A couple weeks ago I caught Thomas Wolf’s blog post about why Concert Companion, the hand-held device that offered commentary synchronized to the performance content, had failed to gain wide distribution. I really appreciated the information. I have written about Concert Companion’s lack of traction among orchestras but Wolf provides far more detail than I was ever aware of.
Wolf suggested reviving the practice with modern technology and setting it during rehearsals instead of performances.
Rehearsals offer one of the best ways to learn about music. You not only get to hear a work being played, but you can gain insights into how musicians think about a piece as they work on it. However, observing an actual rehearsal, without some help about what is going on, can be downright frustrating if not boring. Musicians talk to one another in ways that are difficult to hear and even if they are miked (which many of them find distracting), they often talk in musical shorthand that a non-musician doesn’t understand.
Now imagine that you are sitting in a real rehearsal (or watching it on a screen) and a trained musician who is not playing is offering commentary in real time that you can read on a screen. For example:
The musicians just stopped and are discussing whether a repeated passage should have an echo effect the second time it is played. They are going to try it that way. Listen to the effect when they play that thematic material boldly the first time and quietly the second time.
The basses and cellos are in unison here and they are trying to make sure they are in tune with one another. That is why they are playing those notes so slowly. Each player is adjusting his or her pitch until they get the intonation just right.
I didn’t think this really would solve some of the problems that Concert Companion faced. One of the things Wolf identified as a problem was that it needed a trained person present to advance the notes in synch with the music and that was an additional expense orchestras couldn’t afford. Wolf’s suggestion of having someone writing live commentary requires someone even more highly trained to provide high quality insight on a moment’s notice AND type quickly enough that the viewers receive the information in a timely manner.
I can tell you from experience that people underestimate the amount of time it takes just to type in supertitles for an opera and then get that to synch up correctly. While the commentary wouldn’t have to synch quite as well, that is still a tall order. It seemed to me there would be a greater cost in time, energy and funding.
I was prepared to write a post about it when Drew McManus beat me to it, and worse, he liked the idea.
It wasn’t until the end of his post that Drew provided the obvious answer. He mentioned that 20 years ago he had been organizing outings to live rehearsals where they would sit far enough from the stage to avoid interrupting things. Today you can put people in the audience with their cellphones and earbuds, set up an audio only Zoom meeting, and have an interactive conversation with one or more guides to learn more about what was going on.
This still requires a trained staff member, or as Drew suggests, a super fan, but would present far less of a scramble to provide content.
The obvious extension of this is that you can do the same thing at a final rehearsal for a live performance of any genre. Live streaming a rehearsal with commentary to even a small group of people watching from home might be problematic until things can be worked out with rights holders. However this could enhance the value of seeing a performance live and expand the core audiences for an organization.
As I wrote this, I recognized I am the third person in a chain adding an idea about how to solve a problem. Is this “yes, and..” problem solving?
5 thoughts on “Is This “Yes, And…” Problem Solving?”
Joe, adding possible solutions to difficult problems is always good!
I was on the team that with Rolland Valliere developed the working prototype and possible business plan for the Concert Companion. I designed (function and graphics) and built the app for the Sony handheld PDA, and my associate Robert Winter of UCLA wrote the commentary. Then during performances we operated the page turns following the orchestra and score in concerts in Kansas City, upstate New York, and Aspen. Also on the team was Alan Brown of WolfBrown and someone who, at the time, was managing the newly installed seat-back subtitles system at the Met. The testers–regular concert-goers and newbie’s alike–almost universally loved the experience. To them it was like magic–hearing beautiful and sophisticated live music, seeing the orchestra in its dramatic and elegant splendor, and also having a sense of what was going on. For them it was a game-changer. I think the concept is still valid in spite of the obstacles, technicalities now being the smallest, and possibly the largest being the creation of a third or fourth element (along with the performers, audience, and hall) that fits in naturally with a concert experience that has developed over more than 150 years.
Robert Winter and I are now attacking the audience education need from a similar perspective. We have developed a user-interactive application, Music In the Air (MITA), that marries musical sound, score, and text, to allow music listeners to progress to a new level in their understanding. With friendly and well-prepared technology, music listening becomes a richer experience.
I missed something here. What, exactly, is the problem you are trying to solve? How to revive a failed technology? How to irritate musicians at rehearsals?
The goal is to provide audiences with more information about the concert experience.
There were issues with the handheld devices in a formal concert setting that can potentially be solved by providing content during rehearsals.
Having a group of people sitting toward the back of the orchestra section murmuring commentary and questions over their cell phones was something I was floating as a solution.
Ah. Is the problem really one that needs solving? Do audiences want “more information about the concert experience”? What is the goal behind the goal—why would providing more information about the concert experience be a good thing? Expanding the audience? Providing a richer experience for the already deeply involved?
I can see aficionados wanting to attend rehearsals and get more info on rehearsal process, but I’m not sure they would want someone narrating it to them.
I can see art executives thinking that they need to educate their audiences in order to have bigger audiences, but will this mechanism actually expand the audience, or just provide a little benefit to those already deeply committed?
Yes to all of the above. Likely the differentiation will come in the context in which the programs are offered. For some it will be an additional benefit to those already deeply committed. I suspect that is largely what was happening some of the rehearsal attendance programs that already existed.
But it can also provide an opportunity to expand an audience to new groups. There are people who may be intimidated by the thought of a formal concert attending experience even if you tell them it is okay to wear jeans. But if you tell them they are attending a rehearsal, they are likely to feel more comfortable wearing jeans. There is also an opportunity to open doors to new audiences who don’t speak English since most performing arts organizations haven’t really offered multi-lingual program books. If you have a Spanish/Cantonese/Farsi, etc speaker narrating a rehearsal, that can transition into attendance at a regular event along with the familiar faces of your guides and cohort members.