A Piano in Every Parlor

A recent article by Drew McManus in The Partial Observer awakened some old contemplations. He wondered how classical music in the US fell so far out of favor and traces history for a possible answer.

I have often wondered along the same lines. At one point in our history, (only 70-80 or so years ago) almost every house had a piano in the parlor and people collected sheet music like they run out to get the newly released DVD. One would think this would be fertile ground for music, if not arts appreciation to grow. Instead, it has all fallen by the wayside.

One might blame technological advances and a shift to other forms of entertainment, but Europe has the same diversions available to them and they have maintained a fair ethic of interest in the arts in general. In looking back at some of my earlier entries on the history of the arts in the US like How Did We Get In To This Mess?, there are some answers, but nothing to clearly explain why we differ from our European cousins.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that people in the US work longer hours than their European counterparts and therefore don’t have the time to cultivate our abilities to process (or even attend) live performances. Instead we gravitate toward the more accessible forms of entertainment like television and the corner video store.

An interesting related note–(my thanks to Vinod’s Blog for bringing the above link and the following link, both from MSN to my attention) according to economist Peter Kuhn at the University of California:

�It used to be that when you got a college degree you could get a white-collar job and take it easy.It�s just the opposite now. It�s blue-collar folks who have more time for leisure.�

(Quote is about 1/2 of the way down in this article)

It makes me wonder if the arts should be restructing programs and pitching to the blue collar sector. They may not have as much disposable income as their managers, but if they have the time and inclination to expand their horizons a little, they could prove to be a good potential audience.

Arts Educatin’

I was having a conversation about arts outreach programs with the outreach coordinator of a dance group I had contracted to do a lecture/demo. With some synchronicity, the Artful Manager has also posted today about arts education.

Since I come from an organization that had a strong arts outreach program, I wanted to establish one here in conjunction with local artists and those I brought in from the Mainland and other countries. The outreach program coordinator also has a strong ethic in this regard as well.

In fact, her ideas were so ambitious, I had to rein her in a little. She wanted to have a week long series of events culminating in a performance that we bused kids in to. Since I am new here, I wanted to use the outreach to begin to establish relationships with local schools that I could eventually cultivate into something larger.

Following my philosophy of making it easy for people to say yes to attending performances, I want to take the performers in to the schools. This can be great or problematic. I have had cases where I have set up a program months out, reminded people two weeks, one week and the day before we arrived and still showed up to find out rooms weren’t set aside, teachers/principals weren’t told about the program and we ended up doing a lecture/demo in the hallways.

On the other hand, there have been schools that did everything but toss rose petals before us and were so enthusiastic about our presence, we had to remind them that we really needed to spend time in schools other than theirs.

But if you take performers to schools, there isn’t a need for the school to get buses, send home permission slips and take travel time out of the day. When I brought this up to the outreach coordinator, she wholeheartedly agreed. With the No Child Left Behind law, the schools she has dealt with are really eliminating any room for creativity and are mandating X number of hours each day for reading, math, etc and specifying rigid standards for how it should be taught and when.

The real problem then is that the schools who have the least amount of arts exposure and would benefit most are those in districts that have the most pressure to raise their scores and therefore have little time for frivolous programs like ours. The districts that do have the time tend to also be those who have allocated time for arts exposure. Still many of them could probably do with more.

The dance company’s coordinator was talking about how the focus used to be on underserved schools whereas now things have moved to drug diversion and family preservation (not surprising since the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts is now funded by federal drug money) Now granted, this new focus pretty much encompasses the underserved/at-risk population as well.

The message I had hoped to communicate with this outreach was really appropriate for this goal though. The dance piece was created as a cooperative effort by a very traditional Hawaiian hālau and a modern dance company. There were a lot of things that the modern dance company wanted to do that was not within the acceptable limits of the hula tradition and the modern company did not want to be restricted by the traditional aspects of hula or to hula at all in the creation of the piece.

Ultimately though, they created this incredible work of art which heralds the arrival of Lo’ihi, a new island off the southeast edge of Hawai’i. (In 30-50,000 years). The underlying message to kids today is that traditional (parents) ways and the new (children) are not mutually exclusive and both outlooks have significance to each other.

Hopefully I can get this into the schools!

Work That Lobby

A recent article that appeared on Artsjournal about the value or lack thereof of intermissions, and how they might be more pleasant in Pittsburgh than in NYC, got me to thinking about some recent observations.

For some reason I don’t understand (though perhaps it was simply related to the number of ushers available at the time) the woman who was the house manager of my theatre before I arrived wouldn’t open the exterior doors of the theatre until it was time to allow the audience in to the theatre.

Because I had so many things on my mind and had come from a theatre with a lobby so small that we essentially had to keep the audience outside until the house opens time, I maintained this policy for the first few show. Then I realized how silly this was. I had a lobby with a gorgeous 23′ x 104′ mural by Jean Charlot and an extensive lobby display commemorating the 30th anniversary of the theatre. I wanted people to look around!

For the last few performances, I have started letting people in as soon as enough ushers have arrived to rip tickets and prevent folks from entering the theatre before we are ready. I am almost glad I had kept people out because I would have never noticed the difference in audience behavior. Before people would rush straight in to the theatre, come out for intermission and then leave at the end of the show.

Now people walk around, admire the mural and peruse the display, discuss all the great performances they attended over the past 30 years and continue when they come out at intermission. The number of requests for brochures and additional information has increased. More people approach me with comments and suggestions (I do a curtain speech so I am easily identified.)

At this stage, I would say the lobby is really a valuable venue in the development of a relationship with your audience and communicating what you are all about as an organization. Now that I have seen the impact of having audiences linger in the lobby, I am starting to think about what I can do for next year when the 30 year anniversary material comes down so I can continue to educate my them about the organization.

Insuring a Quality Product

Well I must say I am quite surprised. I usually don’t get comments on my blog entries with the exception of Drew McManus over at Adaptistration. But after my last entry outlining how my anti-social tendencies are in conflict with my public professional life, I actually got a handful of responses. I guess I need to share personal quirks more often.

I didn’t make an entry last night because I was overseeing a performance. The experience seemed well suited for tonight’s entry. I talk a lot about insuring that you are providing audiences with a quality experience when they attend shows. From time to time, I talk about performers who really offer a quality product. But I don’t think I have ever spoken about quality control performers exert over their product as it were.

Last night was an example of a artist who brought a sense of craftmanship to his music, but also to his show. The group was Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano. The group is lead by Nati Cano who has been performing mariachi for nearly 45 years now. He is recognized as one of the most influential figures in mariachi, shifting it from being perceived as the province of street musicians, to something worthy of international concert halls. About 10 years ago, he was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship.

Now all this is well and good, but as anyone can tell you, accolades don’t guarantee a pleasant working relationship with a person. He was determined to make the show the highest quality it could be. He asked me questions about the audience, would it be made up of older audiences or younger, mostly Latins or a large contingent of Hawaiians? He wanted to make sure he didn’t perform songs that were only familiar to Latin families who grew up on the music if there was a sizable contingent of people from other backgrounds.

The truth was, a large percentage of the audience had Japanese surnames. When I mentioned this, he told me that yes, that was about right, when he was last in Hawaii (30 years ago) they had comprised a very large and very appreciative portion of the audience. Then he went back and talked to the band about a set list that reflected this.

It was like that all day. Before the show he and other band members inquired if I was happy with the size of the audience they had attracted for presale. (Indeed!) After the show–did I approve of the performance energy and song selection, was the audience an acceptable size, did I approve of the state in which they left the dressing rooms?

I have had performers ask me if they show and audience size was good before, but the detail to which Nati and his group went to in order to fashion the show and then solicit feedback is one I have rarely experienced. This is probably why he has been performing for 45 years. He is dedicated to good customer service that encompasses both his audience and his employer de jour.

I don’t normally listen to mariachi and I don’t speak Spanish either. I was listening to the group’s CDs to set the tone for their arrival. You forget though the power of a good live event. When you have energy, musical prowess and showmanship in a performance, you end up saying “Wow, I don’t know what they said, but I sure know it was good.”

You might think that artists and presenters are motivated simply by the best monetary situation they can position themselves in to. Certainly that keeps the doors open and people fed so it is important. But I know for a fact that both artists and presenters talk about their encounters with each other and that can absolutely influence a decision to book a performance and can tip the scales when the money isn’t quite what one would want to pay/be paid.