Touring Test – Part 2

Not left shark. But still left out.

2015 was a busy year for the Orchestra area at UNC Charlotte. Beyond our usual schedule of concerts and in-state touring, in March the entire Chamber Orchestra spent a week in Montréal, and in October I took a group of students to England for one week. The original catalyst for this trip was an invitation for us to present at the Music Learning Revolution conference in London, a high profile one-day event showcasing new and unusual music education tools and techniques from the very high tech to, well… us, doing something very low tech. Our contingent did a live demonstration and explanation of a new social pedagogy of ensemble direction, and although our session was very well received, this in itself would never have been worth the cost and effort of travel. So I seized the opportunity to build around the visit a variety of short-term service residencies with different organizations throughout the south of Britain. The intention was to examine and evaluate a number of service residency parameters, such as: demographics of group served; unique strengths or attributes of different institutional partners; faculty interactions; and social versus establishment programs, to determine what conditions needed to be met in order to deliver the highest impact for hosts and the largest development benefit for UNCC participating students.

The day we arrived we visited In Harmony Lambeth to borrow a cello and interact briefly with the children. We were still suffering the effects of jet lag but had the opportunity to observe the students rehearse, and put in a rehearsal/performance ourselves for them as a chamber group. Lambeth serves an extremely diverse population mostly from a subsidized housing enclave in a highly gentrified district in London. The program is no longer housed by a school but is resident in a historic community hall, giving its leadership a large degree of control over an unusual and inspiring rehearsal and performance space.

Side by side in Telford
Rehearsing the side-by-side

The next day, our first full one, was spent in Birmingham and Telford, where we visited the largest In Harmony program in England as measured by enrollment. In Harmony Telford is operated in conjunction with the Birmingham Conservatoire, one of those rare institutions forward-thinking enough to have a “Learning and Participation” division in which research-informed community outreach is integrated within degree programs. With Julian Lloyd Webber serving as the current principal of the Conservatoire this should come as no surprise. In Telford our delegation worked with Conservatoire students and Telford program faculty to prepare a short performance for students, and then played side-by-side with the young orchestra on another work. Our exemplary, gracious host for the day was Richard Shrewsbury, manager of Learning and Participation at the Conservatoire, and the experience was excellent. In sharp contrast to Lambeth, the Telford students were primarily white and the program was integrated into a modern school.

The final major component of the service residency was a weekend spent in Oxfordshire at the very first rehearsals of what Americans would call an “honours orchestra”, an auditioned group of children, all under the age of 13, representing the best of their county in their age group. Unlike American honours orchestras which meet for the first time, rehearse and perform all in one weekend, this ensemble will rehearse every few weeks over a months, in preparation for summer performances. Our mandate was to support this first gathering by playing side by side with the children and leading sectionals. Conductor Stewart Attwood was yet another outstanding host for the weekend, integrating the UNCC team fully. The rehearsals were held at the very modern, purpose-built Oxfordshire Music Service facility on the outskirts of the historic university town, and as might be expected, the students represented a very different demographic from Lambeth or Telford.


Throughout these experiences I largely took a backseat – quite literally at times, in the rear of the ensembles plunking away on piano or trying desperately to regain my long-abandoned horn playing technique in a section of musicians half my height but twice my competence on the instrument. But from my vantage point I was able to identify an experiential continuum between poles of contribution and personal growth. In Oxford, the Charlotte team was not confronted with the behavioural and social issues, or lack of prior instrumental training, that are major challenges within the In Harmony programs. Children were largely focused and compliant (largely… the days for them were quite long) and generally had a firm technical foundation on their instruments. The UNCC team could lead and teach in the manner they were taught on their instruments. I could tell they enjoyed the experience substantially in no small part because they were comfortable in that milieu. But their growth in this context, although present, was minimal.

In Telford and in Lambeth, even though our interaction in the latter was clouded by jet lag, the pedagogical challenges were different. Students had a lower level of instrumental training, and some self-regulation issues were more apparent, particularly at Lambeth. Normal pedagogical expectations and strategies went out the window, and with them so went the comfort. The students reacted with distinction, displaying the strong adaptive skills which earned them the invitation to England to begin with, but the learning curve was greater, and their contribution to the programs was also diminished as a result.

The results were not particularly surprising, ultimately: service residencies have to be constructed with a view to finding the point of equilibrium between visitor growth and benefit to host. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive objectives, but the gap between them can be substantially closed through advanced preparation. In the case of the England Service residency, the participating students were required to have a strong knowledge of both conventional British music education activity and the In Harmony network on policy and practice levels. This preparation definitely paid off, as students were able to converse knowledgeably with their hosts and be mentally prepared for the different demographics they interacted with. The team was also chosen with great care, representing not UNCC’s most accomplished musical technicians but students with great intelligence, adaptability and work ethic.

I won’t draw a firm conclusion as to what context is best for a service residency: there are too many parameters to consider, but there are some key considerations for anyone planning anything similar:

  1. Choose the right team
  2. Choose the right partner
  3. Prepare properly
  4. Invest time

Like any venture, execution is best when objectives are set in relation to resources, human and financial, and the needs of partners. Even the time in Oxfordshire was valuable, allowing the Charlotte team to consolidate knowledge and gain confidence, but I also believe that the same would have been accomplished at any other program had we had the opportunity to interact for a full week, hence 4).

As for 2), it does bear mentioning that the trip was not without its problems. We had originally arranged with another partner for a full week-long integration with their program. With letter of invitation in hand we had made non-refundable bookings, only to be told later after repeated inquiry for final details that the program had been relocated and we were no longer necessary. The lesson to me was that without making a direct contribution to a residency, a host may consider itself without obligation to the visitors. Contracts are of no value in this situation: the cost of enforcement would far outweigh the value of the sum to be recovered. Choose your partners carefully, in other words. I was spoiled in Montréal working with the excellent Theodora, and further spoiled in Lambeth, Birmingham and Oxfordshire. The negative experience may be the exception to the rule, but it would be wise to note that there are exceptions even in a sector purportedly rooted in social values.

Getting back to Gustavo and YOLA, I don’t have an opinion. I would like to know if they performed elsewhere in the Bay Area, if they did in the very least a side-by-side with other programs of similar mission as part of their travels. There’s no question the lucky few chosen to make the trip got something out of their appearance at the Super Bowl, but I would dispute outright any suggestion they made any meaningful contribution during the half-time show. If the Super Bowl were their only gig on the trip, I would find their involvement problematic, and I would see it as an opportunity inexplicably and unjustifiably lost for them to contribute and serve in the spirit in which they’ve been taught. If I can make it happen across an ocean, with the support of some external partners like NEC, then surely the deep pockets of the LA Phil and the deeper ones of the NFL could have made certain that YOLA engaged in more than an in-state PR exercise, one that benefited the NFL’s image more than anyone else’s… unless a PR exercise is all that orchestra happens to be.

And just for the record: the future of classical music is not dependent on 20 seconds of screen time at the Super Bowl. It’s in the hands of the certified music educators around the nation who live and labour under increasingly difficult circumstances to make music a part of their students’ lives.

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