Thursday, April 28, 2011

Symphony Phone-a-Thon

animated telephone Images

The Development Department of Columbus Symphony Orchestra recently held a Phone-a-Thon in the symphony offices.  Musicians, staff and board members were invited to volunteer to sign up for evening or weekend time slots during which they telephoned symphony supporters to thank them, to chat about symphony news, and to see if they'd like to renew their most recent gift to the orchestra.

In the past, the Columbus Symphony hired telemarketing companies to do this work.  Professional telemarketers who did not live in Columbus and had no interest in or knowledge of the symphony made the calls.  Those professional telemarketers were disappointing in their lack of knowledge of the symphony - I know because I was twice the recipient of their calls, and I put them to the test!

Back then, the symphony sponsored occasional volunteer telemarketing campaigns in which musicians participated, but those campaigns were disorganized and frustrating.  And since the past telephone campaigns took place in addition to the regular professional telemarketing, the phone calls were NOT well-received!  There were many angry people on the other end of the phone line back then - people who were upset that the symphony had not acknowledged their latest donation, or frustrated that symphony telemarketers kept calling even after being asked to stop.  I vividly recall bursting into tears after my very first phone call to a symphony donor....

Fortunately, our management was recently restructured, and many positive changes were made. This time, each symphony supporter who answered the phone seemed glad to speak with us.  Not one of the donors had a complaint about symphony management mistakes.  No one mentioned a gift unacknowledged or a call being made following a request to stop.  Not one audience member had a problem with tickets or subscriptions to report.  The records the volunteers were given to use for our phone calls were extremely orderly and proved to be accurately updated, which made things a lot easier for those of us placing the calls.

As expected, a number of donors on my calling list didn't answer the phone, so I ended up leaving a lot of voice mail messages. (Even a mere voice message offers a bit of connection, though!)  Each time a person did pick up the phone, I had the opportunity to introduce myself (a surprising number of them said that they watch me during concerts) and discuss the orchestra.  Many symphony fans expressed huge relief that things had taken a turn for the better.  Lots of them wanted to rave about our new Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  And several of the people I called made sizable donations.  It was like winning the lottery to have donors offer to give me their credit card numbers for recurring monthly gifts to the symphony!

Following the Phone-a-Thon I received a hand-written thank-you (on quality stationery!) from Lucy Godman, the Columbus Symphony's Development Director, as further evidence that things are really being handled properly. 

I have written posts about  the importance of musicians connecting with the audience.  Participating in a Phone-a-Thon is a great way to do it!   As I keep saying, the days are gone when all a musician had to do was to show up for rehearsals and concerts to play the notes on the page.  Audiences and donors now must be enticed through various types of connections.  Furthermore, many symphony board and staff members volunteered for our recent Phone-a-Thon, providing an extremely valuable opportunity for mingling with the musicians - another important type of connection which helps to ensure the orchestra's future.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

YES, things really have changed for the Columbus Symphony

Columbus Symphony Orchestra musicians

Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time, I stray from bassoon topics and instead write about issues affecting orchestras and orchestral musicians.  This is one of those times.

It's common knowledge that many orchestras have recently experienced devastating financial losses.  A recent ABC news report lists current challenges of U.S. orchestras: the economy, overtly large concert halls which can't possibly be filled, union-management struggles, and the American public's changing taste in music (very likely brought about by the slashing of arts programs in schools). The Syracuse Symphony is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, as did the Honolulu Symphony recently, and the Louisville Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.  The Detroit Symphony just ended a lengthy strike which caused the cancellation of many concerts over past months, and even the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Columbus Symphony began experiencing financial difficulties nearly a decade ago, as support for the orchestra waned following the controversial departure of its music director.  In 2005, the musicians agreed to a 13% pay cut.  But support for the orchestra continued to dwindle, and by the spring of 2008, the orchestra had depleted its capital assets.  The musicians resisted the board's request of an additional compensation cut, and the result that the orchestra was shut down for 6 months, after which the musicians accepted a 23% compensation cut.

Then, in late 2008, immediately following the signing of the new contract, the U.S. economy tanked! 

The recession resulted in further decline in donations and ticket sales for the orchestra, and by February of 2010, the Columbus Symphony's financial status had became dire.  The orchestra's new leaders, CEO Roland Valliere and Board Chair Martin Inglis, determined that the orchestra would have to either cease operations or radically restructure.  The musicians voted to accept compensation cuts of 20% in order to save the orchestra, and the symphony's administrative duties were turned over to CAPA, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. CAPA's dynamic President and CEO Bill Conner became the symphony's CEO, and Roland Valliere became the symphony's President and Chief Creative Officer.

Now, only a year later, it's safe to say that the Columbus Symphony has experienced a remarkable turnabout.  The symphony has benefited greatly from its affiliation with the highly-regarded CAPA.  Turning over administrative duties to CAPA saved the orchestra thousands of dollars, and since CAPA is an extremely well-run organization with competent, dedicated employees, the symphony is now well-managed.  Anyone who telephones the symphony office is presented with immediate evidence of improvement, since phone calls are now answered by a live person rather than the annoying recorded message which everyone used to complain about!

Corporate and individual donors recognize the change and are showing their support financially.  Our current administrative and board leaders are respected in the community.  Our board membership has been revitalized, and now includes many high-profile and committed members of varying ages.  We are receiving unprecedented grants from both the city and the county.  Our budget is balanced, with 7 years of accumulated debt erased.  And, a few months ago the Columbus Symphony named Jean-Marie Zeitouni as its new Music Director, much to the delight of the orchestra and the entire city of Columbus.

In late February, the musicians, management and board displayed remarkable evidence of our new spirit of collaboration by negotiating a new four-year Collective Bargaining Agreement six months early!  This demonstration of labor peace and institutional stability makes it possible for our management to move forward with its plans to build a cash reserve and endowment which will fortify the orchestra's future. 

Next season the orchestra is introducing two new concert series (Rush Hour series and Sound Bite series) and a new venue (the Southern Theater), designed to appeal to a much wider variety of audiences.  Our concerts are streaming on InstantEncore so that our fans can listen to our music anytime, anyplace, including via the Columbus Symphony's iPhone app. 

Mobile Apps
This past week, the symphony's development office sponsored a Phone-a-Thon in which board, staff and musician volunteers gathered in the symphony office to make calls to past donors who had not yet renewed their gift this season.  Instead of hiring telemarketers, our staff wisely used those of us who care about the symphony.  What a great opportunity to establish connections between the audience/donors and the symphony!  (It was also beneficial for the musicians, board members and staff to have the opportunity to get to know each other a little better!)

When I was speaking with one of the musicians who did not participate in the Phone-a-Thon, she told me she was refusing to volunteer because when she had volunteered once a few years ago, "things were all disorganized, and some of the donors were irate because the symphony had not kept track of their past donations!"  I understood what she was talking about, because I also had volunteered in the past, when things were not running as smoothly as they are now.  This time, the donor lists were in a perfect state of organization, and not one donor with whom I spoke on the phone had any gripes.

In fact, each donor I spoke with expressed relief that things really are different now.


Friday, April 15, 2011


My teacher, K.David Van Hoesen of the Eastman School of Music, used to say that the Bolero solo was the most daunting bassoon solo in the standard orchestral literature, due to the high likelihood of some sort of unfortunate malfunction.

It also happens to be the solo I have encountered most frequently during my tenure as principal bassoon of the Columbus Symphony.  In fact, I performed it during my very first rehearsal and concert with this orchestra.  (That's called "trial by fire".)

The Columbus Symphony recently performed Ravel's Bolero with our Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  It should have been easy, right?, seeing as how I had played it many times.........well, not exactly.  First of all, each time I play a piece, I approach it as though it's the first time, regardless of past experience.  In reality, each time truly IS a new experience.  The reed is different, the bocal and/or instrument may be different, the conductor is probably different, the hall may be different, but most importantly, I am not the same as I was the last time we played the piece.  I am either a better or a worse bassoonist, depending upon how much I have been practicing and whether I am on the right track regarding equipment (instrument, bocal and reeds).

The first thing I do to prepare (and this would take place at least two weeks before the first rehearsal) is to practice a couple of exercises to ensure reliable finger technique.  I think that finger technique has to be the top priority, since technical failure is top challenge, followed closely by reliable execution of the high Dbs.

Before I begin, I make an adjustment to my instrument which must be done each time I play a high solo.  My bassoon (Heckel #15421) has a larger diameter than older Heckels, and because of that, it is impossible for me to reach the high D and C keys without also hitting the low Bb, low B and/or Low C keys.  I de-activate the low note keys by wedging a foam earplug under the low C key:

It's tricky to get the ear plug positioned correctly, because if it's shoved in too far, then the low D key is also de-activated.  In the case of Bolero, that would create a problem because the pitch of the Db at the end of the solo would be too sharp if the low D key is not functioning fully.

The first exercise is one which was given to me by Christopher Weait, a legendary bassoonist (former principal of the Toronto Symphony and OSU bassoon professor) who happens to live in Columbus:

I practice this over and over, to the dismay of my colleagues within earshot.  (Most of it is done at home, though.)  The tempo is best kept slow, since smoothness and reliable fingering are the priorities.  If it can be played perfectly accurately at a slow speed, it can be played at any speed.  It's important to not practice a mistake!  If the slightest thing goes wrong, I stop and focus on that interval before returning to the exercise.

The next exercise involves high Db, so at this point I'll mention my approach to high solos.  I am a minimalist when it comes to changing equipment - I change as little as possible.  Many bassoonists change bocals for high solos - I do not, even though I own an outstanding Allgood high bocal.  The only thing I change for high solos is the reed.  For Bolero I search for a reed that has a reliable high Db.  Some bassoonists have high and low reeds which they save for future use, but for me, new reeds work best, even for high and low solos.  My approach to reeds is that I keep trying new reeds until one of them displays the quality I'm looking for.  Of course that means that I have to make a lot of reeds, but this approach works best for me.  Some bassoonists say that they're able to make specific reeds, like high reeds, but so far, I have not been successful with that.

Here's the other exercise I practice ad infinitum:

I think it's important to honor Ravel's wishes, even in this exercise.  He placed accents on the 2 Dbs, as indicated, and on the G - not on the final Db.  For some reason, many musicians ignore Ravel's markings.

When the fingerings are secure, I begin focusing on intonation.  It doesn't matter how accurate the fingerings are if the solo is out of tune!  I play a drone on G to play the exercises (and eventually the entire solo) with.  I use a tuner which produces sound, or an electronic keyboard, or an online source which produces pitches.

The metronome is also an important tool for preparing Bolero.  Most of the time, for Bolero and everything else, I use the metronome to mark the offbeats.  That's a technique I learned from a very successful jazz musician and educator, although I have yet to run into another classical musician who does it.  My metronome clicks on the "and" of one, the "and" of two, the "and" of three, etc.

Of course, there's nothing different about my metronome - it's just that I'm choosing to recognize its click as the offbeat.  Practicing this way is more effective than the traditional use of the metronome on the beats because it forces the player to produce his/her own beats.  Those beats are "checked" by the metronome's offbeats.  Lots of metronome practice is advisable for the Bolero solo, especially since while playing the solo, the bassoonist may not be able to hear the ultra quiet snare drum.  I practice the entire solo with both the drone on G and the metronome on the offbeats. 

It's always nice when the conductor chooses a tempo which seems "right".  Apparently Ravel marked the tempo at 72 in the score, and I think that's the tempo that our Music Director conducted.  I always practice Bolero (and every solo) at many different tempos so that I'm ready for anything. 

The bassoon solo follows the calm, relaxed, quiet flute and clarinet solos.  It's a worthy goal to think of attempting to match that laid back quality, even though the realistic bassoonist may fully expect the Bb entrance to sound like a veritable explosion compared to the delicate ending of the ever-so-graceful clarinet solo! 

I wonder if it's any easier on Ravel's intended instrument, the French basson..........