Orchestra offers outreach program

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

For some time now, the Conway Symphony Orchestra’s footprint has gone well beyond the concert hall.

Besides a season of full concerts at its home at Reynolds Performance Hall at the University of Central Arkansas, the CSO’s outreach program features CSO in Your Classroom and Community Music Programs (CSO on the Go) that include everything from children’s concerts to performances at healthcare facilities, chamber luncheons and events such as Illuminate, Conway’s Christmas tree lighting.

“One of the things we really pride ourselves on is being accessible, and that doesn’t just mean in concert halls,” said Vicki Crockett, general manager of the CSO. “Part of that is making discounted ticket prices available for students and children, but also recognizing that sometimes there may be people who, for one reason or another, can’t come to us.

“We try to fill that gap by bringing music to them.”

While the musicians are paid, all the outreach is free to the public thanks to the support of entities such as the Arkansas Community Foundation Giving Tree Grant and Toad Suck Daze as well as individual donors. 

Crockett said the CSO — now in its 34th season — had always had board members who were interested in outreach activities.

A student brass group (above) and a group of trombone players (facing page) perform in Downtown Conway.

“But it didn’t really become a more doable or formalized program until maybe six or seven years ago,” she said. “We had to figure out how to do it.”

In the absence of, for example, a salaried quartet that is always ready for an outreach performance, the CSO had to organize musicians who were interested in such opportunities into groups. One of Music Director Israel Getzov’s graduate assistants serves as the liaison for the musicians; Crockett works on the other end, organizing performance details with the entities inviting the outreach opportunities, such as city, chamber, civic or healthcare facilities.

“We needed someone on both sides,” she said. “On the musician side, we needed to be able to find available musicians, and we also needed someone on the organizational side to make arrangements with the groups.”

According to conwaysymphony.org, CSO in Your Classroom features professional musicians bringing “their unique, interactive educational program” to various schools in Conway and beyond.

Crockett said originally, the program featured an annual children’s concert for fifth-graders in the Conway School District to expose them to orchestra prior to the students choosing an instrument in sixth grade.

“We wanted the kids to know by the time they get to sixth grade that orchestra is an option,” she said.

But once fifth-graders moved to the middle schools from intermediate schools a few years ago, logistics made the previous arrangement of an annual concert impossible.

“So Izzy said, ‘Let’s try something different, on the model of if they can’t come to us, we’ll go to them,’” Crockett said. “It was a pilot program, and we had one school where we sent musicians in to the classes. It wasn’t a full orchestra, but it was interactive so the students could really ask questions, see the instruments up close and talk to the musicians. 

“The first year we did it at one school with two or four visits. It worked, so the next year we did eight visits, then more the next year, and it grew from there.”

She sends invitations to the schools with the musicians’ available dates, mainly in April and May following standardized testing.

“We learned pretty quickly schools don’t have a lot of flexibility with their times until after the testing,” she said.

The Community Music Program, according to the website, sends “small ensembles out to share the excitement of live, symphony music with our whole community.” Musicians have performed at nursing homes, Conway Regional Rehab, College Square, ArtsFest, Arbor Day and the Conway Human Development Center’s Polar Express, among other places. 

“It’s bringing music to people who literally can’t come to us, maybe because of physical mobility problems,” Crockett said, mentioning Mother’s Day activities at Southridge Village retirement community in Conway and monthly performances at College Square, the retirement home on the UCA campus.

A February Saturday children’s concert at the Faulkner County Library, which includes an “instrument petting zoo” afterward, is another popular draw.

“It’s just a chance for children to check out the instruments,” Crockett said. “They have a chance to try out a cello, blow on a trombone and try (other) instruments they haven’t had a chance to try.”

She said attendees range from toddlers with their mothers on the floor with them through teenagers. “Their parents might not feel comfortable bringing them to a concert at bedtime, but Saturday morning at the library is different,” she said.

CSO on the Go activities happen four to five times a month, she said, adding that December is busier than usual because of the holidays.

It’s a win-win for everyone.

For those on the receiving end: “They love it, really enjoy it,” Crockett said. “We get a lot of positive reactions, appreciation, thanks so much for being here.”

For the musicians: “I ran into one of our trumpet players who’d played in a quintet at the Conway Human Development Center, and she said, ‘I loved that; it was so fun.’ They’re students, so they’re busy anyway, but music majors practice all the time, and it was nice to hear that was something she thought was important to spend her time on.”

Longer term, the outreach is paying dividends.

“We are seeing more anecdotally,” Crockett said. “When we are at children’s concerts and in the classrooms, more students know what the instruments are. Years ago, they’d call something a big violin, and now they know it’s a cello. At least they are recognizing the instruments.”