Redesigning the Orchestra Experience

The New World Symphony (NWS) recently performed a new kind of orchestra concert called Dimensions, which was designed with the audience in mind. 

The question

"How can we inspire new audiences to invite classical music into their lives?"

The concept

A concert format that gets the audience more actively involved in the music.

  1. Musicians of the orchestra (called Fellows at NWS) introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people.
  2. Audience members share their responses to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami.
  3. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder...or just enjoy the music.

Orchestra musicians are not usually involved in the creation and production of concerts, so it was a rare opportunity for me, a clarinetist, to lead this project. It was sure to be a cool experiment...but the staff, musicians, and I were blown away by what happened .

The result

After this performance, we saw in the eyes of our audience members truly organic inspiration. They started to make music a part of their lives and wanted to come back for more. If you're aiming at similar outcomes, here's an outline of our approach to creating this experience.

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Map the audience journey (and get them closer to everything)

- Meet Fellows immediately upon entering the building, receive interactive program with post-it notes and marker.

- Upon entering the hall, walk past the stage, which is lowered to the ground (down from the usual 3-foot elevation), close enough to walk onto.

- Introduce themselves to other audience members when prompted by host at top of show (the hall erupted with joy and enthusiasm at this moment, which set the tone for the entire concert).

- Learn about concept: purpose of this format is to more deeply enjoy music and reflect upon it in new ways.

- Travel through stories and performances with host, who occasionally interacts directly with audience members.

- Use post-it notes to respond and create.

- At intermission, start to post responses on displays in the lobby.

- Interact with more stories and music on the second half.

- Following performance, join Fellows for free wine and discussion while continuing to post responses.

Photo by Alexandra Guardia

Photo by Alexandra Guardia

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Invite the musicians to pick the repertoire

Fellows were asked to pick pieces and talk about why they love them. From there, we came up with entry points for an audience with a wide range of experience with classical music, devising questions and immersion exercises that would get the audience inside the music.

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Photo by Ruis Diaz

DIMENSIONS Program (Piece – Concept – Creative Engagement)

GABRIELI | Canzon Per Sonar Septimi Toni No. 2 – intro piece

BARTÓK | Concerto for Orchestra, II. Game of Pairs
"What makes a great partnership?" – the intricacies of good ensemble playing
          Introduced by Masha Popova, flute
Game of Pairs – a duo exercise, stand back-to-back and read a familiar passage from Romeo & Juliet to get a sense of the nuance of performing in sync by tapping into intuition

BRAHMS | Symphony No. 4, II. Andante moderato
"Why do I feel things when I hear music?" – how harmony evokes emotion
          Introduced by Darren Hicks, bassoon
Harmony Origami – take a post-it and fold every time you hear a change in the emotion of the music, roughly tracking the harmonic journey of the piece

MAHLER | Symphony No. 8, II. Closing Scene from Goethe's Faust [excerpt]
"What is your song?" – song/piece that describes you in a way words can't
          Introduced by Ansel Norris, trumpet
Listen & reflect


"How do you draw sound?" – the many ways music evokes imagery
          Introduced by Esther Nahm, viola
Pick most intriguing sounds and portray them without using words.

SHOSTAKOVICH | Symphony No. 11, II. Allegro [excerpt]
"Where does music take you?" – when music transports you to another place
          Introduced by Christopher Hernacki, bass trombone
Sit back and close your eyes, see where the music takes you

TCHAIKOVSKY | Symphony No. 6, IV. Finale. Adagio lamentoso
"What holds you back from telling the truth?" – music as a place to hide our secrets
          Introduced by Jarrett McCourt, tuba
Just listen

Ask audience members what they think

By posting their responses for all to see, we gave the audience a tangible way to contribute and make their voices heard on a colorful display of thoughts.

Photo by Ruis Diaz

Photo by Ruis Diaz

How the audience reacted

People fell in love. Not with each other, not with the host, not with fine art or tradition. They fell in love with orchestra music. People who had never been, people who have been going to concerts for 30 years, people who know classical music and people who don't even like it. It became theirs. Many of them left wanting more.

This is some survey feedback we got:

"Beautiful and highly creative approach. Amazing emotional experience, well done."

"This was the first time I ever came to NWS but I definitely will come back"

"Perfect. Musical selections showed the meaning of the thoughts. Well designed!"

"A memorable evening of music and heartfelt introductions by the fellows"

"Thank you for a delightful evening with charming, talented young performers. We enjoyed the unusual quality of this event and the enthusiasm with which it was presented"

"Was a fabulous event and really opened the minds of my daughters to classical music - amazing format - if you did it monthly I would bring my family to all of them - the insights of the fellows into their musical choices along with the hosts commentary added incredible depth. Bravo!!"

"I would come to these sorts of concerts. Regular concerts don't appeal to me, this was fresh and personal."

"my second event at NWS, I brought 2 others who had never been to NWS, they loved it too, so now I have friends to come with."

Photo by Ruiz Diaz

Photo by Ruiz Diaz

We discovered that about 35-40% of our audience was at New World Symphony for the first time, which is approximately 20 points higher than a standard concert, and people who would otherwise not come hear our orchestra have been inspired by this performance to return in the future.

This was perhaps the first time they were invited to be a part of an orchestra concert, rather than witnesses of it. It's like the difference between watching your friends go whitewater rafting from the shore and then actually going whitewater rafting with your friends (if you're into thrills). These people were right there, in a giant raft in class four rapids, exploring the music alongside the Fellows and making their own conclusions about how music moves them.

The three best parts about this new format

1. It's not an expensive solution. It's not even a complex one. This experience leveraged resources that are usually underutilized in orchestra concerts: the passion musicians feel for music and the enthusiasm of audience members to get involved. 

2. The program was not watered down, and included some old repertoire and some new. Regarding the Caroline Shaw quartet, many audience members felt it carried the same weight as massive symphonic works by big names like Brahms and Shostakovich.

3. The audience had something to either do or ponder that would direct their attention more deeply into the music. For people who are newer to or less interested in orchestral music, they still had lightbulb moments while hearing music by making meaningful connections.

Four takeaways

1. With Dimensions, we designed a customer/patron experience that spanned the entire length of the event. Prosperous organizations and companies that draw people to their products are putting people at the center of their experience design. How can orchestras compete? Anybody can hear great classical music at home, but if the live experience is about actively participating in great live music with hundreds of other enthusiastic people, that's a unique experience worth pausing Netflix and going out to a concert.

2. You can draw young people in with that Pokemon concert this weekend but what about Mahler's Sixth Symphony next weekend? By fostering a culture that's about discovery and human connection, we can inspire people to fall so in love with the experience of going to an orchestra that programming becomes more flexible–new and old, timeless favorites and bold challenges–and the audience will want to join regardless.

3. People love classical music, not necessarily because it's a great triumph of humanity or incredibly impressive and virtuosic, but because it's a beautiful language of human emotions and real world issues. Providing insight into that aspect appeals to a wider crowd than detailing historical context surrounding these works–only some people are deeply familiar with history, but everybody is deeply familiar with what it's like to be human.

4. Personal connections matter. The audience's favorite part of this experience was getting a direct look into the minds of the musicians. At several points, Fellows also had real opportunities to reach out directly to audience members. This inspired people to take the experience with them, and now people are spreading the story about how the New World Symphony impacted them. 

Moving forward

Through the audience's passion for personally connecting with great music, they will persuade friends and family to experience it for themselves. This can create a culture around people not just consuming music, but inviting it into their lives. We can empower audiences to make the orchestra experience their own.

Trumping the Arts

A recent article in Huffington Post quotes Wayne Brady, star of Chicago’s production of the musical Hamilton, saying “fight for the arts,” referencing reports that the Trump Administration might completely defund the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. But this got me thinking – why should Trump support the arts?

We often blindly accept art as being good for us, similar to eating vegetables and exercising. But the benefits of eating kale and running have the backing of immense scientific research. With all this access to information, we (*ahem* the federal government) can choose to spend time and money on things that are most soundly proven to be good. Art's benefits are difficult to measure, but maybe it's just as essential to human prosperity.

I have a thought.

A few months ago, I visited the Newseum in D.C., which I discovered has the largest display of unaltered parts of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany. I had seen the wall before in photos, but nothing in detail. Upon descending the escalator to the lowest level and entering the exhibit, I was greeted by a radiant display of graffiti. I thought, How beautiful! People in Cold War-era Berlin were so passionate. I took a bunch of photos. And then I walked around to the back. This is the side-by-side view of the two:

First side (L), second side (R)

My hair stood on end. My heart sank. I felt bleak, hopeless, and uncomfortable. And then my brain processed what I was experiencing. People in West Berlin were free. People in East Berlin were not. The museum could’ve put this up against a wall and only showed the colorful side (in reality, the blank side faced a dead zone between the two areas), but I understood the contrast the display was emphasizing. For that brief moment, I stepped into the East Berliners' shoes. I’d heard that those people were oppressed, but until I stood on both sides of the wall, I didn’t really get it. Now my heart hurts for people I’ll never meet, and while this display wasn’t created as art, it has taken on artistic quality – an abstract taste of human experience.

Empathy is key to tolerance and understanding. Art is not a commodity. It is a vital resource in facilitating this understanding, for sharing the stories of triumphs and struggles amongst communities of different demographics and political tendencies through the universal language of human emotion. Peace, prosperity, unity, productivity, responsibility, safety…are these what we want? Then we must be seeking ways to inspire people to empathize with each other.

President Trump – America will not prosper by keeping people out or denying them rights or building a wall. But you can provide people opportunities to see the humanity in one another, and that is something we can unite around. 

This is the role art was born to play. So please don't kill it.

Dear everybody: share your stories about how art has opened your mind to be more accepting, understanding, cooperative–any way that it has made you a better human. Also, please sign the petitions to defend the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities at the links listed below:


The Museum Musician

I sit down in my chair, an exact replica of the black chairs used by the New York Philharmonic, plastered to the stage. The stage, constructed in the style of the main stage at Carnegie Hall, is encased by an *almost* perfectly transparent glass box that is designed to let 98% of sound through to the audience at its *almost* truest quality. This box protects the stage from damage and remains in tact throughout the performance. I look out at the empty hall–dark and silent. The audience seats are constructed like the Metropolitan Opera’s, with several levels of blood red velvet seats to the very top, about one hundred feet high. I’m the first on stage because I have a severe case of nostalgia this morning.

We play different programs every week, just as the orchestras did back in the old days–Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, Sibelius, Dvorak, Adams, Glass, Bernstein…the list goes on. Today we’re premiering a violin concerto by the Smithsonian Composer in Residence, one of the few left composing orchestral music. When the orchestra went out of fashion around the middle of the century, when listeners moved on, so did composers. They hopped on with the mixed chamber groups and crossover/cross-discipline ensembles (including a few orchestras, actually) who embraced the developing digital technology, namely virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). We’ll play this program twice today, once at 11:30 AM and once at 4:30 PM. Nicer hours for orchestral musicians nowadays, that’s for sure.

Today is Monday, February 25, 2086. I am a clarinetist in the Smithsonian Symphony Orchestra, America’s only surviving symphony orchestra. I am seventy years old and in the final weeks of my career. I'm writing this today with a few tears in my eyes, looking back and thinking...what happened?

Nobody trains to play in orchestra anymore. When VR/AR and incredible sound equipment allowed people to hear every orchestra concert of the last several decades even better than they could’ve heard it in the hall, tickets stopped selling. My class was the third to last orchestral music class to graduate from Juilliard (now the Juilliard Institute for Integrative Arts Technology)…and well, here I am.

I look up to my favorite seat in the Dress Circle, front row just to right of center with hopes of seeing the clarinet section better. The exact seat for which I saved hundreds of dollars to see the final performance of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, absolutely sobbing in the final trio, the end of two fantasies: (1) the painful moment when the Marschallin finally releases Octavian to embrace his true love for Sophie and (2) the final run of an incredible, longstanding tradition. An institution that crumbled in the face of the insurmountable wall of traditionalism, although it had held the power to knock it down. 

If I could go back fifty, sixty, seventy years even, to a critical time in the identity crisis of the American orchestra, I would pose one question: to what end are you willing to go to preserve tradition? And I’d say…because this is what it looks like…and then I’d hand them a brochure for the Smithsonian Museum of Arts and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

The problem is…musicians didn’t know just how vital a purpose they served in helping people reflect on the emotional landscape of the human experience. Technology has not yet been able to accurately recreate this experience, so young people aren’t really concerned with humanity because they’ve had no opportunity to encounter it.

Music is now a relic, and I would venture to say, so is the human experience. Why couldn’t we understand that tradition isn’t why people love music, it’s because of how human it makes them feel? When they sit in front of seventy musicians in one room participating in a higher purpose, the purpose of emotion and adventure and narrative and philosophy, and people literally feel the overwhelming sensory experience of a glorious climax, why couldn’t we see that this changes people? And that changing people is why orchestral music is so important–not because of concert halls or formalities or rules or traditions. Why couldn't we have held onto this essence and innovated around it more quickly? But it’s too late.

So I’ll go on today, just as I have for the last many years in this job, fighting to hold back tears as the most incredibly miraculous music is reduced to a lifeless artifact recreated for keen observation.

Who's Listening?

Milton Babbitt wrote a borderline scathing article over fifty years ago called "Who Cares if You Listen?" defensively addressing the public's queasiness for contemporary art music in America. He compares the advancement of music to that of science and math, pointing out that "laymen" simply aren't intelligent enough to understand this music, and that doesn't matter.

I love Babbitt. He did crazy stuff. Philomel is one of the most inventive, chilling (in all the right ways) pieces of music I've ever heard. I'm into it. But sorry, I'm not going to put it on a recital if I am looking to give a group of people from many backgrounds a good time. And as a performer, that's what I'm ultimately striving to do in a performance. Maybe for some crazy, multimedia/theatrical show. But not in a formal concert setting.

So what do you expect, Milton, if you're gonna sit people down in a little concert hall, where the temperature is, yes, you're right, always either too low or too high (and our elder friends make it known), and throw a long string of beeps, boops, and bops at them with some crazy vocal lines? Do you expect them to react warmly?

No. The point of performing music, no matter how advanced or intelligent, is to move people. And people who know nothing about music can be moved by an orchestra concert–every musician has seen it several times.

Babbitt is no longer with us, so I'll stop addressing him. But if classical music is really going to make it in this country (and in this century), we must ask ourselves as musicians–are we really making our audiences feel valued?

We don't need to change the music we play (or even the location). The best attended concerts at the New World Symphony are the PULSE concerts, which the musicians call "club concerts," where the hall turns into a night club (or as close as we can get) and we play for people while they drink and talk and enjoy the music. One of the pieces on the program last time was the first movement of Beethoven 5. The audience went totally nuts! We gave them a fresh, exciting, and meaningful experience by playing a piece of Western art music just by turning down the lights and letting people walk around while drinking their libation of choice. We also had some pretty cool lighting and video effects, but that's just the icing.

Another series of well-attended concerts is called Encounters, concerts with short programs that are narrated by Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein's daughter) and a few fellows throughout the orchestra. They have a theme and a narrative, and they're designed to help people learn while experiencing beautiful music. Sound boring? Nope. The point of the concert is to give the audience an enriching experience. They're being spoken to. They know we know they're there. 

Solving the crisis in classical music? It's not fancy marketing campaigns or crazy experimental settings or watered down repertoire. Engage our audiences. Make them want to come back and bring all their friends.