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It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it: evolving the concert experience

Hugh Hodgson School of Music Professor, Cynthia Johnston Turner, challenges players and audiences to loosen up the classical concert experience

Cynthia Johnston Turner, Professor of Music at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, University of Georgia, challenges classical players and audiences to loosen up.

What I’d like to talk about today is what we do, what we believe in and how we do what we do. Which, I believe, is rather suspect. At the end of this article, there will also be some practical ideas. You probably shouldn’t try them all at once. And you probably won’t like some or all of them. But I think it’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience. I’ll talk about my experience in the collegiate and/or professional concert world but I believe most of the ideas could work in a variety of settings.

The performance is the tip of the iceberg

Perhaps you’ve seen this meme on the internet. Where the tip of the iceberg is the performance and that vast complicated bit underneath the surface is the rehearsal process. It’s so true, isn’t it? And we’ve all heard that the journey is supposed to be more important than the destination. The process more robust, more post-modern, more life-changing than the product. Presumably, this means that the more important lessons are learned along the way. That there is joy in each day’s progress (even, struggle). And the end result will be more fulfilling if we concentrate and are mindful of each step (both forward and backward) along the way.

Driven by the end result

And who am I to refute this notion? I don’t, in fact. But, let’s be honest, we are surrounded by messages that scream the opposite. We are destination-driven – goal-oriented. I’m a runner but I don’t really train methodically and smart unless I’ve signed up for a race. Who doesn’t make to-do lists and take great pleasure in checking off the tasks when they are completed? Just about everything we do, especially as teachers/conductors, is driven by the end result.

In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it? And if that concert is bad – poorly executed, boring, poorly organised, out of tune, rhythmically unstable, whatever – everyone feels bad: the musicians, (perhaps worse of all) you, the musicians’ family members, the community members and, of course, the administrators. So in this article, I’d like to focus on that performance, that product, the destination, the stuff above the surface.

But what about the audience?

Let me ask you a question: how many of you think about the audience when you programme your concerts? It’s a serious question.

Now in my case, most of the time, whether I’m guest conducting or at home, our audience is typically friends of the student musicians (or professional musicians), fellow faculty and educators (the student’s teachers), parents, donors, community members and administrators. This includes the live and the virtual audience as we’ve been live-streaming concerts at the University of Georgia Hodgson School of Music for the past three years.

With perhaps a few exceptions, I would guess that this is basically your audience as well. Yes?

The classical music concert experience

OK, before we talk about our audience, let’s step back a moment and talk about the classical music concert experience.

When I googled ‘Classical Music Traditions’ in preparation for this article, here are some of the titles that came up:

  • What to wear to a Classical Music Concert
  • Concert Etiquette
  • The Concert Ritual: How to Enjoy a Live Concert of Classical Music
  • From The Guardian, Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am
  • Saving Classical Music
  • The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained (Huffington Post)
  • Is Classical Music Boring? (According to the bloke at The Guardian, it is)
  • Is Classical Music Dying?
  • How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music
  • Can Classical Music Be Cool?
  • How Do We Fix Classical Music? …that one from National Public Radio

And my personal favourite:

  • Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes (New York Times)

Strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviours

Isn’t that extraordinarily odd? I don’t think the average person needs to worry about etiquette, rules, what to wear, fixing the genre, saving the genre when they attend any other kind of live music event. Nope, it’s pretty much just ‘classical music’ concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviours. Here’s something, when I google ‘who attends classical music concerts?’, a whole bunch of stats come up, which I’ll share with you in a moment. When I google ‘who attends a popular music concert’, my whole feed is about the Obamas attending a Beyoncé concert.

If I may quote Richard Dare, a first-time classical music concertgoer who wrote the article I mentioned, The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained:

‘Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck by my observations that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. Had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a hip-hop concert – if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like? But this was classical music. And there are a great many ‘clap here, not there’ cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself preoccupied by the imposing restriction of ritual behaviour on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony-faced non-expression of the audience around me [let me add that I bet he observed that on the stage as well], presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic. I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in that way.’

Neither, dear reader, do I. Richard Dare calls it ‘ritual behaviour’; I have a student who calls it ‘ritual compliance’ and I believe it’s killing what we do and what we actually believe in.

It didn’t used to be this way

We all know that it didn’t always used to be this way. Think of the bawdiness at a Mozart premiere, the booing at a concert featuring the not-so-well-liked Beethoven, the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring… women throwing their unmentionables at Franz Liszt during his piano recitals. I’m not advocating throwing our underwear at anyone by the way but, surely, we’ve moved way too far in the opposite direction.

Concert attendance at classical music events is down in the US and Canada. We all know it has been in decline for some time. Experts and pundits blame lots of things for this: music teachers (my favourite), poor government funding for the arts, Spotify and Pandora, wind band repertoire (my second favourite), technology and decreasing attention spans, movie music, video games – and perhaps all of this is true and we can lay blame where blame is due. But don’t we need to think about evolving the concert experience?

Evolving the concert experience

In 1958, Milton Babbitt penned a deeply controversial but memorable article. (By the way, can you name a composition by Milton Babbitt? How about some of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky, Percy Grainger or Aaron Copland, all of whom who embraced folk song – so called ‘pop music’ – in their music. And whose music has endeared itself into our hearts.)

Charles Rosen wisely said, ‘The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest living tradition’. Yes, we’ve been saying classical music is dying for at least 200 years. I’m not worried about the music itself. It’s too good to die. Bach, for example, seems to me to be indestructible. The institutions of classical music and music education though are another matter. There is good reason to worry about them, especially those that have refused to evolve for the better part of a century.

Back to dear Milton. I make my graduate students read his infamous article and write a counter-response entitled, ‘I Care If You Listen’. Let me be clear, I do care. I care about my audience. I care who listens and I care about what they think. I care when they choose not to come. And when they do, I want them to have a great time.

Ending ritual compliance

I believe that the days of ritual compliance at classical music concerts should end. And end now. The kind of concerts that most of us present where, as an audience member, you are never spoken to, you are expected to read the boring programme notes in the dark, the musicians on the stage look as bored as you are and you are expected to behave in a certain way etc seem now so silly to me. And boring. And I’m a so-called educated musician!

So what I promised: here are some things that we have experimented with at the University of Georgia (UGA) and, before that, at Cornell University. Some of these things you might not be able to do in your particular circumstances but I hope as I go through these, you’ll let your creative juices flow and think about ways that you might incorporate some of these ideas (and add more of your own) in your unique setting.

Some things we have experimented with

No 1 (and it’s No 1 because anyone can decide to do this, anywhere and any time)

Dump the no-applause rule. Invite your audience to clap whenever they feel like it. There is nothing more ridiculous and repressive than experiencing a huge cadence, inspiring and loud, at the end of the first movement of a concerto or symphony and all you hear is paper rustling and coughing. And we wonder why people don’t enjoy classical concerts? Or why the musicians on stage might not be having as good a time as they could be? Live music is supposed to be invigorating. And there’s a give and take with that audience and player energy that’s so important. Why not give this a try? The Hodgson Wind Ensemble has been doing this for about two years now and WE LOVE IT.

Now, there are ways to introduce this that will be successful and ways that won’t. But you can start with playing a march or a polka or any other kind of energetic, motor music and turn around and clap to the beat. You can also, which is what we did, plant a bunch of clappers, to get the ball rolling and the rules changed.

No 2

Embrace technology. We have tweet seats at the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts. They’re at the back of hall (so the lights on the phone don’t disturb the folks who don’t want to tweet) and listeners are invited to tweet to #HWE any time they want during the concert. I know some of you don’t like this. Can’t we find places in our lives where we put the screen down and just be in the moment? I get it. I do. But, I went to an orchestra concert when I first arrived at UGA. Down my row, during the slow second movement, a man started flipping through the programme to see what was coming up later in the semester. An older woman across the aisle was so deep asleep, she was drooling on her sweater. You can’t tell me those folks were more engaged without their phones than the folks who tweeted things like this, during the concert:

  • ‘Love the clarinet soli! Hard to believe this was written in 1961. So good.’
  • ‘I’m down for ‘diet serialism’ but I’m a big boy who can handle full calorie Schoenberg.’
  • ‘When the bass drum hits are slightly too soft for your liking.’ (Followed by a meme of disappointment)
  • ‘Breath. Taking. Completely beautiful and mesmerizing concert setting.’
  • ‘Erik has set the tone with that boss level performance. There will be applause after each movement now!’
  • ‘How fun! Y’all having fun up there stage-sitters?’ (More on this later)

No 3

Talk to your listeners. There is an entire generation of people who don’t know HOW to listen to music. And, if you are like me and play a lot of new music, guide the audience through it. Share with them why you love the music and want to play it for them. You might have to examine what makes it quality music – something we don’t explore enough or define. We’re really good at criticising bad music but we’re not very good at defining quality. Take a crack at it.

If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance. Then they have ‘ah-ha’ moments of recognition when they hear it again.

One of my great moments at UGA was when we performed Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. I invited a music history professor to speak about the work. We played excerpts and we played bird song over the sound system. We showed the video of Messiaen and his wife at the piano. In the parking lot after the concert, an audience member behind the wheel of an F-150 pick-up truck slowed, rolled down the window and said, ‘Dr Turner! That bird piece was my favourite!’

No 4

Experiment with intimacy and breaking down imaginary walls. ‘Stage-sitters’ are just that. Put out some extra chairs and invite audience members to come on stage and sit in their favourite section while you perform the last number. This is a HUGE hit at UGA. A very touching moment happened once when our bass player’s five-year-old son came and sat on his daddy’s bass stool. Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it. That requires memorisation – not a bad skill for our students to practise.

Rote Hund Muzik (the contemporary chamber ensemble at UGA) transformed the band hall into a lounge for Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. We set up the ensemble in the centre, put a few chairs around the audience but invited people to get up and walk around, grab a drink, get a closer look. Big hit.

No 5

Take risks. At UGA, there is a tradition at football games to ‘Light Up Sanford’. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the fans take out their phones and put their lights on and hold them in the air while the marching band plays The Krypton Fanfare (from the 1978 Superman movie). Really loud.

We did this at a concert. During a piece called Beacons by Peter Van Zandt Lane, we invited the audience to take out their phones and do the same. We had stand lights and the hall went completely dark. It was gorgeous. And fun. And pretty. And moving.

No 6

Experiment with projection and visual aids. At Cornell, the stage had a huge screen that could come down because the concert hall was also a lecture hall. Instead of printed programme notes, we projected them on the screen. And let me tell you, when you have to put programme notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write. They have to be pithy and interesting. Don’t get me started on bad programme notes. Anyway, as the piece progressed, the programme notes came on the screen.

We can’t do that at UGA (no screen) so we experimented with listening guides.

But we also rent a projector and screen sometimes. We display images, video, skype composers, all sorts of things.

No 7

Flash mobs. In some USA schools, there is a disconnect between the marching band and the concert bands. At some of the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts, we invite the marching band to perform in some capacity or another, usually a flash mob outside after the concert. There is also a very popular programme of training service dogs at UGA. We had them all come on stage when we performed The Whistler and His Dog. I believe we tend to live in a vacuum. We become insulated in our silos of thinking and being. Reach out. Is there an organisation or group or individual that you could invite to participate in your concerts in some way?

No 8

Don’t shy away from making a statement. Recently, I had an interaction with a student who said, ‘I don’t want my dissertation to be a political statement’. Why not? In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music?! Why not provoke? Why not challenge? Why not engage in difficult discussions? Hodgson Wind Ensemble has addressed climate change, racial injustice, gun violence, mental illness – the list goes on. These concerts have been hugely impactful and successful and students have shared that they need to process some of these things. Why not through music?

These are just some ideas. I hope that they get you thinking creatively about what you can do in your own environment.

We all know what happens to a species that does not adapt to changing environments: they simply go extinct.

About the author

Cynthia Johnston Turner is Director of Bands, Professor of Music and Artistic Director of Rote Hund Muzik at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, University of Georgia.

She conducts the Hodgson Wind Ensemble, leads the MM and DMA programmes in conducting and oversees the entire band program, including the 430-member Redcoat Marching Band. She is ‘VIP Educational Clinician’ with Conn-Selmer.

Before this appointment, Cynthia was Director of Wind Ensembles at Cornell University.

At the Eastman School of Music, Cynthia was the recipient of the teaching award in conducting. She received the National Leadership in Education Award (Canada), the Excellence in Education Award (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation) and the Marion Drysdale Leadership Award (also from OSSTF). She is also the recipient of the Donald A Reick Memorial Award for research with wearable technologies and music pedagogy and the American Prize for innovative programming with wind bands.

Cynthia has commissioned numerous new works for wind band, contemporary music ensembles and orchestra and continues to actively promote commissions by leading and emerging composers around the world. Under her direction, the Cornell Wind Ensemble was invited to perform at the College Band Directors National Association’s Eastern Division Conference in 2007 and 2012 and the Hodgson Wind Ensemble performed at CBDNA National in Kansas City in 2017. In 2008, the Merrill Presidential Scholars at Cornell recognised Cynthia as an outstanding educator and in 2009, she was awarded the Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellowship.

Among recent engagements, Cynthia has guest conducted the Syracuse Symphony (Symphoria), the National Youth Band of Canada, the Ithaca College Wind Ensemble, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the National Band of Costa Rica, the National Orchestra of Heredia and numerous state honour bands. Cynthia has been invited to present her research with teaching and technology, rehearsal techniques and service-learning and music performance at conferences nationally and internationally. She is published in numerous journals and has recorded CDs with the Innova and Albany labels.

This article is republished from NewMusicBox. Read the original article.