- 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
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. Here's a video of one of their performances at Happy Dog:
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....)
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?