Outreach with the London Symphony Orchestra

If we do genuinely want to be of service, then it starts with an invitation.

I feel that we as classical musicians haven’t been asking the right questions for quite some time. We always ask, “how can we get more people to come to our shows? How can we grow our audiences in order to survive?” When we do engage in outreach work, it’s often so that we can somewhat selfishly instill in the next generation a desire to attend symphonic concerts and operas. But isn’t this the wrong way around? Shouldn’t we be asking how we can serve our communities and play an active role in civic planning? The point of the audience isn’t to keep us going; we need to keep going for them. If we aren’t providing the space for people to feel connected in a deeper way to themselves and their world, of course our audiences won’t grow.

This is why I love outreach work and getting to do it with Tim Redmond and the London Symphony Orchestra is the utter definition of rewarding. Both of the Discovery Days I’ve been involved in have brought tears to my eyes. The beauty of kids is that you always know exactly where you stand with them, because they simply can’t hide what they feel, and these programs that we put on for them have both been resolutely successful. The days are intensive, starting with a 9am orchestral rehearsal without the time for a proper run-through, followed by two back-to-back energetic 50-minute performances at 11am and 12:10pm with approximately 1000 children at each show. We’re always on our toes since every audience is different, but generally, the kiddos are engaged the whole time, largely because Tim has figured out how long 5-8 year olds can manage to sit down before they need to get on their feet and sing. But more than that, they’re prepared for the experience before they even walk through the door. They learn songs specifically written for the event months in advance and are armed with recordings of the excerpts the LSO will perform live. When prompted, they are always eager to engage and they appear to be right at home in the Barbican Concert Hall. This time, they even got to hear music by two of the best living British composers, Jonathan Dove and Judith Weir, who both came to the second performance. The children were thrilled to discover that classical music isn’t only written by dead guys.

The first program we put on was called “Piece of the Puzzle,” which explained the basic building blocks of music: rhythm, harmony, melody, and bass. One of my favorite songs that Tim wrote was called “This Note Can Be” which included the lyrics, “this note can be anything it wants to be.” So wholesome. I showed up as a pizza delivery girl bringing some pepperoni pies that the trombone section ordered, but ended up sticking around because the conductor Tim needed an assistant. The second program was entitled “Musical Mechanics” where we wore overalls and aprons, ready to lift the lid on the LSO vehicle to give it its 100,000 note service. We checked the quavers, retuned the chords, tested the dynamics, and adjusted the character of the music. They heard that in order to be in sync with others, they have to actively listen. They learned that the best way to tackle whatever problem is in front of them is take it all apart, address the individual pieces, and most importantly, do not panic.

They also learned that they are all welcome in a concert hall, which is not to be underestimated. 

If we do genuinely want to be of service, then it starts with an invitation. Nowadays, orchestras and opera houses rightly realize that education departments are critically valuable. I would go so far as to say that it’s not just an institution’s task, but each artist’s responsibility to find a way to interact with the broader world outside of the concert hall. The beauty is that we all get to discover our unique way of doing so and if it hasn’t been done before, we’re all the better for it. We don’t even need to simply focus on youth; we can work with the elderly, with the sick, with tech, with science, with art, with budding musicians, with our colleagues. We just need to extend the olive branch and see what happens. It’s our job to contribute in the capacity that we can towards the collective well, keeping it full and available for whomever wants, or needs, to draw from it. Funnily enough, we often get more in return than what we give, finding our cups fuller than what we started off with.