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Sounds like a Plan

Under the direction of executive director Keith Elder, the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra provides programming and initiatives designed to ensure that people of all ages can enjoy music.

Michele Chiappetta
Sarah Eliza Roberts
November 28, 2019

Music is magical. It soothes the savage beast and feeds the soul. Studies have shown that music can reduce anxiety and lessen pain. It improves our cognitive abilities and helps people to exercise longer.

Music also broadens our experience of the world and adds value to the entire community — something that Keith C. Elder, the executive director of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, is passionate about. Elder stepped into the role August 2019, after having worked at prestigious organizations such as the Aspen Music Festival & School, the Eastman School of Music, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops.

“Music is incredibly important to me,” says Elder, who among his other talents is a longtime tuba player who has performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis. “There isn’t one person on this planet that music hasn’t touched. I’m sure there’s a song in your head that can remind you of something. You go to a concert and have that energy about you.”

Music in any form, he says, isn’t just about having fun. “It’s about what the art can do for the human soul.”

This commitment to doing more for the soul — and the community — sets the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra apart and makes it uniquely poised to make a difference. “The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is unique because we don’t look at ourselves as an art organization; we look at ourselves as a community organization,” Elder explains. “[The goal is] to provide value back and engage with this community.”

What this means, in practice, is that the TSO provides a host of programming and initiatives designed to ensure that people of all ages can enjoy music throughout their lives and benefit from it in ways that make their lives better.

One example is the TSO’s commitment to being involved in schools, which has been a boon in these days when budgets for music and other educational arts programs are being cut. And it’s also a way to counteract what has popularly been referred to as the graying of the audience, a phenomenon that has been going on for generations but has grown worse in recent decades as younger audiences are less frequently exposed to classical and symphony style music.

“When music education started taking a hit in the 1980s, we began losing relevance. These programs provide relevance,” he says.

Among the ways the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra reaches into the educational arena is with its Link Up program for elementary students. “Carnegie Hall provides the curriculum. We work with teachers in the area to teach it,” says Elder. The program lasts throughout the school year and ends in a concert extravaganza with music, dancing, and more, in collaboration with the symphony orchestra.

“This program is in over 100 communities around the world,” says Elder, “but Tulsa is the second-fastest-growing program in the world. Teachers are saying the excitement expressed is amazing, especially for children this age. Some of them, it’s the first time they’ve been to the Performing Arts Center or heard an orchestra.” Link Up served 20,000 elementary children in 2018-19 and is expected to reach 23,000 students in 2019-20. And it’s so successful that the TSO recently launched a new pilot program for sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders, featuring the music of John Williams movies.

But the TSO doesn’t reach out only to young people. They also work with seniors through programs like Creative Aging — which partners with The Indian Nations Council of Governments Area Agency on Aging to provide Link Up instruction and live concert experience for older adults in senior living, assisted living, and nursing home facilities. The Heart Strings program offers music by TSO musicians at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Hospital in Muskogee, Life Senior Services Assisted Living Campuses, Saint Simeon’s Senior Community, and Iron Gate Food Bank.

“For seniors, a lot of research has been done on how music is great for cognitive functions,” says Elder. “We’re working with many senior communities around the area. Interest has exploded, which is great.”

In addition to providing great music and a great community program, the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is innovative in yet another way that is garnering attention from orchestras across the country — its unique form of governance and organization. Unlike most orchestras, the TSO is run by consensus, which involves everyone equally, including the musicians.

“Everyone has a voice,” says Elder. “It makes the organization stronger, more transparent. It takes best practices from other industries and applies them to the orchestra. With a model like this, you can serve the community better.”

Of course, the TSO also does precisely what you’d expect, putting on great performances in a variety of musical styles. There’s something for everyone — such as a January 2020 concert of Strauss and Shumann, featuring acclaimed Oklahoma soprano Sarah Coburn. In March 2020, they’ll be performing the original Star Wars: A New Hope in concert. Attendees will be able to watch the movie with a live orchestra playing the soundtrack. And in May 2020, American folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie will perform with the orchestra. “We’re not just for people in tuxedos,” says Elder.

Take full advantage of everything the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra offers, from child care during concerts, pre-concert lectures, highlight recitals featuring local students, and after-parties where concert-goers are welcome to meet the musicians and soloists.

“We want to be the community’s orchestra, providing community service,” says Elder. “Most communities this size don’t have this much going on. It makes Tulsa special.”

Tulsa Symphony Orchestra
117 N. Boston Ave. | Tulsa