Defending the students

Here’s the complete list of ideas — for new ways of giving concerts — from the students at the National Orchestral Institute. Treat it as a footnote to the more focused list in my last post. There are lots of repeats, no surprise, especially since the students wrote down their ideas after a discussion in which there had been many ideas, and lots of agreement.

The point of all this? Go here for more explanation, beyond what’s in my last post. As I’ve said, these students are more than ready for change. And the NOI, in my experience, goes further in welcoming than any mainstream classical music institution I’ve ever encountered.

Some people in this blog community made critical comments on the students’ ideas, which I respect, but don’t agree with. The point, as I tried to say (but not effectively, I fear), isn’t whether these ideas seem good or bad, taken individually or even collectively, or whether they’re original. The point, to me, is that the students had them, and will absolutely be carrying some of them out. The process, I’m told in e-mail, is under way, and on June 25, there’ll be a concert where some of the ideas will be tried. I expect to be there, and I’ll report on what happens.

And this excites and empowers the students. That’s more important than getting everything right the first time they try things — especially since I’m not sure any of us know what’s right and what’s wrong, especially if we judge by what we’ve already seen. Sometimes the mood in which something is done can be just as important, if not more so, than what the thing is. The students, too, are younger than many of us, and many of them are thinking about what might appeal to people their own age, which some of us (not all, I know) might not be in a very good position to judge.

Anyhow, let them try their ideas, and we’ll see what all of us learn. The process set in motion here — young musicians making change at concerts that once were solidly mainstream — is more important than what any of us might feel about any particular thing that they do.

Here’s the complete list of changes. No need to read it, maybe, unless you’re intensely interested. I was struck by how little dissent there was. Only one student, unless I missed  something, wanted to keep things as they’d been in the past.


Orchestra concerts should be more like baseball games.  More people would go if there was a hot dog stand, casual dress, and drinking.  I have a really hard time sitting through concerts, even though I obviously like music, so I don’t know how other people can be expected to sit there.

Happy hour before concert/intermission – $1 beers!  This will both:draw an audience and make them more excited about what is going on onstage.

Orchestra/chamber music webcast

Audience members sit onstage in the midst of the orchestra

Chamber music (or solo pieces) in lobby before NOI concerts

Twitter messages on screen of audience’s thoughts during “New Lights” concert

Videotape our orchestra rehearsals, especially the conductorless rehearsals and put it online (website or youtube)

In concert, have someone (doesn’t have to be conductor) tell the audience a little story about the composer of the piece about to be played.  We all know funny, tragic, dramatic storied about the music we play, and I’ve sen an audience laugh, relax, and be immediately more engaged when told one.   And it relaxes the performers too.

Don Juan – theatrical realization of the story behind the music

Make up hand signals for the audience to do during certain obvious themes in the music.

I got this idea from a taco truck in L.A. that doesn’t have a set location:  They twitter their changing location every night, and the line is usually very long.  If we did small outdoor/indoor concerts around campus or College Park and tweeted our location, people could come and go as they like while offering publicity for NOI.

Webcam of rehearsals

Showing examples from the piece about to be played; not in an educational manner, but with excitement (as in Peter and the Wolf – playing all the themes in the beginning.  Then it’s so much easier to understand the piece, especially if it’s contemporary.

Involving the audience somehow – putting thoughts through texts on video screen or email (but the audience would then need laptops!?).

I like the idea of having several orchestra members talk and give their honest opinions and feelings on the pieces being performed that night.

An idea from the Cypress quartet: Call and Response.  Pick a symphony/work and commission a composer to write his own work in response to it.

Let’s screen Looney Tunes prior to New Lights; people will have trouble hearing thecartoon music origins of the Adams, otherwise, and it might provide a 1950’s style “overture”.

I just went on an orchestra tour where the audiences weren’t very familiar with classical music and they clapped between movements.  But I think it actually served to create a better connection between performers and audience.

I think it would be really nice to have short profiles with the musicians in the orchestra put into the program.  Maybe you would just have to have a few musicians, or I guess there could also be a program supplement iwht everyone.  In that case maybe profiles could be self-created.  In any case, it’s nice for the audience to have soe way of getting to know the musicians a bit better and especially how the musicians feel about the pieces they are performing, or how they feel about music in general, why they decided to become a musician, etc.

I definitely like the idea of having performers in the lobby beforehand.  Maybe also at the end there could be a reception for people who wanted to stay and talk to the musicians.

Videos – orchestra players talking about music and themselves – Why do you play music?  Why is this cool?

Performing chamber music at clubs or bars during sets of contrasting music (jazz,rock,etc.) and maybe having the two groups perform together.

Pop music arrangements

Surprise performances

An idea which preserved the respect of individuals who enjoy the tradition of concerts (quiet audiences, etc. ) but informs the audience would be to have a conductor pre-record comments on and Ipod for download.  The audience could listen along with the concert and get comments in “live” time.  This was done by the Modesto Symphony in the Fall of ’08 and worked well.

Give audience members laser pointers and have them point at the orchestra member that they are watching.

Have a post-concert party where audience can meet and interact with performers

During the concert, when there’s a solo in one of the parts, we should have a blurb about the player (juicy gossip) displayed on a projector screen.

We should invite the audience to meet us before and after the concert, and also to be involved in the concert- clap for things they like…etc.

We can rehearse (chamber music) at a bar open to public drinking.

We should wear jeans instead of dress clothes.

As informal as possible (no concert attire)

Play in a non-traditional venue – non-concert hall.

Music and Video

Music with electronics.

Hells Orchestra – Reality TV show

6 degrees of separation – how members of NOI are connected before they met this summer (e.g. Jane dated Sara’s brother last summer, etc.)

Food and drinks – like in a jazz club

3 drink minimum

Scatter musicians throughout theater

Give out cookies

Scores to follow along on individual screens (like Met titles)

Dinner theater concert – serve food

Make a video documentary style of NOI (rehearsals, concerts, but also social interactions) could be put on youtube.

At concerts audition participants who want to performa a short non-classical “fun” piece they love in between the music.

Scripted lighting coordinated with the music.  Fading in and out depending on the phrases, etc.

Visual elements projected next to performers: Movies, images, etc.

Text -messaging thoughts during a concert to be displayed on screen.

Atypcial concert dress.  Black is boring.  Musicians could wear something colorful and stimulating for the audience.

Other visual alternatives like lights would be awesome – coordinated with the music.  Or pictures or movie clips.

Smaller performances in smaller spaces (i.e. coffee houses, small bars, etc.)

Have audience member sit in between us in the open rehearsal.

Let audience ask questions before pieces.

Chamber Music in the lobby before concert.

Outreach – bring classical music to people – clubs, bars, schools, rural areas, etc.

Orchestra comes on together at start of concert – no tuning, just play.  European style

Include pop-band covers by orchestral instruments on New Lights concert

Eat during concert.

I was hoping we could have talked more specifically about what new to do in our concerts.  I think it might be good to have a discussion among New Lights participants of something different or interesting to do.  I have some ideas and will e-mail them.  Thanks for having these talks.  They’re fascinating.

Orchestra reality TV show

More interaction between performers and audience – such as quotes about the music from musicians put in the programs for the audience to read.

Chamber before concert in lobby.

Conductor video with comments and opinions about pieces on the concert or musicians from the orchestra

Webcast concerts

Food at concert

People attending concert sit on stage in midst of musicians

Play the music to Batman with the movie projected behind the orchestra (or any movie, really).

Other talents showcased before concert (dance, jazz, rap) then patrons can see us perform in orchestra.

Reality show about lives, hardships and drama that classical musicians go through and ut it on Youtube and let it generate interest on the internet.

Chamber music in lobby of concert

Interpretive dance on  stage or floor during concert.

Lobby performances (NOi or Community groups)

Video clips of rehearsals/interviews with performers/ in lobby before concert and at intermission

Experiment with form’flow of concert  – use of lighting

Mix genres within/without classical music world

NOI students get up and talk to audience about  1) their struggles with learning their parts and 2) how other interests they have relate to the piece

Play musical instruments within sections maybe between movements or during long periods of rest.

People in the orchestra wave to the audience whether they know each other or not.  Probably before the concert starts.

I’m playing an Ysaye violin sonata (#2) and I’ve found my audience is much more interested when I explain how it is making fun of the Bach E-major Partita, and also the human aspect of how annyoning his friend was playing Bach, etc.   Also the Dies Irae theme was cool.

How about a dress-up night?  Example:  Night of gypsy music.

Show motives/melodies to audience, explain how they fit in the big picture

The idea of having chamber groups play before a concert is nice (outside the hall)

Perform a piece/work in an untraditional space (i.e. club, bar, theater, coffeehouse)

Perform “untraditional” works in traditional setting (funny take on classical piece, etc.

Add media to music – have an artist paint a painting inspired by performance during performance.  Add dancers, have authors write, etc.

Death and the Iron Maiden piece

Audience members coming up to the stage during intermission and asking questions (players remain onstage)

Food served during intermission!  Mingling?

Standing while playing.

NOI is perfect.  Don’t change anything.Profiles of orchestra musicians that give details about them not necessarily related to music.

Performances in the lobby before concerts.

Hire bands like Metallica for pops concerts, or play much better music like Batman or new movies rather than the dated stuff that is usually played.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    There are many good ideas here, including a number that are already part of the classical music scene. The food and drink and less casual dress commenters might enjoy attending a Boston Pops concert where the audience does indeed sit at tables and chairs (on the floor at least) and the orchestra dresses in more summery clothes. There is also a blending of pop and classical in the format Arthur Fiedler originally devised.

    This would also be a good place to allow people to tweet and even allow super-projections of audience thoughts. So the ideas are not as unworkable as they may seem at first glance.

    I also get the feeling that these were not spontaneous ideas. Why? The repetition of certain basic themes indicates this was an educator guided exercise, with the musicians then writing down their “own” thoughts, many of which were clearly just rehashing what they heard, and preferred personally. I don’t take the fact that only one student “liked things as they are” to mean anything except that this position was clearly not one of the options offered by the discussion leader.

    The Victorian manners we display in the concert hall are mostly useful, but I would agree it is time to review them and consider some changes.

    Larry, as the instructor (so to speak) in this exercise, I have to take what you say seriously. But I think you’ve missed one stage of what took place. Or in fact two stages. Stage one was that the NOI decided before I even showed up that it would make changes in the formats for some of its concerts. So that was a given. The only question was what the changes would be, and the idea was that the choices would be made by the students.

    So that’s one thing, Larry, that I think you’re missing here. And the second thing is how the discussion actually proceeded. I gave them many examples of changes that had been tried in various places. Some of these ideas were new to them, and some weren’t. And — very important! — some of the students had been thinking about all this for a long time on their own, and some of them had tried out changes more audacious than most of what showed up in the suggestions.

    After I gave them various examples, we then had a discussion. And that, Larry, is where the ideas that were repeated so many times came from. Not from me, but from the students making suggestions after I was finished talking. Some of the ideas that came up, from the students, met with tremendous approval from the group. After this session finished, they were asked (not by me) to write down their suggestions, and it’s hardly a surprise that many of them repeated the ideas that other students had suggested just a few minutes before, and which had been very warmly received.

  2. Yvonne says

    Your point is more clearly stated here, Greg, and I do understand the stance you’re taking.

    But you’ll have to forgive your readers: we’re human! Present us with lists of interesting, stimulating and even witty ideas and of course we’re going to want to take them seriously and imagine them in action and share our personal response to them, +/-/neutral. And we’re going to want to think about the underlying directions of thought the suggestions represent. The only way to avoid that is to not publish the lists.

    But I’m actually glad you did. On reading the actual suggestions, especially this longer list, I’m encouraged to see that there were many fresh ideas in the mix – not necessarily original or untried, but fresh to this blog. Of course, it doesn’t matter one iota if some of these things have been tried before and found to work (or not). As you say, the point is that the students are committed to making a difference in concerts for which they are responsible. Looking forward to the reports.

    Thanks, Yvonne.

    One of the best things about this blog, for me, is that I learn how to make my points more clearly and effectively. And more comprehensively, too, as I learn from people making comments about things I’ve left out, or about arguments against my ideas that I hadn’t considered. I think, quite seriously, that this has made me a better professional, and even, if I dare say this, a better person.

  3. Ian says

    LOVE the webcast of some rehearsals idea, and I think a bit of a chat before a work (preferably a biography that hasn’t been sanitised) is a must. I think a lot of places already do the foyer concerts and I really like them, but not sure if they pull the crowds or a nice side benefit to the folks already there.

    But I hate the idea of having food and drink during a concert… whilst it may attract a few ‘newbies’, it’s also gonna annoy a lot of ‘oldies’. I go insane if I have to listen to the crunch-crackle of a chips packet or a slurping straw during any kind of performance. I think trying to market a music concert as similiar to a baseball game is a dead-end, because it’s simply NOT a baseball game and never will be. The only similarity is that its a bunch of people who’ve paid money to watch a smaller bunch of people do something.

  4. Harrison Boyle says

    For many years now there has been the mistaken notion, marketed as “crossover” which as practiced really translates as “you can get people to like classical music by not playing it.”

    Sadly, most of the ideas above are similar. If you turn a concert into a dinner, a ball game or a TV show, you are not bringing people to a concert.

    Some simpler ideas, such as providing cough drops in soft wrappers (which the Philadelphia Orchestra used to do and desperately needs to do again) would be a better place to start.

    Harrison, if what you say is true, why do you think an enthusiastic group of classical musicians — who love classical music — had these ideas?

    They weren’t thinking of marketing. They’re trying to create concerts they themselves would like to go to.

  5. Karen Ames says

    I think some of these are good ideas, and some are less good or have been tried before and not worked. But Greg has a good point – with most ideas, it is the spirit and mood that makes something a success or failure. I can’t help but mention the San Francisco Opera’s simulcast of opera to the ballpark in SF. I’ve gone all three times and I can’t possibly convey how magical it is. Opera is sometimes a hard pill for those who aren’t “in the know” but at a ballpark, everyone can enjoy it, cheer for Tosca, boo Scarpia, eat french fries, drink beer, run up and down the aisles. Will it translate into ticket sales — well it DOES. Will those folks like the experience in the opera house. Who knows. But a lot of people — 27,500 official count – had a hell of a good time and felt something perhaps they hadn’t expected to feel …..a connection to this art form. So, my feelig is…let’s open ourselves to creativity and doing things differently. You can’t run before you walk and you can’t walk before you crawl.

  6. says

    Reading these students’ suggestions makes me feel VERY OLD and very much out of the hustle and bustle of city life. I often refer my (very rural) music appreciation students (who I often refer to this blog) seem to love the fact that classical music concerts are different. They like the idea of a musician communicating without having to “teach” the audience about the music. They like the ability to make what they want to of the experience. The like the rarefied quality–the “otherness” and even the exoticism–of the experience.

    My students would certainly agree with having low-priced tickets, and certainly wouldn’t mind the idea of having a place eat and drink during intermission, but, there is something about the quality of the unadorned listening experience that they probably wouldn’t like to give up. We have to give up so much in our lives to commercialism already.

    Interesting, how these things play out. Many of the people who come to the Wordless Music series in NY, where indie bands and classical music are combined on concert programs, seem to like hearing their favorite bands in concert, rather than in a club. That’s because they can listen more seriously.

    But then your students may be a minority among younger people. As I said in respond to another comment, when younger people do come to classical concerts, they may not be a useful guide to what the majority of younger people might want, because the majority of younger people are staying away. So we need to consult them, too.

  7. Maura says

    To follow up on Karen’s comment, the SF Opera offered a killer deal to everyone who attended the event at the ballpark, first timers or not. You will definitely see pick up on it (50% off upcoming performances of Traviata and Tosca).

    Greg, many of these comments make me think of CSO’s Beyond the Score, which includes several elements that make the music come alive. I think it’s one of the best things happening to classical music today.

    I’ve heard a lot about Beyond the Score, and I saw their presentation on Shostakovich 4 when it came to the NY Philharmonic. It was terrifically effective.

    But, that said, it didn’t seem to attract an audience new or relatively new to classical music. I think programs like this are two-edged. They can help people get closer to the music, but they won’t make people _want_ to get closer. In fact, their educational subtext (“we’re going to teach you about this, because otherwise you won’t appreciate it” — which is overtly the thinking, as it was expressed to me, at the San Francisco Symphony, about the video presentations MTT has made about various pieces in the repertoire) — the educational subtext can turn people right off, before they even show up.

    Of course, if a new audience is showing up for these things in Chicago, then I’m overstating my point.

  8. Yvonne says

    The observation about Beyond the Score rings true for me. A related concept, in which a short program of music is “unpacked” and explored by the conductor, goes on in my neck of the woods and it’s very popular, regularly filling a 1200 seat hall and sustaining a strong subscription base.

    This program of concerts was initially conceived and marketed as something for young adult newbies, as revealed in its original name and the continuing add-ons: free wine tasting afterwards and so on. A few from that group do come, but (and it’s been amusing to see the organisation’s surprise at this) it’s most popular with the demographic that already subscribes to one of our main concert series. This is the group characteristed as sophisticated, well-informed concert-goers. Well, there’s a reason they’re well-informed!

    As you say, they precisely the people who enjoy the music already and want to get closer to it.

    My view is that programs like this are valuable and valued. We should definitely do them and do them well. But we shouldn’t be naive and consider that they will necessarily do much to increase our audience. (Make it stronger maybe, but not grow in size.)

  9. Mike Slack says

    I attended NOI’s “New Lights” concert. As was to be expected, some of the ideas tried were more successful than others. What finally made the evening memorable, though, was the virtuosity of the performance of the Adams Chamber Symphony, made more enjoyable as one watched the interaction of the performers playing the piece without a conductor.

    It still seemed to me at the end of the evening that I was watching efforts to make a program of relatively inaccessible pieces more interesting by means that didn’t have much to do with the music, and that the program was the key issue.

    Perhaps what is needed is a greater effort to promote “gateway” music. There are composers out there with a foothold in the classical genre writing virtuosic music that is filling seats and selling albums. Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor are fine examples. Something like an O’Connor String Quartet might offer a better chance of drawing in new listeners than the Kirchner, the opening piece on the “New Lights” program and not something, even now having heard it, that I would buy a recording of or ticket for.

    Commissioning and performing accessible pieces by artists who are enjoying commercial success with them seems to me more likely to draw and hold new listeners. Less accessible, even deservedly critically acclaimed pieces such as the Adams, don’t seem to me as likely bring people in, and back, to concert halls. But anyone who appreciated and came for a piece by O’Connor or Meyer would have enjoyed the performance of the Adams.

    Thanks for this.

    I’ll soon be posting a blog entry on that concert. People naturally will differ on how they react to what the students did. But we should understand what their goal was. They weren’t trying, for instance, to make difficult music more palatable. I never heard that come up in any conversation, either before the concert or after it. The students more than anything else wanted to give a concert that they themselves would enjoy, and the nature of the program didn’t make much of a difference, as far as I can see.