Lessons from virtual conferences

League of American Orchestras, OPERA America go online

By Peter Alexander June 24 at 3 p.m.

I recently “attended” two national conferences of classical music service organizations, the League of American Orchestras (LAO) and Opera America (OA). They were both informative about their fields in these difficult times, but also about the very nature of the conferences themselves. 

Here are a few of the things I learned.

First, we have the technology we need now to be holding meetings online rather than requiring everyone to get together in person. In the 1990s I held a minor post with a scholarly society and from my post of no significance I tried to nudge the powers that were toward making their conferences available online. 

It was (and is) expensive for students to travel across the country to make the contacts necessary to advance their careers. And I foresaw a future when air travel would become more expensive and more damaging to the environment, or when some largely unexpected event would render travel impractical. I thought then, and still do, that everyone would benefit from greater accessibility of the national meetings.

You will not be surprised that I had no influence at all.

But now, both the LAO and OA handled the details of online presentations and panel discussions smoothly. The only glitches came from individual users with compromised internet connections or unfamiliarity with Zoom. There is simply no reason going forward not to make most sessions of future conferences available online.

I understand the value of professional peers getting together for networking and sharing of ideas outside of formal sessions, and the building of relationships through social events. But both organizations reported the highest attendance in their history, with the LAO attendance growing from 2,000 in the first week to 3,700 for the closing session. This shows that there are many members and interested supporters who are unable to attend the national meeting, for financial reasons or conflicting obligations, who would benefit from being able to “attend” the sessions online. Now that LAO and OA have gotten their feet wet with the technology, there is no reason a national meeting cannot be offered in both formats—and in fact, as I understand it, OA has already been doing so. 

Professional and scholarly associations, are you paying attention?

Another lesson from both groups is that while they are attempting to be prepared for the fall, and an eventual re-opening of performances, nobody knows when or how that can be. Plans B, C and D are common, showing the multitude of unfamiliar challenges performers face.

Deborah Borda. Photo by NY Phil.

Deborah Borda, CEO of the New York Philharmonic, estimated that to put an audience in 2,700-seat David Geffen Hall with social distancing, they could admit 387 people. Obviously, no orchestra could pay the bills with such reduced ticket sales. And that doesn’t even get to the issue of how people get in and out of the hall or use the restrooms.

Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras, sounded a similar note, observing that no more than 30 people could be onstage at one time, and most halls have very limited space backstage. There are suggestions of having “bubbles” of musicians, he said, groups that would be tested and associate together but stay removed from other “bubbles.” That’s a creative approach, but it will not solve the problem of 20% capacity in the hall—a number greater than what Borda estimated for Geffen Hall.

The LAO meetings featured discussion about the lack of scientific research into the diffusion of droplets, and therefore of the virus, by wind instruments. Mark Spede, director of bands at Clemson University and president of the College Band Directors National Association, described research sponsored by the CBDNA that is being conducted by CU prof. Shelley Miller. Results of her work will be helpful by the fall, when performing organizations face decisions on resuming rehearsals and performances.

A separate session addressed issues of musician-generated content—either individual performances, or the compilation performances that we all have seen with multiple musicians, each playing from their own space. The challenge of generating professional-level content is extreme. Someone who engineered one performance compared it to being dragged by a train and stuck by lightening at the same time, and another person—a composer—begged “Don’t do it, please! Your life will be much happier.”

Opera America panel discussion on diversity and inclusion (screen shot)

Both LAO and OA offered valuable sessions on the subjects of diversity and inclusion. The LAO session “Out of the Box,” featured minority musicians from around the country. One salient point from this discussion was who gets to define success. To a large extent, it is musicians’ training that determines what “success” will look like, and it is very difficult for individuals to redefine it for themselves. Nevertheless, the panelists agreed that reclaiming control of one’s own narrative is crucial for minority and other musicians working outside the orchestral mainstream.

The most impressive presentation was by Nina Simon of the non-profit organization OF/BY/FOR ALL. Her message is that it is not enough to provide arts FOR under-represented segments of the community; they must be BY and OF that community.

Nina Simon

Simon spoke to both LAO and OA; I saw the OA presentation, which was well crafted, professional, and very powerful. One of her most important messages was that for change to happen, power must be shared. This will make some supporters uncomfortable, she said, but in the end, “comfort is a byproduct of privilege.”

Aaron Flagg

It is no secret that minorities are under-represented in the performing arts. Aaron Flagg, a jazz studies faculty member at Juilliard, speaking on a panel on “Anti-Black Racism and American Orchestras,” pointed to one of the most crucial issues when he said that tokenism is not enough. In hiring or recruiting musicians of color, he said, you must “show your respect for their artistry, not just your need for their color.”

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You may access some of the League of America Orchestras sessions at their Youtube Channel.

You may also access the OPERA America sessions at their YouTube channel.

NOTE: The session at which Aaron Flag spoke was corrected at 6 p.m. 6/24. It was “Anti-Black Racism and American Orchestras,” not “Outside the Box,” as originally stated. Other minor editing errors were corrected at the same time.

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