Friendly and dignified

I talked in my last post about ways that classical performances could be friendlier, so the audience — especially a new audience — will feel welcome. I gave examples from the Baltimore Symphony, the Pacific Symphony, the Jackson Symphony, and other orchestras. In all of them, the musicians or the music director, or both, did something at a concert to welcome the audience.

What these orchestras did might not seem dignified. Ask all the people coming to one of your concerts for the first time to raise their hands? Went over very well at the Pacific and Jackson Symphonies, but, as I said, maybe the Cleveland Orchestra — or some other top-rank, dignified ensemble — wouldn’t want to do anything like that.

Which from a more down-home point of view might be a shame. Though maybe, for the Boston Symphony, asking newcomers to raise their hands just wouldn’t be appropriate. Or the staff and musicians wouldn’t think it was, which (for the moment, at least, until things might possibly change) would mean they shouldn’t do it. Especially since, at an orchestra like that, some reasonably large part of the audience might also not be comfortable if somebody asked them to raise their hands. There’s been too long a habit of formality and silence.

So what can orchestras with this kind of dignity — or dignified string quartets — do to be friendlier?

In my last post, I mentioned CRM, Customer Relations Management. Aka keeping in touch with your audience, getting to know them, giving them a chance to talk to you. And listening to what they say.

This could take many forms. The New York Philharmonic, just for instance, could set up a kiosk in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, where they play, or better still on the second floor promenade, where people go at intermission. The kiosk would be there so people in the audience could ask questions. What instrument had that long solo in the second movement? What are the horn players doing, when they seem to take their instruments apart? Why does the program book say that there are three trombones playing in this piece, when I can see four of them on stage?

And I’m sure there would be questions that weren’t so specifically about music. The kiosk staff would answer all of them. And also would be friendly, welcoming, so people would feel encouraged to go up to them and ask them things.

Another idea: the program notes could be less formal. Instead of talking only about the history and structure of the pieces being played, talk about how they feel to the musicians. What’s the conductor’s goal in conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony? What’s the hardest passage for the oboe? What’s a moment difficult to play, that the audience can listen for?

And what do some people in the audience think of these pieces? Maybe if there’s a new piece being played, instead of having the program annotator be the one to advocate for it (by praising it in a program note), or even having the composer write, why not have some members of the audience say what they think? They could have talked to the composer about the work, listened to other pieces that she’s written, heard excerpts played by members of the orchestra, or on the computer demos that composers routinely can prepare these days.

And if one or two of the audience members taking part in this don’t like the piece — well, bravo! Why should everyone like everything? Life doesn’t work that way. If we offer a full range of opinion, then the favorable comments look more plausible. And some new pieces can pose difficulties. Why not admit that, admit that some people in the audience may find it difficult to hear these works, and flat-out might not like them?

I can almost guarantee that this approach will make your audience sigh with relief. At last they’re given permission to be themselves! It’s OK if they don’t like something. Paradoxically (though if you think about it, understandably) this makes them more open to trying to like whatever piece it is. You respect them, treat them as human beings, and they’ll respect you.

I could add that I’ve seen people speaking from the stage at very serious orchestras — musicians from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for instance, have done this, asking for donations, among other things, if I remember rightly. At the Pittsburgh Symphony one night, there was a rose on every seat occupied by someone who’d given money to the orchestra. A lovely way to say thank you, and, maybe, to call attention both to the presence of donors, and to the need for more of them.

But the important thing, I’ll say in closing, is that when you start to do these things you shouldn’t only do them once or twice. You want to do them constantly, maybe not the same thing every night (though the kiosk should be there for every performance), but always something, so you never drop the thread, and you’re always showing your audience how much you care for them.

Looking back, I only suggested two ideas. But people reading this — and also people who haven’t read it, and who’ve never heard of me — will think of more.

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  1. Ben says

    I’ve seen similar things to the kiosk in action, and it seemed to be working. Years ago when I saw the show Blast! on tour, they had a percussion act drumming in the lobby area during intermission, and after the show they had at least one representative from each section out to field questions in the lobby. As a high school aged student, those were both pretty exciting and very different from the “standard” concert experience.

  2. Richard says

    At the risk of sounding flippant, a cash bar might not be a bad idea. I do think, though, that orchestral musicians might mix more with other professional musicians in the community (School band/orchestra directors, choir directors, college profs, composers, studio teachers etc.) There are lot of us out there who share the same goals of reinvigorating the “classical” music scene, and maybe we can all work together to get it done. I know some orch. pros look at us working in the trenches as musical incompetents, and some might find us smarter than they think. (With regard to music theory,some of the dumbest musicians I’ve met were professional players)

  3. Larry Fried says

    I’ve always thought that orchestras should have an “instrument petting zoo” at the subscription concerts, just like they have for children’s concerts.

  4. says

    These are both great suggestions. I particularly like the kiosk idea. If colleges and universities with comprehensive music programs would do this, they could staff the kiosk with advanced students, who could answer the questions based on their studies. If they don’t know the answers, they could take contact info from the audience member and follow-up.

    On the audience contributions to program notes: Many presenters include hand-outs in addition to the formal programs. These would be a great vehicle for user-pre-comments. I also don’t see why these comments should be limited to new pieces: “I’ve heard the Beethoven Seventh many times in concert. I hope this performance does something to convince me why I should keep hearing again and again.” Or “Beethoven’s rhythms in his Seventh Symphony are reall the essence of the piece. I’ll be listening closely to see how this performance renders them.”

    As a composer, I think the only two comments I’d rather not read are “It’s interesting.” or “It shouldn’t be played. Ever. Especially not tonight.”

  5. Megan says

    I am a huge proponent of making performances more friendly. Also on that note, ‘classical’ audiences themselves could loosen up a bit! I’m a graduate student who has studied music, and I get terrible looks every time I go to the opera just because I’m young.

    If orchestras opened up to a more diverse audience, maybe over time people wouldn’t be afraid to raise their hands, if asked, in performances. I love the idea about changing program notes…ideas from the audience, musicians or conductors is a fantastic suggestion. Perhaps there’s a way to work in social media, like showing texts or tweets during intermission on a screen or something about the performance…or having the audience post their ideas on the orchestras FB page, and that’s how they gather the information for programs? This might also help out the marketing department…

  6. Megan Browne Helm says

    I worked in customer service for years as a professional musician with a day job. Personal conncections are important and not just when you want money. I get disgusted when the only time I hear my name uttered by someone at the symphony is when they interupt me at dinner to ask for money. NO. When I pick up my tickets from will call I want to hear…”Hello Mrs. Helm. It’s good to see you back. We hope you enjoy your seats, My name is James if you need anything.” Then smile. :)

    Or even better, “Your usher is Julie and she will be happy to help you should you need any assistance.”

    Wow. My eyeballs would pop out and I’d be salivating like a dog.

    Don’t just treat your BIG SPENDERS with that level of attention because that little spender could turn into a big spender next season.

  7. says

    I particularly like the point you make about informing the audience that it is okay if they don’t like something.

    I felt like this a few weeks ago at the opening season performance for the National Symphony.

    Prior to the main piece, and no doubt the one everyone came to hear, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, there was a performance of a modern piece titled “Hérodiade – Fragmente”. It dealt with the topic of Salome and the dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Herodias. In French, and without a single melodic line to follow, it was a modern tour de force, full of percussive playing – the orchestra acting more as the painter of a scene that the soprano soloist sang over rather than actually playing anything “musical”.

    The composer introduced the piece, almost in an apologetic fashion. He said a peron asked him once to describe a few key points of the piece to listen for. He responded with, ‘when you view a painting, do you look to pick out only specific parts?’ Point taken. I get what he’s trying to say, but it almost came across as, ‘well, I can’t really tell you anything about it. Good luck!” This would have been a perfect opportunity to say to the audience, “well, you just might not like this, and that’s okay. Here was my idea when I wrote it….etc, etc.,”

    The piece lasted for close to 25 minutes. A long time to sit through, what most people I’m sure would call, “noise”. Frankly, I enjoyed it, and “got it”. However, when it came to the end, and the piece simply faded away into silence, no grand cadence, no loud bangs, the audience feigned applause unlike I’d ever heard. It was a little embarrssing.