Click on the “About” tab on an orchestra’s website and the chances are pretty good that the well-crafted words describing that orchestra will profile their education programme. This seems to reflect a shift of emphasis from education being something orchestras do to something that orchestras are about. And the importance seems clear: education programmes offer the potential to drive ticket sales and audience involvement today, whilst at the same time working on building and maintaining an audience for tomorrow. I think it is also notable that education programmes expose the common cause (and concerns) that different organisations share as their audiences’ lives take them from one place to another. For example, the efforts of the education department of the symphony in Town A may well be building up a future subscriber and donor for the symphony in Town B. And that’s not yet even acknowledging the interaction of these education programmes with the tireless and literally life-changing work of music teachers in schools and colleges whose efforts are too often overshadowed by battles over budget cuts and the need to justify their existence.
The many positive results achieved by orchestra education departments provides refreshing relief from a tired narrative of irreversible decline by presenting a strongly unified vision of how crucial education is to the survival of orchestras as cultural forces in our communities. As this issue came up during a discussion I was having last week, though, it became clear that there’s a kind of surface-level unity of intention that might well disguise the significant differences in approach to what the goals of an education programme might be and how these correspond with the broader artistic aims of an orchestra. Someone suggested that the aim of their education programme was to ensure that children were introduced to the staples of the repertoire: the tried-and-tested warhorses that have proven pulling power in even the most hostile of ticket-selling climates. On one level this seems like a perfectly reasonable point of view, but it struck me as somewhat at odds with a conversation that happened only moments before in which their seemed a general dissatisfaction with an increasing reliance on programming warhorses to ensure good audience attendance, with the natural corollary that more unusual programming saw a corresponding drop in audience size.
As I was suggesting in last week’s post, there are questions about education at the heart of all concert programming, and sometimes we must acknowledge that our duty isn’t solely towards education. And yet where education is clearly the prerogative, why would we not want to fully exploit the possibility of introducing our youngest audiences – whose tastes are as limitless as their potential – to the broadest range of music, presented equally, and without excuses? I am extraordinarily sympathetic to the idea that orchestras can feel that they are fighting for their lives just maintaining an audience for the future, but it seems to me there is a danger that this mentality ultimately fosters the objective of maintaining the status quo: the audiences of the future are sought as clones of the audience of today. At its worst this allows for the continuation of the orchestra in the financial model it has now, but perhaps at the cost of the varied and ever-changing art form that it is a custodian of.
If education programmes offer, as I believe, the most significant way of tending to the tradition of symphonic music, then it is vital that we take stock of exactly what our learning outcomes should be. Education is inherently expansive: it opens up its beneficiaries to new and untold riches because – at its best – it instills a desire to want to keep finding out more. All sorts of dramatic changes have happened throughout history by sharing the opportunity for learning with those who had not had access before. If we dare to put this kind of limitlessness at the heart of our orchestras’ creative missions, what could the possibilities be?