With an extensive career in arts management in both the theatre and orchestra industry, Lou Spisto knows first-hand that the country’s most successful orchestras are the ones that actively participate in their communities. Spisto has seen the inner workings of many successful orchestras and has established community engagement programs for the Pittsburgh, Detroit and Pacific Symphonies. According to the League of American Orchestras, among all U.S. orchestras, the most successful the ones were, and continue to be, those that find ways to engage with their local community. The League has done much to showcase the importance of community engagement and has done much to honor those orchestras that are doing great work in this area.
Even the greatest and most venerated orchestras in the country, with full touring schedules and major recordings, have found that the path to success includes a real relationship with the community outside the concert hall. Currently an independent theater producer and an arts management consultant for arts institutions, Lou Spisto continues to examine how orchestras can increase their relevancy through engaging with, and giving back to, the community.
Creating Great Youth Orchestras
Orchestras are valuable assets to the community that they are a part of, especially when they open their doors and get young people involved. The most talented of the Chicago area young musicians have benefited from being a part of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for generations. Over the past ninety years the Civic has engaged area musicians through various full orchestra and ensembles and it’s considered by many to the best of its kind in the country. There is tradition and pride about being part of the Civic and many of its members go on to great careers in music but all of them are empowered to do great things with their lives through their exposure to this unique program. Spisto knows from his experience that youth orchestras have great power for an area’s children. Orchestras can create a real love for music across a wide cross-section of the population. Spisto stated, “The orchestra’s relationship to students, parents and their schools enriches everyone including the orchestra family itself. Playing music gives students a sense of accomplishment, keeps them focused and leads to better futures. Playing music for its own sake is great – it’s full of fun and beauty – but you’re never the same once you’ve mastered an instrument and been part of an ensemble.”
Another great youth orchestra is the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. In order to make deeper connections with their community of younger musician constituents and their families, the internationally acclaimed orchestra is constantly engaging with this community through the use of social media. The orchestra frequently Tweets and posts on Facebook about their upcoming events. They even thank their donors publically online and address community issues through social media.
One of the most notable examples of orchestras that have led the way in building great youth programs is the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The organization now boasts four different youth orchestras with over 1000 members representing the great example of diversity that is Detroit. This is a staggering feat for any orchestra but it’s even more impressive in a community that has faced financial difficulties in recent years. One of the youth ensembles is a full-fledged woodwind orchestra – an asset not found in many youth orchestra programs. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra would not be the fantastic outlet for education and community engagement if it were not for the Orchestra’s Education Committee Chair, Dr. Clyde Wu and his wife Helen. Dr. Wu has been an active supporter of the orchestra since its inception and has been a subscriber for over 30 years, as well as an active board member and major donor. Helen Wu is a talented musician, as are the Wu’s children, who have careers in medicine and law, but still play regularly in ensembles. Dr. Wu believes in a several important core principles that lead to a great youth program: “We focus on discipline, love of music and hard work. We increased youth participation from 50 kids in 1997 to over 1000 today, and we are continuing to expand our programs.”
Lou Spisto served as President of the Detroit Symphony when the Wu’s began their full time involvement with the education programs of the orchestra. Dr. Wu and Lou served together to fulfill their common mission of community and education. Dr. Wu praised Spisto: “Lou was able to look beyond what had been done in the past and was willing to try new things. In this age of music, that’s extremely important. Lou is committed to educating the youth about music. He is passionate about extending himself and his organizations to young people so that they become your audience later.” Lou commented on the Wu’s contribution: “The DSO would not have the incredible education and youth orchestra programs it does today without the leadership and generosity of Clyde and Helen Wu. They were passionate about what this could mean for us and for the city, and insistent that we devote greater resources to the programs. They were willing to put their own time commitment and resources – they led by example. I’ve never encountered volunteer leadership so devoted to do the right thing; the orchestra has always meant a lot to the region, but these youth orchestras have cemented its place in the hearts and minds of its community. Generations of students will be the better for their involvement in what the orchestra has created and continue to nurture. This becomes a never ending positive flow of action and reaction—the DSO is clearly paying it forward.”
Many other orchestras are following suit and have great youth programs and training orchestras. Today, as the priorities of communities shift, and the civic and school district budgets become tighter, orchestral organizations need education advocates. These include volunteers, board members, and funders who are willing to become passionate about their orchestras’ ability to engage youth in exciting and innovative ways. Board members must set these programs as a priority for their institutions, not just a neat thing to do when the funds are available. These programs are central to the mission and therefore central to the fiscal planning process. Money and staff time must be made available, and that only happens when plans are in place that are supported at the highest level of the organization.
Louis Spisto continued, “There are literally thousands of examples of programs that orchestras have developed to serve not just the student population, but adults of all ages and form in every corner of town. From community music schools opening classes in music appreciation and performance at every level to intensive summer music camps – the possibilities are endless.” Spisto notes that nothing replaces giving exciting concerts with the orchestra’s musicians and conductors. The quality of everything on the stage is the cornerstone to the mission, but today’s orchestras must do more to get the widest possible connection and involvement with its community.
Not every student will become a musician; but every student will be positively impacted, and this impact will be felt throughout his or her life, and throughout their school and their community. Making connections through programs that serve a community’s musical life, in the broadest sense, makes all the sense in the world. In the long run these are the folks who will care about our music and our orchestra today, and in the future.