" /> Guest Blog Series: Community and Continuance for Small Budget Orchestras by Donald Marshall

Guest Blog Series: Community and Continuance for Small Budget Orchestras by Donald Marshall

Note from ACSO: Our membership network is full of incredible people with a wealth of life experiences, talents, and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. We want to share their insights, points of view, and wisdom with all of you, as well as raise the voices of individuals who are making a difference for the classical music field. Our guest blog series features people from different communities throughout California and the western region, from different sizes and types of classical music organizations, and with different jobs and responsibilities. They will share what they have learned, express their opinions about the sector, and ask challenging questions that will help us shift our thinking and be better advocates for this art form that we all love.
Community and Continuance for Small Budget Orchestras
Donald Marshall, President, Downey Symphonic Society   

One of ACSO’s many admirable features is the support it gives small budget orchestras (SBOs) like mine, the Downey Symphony Orchestra (DSO). To an extent, all orchestras share the same challenges and opportunities, though on different scales and with different resources. But SBOs have to be especially close to the communities that they serve and that sustain them.  

The DSO is a professional, union orchestra with an annual budget of about $225,000. Its season includes three concerts and a fourth, free summer concert in the park. We also give a special concert for all Downey 3rd graders in the fall and another for all 5th graders in the spring, as well as sending a quintet of musicians to all elementary schools to introduce children to elements of music and play specially arranged pieces for them. 

This fairly ambitious program is sustained by a 17-person volunteer board of directors with no staff except for a part-time bookkeeper. Board members handle everything from organizing and running the concerts to marketing and publicity to fund-raising. Most directors have little or no training or expertise in these areas and few have experience serving on boards of NPOs. Motivated by a love of music and civic pride, they have succeeded thanks to dedication, hard work, resourcefulness, and mental agility.

Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but the orchestra is now in its 61st season and has much to be proud of. Under the inspired leadership of our Music Director Sharon Lavery, we have presented world premieres of many new works and maintained an impressive level of quality in performance. These accomplishments are what any symphony orchestra aspires to. But I think it’s fair to say that SBOs have another perspective in addition to that of the tradition of symphonic music, namely, our specific community.

Our oft-repeated mantra is that the Downey Symphony is where the community comes together to share a great experience. Our concerts take place in the 738-seat Downey Theatre, so they keep a more intimate scale. We enhance the concert with an art exhibit in the lobby at each show. We start the concert by inviting the audience to take a picture of the orchestra and post it to social media, and we have a photo backdrop in the lobby. We provide a complimentary champagne-and-cookies reception following most concerts. Our musicians, music director, and soloists mingle with the audience after the show. We keep prices affordable so that concerts are accessible to families and those on limited income. The highest ticket price is $35; we offer free admission to Downey school students; and we have a strategic program of discounted seats, including for family and friends of the orchestra. Parking is free and close to the theatre. Obviously, we want our patrons to hear great music brilliantly performed, but we also want them to feel warmly welcomed and not only that they are part of our family but that we are part of theirs.

We appeal to supporters with the reminder that their contributions give the gift of great music to their family, friends, and neighbors. We engage our community at every opportunity, making sure board members are present at public events of all kinds, from the “State of the Schools” breakfast to the annual Christmas parade, so that we can truly say to our community, “this is your Downey Symphony.” This emphasis has been especially strong in recent years and has led to much wider awareness of the Symphony and increased support from the city, the Downey Unified School District, and many other entities and individuals.  

Naturally, there is still work to do. In recent years, the board updated its by-laws, adopted a series of important policies, recruited several new board members, and improved its organization and functioning. We also completed a strategic plan—a process that would have not have succeeded without a grant from ACSO that enabled us to engage a brilliant expert consultant, Kelly Lucera, executive director of the Long Beach Symphony. We need to implement this plan and build a stronger base of resources for the symphony. In these efforts, ACSO has been a huge help. Four of our board members were at the last ACSO conference and returned with new ideas and training to support their work.  

A key challenge, to my mind, is that we are both a governing board and an operating board. It isn’t always easy for directors to keep these distinct and switch hats. Board meetings sometimes stray into the details that should be delegated to individuals and committees and lose sight of the broader oversight issues that are appropriate for the board to focus on. We need to find effective ways to train directors in their specific operating tasks but also in best practices for board functioning.  

Most important (and I think this is true especially for all smaller organizations), the organization can’t succeed unless it can recruit and train new directors who are representative of the community broadly and are able and willing to share their time and expertise. Any organization will continue and flourish only if it can meet this challenge of renewing itself as the community and circumstances change.  
About the Author: Don Marshall is a retired professor of literature and philosophy who certainly didn’t foresee that he’d be scrambling to learn how to market and stage symphony concerts! He grew up near Downey and moved there on retirement in 2011. He discovered what a cultural treasure the city has in the Downey Symphony Orchestra and joined the Board in 2013. He is completing his third year as President and has been especially proud of the new compositions the Orchestra has presented and its growing engagement with its diverse community.  

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