How To Alienate Your Audience In 10 Easy Steps: Music Directors


An engaged, enthusiastic, and diverse audience is one of the strongest measurements for justifying an orchestra’ value. During my years as a violinist in various orchestras around the country, I have witnessed audiences lose their enthusiasm for live concerts and turn their backs to orchestras as the result of behavior from those inside the ensemble.

A growing reality is nobody seems to learn from these mistakes and instead, treats them as though they should be expected behavior. Concerts and rehearsals are becoming as predictable as bad sitcoms but instead of turning preachy about how each group needs to avoid making the mistakes, I’ve created this step-by-step guide to identify the problems which contribute to alienating an audience along with some practical advice on how to avoid the traps.

1. Let the power go to your head.

This is your time! You are in command! Rehearsals and concerts start and stop on your orders so everyone waits for what you say and do.

It is easy to let this sort of power go to your head but good music directors know that the onstage persona should stay onstage. The reality is that the centralized power afforded to conductors is more for convenience and efficiency. As a conductor, if you find it difficult to remember this, just ask the librarian to remind you when they deliver you scores.

2. Impose a personal agenda.

Money and power is the game here as you can’t have enough of each so make sure to use your engineered connections to wealthy donors to advance your every musical whim at every opportunity. Use appearances by your big name soloist friends as an extension of your power and make certain composers understand that you are the conduit to commissions.

The old adage “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies just as much today as it did more than 100 years ago. It is very easy for a music director to abuse his/her position by enforcing a personal agenda and using the organization to hand out favors.

One of the most troubling developments over the past several decades is how much influence music directors have over the flow of new music in their respective ensembles and which soloists are contracted. Ideally, musical partnerships should be mutually beneficial but that is becoming more and more of an ideal than actual practice. As a result, audiences are exposed to a shrinking variety of soloists and new music is limited to the tastes of the music director.

3. Fire all of your principal players at the same time!

Just as a new lion assumes control over a pride claiming a mate by killing her cubs, you must clean out any leaders in the ensemble that might threaten your leadership. Be sure to act quickly, lest you provide a window of opportunity for these musicians to challenge your authority.

The unfortunate truth is that when a many new conductors begin a term as music director, they clean house by replacing principal musicians leaving the audience wondering where the regular faces have gone. In the past, this practice had been abused to such a degree that many orchestra collective bargaining agreements prevent a music director form dismissing musicians in the first and last year of their tenure.

A favorite target for most music directors is the concertmaster but all principal musicians are justified in being leery of a new music director’s intentions. If a musician’s playing is such that it deserves to be addressed, that’s one thing but to remove players for political reasons will only create lifelong animosity.

4. Use personal pronouns at least five times in every sentence.

Nothing establishes ownership like “I,” “Me,” or “My” so whether you are talking onstage about the piece about to be played or chatting with the board members about the orchestra, the use of these three words are a must. Example: “My dear audience, I want to bring my favorite work I used to play during my childhood when I was a mere violinist.” Or, “I think my board members might be interested in a signed picture by me when I was on tour with my orchestra.”

No one denies that the music director is an undeniable figurehead within the organization. It’s their face on promotional material and CD covers, their long bios on the website, and their name as music director in the masthead. As a result, you don’t need to be your own PR agent so drop the verbal equivalent of marking your territory and remember that audiences actually like to hear about themselves and how they might enjoy a concert more than how the conductor will enjoy it.

5. Talk like a snob to your audience.

It is important to remind the audience that you are in fact a pillar knowledge supporting the world of music. Whenever talking to the audience, be sure to use the most technical academic nomenclature possible and if asked to explain in simpler terms, have a tidy laugh ready to go and explain it exactly the same way but use more French, German, or Italian vocabulary.

Interacting with the audience can be a very good practice so long as audience members don’t feel stupid after participating. An added annoyance is when conductors might have a fake or affected European accent so keep in mind that sincerity sells. Regardless if you’re from California, Brooklyn, or Alabama just be yourself.[/box]

6. Glower or look horrified at no less than two musicians during each performance.

If one of your musicians doesn’t come in on an entrance or plays a note out of tune, be sure to snap your head around to the offender so the audience (and every other musician) knows someone screwed up. Not only does it reassert your authority but it lets the audience know that you noticed the offence and will be having a chat with the offender at intermission!!

Every now and then a big, ugly mistake finds its way into a concert but it is usually a random occurrence. In fact, every performance contains dozens of mistakes but they are so insignificant that the audience (and conductor) never knows. The musician usually knows they screwed up and will avoid it the next time around so there is no need for conductors to go out of their way to let everyone know.

7. Make sure everyone knows you are the best musician onstage.

Don’t be in a hurry to get to the podium; the slower you walk, the more opportunity the audience has to shower you with applause. At the end of each piece, run the procedure in reverse by getting offstage as quickly as possible. You can easily squeeze in at least five curtain calls if you run off stage, count “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand” and run back on….repeat 4 more times. Don’t acknowledge the musicians more than once and try to make that one on the final trip out. If the piece featured a soloist, make sure to take a bow yourself for each of theirs and always stand next to and slightly forward to where they are standing.

The truth is most regular and infrequent concert goers notice when conductors are milking applause. During more than a few a post-concert receptions, my colleagues and I have encountered an audience member who would say “Wow! Six curtain calls, your maestro is really getting fast.” In the end, sharing and offering praise to fellow musicians makes even the best conductor look better.

8. Over rehearse.

Even though rehearsals are more for you than the musicians, play it safe and assume your musicians don’t know standard rep, like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Make sure to rehearse each and every detail as if you were working with children. Good rehearsal technique includes taking every repeat and stopping every four measures to verbally explain what you just conducted, even if the musicians performed adequately. Don’t forget that rehearsals don’t end after the first performance. If the musicians still don’t “get it” prepare detailed written notes to be distributed each musician on how they could improve for the next performance.

Nothing sucks the life out of a performance when something is over rehearsed. Much like a fine steak that shouldn’t be over cooked, over rehearsing causes the performance to be tough, tasteless, and boring. Audiences notice when orchestra players look bored!

9. Snub audience members when they congratulate you on your performance.

Your adoring fans should always be waiting to congratulate you after every performance but keep in mind that not all fans are equal. Most important are board members and large donors who deserve most of your post-concert time, ideally, in a private reception room. Next are regular subscribers, their hefty multi-ticket purchase demonstrates that these patrons understand your greatness. Every now and then, invite a couple that displays an exceptional ability to praise your accomplishments to the private reception room. Last, and certainly least, are random single ticket buyer. If any bother to stick around, greet them with a tight lipped smile and suggest that they should purchase a subscription since they found this concert to be so fulfilling all while avoiding direct eye contact.

A gracious conductor develops the necessary social skills to make a sincere connection with each and every patron they meet. Every patron is important, even the “lowly” single ticket buyer has connections and when treated well, those hidden connections will come back to benefit the orchestra in spades.

10. Take yourself seriously.

The concert is done and you are at home prepping for the next concert. Don’t let small aggravations like family and friends get in your way. You have to remain focused and professional to maintain your stature. Above all else, guide every decision by remembering that you are “The Maestro.”

This is what it all boils down to. If a new music director falls prey to all of the artificial hype and allows the power of their position to go to his/her head, then the most likely outcome is they take themselves too seriously.

Inevitably, this has a negative impact on an ensemble’s musicality but the music director rarely sees the impact. After all, it’s hard to notice audience members walking out of a concert when your back is turned to them the entire time.

You didn’t think music directors are the only ones who can alienate an audience did you? Throughout the next few months we’ll take a look at how orchestra musicians, managers, and even the ticket buyers can alienate an entire audience.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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4 thoughts on “How To Alienate Your Audience In 10 Easy Steps: Music Directors”

  1. Good heavens, what a burst of cynicism! Holly has had some bad eggs. Since my experience in the DC-MD-VA area, and that of my daughter (violinist in the K.C. Symphony) has been more positive, I would like to know whether any of her conductors have exhibited POSITIVE qualities? If so she should name names.

    Fairfax VA

    • Telemann,

      I appreciate your note although I’m sorry the humorous bent of the article didn’t have a larger impact for you, as it was a satirical look at some problem in the business. I agree that focusing on the positive is useful, which I have written about in sever past articles, but looking at very real issues with a light heart creates a comfortable environment for reflection. While your own experience and your daughter’s experience are notable, I have the unique experience of performing from coast to coast in many varying orchestras over the last 20 years. My lengthy conversations with patrons, colleagues, conductors and managers reflects some of the general annoyances throughout the country.



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