Students’ ideas

I blogged last week about the National Orchestral Institute, at the University of Maryland — how I’d talked to students there, and how excited they were to start changing classical music.

So now I have the ideas they wrote down at the end of one of my sessions. I’m going to post these in two parts. First, today, a list of the top 30 ideas, as chosen by James Ross, who runs the NOI (which is a month-long training program for student orchestral musicians; here’s a link to it). Tomorrow I’ll post the complete list, everything the students suggested, exactly as they wrote it all down.

Remember, as you read what follows, that these students weren’t chosen for their interest in change. They were auditioned just as anyone might audition for any summer program, and accepted on the basis of their ability. Maybe Jim Ross, because of his own way of thinking, was inclined to choose people whose playing struck him in some particular way. But the excitement and interest the students showed — when Jim proposed making changes on their initiative, and I primed the pump by describing things that had been done elsewhere, and encouraging the students to talk — was a surprise to me. I think it shows younger musicians are far more ready to change than even I might have imagined. Tomorrow, you’ll see that only one student offered any dissent.

Here are the top 30 ideas. I’ve done some very light editing, and added a few explanations. The students were writing these for Jim and for each other, and often used a kind of shorthand, which was natural to do, since students had already suggested some of these ideas at one of my sessions.

1.      Standing while playing – Conductorless, Chamber Music +/or New Lights [Besides their three full orchestra performances, they’re doing one concert — playing complicated music! — without a conductor. They also give chamber concerts, and one “New Lights” concert of contemporary music.]

2.    Orchestra members waving at audience before concert starts (even if they don’t know them).

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

4.    Other talents of Orchestra member[s] showcased (before concert) or at New Lights – musical (crossover type) or non-musical (juggling, mime, etc.)

5.    Video with conductor and orchestra comments and opinions about pieces on concert on the web. Or Video documentary of NOI with webcam live rehearsals streamed. [live rehearsals streamed by webcam]

6.    Chamber Music in lobby before concert (Conductorless concert, Big Orchestra concerts)

7.    Interaction between performers and audience: (motive, melody demonstration) [demonstrations of motifs and melodies from the pieces being played]

8.    Musician Quotes about [the music being played] added as an insert to the program

9.    Repertoire for New Lights concert- Pop or Rock band covers [The New Lights program has only been partially planned. Jim wants the students to choose some of the pieces.]

10.    Audience onstage for big orchestra open rehearsal [open rehearsal of full orchestra] with question time following rehearsal

11.    If Adams could be played twice on the New Lights (beginning and end of program), play the 2nd time on the stage of Deckelboum and have audience sitting right in among the players. This is the program, so far, for the New Lights concert: John Adams Chamber Symphony, Leon Kirchner 4th String Quartet, Christopher Rouse Ogoun Badagris for 5 percussionists, Elliot Carter 8 Etudes and a Fantasy (or only some of it, if the group chooses not to perform all eight movements).

12.     Add a short non-classical “fun piece” to any of our big orchestra programs, ala Time for Three.

13.     Cookies [give the audience cookies at the concerts]

14.     Availability of scores for audience members (or watch the score go by on a big screen above the performer’s heads).

15.    Intersperse musician[s] in the audience (in the hall) for one piece.

16.    Hell’s Orchestra reality TV show.

17.    Laser pointers for audience.  Who are they looking at?  [Who are they looking at, that is, while the music is being played]

18.    Personal musicians bios in program supplement[ed] with how musicians feel about the piece, about music in general, why they became a musician, or fun extraneous information (large sock collection, e.g.)

19.    Allow/Encourage clapping between movements (Tchaikovsky 6) and maybe even during movements.

20.    Hannah-Barbera  cartoons showed in Gildenhorn prior to the start of Adams. [The Chamber Symphony is partly inspired by classic cartoon scores]

21.     Pick/Commission a composer to write a work in response to one of the big NOI pieces, which we then premiere.

22.    Orchestra member[s] talk to the audience at concerts.  Especially final chamber concert, New Lights, Final Big Orch. Program.

23.    Audience texting onto screen above the orchestra.  Participatory feedback about the music (technology for this?). [I offered to put them in touch with Peter Gregson, a British cellist I met on Twitter who’s done several concerts in which texts and tweets from the audience are displayed during the performance]

24.    Lots of eating and drinking suggestions.  Play a piece once in the hall, then again in the lobby with drinks and snack served.  New Lights?

25.    Consider concert dress options for all concerts.  Colorful, casual, etc.

26.    Any lighting changes, effects.

27.    Surprise performance of a piece – unexpected addition to the program.

28.    Theatrical realization of Don Juan story before we play it. [Strauss’s Don Juan is on one of their programs.]

29.    Story-telling to audience.

30.    Orchestra concerts should feel more like baseball games.

I’m not endorsing or objecting to any of these (though regular readers will recognize some things I’ve advocated myself). These are the students’ ideas — that’s the whole point. They and Jim will figure out which ones to put into action.

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  1. Yvonne says

    Informal poll, purely my reaction – curious as to how other readers felt on reading this list. I sorted these into three categories:

    1. Items with the potential to make the concert a better, stronger, more compelling experience: 13

    (8 of these were in-concert suggestions; 5 were “extra-concert” suggestions, i.e. external to the actual concert performance)

    2. Items that would definitely detract from the concert, for me: 5

    (all 5 were in-concert proposals)

    3. Items that would be tolerable/harmless, but wouldn’t necessarily improve the concert performance or make it more compelling: 12 items

    (7 were in-concert; 5 extra-concert)

    What’s most telling for me is that all the items I thought would detract were in-concert suggestions from which there’d be “no escape” as it were. I was much more tolerant of things that I could choose to ignore if I wished.

    On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see these students (mostly) grappling with strategies that will influence the actual concert, rather than peripheral strategies (e.g. 5 or 16) that are external to the core experience. (Only a third of the suggestions fell into this latter category.)

    However… I still can’t get away from the fact that most of the really exciting and compelling concerts I’ve attended haven’t necessarily featured anything special with respect to presentation or externals but have simply been thrilling and insightful performances of strongly conceived programs. But just 6 of these 30 suggestions touch in any way on programming and only the first (standing while playing) concerns something that might effect the actual quality and character of the performance itself.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to judge these ideas, because we haven’t seen most of them put into practice, and can only guess what their effect might be.

    Besides, these are the students’ ideas, and it’s for them to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Works for them, I mean, and for other people their age. You and I, Yvonne, might not be in a position to assess that, especially if we’re going to look at the whole thing from the perspective of our own concert-going experience. The students, and others their own age, might react very differently.

  2. says

    Nice Post Greg!

    The first thing that struck me was about the openness that the musicians presented. Ideas some original and some not, but certainly not ‘jaded’ by the reality of the professional orchestra experience. Keeping that freshness is so important.

    And I think waving, (and smiling), sitting in with the orchestra and all the things that both acknowledge the audience and help them get inside, can have a dramatic impact on peformances.

    Thanks! And that last idea is a very good one, I think. Yvonne, in her comment, found only one idea that she thought would improve the quality of performance. You look at it very differently.

    And maybe the biggest point is that the students will perform with more flair and committment simply because they’re empowered to shape the concert themselves. That might be more important than any single innovation that they try.

  3. Eric Lin says

    I’ll post more a bit later, but to touch on Yvonne’s point about suggestion no. 1–standing while playing–one of the most thrilling concerts I’ve been to in recent years was a Varese concert where the musicians had the parts memorized and were freely walking about while playing Octandre and Integrales. It was memorizing. It clearly wasn’t a chore for the players and the audience reacted as such.

    Beyond that, I’m also very skeptical of many of the suggestions provided though I’m glad that everyone’s at least thinking about the issues at hand. Some suggestions are hardly new ideas that have long been employed by more adventurous groups while a good number have already proven to be ineffective. Way too many of the suggestions feel like hackneyed suggestions from an orchestral board room.

    Instead of the casual- wear whatever you want idea (this usually has the opposite effect of the formal tails: i.e. too sloppy as opposed to too uniform and stuffy), why not bring in an up-and-coming fashion designer and have them design something for the quartet or trio on the cheap? They need work too! For the NYPhil…what about Mark Jacobs or someone?

    In any case, I’ll come back with a more detailed critique of the suggestions.

    I’ll look forward to seeing that. Though I think you’re being hard on these kids. I said I wouldn’t judge their ideas, because the most important thing, I think, is that they’re in a position where they can really make some changes happen. That, in itself, is worth a lot, because it helps to free them from the rigidity of their training. Let’s see how the concert takes shape — they’ve been actively implementing some of what they talked about — and then judge, being careful to note the reactions of other people, not only our own.

    I love that Varese story. As for getting a fashion designer to design outfits for the players, it’s a great idea. Though in practice, it’s tricky. First, it’s expensive, even if the designer doesn’t charge much, because the outfits have to be paid for. Sec

  4. Yvonne says

    Well I’m not judging the ideas so much as trying to analyse the directions they’re heading in and the priorities they seem to be adopting. That’s why I avoided singling any of them out.

    I think I made it clear that these were my personal reactions, and since I concluded that nearly half of them held some definite promise, I wasn’t being overly harsh.

    But in any case, you’ve hit a nerve, Greg.

    I’m a concert-goer too and – God willing – I’ll continue to be a concert-goer for a very long time. So regardless of whether I’m on the “wrong” side of 35, my assessment of whether something will enhance or diminish a concert, for me, is an absolutely valid one. (In most instances it’s not difficult to imagine how these proposals would pan out in practice or which ones I’d appreciate.)

    The worst thing young musicians can do right now is think only of people their own age when pondering strategies for the future. While they definitely need to find ways to reach their own age group in a compelling way, they can’t disregard the broader community of concert-goers, many of whom are also eager for change but aren’t 20-somethings. (I am, perhaps naively, assuming that the goal is a future in which concert audiences would represent a glorious gamut from young to old.)

    Smart musicians and administrators will be thinking about how to make concerts more exciting using strategies that are universally appealing because they are fundamentally musical, not gimmicky or focused on a single demographic to the exclusion of others.

    But the students aren’t planning a strategy for all of classical music. They’re thinking of things they’d like to do, right now, right there in College Park, Maryland.

    Though I also think you underestimate how excluded they feel from the mainstream classical music world, even as they move toward careers in it. They and I never talked about this specifically, but it’s transparently clear that they feel disenfranchised, that they’re being asked to take their place in an enterprise that pays no attention to people like them, or to their culture.

  5. says

    First of all, bravo to the students for their brainstorm. But what’s really interesting about this is the issue of “hit nerves” that comes up whenever these things are discussed.

    Almost inevitably, whenever such things come up, whether it be talking from stage or Concert Companions or whatever, the issue is raised of what existing concert-goers will think about it.

    My own thoughts:

    If all Greg’s numbers are correct that have been shared on this blog, classical music audiences have steadily aged – probably since the 60s. What that means is, we’ve got the same group of people filling our concert halls, year after year, while *increasingly less* younger people and newer audiences have been coming along to concerts.

    So, in the light of that, I think it’s important to recognise that there is a great divide between the dedicated concert-goer and the person on the outside of the classical music establishment. And when it comes to working out new ideas for presenting concerts, I don’t think it’s a smart idea to be polling current audience members or the existing arts establishment on how they think concerts should be presented, because the numbers are already saying they’ve been out of touch for several decades. So, by all means, we should be listening to new ideas and trying them in controlled circumstances.

    But – and here’s the important thing – try them on the new people you’re trying to reach, not the existing people who already like things the way they are. And that might involve actually asking new people why it is they don’t get your music, and what stops them listening to it. It could be an interesting experience . . .

    Thanks, Matthew. You’ve said this more clearly than I’ve managed to.

    And there’s a further issue, as I said to Yvonne in my reply to her last comment. The students themselves feel alienated from the mainstream classical music world. So their ideas are more than an attempt to appeal to a new, young audience. Much more powerfully, they’re attempts to bring classical music closer to the students’ own culture.

    I’ve thought for quite a while that mainstream classical music institutions have to move in two directions at once. They have to serve their existing audience, in all the ways they’ve always done that. But they also have to move in new directions, to draw the audience of the future.

  6. Yvonne says

    But Matthew! Exactly how do “the numbers” establish that current audiences are out of touch???

    Some of us dedicated concert-goers (and we’re of widely varying ages, but let’s say we’re probably older than these students) are hungry for change also. Perhaps hungrier.

    It would be very smart indeed to ask existing audiences what they would like to see changed/improved/done away with. Sure, there’d be plenty of “we don’t want it to change”, or “we want it to be like it was in the good old days” [hint: these are the good old days, just you wait and see!]. But I think there’d also be some insightful and imaginative suggestions as well. There’d be some overlap with what these students are suggesting, but perhaps there would be a wider range of proposals informed by years of concert-going, observation and engagement with the music. Not to be sneezed at.

    (I’m not, mind you, pooh-poohing the idea that you want to reach out to non-attenders and find out what keeps them away. We need to do that also.)

    I, for one, am not against change. I am opposed to the suggestion that my view or assessment of a proposal has no relevance just because I’m not a 20-something anymore. (That’s the nerve-ending in question.)

    The idea that you can ignore or dismiss the current audience (some of whom are likely to still be in audience for decades hence) is not just unrealistic but dangerous.

    In any case, if I haven’t made it clear, I’m of the view that the really valuable and powerful changes that we make will be ones that reach out to audiences both existing and new and which rejuvenate concerts in ways that speak to young people and old. And the less we pigeon-hole and make assumptions about audience groups, the better and deeper our creative thinking on this subject is going to be.

    I’d just end by saying that I hope my initial comments won’t be interpreted as an “attack” against which these students need to be defended. Far from it. I accorded them respect by taking the proposals seriously, thinking about how each one might affect my own experience of a concert, and trying to analyse the directions or strategies they seemed to represent. Perhaps some of the biases I commented on were the result of James Ross’s selection rather than the students’ overall thinking; certainly I’ve spotted additional promising/appealing ideas in the complete list that followed.

    Some activities in our society — baseball games in the US, for instance — draw people of all ages. Some don’t. Musical performances seem, on the whole, not to. In fact, in my experience, music may slice and dice the population into subcultural groups more than any other activity I’ve seen.

    I’ve also observed that classical music people like to think that the music has universal meaning. And maybe because of that, some of them are uncomfortable with the idea that different groups of people might react differently to it. That, for instance, there might be a way of presenting classical music that’s comfortable for people in their 40s and 50s, and another way that might be comfortable for people in their 20s. In most other fields of endeavor, this wouldn’t remotely be a surprise. I love restaurants, and I go to some where I see a lot of gray heads. In others, I’m the oldest person there, often by many years.

    Anyone who wanted to open a restaurant, and didn’t pay at least a little attention to the demographic who might be attracted to whatever the restaurant was planned to be — well, that person might be in trouble. And it might be very rash to say, “Oh, but I’m going to serve such wonderful food. I don’t see why people of all ages wouldn’t want to come.” Or, rather, if that was your goal, you’d have to do extensive marketing and cultural research to see why some restaurants attract older people and some attract younger people. And then you’d have to make sure your place had enough elements of both. Not easy to do, I think.

    For what it’s worth, when you ask younger people why they don’t go to classical concerts, they’re likely to say that they don’t feel they fit in. Too many older people. To me this seems natural, just a fact of life. We may wish that classical music had such universal appeal that demographic considerations wouldn’t mean anything, but that’s not the way the world works.

    For a different kind of demographic consideration, consider one student in my Juilliard class this spring. She’s black, and is intensely aware that her black culture and her classical music culture are quite separate. That’s far more than a theory. It means that her family and most of the people she grew up with are far outside her classical music culture. She’d love — more than I can find words to express — to find some way to bring the two cultures together.

  7. Andy Buelow says

    I’m with you, Yvonne. Greg, you give the impression that you don’t want any comments on the students’ suggestions at all, unless they are favorable! Good for the students for coming up with these ideas, but why post them on a blog at all, if not to elicit dialogue and debate?

    I don’t see any of these comments as harsh. The person who said that many of the ideas have been tried before is correct. I think they’re mostly good ideas, and utilized in the right context, they do work. Some of them would become tedious or studied if you did them at every concert.

    Moreover, the last thing we should do is disregard the wishes and preferences of our existing audiences. My goodness, they’re our bread and butter. With some exceptions, I have found traditional concert goers to be generally open to creative changes in the presentation, although I haven’t worked in any of the largest (and presumably most conservative) markets.

    Conversely, I haven’t found that younger audiences want the whole traditional formal presentation tossed out the window. We get a number of young people at our concerts in Tacoma, and they often dress up more formally than some of the seasoned regulars — like it’s a big night out for them and they WANT it to be special and different. I don’t think they expect to be able to come to the Symphony and drink soda and munch on popcorn while they listen!

    It’s actually encouraging to me that many of the ideas the students came up with are not earth-shattering, “wow-I-never-thought-of-that” ideas. It means this isn’t rocket science. The main point is that the traditional concert experience has become boring and formulaic, not because in and of itself it is bad, but because it has become a closed system. It’s like a room with perfectly nice furniture and paintings that has been shut up for so long it needs some fresh air. Once you open up the windows and let the world in, you discover it’s a pretty nice room after all. In other words, when we allow ourselves to vary the concert experience, it makes the whole environment more welcoming to both traditional and new audiences. Then even the more traditional presentations seem enlivened, somehow.

    Andy, I hope you’re not right about this — that I only want favorable comments. To me it seems like the same debates go round and round, whenever the future of classical music is the subject. People who take a traditional view — and that does include some people, maybe like yourself, Andy, who want some changes in what’s traditionally done — make the same objections when new ideas come up. I get the feeling that the specifics of the new ideas proposed, and the reasons for them, and the spirit in which they’re offered — all of these aren’t fully understood.

    I wonder, for instance, how many times I’ll have to say on this blog that I’m not proposing that all classical concerts change in the directions I talk about. That would be suicide for the field, for the obvious reason — just as you say, Andy — that the large part of the audience still likes things the new way.

    Or maybe it’s me, and I just don’t understand the kinds of points you’re making.

    About some specific things. In the past, when some large experiment is tried at a major institution, a large minority of the existing audience vociferously objects. So vociferously, in fact, that the experiment is often abandoned. This happened, for instance, at the Philadelphia Orchestra, when they tried putting big video screens above the stage, for just a few concerts. I was told that 25% of the audience and 25% of the musicians objected so strongly that the idea was given up.

    As for younger people who come to concerts, well, of course some do. A declining number, over the decades, as data from the NEA rather dramatically shows, but still — they come.

    But by definition, these are the younger people who like the standard format. Or at least the ones who repeatedly come like it. Or at least don’t mind it. What’s more important to know is how many younger people stay away at least in part because they don’t like the concert format. Without that data, we can’t possibly know if changing the format would attract younger people or not.

    To respond s

  8. Jude Ziliak says

    I’m a member of the NOI, and specifically am among the New Lights players performing on the concert around which this brainstorm centered.

    I’d like to make it clear that the list of 30 ideas that Greg posted was the product of an impromptu meeting lasting no more than an hour. There was no warning, no time to refine concepts, no time even to mine our own imaginations. A sign went up announcing the meeting, and we went, and we let ideas flow. Those being the circumstances, this list is indeed cause for optimism about the young generation of classical musicians. If this were the best we could do, after extended consideration, I’d be concerned, too. But this is the starting point!

    Thanks, Jude. I feel like I talked all around the point you’re making, and I’m grateful you came in and said it so plainly.

    I’ll add that these meetings happened at the very start of the program this year. So the people who came to them, like Jude, barely knew each other, and were just starting to find out what the NOI was about.

    As I’ve said in my later post — and I trust Jude would agree — we should hold any judgment until we see what the students actually do, at a concert a week from next Thursday.

  9. Alice says

    Yvonne, you say “Exactly how do “the numbers” establish that current audiences are out of touch???”

    I think the point is, it’s not the audience that is out of touch…

  10. Yvonne says

    @Alice: You are perhaps right concerning the so-called “establishment”, but Matthew’s point was that current audiences are out of touch [and that the numbers somehow say this] and that’s why we shouldn’t consult them or consider their views regarding how we might rejuvenate the concert-going experience:

    “And when it comes to working out new ideas for presenting concerts, I don’t think it’s a smart idea to be polling current audience members or the existing arts establishment on how they think concerts should be presented, because the numbers are already saying they’ve been out of touch for several decades.”

    The numbers seem to show a shrinking and aging audience. Certainly it’s an audience with drastically fewer young people than would have been seen 50 years ago. It’s also an audience — in the US (which is where all these numbers apply) — whose largest percentage, agewise, has for a couple of decades consisted of people born around the same time. That is, the largest age group in the audience has been getting older, about 10 years older between 1992 and 2002. That would suggest (and there’s a good deal more evidence for this) that the audience increasingly consists not simply of people of some given age, but — as the decades pass — of literally the same people.

    Without needing to use any phrase like “out of touch,” this data would seem to suggest an audience that’s increasingly unrepresentative of the larger population.