I write this having just returned from an extraordinary week in Beijing. The trip afforded me the fascinating opportunity to observe and discuss the diverse artistic initiatives now taking place throughout China. Through this trip, and to my surprise, I have come to realize two important truths. First, despite vast cultural differences, building audiences for live performances is a universal struggle. East or West, audience cultivation is the great and common challenge. We all share the burden that deficient arts education programs have caused, principally, a diminished understanding and appreciation for the discipline and value of artistic expression and the performers that make concerts and performances possible.
The second truth brought home to me on the other side of the world may hold an answer to the dilemma of the first: musicians should be talking about music.
Working in arts administration I have always found it impossible to separate the art from the artist, the music from the musician. As a former Symphony Orchestra Executive, I would like to make the bold suggestion that the Take a Friend to the Orchestra initiative provides the perfect vehicle to meet the musicians behind the music. In fact, let me suggest that the power of direct contact with the artist is the strongest tool we posses to build audiences today. Of course, we must acknowledge that, like the music of Mozart, this is both simple and complicated.
While the boards of many Symphony Orchestras have made great strides forward in being more inclusive of musicians in management considerations, few, if any, marketing efforts have actively encouraged organized contact between audience members and musicians. Soloists and conductors are often met at receptions, but few efforts exist to meet the rest of the orchestra. A connection between these individuals and both current and potential ticket buyers and subscribers would generate the kind of loyalty no incentive could match. Tens of thousands of dollars are spend on sophisticated, and admittedly necessary, marketing efforts, but sometimes obvious strengths are overlooked, and the opportunities to utilize these strengths to the fullest advantage are missed.
Let me here propose a simple initiative: meet a musician of your orchestra, introduce them to a friend and then take that friend to a concert.
The complicated part can be meeting a musician from the orchestra if you don’t already know one, and surprisingly many of us don’t. I would urge you to call the executive director, the marketing director or the public relations manager of your orchestra. Tell them about Take a Friend and ask them to introduce you to a member of the orchestra at the next concert. Explain why. You may need to be persistent with them. In my role as an orchestra executive for more that 20 years, I am embarrassed to say I never received such a call or request, nor I might add, did I ever initiate or encourage such an opportunity. Looking back now, I should have!
In this process you will need to explain to the staff member your desire to help build audiences. Don’t be surprised if your call and your request seems out of the ordinary to them, it would have to me.
I firmly believe that nothing would be more exciting to a potential new symphony audience member than the opportunity to meet someone performing on stage on a regular basis. To accomplish this, you will of course have to meet a musician first. Here the benefit of what I propose is doubled, for you would be both broadening the potential audience and deepening your own connection and appreciation. After meeting the musician, suggest an occasion to meet your friend, the first time concertgoer. Perhaps this can be done over coffee in the week leading up to the event, or something equally convenient, but meet before they attend their first concert. Establish the connection before the performance.
The internet is a particularly powerful resource for such ‘in-reach’ work. Not only do most orchestras have websites that include profiles and pictures of individual members, the musicians of some orchestras have taken the further step of creating their own dedicated site. The Honolulu, Baltimore and Oregon Symphony Orchestras all have their own websites of course, but if you want to really meet the musicians, you’ll have to check out http://www.honolulusymphonymusicians.org, http://www.bsomusicians.org/, and http://www.concertgoersguide.org/. These personal pages can sometimes be more interesting and insightful than what is provided on the official orchestra sites.
When you and your friend meet with the musician, discuss the upcoming concert program; learn more about their professional experiences and what makes the orchestra they play with unique. Get to know them. Let them speak about the music they perform and what will be heard at the concert. You and your friend will gain a unique and absolutely invaluable perspective, one that no amount of program notes or pre-concert lectures could ever hope to approach. You will undoubtedly find that most musicians are fascinating and committed individuals who are deeply passionate about what they do. When you attend the concert, look for them, listen for them. Perhaps you can meet briefly afterwards and offer congratulations.
If all this seems unlikely or difficult, it certainly is. Still, I think of the famous Victor Hugo quote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” It points out the inextricably abstract and ineffable aspect of music, but it also reminds me that music demands to be discussed.
I began by talking about two truths that my time in China made clear to me. First, audience cultivation is a universal challenge; second, music is enjoyed best when discussed with musicians. The real power of Take a Friend to the Orchestra is based on the reality that audiences are built one member at a time, slowly and deliberately with insight and substance. In my opinion, there can be no better way to do such building than through connecting audience and orchestra members. Such a connection can only add further excitement to the experience for both newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.
So by all means, take a friend to the orchestra, but if you want the orchestra to gain a true friend, meet a musician while you’re there.