NC Symphony depends on donors to meet education mandate

Jill Warren Lucas

When patrons of the North Carolina Symphony gather in Raleigh’s elegant Meymandi Hall, they might find that the music rapturously transports them to distant places or recalls long forgotten childhood memories. They may even close their eyes and imagine themselves on stage, drawing a bow and feeling the vibrations lift sound from the strings, or bashing the cymbals to climactic applause.

Stirring the imagination of music lovers is not merely a good return on the price of admission; it is a key measure of the 80-year-old organization’s mission. As the first orchestra in the U.S. to receive continuous state funding, thanks to the “Horn Tootin'” bill of 1943, the North Carolina Symphony is required to provide a significant portion of its resources to outreach and education.

This mandate is demonstrated in free performances at public schools and town halls in all 100 counties. Teachers who want support materials to make music relevant to general classroom instruction are provided an annual curriculum guide with a CD of symphony performances, along with either in-person or online training that qualifies for continuing education credit. The organization also offers support for musical instruction, such as master classes with orchestra members or visiting artists for advanced student musicians.

Like most everything associated with cultural arts and education, this commitment is a costly undertaking. State funding covers about 27 percent of the institution’s $13 million operating budget, of which about $3.5 million is set aside annually to support educational outreach. The balance funds 39-week contracts for salaried musicians; compensation for conductors, guest artists and year-round staff; license fees; insurance and travel costs affected by volatile fuel prices.

All of this means that President and CEO Sandi Macdonald must invest a great deal of effort in cultivating and maintaining donor support, from major corporations to individual givers, to expose young learners to orchestral music.

“We operate as a model of public-private partnership,” says Macdonald, who joined the symphony in June 2011 after serving as marketing and communications director for the Cleveland Orchestra. “We are responsible for raising slightly more than 70 percent of our overall revenue to support the orchestra.”

It’s a huge obligation to fill the rest of the jar. The PNC Grow Up Great initiative, which supports early childhood education, kicked in $50,000 for a series of small group performances around the state. The program launched in March with an interactive mini-concert at a Raleigh library for a crowd of lively preschoolers and their appreciative parents.

“It’s great fun for our members, who enjoy the chance to get out and be part of the discovery of music by our youngest audiences,” Macdonald says. “We hear all the time from adults who have strong memories of the first time they saw the symphony perform in their town. They say it inspired them to identify their talents and use them to the best of their abilities.”

Countless studies show the important correlation between arts education, particularly music education, and academic achievement for children regardless of race or socioeconomic background. Children who are exposed to music at a young age acquire language skills sooner, read sooner and are better at multitasking. They also have improved attention and memory and score better on standardized tests, such as the SAT.

U.S. Department of Education data shows that students involved in band or orchestra during their middle and high school years demonstrated significantly higher levels of math proficiency than peers who are not involved. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the complicated counterpart crafted by math whiz Johann Sebastian Bach, who was a working musician at age 10.

The North Carolina Symphony’s commitment to educational outreach is well known and highly regarded, says Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications at the League of American Orchestras, a national performing arts service organization dedicated to helping orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“North Carolina is in a very small group that travels across the state in this mission and really promotes this level of education outreach,” Kurnick says. “Many orchestras have regional programs, but this statewide emphasis sets North Carolina apart.

“Over the years, orchestras have learned that the best way for arts education to stick is for an active experience, like seeing a live performance,” Kurnick adds. “It really changes lives. It deserves all the positive attention that people can afford.”

As part of the effort to ensure that the symphony can fulfill its outreach mission, Macdonald launched a five-year plan called Strategy 2017.  It sets an ambitious agenda to achieve and maintain “best in class” excellence, increase community engagement and realize financial sustainability.

“We talk a lot about how to serve our audience and our patrons,” Macdonald   says, adding that members take turns chatting with fans at regular performances to answer questions and express thanks for their support. “Our musicians say all the time, ‘We can make beautiful music, but what’s the point if no one is there to hear it?’ It was great to get affirmation of our direction.”

While attendance slipped in recent years as patrons felt the pinch of the recession, Macdonald says the organization has stepped up attendance among subscribers and buyers of individual tickets this season. This accounts for strong support of home and community-based programs, creative scheduling of small ensemble events in pubs, and the symphony’s increasingly diverse play list. It currently is advertising a May 30 engagement with country singer LeAnn Rimes, whose tousled hair and come-hither gaze might perplex some symphony traditionalists. George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on the original Star Trek and today enjoys a huge social media presence, will host a “Sci-Fi Spectacular” on June 27.

“As (conductor and music director) Grant Llewellyn says, ‘It feels good to stretch,'” says Macdonald. “We look at special one-night-only options to be an entertainment choice for people who might not usually think of the symphony.”

Providing music lovers quality options for their entertainment dollar is good for the forward thinking organization’s bottom line, which ultimately ensures that resources are available to support mission-specific activities like free performances and “instrument zoos” for students.

“I sometimes sit in the theater and watch the children as much as I listen to the music. They are so excited,” says Macdonald, who sang and played violin in her school days. “For some children, it’s the first time they’ve seen a musical instrument or being given the opportunity to touch one. To see them make music for the first time really is something you never forget, and it’s worth every bit of effort it takes to make it happen.”

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