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PRIZM Ensemble

Flipping the Script

By Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Photos: David Roseberry

With a thriving educational outreach program, summer camp, and international festival, PRIZM Ensemble has found a winning formula that puts community first.

Summer festivals, with offerings ranging from confirmed blockbusters to obscure up-and-comers, give audiences a chance to travel through time and space without straying far from home. But in the race to offer ever more dazzling lineups, the richness of the hosting community can be overlooked. PRIZM Ensemble, located in Memphis, TN, uses a combined summer festival and music camp to strengthen its relationship with the surrounding community and focus its resources squarely on the emerging talent of local students. Through a multi-pronged approach to music education and access, PRIZM creates a world of opportunities for its underserved students.

A New Angle


PRIZM Ensemble was founded in 2005 with the simple aim of creating a performing ensemble. But after Lecolion Washington, PRIZM’s founder and executive director, taught at a racially diverse festival in South Africa, he realized that something similar could be built in the United States, and that Memphis might be the right place to do it. The PRIZM Music Camp & International Chamber Music Festival became a reality in 2009, and the group quickly found its footing in the Memphis community. It continued to expand in 2013, initiating PRIZM in the Schools, which partners with public schools to offer music training and performance opportunities. In 2015, PRIZM began the OMusic Project, which specifically serves Memphis' majority African-American Orange Mound neighborhood. “Normally,” says Washington, “you'd have a chamber group that performs for adults and then you'd have some version of community engagement because you want bigger audiences during your concert season. We flip that.”

“We took the traditional performing arts model and turned it upside down.” —Lecolion Washington

PRIZM approaches music training as a way to address education disparities in the Memphis school system—disparities that are predicated on racial and socio-economic discrimination in ways that might seem insurmountable. But by assembling a group of performers and musical educators to do what they do best, PRIZM has found that investing in community yields returns that any ensemble would desire: Memphis audiences have not only maintained interest in PRIZM, but increased their support. “Fundraising has gone up every year for the last four years,” Washington says. “We've received more attention from local foundations.” He believes the sustained interest is at least partially due to the fact that PRIZM aims to empower the community rather than solely trying to entice new subscribers.

Rooted in Community


That concern for individual success alongside community empowerment is deeply embedded in everything PRIZM does. “It helps that we lead by example,” says Roderick Vester, program coordinator. “The community sees that we're very committed to diversity at every level, even when we talk about partnerships with new organizations. It can't be a façade.” Washington points out that an inauthentic commitment to diversity will result in what he calls “optics”—an organization that looks diverse, but isn't implementing diversity tactics throughout its various programs. “Any voice we can think of should have a prominent place in the room,” he says. “And then it's up to us to learn how to listen.” In fact, diversity is one of PRIZM's core principles, along with access and opportunity. By keeping those principles in mind, PRIZM hopes to eliminate the pervasive myth that black and brown people don't play classical music. Washington puts it simply: “We want to show that you can meet people of color, and you can hire them.”

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Indeed, PRIZM has created a veritable musical economy in Memphis through its educational outreach and performance opportunities. The summer camp and festival, as Vester describes it, is icing on the cake. “The bulk of the work we do is in engagement in schools,” he says. “The festival is an extension of that programming where students can experience a high level of coaching and performance.” Local musicians are hired to teach in the schools, gifted students from the year-round program are offered scholarships to the summer camp, and an acclaimed international faculty comes to town to teach and and perform during the festival. And this year, perhaps more than ever, the camp and festival will embrace PRIZM's core principles. For the first time, it will take place at two different churches in Memphis, in an attempt to ease the burden that some students face due to the city's inadequate public transportation system.

Confronting Prejudice


While PRIZM's commitment to music education can hardly be questioned, skeptics—usually people who haven't attended a concert—have doubted the quality of the organization's performances. “People think the festival performances must not be very good because we care about the kids,” Washington says, addressing the assumption that outreach organizations might sacrifice quality for scope. “But I believe that every kid in every city deserves the best.”

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Worse still, others have wondered whether young people of color can play at an advanced level at all. “We recruit students from middle school through college, all local,” Washington says. “When I tell people we don't shy away from racial diversity, then they ask if I can guarantee a high quality of performance.” When confronted with such blatant racism, Washington encourages people to consider what an assumption like that says about their own perception of people of color. And ultimately, he knows the performance will speak for itself. “We bring in some of the best musicians in the country, and people can see their pedigree,” he says. PRIZM is happy to invite skeptics to their concerts, but Washington reiterates the group's larger mission: “It's my job to get people to show up and to disrupt their perception of what diversity can be. But we're not just trying to sell tickets. We're showing the students what their future can potentially be.”

Looking Forward


In the same way that the American Cancer Society may hope to make itself irrelevant by helping to find a cure for cancer, Washington sees the work of PRIZM Ensemble as something that will one day be unnecessary. “This is just what classical music is,” he says. “We really want people to see that this is a model that works. It's replicable.” In order for another group to create a similar impact in their city, both Washington and Vester stress the importance of looking closely at what the community might be lacking. “Try to figure out which questions are already being answered and how your organization can engage with the ones that aren't being answered,” Washington says. “At the end of the day, you're not just trying to get people's money. You're trying to make them feel included.”

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a writer, choreographer, and curator living in Brooklyn, NY.

© 2017 Chamber Music Magazine