Leadership / 10.08.19
Toronto Symphony Orchestra Embraces Community Engagement
In 1923, when the New Symphony Orchestra (later renamed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) gave its first concert, the conductor and 58 musicians looked out upon a sea of white faces in the audience at Massey Hall. Those performing and those in attendance would have reflected Toronto’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon population in the early years of the 20th century. Today, Toronto is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, with more than half of its inhabitants having been born outside of Canada. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), which now performs at Roy Thomson Hall, plays a vital role in the city’s dynamic multicultural life.
With its 100th season fast approaching, the TSO is changing with the times. While already recognized and respected for its outreach programs, the organization is embracing the industry shift toward true engagement. A wonderful example is its recent partnership with a program that is taking deliberate steps to help young black men and women assume positions of leadership in the community.
“[Community engagement] is an area where we see a lot of opportunity for growth, and it’s an area of focus as we move into the future,” says Aaron McFarlane, Director of Education and Community Engagement for the TSO. “We have a huge responsibility to try to represent the diversity of our city.”
Indeed, the TSO already has some of the strongest education programs of any orchestra not only in Canada but North America. It offers school matinee performances, an open rehearsal program and a free tuition youth orchestra, which provides opportunities for approximately 40,000 children from the Greater Toronto Area to experience a live symphony orchestra every year.
Building on its long-established history of connecting younger generations with orchestral music, the TSO recently partnered with the Lifelong Leadership Institute, which, through its signature program Leadership by Design (LBD), offers high-performing youth from Toronto’s African-Caribbean community opportunities to develop and practice effective leadership.
“We saw it as an opportunity for us to welcome a group of young people who might not otherwise have an interest or a pathway to come into the symphony,” McFarlane says. “The students chosen for Leadership by Design are chosen by merit. It’s not a program that serves what we might describe as underserved youth. It is serving young black youth who are poised to become leaders in the community and then providing them with a variety of opportunities.”
The partnership is a natural fit, according to the chair of the Lifelong Leadership Institute, Trevor Massey.
“Our concern is that within the black community in Toronto, we’re not as well represented as we wish to be,” Massey says. “In the city of Toronto, 8.5% of the population identifies as black. You will not see 8.5% of our population represented on the stage in most of the major cultural arts activities or in audiences. Cultural and performing arts are hugely important to how we protect and underscore our history and our culture; it is also very good for our own personal well-being. The black community is engaged within its own sphere of heritage, but not so much in the broader context. We would like to be full participants and fully engaged. So, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with our youth?’ That’s how Leadership by Design was born.”
For many years, the TSO has offered free tickets as part of its community outreach program, but its involvement with Leadership by Design is a step beyond that. It is not just outreach, but the beginnings of true engagement, according to McFarlane.
“We need to meet Torontonians where they are and do our best to sit down with community partners and ask what they are working on, what are their communities concerned about, and then try to meet those needs,” he says.
So, McFarlane and Massey got down to business organizing a workshop that put the spotlight on
three people working with the TSO in different capacities, all of whom shared experiences from their youth, where and how they sought mentorship, what motivated them to take the paths that they took, and how they contribute to the TSO’s operations.
The timing couldn’t have been better as Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, a young, emerging black conductor from Ontario, was scheduled to be in town for a week of school concerts as well as two TSO family performances.
“Daniel is a great role model for an industry where people of color are historically underrepresented. It felt like an opportunity not to be missed,” McFarlane says. “This is all about leadership, because the conductor is the leader of an ensemble and of an orchestra, so it felt like something we just had to pursue. The idea was to give some perspective about the different roles that might be available within an orchestral institution for young people of color, if they are passionate about orchestral music or music in general, and what those career paths could look like.”
“If we dig deeply into an orchestra,” says Massey, “there is more than one leader. There are section leaders; there is a leader of the percussion section and the strings section. The orchestra is a metaphor for collaboration, relationships and getting a result. Then there is the music. You’re looking to get a harmonious, well-crafted result. It comes from practice. It comes from years of building the skill. It also comes from a group of people who come together to agree that they’ll perform the music as described and encouraged by the conductor. That’s a metaphor for many forms of leadership. Having students understand that is important.”
Bartholomew-Poyser was joined in the TSO-LBD workshop by Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra Manager and Education Associate Bradley Powell and TSO Board member Noelle Richardson.
Powell spoke about making the choice to follow a passion, even when there is pressure to pursue something more lucrative. He also encouraged the students to identify the intersection between passion and aptitude, then follow that path.
Richardson spoke about her work as the Chief Diversity Officer of the Ontario Public Service, and she encouraged the audience to recognize and value their minority perspective, talking about her personal experience of often being the only racialized person in leadership situations.
Bartholomew-Poyser talked about learning the tuba as a young man and encouraged young people not to be afraid of failure.
According to Massey, the students took away the image of a black man who is confident in his ability to function in a nontraditional environment.
“Fewer than 1% of the world’s orchestra conductors are black, and he’s one,” Massey says. “What [Bartholomew-Poyser is] able to present to the students are his experiences in a nontraditional field for a black person and how he is able to make adaptations, stand his ground, develop his own sense of belonging and have ownership of his space. Not only that, he’s very capable. He projected a model of striving and achievement to our students.”
As a part of their involvement with Leadership by Design, the students got to watch Bartholomew-Poyser conduct the TSO’s Let’s Dance! Young People’s Concert. Later in the year, they enjoyed a performance of Handel’s Messiah. LBD participants have also attended Queens of Soul, which featured the music of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and other soul singers, and a Remembrance Day event, which featured black Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
“We’ll take tickets for any event,” says Massey, “because I think the idea of dressing up and going out to be entertained, to have the experience of music of this kind, is an important one to anyone. No one should feel excluded from this exercise. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is providing a wonderful range of experience in the performing arts, especially orchestral music, and that is a huge part of the learning for our students, their parents and for all of us.”
And, for all of Toronto, according to McFarlane, who says reaching out to nontraditional audiences and actively engaging those who might otherwise feel excluded is a moral imperative.
“I feel that the TSO has an obligation to place itself at the center of our community. I think we should be active and supportive of the members of our community — whether that means we are performing the greatest works of orchestral music in our concert halls, or we are in a community center performing, or at an assisted living facility playing music for patients with dementia, or co-creating a new work with refugees. What that work looks like, I don’t know. It has to be emergent, and we have to work with our community partners and seek to meet those needs.”
As for Trevor Massey and the students at Leadership by Design, they couldn’t be happier and are looking forward to a long, successful relationship with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
“When we met with the TSO, we met to explore what they could do with our community of black youth and citizens that would like to explore more about what the orchestra is engaged in,” Massey says. “The good thing is they acted. It wasn’t a meeting and then nothing happened … Aaron has done outstanding work. He is authentically consumed with his mission of reaching out, and I appreciate that. He took the time; he came to talk to us and he delivered everything he said he would … They also showed a lot of goodwill. It is our hope that we can continue to work with the TSO. They are doing a tremendous amount of outstanding work.”
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Tags: Music , Leadership