Thursday, March 05, 2009

Creating Positive Change through Music: Interview with Christina Murray

Guest blogger Soha El-Borno is a freelance writer specializing in non-profit technology and web 2.0/social media. Her work has appeared in FundraisingRaising Success magazine, CSAE’s Association Agenda, CharityVillage, and the Wild Apricot nonprofit technology blog. She can be reached at Follow her on twitter @soha.

For the last several years, Symphony Nova Scotia has been changing children’s lives with music. Through its Education and Community Outreach programs, the Symphony helps bring music into the lives of over 14,000 school children each year - students who may not otherwise have access to a symphony. These special initiatives promote the love of music and music-making in their community.

According to the Symphony's Education and Outreach Manager Christina Murray, “In the last few years, we’ve realized how critical it is for us to support music education and community music-making since music teachers and local conductors are overburdened and under-funded. We feel so passionate that it’s our responsibility to give kids the opportunity to tap into all that music can give them.”

In this interview, I spoke with Christina about the program’s work, the advantages of working with the community, and the advice she has for nonprofits interested in creating community engagement programs.

Soha: How does the program help build community and give children the gift of music?

Christina: You know, it’s funny because we hear orchestral music all the time in our culture – it’s playing in the background when we’re in a mall, it’s in the soundtrack of a movie, it’s even in video games. But these days, most people never actually see this music being made live.

We find that when kids get to see the symphony play live they are absolutely mesmerized by all the instruments and the excitement of watching 40 people play all at once. On a CD or a soundtrack, sometimes we think classical music is boring but when you see it played live, it is so interesting and exciting!

Parents and teachers frequently call or write to tell us that the kids who have seen the symphony or have worked with one of the musicians have been totally energized by the experience. Often we hear that they are inspired to start taking music lessons, or to use music listening as a way of exploring and expressing their feelings. Learning to really connect with music is like opening a door to a whole new side of yourself and kids are really primed for this kind of experience.

Making music with other people brings out some of the best parts of our humanity – it requires us to cooperate with others, to learn to concentrate and focus, to express emotions, to appreciate beauty. There have been so many studies that prove that kids who engage in music become the top students in their classes, get into less trouble during adolescence, and are key contributors to society. We feel so passionate that it’s our responsibility to give kids the opportunity to tap into all that music can give them.

Soha: What are some of the best ways you have seen the program build and evolve young audiences in the community?

Christina: I think the creation of the Adopt-a-Musician program has been especially wonderful. This gives a classroom, or group of kids the chance to cooperate with a symphony musician over a long period of time – 6 to 8 sessions – and when they’re done, they perform the piece they’ve created on the stage of the Cohn, the Symphony’s main theatre. This program has proven to be really magical because the children get to use their voice and express their own imaginations and feelings. The musicians who are “adopted” also talk about how meaningful the experience is.

What’s also great about it is that we can tailor the program to the needs of a wide variety of groups. This year, for instance, the Children’s Response Program at the IWK has adopted a musician. CRP is a residential program for children with early onset of mental illness, or severe conduct disorders. Having the chance to explore and channel their creativity is proving to be really rewarding for all involved. We also have another musician working with a brand new first nations school in Shubenacadie. That school is amazing – it’s offering students the chance to be immersed in the Mi’maq culture and language for 7 hours a day. The musician who’s working with that group feels as though she’s learning just as much if not more than the children are!

Soha: What are some of the challenges you experience from working with the community?

Christina: One of the difficult things about community engagement work and our education programs is that we need sustained financial support in order to make them go. The school systems have cut back on their music programs so drastically that music teachers just can’t offer as much as the children need in order to become well rounded, well balanced adults. As hard as we work to come up with great concerts that sell out, and many of them do, our tickets sales only cover about 30% of our costs so we rely on donations, grants, and corporate sponsorship to be able to do the work we do. It can be really stressful to have to dedicate so much of your time to finding the money to be able to do what you know is needed for the kids in your midst. Nevertheless, the hard work is worth it!

Soha: How do you feel the program and community engagement work has created a better rapport between the Symphony and the community?

Christina: One of the things we have noticed is that symphonic music is starting to be “cool” again. We are beginning to get younger and younger audiences as well as people from a much broader cultural background. We try really hard to listen to what the community is saying to us, and to program concerts and create opportunities that respond to what we hear. I think this is part of why CBC has been so keen to record and broadcast so many of our concerts, despite all their cuts to classical music, and I think it’s why we are able to keep our heads above water even during economically challenging times.

Soha: What would be your advice to nonprofits who would like to create community engagement programs?

Christina: One of the best things an organization can do is to allow their programs to grow organically. If a group comes and requests something, just do what you can to make it happen and then stay in touch with them to see how it can grow. The other important thing is to demonstrate to the community that you are open to their ideas, and that you want to build relationships with them.

For instance, we have started offering complimentary tickets to community groups that support economically disadvantaged children. We hope that this communicates our strong desire to offer them what we can and to open a conversation about how we can be involved in enriching these kids’ lives. Good community engagement programs really come down to one thing: listening.

Soha: Any interesting future projects in the works for you right now?

Christina: Of course! One of the areas we are exploring quite actively these days is the role that music has in creating health and well-being for people. There are some really interesting studies coming out about the impact of music on healing, recovery from illness, the reduction of stress, and other similar things. We have heard from our friends at Phoenix House, at the IWK, and from other health care groups that they would really love to have the symphony involved in their initiatives. We are trying to find funding and are working to build programs that will allow us to contribute what we can to the increased health and vitality of the people in our community.

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  1. Making music with other people brings out some of the best parts of our humanity.

    So true. I was so impressed a few months ago with Bill Moyers' guest Mark Johnson and his project:
    Playing For Change: Peace Through Music.

    Very nicely done with musicians around the world playing together sounding as if in the same location. The CD and DVD should be released next month.

  2. Grampa Ken, I’m glad you liked the post and thank you so much for the link. Music is such an important part of life that if used positively can truly change people's lives.


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