Nonprofits  November 3, 2023

Boulder Symphony reaches higher notes with academy

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the degree being earned by James Jiang.

BOULDER — Love of music and passion for performance are usually sufficient to sustain a small community orchestra or concert band. 
Musicians who have day jobs or academic pursuits are often willing to accept their volunteer status and enjoy the non-material rewards of putting together music programs for a local stage. 

When the Boulder Symphony’s board of directors and chief administrator decided their needs were greater than that, they looked to their musicians, seeking commitment from them in a new pursuit — a revenue generator — that would help stabilize the orchestra’s footing.
Thus, with a name change, funding approval from the orchestra’s board and an enthusiastic “yes” from musicians, the innovative Boulder Symphony & Music Academy was born.

“It’s a very rare thing,” Boulder Symphony Executive Director Andrew Krimm said. “There are only five or six that I’ve seen.” Even among that small number, none offer the kind of universal outreach that Boulder’s strives for. 

“Some, like the Chicago Symphony, have a training orchestra for pre-professional musicians,” Krimm said. “But having one-on-one lesson opportunities for the entire community is certainly rare.” 
Krimm’s pitch to the symphony’s nine-member board two years ago came at a time when Boulder’s orchestra, like community music programs nationwide, was shaking off the crippling effects of the global COVID pandemic that shut down most live performances. He came with a plan, and a budget, that would require a substantial gamble.

“They miraculously said ‘yes,’ even though it was huge risk,” Krimm said. “It cost around $200,000 for us to launch, with getting rental space and all the rest. The board was willing to take that, and it’s been amazing so far.”

The academy now has 18 instructors, a large majority of them musicians with the orchestra playing strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion and supporting a full menu of one-on-one lessons in each of those disciplines.

Cellist James Jiang, closing in on his doctor of music in cello performance from Indiana University, had been teaching music for 15 years when he enlisted in the academy project during last summer. 

“Practice, improvement and performance are built into everything I do, and that includes teaching,” he said in an interview in a studio at the symphony’s south Boulder offices while awaiting the arrival of his student, 8-year-old Zelda Keppeler.

“I remember well when I started that young,” said Jiang, who was nine when he first picked up a cello and bow. “My teachers were all oriented toward younger people.”

Zelda’s lesson on that October evening was part of a package of weekly half-hour lessons that take place one-on-one with Jiang, a program she began in August at the beginning of the academic year.

Individual instruction is the foundation of the academy’s offerings, said Bridget Ryan, the symphony’s director of education and community outreach. While the symphony had conducted summer music camps to increase exposure to the art for school-age children in Boulder, the academy raises the learning experience to a much higher level and even defines the expanding mission of the symphony organization.

“That’s now at the core of who we are,” Ryan said. “We’re here to serve the entire community.” In just two years of operation, the academy has brought more than 300 students into its studios for private lessons. 

The most popular choice among the academy’s lesson packages is a flexible program of weekly 30-minute individual lessons for a fee of $160 monthly — or $40 for each session. Anyone who wishes to test the water before jumping into a lesson program may do so free of charge by booking a complimentary session. 

Affordability, and universal access, are also the hallmarks of the academy’s operation. The symphony has embarked on a fundraising program to hit the academy’s stated target of being able to provide quality music instruction to children and adults throughout the Boulder community, regardless of income. 

The symphony has partnered with the Boulder County nonprofit Jared Foundation to fund scholarships that will enable music students from throughout the community to tap into the academy’s offerings. Ryan said the foundation’s commitment of a 2-to-1 match for dollars raised by the symphony puts the goal within reach.

“We would love for all of our students to have full-tuition scholarships,” she said.

Krimm said the scholarship goals are especially important to him and other members of the symphony organization who have been beneficiaries of similar programs in their own histories.

“I was the recipient of scholarships from the time I was 7, all the way through college,” Krimm said. 

While meeting the needs of Boulder music students through scholarships, the symphony also has plans to direct income generated by the academy back to the musicians who provide its instruction at an average rate of $30 hourly.

“In an ideal world, I would like to get them closer to $45 or $50,” Krimm said. “If they were running their own business, they would be earning $65 or $70 hourly.”

While “profitability” is an alien concept for nonprofits, Krimm said that financial success of the academy, at the rate income is growing, will allow the symphony to be more flexible — and even take some risks — in its program offerings. 

“One of the things the board members are really excited about is that we can be riskier, take more chances on performing in different venues, or in different kinds of programming, because we have this cash buffer,” Krimm said. “They see that if we do something crazy, we’re not going to sink the ship.”

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