5 Tips for Tipping the Scales Towards Excellence

On the left is a photo of me at age three, on the right, my daughter at the same age. I loved the violin and had supportive parents to guide me. Both artists, they had the cultural affluence to make certain I practiced every day and they expected excellence from the start. Now, 37 years later, my wife and I have the same expectations for our children as they start their lives as artists.

It is through this personal lens that I think about the way many organizations serve high-need students as many programs are set up with an eye towards social change over artistic excellence.

At Colburn our goal is to provide access to excellence for the under-served populations we serve. The challenge I often get with this mindset is that we are somehow elitist if we push students to pursue excellence. Excellence based programming is not elitist if programming is diverse and inclusive.

Elite and diversity can and should co-exist!

Here are five tips to help you think about tipping the scale towards excellence in your program:

  1. Let excellence and artistry reign supreme. This will be a challenge if internal stakeholders aren’t unified in the idea that deep training in the arts is a path towards affecting social change. Tip: Set expectations by having an organization-wide discussion about a defined measurement of success. This info-graphic is a great way to frame the experience you’d like your students to have.

    Source: Trello
  2. Find partners in your community. Find community partners that complement your work. Tip: Partnerships should always be pursued through the lens of the best needs of your students. Identify pipelines of learning that encourage a smooth transition for students to advance when the time is right.
  3. Identify external programs to benchmark signs of success. Identify summer festivals and youth orchestras and set the goal of having a set number of students attend annually.  Tip: Invest in programming that levels the playing field for students interested in becoming competitive for admission into summer festivals and youth orchestras. That likely means private instruction and an understanding of what requirements are necessary to get into the program. 
  4. Alter program design. Shift your program design to allow students to go deep in the art form. Many organizations fear external stakeholders may not agree with this shift. Tip: Don’t let current funders dictate future programming strategy. Make changes over several years and bring stakeholders into the conversation at the onset. 
  5. Carve out space in your budget for excellence. Programming in the pursuit of excellence costs money. With finite resources, consider altering the mix of numbers of students served and hours each student is served. Tip: Use this planning worksheet to think about altering your programmatic design. Slide one is an example of our programming at Colburn and slide two is left blank for you to use in your own strategic planning.

How are you tipping the scales towards excellence in your organization? Tomorrow, I’ll share how we developed our programs at Colburn.

Photo Credit: winnifredxoxo

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

3 thoughts on “5 Tips for Tipping the Scales Towards Excellence

  1. You’ve given us so much to think about here! Thank you for an inspiring series of points. If I were with you, I’d add a 6th: the QUALITY of instruction matters and is not one-size-fits-all. Meaning that even the best and brightest pedagogues can be recharged and made even more effective within the limited time they have with students–& encouraged to alter their tried-and-true methods to be maximally adaptive & responsive to the needs of the child or children right in front of them. I’ve had great success with placing small groups of instructors into collaborative teacher study groups. We observe teaching videos filmed within the organization and use these for a jumping off point for a deep, finely nuanced discussion around improving teaching practice. A protocol governs discussion so everyone is comfortable and non-threatened.

    1. Ann Marie, YES!!!!! Our programs are nothing without flexible, adaptable high quality teachers. I feel like I should add a point six but you said it so well, I’ll just direct people to the comments section. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

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