First things first – sorry about the lack of blogs lately. Between having a child, buying a house, and work demands, I haven’t had a chance to sit and write a blog for a while. But with the shock and awe of those two major life events beginning to fade, my sense of routine has slowly begun to return – and with it, some ideas for blog posts.
A few weeks ago, I happened upon this post by Trevor O’Donnell. According to the bio on his blog, Trevor works as a marketing consultant for arts organizations: theaters, ballet troupes, etc. His specialties seem to be in areas other than classical music, but in many ways that makes him the ideal person to diagnose some of the systemic problems that classical music organizations are facing these days. In this post, he took the Hartford Symphony Orchestra to task for some particularly bad marketing, and made the likely connection to the organization’s multimillion dollar budget deficit. If you didn’t open the link, here’s the crux of it:
Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played oboe in her college orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and say:
“Back by popular demand, guest conductor William (Bill) Eddins returns to conduct the HSO in an all-Beethoven program. The overture, inspired by von Collin’s play Coriolan and Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, contrasts a warrior’s bold resolve as he is about to invade Rome with the tender pleadings of his mother to desist. Beethoven’s third piano concerto pays homage to Mozart’s 24th in its melodies, rhythmic gestures and phrasings. His eighth symphony is light and humorous, contradictory (and perhaps conciliatory) to the composer’s circumstances during the summer of 1812, when he ended a romantic relationship in a famous letter written to his “Immortal Beloved.”
I don’t know about you, but my gal was out the door shortly after von Collin’s play. Who the hell is von Collin? I’ve worked in the arts my whole life and don’t have a clue who he is.
Me either, Trevor, me either.
He goes on to say:
If you want the gal in the Starbucks to come to your concert, you have to actually know her, you have to know what she finds appealing and you have to talk with her about what interests her in a fresh, colloquial, conversational language she’s likely to respond to.
This blurb talks to no one in particular about arcane historical trivia in a stuck-up, canned, old-fashioned language that’s self-important, absurdly didactic and completely out of touch with the world outside the classical bubble. I’m shocked that the leaders at Hartford Symphony have the audacity to complain about poor sales – or worse, to tell the musicians’ union they can’t sell enough tickets – when they do marketing at this level.
Naturally, this shockingly bad piece of marketing got me thinking about little things that classical music announcers (myself included) do every day that potentially alienate our potential audience. And in the weeks since reading this, I’ve tried to rectify some of those wrongs.
Here’s an example of an entry in WFIU’s MusicMaster database for a concerto grosso by Handel:
Here we see a whole bunch of information for this particular piece. Now, imagine how it MIGHT be announced. One might say (and this is an extreme example) “That was the Concerto Grosso in F Major, Opus 6, Number 2, HWV 320, by George Frideric Handel, who lived from 1685-1759. Iona Brown conducted the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.”
Yikes. I don’t think a lot of classical music announcers would say all that, but I’ve definitely heard things like that before. Let’s think what extraneous information we could eliminate..
Key signature: does it matter? Not really. Yes, the piece is in F major, but who cares? Unless you’re building a playlist around things in F, and even then, people probably don’t care about that, either. To the casual listener, key signature is a completely abstract concept. To seasoned listeners and active musicians, it’s not terribly important, either. So why mention it at all? Probably best not to bother. Save it for the online playlist so that those who really want to know can find it there.
Opus number: does it matter? Probably not. Yes, Handel wrote different sets of concerti grossi (and ugh, doesn’t that sound pretentious when you read it aloud, right?) with different opus numbers, but how important is that bit of information? Not very. I’ve often fallen into the trap of providing opus numbers because it seems like that is the “correct” and “accurate” thing to do, but in reality such detailed catalog information is really not relevant at all to the listener. And don’t even get me started on pieces like this Handel that have TWO sets of catalog information – opus numbers AND HWV numbers. Or Vivaldi with opus and RV numbers. Or Schubert with opus and D. numbers. Really not important in the grand scheme of things. I can think of very few pieces where the catalog number is ubiquitous to the piece – perhaps one could use it for the late Beethoven string quartets (“The Op. 131” for example), but even that is a little too insider-speak. So again: save this stuff for the online playlist as a general rule.
Composer dates: do they matter? Depends on the context. I don’t hear a lot of announcers dropping composer dates on the air, probably because the information is not always readily available, but also because it’s probably the worst of all ways to fill air time. In the case of Handel, I feel like there is a much more creative way to introduce listeners to his lifespan. Maybe say something along the lines of “Handel was born the same year as Bach, but led a totally different life. Bach had two wives, twenty children, and spent much of his life as a church musician. Handel moved to England, never married, and spent a great deal of time writing music for lavish royal parties – and somehow managed to outlive Bach by nearly a decade.” That’s the kind of information that people will likely sink their teeth into rather than raw numbers. So, if you must talk about birth or death years, at least try to tie it to something tangible.
The bottom line is that we, as announcers, sometimes fall victim to the assumption that if we aren’t giving ALL the information about a piece of music, then we are somehow depriving our audience of crucial information. Rest assured, the audience will be fine. Try to think of something creative to say instead, and if you’ve got nothing, just leave it alone or maybe (with all due respect to Handel) play something more interesting than a baroque concerto grosso.
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