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Classical music and digital innovation: myth or magic?

If you’re interested in joining the first-ever collaborative online orchestra, then professionals (outside of a contract) and amateur musicians of all ages, locations and instruments are welcome to audition for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra by submitting a video performance of a new piece written for the occasion by the renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). YouTube have created a special site that contains the tools to help you learn the music, rehearse with the conductor and upload your part for the collaborative video.

And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice and upload. Send us your talent video performance from a list of recommended pieces. Finalists will be chosen by a judging panel and YouTube users to travel to New York in April 2009, to participate in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra summit, and play at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The deadline for all video submissions is January 28, 2009. The competition looks stiff – the Symphony project’s introductory video has already been downloaded over 95,000 times.

The LSO are supporting Symphony by providing instrumental masterclasses via their own YouTube channel. For example Maxine Kwok-Adams, first violin gives tips on how to bow a certain section of the new piece, as well as exploring Elgar’s Enigma in her masterclass (viewed over 8,000 times already):

As one of the four classical music institutions partnering the Symphony project, the LSO are building a significant online community, which has to be the highest online priority for classical music institutions. However, this project was not their idea – Google (who own YouTube) came up with it, and then found partners.

Greg Sandow thinks this is a reflection on the lack of innovation being embraced by the sector:

“So this YouTube thing, big as it is, is at bottom just another one of those ideas. And the ideas succeed because somebody loves them. Contrast this with a foundation project I was part of, where classical music institutions were enlisted — with funding as the carrot — in a long-term program designed to get them to innovate. Some of the innovations weren’t bad, but many were dutiful, cooked up in response to someone else’s urgency. From this I learned that “innovation” is a suspicious word. Truly innovative people don’t innovate, or at least not as any kind of conscious project. Instead, they embrace new ideas — either because the ideas solve a problem, or else just because the people involved love them — and make those ideas happen.”

My own experience, currently working with Scotland’s national classical music companies, is that there is a hunger for innovation. Yesterday, Bill Thompson and Nesta’s Rohan Gunatillake spoke to Scotland’s Five National Performing Companies at a workshop I’d organised for them on Horizon Scanning – part of a wider piece of collaborative work enabled and led by Mission Models Money. The issue is not about the attitude towards innovation, but about making space for it in the already at full-capacity day-to-day running of the organisation. We discussed open and user-led innovation models as well as thinking about how to ensure every person in the organisation has time to keep up with the latest innovations and share them with the rest of the team. The solution is not easy – it means sacrificing doing something else.

And just to prove that the classical music sector’s innovation hunger is rumbling, following London Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday concert last night, artistic director Andrew Burke says in today’s Guardian:

“we have a responsibility to seek out new ways of engaging audiences, whether through other art forms or through technology. We have to be part of the digital chatter of people’s lives.”