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Drawing them in–the brand new audience

April 2, 2013

I have been sorting through old papers in a 25th anniversary kind of way, and I actually found some articles I wrote in the last 10 years that I would love to update and share online. Perhaps this will inspire me to some new blogs once I get my feet wet.  Here is one for the ACDA Eastern division in 2005.

DRAWING THEM IN How to find an audience among people who have never heard singing…

I’d like to discuss the great divide between the typical chorus and their least likely audience.  There are two issues here — bringing them through the door, and then helping them feel comfortable and informed once they are inside.

I learned a great deal this year from teaching a music survey course at a local university.  The course was intended to fulfill a liberal arts requirement for students who had no musical background whatsoever.  The question in my mind was:  How does one teach the “elements of music” in several three-hour classes, and then cover all of music history in a relevant way?  The course required three “concert reports” from the students.  The prospectus specified that they must attend professional level orchestral, opera, choral or chamber music concerts and write papers about their experiences.

I believe I learned as much as the students did from these reports. Most of the students had NO musical background whatsoever, had NEVER been in a chorus or band, or had a piano lesson.  It was sometimes hard for them to know what to say about any musical experience beyond basic adjectives such as “amazing” or “boring.”  As the semester progressed they would struggle to use some of their vocabulary words like allegro or adagio.  (One kept using her new word pitch almost as if the performance were a ball game, i.e., “The clarinetist pitched high, then she pitched low…”). 

As they learned to trust their tastes and describe their feelings, their papers got more interesting.  One young woman noticed that when the lights came down, many audience members opened their cell phones to use them as lamps for reading the programs. Several students knew enough to recognize an under-rehearsed performance of  Amahl, even if they’d never been to an opera before.  One student was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Tallis Scholars. His brief exposure to Josquin’s Ave Maria in class had given him a few insights into the period — but when he heard the singing live, he knew enough to know the performance was outstanding, to be moved and fascinated (and to be happy he had  impressed his girlfriend by taking her!).

Students really appreciated being offered a “way in” to understanding the performance, in the form of pre-concert or during-concert lectures by performers. One student attended a performance of a difficult Dominick Argento work with words by Virginia Woolf.  This was music that I had found difficult to process; yet, both because the words were accessible, and the pianist offered excellent explanations, my neophyte really enjoyed it.  One student came to my own organ recital. Despite my pre-performance explanations, she had no clue HOW I was playing with my hands and feet until the post-concert tour of the instrument, and even then was bursting with excellent questions about how the sounds were connected between the pipes and the keyboard.  One student, having attended a performance of a Haydn Mass at which the conductor must have made a reference to the medieval nature of the traditional Mass text, wrote convincingly about the “medieval choral work”!

It amazed me to realize which items were notable to a first-time performance attender.  There was the inexplicable behavior of the concertmaster (“first a violinist walked on stage and everyone clapped!”)  Then, there was the following description (of one of my own concerts):

“I was pleasantly surprised with the entire environment at the church entrance where I could see people of all ages wandering around the church, chatting, smiling, and getting ready to have a great time in performance.  The entrance was much more crowded than I expected. Everybody dressed appropriately to this event where I felt I could feel safe to attend this kind of concert.”

This reminds me of a recent article in The Voice of Chorus America in which Duain Wolfe, Chicago Symhony Chorus Director, was astonished to discover that his classical music radio-listening, opera-loving regular taxi driver, Joe, had never gone to a concert in Orchestra Hall.  When Joe was offered tickets, he protested, “But I don’t have a tuxedo!” After attending a concert, Joe was also full of (good) questions, like “How do I know when to clap? Why do they turn out the lights so I can’t read the translation in my program?”

Some of my students ran into horrible problems getting to concerts, stemming from faulty telephone information numbers in press releases, faulty directions to obscure churches, and insufficient parking once they got there… so, if you are reaching out, don’t forget the obvious logistical-friendly issues that will help people see that you are reaching out.

So how can we become more user-friendly in the twenty-first century? Symphony Orchestras have been (often, in desperation) trying new and creative ways to attract the under-40’s demographic, ranging from offering pre-concert cocktails to post-concert speed-dating sessions (NYTimes 8/21/05).  But I think that those of us with community choirs already have our own best advocates — our amateur members!  Read “amateur” in the truest sense of the word, as Robert Shaw always said, as “those who love.” 

I would like to propose two main ways for you to get people in your door for the first time: personal invitation, and cross-over event.

Personal invitation: The last time my choral society, Harmonium, did an audience survey, we learned that the way most people came to a concert for the first time is to be brought (by the hand) by a friend.  Encourage your singers and their families, and your most loyal subscribers, to proselytize for the cause they love, converting one person at a time! (For instance, you, or they, might offer complimentary tickets for any completely new audience member.) 

In a wider (but less personal) way, Harmonium announces each concert via an email that is personalized by each member (“come hear your neighbor Jill’s first solo!”)  These tailored messages are then forwarded by the members to their own lists of friends. These personal emails are more likely to be read than a mass email from your website. [This article was written before facebook which we now use as well with posts, photos, videos and invites—but not everyone is on facebook savvy—so keep emailing and especially personally inviting!]

Finally, don’t forget to find out if your local university, community college, or high school has a music appreciation course, and make sure the professor receives your posters and brochures!  Better yet, go there and announce your concert to the class.  You can send out press releases until you are blue in the face, and all of your choral-music aficionados might palpitate with excitement that you will be performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or a world premiere commission, but it won’t make someone who’s never dared set foot in a concert suddenly appear in your midst!

 Many community choirs complain about their aging audiences.  Harmonium currently has a lot of singers between 16 and 30.  It isn’t so much a question of finding them as it is telling them that it’s okay to find you.  The high school age students (many at all-state level) first came to a concert to hear a parent or teacher, and decided they want to share the experience.  The 20-something college graduates mostly found us by web-searching a replacement for their undergraduate choral experience. These young singers bring their young friends to listen, and the audience becomes more diverse. 

Crossover Events are intended to build bridges with communities that are related to, but peripheral to, the core community chorus.  They give you a chance to sing for potential future audience who have come to hear whoever you are collaborating with.

For example, Harmonium presents a Halloween concert.  The chorus is joined during some of the program by a children’s choir (lots of parents!)  Flyers distributed in a local elementary school encourage kids to come to the concert (more parents!)  The program is made interactively kid-friendly.  Color pictures of small ghosts, witches and mermaids, attending our concert, appear in the local paper the following week.

Other examples of potential themes or collaborations that you can use to expand and diversify your audience include:  a jazz group, a poetry festival, an artist, a costume designer, student composers, a library, supporters of a charity.

Once you’ve gotten the uninitiated potential audience there, of course, your product had better be appealing:  a quality performance of worthy music done from the heart.  (This is a whole other article!)  Harmonium tries to offer a wide variety of music, from renaissance to twentieth century, programmed around a theme.  A theme might be “Light,” or “Angels,” or “Peace.”  In any of our concerts, there has got to be something that everybody would like; maybe something even experienced audience members have never heard before. Performing new music certainly levels the playing field for the listeners!

So, make your programming and your environment user-friendly, with clear directions, cheerful ushers, readable program notes, pre-concert lectures, meet-the performer receptions, and copious outreach. Most of all, don’t assume anything!  Don’t assume the audience knows so much about Bach they don’t want to hear you talk about him or his music.  Don’t assume they know so little that they won’t care if you give a lackadaisical, uninformed performance.  Don’t assume they know the meaning of the word modulation.  If they do, and you explain it, they’ll just feel smart because they already know that!  

Even if you’ve written program notes, don’t assume they’ve had time to read them.  During the event, between the songs, address the audience in a friendly way with some salient points about each work.  Don’t assume you have to “dumb-down” the B Minor Mass to get an audience to return.  Don’t forget that we choral musicians have the text as our own crossover “way-in” to the music.  Don’t forget, at least once during the evening, to tell the audience just how much you love singing for them!


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