Meet Diana Scoggins of Metropolitan Youth Symphony

The following interview is part of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact that philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“The Metropolitan Youth Symphony was incorporated in 1975. We are a youth symphony organization that spans orchestral, band and jazz music – focusing on music education and performance.”

“In a normal year, we have 15 ensembles, from very beginner to very advanced. As of three years ago, we have two locations: Portland, and more recently, a second site in Hillsboro, Oregon. We are fortunate to have an incredible music director, Raul Gomez, who is a next generation leader, amazing artist and a visionary.”

“One of our core values is access. We do everything in our power to make the program available to all students. No matter their background, we want to make it possible for them to experience what we offer – the joy of musical education. We keep our tuition low in general, so that it’s not a financial hurdle for parents, as well as maintain a strong financial aid program and an instrument-lending program.”

“We’re very committed to diversity in both our membership and our repertoire. We have seen our demographics change over the years thanks to the community outreach we’ve led, and it’s been very exciting to see more and more kids from a multitude of backgrounds taking part.”

“During a normal year, we typically do 15 outreach concerts to reach 5,000 students at underserved schools. The idea is to let kids know that music is something they can do, and to share our programs so they know that they have a place here.”

“Performing the music of composers from communities that have been historically underrepresented is an incredibly important way to be accessible and open, and to share music with new audiences. We are thought to be the first symphony on the West Coast – professional or youth – to premiere Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 and take that on tour to Europe. Price was the first African-American woman composer to be played by a major symphony, the Chicago Symphony in 1933.”

“We see the benefits of instrumental music all the time, in terms of focus, collaboration, self-esteem and confidence. We focus on building an excellent program, so our kids can go on to the top conservatories, but we also want an environment that is encouraging and conducive to support and community. That’s something we really try to foster across our ensembles.”

“This year, our entire program is online – from lessons to performances. We’ve had to restructure our program and break the ensembles down into small groups. We’re just working hard to keep the momentum going. Our beginning strings students, who get the free lessons, are all online with private online lessons – which has been quite a success.”
“One exciting part of it is that we’re seeing people from all over the country come to our concerts, because they are online. We also decided to reach out to students in Latin American countries – so there are 35 kids from eight different Latin American countries who Zoom into our rehearsals. It’s been amazing for our kids to experience that sort of cultural exchange, as they’ve shared their lives and stories with us.”

“The DeVos Institute’s Capacity Building Initiative hit at a perfect time. Our founder, who had been with us for many years, had recently retired and we were in the middle of a huge transition. M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust initiated this idea among the major foundations in the Northwest, and in Oregon, providing capacity building programs to nonprofits and arts organizations – through a series of 12 to 18 months of group meetings, personal consultations and online activities.”

“We covered everything from how to have institutional marketing, building community around the arts, to how to effectively fund-raise. What we learned was so valuable as leaders. The program introduced us to new ways of thinking and driving the organization forward. It was critical for us to place the artistic program and the integrity of our education at the center, and link that to how we market ourselves as an institution to take the next step in branching out into the community.”

“It was really life changing for us as an arts organization, as well as other arts organizations in the community, to have funding from the Oregon Community Foundation, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Collins Foundation and Miller Foundation go toward this program. In addition, the foundations were there to meet, talk and hear about what was happening and how they can best support us.”

“Today we’re impacting youth, their families and our audiences thanks to the support we’ve gotten from this program. Their long-term commitment to the arts and organizations like ours allowed us to have the right set of values and priorities in place as we continued to grow and develop over the years.”

“Just one example of the innovative approach is a program called The Authentic Voice in collaboration with Portland-based Young Composers Project. At each of our three major concerts, we play a piece for full orchestra written by a local area student. In some cases, the composer even conducts the orchestra. It’s an incredible moment to hear music that’s never been heard before, written, performed and conducted by students.”

“Over the past several years, we’ve grown and expanded our education and outreach – the quality and creativity of our artistic programming – because of how we’ve shaped our vision after the DeVos Institute’s Capacity Building programs. All of this is possible because we began to think strategically through that program and it has yielded some wonderful results – as well as music – in the community.”

Diana Scoggins is the executive director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony in Portland, Oregon. Philanthropy Roundtable is honored to tell her story and many others like her.

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