Introductory Open Letter On Why Start At Your Children’s Hospital

I (Penny Brill) have been traveling quite a bit lately to cities around the country, exchanging ideas with musicians about our outreach and subscription programs, discussing how we can best serve our communities in meaningful ways outside the concert hall.

As we read about the changes in community support in one city after another, as we see funding go to non-orchestral initiatives or dry up, pushing us to find new revenue sources and new supporters, I see a way to a brighter future, a way that some orchestras and their communities are already developing. I would like to pass some ideas on to you.

If we walk into our nearest children’s hospital, we notice a wide range of physical and mental abilities, income groups, religions, cultures, ethnicities and races: perhaps Hispanic, African-American, Somali, Nepalese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, First Nation, Jewish, Polish, Russian, Muslim and Amish, among others, with Caucasians somewhere in the mix. Right now, at this moment, how many of those people can we effectively interact with musically? Probably not many, or not well. Yet here in the hospital are trained personnel, nurses, doctors, social workers and often music therapists, who work with this diverse population every day.

Idea #1: If we are able to serve the people well who utilize this hospital, we will be better able to serve our whole community. (Where else can we begin to serve our whole community? Most schools are not as diverse.)

So I suggest that we

Idea #2: Get to know the variety of musical backgrounds and needs of our city’s constituencies through a partnership with our local children’s hospital. (If you have another place with a diverse population, you could start there.) If we learn to interact and adapt musically, and if we acquire the wide range of music we need to serve our children’s hospital population, we will be better equipped to serve our entire community, and we will be more skilled at creating full orchestra programs that are adapted to a wider range of audiences. We can apply what we learn about our community in these small-group interactions to our programming for the larger orchestral ensemble. We learn how to create a path to orchestral music for a wider audience.

What is the difference in our way of thinking between events we do at our children’s hospital and concerts in our hall?

In the concert hall we pre-set programs and invite people to attend, hoping they will be interested enough to come. Concerts can be somewhat interactive, but more often a concert is primarily a listening experience.

In the hospital setting, music is client-based, responding to patient and family needs and health care goals. It is more often interactive and participatory. It is designed to engage, distract, calm or energize the patients and their families, depending on their needs, and is adaptive if those needs change.

What do we gain by this difference in musical experience?

We learn how to present ourselves so that our music helps our listeners in ways they value.

We get to know the music backgrounds and concerns of different groups in our community.

We learn what gets the best response.

We learn how to introduce ourselves and orchestral music in a way that captures the interest of our community.

We can afford to fail at times, and through trial and error, get better.

We are reminded of what audiences hear when we play: our live, acoustic sound, and the spirit and intent of the music as we see it in that moment.

For this kind of music making, do we need different music?

Yes. If we have in our library arrangements for different combinations of 2-4 players, with a wide range of music styles including themes from the orchestra literature, and engaging duos or trios by  orchestra composers; if we include music that is seasonally appropriate, has local references or ties, has a wide range of energy levels and includes  opportunities for many different kinds of interaction from active participation to imagining the story that might go with the music, we will be able to adapt our programs so that they are well suited to the occasion and the audience. This in turn will no doubt affect our thinking regarding subscription programming.

We can develop training sessions, create playbooks for different settings and determine what questions to ask in designing an event and who should be involved in the discussions.

Not all musicians are appropriate for community engagement events.

Musicians need:

The ability to work as a team with the staff or gatekeepers for the event.

The ability to work within the parameters set for the session, meeting the goals for the session through appropriate design of the program and choice of music.

The ability to engage the listener in an interactive experience.

The ability to know when to stop.

Once we have developed our skills at the children’s hospital, where do we go next?

With guidance we could go to special needs schools, special needs classrooms, or the VA campus if there are music therapists there to identify locations and set parameters for interactions that best suit their clients. We could also go to K-12 schools. Or we could identify our community’s largest employers and create programs for those venues.

The skills we acquire can also help us design music programs that address a major community issues such as

Consequences of Poverty:

The food, clothing, and housing insecurities that go with it.

The lack of summer schools, stimulating or challenging activities.

The need for more early childhood interventions.

Stress, and the inability to focus.


Do we see any useful collaborations? Are there funding sources for collaborations that would otherwise not be available?

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