I was having a conversation last week with another arts industry expert who asked me, “What do you think is preventing people from coming to concerts?” I said it’s the perceived rules. There are assumptions that one must come dressed a certain way, assumptions that if one doesn’t know when to clap they are not worthy, and assumptions that if one doesn’t understand the music or its history, they are a less important and/or won’t enjoy it so why spend the money on a ticket.
These perceived rules do the opposite of inviting audience into the concert halls. But are they strict rules or merely social traditions?
Clapping between movements, for example, is debatable. But when a new audience member does just that, they are often looked at by fellow audience members in a fashion that can be perceived as shaming them. Why would that new audience member want to come back after being made to feel ignorant and not welcome?
Veteran audience members’ behaviors can be a surprising hurdle in getting new patrons to return to concerts. Their looks of disapproval at patrons who come underdressed (in the veteran’s opinion), looks of disapproval when clapping happens in the “wrong” spot, looks of disapproval when a new patron mispronounces a composer’s name or an orchestral work. These all make someone feel small.
In general, people want to feel intelligent, they want to feel like they belong, and that ultimately makes people feel invited and valued. Our industry does little to help this. Sure, we encourage people to “wear what you want!” and we offer clapping guidelines, but until we can unlock the peer relations of fellow audience members trying to boost their own self esteem by showing off how smart or better they are, there is not a super welcoming atmosphere.
Here is my suggested guideline (not rules) in helping welcome others to the arts:
- Music directors should take a more active role in guiding when to clap. Veterans and newbies alike will be on the same level then. For example: Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 has a notorious loud and fast third movement followed by a quiet and heartbreaking fourth movement. Many people want to clap between movement 3 and 4, many don’t know if it’s allowed. But can you imagine if the conductor stood on the podium before that work began and gave permission to clap and feel/express the energy after movement 3 and encouraged the audience to feel the despair as the 4th movement began? Or on the contrary, what if the conductor invited people NOT to clap after movement 3 to feel the palpable tension as we all waited, holding our breath for movement 4? Either example is acceptable, and it invites the audience into the process, into the experience in a more visceral and meaningful way. Nobody is left feeling the pressure of fitting in because the music director is directing the audience in addition to their orchestra.
- Executive directors need to find a creative way to help newcomers (and veterans for that matter) with noises during concerts. Talking, opening wrappers, eating food, and ringing cell phones can ruin an experience for so many. What would happen if there was a creative brainstorm to identify solutions to cleverly invite an audience to turn phones off, not unwrap candy, not talk, etc. One book I highly recommend helping groups creatively solve issues such as these is Yes, And by Kelly Leonard of Second City Chicago. This book should be on the shelves of every board member, staff member, and orchestra member. I highly recommend it!
- Audience members who are veterans should be reminded that they are supporting an artform they love. New people coming in are the lifeblood of the organizations, and future ambassadors of that art, if we’re all lucky. Veterans: cut people slack and be open and welcoming. Be grateful someone wants to experience or try the art you hold dear. Encourage without being patronizing. Everyone hears and experiences something differently. Your veteran ears and heart can be enhanced by someone else’s perspective and you, as an experienced concertgoer, should be seeking new ways to hear old music anyway!
The goal is simple, invite people in. Make it a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels included and intelligent, and audiences will want to return again and again.