Community Engagement and Community Outreach: Aren't They the Same?

October 31, 2008

The College Music Society encourages its members to explore ways in which music professionals in higher education can interact with the cultural life of various communities and to re-think how we, as music professionals in higher education, encounter the general public and prepare students to encounter the general public.

The goal of community engagement activities is to establish relationships and create environments in which music faculty can join more people in encountering music in all of its powerful manifestations: in ways that:

(a) are accessible to nearly everyone,
(b) meaningful within specific social contexts, and
(c) recognize the aesthetic and practical value of all musics.

Performers, musicologists, theorists, composers, educators, technology specialists-all persons involved in music in any context-are encouraged:

(1) to establish patterns of interaction with local communities, participating in engagement activities with the general public and, on the basis of this experience,
(2) to develop methods for collaborative community engagement events, and
(3) to develop ways to improve the communicative skills of music students enrolled at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

By encouraging habits of sharing music between musicians and community members, CMS hopes to refine methods and curricula that support effective communication about the arts in general and music in particular. The CMS Committee on Community Engagement invites members to develop and present new, thought-provoking-even revolutionary-ideas that challenge the status quo of non-interactive, passive-audience presentations.

Outreach activities and engagement activities are the ends of a single continuum. Both are valuable and appropriate to different circumstances, depending on the nature of the audience and the environment. The two approaches might be described as follows:

At one end of the outreach-engagement continuum, outreach activities tend toward time-honored formats in which academic music professionals share their music and/or research with interested community members, using delivery systems most comfortable to the presenters.

  • the presenters prepare a program largely based upon their current area(s) of interest
  • the events are often recital or lecture format
  • the presenters are active
  • the listeners describe themselves as an audience
  • the presenters hold forth in exchange for the listeners' polite attention
  • exact correspondences between the listeners' interests and the presentation material are happy coincidences
  • there is little or no verbal communication expected between the presenters and the community members before or after the presentation
  • follow-up is usually limited to noting the event in the presenters' portfolios

At the other end of the outreach-engagement continuum, engagement activities contain elements of shared benefit and reciprocity, in which all parties learn from one another over time.

  • the academic music professionals know in advance the specific interests of the community and plan accordingly
  • the line between the presenters and listeners is drawn less rigidly; the two parties may indeed be physically closer than in a traditional concert or lecture setting
  • both the presenters and the people with whom they are sharing are active participants in a collaborative process of musical discovery
  • there is often dialogue between the two parties before, during, and after the activity
  • where possible, presenters reflect on insights gained to plan follow-up activities with the same population
  • presenters also reflect on how insights gained might inform the music curriculum in order to enhance all students' abilities to engage the public musically

Obviously, even as simple and gracious a gesture as adding a Q&A session immediately following an otherwise purely outreach event can enhance the local community's experience of music and move the event toward the engagement end of the spectrum. Farther still along the outreach-engagement continuum are presentations by faculty who can engage listeners in some kind of dialogue during the presentation.

The CMS community engagement vision demands an extraordinary re-thinking of how we encounter the general public, challenging members to ask themselves: How do we establish relationships and create environments in which we can make manifest unparalleled musical interactions with an audience? Do we know how to prepare our students to do this? And if so, how do we share this?

Engagement activities, then, necessarily require some contact with a given community group well before the engagement event themselves. This requires exploring what communities exist within the larger public and surrounding region, determining what citizens value, what knowledge they might already possess, and their propensity to share it. The more one discovers about community members, the more one can prepare a series of events in which all parties learn and benefit from one another.

Venues and Activities
Careful consideration of the physical setting is crucial. Again considering how to create environments for musical dialogue between faculty and the general public, a given activity might lend itself to different venues, depending on whether the activity is largely outreach or largely engagement.

The following would be examples of typical community outreach venues and activities:

  • giving a lecture-recital at a college or university
  • being a guest lecturer in a university classroom
  • performing in a senior citizen's facility
  • premiering a new work at a community arts center
  • giving a pre-concert lecture to community members

Here are examples of community engagement venues and activities:

  • giving lecture-recitals that would be meaningful to a particular population, such as an ethnic or cultural group
  • investigating the demographics and cultural backgrounds of university students, and engaging them in conversation through technology prior to the first engagement event to determine what kind of activity would be of most benefit to them, and having them contribute their own knowledge to the activity
  • finding out what musics the residents of a senior citizen's facility prefer, then having them participate in the music-making in some way
  • sharing a new choral composition with a community choir and having them share one of their favorite pieces, staying involved at least through public performance
  • presenting lecture-recitals on the works of a composer who has cultural connections to the community, perhaps co-presenting with a member of that community and/or someone who has studied the particular culture
  • helping high school students learn how to listen more deeply to their own music
  • composing a new work specifically for an existing community ensemble, inviting their input in the composition process and staying involved at least through public performance
  • making connections between a composer's works and works displayed in a local museum

Other venues to consider for community engagement might include community music programs such as bands and choirs, public and private school settings, community organizations and centers, health institutions, museums, and religious centers.

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