“The expectation is that we sit.” Is concert behavior at odds with human experience?

You know the drill. Take your seat, don’t move, sit quietly, then applaud enthusiastically only at the appropriate times. Is this prescribed concert behavior the best way to engage audiences? Susan Key—special projects director for the San Francisco Symphony—examines this question.

Empty SeatsThere has been a lot of discussion lately in arts circles about the importance of listening to our audiences. For me, the point was underscored by an audience question during our March 17 Forum in San Francisco:

Sitting in the audience can be a very passive experience. I mean, my head is spinning. I have lots of thoughts going through it. But I’m not supposed to move… the expectation is that we sit. We’re well behaved. …but we’re not supposed to do anything. And I wonder whether on occasion there could be a little bit more—like in rock concerts [when] people get up and dance.

Her question brings up an issue that I think orchestras ignore at their peril: the distance between the multi-textured human experience embedded in the works on our concerts and the human behavior we prescribe for their consumption. Classical music is built on a foundation of the most basic human expressions: song, dance, lament, courtship. Because these “primal moves” (as Michael Tilson Thomas calls them) are so highly elaborated and nuanced, the music is best appreciated through quiet, attentive listening. But it is an imaginative, experiential understanding of the music that allows an audience member the fullest and most rewarding listening experience. This quality of understanding is most effectively created through direct musical experiences—which no doubt accounts for the fact that the best predictor of concert attendance is whether an individual has played a musical instrument in the past. Given the declining levels of music education over recent decades, an increasing number of audience members come without this personal history. And when they are told specifically not to move, not to engage in those activities which might give them a direct way into the piece, it’s no wonder that they find the experience frustrating or incomplete or even unsatisfying.

We need to give audiences more paths to great listening experiences: biographical and historical contextualizing, personal contacts with musicians, and musical guideposts to the piece. But more than anything, these paths need to recognize the way people learn and connect to information: it needs to resonate on an emotional, kinesthetic level, not just intellectual. While program notes offer background information, they are not designed for the kind of vital connections this audience member was seeking. (There is, in fact, a study that reading program notes actually diminishes enjoyment of the listening experience—a disturbing idea to those of us who have written reams of them! Listen to an interview with the author of this study.

During the recent American Mavericks festival in San Francisco, we experimented with some new approaches to the “pre-concert lecture.” We engaged actor/writer David Prather to develop a short theater piece about Charles Ives and the Concord Sonata. For a second concert, we engaged Pat Plude, Pam Quist, and Eliza Brown from the Walden School to develop interactive audience engagement strategies—including a Cage-style “happening.” I was extremely nervous beforehand: what would our audience think? Would they engage in singing? In following a set of seemingly random instructions?

I needn’t have worried. The pre-concert activities could not have gone better. The audience was energetic, engaged, and eager. Dozens of audience members later thanked us, saying that the activities had prepared them for the music—especially the Cage Song Books—better than any lecture could have.

Not all concerts feature such challenging repertoire, of course—but that only means that we are more likely to get by with “same old, same old” audience preparation.

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