Naked Twister

Today I'm going to talk about getting hammered and playing awesome party games. Like, this one time, at band camp... Wait, no. I'm going to talk about community. Yes. Yes... This is something that I feel is missing from the classical music scene. Community. You know, groups of people getting together and sharing time with each other and bonding over something that everybody mutually enjoys. Like naked Twister. Or Bach. Granted, the classical music community as it stands would not be my first choice for naked Twister. But that's how you know you have a problem.

...and then my own snoring woke me up

The thing about community is, it's not just some random group of people. It's people who share something. The anime community, for example, shares its love for school girl uniforms. The video game community shares its arguments over whether Shephiroth was the best villain of all time or just the whiny mama's boy everybody should know he is. The important thing here is, people don't just get together at an anime convention, watch some anime, and go home. No. People often fly hundreds of miles and book hotel rooms for a weekend so they can be around other anime lovers and argue with them.

Now, I went to the symphony for a while before I realized it was a boring dull affair that isn't worth the money. Why is it boring and dull? Is it all the old people? Is it the stultifying pretensions? Is it the lack of a decent shot of whisky? Well, yes to all of this in part, but what I'm really concerned about is the following not uncommon scenario:

You drive 30 minutes or more in traffic to get downtown. You pay too much for parking. You hand over the ticket you paid a lot for. You go inside and are shuffled to your seat by well meaning, genial, and otherwise invisible ushers. You sit for 15 minutes waiting for the orchestra to enter. You listen, clap after the first movement because it was awesome and it seems the natural thing to do, then realize everyone else is looking at you like an idiot. The orchestra finishes. You get up, go to your car, and drive 30 minutes to go home.

Alright. That is your suburbanite's typical experience going to the symphony. When you put it in such stark terms, it's no wonder they never go! Heck, I live practically right next door and I never go either, simply because it's not worth my money or my time. If I want to hear the pieces I want to hear, I have the internet. If I want to go to the symphony, I need something more. What do I need? I need a community.

Happy Feelings Time

To me, community means a number of things. But mostly it means people are talking to each other. Drinks are had. Laughter and arguments and occasionally a pillow fight. Maybe some mud wrestling. A trip to the symphony lacks exactly all of these things. Maybe the director says a few words while people fall asleep in their seats. But look how different this is from Beethoven's time.

Beethoven didn't just play for anything. He played for gatherings, parties. Mostly rich people parties, but parties nonetheless. The musicians may have been the main event, but it was still part of a larger social structure. People met Beethoven. They shook his hand! Can you imagine? I can't imagine shaking the hand of a living composer unless I'm in the symphony itself. All of the cool stuff is happening behind closed doors. We never get the chance to meet the musicians, we never get to hear their stories, we never get to connect with anyone on stage. There's no humanity in the symphony.

You know good bands do? They meet with their fans. They shake their hands. Maybe autograph a breast or two. They may not like it, depending on how everything is going, but they do it anyways. Because after the show, it's Happy Feelings Time. That's when everybody is going around talking about how great the show was, how glad they were to pay the ticket price, how that one girl threw her panties at the lead singer and OMG I can't believe she did that. And the band members are there, and they're taking pictures, and it's all a good time. Happy Feelings Time.

Right now, the symphony doesn't have Happy Feelings Time. It has nothing, in fact. You go in, you go out, thank for your money, chumps. That's not what is said, but that is what is implied. No, you have to do better than that. The soloist can't just be met by VIPS, everybody has to have to opportunity to meet them. And probably not just the soloist, either. The conductor, the principle chairs, heck the whole orchestra should go out and have an good time drinking their prune juice or whatever it is they're drinking nowadays. Yeah, it lengthens your night. Yeah, it can be grueling. But that's what great bands do all the time. You're not going to be shown up by Lady Gaga, are you? Because that's what's happening right now.

The Need for Security

Basically, what I'm saying is, we might want to rethink how the symphony experience should look altogether. I think, if we don't need to hire security to make sure things don't get too out of hand, it's not good enough. Of course, I only really think that because hyperbole is fun. I'm only half joking, though. You don't want people to just "go to the symphony." You want people to "experience the symphony." And not just the performance, either. The whole symphony. All of it. We need Happy Feelings Time, and we need some naked Twister all up in here.

The Art of Programming Conclusion: Just Look at Them Bones!

Our intrepid flatulaphonist has made it this far. He has decided whether he is acquiring audience members, or retaining the ones he's got. He has two rubrics in hand: machine guns and sniper rifles; rabbits and turtles. Now it's time to arm the troops for glorious combat in service to the motherland.

Context is everything

First off, the two extremes of the rubrics do not line up exactly with the two goals I have listed. For example, it could be that the machine gun style of programming is better suited to audience acquisition. Perhaps. But that does not mean that is its only use. Similarly, turtle pieces are perhaps better suited to audience retention, but not necessarily. Low risk pieces can also be an audience draw because they're probably pieces the layman has heard or can more easily identify with.

This is part of why programming is so difficult. Everything changes depending on what you're trying to accomplish. And we haven't even considered understanding the strengths of the conductor and the orchestra, yet. But lets ignore that and just think about how programs might be made with audience acquisition in mind. It is highly unlikely anybody has even heard of a flatulaphone, much less thought of attending a flatulaphone recital. We should name our heretofore anonymous flatulaphonist. His name shall be Fred.

Accuracy by Volume

We'll start with high variety programs. The idea here, if you will recall, is to present a large and diverse group of smaller pieces with the hope that something sticks. You don't particularly care that individual pieces resonate with the entire audience, just that everybody gets something they can walk away with going "Yeah, that Claire de Lune is such an awesome piece. I had no idea a flatulaphone could be so transparent and beautiful!" You also get the added benefit of discussion as audience members argue over which pieces were more worth their time. "What do you mean you like Claire de Lune?! That piece is such overplayed tripe. And it was in the Twilight movie! How can I possibly take it seriously? No, no, the Moonlight Sonata is where it's at."

You get bonus points if a fistfight starts, or you have to call security. This is in general, but nothing sells tickets faster than a good old fashioned audience riot.

Anyways. There's two directions I see that are valid. One is to take this type of program and fill it with turtles. The much maligned Andre Rieu does this all the time. He plays waltzes, polkas, and other generally popular and/or inoffensive pieces. The end result is a concert which appeals to just about everybody... at some point or another. But it's like cold calling. People don't remember the misses. They remember that part where it seemed like the medium communicated with them personally. That's where it's at.

The other direction I see is to take the opportunity to sneak in some rabbits. Higher risk pieces which may not resonate with many audience members, but you can get away with it because there are other sure hits which will cleanse the palate for those who found the rabbit's antics distasteful. There's probably a limit to what you can push on the audience. And yet consider: if you are specifically targeting newer audience members who are not yet acclimated to classical music culture, they will not know Schoenberg is almost universally maligned. Without previous expectations, they are more likely to listen with open ears. That doesn't mean they'll like it. But it does mean they'll probably give the risky piece a chance simply because "they don't know any better."

I personally like the second direction better because it will open up your programming options in the future. If the audience expects you to introduce pieces they've never heard before, but feel they can trust your taste in selecting them, you'll have a much easier time getting people to come back for more.

The Household Name and the Sniper Rifle

Lets say you want to attract audience members but still want to play big pieces. This is trickier, but not impossible. The best course of action here is probably turtles. If somebody is going to a concert featuring one or two pieces, they don't really want to spend their evening listening to somebody they've never heard of. Heavy hitters like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or Shostakovitch are all big draws.

The main issue here is, you can easily stagnate your repertoire if you're focused only on turtles. Over time, you become predictable, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but can lead to disinterest as you aren't presenting anything new and shiny to hold attention. It's all about the contrast. To that end, it's best not to focus entirely on one or two pieces. You might have one big symphony in the program, and then the rest of it is divide up machine gun style to keep things fresh.

A word of caution: it is tempting to view soloists as audience draws. While it's true the virtuosity brought by a concerto generally leads to good audience reaction, you cannot expect any random soloist to attract the attention of new audience members. Soloists draw sales because people can identify with them, because there's a face and a story that is familiar. Rostropovich wasn't world famous just because he was the best cellist of all time. He was also a political mover and shaker, had a personality, had gravitas. Soloists today usually just have a list of awards. That's not a story. That's a resume. If you're trying to attract new people with a soloist, you'll have to do better than that.

The Rabbit in the Rain

It may seem like the rabbit gets the short end of the stick, here. It's difficult. Risk is always difficult. But risk must be taken to keep the art form alive. The best way to turn a risk into not as risky is to make it a regular feature. If people come to expect modern and contemporary pieces, then they will come for that. There are, however, some difficulties. Certain repertoire is so difficult for the audience that it will simply never get performed, even if those pieces are masterworks. Here is where a well designed educatory program can help the most. That's another discussion, though.


Audience attraction will depend greatly upon a balance of pieces they are familiar with and pieces that are new to them. You want pieces that are riskier in your programs because you can't become staid and predictable. That's where the audience retention part comes in. If people always know what to expect, they'll lose interest. At the same time, you can't be doing random things all the time. Familiarity and novelty are your two main tools, within whatever program structure you choose.

Finally, a word about pacing. You want to start strong and end strong. Stuff in the middle can be whatever, but should still have shape. Programming is a lot like composition. You're taking the audience on a ride with ups, downs, curves, and loops. Slow pieces and fast pieces and middling pieces should all be carefully placed to help keep the audience's interest. Modality is also a big issue, because it lets you create progression through the program. What I'm trying to say is, if you've got a piece in Brown Note Minor, you should save it for the big climax at the end. It'll make for a performance no one will ever forget.

The Art of Programming Part I. Machine Guns and Sniper Rifles.

Last Friday's article sparked some discussion. I am pleased with this. Most pleased indeed. *strokes hairless cat*

There a lot of good points made, and I wanted to incorporate some to create a more nuanced art of programming, as well as address one comment in particular. For those who are not classical music aficionados, 'programming' is the word we use for "selecting pieces for a concert." Usually the discussion ends there. "Did you select pieces for your flatulaphone recital? Yes? Done." More discerning people will ask something like, "Did you select pieces in more than one key? No, every piece is in 'The Brown Note' minor. Please change the program, for the love of..." Very rarely will someone enter the world asking the truly pertinent question. "What the heck is a flatulaphone?"

Clearly, we're missing something in our discussion of programming. But before I elaborate, I wanted to rebut (he heh... but...) a comment made by one of my friends. Perhaps rebut (pfpfpfff....) is not the right word. But (OMG) anyways. The comment is paraphrased as such: "The reason programming is not discussed more often is because it is such a personal issue." The implication seeming to be either, 1. It's so personal there's no use talking about it at all (which I do not think was the intent of the comment) or 2. It's so personal it is very difficult to make generalizations about the art, and so people just avoid it rather than deal with it.

I think the second point is actually the more relevant issue. The first one is easily dismissed: music and interpretation are, after all, highly personal arts, yet we talk about them all the time. They are arts we are much more comfortable discussing, though, and given the human tendency to avoid looking like an idiot at all costs, well... We'd rather maintain silence than remove all doubt. Nevertheless! If we're going to make progress at all, somebody is going to have to look dumb, and it might as well be me. So here I go!

Goal Setting

In my experience, I have never really heard this come up in the realm of classical music. It is likely because goal setting is more what those stuck up business people do. Well, guess what, people... Music is a business. Get over it. To get better, to compete, we have to realize what we are aiming for. And no, "being a financially solvent institution" does not count as a goal. That is called "a given."

As far as I can tell, there are two goals which are necessary. The first is audience acquisition, the second is audience retention. Which goal you are concerned with will change how you approach your programming.

Machine Guns vs. Sniper Rifles

There are also two extremes with which we can approach organizing a program. On one end, we have the classical kitchen buffet. You have a concert filled with pieces by different composers from different time periods, and it's all over the place. The advantages this type of organization can give you is you're much more likely to hit something somebody likes. It won't be everybody at the same time, but in general, it's hard to miss. Accuracy by volume, as it were.

The other extreme is to have a single work fill up the entire concert. Something like a Mahler symphony. The advantage here is the audience knows what they are getting and they are almost certainly going to be blown away by the awesomeness of the awesome music they want to hear. BOOM! Headshot!

Disadvantages of the Machine Gun approach are: not as much power, not as much accuracy, much more difficult to organize into a meaningful whole. Disadvantages of the Sniper Rifle include: a (potentially) more narrow target, often asks a great deal of the audience.

To my knowledge, there are a handful of large works that operate well under both methods. This hat-trick category include pieces like Britten's War Requiem, or Orff's Carmina Burana. They are large works which take up an entire concert, but are divided into a series of smaller chunks which provide the variety of the first method. It is not surprising that pieces such as these tend to fill up seats really well. The DSO was nearly sold out for Carmina Burana recently, and WAS sold out for Britten' War Requiem.

Ok, so a basic ground work has been laid. We have some goals. We have a metric to judge program structure. We have a flatulaphone. Now what is our flatulaphonist to do? You'll have to wait and find out! Join me next time when I discuss types of music you might want to program!

The Art of Programming II: Rabbits and Turtles

Yesterday I talked about programming concerts/recitals. More specifically, I talked about goal setting for your concerts, as well as the machine gun/sniper rifle spectrum of program structure. Today I'm going to talk about cute things. Today, I am going to talk about bunnies and turtles.

Wascawwy Wabbits

Once upon a time, there was a rabbit. He had a lot of friends, but because he was a bit of a dick, he didn't have any particularly close friends. On the other hand, people enjoyed his antics and generally liked having him around for parties. You were never really sure what the rabbit would come up with next. Sometimes, it was glorious fun. Other times, somebody shot their eye out while brandishing a Red Rider BB Gun with a compass in the stock.

Durdle the Turtle

On the other end of the forest lived Durdle the Turtle. He was a fine, upstanding citizen. He paid his taxes on time. He looked both ways when he crossed the street. He was very deliberate with his choices. Sometimes, it would take him weeks to decide what box of cereal to buy at the grocery store. Then he would realize, he was a turtle, and didn't eat cereal. BUT! If he did, he sure well knew which box of cereal he would get. Durdle was not very popular. He did not get invited to the reindeer games, and not just because he was not a reindeer. The friends he did have, however, were very loyal to him, and vice versa.


I bring up the Wascawwy Wabbit and Durdle the Turtle to help draw attention to the most basic of economic choices: risk vs reward. The rabbit is always taking risks. Sometimes, it pays off gloriously. Other times, it ends with a trip to the hospital. Durdle the Turtle is never taking risks. Sometimes, this lets him lead a safe and comfortable life. Other times, it leads him to choose a box of cereal he doesn't really need. He's also kind of boring.

So breaking it down to extremes: High risk versus low risk; high reward vs low reward. This makes a box. High risk/High Reward, Low Risk/High Reward, etc. etc. I hope I don't have to spell it all out.

Why talk about this at all? Because certain pieces of music will carry with them a certain amount of risk, and a certain amount of reward for taking that risk. The trick is, figuring out which is which. Occasionally, it is obvious. Schoenberg, bless his heart, is a very high risk proposition in American concert halls. The reward you might get from a concert featuring Schoenberg is a bit iffy, but in America, at least, the reward is likely to be rather low. Beethoven is generally rather low risk. People love Beethoven. It's also rather high reward. People love Beethoven!

In the art of programming, we need to carefully balance our risk. It is not that we can never play Schoenberg. It's just that we need to construct a context in which the risk of programming Schoenberg is mitigated by other factors. And it's not that we should always play Beethoven. While Beethoven is rarely boring, Durdle the Turtle always is. If you're constantly making low risk programs, people will lose interest. This means that we need to take a certain amount of gambles... while carefully balancing those gambles against much less risky programming choices.

The polls don't lie. Except when they do.

The big question is, how do you figure this all out? The most direct method is to just ask people what they like and what they want to hear. This has the advantage that you know exactly what to give the people. It has the disadvantage in that the people don't know what they didn't know they wanted to hear. That is, they will only choose piece based on their existing knowledge. Beethoven and Mozart will come up a lot. Schumann less so. Why? For the simple reason Schumann is less known. It has nothing to do with Schumann being a worse composer, far from it. Whenever I've seen or played Schumann, he has always been spectacularly received. He just doesn't have the same public image, and so won't jump to mind as readily.

Another method is less direct. You take opportunities to program lesser known works and judge the audience reaction. Was the applause polite or enthusiastic? Did the standing ovation seem obligatory or spontaneous? Was the audience falling asleep in their popcorn, or were they carefully paying attention throughout? Things like that. It takes careful observation from several perspectives. How did the orchestra feel they were received? How about the CEO in the audience? What about the ushers? What did everybody see and feel? That's how you tell what the audience felt. You have to watch closely and compare notes, because everybody has a different perspective, and it's only when you take them all together that you get a clear picture.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Alright. We're getting some focus here. We've got our goals. We've got our gun spectrum. We've got our rabbits and turtles. Now what is out poor befuddled flatulaphonist to do next? How do we start bringing this information together? Join me next time for the exciting conclusion to The Art of Programming: Building your Rabbit and Turtle Army! Time to crush our enemies, drive them before us, and hear the lamentations of their women!