Orchestral Outreach: Are Orchestras Connecting with a Younger Audience

Taking a look at what orchestras should be doing to attract a younger audience

There are lots of discussions on this topic, perhaps the most recent by Anne Midgette at the Washington post: Back to school: on orchestras and outreach.

There is also a recent article about the Toronto Symphony's tsoundcheck: Toronto Symphony Orchestra strikes gold with the kids.

From my experience (working with an orchestra, attending numerous concerts, recently graduating with a Masters degree in Music Composition [where I studied with musicians wanting to be orchestral performers] --and anecdotes from family and friends) many people find orchestral concerts boring --the same old music played the same old way.

Orchestras generally program trying to appease the their older patrons, who are big donors. However, when I approached some of the younger, successful crowd around town, they weren't interested in supporting the symphony (ah, but they do support the local sports teams). They suggested I talk to their parents. While we don't want to piss off the money people, there are other money people to be had and the current crop of money'd patrons are getting fewer every year. If the average age continues to climb orchestras are in trouble.

Of my instructors at university, few attend any orchestra concerts and those that do are either IN the orchestra or only attend 2-3 concerts a year. One of them was vehement about NOT attending because of old, dead composer music. He is rather outspoken about it which helps create an atmosphere of dread toward the local symphony orchestras. When I tried to get friends and fellow students to go (many who were studying to become orchestral musicians) they were loathe to attend for the same reason. The peer pressure against attending the orchestra concerts at a university focused on classical training astounds me. Even the instructors who are IN the orchestra don't do anything to "market" the symphony at the university.

We're in a digital age where people can download any music they want, can pick and choose what they listen to. My family and friends hate attending the concert hall with me as they'd rather go to a pub/club or pay to see a rock/pop concert. Some of the reasons: "The atmosphere is too stuffy," "You just sit there," "I can listen to that at home." and so on. Even though classical music "sales" are up because of the ease of downloading music, ticket sales are down for most concert halls. What this says to me is people want to listen to classical music, bur can't be bothered to go to the concert hall.

Why? Perhaps because concerts are basically the same format they were in 100 years ago. Rock, pop and urban artists tour with massive light and SFX shows. The music AND the show are engaging. People are encouraged to get up and dance, applaud, scream... all behaviors that are likely to get you tossed out of an orchestral concert. The symphony I work for has great success selling tickets to pops concerts because they include a big name AND because the shows are much more inviting for the audience. People scream and shout, applaud when a soloists does a great job and in general create an atmosphere that reeks of positive energy.

I took my grandsons (3 & 6) to a chamber orchestra concert last year. The first half we sat in the 2nd row and both kids were enthralled at the performance. At intermission we were asked to move because "children at the concert were disrupting the other patrons." We moved to the back of the house (only about 30 rows back), but it was far enough away to disconnect the kids from the concert. I haven't been back to that orchestra's concerts since.

If we want a younger audience we have to start thinking like the younger generation. What do they want in a performance? If we can't deliver that, then we don't deserve, and won't attract them as patrons.

What can we do?

1 - Hold short concerts during the week that start at 5:30 or 6, to attract folks just off work

make sure there is reasonably priced alcohol to create a "club" atmosphere before and after the performance. There could also be lunch time performances where the symphony isn't dressed in tuxedos, but blue jeans.

2 - Get musicians to start tweeting and FBing their experience in the orchestra.

Members of rock bands know they have to self-promote, but most orchestral musicians do not. "That's what the marketing department is for." Yes, that's true, BUT, the younger audience wants to personally connect with the artists they're going to see perform. With an orchestra of 70-100 players, that's a lot of people with different attitudes and a huge pool of personality that can provide outreach to new audience.

3 - Hire conductors with personality and encourage them to talk to the audience.

Gustavo Dudamel is a force on the podium, but he is also an entertainer. Orchestra concerts can be entertaining, informative and fun above and beyond the music.

4 - Add lighting, staging...

One of the best concerts I attended this year had a pair of actors reading lines from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" while the orchestra played the music by Mendelssohn --a great show! NY Phil recently staged "The Cunning Little Vixen" to rave reviews. These shows provided entertainment beyond the music.

5 - Get the local universities and colleges involved

Young musicians need experience, but there are few opportunities to sit on stage with a professional orchestra until they actually get hired by one. Imagine, if 5 to 6 concerts a year, the orchestra swelled their ranks from 80 to 160. Every single parent, friend, fellow student and neighbor would attend that concert. That's 80 people times...what, 10 that you'll get to your hall without really trying. AND if you let the students sell the tickets to their friends first, you just added clout to to your marketing department.

There are more ideas... but isn't this enough to get started???


Jess Albertine said…
I had a conversation yesterday about this with my boyfriend's father. This man is both extremely intelligent and extremely wealthy, a well-known philanthropist around San Diego- the kind of person orchestras already try to cater to. His opinion was that orchestras simply aren't fun to go to. Skilled, yes, but not fun. From someone who got through a physics degree from Harvard, the negative declaration that something's not fun carries a lot of weight. He mentioned a classical guitar concert he'd been to where he was only interested for the first few minutes, more from watching the players' hands than the music. He said he would have liked to have more involvement from the musicians, like some explanation of what they were doing and why, since only the guitarists in the audience understood what was actually going on.

Remember the email survey asking about the future of Lamont performance attendance? I basically wrote a short essay on that (surprise) which I really hope they read. I criticized the professors, particularly the ones in the CSO, for not encouraging more of their students to go to their concerts. We're used to personal connections- if someone doesn't promote their own ensemble, it comes across as a belief that it doesn't need promoting because it isn't worth going to.

I think our generation of musicians might be finally catching on. Nick Booker, with whom I'm planning the flute studio new music concert next year, is making a website for the flute choir and is going to use it to market our concert. He claims that using it, we'll be able to fill Hamilton. Nick and I might be exceptions in our mindsets, but hopefully we're not the only ones.

In other news, I found out today that Jonathan's IQ has never been tested. I'm still very curious.
Chip Michael said…
"His opinion was that orchestras simply aren't fun to go to. Skilled, yes, but not fun. From someone who got through a physics degree from Harvard, the negative declaration that something's not fun carries a lot of weight."

Yes - this is exactly what I was talking about. If even people who (not offense Jess' Boyfriend's father) people who are seen as boring to the bulk of society (physics professors are stereo-typically boring), what hope to orchestras have in getting the attention of interesting people.

"...if someone doesn't promote their own ensemble, it comes across as a belief that it doesn't need promoting because it isn't worth going to."

Another great point and what I was trying to say with point #2. If orchestral musicians don't think their ensemble is worth promoting, why should we attend their concerts???
Joel Bejot said…

Why would "normal" people attend a CSO concert when I don't even want to go. I look at the season and say to myself, ugh. I can't bring my kids, my wife will be bored, and I probably will too. Not worth the $50 bucks/ticket or so. Since when was "silence" sacred in the concert halls? Didn't it used to be that the audiences were free to heckle the performers and chat amongst themselves, like they are in most pop music venues? I would definitely go to more things if I wasn't made to feel ashamed every time my 4-year old wiggled a little bit.

I love your blog, keep up the good work!

Joel Bejot

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