Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Connecting with the audience

Gone are the days when orchestral musicians had nothing to worry about except practicing.  Now our careers are threatened by:
  • plummeting philanthropy
  • diminishing governmental and foundational support
  • aging audiences
  • competition from world class orchestras on the internet and in movie theaters
  • a glut of live entertainment options competing with orchestral concerts
  • cuts in arts education
  • perceived stuffiness, stiffness and formality of symphonic concerts
Some classical musicians have sought careers in chamber music, and those who have done so successfully have figured out that a connection must be forged between musicians and audience. For example, I recently attended a performance by Carpe Diem String Quartet here in Columbus.  Instead of hiding backstage, fussing over the tricky passages before the concert, each quartet member was in the kitchen of the venue, chatting with and serving food and drinks to the audience members who joined them in the kitchen.  When it was time for the performance to begin, the guests brought their drinks and plates into the performance area (which included unusual seating options like sofas).  The musicians chatted and joked in a relaxed fashion with the audience during the performance.  One of the pieces on the program was composed by a Columbus resident who was present, and he also offered a few words to the audience. What a great way to establish relevance in the community!  The quartet played really well too, but they were smart enough to realize that playing well is just one of the requirements for success in today's classical music environment.  I believe that orchestral musicians can benefit from following the examples of successful chamber ensembles like Carpe Diem.

The musicians of The Cleveland Orchestra have begun an innovative series in which they perform chamber music in the Happy Dog bar in the Gordon Square Arts District of Cleveland.  They are responding to the current environment which is making it difficult for even the top orchestras to thrive.  These musicians are not above donning Happy Dog t-shirts and offering their fine musicianship free of charge.  Why?  It's all about forging a connection between the audience and the musicians.

Just last Thursday The Cleveland Orchestra was stranded in Ann Arbor during a winter storm  Guess what the musicians did?  Thirty of them gathered at Silvio's Organic Pizzeria at the University of Michigan for an impromptu performance of chamber music where they were joined by world-renowned pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  It has become habitual for The Cleveland Orchestra musicians to connect to their audiences, even when they're out of town!

The efforts of The Cleveland Orchestra musicians are especially remarkable because the free events are organized solely by the musicians.  Instead of looking around for a target to blame for the current socioeconomic environment which is not as supportive of symphony orchestras, the musicians have found a solution.  Their performances in Happy Dog have created quite a stir in Cleveland, from which the entire orchestra will benefit greatly.

What else can be done to forge those connections?  Well, first of all, the musicians have to be willing to connect to the audience.  Columbus Symphony Principal Clarinetist David Thomas started a podcast project a few months ago.  He asked the members of the Columbus Symphony to volunteer to be interviewed (by David himself) with the intent of making these podcasts available to audience members so that they'd have the opportunity to learn more about the individual musicians.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  Yes, it is, but unfortunately, very few musicians agreed to be interviewed, and the project flatlined.  (Thank you, David, for trying....)

David Thomas' house in Clintonville
Another project of David's has been wildly successful.  He has presented numerous  chamber music performances by Columbus Symphony musicians in his house.  Each time, his house has been jam-packed with enthusiastic symphony supporters who relished the chance to meet the musicians and to watch them perform up close.  One of David's many talents is that he really knows how to throw a party, and he sees to it that the music is complemented by delectable hors d'oeuvres and fine wines.  David's most recent chamber concert was also a benefit for the symphony; the guests gladly offered donations.

Some orchestras showcase individual musicians before concerts by having a different musician each week speak a few words about his or her background before the concert begins.  Although the musicians always report that it's nerve-racking to speak before a concert, the audiences love that personal touch.  Some orchestras create a video bio of each musician for inclusion on the orchestra's website, and of course most orchestras feature photos and brief bios of the musicians on their websites.

I think that post-concert gatherings held in the lobby are an obvious way to forge connections between musicians and audience.  The orchestra would not incur any expenses except the fee required to keep the hall (and its concessions) open a bit later. The resulting connections would be well worth whatever it costs to keep the hall open an hour longer. 

In the past, some Columbus Symphony musicians have experimented with a "Meet and Greet" in the lobby of the hall as concertgoers arrive.  However, many musicians feel that pre-concert socializing interferes with concert preparation.  The musicians standing around the lobby trying to greet patrons are not easily recognized as musicians because they don't have their instruments .  Also, the patrons entering the facility always seem to be in a hurry to get to their seats.  Based upon my observations, pre-concert "Meet and Greet" situations are minimally effective.

But the unexpected encounters between musicians and audience members on their way into or out of the hall provide great opportunities to connect.  We're usually carrying our instruments, so everyone knows we play in the orchestra.  I vividly recall an incident which occurred before a concert a year ago.  I witnessed a couple of musicians walking very quickly toward the hall. They were intently engrossed in conversation, and as the musicians veered around an elderly couple, they nearly knocked them down.  The elderly patrons were incensed, and they hissed something about Columbus Symphony musicians not caring about anyone except themselves!  It was very unfortunate, especially since the offending musicians, who unwittingly served as the orchestra's ambassadors, never even realized what happened.

After that, I decided to embark on a mission to offer good will to any concertgoer I encountered.  I began going out of my way to smile at and speak to anyone who looked at me before and after each concert.  Right away, it became clear from the way people reacted that my efforts were appreciated.  In fact, I was surprised to find out that some patrons actually knew who I was!   That invisible barrier which has existed between musicians and audience does not serve us well.  Let's get rid of it!

When we're onstage, we're being watched.  I don't like to think about that too much, lest I become self-conscious, but the fact remains that there is indeed a visual aspect to our performances.  Perhaps we musicians should even consider smiling now and then when our performance is being acknowledged!

Please help me brainstorm.  What ideas do you have to help orchestral musicians connect with the audience



DTclarinet said...

Excellent post Betsy. I hope to revive the musician interviews soon. Maybe this time more musicians will take the opportunity to share their fascinating and rich musical lives with our adoring public.

B.S. said...

David, I'm glad you're not giving up on the podcasts. Thank you for all of your amazing efforts.


Julia said...

Hi Betsy,

Thanks for your thought provoking post. Something that was started in the New World Symphony when I was with them was called a "musician's forum." It was a concert series completely organized by musicians, free to the public. Any musician could do whatever he/she wanted- solo works, chamber music of all varieties, and even larger ensembles put together by musicians. The audience could come and go as they pleased. Some wild, crazy, and wonderful performances occurred. Besides being an entertaining musical event, we used it as a forum for experimentation with speaking and connecting with the audience. It allowed us to practice our presentations and try out or solo/chamber music works in public. I participated in every single one during my last year there, as it was helpful to me personally, and also extremely enjoyable to the audience. The Miami Herald even sent a critic to these concerts.

Chamber music is the logical way to improve the audience connection, and I think the symphony needs to do more of it under their auspices, not ours. Many of us already play in chamber groups organized by ourselves, but the symphony is what needs help, and their name needs to be on the programs, advertising, etc. The experimentation could be taken further by performing in different venues around the 270 outerbelt. Lip service has been paid to this idea, but no one in management seems to want to pursue it. If this ever happens, we need to publicize the heck out of it, though, and not let it become a failure like so many of our other "experiments." If these trial performances are successful, perhaps this would prove that an outerbelt series for full orchestra would be successful. It's a way to experiment that will help everyone. I wish the folks who run the CSO could be convinced of chamber music's value.

B.S. said...

Julia, thank you for your very helpful comment. The idea of the Musician's Forum sounds very appealing. You're absolutely right- chamber music is great for establishing those connections we need, especially if it's presented under the symphony's auspices. I have always thought that playing chamber music makes us better orchestral musicians, also, as an added bonus.


Unknown said...

Hey Betsy!! Great Post! I have always thought Orchestras should do away with formal old fashioned Tuxedos. Perhaps the uniform could be something more current? It puts a big divide between audience and orchestra member. I was fortunate enough to be an audience member for a Columbus Symphony Concert recently, and couldn't help notice a large portion of the audience were in jeans. The younger crowd that is desired right now, might have a harder time relating to an orchestra that is wearing stuff penguin suits on stage.

I also like the idea of "donating" or giving "free" concerts to reach a potential new audience member. A savvy Director or Management Leader of a Symphony Organization would make that a requirement as part of your job duties.

I love your thoughts on just smiling and talking with the audience members. It makes them feel appreciated and wanted. They are after all, spending money to hear the orchestra perform. I get a huge "Thank you" after I buy an Iced Mocha at my local coffee shop, does every concert goer get the same?

I could go on and on, but I have potentially said too much already. Keep up the great work, and I applaud your dedication to building audiences. Just think if every member in every symphony in the world applied this much energy to this issue....wonder what the music business would be like. Bravo David, and Betsy!

B.S. said...

Scott, many people seem to dislike the penguin outfits! I never thought much about it, but your suggestion that the uniform actually adds to the divide between musicians and audience makes me realize that it's actually pretty important.

In the past, the CSO gave free concerts on the Statehouse lawn each year, but there's been nothing like that lately. Your point about offering free concerts to reach potential audience members is well taken.

Your comments are so valuable. Thank you for your input!

And THANK YOU for your recent attendance at a CSO concert!


Anonymous said...

The first thing that comes to mind for me is community outreach. If the thought of that worries you, then think baby steps.
You mentioned "plummeting philanthropy". Seek out well-known supporters and offer a meet-and-greet session with select musicians before/after one of your concerts. Discuss your concerns. Listen to theirs, and in turn, renew their enthusiasm.
Address your fear of "aging audiences" and "cuts in arts education" by visiting local schools and offering a petting-zoo-approach to educate and excite a new generation. Give young students an upclose and personal view of who you are and what you do.
To conquer the "glut of live entertainment options competing with orchestral concerts" think outside of your concert hall and dedicate a few summer evenings to a concert-in-the-park event.
Most importantly, be true to your roots. Dispel the so-called "perceived notions of stuffiness, stiffness and formality of symphonic concerts." EDUCATE. EDUCATE. EDUCATE. Consider expanding or reformatting your program notes. Make more of an effort to include the essence of the composer, the time period, and the purpose of a piece. I think formality is a huge part of the symphonic experience. Any atttempt to water it down would be a disservice to the genre.
Best of luck, and I hope to get to see you perform someday.

Carol said...


Matthew Whiteside said...

Hi Betsy,

Thanks for the blog I'm glad to see gigs in bars seem to work because myself and a few friends are planning to do the same thing in Glasgow (UK) in the next for months with a string quartet and then again in the concert hall. Admittedly its a way for us to get our music played (my friend and I are composers). Thankfully the bar we are talking to is very much up for the idea and seems to be almost bending over backwards for us but its still an experiment at the moment.

There was another idea that I read somewhere recently (sorry I cant remember where) suggesting that a concert should be about the social aspect as much as the music. Not just social with the musicians but the audience with each other. One way that was suggested was the ushers showing everyone to their seats introducing people sitting together who dont know each other so at the interval or the end there will be more people hanging about for longer which in turn gives me time for musicians to come out and say hi. Its something I want to try out at some point to see if it has any effect on the audience.


B.S. said...

To ebb599...Outreach is exactly what's needed. Your idea of the meet and greet involving selected musicians and donors people is a good one. I will see if I can get that to happen. The orchestra is already playing in schools all year long, but it is not the intimate setting you described. There are lots of kids in each performance, and the conductor runs the show. There is no extra money to pay small ensembles to go to the schools, but perhaps there's some way the musicians could be asked to volunteer. I suspect that would be a tough sell (to the musicians). I do like the idea of summer concerts in the park. Oh, and we did a "Beyond the Score" presentation last year which fits right in with your comments. It was great, but again, the cost....it was expensive.

Your ideas are great. Thank you for offering them!


B.S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.S. said...

Matthew, thank you for adding another dimension to this discussion! I never even thought about how the concerts might be made into more of a social event for the audience members. I love the idea of having the ushers introduce audience members, who will then hang around to chat at the end so that the musicians can make their way into the audience for more mingling. It may not work well in our large hall, but we are going to be playing in some smaller venues where this idea would be perfect! Thank you, and good luck to you!


Stephen P Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen P Brown said...

Wonderful blog and comments - I am pleased to see this global discussion taking form all over the web.

Funny thing is, it's not just the orchestral players themselves contributing to the audience/ community relation effort. As a conductor it is also vital that we help connect, so I recently hosted a successful chamber concert that was streamed live (check out a running commentary here). I've been doing these "Stephen P Brown and Friends" concerts for 20+ years and they do help engage audiences who otherwise wouldn't have attended one of my orchestral/ choral concerts.

Keep up the great work, creativity and effort folks - we all need to share the fact that there's more to music than just the music!

Stephen P Brown said...

Can't get the link to work! Here it is in full: http://morristowngreen.com/2011/01/13/chamber-music-live-from-morristown-good-evening-mr-brown/#comments

Brian French said...

Thanks, Betsy...I'm forwarding this to my colleagues. We've been fortunate this season to exceed budgeted ticket sales to our Saturday night concerts, which are slightly abridged, intermission-free, and visually stimulating, geared toward connecting with the 30s and 40s crowd. Those Saturday performances are followed by our popular post-concert meet/greet called "Brews with Bob", where audience members are invited across the street to a hip spot for drinks & noshies with the MD (Bob Moody), guest artist(s) and musicians...15 or so usually hang around. For us, it's a valuable connection that's not only regally and growing an audience demographic, but also attracting new board membership.

Stephen P Brown said...

Love this idea, Brian! Thanks for sharing. What time is the Sat concert - 8pm or later?

Brian French said...

Hi Stephen, our Saturday night show is 7:30, but the shorter show allows folks to come out to Brews or younger parents to get home earlier (and save babysitting $$!).

Anonymous said...

Great post, Betsy!

I agree with you about the importance of making connections with audience members. Many years ago, our local symphony orchestra had a post-concert reception for donors, even those like me who were only able to donate $25. I had a chance to meet and chat with Neville Marriner, and it was an experience I'll never forget. He was such a friendly and kind person, and I became a Marriner fan for life.

I also like Scott's comments about the tuxedos. I agree that orchestra musicians should dress nicely, but are tuxedos really necessary? It reminds me of an experience my son recently had while performing as a member of a concert band at a major university. The men were required to obtain and wear tailcoats!! Why? When I was a member of this university's band back in the 70s, we never wore tails. I noticed that attendance at my son's band concerts was rather sparse. I wonder if there is possibly a connection?

Unknown said...

Props to musicians who don't complain about their current economic predicament but are

a. actively trying new things to connect to audiences
b. encouraging others to follow suit
c. open to new ideas

In other words, props to YOU!

A few weeks ago, I blogged about some of my ideas for some "New Years Resolutions" for classical music, and one of the things I suggested is a need for finding and empowering what I would call "franchise" musicians in the community to connect not just with audience members musically but to find common causes that our local communities care about that we as people (not so much as musicians) can all rally behind together on the LOCAL level. We can connect with audiences on musical terms, but if we want to connect with POTENTIAL audiences- audiences for whom classical music might seem stuffy, elitist, weird, etc.- I think that we should be willing to prove our worth to the community on non-musical terms before we ask them to take a chance on our music.

My full post can be seen here if you're curious:

My current attempts to engage new audiences and make an impact musically and non-musically in my community are mostly "top secret" at the present time, but I'm hoping to blog about them in the coming months.

I know nothing about the bassoon, but I'm looking forward to learning more from time to time here on your blog. I admire your attitude. Keep it up!


Travis Branam, aka @musicapologist

Anonymous said...

I just finished contacting a list of 15 patrons who have supported our local orchestra during the past 12 months. Their gifts ranged from $30 to $10,000 during the preceding season. I received so many positive comments, and absolutely no negatives! We have been concerned about parking, which has become a nightmare in the downtown Greenville (SC) area, but I didn't hear one complaint from the supporters I contacted. They were all proud that they are involved in keeping our orchestra solvent financially, and nearly all commented on how delighted they were with the programming and quality of performances. I feel good about my eforts, and encourage other musicians to get involved in connecting with their audience on more than a musical level.

Frank Watson
Greenville (SC) Symphony Orchestra