Two summers ago, I stood in the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano in Rome and descended down a darkened, stone staircase and into a world hidden from the Vespas and crowds outside the nearby Colosseum.
Our Roman tour guide, a passionate expert of Roman history and society, led us from room to room in a fourth century church buried beneath the basilica above it, introducing us not only to the altars and frescos built by early Christians, but to the meaning of what we were seeing.
To go to Rome, she explained, was to want to be part of the story of civilization and to understand our place in it.
The Sistine Chapel was beautiful as well, though amidst crowds careening their necks and security guards reminding visitors not to use flash photography, I didn’t experience an overwhelming feeling of connection or awe standing under Michelangelo’s masterpieces.
When I think about that trip, I hardly ever think about the Sistine Chapel. Instead, I almost always think about the local guides who were our windows into the local culture, time, and place, who helped us make sense of the masterpieces and see cherished sites through their eyes and with their expertise.
Serving as a public relations intern at the Grand Rapids Symphony for the past eight months has felt a little like being a local guide.
I’m not a classical music expert. After a decade of piano lessons, voice lessons, and singing in two collegiate, audition-only, choirs, I know I have a very modest music background compared to many folks at the symphony.
But I’ve utilized what I do know – from strategic communication, teaching highly diverse collegiate and secondary audiences, and years crafting writing products – and coupled it with research, lots of listening, and rich conversations with the rest of the Public Relations and Marketing team members, especially my mentor, Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, the Senior Manager of Communications and Media Relations for the Grand Rapids Symphony.
In doing so, I’ve had the unique privilege to serve as a local guide to both traditional and new GRS audiences.
Whether writing press releases for numerous concerts – from An American in Paris, to Ella, A Tribute! To Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams among others, I’ve had the chance to introduce audiences to music that is as diverse and expansive as it is engaging.
My passion for reaching non-traditional symphony audiences informed much of my work at the Grand Rapids Symphony. From writing about the Second City’s symphonic-driven, sketch-comedy show designed to reach symphony newcomers, to blogging about our summer offerings that attract a widely diverse audience to Cannonsburg Ski Area, press releases I wrote were written with non-traditional symphony audiences at the front of my mind.
I was particularly delighted to write a narrative-style blog about the work and performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars at its annual Symphony with Soul concert. Their work, facilitated by GRS musicians and Creative Connections, is a key part of the symphony’s Gateway to Music initiative and invites African American and Latino students to become musicians and, for that performance, budding composers.
With research from the League of American Orchestras, I’ve generated messaging and possible initiatives that can inform a strategic outreach to Grand Valley State University students, especially to non-music majors. Two blog posts, designed for two distinct platforms, are ready to be used next fall to welcome new collegiate audiences to the adventures of symphonic music.
All of this has given me that rare opportunity to help others see and hear something that is genuinely moving and genuinely meaningful.
There are many reasons why people go to symphony orchestra concerts. But after we enter that darkened hall and the conductor walks to the podium, I think many people are looking for some sort of connection. A connection to the music. A connection to other people. A connection to the composer and the era in which he or she lived. A connection to one’s emotions as the music unfolds. To go to the symphony is to want to connect.
I’m not a musician or conductor. I don’t make the music happen. Neither did any of my European tour guides build the cathedrals or preserve the historic sites. But they helped me to see what I was looking at through the lens of someone who not only understood it, but loved it, and who knew that a visceral connection was what that place invited.
At its best, the Grand Rapids Symphony invites that kind of connection, and at my best, I got to be a small part of that. I’m so deeply thankful.
A former high school English teacher, Jennifer Collard is a communications specialist and education professional with extensive work with diverse and underserved communities. When she’s not crafting sentences and attending symphony concerts, you can find her brainstorming which perennial plants to grow in her new garden in her newly purchased, little house just outside Detroit. Her digital portfolio and blog is available at jecollard.com.