The Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s commitment to meaningful musical experiences has been at the heart of its contributions to Memphis’ cultural, educational and economic life since 1952.

Midway into the first decade of the 21st century, MSO launched numerous innovative community programs and partnerships to broaden meaningful experiences through music. This work earned MSO national recognition for helping redefine the role and value of symphony orchestras in mid-size cities across the country.

In 2009, MSO recognized that to deepen, grow, and sustain this work, its board, musicians and community partners had to internalize and champion community engagement as core to mission and identity. Consilience Group (CG) was commissioned to facilitate the MSO board, musicians and community partners in co-creating a vision for deepening work in the community. Stakeholders participated in human-centered design workshops that were customized for MSO and helped to move the organization more deeply into the role of catalyst for community transformation through music.

Impact

The stakeholder design process galvanized the MSO board and musicians to take community partnerships and programs to the next level. Shortly after the process was complete, MSO more clearly saw the intersection between artistic excellence and community service, and a new dynamic for artistic growth and integration was born. This work, supported primarily by the Plough Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, incentivized musicians to explore, design and deliver non-traditional musical content outside of the concert hall in partnership with community organizations. For example, a music learning project was implemented in partnership with Autism Society of the Mid-South; therapeutic drumming began at the Veterans Administration Hospital; and a music appreciation program was offered to youth at Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mid-South. MSO capacity exploded across Memphis as musicians mobilized into a creative community workforce.

With an array of new community content to offer, MSO staff and board requested a grant in partnership with Community LIFT for a national-level ArtPlace funding, becoming the only symphony orchestra to receive this prestigious award. Community engagement is now “baked into” the organization’s culture, programs and policies. Program partnerships with schools, libraries, businesses and other community organizations have grown in depth and breadth. Individual musicians continue to create innovative ways to partner with the community, and today, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is recognized as one of the most innovative in the country, with teaching a mentoring now included in the musician union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Recently the Mellon Foundation awarded another grant to help the Memphis Symphony Orchestra develop a program that coordinators say is intended to attract young musicians from Latin, African-American and other “underrepresented” communities to the orchestra. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra family enriches the cultural appeal of the city, making Memphis a place where it is truly possible for everyone to “get into the music.”