Working in Harmony: MCLP Participants’ Project Brings Great Change to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra

by Grace McGovern


The Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s (ISO) mission is simple: “To enrich lives through excellent orchestra performances and programs that engage and inspire.” Formed in 1993, ISO works tirelessly to provide the Bloomington-Normal community with cultural and educational performances that do just that.

However, for a non-profit such as the ISO, being able to reach that wider audience can be a challenge; that’s where the Multicultural Leadership Program (MCLP) comes into play.

Trevor Orthmann, executive director of the ISO, says that they decided to look into MCLP after hearing about it through board members who were involved with the program, as well as from the board member observations that MCLP had at ISO.

“We were all well aware of the program and were encouraged by those that had worked with the program as mentors to apply,” Trevor says. “We were looking to do market research for the symphony that our small staff would not normally be able to do.”

The main goal of the ISO was to diversify their audience, and to be able to share their performances with new and different types of people around the community. What MCLP provided were the means and know-how to do just that.

Dubbing themselves MCLP’s 7th Symphony, MCLP’s team of Vanitha Giriprakash, Angela Kuppersmith, Alicia McKeighan, Appana Pediredla and Jeffrey Vargo was ready to get down to business.

Angela Kuppersmith, project coordinator for the MCLP group, emphasized the need for structure in order for this plan of increasing diversity to work out.

“It was important for us to stay on track, stay organized and to be efficient with our and the project’s time. It’s easy to get out of scope. You say: ‘we should do this, we should do that.’ Our main goal was to develop a new marketing strategy. The question underneath that is: how?”

What MCLP and ISO discovered they needed was really something quite simple: metrics.

No matter how many initiatives or marketing strategies ISO launched, they would have no idea the impact those different measures had without the quantitative data to back it up.

As project administrator of the MCLP group, Alicia McKeighan knows just how important concrete facts and feedback are in any organization.

“In my job, I tell my team, you need to make your decisions based on data. If they don’t get insight they’ll just do the same things they’ve always done, and maybe it will work, but maybe it won’t.”

She also spoke to the importance of having a baseline of information.

“The information is going to change over time,” she says, “and you’re going to need to evaluate.”

The best course of action, they decided, was to create and share a community survey of Bloomington-Normal.

The target market survey that MCLP developed gained insight about various factors, such as awareness issues, preferred methods of notification, perceptions of the symphony and opinions on possible enhancement options for ISO’s performances. With a total of 501 responses, the information ISO got was far-reaching and valuable.

MCLP also developed an ongoing survey designed to be taken after a performance, in order to gauge what specific tactics are working and what they could possibly improve. That way, change could continue to develop beyond just ISO’s time with MCLP.

Beyond just the metrics, MCLP’s team made sure to also focus on team dynamics. Key to the success of this project, McKeighan says, is diversity.

“If you don’t have diversity in your groups you’re going to have the same ideas and come up with the same thoughts,” she says. “For the purpose of trying to reach a wide audience at the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the diversity in the group was key.”

She also spoke to how having different individuals who had different talents was essential to the success of the project.

For instance, Jeff Vargo had service experience and connections, which helped with the survey results and recommendations, and Angela Kuppersmith works in marketing, so she was helpful as a lead because of her professional skillset. She also brought up how Vanitha Giriprakash and Appana Pediredla being from India brought a different viewpoint of classical music, and in turn brought different ideas to the table.

But as with any project, there were still some obstacles. Kuppersmith puts them simply: “Time and budget. You’re never going to have enough of either.”

To her, this meant more than just the amount of time needed to complete the project, but the task of finding the time in each person’s schedule.

“You have to acknowledge that up front and deal with it as best you can,” she says.

Scope is also something you must be realistic about, Orthmann says.

“I think in the beginning, the challenge is to get the focus of the project so that you’re able to achieve what you want to achieve, but also asking: how much can we do for this organization? It was important to find the focus as to what were the real or top priority issues that we wanted to address. We arrived at them fairly quickly, so they were able to really focus on achieving them.”

By dealing with these issues head on, 7th Symphony was able to truly succeed in their project and pave a foundation of effective marketing and outreach for years to come at the ISO.

Along with this great research and the advancements made toward improved market research, what really shone through from this experience were the connections that were made.

“Some of the most beneficial (impacts) are the relationships that we built with the members of the MCLP team,” Orthmann states. “We have them as a resource and are able to go back and get input from them if we are thinking of implementing something. Everyone on the MCLP team is definitely willing to help, which helps not only the organization, but the community as a whole.”

Music is all about making connections and really communicating with your listeners. With the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s tireless dedication to their audience, it seems inevitable that this project would be such a big success.

“A symphony orchestra would not exist without an audience,” Orthmann says. “The performance is not just the orchestra performing, but the conversation or the communication between those that are audience members and the orchestra. That makes the performance what it is.”