreach performances in hospitals, or simply keeping online content current, it takes work and a long-term commitment to keep this engagement moving forward. When a group is successful at maintaining these efforts over a number of years, it represents nothing short of a cultural shift for those orchestra musicians, since this kind of activity is work for which none of us had been trained at Conservatory or ever envisioned choosing to do as essential parts of our jobs.
There’s never a shortage of content out there that we can share with our communities as well, whether the news is about us, about our orchestra, or about our industry nationally. Our fans love it when we pull the curtain back to show glimpses of our lives and profession, sharing insights into what it’s like being an orchestra musician, insights that they often would never otherwise have imagined. Sometimes this content needs to be carefully written, but at other times it’s as simple and quick as re-sharing news from another orchestra’s Facebook page or re-Tweeting a link from the ICSOM Twitter feed.
It all serves to convey the players’ message to the public, though that message and tone can vary widely over time as people and situations come and go in an orchestra. Perhaps the most fundamental impact of musicians using their own media platforms is that they define themselves directly to the public, independent of how anyone else, with whatever motive, attempts to paint them. How we maintain and exercise our control over our message to the community in these days of instant news and opinion via iPhones and social media is more crucial than ever. For that reason, it’s important we continually stay on top of our messaging.
More than a few times over the years I have read an article in Senza and felt strongly that our patrons and ticket holders would enjoy—and learn from—reading it as well. Those orchestra musicians who take and keep control of their own public messaging essentially create a kind of Senza Sordino, customized to their own fans and communities. A splendid and needed concept, in my opinion.