When Drew asked me to write for TAFTO I immediately agreed as it has been a favorite series of mine to read especially since it is such a proactive approach. However since I am mostly in performances and not watching them, I was initially stumped on the angle to take. I have invited many friends to attend in the past, some have become subscribers and one recently became a board member and now heads up Crescendo, a patrons social group at the Springfield Symphony that she herself formed. Since I write extensively on the subject of Orchestras and their relationships with their audiences and communities over on Sticks and Drones, I decided to bring to TAFTO an assignment that I gave to my Audience Connections class at Drury University. The assignment was to do a review of two different performances by the Springfield Symphony, one a Classics, the other a Pops. The class had 4 students last semester so 2 went to the Classics and 2 to the Pops and I sat them in different parts of the hall. These however were reviews with a twist (literally), for they were not there to review the orchestra’s performance, because I told them to turn their backs on us and instead review the audience!
I asked them to get there early to stand by the ticket windows, then walk around, talk to people, observe their reactions during the performance, and finally listen to what people were saying at intermission and after the concert. I jokingly suggested that they could even stand in the restroom line to overhear conversations. One of them commented on what they overheard inside the restroom! Nothing untoward I promise!
It was both fascinating and eye opening to read their reviews and also very helpful to us as an organization. I think this is something all performing organizations should consider undertaking to help them appreciate and understand the audiences experience, reactions, personalities and desires. That way when programing or deciding any new policy, the audience’s voice can be present in the discussion but more importantly, be the catalyst for why a change needs to take place. It sure beats focus groups as those give you feedback after the fact, not while it’s actually happening, and they’re expensive! This is similar to the practice known as Mystery Shopping that many companies use to determine their level of service and employee performance.
Here are summaries of their reviews. The complete documents are available to download at the bottom:
Classics: Glazunov – Autumn, Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2, R. Korsakoff – Scheherezade
Dan Kieffer wrote very honestly about his first impressions. As and arts administration major his focus is music and this was not his first concert to attend. These were his observations pre-concert:
At first, the people there seemed primarily gray. By this, I mean that they were old. When I entered the main auditorium to hear the pre concert talk, I noticed that almost everyone in there was older. Then I went back into the lobby to find out why people were at the concert.
When I was talking to people, there were many reasons people were there. I noticed many families and many elderly couples. I found few people who said that they were there for the love of music. Many people said they were there because they had a friend or family member in the pre-show home school orchestra. Many other people, especially younger people, said they were there because they had gotten free tickets and/or they needed some sort of requirement to be filled by their attendance of the concert.
One thing I found very interesting about the pre-concert crowd was that all of the more elderly people seemed to be socializing and having more fun than the younger crowd. Perhaps this is because they elderly are more comfortable and used to that particular scene and the younger people find it intimidating.
Whilst there was not a lot of talk about music in the lobby he wrote this about a particular moment in the performance:
I also noticed during the Rachmaninoff, during one of the slow piano solo cadenzas, that the full hall was silent. It seemed like there was a collective holding of breath during this very delicate moment of the music. When the rest of the orchestra joined back in, there was coughing and audible breathing. I thought this was a great moment.
So in the lobby he notices very diverse groups of people, but in the moment of the performance he describes above, they are unified as a one!
Amy McGeehee is interested in a career in culinary arts, this was the first orchestra concert she had ever attended and she observed this about people’s attire and general demeanor:
While some people were dressed in suits and dresses, others wore jeans. I think many view dressing up as part of the experience of going to the symphony. Many of the casually dressed were groups of students standing around with an aura of obligation or apathy. Other “fancier” adults, however, seemed to find the event as an opportunity for socialization, eager to visit people of a similar social standing. When standing near the ticket booth, I noticed a man with crutches in line to purchase a ticket, and was impressed with his insistence to attend.
This next observation is proof that word of mouth is key to help someone to decide to attend a Symphony concert!:
After moving upstairs, I saw a fellow Drury student. She was at the concert because her sister and mother have season tickets, but her mother couldn’t attend. When asked if she was looking forward to the concert, she hesitated, stating that such events weren’t really “her thing”. However, her sister had promised her these concerts were fun and engaging rather than “stuffy.”
Just by this comment I see the challenge in making ourselves accessible by changing peoples perception of “stuffiness” and was pleased to read that we might have made some inroads!
Right before the performance Amy in one paragraph encapsulates the importance of comfort and the fact that listening is not a passive experience for some!:
I heard a man comment on the nice amount of leg room provided. When the orchestra began tuning their instruments, I heard a woman behind me say, “I love the sound of a tuning orchestra!” During the first half of the program the audience members I observed were very attentive. During the first piece, the older man next to me seemed very involved in the song, tapping his foot at the fast parts. During the slower parts, he moved his head from side to side across the stage as if taking it all in.
Pops Concert: The Three Phantoms – an evening of some of the great solos, duets and trios from classic Broadway Musicals ending with a trio version of Music of the Night all sung by three bona fide Broadway stars
Katie Schirmer who’s focus is on Theater came out of left field with this comment about the weight of the program book which is valid nonetheless. Nothing should be overlooked and we are proud and our advertisers are pleased that we print using magazine quality paper. We might have to rethink this policy!:
Talk before the show circulated between everyday life and the show they were about to see. One comment that kept popping up was that the programs were heavy – something I had said and then was surprised at how many people also made note of it. It was interesting because people were talking about their days and then would finally come to the page listing the selections for the evening and immediately comment on their excitement. It seemed everyone was either excited about the totality of the line-up or about one particular song.
I can’t tell you how many Pops I have done in which an artist will simply have on their program page: selections announced from the stage. The above comment goes to show the value of printing the selections. Just in case you are wondering after reading this next observation of Katie’s, I assure you the Three Phantoms did not sing Food Glorious Food!:
Intermission came and the audience got up to stretch and some walked around. Because the rows are so wide with no middle aisle, many people just stayed in their seats so as not to trample over all the other patrons. Most of the talk at intermission was about day-to-day life; I heard a riveting conversation on tilapia and how to best prepare it.
Again this next quote shows our audience as a unified body:
During Mark’s “Impossible Dream”, I could feel the tension in the air as the audience was waiting to applaud. It was as if they just couldn’t hold it back any longer, they were so appreciative. “Bring Him Home”, sung by Craig, was positively heartbreaking. The woman next to me was crying and she wasn’t alone.
Ellie Swogger is a dancer/choreographer who is going to intern this summer with the administration of a major company. At first she seemed somewhat perturbed by the audience:
The first thing was their disengagement with performance before, after, and during intermission. I attended the performance with my roommate and as college students, we don’t often have the time or funds to attend arts events like this one. Perhaps this is why our resulting enthusiasm about the show was so intense compared to others.
Her excitement as a young person at the concert is in contrast to Dan and Amy’s comments above about the general demeanor of the younger patrons, although I wonder if its because it was a Pops? Ellie’s initial observations continued at intermission:
During intermission a few older couples chatted about their summer trip to Europe while two younger women discussed their plans following the show. Overall, there seemed to be a general disinterest in the beauty of the art being performed, which was the purpose of their gathering at the place. In the bathroom, a few women were quietly discussing their preference for one of the vocalists above the other two, but mainly there seemed to be an unspoken rule of silence in the ladies’ restroom.
Yet, I saved Ellie’s quotes for last because she came to a wonderful realization:
My overall conclusion is that people attend and participate in the arts for many different reasons and connecting with an audience can mean something different for every member of that audience. In any given audience at any given performance can be found a wide variance of audience types and, whether reasons for being part of an audience are purely social, artistic inspiration, entertainment, or personal enjoyment, the profound effect of the outlet provided by art is a necessary one that an only be achieved through true audience connection.
A unified observation from each student was that even though there was a collective focus and involvement in the performance, people were talking before, at intermission and after the concert about everyday life. This is something that pleased me to no end. I maintain that to become special to someone we need to become relevant to them first, and true comfort at a performance is when people feel like they can be themselves. My goal is for us as an Orchestra to become a part of “everyday life” so that when concert goers are in line at the grocery store checkout or at the bank etc…, they just might talk about the Symphony! It is my belief that we are not in the music business, but in the people business!