Ilona Sie Dhian Ho, violinist and teacher at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, shares her determination to build new audiences for classical music and reflects on an initiative she is leading to create a practice of musicians for a local area. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Music Round the Corner: music as a natural part of local community life, supported by the Conservatoire.
I presume all who read this blog know how music can be an inspiration in one’s life. Something so valuable you want to share. This may be equally true for people who live in social contexts where classical music is rarely heard.
After more than a decade of teaching violin at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, I wanted to devote part of my time to developing a structure in which sharing my love for music beyond a standard concert hall would become a part of my professional life and for my students as well. This structure, initiated and embedded in the conservatoire, had to be a natural and continuous way to bring music further in society. The way it had to be organised, both at the Conservatoire as well as in the local area, had to be so simple that it could become sustainable. I also wanted the participation of students to give them opportunities to learn something important without diluting expectations of artistic level.
The people we would meet and play for had to feel truly what music is. We also needed to be aware of the risk of being seen as artists who feel themselves to be superior. If you love your art you are an ambassador for it, and represent it wherever you go. However, as a good diplomat, you also need to focus on understanding the people you meet wherever you go. So, I knew that to design a project that fulfilled all these wishes, I needed both to be immersed in the musical world and able to stand outside it.
I read a lot. What did policy makers think and do to find new audiences? Which initiatives had individual musicians, ensembles and conservatoires undertaken? I talked to people in all kinds of jobs: the education staff of orchestras, a professor of cultural economy and teachers in primary schools. I explored several local areas in The Hague and had conversations with people to hear what music meant for them. I spoke to social workers and listened to radio channels that I had never tuned into before. I read scientific papers on the effects of music. In my conversations with both musicians and potential new listeners, I met sceptical, frustrated but also passionate and optimistic people.
Based on this information and a series of conversations with my Principal to structure my ideas, I designed an elective with the name ”Music Round the Corner”. This is a pilot project aiming to investigate the idea of a 21st century “local area musician.” The local area musician performs, plays together with local residents, informs and connects. He tries to improve the musical understanding of the people and gives joy to the local community by performing adequate repertoire at local events.
The historic city -or court musician who had personal responsibility for a broad knowledge of music and of his immediate locality/town was the historic model for this idea. I assumed that the smaller the geographic area, the more intensely we could work, making personal connections.
We chose “Morgenstond “ to be our local area, far from the cultural centre of the Hague and one of the less economically advantaged districts.
From the reading and interviews I identified some principles:
Appealing to people’s basic musical understanding, we try to connect the music to a well-known emotion. If you know you listen to a lullaby it is easier to understand the music than if it is presented as an opus number titled Siciliano.
The people in the locality play an active role in choosing where and when music is played. We have shared responsibility.
There is an interactive element in every performance to make the audience participate at times.
The music has to be performed with passion and quality.
I visited pretty much all the organisations that play an active role in Morgenstond: the schools, the local city council, businesses in the shopping centre, the theatre and the hospital. I participated in monthly meetings between the professionals that support the area. Sitting next to a police officer, I heard about the problems of youth, the renovation of the main street, local festivities and the merging of schools. I became well-known to these people. Then I asked: would music fit into the agenda of your organisation next year? How and when? When appropriate I played a little piece or reminded people of the musical performance everybody had heard some years ago: the music in the Royal wedding ceremony that had made millions of people cry, together with our future queen. We agreed to organise a performance the following year that would support one of the organisation’s events. I then tried to picture the performance by visiting the venue where it would happen.
At the Conservatoire I asked instrumental and vocal teachers if they had students who would participate in this project. They needed to be convincing players, communicative and motivated. I formed a group this way, and the members were offered some training: we observed and analysed initiatives like ours on the Internet; we visited the area and discussed ideas; members also attended session of the NAIP curriculum (Masters in New Audiences and Innovative Practices).
At the end of 2013 we started performing. Our premiere was at the opening of a Community Centre, and we then went on to organise many performances and projects. The merging of schools was celebrated with the composition of a school song. The children wrote the lyrics to which the composer of our group (my colleague Theo Verbey) composed the music. After a school concert we invited children to take part in workshops for instruments. 25 children showed up and liked it, so we started an introductory violin course for the motivated ones. At our performances we now ask this group of young violinists to play a piece with us. The audience is touched by these charming performances and they often then ask where the violin lessons take place. Organisations have started fundraising themselves to organise a project with us. I can conclude by saying that I do not have enough musicians to fulfil all requests for music in Morgenstond.
After a year I asked all the partners in the area if they were willing to join an agreement (covenant) to support music. They said yes. The result was a sold out concert where 11 organisations signed an “agreement to support music”.
In this dynamic time of our musical world I think musicians who are connected and devoted to a local area can be a helpful link between music and new audiences. These audiences develop a long-term relationship with their local musicians. There are plenty of people out there for whom music can become a valuable part of life but they need a bit of help to start. Local area musicians offer this in a very particular way, and once music is truly felt and understood this seems to have a spin off by itself. The conservatoires should invest in this and offer students a way to contribute to something that determines their future as well: an informed, eager, music loving audience.
Violinist Ilona Sie Dhian Ho, Chinese-Dutch origin, studied in Bloomington, USA. She teaches violin at the Conservatoires of The Hague and Groningen where she is frequently leading the string orchestra. She is a well-known pedagogue and jury member and plays chamber music in several festivals. In her performance of the Beethoven Concerto in the Concertgebouw she was decribed a …a charming, outspoken solistic personality…… “