Gaining Audiences Back For Symphony Orchestras

There has been increasing discussion of late on the present condition of symphony orchestras; that audiences continue to shrink, and the need to find more effective marketing strategies that will reverse that trend. This is not a new problem, but the recent severity of it has caused orchestra leaderships to give it a closer, more serious and motivated look. Music educators face a similar challenge in finding ways to make music instruction relevant and meaningful enough to motivate students to continue elective music study through and beyond high school. The hard question that needs to be asked is why some people would rather avoid orchestra concerts or music class than attend. I propose that the same set of questions will guide both the orchestral managers and school music educators to the answers they need to offer concerts and classes that attract rather than deter participation.

The first question to be asked is who do I want to attend? To whom do I want my offerings to appeal enough for them to want to buy a ticket or enroll in an ensemble or class? We know that the symphony orchestra audience has been aging for some time. There are far more older adults in those seats than younger ones, and it’s those younger ones that have more money to spend on concert tickets. So why are younger adults staying away? Clearly they are not interested in paying to hear the same music their older counterparts are. 

During my years as a music teacher, I had occasion to take many classes to the local symphony orchestra’s young people’s concert. It was a once a year event. Some years it was a tremendous success, while other years they could’t get back on the bus to get back to school fast enough. What was the difference? There were two concerts that stand out in my mind as ones those children enjoyed the most. Both featured jazz violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. His blend of classical form and jazz melodies lit the student audience up, and his personality, excusing excitement and love for what he was doing and for the audience he was delighting, hit the target perfectly. 

Orchestras must be a medium by which current, living composers present their work to an audience. That’s what orchestras were at their inception. The reason orchestras have changed in instrumentation and size over the centuries has been to accommodate the changing demands placed on it by composers. Today, we look back and put a small chamber orchestra onstage for a Brandenburg Concerto, and a much different orchestra onstage for a Mahler symphony. But in Bach’s time, there was no Mahlerian orchestra. It was only the orchestra needed for music of the time. So the orchestra of today should be what is needed to play the music of today. If Wagner can invent a tuba, and Berlioz can add an ophicleide surely our orchestra can add, for example, electronic instruments, not as some novelty, but as a regular addition. Think how updated the orchestra would sound with synthesized timbres added to acoustic ones. Think of how much more familiar to younger adults the orchestral sound would be if it included timbres they are used to hearing in popular media, such as film scores and video game music. If symphony orchestras are to flourish, they need to be repurposed for presenting music written today. The saving element for orchestras is for them and composers to be on the same page, creating and performing music of our time, and which audiences will enjoy in concerts. 

Orchestras need to take a lesson from other musicians. What rock band would go on tour giving concerts of music they knew audiences wouldn’t like, or that sounded like popular music from a century or more ago? What recording artist would record the same? Yet orchestras continue to do that very thing, and then wonder why they are losing their audience. The audience is there, where’s the music? There’s nothing wrong with continuing to play Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and all the rest. After all, touring bands play old hits from old albums all the time, and they are often among the most well received selections; the ones audiences are waiting to hear. But orchestras need to present new works and release them on recorded media so that they become familiar and popular.

Two things which most any touring band will tell you are keys to popularity. Celebrity status in the persona of someone everyone loves, and music that has a contemporary and familiar sound. This last point is crucial. Much orchestral contemporary music is new, but not familiar. In fact, it has a sound, a style, that is outright foreign to many and often unpleasant for all it’s dissonance and complexity as well. On the other hand, much so-called standard orchestral repertoire is not contemporary; it was composed hundreds of years ago, but it at least sounds pleasant and sometimes familiar in style. But neither is both contemporary and familiar like a good rock song, or a film score by John Williams. It is no accident that the most successful contemporary composers have written the most accessible music. Composers like John Adams,  and Unsuk Chin have delighted audiences while music of others has just left them scratching their heads, and leaving not sure they want to come back. This has left orchestras in a difficult position. Composers have written music audiences don’t like, but orchestras need new music to stay relevant. Pops concerts featuring orchestral versions of popular hits worked for a while, but mostly for that aging audience that didn’t mind vocal, guitar and bass lines morphing into violins, brass sections and an orchestral percussionist trying to play drum set. That’s not how that music is supposed to sound. 

There are occasions for which younger adults, including families, show up in droves. Just this past weekend, thousands of people packed the music shed and lawn at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to see and hear a 90th birthday tribute to one of their heroes, film composer John Williams. His movie nights with symphony orchestras have been without fail widely loved and well attended year after year. What makes them so popular? The presence of a celebrity, and contemporary music that has a familiar sound. 

It has been thought that music can be given a familiar sound through education; play the classics to students in order to familiarize them with it, teach them how to listen to it, and they will learn to like it and become faithful concertgoers. But they don’t, because there are other musical choices that don’t require them to invest all that time and effort in order to enjoy. What is more, by telling them they have to have someone teach them about the music before they enjoy it, we’re outright telling them that this music is challenging and it’s going to take some work to enjoy. No thanks, I’ll just buy a ticket to something I can enjoy right out of the box. I’m convinced that it is not necessary to know what all the themes are in a symphonic exposition, or where a certain musical event will happen. If the music is really as good as you say it is, I’ll hear it, and I’ll enjoy it without any preamble. If I can’t hear it and enjoy it, why should I bother with it? Can it really be that good if it requires a users manual to enjoy? 

Educators and orchestras alike have made orchestral music about edification. Like reading Homer or Shakespeare, listening to classical music is somehow going to make a person better, or raise the quality of life. For me, that is true, but only because I like them to begin with. There are far too many works of art I enjoy to leave off enjoying them so I can devote time to trying to acquire a love of something that I presently don’t like. I embrace discovering new, unfamiliar works, but if I don’t like it the first time around, why should I go back to it? Maybe in a few years, when I’ve gained more experience listening to more music I’ll come back to it and discover that I enjoy it. That’s where education can be helpful, introducing people to music and musical genres with which they are not familiar. But going from Hip-Hop and Rock to classical is too big a jump. Everything is different. Different timbres, different, rhythms, forms, harmonic rhythms, melodic structures. Orchestral music has no lyrics, popular music does. Orchestral music is long, popular music is much shorter. The shortest overture is twice as long as most popular songs. So dumping all that is unfamiliarity on a person all at once is too much. Even the term “symphony orchestra” sets it apart from more familiar ensembles. Why not just call them orchestras? How can a person “learn” to love classical music with a classical music dump at a young people’s concert once a year, or even a music class once a week? Orchestras need to find ways to have more in common with what people are used to if they are going to take advantage of newfound popularity. 

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