Making it work

So how (picking up from my last post) would an orchestra — or any classical music institution — connect more vividly to its community?

I don’t claim to have answers. And even if I thought I knew some things that definitely work, I’d never offer a recipe. Institutions differ. They might not all feel comfortable doing everything that I or anybody else might suggest. And communities differ, too.

(And then, within any given place, there’s surely more than one community, more than one subculture in your town that you might connect with. That’s something we in classical music don’t always remember. We talk about “the audience” as if it was one thing, and always the same. They don’t make that mistake in pop. They know that different artists attract different audiences, that a classic rocker won’t draw the same crowd as an R&B star or an indie band. This is something classical music should learn about, and see how many different audiences it can learn to find. I’ll note this for future reference, but not say any more about it just now.)

There’s something else important, too. People locally will have ideas of their own, many of them better than mine.

But here’s pme basic principle. Let’s say you work with an orchestra. What do the people in your town — the ones who aren’t your subscribers, who don’t know classical music well — think the orchestra does? They think it plays classical music.

And of course they’re right. And most of them think that playing classical music is a good thing. They like classical music. They think it sounds nice. They’ll tell you, if you ask them, that they’d love to go to a concert sometime. But for many of them, maybe most, sometime never comes. Or comes rarely. Or comes once — this is the dreaded “churn,” as orchestras in the US have come to call it — but never comes again. People finally do go to a concert, like it, and think they should go sometime again, but never do.

Most orchestra advertising that I’ve seen doesn’t help with this. Take the New York Philharmonic, which I notice because it’s my hometown orchestra, though I could just as well pick my other hometown orchestra these days, the National Symphony in Washington. “Alan Gilbert Conducts Mahler,” says the headline of an ad. Which says exactly what the readers of the ad — except the experts — already know. At every concert, somebody — probably a name that might not mean much to most people — conducts music by famous classical composers, Mahler being one of them. Very nice, but why should that grab my attention?

(Caveat: I know that in the past, at least, these ads would bring in people who knew the names — soloists, conductors, composers. But I’m talking here about the new audience, the wider community that so many of us want to reach. These ads don’t help much with that.)

So how do we change this perception? Or rather broaden it. How do we move beyond people saying, “Oh, the orchestra is nice. I went to a concert once. The music was lovely”? And instead say, “It was unforgettable. I’ve got to go again. And you [talking to a friend] should go, too. Let’s go this weekend!”

I imagine that people who’d say that might also say:

  • “I feel so welcome when I go to concerts.”
  • “There’s a feeling of excitement coming off the stage.”
  • “I’m always surprised by what they do.”
  • “The orchestra cares about things that I care about.”
  • “I can’t wait to go again. I know that something fabulous will happen, even if I can’t say what.”
  • “I can tell that there’s excitement here, even if I’m just walking past the concert hall.”

So how do we get there? More in my next post.

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  1. says

    I love classical music. But there are two reasons why I never attend any performances. One, my wife doesn’t like it. Two, two kids, a mortgage and debts that have basically prevented me from spending any money for the past 20 years on ‘luxury’ items such as concert tickets.

    Perhaps when I retire, I will be able to attend concerts by myself and ironically be considered part of the aging population that comprises the orchestral audience.

  2. Nikola Olic says

    this is just addressing one aspect of it, and i think it should be a part of a much larger context.

    classical music could take a page out of the NBA handbook and make every player on the stage known to us. is some member of the orchestra the youngest in the area/state/country? are they the most awarded in some category or won a grand competition? who on our orchestra plays the oldest instrument? is the conductor from a foreign country that we can learn something about? can the lead viola have a blog where she endearingly admits she forgot her instrument in a cab (like yo-yo ma did in new york some 10 years ago) or at her grandmas place after practice one day? can the bass section blog about how they actually travel with their big instruments from place to place? was it a tougher childhood growing up playing a huge instrument, compared to, say, what the flutes would have gone through?

    this approach is pedagogically different than allowing people to drink beer, cheer, tweet or talk while music is in session. i am not commenting on them in a larger sense except to say that they are actually changing the classical music experience. and what i proposed above does not. it just packages it differently and still attracts people to the music hall.

    love your column.


    nikola olic

    dallas, tx

  3. oldman says

    Even if I could afford to go to concerts (family, mortgage, etc., just life your first commenter here). I frankly would’nt bother. This is because in the end I can get a better and more varied program from recordings.

    Another issue is I’ve simply become more interested exploring the byways of older music than I am of taking a chance on the latest work of music by a contemporary composer. Its pretty bad when I find my self more interested in the music of obscure 19th and 20th composers than I am in the latest work of some composer who may decide that it is more important to “challenge” his/her audience than entertain us.

  4. Jonathan says

    Good post, Greg, and I couldn’t agree with you more whole-heartedly about the marketing aspect of concerts – it’s all rather inward-facing.

    That counts for this side of the Atlantic too,

    although there are happily some good exceptions:

    Just come across the Britten Sinfonia a couple of times (, but of course the interesting offer is based as much around interesting content as anything…

    Looking forward to your next post on this!

  5. Megan Browne Helm says

    Funny you should bring this up. My best friend and her husband came to hear me sing this weekend with the KC Symphony and afterward I asked how they liked it. My friend thought it was so beautiful she cried (Verdi’s 4 Sacred Songs-) but her husband said, “Now I can cross that off of my list of things to do before I die.” Churn-city.

    I think orchestras overlook a critically important subcommunity, music teachers. Not just the private studio instructors but the high school choir, orchestra and band directors. The very people who from year to year influence hundreds of thousands of young musicians around the world. T

    he solution. Offer professional development credit to the teachers, a necessity for re-licensure in my state, and other perks to their students for coming to see their teachers perform.

    My chorus is trying to enlarge their ranks in preparation for the new Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts to open next fall. Our chorus, of course, is volunteer but our 500 or so choir directors who have expressed interest in auditioning, can’t due to district parent/teacher conferences going on during the first performance. (every year!)

    With bona-fide, college sponsored, professional development accreditation, these professional teachers would be able to leverage their absences for dress rehearsals in the evenings as professional development.

    I wonder how many orchestras pay ample attention to the very teachers who make their orchestras exist in the first place by encouraging and exciting young musicians with their first tastes of performing classical music.

    Outreach to the students is fine but it often has a way of marginalizing the importance of the music teacher, leaving them out of the equation. The teachers are expected to function more like the host on the sideline, catering to the instrumentalists who are there to work with the students. I don’t see that as being a very positive message to send.

    Orchestra education departments just don’t seem that savvy to me where they could be strengthening a relationship that could pay off big on both ends.

    Good points. These are exactly the people we’ve targeted at the University of Maryland, in the project I’m doing there, to work with music students to help them find an audience their own age. The school Symphony Orchestra and Wind Orchestra were giving concerts. The faculty and students went to people who play in other bands and orchestras, including the marching band, and the Gamer Symphony, a phenomenal student group that plays videogame music. This brought out 200 people who’d never been to one of the big orchestra concerts before.

  6. Joan says

    Wonderful wonderful conversations. This is what I’ve been waiting to read for a long time, as opposed to the virtual tarting up and remanagement twists and turns I so often read. Another idea I’ve had -a little more off the wall-is related to the relationship composers have known in their lives between nature and inspiration. We are all concerned about “green” issues and we musicians have all made these choices too. But orchestras sit there formally dressed as though we the audience were also all members of the aristocracy coming from a Club dinner in our tuxes and opera glasses. My, how the world has changed…So, make some pre-concert connections for the audience with the local nature societies and schedule park walks, nature trail walks, or simply a sport event in conjunction with a later concert. (maybe throw in a good meal!) Beethoven’s comments about music and nature are wonderful. We are finally reading more contemporary research on the consequences of being so terribly removed from nature, how our disconnections affect our spirits, mental health, physical health, arts, and children’s development. I don’t think some of us can actually listen any longer to what we are hearing, no matter what it is. This applies to our musicians too. Time to walk before listening would alter the way we hear. I do believe that a top professional orchestra in a city (as top as a city can afford) is the core musical group that regulates how all the others in the city will grow. It offers families the original live music excitement and profundity, a broad source of teachers whose backgrounds honour excellence in the discipline, it (should) still perform in my opinion for high civic functions, represent the city, offer emotional and spiritual support during disasters and difficult times from within the sacred choral and orchestra repertoire, always provide educational and family programming. As far as marketing goes, yes, the more the city knows its musicians the more it all makes sense. From the personal to the personal feelings and emotional landscapes of composed music. Music doesn’t come from anonymity. I can see putting large photos on buses or in the newspaper of your violist paying for her bananas and ice cream at the local grocery store or market. I can see the trumpet pushing through the metro or stepping into his car. I can see a photo of the families sitting with a teacher at school for parents night. Or the concertmaster doing yoga class, or the percussionist jamming in a local bar with the jazz community. I can see a TV series following four or five kids’ real private music lessons every week as they mature over four or five or more years. I can see the entire city council sponsoring one special concert (or two) a year -turning up en masse, throwing the reception.

  7. Josh says

    oldman, NOTHING beats a live performance. CDs and MP3 players just can’t compete. It’s foolish of you to think so.

  8. oldman says


    There is indeed nothing like the sound of live, and if I only cared about the sound of a live orchestra, I wouldnt have posted as I did.

    From my viewpoint

    – There is nothing like Benno Moiseiwitch’s 1948 rendition of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

    – there is nothing like the excitement in th eplaying of of Arthur Pryors Concert band in a rare 1937 broadcast that I was privileged to be given a copy of.

    – Or the exitement of Paul Dreshers ” Slow Fire”

    – Or the magic of the opening of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Violin Concerto.

    – And I would give anything to have been present at the 1938 Met opera broadcast of Verdi’s Otello With Martinelli, Tibet and Rethberg that I am listening to as I type this.

    Sound is not everything.

  9. says

    Yeah, telling people there’s nothing like a live performance is not going to be convincing. There have to be live performances that are really outstanding in some way. Unfortunately, I rarely hear those when I go to the concert hall. I like to go out to concerts (many of which, in my area, are free), so I’ll keep trying, but the answer to people who like recordings better than concerts is to make concerts better, in my opinion.