Addressing Community Concerns Through Music

For decades symphony orchestra musicians worldwide have witnessed dramatic societal change in the communities around us, in many places observing increasing inequality, poverty, racial tension and community trauma. As concerned citizens we recognize an urgent moral obligation to develop community-based programs that address pressing social issues and serve the changing needs of our communities.

Orchestras have already expanded performance offerings to include locations more accessible to the general public than the concert hall: programs held before and after school, in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and other venues. We have adjusted some of our music programming to be more interactive and accessible. But this is not enough:

We need to keep asking ourselves how else we as both citizens and musicians can connect to our communities in meaningful ways. How effective are our current efforts, and how can we become more effective?

In other words…

How do we develop high-impact client-based music programs guided by the most urgent concerns facing our communities today?

Virtually every community has schools and medical facilities where musicians can collaborate with their local institutions to develop:

Health and Wellness initiatives addressing trauma, stress or PTSD, improving resilience

Education and school-related programs addressing students with special needs, school readiness or underserved students and their families

Citizens-At-Risk projects for the homeless, for refugee acculturation, inmate and juvenile offender rehabilitation, for Native Americans or for strengthening cultural identity

Health and Wellness

Hospitals and other care facilities present a wonderful opportunity for musicians to provide support and relief to patients and their families as well as staff, and in doing so connect to the community in profound and meaningful ways. Under the direction of onsite music therapists and like-minded professionals, musicians can be utilized in a wide variety of of hospital settings: for memorial services, outpatient support groups or palliative and hospice care. Schools, community centers, libraries and workplaces are ideal settings for health fairs and for music sessions on the use of music for stress reduction, for exercise and for increasing resilience. Musicians can be an essential part of community-wide memorial services and tributes or community healing after traumatic community events.

Education and school-related activities

Musicians have an opportunity to support students with special needs  through camps or weekend retreats, through accessible, sensory-friendly programming in the community or at the concert hall, and through interactive sessions in the classroom.

Music programs tied to stress reduction and meditation initiatives can be an important way for schools to create a dramatically more effective learning environment.

After-school and summer enrichment programs, interactive workshops and teaching artist programs can all serve to encourage creativity and expression. These programs foster lifelong interest in and enthusiasm for sound exploration and many styles of music from an early age.

El Sistema-inspired programs in underserved schools or neighborhoods provide an unprecedented opportunity for musicians to change lives. In addition, by exploring melody, harmony, form and composition as well as developing performance skills on individual instruments, students develop an appreciation for many styles of music, including classical western music.

Orchestras can create music internships, fellowships or other training programs for minority musicians.

At-Risk Populations Initiatives

  • Musicians can develop refugee programs that use live, interactive music-making to help with the transition into our communities.
  • Musicians can play for or with vets in rehab, dementia units, long-term resident units or hospice.
  • Musicians can participate in long-term justice system projects to help former inmates or juvenile offenders build self-respect and reconnect with their communities.
  • Musicians can work with the homeless in the medical setting or in shelters.
  • Musicians can participate in fundraisers for food banks, storm or earthquake relief, giving focus and greater visibility to these causes.
  • Musicians can work with Native American or First Nation populations to create better understanding and acceptance of cultural traditions and differences through music.

Performing music which addresses race, racial issues, bullying or other concerns, in combination with discussion groups led by appropriate facilitators, can be a way to promote understanding and a movement toward constructive solutions to critical local issues.

As we look at the proliferation of orchestral community engagement programs in these areas, we see some common threads present in the more successful projects:

  • Goals are realistic.
  • Musicians can opt in but are not required to participate.
  • Orchestra education staff determine which musicians are appropriate to which programs, and musicians can choose from a number of options. Not all players are suited to these programs. However, orchestras have more options and can create a better match to audience needs if the pool includes more than just a few musicians. A program may need someone to do the speaking to the audience who is not one of the players.
  • Musicians regularly undergo training and/or work with a Music Therapist, Early Childhood or Special Education teacher to understand what to expect from their audience. Players learn the the basics ofclient-based programming: how to choose and adapt their pieces and playing to the goals of the program. Musicians include players who have the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

The ability to improvise is a plus.

  • Documentation in the form of videos and surveys gives a good sense of effectiveness and outcomes.
  • Specialists in music therapy, Special Ed and early childhood education who help shape and guide the programs may also participate in the actual program.

What are your community’s most pressing concerns? Through your music what can you do do address those concerns? If you were to commit to one initiative only, so you optimize your resources to develop the project meaningfully and well, what would your project look like?

Note: This article is adapted from a paper published in the journal Music and Medicine 2016 Volume 8 Issue 3 pages 112-117.

For more ideas on projects, visit Music as a Global Resource: Solutions  for Social, Economic and Health Issues. Compendium. Fourth Edition.