Open Waters

Open Waters was a terrible movie that you've never heard of. Don't watch it. It's bad. Instead of watching that, you should check out Kristin Center's Kickstarter project. It's about music and bees. Well, rather, using music to help increase awareness of certain social/environmental problems that we are facing. In this case, bees. It's a pretty cool project, with or without the bees. Music has long been used as a vehicle for social ideas and ideals, whether it's Wager's Gesamtkunstwerk in art, Shostakovich's private rebellion against dictatorship and authoritarianism, or Schoenberg's revolutionary ideals in the emancipation of dissonance. In fact, it is difficult to find any composer whose music doesn't put forth some social idea or another. Even Cage, or rather especially Cage, was putting forth a social and personal ideal when he was using chance procedures to create his music.

All of this is very interesting. You could spend a whole tenure writing about this idea. But it gets academic rather quickly. Instead, I want to talk about a different aspect of Kristin's project that we can abstract and extract for ourselves. This is where the open waters come in.

Bloody Oceans, Blue Oceans

I read some time ago a business book titled "Blue Ocean Strategy." The book itself is not so great. The idea, however, is quite relevant to the problems we face in Classical Music. The central idea was, there are two kinds of markets (sitting on extremes across from each other, of course): bloody oceans and blue oceans. Bloody oceans are markets where there is intense, vociferous, often cutthroat competition. Blue oceans are areas where there is very little competition because nobody is there.

If you consider the current market for classical musicians, the symphonies are most obviously bloody oceans. There are so many players competing for almost no spots in the symphony. The first few rounds of cuts are essentially a total gamble. You might as well be playing the lottery. This is bad business as a musician, pure and simple. We don't want to gamble our entire livelihood. We want to create something reasonable and sustainable.

This brings us to the blue oceans. Kristin's project represents a blue ocean. Not only is she using her classical training in combination with her singer/songwriter skills, but she is using that music in a way which is not often (or ever) used by contemporary classical musicians. You never see the symphony using their music to draw awareness towards social issues. It's just pure music. That's not a bad thing. I'm just pointing out the difference, and why the market Kristin is entering into is open.

Breaking Bad Boxes

Right now, the audition market is so bloody because of our preconceived notions. We have an idea in our head of what a successful classical musician looks like. That musician is usually wearing a tux or a black dress on stage with a bunch of other musicians wearing tuxes and black dresses. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in a symphony. However, right now, it's a terrible market to be in. Total buyer's market, and us musicians are the sellers.

If we want to move forward and find success, we must start redefining success for ourselves. We must start driving forward in new, possibly risky directions. But consider this question. Which is riskier: going with a risky plan, or gamble your musical livelihood in the 1/10,000 odds feeding frenzy that is the symphony audition? I know my answer. It's not necessarily your answer. But you must answer it.

With Our Powers Combined...

Today will be about kindergarten. Remember that? Remember how your teacher was always like, "Make sure you share your toy, Billy. Sally, don't hog all the crayons." and the like? That's what today's article is about. It's about sharing.

As musicians, we have a tricky line to tow. Our business is collaborative by nature. But it is also competitive. Symphonies are by definition groups of musicians playing together. But when a chair becomes vacant and the symphony holds open auditions, well... it's blood in the water. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Love and war and all that. The point is, our business is odd.

What I think has happened in recent years, though, is we musicians have learned to view each other almost exclusively as competition. Now, I am happy the musicians I know aren't like this, but I have met my fair share of musicians who need to take some happy pills and stop acting like a cornered ferret all the time. To be sure, I am not arguing to end competition between musicians. That competition can be healthy and useful. It's just about balance. We must collaborate if we are to succeed in our field.

The Feud Fugue

Before I continue, a short note about competition. Brahms and Wagner, for instance. Two of the great musical minds during the late 19th century. Also centers of some of the most vitriolic competition between fans as we are ever likely to see again. I'd hardly wish for those times to recur. However, there is something to be said about the... enthusiasm which permeated the scene. It wasn't just an argument of music. It rarely is. It was an argument of values. And what is this blog but an attempt to convince others that classical music is something worth valuing?

Disagreements in and of themselves are not a bad thing. They can certainly get out of hand. But a disagreement is a sign that people care about the issue at hand. If people don't value something, they won't take the time to argue about it. However, disagreements can escalate to the point they stifle innovation, destroy competition, and otherwise make a scene so insufferable that it actively repels potential fans. That is the competition we must strive to avoid. In short, we must avoid becoming Congress.


The important thing to note is, our current supply of classically trained musicians far exceeds the demand for them. Hundreds of musicians will show up to the first cut of a major symphony audition. All but one will be turned away, where players will either suck it up and try, try again, or fall into the Wastebasket of Disappointing Reality.

But there is hope! A recent survey by the Philharmonia Orchestra found some 8/10 people listen to classical music with some regularity at home and in the car. The usual skepticism applies: lies, damn lies, and statistics, you know. But if there is any grain of truth to this, it is a sign that while the symphony market is over saturated with musicians, the audience market is not. And here is where sharing comes into play.

In order to find success, we must be able to tolerate each other to a point where we help each other promote each other's works and concerts and services. Think of it like this: if you're available to play a wedding on a Saturday night, but there are three weddings happening that night, you can't fill that demand. But if you pay the favor to another group and say "Yeah, those guys are awesome, too, you should talk to them," then, unless you are dealing with total assholes, the favor will come around back to you. Pay it forward, and all.

Similarly, there is very little to lose in helping promote the work of people who are not in your market. Musicians, even classically trained ones, often know many people who play different genres. But though the musician's market is separate, the audience's favored listening will often be split among many different genres. While another musicians work may appear to have nothing in common with yours, you never know where the Venn Diagram of Musical Consumption will overlap. You also begin to reap the benefits of an extended circle of contacts, helping you eventually meet Kevin Bacon. And who wouldn't want to meet Kevin Bacon? Not anyone I want to know, that's for sure.

Playing Doctor

Today's post is about interactivity! It's not just enough to play music. It's not just enough to have Happy Feelings Time. Those are both necessary, but it's the bits that fill the cracks that will be the glue holding it all together.

Music is ultimately about human connection. If the people in the audience don't feel like the musician is an actual person, the audience will not relate as well to the player. This happens with some frequency, as symphonies bring soloists in to perform concerti. The hope is, the sheer virtuosity presented will be enough to draw people. Problem 1. Most people don't know who Liszt is. Problem 2. Most people don't know who the soloist is, either. That's two strikes already. The third strike is the feeling that the value of the concert is not worth the ticket price. And out.

Happy Feelings Time is a great way to start. It allows lay people to meet the musicians in question, shake hands with them, realize the musicians are actual people. But there's a lot more we can do to help connect the audience to the stage. One is talking to the audience. Another is interactive concerts.

Table Talk

One of the simplest ways to create interactivity and bonding is to talk to the audience. Here is what happens in a concert today: Orchestra sits on stage. They warm up, and there's general cacophony for fifteen minutes. Curtain call happens, and the orchestra settles down. Lights dim. 10% of the audience falls asleep because the chairs are comfy and the lights are out. Concert master walks out to halfhearted applause. Orchestra tunes. 20% of the audience is out like a light. Conductor walks out to slightly more than halfhearted applause, but only from the people who have managed to stay awake and from the somnambulists. Conductor bows, then utterly ignores the audience. 30% is dozing. Baton lifts. Concert starts.

What's missing? That most basic of human interaction: talking. The best part about it is, at a concert, you likely don't have to cater to deaf people. I mean, maybe you want to cover your bases. Just in case. Anyways. It's amazing how much connection can be accomplished if the people in the audience actually feel like they are being addressed personally. You don't even have to talk that much! Thank them for coming out. Tell them why you like the piece you are about to play, why you are passionate about it, and that you hope to convey that same passion to them. Maybe throw in a joke or two. Like this: What's the difference between Beethoven and a cat? The cat can sing in tune. And make sure to shake it up. Remember Durdle the Turtle. You don't want him around too much.

Happy Feelings Time is, by nature, talk oriented, as well. It's even better because people are drinking alcohol. Speaking of which! You should be allowed to bring alcohol and drinks into the concert hall. All music gets better when you are a little bit toasted. The drawback is, you get old couples playing footsie with each other rather than listen to your performance. But no. Don't think of it as a drawback! Think of it as a goal! If your music can draw the attention of footsie playing elders, you're doing really, really well.

Until Tomorrow!

I have decided to make my blog posts shorter. People are busy. I'm busy. I still want depth, but it will be spread out a little more for my sanity and yours. If I'm writing 5 days a week, I want to pace myself. So! This is all for today. Have a great day. If you don't have a little coffee, or meditate a little, or pray or whatever it is you do. Then listen to good music. It's amazing what good music will cure.

The Doctor is In

So yesterday I talked a little bit about interacting with your audience, and how even a little bit of per-performance talking can go a long ways towards building rapport with the people you want to keep around. There are other ways of doing this, as well. Q&A sessions with people who pay a little extra, maybe with a little wine and cheese. Happy Feelings Time, of course of course. A little brainstorming, and I'm sure you can come up with more ways of interacting with the audience. Today, though, I'm going to talk about something else. I'm going to talk about interactivity in concerts.

Boulez may be a bit of dick, but...

There's this composer you may or may not have heard of. His name is Pierre Boulez. When I was tube surfing on the YouTubes, I came across a fascinating video. If I am not mistaken, it was a concert directed specifically at Conservatoire students, but it appeared to be an open concert, as well. At this concert, he was conducting his own music. Boulez is one of those composers whose music is often labelled "difficult" here in America. That is, his music is not just a rabbit, but a Babbitt Rabbit as well. But here was a nearly full hall, including music students, musicians, and lay people, all gathered to hear his music. Granted, this was in France, and European concerts tend to feature more "difficult" music than here in America, but he was doing something I have never seen in America. He was breaking his music down into its musical parts, and discussing how they all fit together into the piece they were about to hear.

It was a phenomenal use of time. Yes, he took about 20 minutes just laying the nuts and bolts out, but by the end of it all, you knew how to listen to his piece. You knew what to expect, how it was put together. You could no longer make the claim that it was all just "random nonsense," because he was so clear, so lucid, you would have to either be totally, or willfully, dense to not get it. I was blown away. Here was a man who knew how to connect with his audience. True, he was using his own music as an example, but it worked. I walked away from that concert respecting Boulez a bit more than I had before.

Yes, but he's a Stinky Cheeseman Frenchy. What about us patriotic Americans?

Well, here in America we have a similar, but far less avant garde, conductor. We have Michael Tilson Thomas. He is director of the San Francisco Symphony, as well as the New World Orchestra. These are great institutions, but what I really want to spotlight is the TV series Keeping Score. In each episode, he discusses a specific work in its historical and musical contexts, as well as how that piece personally relates to the composer who wrote it. If you haven't seen any of these documentaries, they are really wonderful. Thomas is a genial and, just as importantly, knowledgeable host. He not only discusses the music, but plays some of it as well. He's kind of like... Well, he's kind of like a contemporary Bernstein, who used television to similar effect, bringing classical music into the homes of millions across America.

Concluding paragraph

If you want to connect to your audience, talk with them. Discuss the music. Bring it into a place where the audience feels they can relate to it. Or failing that, at least understand it. Break the music apart. Show how it's put together. Like Boulez. But just as importantly, make the music human again. Like Tilson Thomas. Building understanding will get people to respect you. Building humanity will get people to come back for more. You need both, which is tricky... But it's doable. It must be, or we die. In a fire. While being eaten by raptors. Sneaky, sneaky raptors...

The Great Musician Appearing Act

Yesterday, I wrote about community in the classical music world. More specifically, I wrote about the lack of any kind of community between the musicians and the audience. Today, I shall write about the most important aspect of building a community: presence. Presence is a larger concept of which Happy Feelings Time is a part. Basically, it comes down to the question: Do people know who you are?

In the case of, say, the Dallas Symphony, many people in the Dallas area know the Symphony exists. Very much fewer are the people who know the man who conducts it, or who the concert master is. Can you imagine a sports fan not knowing the names of their favorite team's members? No, you can't. Why? Because those people are invested. And just as importantly, a sports team is present in the lives of their fans. It is that level of attachment we must try to build, and to do that, we must be in the public eye as often as possible.

The Advertising Fallacy

Advertising provides presence. That can't be denied. However, it is wrong to assume advertising is the solution to all of our problems. I hear advertising for the Dallas Symphony all the time... on the Classical station. And audience levels are still rather low, excepting large performances of Carmina Burana or Britten's War Requiem.

Here's the thing. Advertising is there to let people know you exist. But if your presence in the public sphere doesn't extend beyond that, you cannot expect advertising to do all your work for you. Think of Coca Cola. They advertise. A lot. But they are also everywhere. Coke in McDonald's, Coke in restaurants, Coke at ball parks, Coke at the movies. Everywhere you can go where you can buy drinks, Coke is there. Coke's presence is as much part of that company's success as the advertising reminding people they should drink Coke. Reminding people "Yes, Coke is still here. Keep drinking."

Now, I doubt an orchestra can expect to have the same level of presence as Coca Cola. Unless you can put our Symphonies into liquid form and export that. Somehow, I do not expect such a thing to be palatable. Not only would it be a pulpified meat smoothie, it would also have to be served at such a temperature for the metals of the brass section to be melted. That is far too hot. The strings would make such a temperature a veritable fire hazard.

Playing for the People

The trick is, you have to get yourself out there. Sports teams, for instance. They have a game. They play on a field. How do fans know what's going on? They broadcast it. Why aren't orchestras broadcasting their concerts? Perhaps because of a fear that, should the concert be broadcast, people wouldn't bother to show up. And yet people go to sports games. Why? Because it's always better live. And what about the people who don't go? They're likely the people who wouldn't have gone anyways. But now they're watching, and you're making advertising money off of them.

Broadcasting helps people keep in touch, but orchestras have an advantage over sports teams: we don't need a rival team to play. Much better is to make sure to keep playing in very public areas. Dallas now has Klyde Warren Park, which has a stage, which could be used to the Symphony and Opera's advantage. There are always charitable events which could be played for. Churches are another popular place in Dallas. Bars and pubs. Etc. Etc. The list goes on.

"But how do we fit an entire symphony in these places?" Don't be so dense. You don't need to. You break the symphony into smaller pieces, and make sure the audience knows they are playing on the symphony's behalf. Chamber music shouldn't just be a treat that pops up from time to time. It should be happening as close to always as you can get. And there's no lack of opportunities, either. You just have to make them.

The great part about this is, you get extra advertising space. Fliers can be passed around, email lists can be signed, posters can be hung, shirts can be bought... Oh right, there's that. Hold on.


Imagine! Dallas Symphony shirts, Symphony hoodies, symphony lunch boxes, Jap van Zweden figurines with judo-chop action, Symphony flame throwers! The sky's the limit!

And now back to our regular paid programming

But more important than the expanded advertising space is the fact that the players in the symphony are seen. They are heard. They are perhaps, occasionally, sniffed a little. People all over the city get the chance to meet the symphony not as a monolithic entity, but as individuals. The audience gets to shake hands with actual people, and the performers get to actually play the solos they always wanted to play. It's win win!

And also, they are still performing, which means lots of Happy Feelings Time after. So much Happy Feelings!

Granted, there are issues with monetizing events and paying performers. Ideally, these events would be as cheap as possible, or even free (gasp! goes the Board of Directors). But it could be done. I'm sure of it.

Now go out and play! Happy Feelings Time everywhere, with everyone! Whee!