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The Grand Rapids Symphony has garnered significant audience interest with its concerts featuring the music of video games and movie soundtracks, but getting attendees to return for classical performances has remained a challenge. The Grand Rapids Symphony has garnered significant audience interest with its concerts featuring the music of video games and movie soundtracks, but getting attendees to return for classical performances has remained a challenge. Photo courtesy of Terry Johnston Photography

In concert with community: West Michigan orchestras explore new ways to make music a part of everyday life

BY Samara Napolitan Sunday, October 30, 2016 05:03pm

When West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck visited Germany, he attended a free Bavarian State Opera performance. A crowd of at least 200,000 people greeted the orchestra musicians as though they were national heroes. 

Such an enthusiastic and huge audience at a classical music event is linked to Germany’s cultural heritage, which includes a healthy concentration of musical organizations. It also helps that the country can boast a history of legendary composers, from Beethoven to Hans Zimmer. 

“Orchestral music is so embedded in their culture that nobody could imagine a society without it,” Speck says. 

Outside of Germany’s borders, many orchestras are struggling to create that same spark and loyalty within their own communities. Not all are in dire straits, but there is a growing concern among musicians, educators, administrators and patrons regarding the future of orchestras. 

Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has tracked attendance at classical music performances. Findings show that the proportion of American adults attending a classical music performance at least once a year has decreased over the past decade. 

Audiences are growing older and more affluent, too. The NEA reports that the highest rate of attendance is among those in the 65 to 74 age group, while more than a third of audiences came from families earning $100,000 or more per year.

As audiences age and dwindle and as cities wrestle with ongoing social issues — all while funding grows more scarce, the industry strives to define what an orchestra can (and should) be. In West Michigan, symphony orchestras are recognizing and responding to this challenge by connecting with surrounding communities in new and innovative ways. 

“Being relevant is the bare minimum of what we can do,” Speck says. “It’s incumbent on us to be vital and essential to our communities.” 


Encouraging audiences to take the first step into the concert hall is key, according to Speck. 

“It’s amazing that there were music lovers within the surrounding towns who didn’t yet know the quality of the orchestra in their backyard, or even that it existed,” he says of newcomers to the West Michigan Symphony (WMS). “Once they pick up their jaws from the floor, they tend to stick with us.”

Arts administrators are beginning to use data to hone in on what motivates — and discourages — participation in arts activities. A 2015 NEA report found that a third of interested adults did not attend arts performances because of a lack of time. Other significant barriers identified include cost, difficulty in getting to and from events, and not having someone to go with to events.

West Michigan orchestras are seeing these attitudes reflected in their own communities. As part of a new strategic plan, The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) worked with Arts Consulting Group during its 2014-15 season to interview key internal and external stakeholders. They also distributed a detailed survey to more than 10,000 community members and received 647 responses. The KSO learned that although respondents think highly of the organization, they are seeking more affordable tickets and programming that fits their musical tastes. 

“Our community really likes what we stand for, but they don’t really always appreciate what we perform,” says Peter Gistelinck, president and CEO of the KSO. “Our takeaway is that programming needs to be very broad to ensure you reach out to all the layers of the community.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) cites a lack of awareness and familiarity as obstacles to attracting audiences to classical concerts, in addition to cost and inaccessibility. The organization has seen large audiences turn out for concerts featuring video game music and movie soundtracks, but people with the same demographics largely are not returning for classical performances. 

“We’re thinking about how we take that success and build a bridge between the Pokemon and the Mahler,” says Claire VanBrandeghen, director of education at the GRS. “A positive experience is hugely important. We’re looking at community engagement as a way to remove those barriers to participation and enjoyment.” 


The KSO survey findings show there is not only an opportunity for local orchestras to expand audiences, but also to discover new ways to bring music to the community. 

“It all starts with the orchestra itself,” Gistelinck says. “So many orchestras do what they think is good for the community, but they decide what is important for themselves without any data or feedback from the audience. That’s the wrong way to go. It creates a huge disconnect between the orchestra and their community.” 

“We’re always asking our audiences to come to us,” adds Elizabeth Youker, vice president of education and community partnerships at the KSO. “If we find ways to bring music to people, we can reach new audiences in a way that’s very positive.”

In response to the survey results, the KSO took an honest look at its values and programs, revised its mission statement and redefined its strategic objectives. Included in a new set of initiatives is a community concert series in which musicians perform recitals in traditional venues as well as unexpected places, such as the Sarkozy Bakery in downtown Kalamazoo. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“It really pays off in the sense that it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Gistelinck says. “There are a lot of people who show up for these concerts who don’t come to our regular concerts, so it’s a great opportunity to create a dialogue and spread our mission and vision deeper into the community.” 

The GRS also is connecting to non-traditional audiences through its Symphony Scorecard program. Launched in 2015, Symphony Scorecard provides those who receive financial assistance from the state of Michigan as well as Active, Guard and Reserve duty military families with up to four free tickets to most GRS performances. The GRS regularly staffs an information table at the Department of Health and Human Services as a way of communicating the benefits of the program and building relationships with new segments of the local population.  

In its first season, Symphony Scorecard distributed 2,100 free tickets to the community, along with 200 bus passes to assist people in traveling downtown. 

“We’ve seen a huge impact on audience diversity as a result of this program,” says VanBrandeghen. “The people using Scorecard are always so grateful to experience something that they thought they would never have the opportunity to experience.” 


VanBrandeghen also stresses authenticity and thoughtfulness as an important part of bringing music out into the community. 

“We hear that a lot, that people aren’t comfortable coming downtown,” she says. “But there is still a value to experiencing certain music in the concert hall. We can’t take that same experience and plop it in the community without finding the right person, the right space and the right music to make it work acoustically and be valuable to that audience.”

The GRS recently experimented with unconventional performances during ArtPrize Eight, when it partnered with steel drummer and composer Andy Akiho and conductor Jacomo Bairos to present mini concerts at the UICA gallery and the Blue Bridge. 

The WMS is straddling the line between the traditional and contemporary with concerts at The Block, a 150-seat, informal concert space that presents a cross-pollination of music genres and innovative performers. Upcoming concerts include a woodwind chamber music recital, a multimedia violin solo commission about the musical culture in Beirut, and a performance of Eastern European folk music. The Block also hosts the symphony’s education programs, including a Lunch n’ Learn series led by Speck and guest artists. 

“It’s the mandate of orchestras to reimagine the concert experience,” Speck says. “We always say that we hope classical music doesn’t become like a museum, but we should be so lucky because museums are way ahead of us. The classical music experience hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. What The Block does is make it possible for our Symphony guest artists to interact with people in a much more intimate way.”


Music education programs are another important component to not only keeping communities engaged, but also healthy and happy. 

“We have to remember what music is for and what music does for us. The experience of being involved in a beautiful piece of music is a transformative thing,” says KSO’s Youker. “One way to really make an impact is to invite people to try music themselves.”

The KSO’s approach is to provide entry points to musical experiences for all ages, as well as optimize and identify valuable community partnerships. One such partnership is Kalamazoo Kids in Tune. Based on the El Sistema model, Kalamazoo Kids In Tune is an orchestra immersion program that helps Woods Lake Elementary students fill their after school time. 

The school has seen increased attendance and parent involvement as well as improved student grades since the program launched in 2011.


The success of the West Michigan orchestra community and education programs is uplifting and encouraging, but to Gistelinck, the work is never done. Ongoing evaluation, relationship building and fresh thinking are important factors to aligning the orchestra’s work with the community’s needs as the KSO approaches its 100th anniversary in 2021. 

“We really have to be proactive in our dialogue,” Gistelinck says. “We consider our strategic plan to be a living document. Goals can change and it should adapt to where we need to go.” 

What orchestras can be for their audiences is changing, and musicians, conductors and administrators must constantly evolve to touch the lives of those around them. 

“Once we choose music that we love, we really need to be unapologetic about it,” Speck says. “By imparting our passion, we can start a spark that causes more people of all different backgrounds to be swept up in it.” 

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