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  • Kevin Vuong

Sitting down Nicole Balm and Pierre Rivard!

As I prepared my blog post for this week, I kept wondering about all the questions I still have yet to answer over my short time at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

That said, there's no better way to start answering these questions, than just to ask them. Who better to ask and to hear from than my department colleagues themselves. After all, this blog is an exercise in storytelling - and podcasting is one of my favourite forms of storytelling.

On Friday, November 12th, I had the opportunity to sit down with my colleagues and supervisors Nicole Balm (Director of Education and Community Engagement) and Pierre Rivard (Education Manager) and ask them a few questions about their backgrounds, their experiences of working at the TSO, recent happenings in the education department, diversity, equity, inclusion and access as well as the TSO/music education in times of COVID.

The long form "podcast-style" interview for your listening pleasure is included here: LINK

To view the transcript of our entire conversation, click here:

TSO Conversation (1)
Download PDF • 79KB

I have taken the liberty to pull a few important insights and quotes from our conversation and discuss them below:

1. Interesting backgrounds make for interesting perspectives.

"I'm not from the music world. But I feel like I've been adopted by the music world. And it's just been fantastic to be here." - Pierre Rivard

Nicole has worked at several different orchestras and arts organizations across the United States and Canada before the Toronto Symphony, having worked in Orchestra Operations before moving into Education and Community Engagement. Nicole's background is in music - a clarinet player by training. Pierre is a teacher by training, with a background in journalism and visual arts - not music!

"I thought I would be a clarinet performer and pursued that at university at McGill for a brief stint. But, quickly realized that my passion for music was more on the the business and industry side of things." - Nicole Balm

On paper - my colleagues may not be the perfect candidates for their positions (Nicole is a musician but not a teacher, Pierre is a teacher but not a musician), but their insight from their training, lived experiences and previous positions bring such a unique perspective to their responsibilities now.

"But I have a sense, I'm almost like, you know, a stand in for the audience that I'm reaching out to because I, in a way, am approaching it as a new person. And I have a sense of like, what's interesting to a person who's not familiar with orchestral music. " - Pierre Rivard

2. Enjoying the job, and Exciting Projects

Pierre and Nicole have both been at the TSO for a number of years, and have been a part of executing a number of interesting projects over the years. The excitement and passion my two colleagues have for these projects is certainly palpable - and the impact of these projects has been widespread across a variety of stakeholders, from musicians and staff themselves, to their target audiences.

"It's a very rewarding portfolio that we work under - to be able to see kids who've never experienced a live concert in a venue of 2000 people, experiencing that, and with our youth orchestra members, really blossoming as and coming into their own independence and sense responsibility as well as artistically." - Nicole Balm

It's great to see that my colleagues enjoy their jobs. There is definitely a sense of pride and ownership of the work that they do and the projects they execute. I see this in the clear dedication in my colleagues to disrupting the status quo and to take the Toronto Symphony in a direction that seeks to engage new audiences by developing creative, multi-disciplinary programming.

"We had a concert all about dancing, and they had like dancers on stage. We had another [concert] about improv and had people improvising on stage. Just recently, we did one at the [Toronto] Zoo, and since the Zoo and had animals involved. It's not quite my dream of having dogs on stage at Roy Thompson Hall, which hopefully will happen one day, but yeah, we get to try all these fun ideas. So that's - it's just a fun, fantastic department to work in."

3. Pushing the Boundaries - Programming, Diversity Equity and Inclusion

- Relaxed Concerts.

"Yeah, I would say diversity, equity and inclusion has always been part of the DNA of the Education Department." - Pierre Rivard

Along the vein of the previous theme - in recent years, the TSO has dedicated itself to redefining itself as a symphony orchestra that is opening doors for members of traditionally under-represented communities to feel welcome in the concert hall.

Another interesting project that the TSO has recently undertaken are its Relaxed Performances. Relaxed Performances offer the same concert-going experiences, but provides a more comforting and casual environment, intended to be welcoming to those with sensory sensitivities, learning or communication disabilities, and/or neurodiverse audience members. Accommodations included quiet rooms, ability to leave your seats and run around, make noise, etc.

"And right off the bat Daniel, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, was on the podium for that [Relaxed Performance] - and he, he that he came on stage, and he said, welcome everyone. And he immediately said, you know, "if you want to make noise, if you want to run around, if you want to wave your arms, if you want to leave the hall, all of those things are welcome here.". And it was there was a collective sigh in the hall of "okay, all right, this is actually what they said it was." - Nicole Balm

From my conversations with Nicole and Pierre, I've also come to realize that DEI in an arts organization like the TSO - starts with the people.

"The culture here is, is very much filled with people who, who recognize the excitement around orchestral music, who recognize its limitations, and are really passionate about sharing that with people and changing the stigma and the accessibility and the barriers that exist around or be a symphony orchestra in general." - Nicole Balm
"A lot of people had those ideas, and they were passionate about them, but they weren't really spoken out loud. And that was a point where like, musicians came forward, staff came forward. You know, they realize the importance of this kind of work. And there was kind of a collective desire to do more and to take to go further in the direction of DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion] before it was like the thing to do - we were on that path." - Pierre Rivard

Hess (2018) speaks about TSO Young Peoples Concerts in her article - and discusses issues of power, privilege and representation inherent in these concerts. The historical privilege of classical music, and the tendency for teachers to view Western classical music as a high form of art/a civilizing form of art. Something I am still interested in exploring is representation (specifically of BIPOC communities) at the TSO - how might an orchestra, which is primarily made up of White, classically trained musicians, foster that cultural connection to Toronto audiences, which are becoming increasingly more diverse? Sure, we can do that with hiring BIPOC conductors and artists, but as the core of the orchestra still is very much White and classically trained, this is still a long-standing issue.

Hess (2018) concludes her article by stating the importance of disrupting the power and privilege relationships while engaging with programs like the TSO Young Peoples' Concerts, and to supplement these experiences with "many other types of musical experiences", opening the door for students to understand the value of these musics. I believe the TSO is doing meaningful work in breaking down these barriers for attendees, as well as creating opportunities to combine musics and disciplines for their audiences.

It is also incumbent upon us as teachers to understand the historical privileging and "gate-keeping" that organizations like the TSO have participated in - and to situate that in context with the musics of the world so that our students have a whole gamut of musical experiences.

4. Education and Community Engagement within the Orchestra Ecosystem

"We can sit here in our corner and program schools or kids concerts or community activities till we're blue in the face. But if development or marketing or communications or production don't know about it, then there's absolutely no point." - Nicole Balm

The education and community engagement department operates within the entire ecosystem of the symphony's administration team - the programs that are enacted by the department need to be advertised, need to be funded and need to be staffed by artists!

The Berlin Philharmonic's 2012 film Open House showcases a bit of this collaboration between departments (which is echoed in the TSO's departments) - the ecosystem of orchestra administration is incredibly complex and intertwined, requiring the cooperation of artists, fundraising, education staff, volunteers and front of house, all to bring together an education concert. All of the stakeholders are in service of two things - the audience and the music: something that I find amazing about the work in the education department.

"I've been working here for four years now. And when I first started, the education department was in Roy Thompson Hall, kind of away from the main body of people. But since then, we've been moved into the main offices, we're actually right next to development and the CEO, and the Chief of Staff. So we physically been moved closer, because it's a reflection of how much we actually do work closely together." - Pierre Rivard

5. COVID and Post-COVID - Relationship building

"...there's always been kind of a gap between administration and musicians. I think that's true of any arts organization where the talent is very separate from those who administer the talent. And that dynamic really shifted during COVID and it's become very collaborative and very open." - Nicole Balm

COVID has profoundly affected arts organizations and their ability to present their music on stage to audiences in their theatres. It has forced arts organizations - much like teachers, to reimagine their craft .and method of delivery. None more so than the Toronto Symphony - who's main artistic product delivery is based upon putting "bums in seats" in their theatre.

The TSO was able to pivot some of its programming online (The Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra ran rehearsals online, livestreamed concerts and rehearsals were possible when the orchestra could gather sans audience, etc.), but the pandemic was a catalyst for innovation in so many other areas - delivering live music over Zoom to isolated seniors in long-term care homes (Sound Connections), creating long term resources and introducing musicians on an individual level. The most powerful change that Nicole and Pierre both identified is that of the TSO ecosystem itself - a renewed sense of collaboration and unity between administration, artists and audiences.

"I think, what I want moving forward, is just to continue on the path around because what happened is that we had all these ideas for community engagement, prior to the pandemic, and it was kind of like, well, do we have the funding? Do we or don't we, but then when the pandemic happened, we're all working from home, it was like, "we're gonna do it now. We're gonna start doing kind of forced us to, to try it out. And it worked." - Pierre Rivard

So many arts organizations have had to fight tooth and nail to survive (and quite frankly, to stay relevant) during the pandemic. It is my only hope that post-pandemic, just like we have done so in education, the reimaginings, the accessibility, the innovation - is all here to stay.

"There's been a real enthusiasm from the musicians of the orchestra who participated in some of these educational and community programs last season, to continue doing that and continue that - the TSO isn't just an orchestra that plays on stage, but that it has - its multifaceted and that in the way that it delivers music to folks." - Nicole Balm
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