How to Alienate Your Audiences: 2013


In 2008 and 2009, I wrote a four part series using parody to show how various groups could better alienate their classical music audience. Each of the groups, Audiences, Musicians, Managers, and Music Directors, had 10 steps that would surely alienate any patron and enough time has passed that it is time to update some new items in the lists; after all, most of us are at the beginning of a new concert season and we all want to find new and exciting ways to alienate our audiences!


Be sure to pull out your cell phone when the lights dim and the music starts.
Yes, yes, you already know to turn the ringer off, that’s a big ‘well duh’ for any experienced patron such as yourself. But seriously, you need to check Facebook  send an email, text a friend, tweet that you are wearing the Prada, not the Gucci as you tweeted earlier, whatever. Update away! You are a multi-tasking patron concert goer!

Unless you are in a dedicated ‘Tweet Seat’, do not turn on your phone screen. The light can be seen from everyone behind you, beside you and depending where you are sitting, from the orchestra! It is absolutely a distraction to everyone, and the constant flashing as you scroll through Facebook, send emails, or receive and send texts are invasive to all.

Only talk in the loud parts of the concert.
Most certainly, nobody else can hear you, heck you can barely hear yourself tell your fellow concertgoer that the concertmaster’s shoes are wicked awesome, or that you hope they have a good selection of wines at intermission…perhaps you will get the white this time since you spilled the red last time. This is important conversation material! Thank goodness your orchestra’s brass and percussion sections are so loud to cover your thoughts to everyone else besides the person sitting next to you!

If you talk in a loud section of music, you will be found out. The Murphy’s Law effect has happened to countless patrons, and some never learn. Most certainly just as soon as you start yelling to your friend about some personal detail, the orchestra will suddenly drop to an extreme and sublime quiet. If you are truly unlucky, the hall’s acoustic will help amplify your personal business and then everyone in the audience, maestro, orchestra, and stagehands, will be laughing at you.

Conduct in the front row!
You know the music, you’ve listened to the recording a thousand times, and you want everyone to know that this is your signature piece. Perhaps someone might notice how good you are and if the conductor should take ill, you could cover the second half!

It is endearing that some people feel compelled to move during concerts. By all means, enjoy how you must, but be mindful that every movement you make might distract your fellow patrons, and worse yet, the orchestra who you might be sitting close to. Small nodding or swaying is usually fine, but leave the arm waving to the professionals!


It’s been a long day, go ahead and slouch.
Nobody in the audience will likely notice, because everyone knows the conductor or the soloist are the ones that people really watch. And seriously, do they really watch? It’s music, right? It’s for the ears. So make yourself comfortable!

Body language speaks volumes. And while an audience comes to listen to music, they are actually listening with their eyes more than ears in many cases. You may think that because you are in the back of the orchestra, or even in a large section that nobody will see but they do. And they talk about you. Sit up; act engaged even if you don’t feel like it. People who just spent their money to watch a concert don’t care what kind of day you’ve had. They really don’t! Plus, if you look engaged, you play engaged and it is contagious. Playing in an inspiring, engaging, and enthusiastic group is why most musicians came into the profession in the first place. Be the one that is the impetus for good posture in your orchestra.

Complain about your concert, complain about your rehearsal, and complain about the conductor, administrators, your salary, your lighting.
The world and even the barista at Starbucks will most certainly care about your situation. Venting and getting your hardships off your chest to anyone who will listen is a healthy way to release your stress. Plus, people really appreciate knowing their local symphony members have feelings, too.

Airing dirty laundry on anything is in bad taste. Whether you like it or not, you are a part of the organization you might trash talk. And ultimately it reflects poorly on you. Even if you are in disagreement with how so-in-so is running the orchestra, or how the maestro is ruining your artistic vision, keep it to yourself, especially if there are patrons, potential patrons, or donors nearby. Even at the local coffee shops and grocery stores, keep the details to yourself. The audience and public don’t want to hear about every nasty tidbit you come across. The audience wants to escape their own lives. Most people know that in every job there is usually some kind of drama that is happening.

Talk to your colleagues and show anything but interest when there is a speaker on stage in front of the orchestra.
Even if the speaker is announcing your orchestra just got a huge financial gift and there are about 10 minutes of thank you speeches, you just want to get the concert going! Besides, the speaker is there for the audience, not you. You must entertain yourself somehow!

They don’t cover this in conservatories, but how deportment on stage when not playing is as important as when playing. If there is a thank you speech, you are being thankful by looking attentive and applauding along with the audience. Even if the speech is going long, try not to fidget, most definitely do not talk with your colleagues. Every distraction can be rude to the speaker and the audience trying to listen. Even if you aren’t interested in what is being said, look toward the speaker and try to look interested.

Music Directors

Never ask for interview questions before hand.
You are at your best when you are playing Roulette with a reporter who is interviewing you for an upcoming feature. Your sharp wit and artistic temperament might yield some really fascinating and unexpected responses; be free and open to your creative spirit. And if you don’t speak the local language, that is even better. Forget the interpreter; this is where you turn into ‘maestro mysteriouso’! 

Getting caught saying something controversial or less than tasteful is something nobody wants. Even worse is if your speaking in a language you are not as familiar with and the translation is misinterpreted. Always ask for questions beforehand, and if your agent mentions you may need a bit of help with your next interview, take that help. Risking your reputation to a fickle audience in this day and age of social media can be a PR nightmare, not to mention a potential career-ender.

Make fun of people, their artistic tastes, their food choices, and their politics!
It is a blast to watch the faces of patrons and donors when you level their souls and question their taste. Besides, you’re now their new leader in “all that is fine in life”. Keep shaming, questioning, and belittling in a passive aggressive manner. They will come around, and your following will be more than grateful.

Nothing says you’re more insecure than when you belittle people. Whether it’s politics, art, or anything for that matter, don’t embarrass or scrutinize someone’s taste, and especially, don’t do this in front of others! Before you question someone’s political agenda, or their choice in white wine with beef, realize that they chose to be with or around you for a bit of time and that part of their taste is fine, right?

Don’t go to any extra events.
You are the maestro, your job is to conduct and be artistic. So steer clear of cocktail fundraisers, avoid the gala dinners like the plague, and for heaven’s sake, the post concert reception?! Please, you need your rest!

The worst offence a music director can make is to avoid the parties and fundraisers. There may be a few that have to be missed, but go to as many as possible for your orchestra. This is what the public, patrons, and donors want. You are a star to them, and you hold the key to so much of the fundraising. People like to rub elbows with the one standing in front of the orchestra, and allowing access is a powerful bridge of sharing culture and friendships that lead to tremendous support.


Want to look like a savvy and witty executive? Nothing says “I’m a successful leader” better than a good stiff drink in one hand while the other hand flags down a waiter for the next drink.
Everyone knows that alcohol gets the lips loose, and in your case you prove that your wit mixed with a good G&T is exactly what the richest donors want to see and hear! So have a double, and another. Be sure to not eat, that would be cheating.

It is so easy to grab a drink at the post concert reception. After a long week of fundraising and beating down doors to get subscriptions sold, a nice glass of something to take the edge off would be well deserved. But this is where you have to stay your sharpest. Whether it’s longtime donors deciding to give you a gift, or a new young couple wondering when the next concert it, you have to be sober and articulate to seal whatever deal needs attending to. Let the donors get slap happy, let the young couple get toasted, but stay the course until your last guest has left.

Casual Friday should be every day.
A relaxed and comfortable executive team invites a sense of calm. Don’t ever wear a suit or a dress, don’t even bother with a name tag badge at events. Assume your donors and patrons will see that keeping an informal and laid back appearance will bring your whole organization a sense of tranquility. Everyone wants to be tranquil, right?

It’s not like you have to wear a three piece suit everyday to work to get respect, but do look put together in some professional sense. Jeans are probably not the greatest idea in the office and neither is tee-shirts, or those super mini-skirts. The last thing you want to look like is someone that can’t handle the position you are titled in. Your business is making business. That is generally with business people; business people who might give donations, business people who might stop by to buy tickets, business people who might want to buy advertising. Look respectable, and look like you care. It brings trust.

Complain to and blame everyone.
People need to understand just how hard you are working and just how underappreciated you feel.  Be sure to blame anything and everything on anything you want! You want to appear like you’ve put thought into your position, and complaining and blaming just proves your commitment.

Nobody but you really knows how much work you put into your job. Often it can feel like you are under appreciated and the work you do is for nothing. But blaming others, blaming the economy, and complaining constantly wear thin. It is not a surprise that this business is hard, but analyze how much time you complain or blame compared to how much time you say things like: “Let’s see how we can fix this,” or “Let’s come up with a different way, who has some ideas.”

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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