Looking Forward in Pittsburgh

by Caroline Abels

By reaching out to young and old, by involving its community in both music and the activities that make it happen, the Pittsburgh Symphony builds for the future.

More than a decade ago Helge Wehmeier, then CEO of Bayer Corporation, the Pittsburgh-based pharmaceutical giant, began noticing that the people he saw at Pittsburgh Symphony concerts were nowhere near the age of his teenage daughters. As a devoted member of the orchestra's board of directors, Wehmeier was concerned for the organization. And as a passionate music lover, he wondered what the dearth of young people in Heinz Hall suggested about the future of classical music in America. "The audience was much older than in other cities, especially cities in Europe," Wehmeier, a native of Germany, recalls. "I thought, 'Where are our future listeners going to come from? Where is the audience of the future?'"

Being in a position to influence the direction of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Wehmeier threw those questions back at the orchestra's newly formed Education and Outreach Department in 1993. According to Suzanne Perrino, the department's director, Wehmeier simply suggested that the staff get into the mind of a teenager--that it create a program his daughters would respond to. The charge was not necessarily to get Wehmeier's children liking Bach and Bart—k, but to get more youth from the Pittsburgh region interested in an art form they might otherwise steer clear of.

The result was Bayer Audience of the Future, a program specifically designed to give high-school students hands-on experience in creating and producing an orchestral concert. It was launched in the 1995-96 season with a five-year commitment from Bayer, and the company renewed its support for another five-year period in 2000-01. Audience of the Future--which pairs a student-produced Pittsburgh Symphony performance with a more traditional "side-by-side" concert involving 70 student musicians and an equal number from the professional orchestra--has now exposed nearly 20,000 teenagers to the orchestral concert experience. And it's one of three programs recognized this year in the second round of MetLife Awards for Excellence in Community Engagement, administered by the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Audience of the Future participants plan a real performance for real people each year in Heinz Hall. Over the course of five visits to the hall they work with orchestra staff to choose repertoire, create promotional materials, design the program booklet, figure out the technical setup, set ticket prices, and sell tickets. Everything the staff does for subscription concerts the students do for "their" concert, and they come away from the experience understanding every major aspect of producing a classical music event.

In its breadth of innovation, and as part of a holistic approach to community involvement, the student-produced concert resembles two other, newer Pittsburgh Symphony programs, one in early childhood education and one in music and wellness. These initiatives demonstrate the orchestra's awareness of the need to adapt educational strategies to a changing world--and to do so even during financially tough times. Gideon Toeplitz, managing director from 1987 until May of this year, notes that despite the organization's deficit position (about $2 million as of mid-June) it is "very clear that our investment in education and outreach must continue, because stopping now would be a huge mistake. It's our future."

Behind the Footlights
Pittsburgh Symphony Sales Manager Melissa Trifaro says that Audience of the Future participants, in planning and promoting an event that is not always viewed by the public as accessible, "hit upon the same challenges we do." And the students' status as symphonic "outsiders" may in fact give them additional insights: "They realize, for example, that [many] people out there have a certain view of classical music that makes them not like it."

This past season, a core group of 56 high schoolers participated in creating the May 22 concert--seven kids each from eight schools. The orchestra asked for four students who were involved in some sort of musical activity at school, and three who participated in other activities. The kids were then split into groups that oversaw repertoire, promotion, and operations. Each month during the spring semester they met at Heinz Hall to brainstorm ideas and talk with orchestra staff about how to get things done.

The first time the program was implemented, says Perrino, "everybody was extremely nervous about letting high-school kids pick their own repertoire. We thought they'd want Smashing Pumpkins, Rusted Root, Nine Inch Nails." But each year the groups have chosen classical favorites--The Four Seasons, Appalachian Spring, John Williams--after hearing a range of pieces from the orchestral repertoire. This year's group chose Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Dvoràk's Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 1.

As the repertoire group were busy making their selections, the operations group were learning how the hall functioned technically. The promotions group created fliers to distribute at school and determined what the target market for the concert would be. As part of their preparation they took a field trip to Bayer headquarters for a presentation by the company's vice president of marketing, and met on-air personalities at WQED, a local public radio and television broadcaster.

The students presenting this year's concert gathered for one last time in early May. In an upper rehearsal room at Heinz Hall the repertoire group discussed the program notes and how the pre-concert lecture should unfold: Should they just talk about the pieces, or should musical excerpts be played? In the green room, orchestra staff explained to the operations group what a "manager on duty" does on concert nights, and what happens in the "front of house." Near the bar in the grand tier, a marketing professional could be heard asking the promotions group whether anyone needed more tickets to sell, and students from one school critiqued their own marketing efforts, noting that they should have advertised earlier to get more people in the house. All three groups then came together to report on their activities. Operations got the biggest laugh: "All I have to say," remarked one member of that group, "is that the concert can't happen without us."

The concert came off without a hitch, attracting 1,800 students, parents, teachers, and townspeople from various communities.

Although the Pittsburgh Symphony hasn't interviewed parents about Audience of the Future and its effect on their kids, some teachers have told the orchestra that students jockey to get into the program and talk about the experience amongst themselves. In an e-mail to the orchestra last winter, one teacher noted that the mother of a certain participant "reports that her son now only listens to classical music at home and in the car." He also said his students got "very upset if a scheduling conflict prohibits our participation in a monthly Audience of the Future meeting."

As Perrino sees it, the program affects far more students than the number of actual hands-on participants would suggest. "It's ironic," she says, "that having 1,000 kids in the audience [for a student matinee] doesn't make much of an impact," whereas gathering a few dozen kids for a more integrated experience can send waves of interest in classical music through an entire student body. Trifaro notes that even if Audience of the Future participants are "not interested in working in the orchestra world, the things they learn are transferable to corporate America." And Cecilia Cicco, a music teacher at Deer Lakes High School, points out that participants come to realize they don't have to be a musician to be in the music profession, or that they can be a business major in college and still be involved with an orchestra after they graduate.

Music for Body and Soul
In 1999, a few years after Audience of the Future took off, a violist in the Pittsburgh Symphony was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, Penny Anderson-Brill didn't know her ordeal would lead to a whole new way of bringing the Pittsburgh Symphony into people's lives. But since then she has made the orchestra's budding Music and Wellness program a major focus of her life.

As she endured three operations, including a mastectomy, and four rounds of chemotherapy, Anderson-Brill came to rely on music as a way to ease her emotions and the strain on her family. Among her favorite works were Bach's St. Matthew Passion, chants by Benedictine monks, and Brian Eno's Ambient 1 Music for Airports. She also listened to the Chieftains and Pink Floyd, and before chemotherapy sessions she listened to the male chorus Chanticleer.

Anderson-Brill, now 54, even made music a focus of surgery. Listening to music before the surgery put her into a relaxed state, while listening during the surgery decreased the amount of anesthesia and pain medications she required. After surgery, she said, listening to music on headphones helped lessen her recovery time by offering a calming environment within the hospital.

Although Anderson-Brill used other forms of unconventional treatments during this time--keeping a journal, self-hypnosis, guided imagery--she was heartened to find that music, her life's calling, could be a major tool in helping save her life. "The music provided a sense of, 'I can handle this.' It kept me focused and really helped me make decisions."

Her own experience led her to begin playing live music in Pittsburgh hospitals affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, such as Magee-Women's Hospital and Montefiore Hospital. In addition to playing for patients in their rooms, she has played in waiting rooms to calm people who are about to consult with doctors or receive tests. On the orchestra's European tour this past April, she and violist Paul Silver played for children in the tracheotomy unit of a London hospital.

The six Pittsburgh Symphony musicians who have so far volunteered for the Music and Wellness program make sure to have music therapists in the hospital room when they play. Perrino says the orchestra would not recommend having the musicians play without such a health professional being on hand to guide the overall direction of the experience. Anderson-Brill speaks regularly to community groups about using music to ease stress and manage pain. And she has worked closely with Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the Healthy Lifestyles Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, to encourage the hiring of music therapists within the UPMC hospital system.

In tapping into the healing power of music in this way, the orchestra is fostering the kind of activity that recently received strong endorsement from the National Endowment for the Arts. On July 1 the NEA issued a report summarizing the findings of a symposium it had recently hosted in partnership with the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, which brought 40 experts in medicine, the arts, social services, media, business, and government together to develop a strategic plan for advancing cultural programming in healthcare. The NEA's press release noted that "a concept paper detailing the current state of the arts in healthcare provided the basis for discussion," and that "the resulting strategic plan will form the blueprint for future progress." It also quoted NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "The arts have an extraordinary ability to enhance our lives, to help us heal and to bring us comfort in times of great stress," he said. "We must reconnect the arts with the actual human existence that Americans lead, the journeys we take in life, which lead us through hospitals, to hospices, to the end of life."

Anderson-Brill says that musicians who want to help patients should be equipped with a diverse musical vocabulary so they can play a patient's favorite pieces. If someone has grown up with a certain kind of music, say that of the Big Band era, "that might be the kind of music they want to hear. A musician [in this situation] needs to have a big enough range of repertoire so they can play something familiar, so that the patient can open up and feel comfortable and not hear something that actually causes more stress."

One of Anderson-Brill's dreams is to see a local music and wellness center that would train musicians to play for people in hospitals. Part of her role in this new program is teaching a handful of her orchestra colleagues what's required of them in health-care situations. The Pittsburgh Symphony has a number of jazz musicians, she says, who could easily engage in the kind of impromptu sessions that help people in hospitals. "Potentially they could teach other musicians to improvise. But we have to organize them, and motivate them to do it."

Beyond the "Mozart Effect"
Improvisation is also called for in the Early Childhood Education program, in which Pittsburgh Symphony musicians visit classrooms in day-care centers serving children from six months to five years old. The players interact with the children in spontaneous, fun ways that require them to be highly flexible with what they play. They follow the lead of the child, noticing what he or she responds to and building on it.

Perrino says the Early Childhood Program, launched in the spring of 2001, has opened some musicians up to the unfamiliar territory of playing for very young children, which can be daunting. "If you ask musicians 'Do you want a kindergarten class or grades three to five, they'll most often take the older kids," she says. In 2000, before the program was launched, the orchestra hosted a national conference exploring the effects of music on very young children (from birth to age three). At that time the "Mozart Effect" was being touted as a way to make babies "smarter"; the State of Georgia was even requiring hospitals to send new moms home with a classical music CD or cassette. But the Pittsburgh Symphony wanted more information on the "Mozart Effect" before it embraced such techniques.

"People kept telling us that early childhood was an area of expansion," Perrino says. "But rather than record all Mozart symphonies and pass them out to new mothers, we wanted to see if the 'Mozart Effect' had any legs."

It didn't, according to participants in the symposium, which attracted a number of scientists, educators, and musicians from around the country. One study reported that the practice of giving CDs to new mothers was indirectly discouraging the moms from singing to their infants, something that hurt the natural bonding process between mother and child. "The mothers found it was much easier to throw in a video rather than sing and dance with their kids," Perrino says. "That natural bonding was secondary."

Now that a handful of Pittsburgh Symphony musicians have been playing for toddlers for the past couple of years, the orchestra hopes to gather information related to their experiences and publish conclusions of its own. "We feel that we're just beginning to understand where we belong in this early-childhood music arena," says Perrino. "There are a lot of barriers and challenges. It's not like working in a school setting where everything's structured and there's a curriculum. You're really starting from scratch."

Unlike Audience of the Future, the Music and Wellness and Early Childhood Education programs rely heavily on musician initiative. And the orchestra has established what it believes is an effective way of encouraging participation in these and other outreach endeavors. Every musician contractually gets ten weeks of vacation a year, but earns an additional week by agreeing to participate in eight two-and-a-half-hour educational or outreach services. Last year 92 out of 99 musicians opted to take part in this unusual service-exchange arrangement. "I think we are unique with the eleventh-week program," says Toeplitz. "It puts us into the community five or six hundred times more than otherwise, in places where a full orchestra cannot go." Adds Perrino, "I think we're really lucky to have so many musicians who are willing to trust us and go into these settings."

As she sees it, for any orchestra seeking to start innovative outreach or education programs from scratch, the watchword is patience. Each organization must determine what its community needs, build a pilot, work in the trenches for a while, and then see what impact the program can have on the music industry or the city.

"If people want to see immediate results, they may not be happy," Perrino says. "You have to do a lot of research. But in the end, you're building strong links to potential audiences. The ultimate goal is to create access for people of every age to connect."

Caroline Abels is the cultural arts reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.