At the 2015 ICSOM Conference in Philadelphia, in an effort to use our presence in the city as a symbol of community service, we provided music and assistance at a soup kitchen in collaboration with Broad Street Ministry. On its Twitter feed, Broad Street Ministry wrote: “Today ICSOM extended radical hospitality by creating a trauma informed space with music.” The overall theme of this year’s conference, which was hosted by the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra along with AFM Local 77, was the role that orchestral music, and music of all styles, can play in the elevation of the human spirit and in supporting all aspects of every community.
The conference also sought to address the need for renewed support for music education. Local 802 member Weston Sprott of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra made a presentation about a new documentary, produced by filmmaker Ben Niles, that follows the progress of young students participating in Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program. The film, “Some Kind of Spark,” features Sprott in several scenes working with one of his students. In introducing the film, Sprott’s remarks were profound and insightful in addressing the importance of education.
“The arts, and music in particular, teach us who we were, twho we are, how to be, and how to let others be,” Sprott told us. “I have read about the civil rights movement, and my mother has told me the story of being in her high school’s first integrated class, but when I listen to Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ that’s when the gateway to understanding the people of those times is truly opened. Music has that power.”
Sprott added, “We’ve all been preached to that society works best when people from different backgrounds, with differing perspectives, look past trivial disagreements and work towards a common goal, but we understand that playing in an orchestra or a chamber group teaches you how to do that.”
ICSOM was also honored to welcome Jane Chu, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of the first missions of ICSOM’s founders in the early 1960s was to advocate for the creation of the NEA, which was born a few years later in 1965. It was a powerful moment when we were able to welcome the chair of the NEA 50 years after its founding. Chu’s message fit perfectly with what we had seen the day before during our service event at Broad Street Ministry. She spoke of the healing power of music, and how music has the ability to unite people of many different cultures and perspectives.
Joseph Conyers, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, spoke to the conference about his role as director of Project 440, an organization designed to encourage, educate and empower communities through the unifying power of music, while training young musicians to serve their communities through classical music.
In my opening address to the conference, I spoke of the difficulties the world faces. While it is probably true that every generation could make this claim at one point or another, we live in a troubled time. Acts of terrorism are perpetrated around the globe, and numerous countries stand at the brink of war. In one of our major American cities, there were 216 homicides in the first half of 2015 alone. In our country last year, handguns robbed over 10,700 people of their lives.
We often ask ourselves, “What is the answer?” For me, the answer is clear. We must provide young people with hope and education – and no education is complete without music, just as no life can proceed without hope. It may be a troubled world, but music is a source of constant hope, and we should be encouraged by numerous recent events.
The Senate just passed the Every Child Achieves act, and for the first time, music is named as a core academic subject.
In New Orleans, a music education program called Trumpets Not Guns is changing the lives of young people by offering them musical instruments as an alternative to violence. And recent polls show that a large majority of Americans believe that children should have opportunities to play musical instruments as early as elementary school, and that music and arts education are extremely important.
Music therapy is changing lives as well, offering relief from pain and enriching the lives of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other ailments. Gabby Giffords credits music therapy with helping her learn to speak again after she was critically injured in an assassination attempt. With each passing week, doctors and therapists are learning new ways to utilize music in the healing process, offering hope and a more fulfilling life for more and more patients.
Other sessions at the conference sought to bring the musicians of our orchestras even closer together, providing tools to promote unity. Public relations expert Randall Whatley of the Cypress Media Group spoke of his experiences in working behind the scenes with many orchestras as they face difficult negotiations and work stoppages. His presentation, called Lessons Learned from Lockouts, provided musicians with many tools to confront negative messages in a media driven age.
We were also honored to welcome Allison Beck, the newly confirmed director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Beck has been instrumental behind the scenes in several difficult orchestral negotiations.
AFM President Ray Hair presented a history lesson on media convergence, and the staff of the AFM Symphonic Services Division spoke of the issues they have confronted in the past year, while emphasizing the many services the department provides to our members.
Despite the education and inspiration that our orchestras provide to our communities on a daily basis, we must continue to overcome a predetermined notion, often held even by our most influential supporters, that our orchestras somehow are not sustainable.
It is often difficult to find the truth when confronted so consistently with the tired cliché of the “death of classical music,” but again this season, orchestras in all budget ranges demonstrated their resiliency:
- The Arizona Opera exceeded its fundraising goals.
- The Buffalo Philharmonic saw record season ticket sales and subscription revenues for the third consecutive year.
- The Charlotte Symphony received a $2 million gift.
- The Cincinnati Symphony raised over $26 million and signed a new contract that adds 15 new musicians over the next five years.
- The Dallas Symphony achieved a balanced budget and received $5 million gift.
- The Detroit Symphony raised $1.4 million in one evening.
- The Florida Orchestra met its $25 million fundraising goal.
- The Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goal, raising almost $173 million.
- The Houston Symphony received a $5 million donation, the largest gift in nearly a decade.
- The Memphis Symphony received a $1 million gift for education programs.
- The Nashville Symphony set fundraising and ticket sales records.
- The Omaha Symphony saw record attendance.
- The Oregon Symphony set records for ticket sales and contributions, and its gala raised a record $700,000.
- The Pacific Symphony’s gala raised a record $1.6 million.
- The Richmond Symphony received a $1 million gift for outdoor concerts.
- The Rochester Philharmonic reported a 19 percent increase in single ticket sales.
- The St. Louis Symphony received a $10 million gift.
- The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra saw its highest attendance in 20 years.
Despite the negativity about the future of the arts often found in the mainstream media, America remains fertile ground. There are more museums in America than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined. The arts and culture industry in this country represents over 4.3 percent of the entire gross domestic product, which is a larger share than travel and tourism.
The latest study from GivingUSA reports that in 2014, giving to the arts in America reached an all-time high of $17.2 billion. In terms of donations, arts and culture was America’s fastest-growing charitable cause in 2014, rising an estimated 9.2 percent.
The answer is hope, and hope is found in music. Imagine the numbers of schoolchildren the musicians in ICSOM orchestras reach every day across our country. Music education can inspire young people to reach for a higher ideal than the violence that too often surrounds them. It is no exaggeration to say that music education saves lives.
Weston Sprott perhaps said it best in his presentation:
“As cultural ambassadors, it is incumbent upon us to not only perform well on our instruments, but to support the artistic education of those who come after us. It is through music that we best learn what it means to strive for excellence. It is through the arts that we best learn about our collective history.”
Bassist Bruce Ridge is the chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (www.icsom.org).