American Orchestras: Making a Difference for Our Communities

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Resource Details
Publication Date: 
February 2014
Polly Kahn
Number of Pages: 
Animating Democracy resource
PDF icon Orchestras_TrendPaper.pdf951.24 KB

The role that American orchestras play in community life has been steadily expanding over the last several decades. Fresh approaches to community involvement both in the musical offerings of in- and after-school programs as well as engaging traditionally underserved populations have paved the way as orchestras grow in their civic and social roles. This paper by Polly Kahn of the League of American Orchestras illuminates how orchestras are responding to changing demographics, helping people come together in ways that cut across their differences. Innovative participatory models show how music making contributes to community and social well being as well as individual transformation. It explores orchestras’ expansive reach to people in hospitals, aided by music therapists who train musicians and provide support for hospital practitioners, and insure solid tracking of results. More embryonic musical engagement approaches with teens and young adults in the juvenile justice system are described. Other examples highlight innovative efforts by orchestras in senior facilities and homeless shelters. Finally, topical projects, often driven by composers collaborating with orchestras, increasingly cross musical genres to address critical social issues; for example: Randall Wolff’s Blues for Black Hoodies, written in the aftermath of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic in a concert featuring Erykah Badu; and trumpeter/composer Hannibal’s tribute to Emmett Till, presented by the New Jersey Symphony, which promoted public discussion of issues of race. Kahn situates this work in the League’s own studies as well as others to suggest opportunities and observe challenges of public perceptions and orchestras’ capacities to meet their vision and growing sense of responsibility to contribute to the collective vitality and health of our communities while adhering to a core mission of sharing the joy of orchestral music.

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