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An Animateur’s Journey: A report from the field

0 Thomas Cabaniss
treasure map Editor's Abstract

More and more orchestras, particularly in Europe, are availing themselves of the services of an animateur. What is an animateur? The English version of Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it, and the French version states that an animateur is one who animates a group of people. Not a very helpful definition, is it?

So I’ll let Thomas Cabaniss, composer and animateur with the Philadelphia Orchestra, tell you exactly what it means and what he does in that capacity for the orchestra.

Ann Drinan

I’d better get the most pertinent question out of the way, the one I get most often. So, what is an animateur? The word is French, meaning, variously:

to animate, to bring to life, to enliven, to spark, to create, to produce

The tradition of having an animateur as an integral part of an orchestra is, curiously, British. Many orchestras in the U.K. have animateurs on staff (some are orchestra musicians and some are composers); they are musicians who are committed to community work. That’s what an animateur is, but what does one do?

An animateur is charged with seeing that audiences get a chance to connect to the orchestra and its music in new ways. He or she helps the players as they develop techniques for reaching out to the communities in which they reside – in my case, in Philadelphia and its surrounds. The notion of hiring an animateur in Philadelphia came out of an institution-wide planning process that started at the beginning of Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure as music director in 2003. The motto that came out of that process was “raising the invisible curtain.” The Philadelphia Orchestra, influenced by many of the innovations of the London Symphony Orchestra (and its animateur Richard MacNichol), was interested in addressing the divide that can sometimes arise between performers and their audiences. Philadelphia recognized that even when the orchestra is playing the most beautiful music in spectacular fashion, there can be members of the audience who, for one reason or another, feel left out or disengaged. And similarly, there are times when the orchestra can feel disconnected from its audience. An animateur is one of the many strategies employed to try to change that equation.

It’s not just a whimsical choice. The orchestra field has been working on this question in different ways, through marketing surveys, educational research projects, and think tanks. And there does seem to be a clear set of findings from all the data collection. We know that 85% of our present orchestra audiences have had some kind of meaningful musical experience in their lives: they played an instrument, sang in a choir, performed in a drum circle – they participated in music. From education research, we know that participation through hands-on experiences is a central part of learning, retention, and motivation for repeated engagement in a field of knowledge.

So, how does an orchestra go about getting its audience to participate without it interrupting or intruding on the concert experience? This has probably been the stickiest question we have been dealing with over the last few years, and though we don’t have all the answers, here are three of our experiments and their (preliminary) results:


  • Create more direct contact between the musicians and the audience – We have instituted regular meet and mingle sessions after subscription concerts that feature a particular instrument or section from the orchestra, an informal practice which we are now publicizing. Both musicians and audiences report that they are energized by this interaction. At our summer venues (The Mann Center, Saratoga), the musicians have initiated the practice of greeting the audience personally from the stage prior to the conductor’s entrance. Each night a different member gives the welcome. The musicians have developed a set of techniques to make those two-minute greetings charming, often funny, yet elegantly connected to the concert experience to come.
  • Experiment with the concert format – From the beginning of my time in Philadelphia, the musicians were clear that our experiments needed to include the concerts themselves – that we couldn’t just create nifty interactions before and after the concerts, but we needed to see how concerts might be different with more participation. Our primary laboratory for this has been a four-concert series aimed at creating a new kind of concert experience, which we call our “Access” series. (Many major orchestras around the country, including Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have similar experiments underway, and as usual, some of the smaller and midsize orchestras have been far ahead of the trend.) Our concerts are earlier and shorter (7 PM start and 75 minutes long), and they feature explorations of the music prior to a complete performance of one work. The experiments with participation have ranged from the grand (Christoph Eschenbach conducts the entire audience performing a Beethoven 6-inspired thunderstorm) to the intricate (an audience member is allowed to control the entrances and exits of the various layers found in Vivaldi’s winter rainstorm in The Four Seasons). Musicians routinely demonstrate signature motives, reveal aspects of their own process, and express their opinions about the music they are playing. We use a variety of visual elements, including specially created videos, slides, and live, large screen close-ups for the balcony crowd.
  • Foster artistic collaborations between the musicians and community members – Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of my job is to help create the conditions for orchestra musicians to do creative projects in the community. The highlight from the 06-07 season was a workshop project that involved senior citizens and teenagers from Camden, NJ working with Philadelphia Orchestra members to write their own songs and stories. The workshop produced performance pieces featuring the seniors telling stories from their personal experiences, scored by musicians, some of whom were composing music for the first time in their professional careers. There were also songs with lyrics by workshop members, performed by Christoph Eschenbach and soprano Lucia Bradford. The grand finale extended the work to the whole orchestra, when they performed the group’s song “Full of Hope” at a free outdoor concert in Camden this past July. In addition to planning and facilitating the project and workshop sessions, I worked with the participants to orchestrate the song.


In addition to these three experiments, I have also worked with education and community partnership staff on family and school concerts, and in-school collaborations with both musicians and teaching artists. I have worked with marketing and PR staff on season announcement events, and I am currently helping to plan some of the orchestra’s festival programming. It’s a fascinating mix for me, and I have been honored to work with such dedicated artists and staff. The challenges are complex, some of our experiments fail, but it’s always interesting, and I do feel we are making progress.

In the end, the point of an animateur is to support musicians who are dedicated to ensuring that the interactions with our audiences are lively, creative, and inspiring – musicians who want to make sure that the music we play and love is made available to all our communities for a very long time to come. That’s not such a bad job description.

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