We Need a New Car, Not a Faster Horse

November 22, 2010 by Paul Gambill
Model T

In my last post, I discussed the models of sustaining and disruptive technologies as proposed by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

The orchestra field is great at creating new sustaining technologies—those innovations that support our core product of traditional concerts. But we’re not so good at creating disruptive technologies—game changing innovations that challenge our notions of what an orchestra can be and how it can be relevant to community life.

Ben Cameron, in his key note address at the LAO’s national conference in Altanta, challenged orchestras to do three things:

Essentialize: know what’s at the core that you have to protect
Sacrifice: give up the things that fall outside of that core
Innovate: for the long term

Cameron also challenged us to ask the fundamental question, Why do orchestras exist? The answer to this question is the key to unlocking our ability to focus on what’s essential, and in turn let go of irrelevant elements of our work so we can create the innovative programs we need to lead audiences into the future.

We’ve gotten caught up over the years in the veneer of classical music, the beautiful colors of the music we know and love that are easy to see and experience. In love with the traditions we’ve built, we give precedence to those constructs at the cost of nurturing fertile ground for innovation. As a result, audiences that now have access to any audio or video in the world at the click of a mouse find it difficult to engage with our moribund art form.

The value system we created around classical music performance is based on safe expectations. Yet the music we love most is almost always created by composers who have taken risks, broken away from the pack and discovered a fresh way to express their unique view of the world. Why should our concert programs be anything less?

Now, with orchestras in crisis, we need to re-establish
our guiding principles to focus on the essential elements of why orchestras exist.

This change won’t come quickly, or for some, easily.  After all, not all traditions are bad or counter-progressive. I’ve been to some thrilling overture-concerto-symphony programs. Traditional programs will and should continue to exist.

There will always be a place for the “All Beethoven” program, or “Journey to [insert your favorite country here]” featuring the great masterworks of the international-you-know-who-composers. Similarly, traditional Pops programs like the ubiquitous “Broadway Spectacular” and “Hurray for Hollywood” programs will live on.

But it is a fundamental lesson of innovation that you cannot grow your business by only offering your customers a better, different, slicker version of what they want today. Soon, someone will come along and offer them something new that they didn’t know they wanted and you’ll be left behind.

That concept is at the heart of The Innovator’s Dilemma. But how do you manage that change without failing the current customers that are paying the bills? By taking Ben Cameron’s advice to heart and keeping the focus on the fundamental reason that orchestras exist.

Orchestras exist to engage and inspire us.

Classical music, and the traditions that surround it, are for many people hallowed ground. To others, those that are no longer attending or never considered attending an orchestra concert, it is many of those “time-honored” traditions that prevent them from engaging in our work. As Cameron suggested, traditions that are barriers to engagement should be sacrificed as no longer relevant. That gives us the best chance at creating innovative programs that can give more people the opportunity to discover the transformative experience that can be born at an orchestra concert.

Our challenge, as the curators of orchestral music, is to honor classical music by ensuring its future. To achieve that, we must be fearless in our willingness to experiment and innovate. We should hold confidently to the knowledge that the power of the great music from the past that we have come to cherish, and the new music we are helping create, is not monochromatic. It does not require placement in a box of similar music in order to thrive.

The sustaining audiences that have grown to expect a certain form of “classical” concert are not there night after night because they believe in nothing else. Rather, they are there regularly because they are lovers of great orchestral music and just haven’t yet been shown a different model. As Henry Ford famously said…

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse.”

Orchestras are great at providing faster horses, but now is the time to invent the car.

Today’s new car for your consideration is a program I created to premiere This Thread, by J. Mark Scearce, which commemorates 9/11. The program includes a first half featuring a narrator, African-American spiritual, contemporary gospel, African talking drum and rain sticks. The second half presented the premiere of This Thread, which sets text by Toni Morrison (right), featuring solo mezzo soprano and solo violin. For the program detail, go here.

Excerpt [1:12]: This Thread, by J. Mark Scearce: Orchestra Nashville – Paul Gambill, conductor; Marietta Simpson, mezzo soprano; Christian Teal, violin

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This hybrid program is neither pops nor classical, so where does this fit in your season? Maybe you’d place it as a Special, set aside from a regular concert series. I think the labels we give to orchestral music, and the programming boxes we create to market our concerts are part of the barriers to engagement that today’s audience has to navigate through.

I wrote an article for New Music Box here, that describes my process in creating this program.

Go to the This Thread program page for audio of the complete performance of This Thread, plus details on the forces required to present this program.

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