TAFTO 2008 Contribution: Laurie Niles

The word for today is “popular” and to help build a frame of reference for its definition I want to point you toward violinist.com. Without a doubt, Laurie Niles’ creation has been a smash hit among casual violin enthusiasts and uber-geeks alike as a place they can talk shop, it’s like a virtual violin convention that never closes. Along with violin oriented blogs from more than a dozen U.S. violinists, the website boasts regular bloggers from Australia, Canada, Germany, Iran, Japan, Netherlands, and Turkey. Consequently, TAFTO 2008 is fortunate to have such an enterprising, enthusiastic professional among its contributors as Laurie Niles. ~ Drew McManus

What do you love about going to the symphony?

This is the question I asked  the readers on my website, Violinist.com, which has a lively discussion board populated with professional musicians, enthusiastic amateurs, teenage students, their parents, teachers and fans of the violin.

I received 100 answers over three days, and nearly all of them spoke of  the magic of live music, of the peace and beauty of the concert hall, the fun of dressing up and being “glamorous” for an evening, the appeal of fine music and great artists. But hanging over the entire conversation was one comment (from an arts administrator!), posted only 14 minutes after I published the question.

She wrote: “I am not drawn to the symphony. Sorry to say it but true. I’d rather play pool than go to a classical music concert. I’d rather go to a multi-media experience, like a symphony performing a soundtrack live and show the movie simultaneously. I like lecture concerts as well. Anything… ANYTHING but just sit there, not be addressed as an audience member at all, and listen to music I’ve heard or played a hundred times.”

The problem is that many symphony administrators, board members, even musicians, feel like this. They do not understand the innate draw of a symphony concert; maybe they don’t believe it even exists. And when you do not understand its innate draw, you will never take a friend to orchestra – you will never find its audience.

I think I know how to attract people to the symphony: start with the people who are passionate about the symphony experience. Start with the people who love it, and you might be surprised at what they want.

When I first started my violin website, I wondered if I should tread lightly on subjects that some readers might not understand. I mean, how many people are going to be able to participate in the conversation if I ask whether or not they play the last note of Bach’s E major Preludio as a harmonic? Who wants to get into the arcane details of  how to shift one’s hand up the neck of a violin?

Well, I do, actually. I’m a violinist. I love talking shop. I’m passionate about the violin. But won’t it just turn off everyone else? Won’t my audience shrink into nothingness if I get that deep?

I found the opposite to be true. The deeper I dove into the very specific subculture that is the violinist’s life, the more truly passionate violin lovers emerged. And the more they began to populate the site, the more passion they generated among other readers.

Would you like to read 400 passionate responses to the question, “Should I use a shoulder rest on my violin?” Many violinists would. And because I am a violinist, I know that. If I didn’t have a deep understanding of the motivations, lifestyle, everyday issues that a violinist faces, I would not have a feel for this.

Strangers have called me and tried to pry the domain name Violinist.com from me. “We could monetize your site!” (“Monetize” is a verb?) Yes, I can see it now: a site devoted to advertisements for factory violins from China and guitar sheet music. It would attract the people who type the domain into the computer. Once.

That’s not the way to build an enduring audience for a website. Or for a symphony orchestra.

I don’t necessarily ask my friends to the symphony; I ask “fans.” They aren’t necessarily fans of me; they are fans of classical music. How do I find them? They are the people in my life who perk up when they learn I’m a musician. They want to talk about recordings, or what I think about the review in the paper. As the only violinist they know, I represent classical music for them. These “fans” come out of the woodwork, if you open your eyes to look for them. I’m not the only one who has witnessed this phenomenon:

“Classical music is not only for the upper class, the highly educated or the musically literate; it is for everyone,” wrote Jennifer Laursen, of Durham, North Carolina. “At our local post office there are two postmen who are avid classical music fans with collections who would rival any of us on V[iolinist].com. One of the bank tellers at my local bank shows up at chamber concerts regularly, and one of the UPS drivers who delivers to our home is a classical music fan. These are just the few I know of. All of them told me that while they were growing up they enjoyed seeing the NC Symphony when they came to their town. So, more important than accessibility of the programming, is the access the public has to seeing it live.”

These are people who truly love the symphony experience and who love classical music.

“I love to hear a great concerto played with an orchestra. As a non-musician myself I am amazed by strength and bravery of soloists and the solo versus orchestra interplay absolutely draws me in,” Laursen wrote. “I heard the Cleveland Orchestra play Beethoven last summer and I thought I had glimpsed a better world!”

This is a common theme for those who have caught the symphony bug: they love the sheer excellence of it.

“When I go, I marvel at the color and textures, the pure power and, by contrast, the effect of silence,” said Mike Harris of Austin, Texas.

“What I love most about attending symphonies and live music, is how enraptured you can become in the experience,” wrote Jake Bush of Sugar City, Idaho. “Music on your computer, CD player, car radio, etc, is usually background noise while another task is your primary focus. When going to a performance, the music IS the entire focus, giving you the ability to completely immerse yourself…There’s so much more magic in live theatre and symphonies. So in short, the reason I go is just that: the magic.”

There is much power in that magic. Unfortunately, that power sometimes intimidates those who do not understand it. But we should play to our strength – that power, that magic – and quit treating it as  weakness.