From Michael Oneil Lam (who’s married to one of the students I work with at the University of Maryland) — an idea for making orchestra concerts more comprehensible to outsiders. And, believe me, he’s got reasons for thinking about this. He’s not a classical music person, but he goes to hear his wife play the bass in the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. And wishes he could have a little help in following the music.
My wife is writing an essay on the topic of increasing the relevance of classical orchestra music to modern audiences, and I had an idea of my own: orchestral scoreboards. Read more for details and an explanation of why this is not a crazy idea.
My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs. Thus, I have to look several events forward and backward in the notes and try to pattern-match them to the things I’ve heard in the past 5-10 minutes to have any hope of knowing where I am in the piece (“is this the ‘lyrical horn solo’ or was that the bit a couple of minutes ago?”). After 15 minutes or so of this, I inevitably give up.Nearly every organized sport that is broadcast on TV or experienced live provides a scoreboard. The purpose of a scoreboard is to keep the audience informed about the progress of the event. It provides four main pieces of information: 1) the team names, 2) the current period, 3) the amount of time left, and 4) the current score. Below I discuss what I believe the musical analogies to these bits of information are and how including them in a scoreboard for an audience during a symphony concert would increase audience engagement.1) Team names => current composer, conductor, and piece name. Most people can keep track of this information on their own, but it’s still helpful to have it in case someone falls asleep and completely loses their place.2) Current period => current movement number and title. Again, most people can track the current movement, but occasionally orchestras play movements without pauses between them and it’s very difficult for someone who has not heard the piece before to determine when the transition occurs.3) Time left. This is a bit harder to do in a concert than in a game, since period length more variable in music than in sport. However, a coarse-grained timer (in minutes, perhaps) would still provide helpful information: 5 minutes left versus 15 or 30 minutes, etc. Along with this, all descriptions in the program notes that indicate specific bits of a piece need to be tagged with their position in the piece in the same approximate time scale so that the audience can keep up and utilize the notes to their maximum benefit.4) Current score. There’s no direct equivalent to a game score in a symphony concert, since there’s no obvious competition going on. So let us ask: what is it about a score that makes it useful to the audience? The score is the core piece of information that changes often and that keeps the audience engaged. It lets them know the context of the action they’re watching and when/where they should focus their attention. I believe a symphonic analogy would be an indicator of which orchestra section is currently playing the “interesting” part. This could be the main theme, a solo, an interesting transition, or any other event recognized as important in the program notes. The display could be as simple as icons or symbols indicating which section or instrument the audience should focus on.There are two other questions about practical matters that I should address.1) How would this information be displayed? Most halls already have the ability to display information to the audience, either on a projector screen or a TV screen. For other venues, these mechanisms are not difficult to set up temporarily for a concert. To maintain the respectful atmosphere of a classical symphony concert, the information should be displayed in as unobtrusive manner as possible while maintaining its accessibility to the entire audience.2) Who would monitor and update this information? This is crucial. If symphonies provide a scoreboard that displays wrong or untimely information, it is even worse than providing no information. There must be a new position in the event staff: display coordinator. This could be a music student or simply someone involved in the orchestra management-someone who is familiar with the music and can make educated decisions regarding time estimates and section/instrument highlights. Presumably this person would meet with the conductor at least once to ensure that the conductor’s vision of the piece is fully realized during the performance. I realize that creating this position would mean a financial investment, but I feel that it’s a worthy investment.With the additional information provided by a display like the one I’ve described, the audience would be better able to track the current progress of the piece. They would be able to more definitely identify particular features highlighted in the program notes, and they would not miss any of the interesting solos or transitions. With increased engagement comes increased memorability; the audience is far more likely to recount the event later in conversation and to recommend the experience to their friends and family. This would help to reconnect music patrons (both young and old) to the world of symphony orchestra music and all of the talent it encompasses.