Blog Post

Getting out of our comfort zone


Jan Ford reviews our new toolkit on shared decision-making and describes how it's a philosophy that's at the heart of Orchestras Live.

Sound Around Northampton Schools concert. Orchestras Live. Photo: Photocall Event Photography

Jan Ford reviews our new toolkit on shared decision-making and describes how it's a philosophy that's at the heart of Orchestras Live.

"Shared decision-making is scary. You won’t get the production, concert, exhibition you expected but your community will."

At Orchestras Live, shared decision-making is something that permeates our entire organisation. From the staff team through to trustees, to the partners we work with across the country – we believe orchestras are for everyone, and that participants and audiences should have a voice in a production. It’s a philosophy that puts people – audiences, participants, supporters, partners – at the heart of what we do, a ‘with’ not ‘for’ philosophy, underpinned by the highest quality product we can lay our hands on. It’s about knowledge and research and asking questions first, not assuming or imposing. Giving people a choice, providing knowledge, advice and structures that can help them make decisions, everything that this excellent new resource from the CPP network covers.

Our First Time Live programme, running since 2011, gives diverse groups of young people control of the artistic direction, production and presentation of large-scale live orchestral concerts. It’s scary and takes us so-called professionals out of our comfort zones, but what fantastic events they produce. Adopting this philosophy has changed the attitude of orchestral management, musicians and (some) maestros and we now apply the same principles to every project we co-produce. Levels of decision making vary from project to project, some are more successful than others. It’s a continual learning process and this resource will help too.

I’m not a fan of toolkits, that infer something needs repairing, but this resource or guide contains lots of familiar ways of working for us and also some very useful ideas about how we can improve our practice. The introduction from researcher Louise White says that what CPP Places have learnt is “relevant in participatory arts practices more broadly.” We’d argue it’s not just relevant in participatory arts but in, and I hate using labels, ‘mainstream’ arts. Surely, they are the target audience for this resource. The Reflecting Together section has some very useful techniques – like the Issue Tree - for shared reflection and planning which we will try. Thanks!

Maybe there’s not quite enough reference to the culture and structure of an organisation as they are important factors in determining whether an arts organisation has people, communities, audiences, participants as its focus. The more hierarchical an organisation, the less able it might be to work in partnerships and enabling genuine shared decision making. Orchestras Live has its roots in non-metropolitan areas. Established fifty years ago by communities in Eastern England passionate about sharing the amazing world of orchestral music with as many people as possible, the organisation was a pioneer of, and remains committed to, partnership as a working principle.

The content is excellent. It’s well written, full of great ideas and information, but there must be thousands of such reports languishing in hard and digital form in files across the country. The resource encourages strategic thinking, advocates delivering collaboratively and reflecting together. Isn’t this what the whole sector should doing? It has some fascinating and insightful case studies and spot-on advice but I wonder if, buried in a forty-seven-page document, they will reach beyond the dedicated few who make the time to read from cover to cover? 

What more can be done to advocate this way of working to be part of every arts and cultural organisations’ thinking. What we need is action. Maybe some short - and I mean 20 second - videos of real people talking about the art they like and what they’d like to see presented. Sound bites that entertain but make organisations think. Use social media to publicise them – go viral. We’re creative people, let’s find a way of getting messages about involving people in our decision-making across to those organisations who see ‘community’ projects, that ask people what they want, as 'worthy' but “not really what we do” or doing this “will compromise the quality of our work.”

CPP doesn’t have a very good image amongst mainstream arts organisations. They really don’t get it. Perhaps that’s because of the ‘power’ thing and that includes money of course! There’s a sense that CPP work is of less value than big glossy shows and concerts but Orchestras Live to helping to changing those views by showing how the input of people into some or all parts of the artistic process can make the work even more relevant to those communities. Maybe there’s an issue about letting go and trusting people; isn’t risk at the heart of all creativity? Shared decision-making is scary. You won’t get the production, concert, exhibition you expected but your community will.

Jan Ford. Partnership Manager. Orchestras Live

Download the Shared Decision-Making Toolkit

Orchestras Live believes live orchestral music has the power to inspire people for a lifetime.  We create environments where orchestral music can thrive.  We work to ensure communities across the country have access to world-class orchestral experiences.  More at