Outside the concert hall: the importance of empowerment of the individual musician

Scottish Ensemble violinist Joanne Green discusses her career as a musician - the importance of challenging yourself and the need for the classical music sector to remain agile, flexible and open-minded…

15 January 2019

Volinist Joanne Green (far left) leads a workshop for primary school children as part of the 2018 Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival

Why did I choose to become a musician? To be honest this was never my intention. I was talented on the violin but I wanted to be a doctor. Work hard, save lives, help people. But at the end of my schooling, I successfully joined the Australian Youth Orchestra. As one of the youngest at 18 I was whisked off for a seven-week tour around Europe and Asia with Christoph Eschenbach and Sir Charles Mackerras. For me, an isolated country girl, this sudden introduction into a vibrant and passionate community, with all my senses heightened by the impact of being on tour, quelled any immediate passion I had for medicine. Performing extraordinary music, playing in the best concert halls around Europe including the Proms in the Albert Hall, feeling the power and majesty of a symphony orchestra for the first time, exploring intense relationships with similar minded people, was nothing less than mind blowing. In those performances, the intensity of the shared vision, the connection with my fellow musicians, the pride and ambition we collaboratively felt was overwhelming. So too was the sense of dissolving my own ego for the benefit of the greater good. There was no going back. I was destined to study music.

But now I’m nearly 50 and I have been a professional musician for 25 years. I’ve very much enjoyed much of my music making but I’m ready for new challenges. Ironically, the dissolving of the ego for the greater good that I once revelled in, I now resent. To be brutally honest, playing is not enough anymore. In your third age, it is not about virtuosity or being the best but about respect, vocation and making a difference. I want and need to be more intellectually stimulated. I want to be individually creative. I want to be rewarded for initiative. I want to ‘give back’ into my community. I want to work hard, make lives better, help and inspire people.

Luckily, the Scottish Ensemble is a good organisation for me to work for. The CEOs, both past and present, nurture an artist-led artistic philosophy. A small organisation like the Ensemble can be light on its feet, change direction quickly and take bigger artistic risks than a large orchestra. But most importantly, an organisation of this size (with good leadership) has the capacity to identify each member’s individual strengths and then nurture, support and mentor them to develop and grow as artists. This empowerment of the musician is important for their well-being, but, in my mind, it is also extremely important for the organisation and the industry.

At the present, there is much talk about the death of classical music and the death of the orchestra. Are we relevant? Are we cost-effective? Can we continue to find an audience? I recently heard these exact same questions in a completely non-related context. I was attending a service at Wells Cathedral and I heard them ring out during the sermon. The Dean was discussing the relevance of cathedrals in today’s society. “Are we relevant? Are we cost-effective? Can we continue to find an audience?” He went on to describe how throughout history, cathedrals have been required to renegotiate their relationships with an increasingly secular society in order to stay relevant within the community. The cathedral has not changed its philosophy or purpose; its main priority is still to spread the word of God, but it has had to adapt to a changing world. It has been required to change the types of relationships it makes in the community, and the way it makes them.

Orchestras are the cathedrals of the classical music world. Music is our art form and music is our purpose, but we must be honest about a rapidly changing society and the relationship we have with our audiences. In the recent past, work that orchestras did ‘out of house’ in the community was called ‘outreach’. Is this not what a cathedral does to its congregation? It ‘reaches out’ to them. The term ‘outreach’ has now been dropped for the more current ‘creative learning’, but in my view that is something different altogether.

Scottish Ensemble is continually reaching out and renegotiating its relationships with its audience and the community. Alongside performances as a whole, it is using those empowered individual musicians to directly reach out, build relationships and to provide purpose. Administration and musicians work as a team and there is mutual respect across the board. The players feel valued and supported and the resulting creative diversity contributes to the strength of the company as a whole by doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the artistic pool of ideas.

Scottish Ensemble has recognised my passion for teaching and education and given me many opportunities to write and deliver projects for the organisation. In this way, alongside performing, I have been able to mentally stimulate myself whilst ‘making a difference’. When doing a project, I see myself as ‘reaching out’ to the children, touching their lives with music, and hopefully opening them to the possible ways music can transform their futures. It is music after all that makes us human.

Secondary school children gather for a performance by Scottish Ensemble musicians following a workshop by violinist Joanne Green (far right) at the 2018 Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival

On Fraser Anderson’s advice (CEO of the Scottish Ensemble until 2018) and with gentle pressuring, I applied for a leadership programme called Find Your Way run by the Association of British Orchestras (ABO). “Designed to utilise the existing resources, artistic skills and expertise of the ABO and its members, Find Your Way offers emerging leaders the opportunity to discover their long-term potential. Increased confidence, individual motivation, clarity of direction, productivity and creative enterprise.”

In 2018/19 there is cohort of six and the programme runs for 9 months. I am the only musician, the rest being in orchestral management. We are from all over the country, working in different companies and in different jobs. One of our tasks is that we must deliver a fresh thinking session at the ABO annual conference. The four-month process of jointly developing the presentation has been a steep learning curve for us all in terms of personal development, respect, and tolerance, and there have certainly been moments of tension. But the joint creative process has been truly inspirational. The collaborative brainstorming experience has been the intellectual stimulation I have been seeking. That combined with being mentored by Louise Mitchell, CEO of Colston Hall and Bristol Music Trust has given me the confidence to establish my own contacts in the wider industry.

But in preparing the presentation, I have been repeatedly drawn to my sore spot (probably much to the dismay of my colleagues), as the contrast between what we are doing here and a musician’s real life becomes stark; there are limited or no opportunities for the majority of musicians to contribute to the creative whole. We are re-creators rather than creators, and for the most part, our working life consists of being told what to do. This is the case whether we are students, orchestral players or teachers. As we progress through specialist music school, conservatoire and into the workplace, we are purely concerned with the genre in which we work and our personal pursuit of excellence. It is a narrow and straight tunnel of focus and it can be a lonely journey. I have a colleague who is a teacher in a specialist music school; she rarely see her colleagues (in fact she doesn’t know most of them), the artistic decisions are made by senior management (at least two steps up the line from her) and there is no channel of communication to enable her, with her considerable experience, to contribute to the bigger picture. Many instrumental teachers teach as they were taught. If I were in a contract orchestra, I might be in a section of 12, led by a section principal, managed by an orchestral manager and overseen by a CEO. Once I have my set chair, there is no scope for using my initiative, no room for job progression, no reward for being a self-starter. I don’t even have real access to my audience as that relationship is managed for me by the administration. It must be to the detriment of the organisations to have frustrated staff feeling unfulfilled and undervalued and it must affect the end product. Find Your Way is a fabulous programme but there is only one musician who benefits from it this year: me. This sort of collaborative creative thinking should begin at the earliest age, and in a generation we might see some change across the board as to how orchestras utilise their musicians.

Find Your Way for me has provided another provocation. Confronted with the convergence of my own career paths of performer/educator/manager, I have been led to think about the relationship between all three strands a little more carefully. I’ve been talking to lots of people; those who work in Music Education Hubs (England), those that teach in specialist music schools, conservatoires, or maintained schools, and those that perform. The obvious problem that affects us all is the lack of resources for music education. That at least we are all agreed on. Beyond that, there seems to be absolutely no joined up thinking between the music performers, educators and the Department of Education. From my conversations I also find that there is a huge disconnect between classical/orchestral performers and Music Education Hubs. Most performers don’t know or understand the first thing about Hubs, their structure or their function, and this is also the case in reverse. I heard one senior Hub staff member talk about ‘snooty’ orchestral players. Orchestras should be the lynchpins of a community’s musical life and that includes having a true vocation for the musical enlightenment of its youngest members.

Orchestras have a responsibility to be constantly renegotiating their relationships with the community. And in today’s world, that means taking some sort of responsibility for music education. I truly believe that if we had a culture of empowered musicians we could have an army of passionate people out being missionaries for the power of music. If Nicola Benedetti can do it, we all can.

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