Mark Clague: Audience 3.0 — Engaging and Inspiring Amateur Music Makers

In a world of professional music-making, where does the devoted amateur fit in? Mark Clague—associate professor of music, University of Michigan, and co-moderator or our live event on Sunday—argues that orchestras need to work more closely with audiences who might be players themselves.

When the world’s great symphony orchestras were created 100 to 150 years ago, the strength of their audience was made up of amateur instrumentalists who knew from personal experience the transcendent joys as well as the endless struggles of making great music. This connection between performer and audience through musicianship rewarded both. Today, orchestras and orchestral musicians benefit not only by supporting K-12 music education but by reaching back to a lost tradition of amateur music making. Certainly I’d argue that amateurs have always made music, but our institutions routinely ignore their vital cultural heroics.

Web 2.0 has reminded us that communication is a two-way street. We now expect books not only to “speak” to us but to engage us in conversation. Our concept of “reader,” “listener,” and “audience” is thus shifting from receiver to participant. Yet the notion of art as participation is not at all new. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven wrote string quartets to be played by amateurs at home. At performances of Rossini’s opera, audiences cheered beloved singers to demand encores that would necessarily interrupt the tale. Even today K-12 students learn music by doing—by performing in school choirs, bands, and orchestras—and every orchestra uses pre-concert talks and program notes to invite concertgoers to grow as listeners by learning about the music they’ll hear.

Most exciting to me, however, are the initiatives that recognize the continuum between amateur and professional musicians. These see our audiences as not just listeners but as music makers and rekindle a vibrant musical substrate of amateur performance. Just go to YouTube to see such amateurs in actions. Countless “lovers” of music are recording the results of their home-based communion with classical music to share their private study of Bach Inventions or Chopin Nocturnes with family and friends.

(You can see some more examples here, here and here.)

Orchestras can do much to engage and even inspire amateur music making in their audiences. The SFSO’s hugely successful choral, instrumental and chamber music participation project—Community of Music Makers—represents just the tip of an iceberg that could include:

  1. selling sheet music for various instruments and ability levels in orchestra gift shops; recommendations by the orchestra’s musicians could guide the would-be musician here;

  2. serving as a match maker for music lessons and instrument sales in the community through partnerships with local schools and businesses;

  3. hosting recitals by community musicians and ensembles in an orchestra’s prestigious venue;

  4. sharing amateur performance videos made by the orchestra’s fans through the ensemble’s website;

  5. partnering with amateur community orchestras and choirs to provide instruction, e.g., having orchestra musicians teach wind and string sectionals.

  6. Many more ideas that I hope you’ll contribute in the comment section below…

Personally, I very much enjoy traditional orchestral concerts, but such concerts are just one end of a long and broad continuum that connects top-flight professional performance with devoted amateur musicians in the middle and beginning music students at the other end. Our orchestras function best as the pinnacle of a raucous and thriving community of music makers who celebrate the power of music in their lives everyday and every which way. Long live the amateur!

—Mark Clague

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