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Empty Seats – What Can We Do?

0 Tina Ward
empty seats Editor's Abstract

Looking out at the audience during a performance and seeing lots of empty seats is a disheartening experience for any orchestral player. We’ve all heard that old adage about “the graying audience members,” but is it really so? Is there anything we as musicians can do to reverse this trend?

Tina Ward, a clarinetist with the Saint Louis Symphony, has been very active in her own orchestra as ICSOM delegate and has served on many orchestra committees. She was also an American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) Orchestra Management Fellow, which gives her a unique perspective on many aspects of orchestra life.

Tina offers her thoughts on what we musicians can do to improve the concert experience for the audience, in terms of employing audio-visual elements, making the concert more exciting for the audience, and enhancing the concert experience as a social event. Her lists of action items for orchestra musicians should instigate some lively conversations among your colleagues!

Ann Drinan

One evening last fall I was in the musicians’ lounge, awaiting the beginning of the evening Pops show and reading the memo from my box. The Pops, a magic show, was quite entertaining to me. All sorts of things were disappearing and appearing throughout the evening. The music behind the show was fun to play and of a meatier quality than many Pops shows. Unfortunately the memo, regarding attendance figures and total ticket sales, was not as pleasing to me. Although the hall often appeared only half full to me, the symphony’s ticket revenue was ahead of comparable sales last year. I interpreted that to mean that, although fewer people are attending our symphony orchestra concerts this year than last, we’ve managed to raise our ticket prices enough to make up the difference. I was not impressed. The fact that revenues were up has not stopped my concern about the vast number of empty seats that I see all too often as I look out into the audience.

For years I have pondered the question, “Is there anything that we, the musicians, could do to increase attendance?” I believe there are many things that we can do. My purpose in writing this article is to encourage every musician to look at what s/he can do so that the symphony as an art form continues to flourish in this new century. There has often been a belief that if we marketed better, had better conductors, etc., that all would be well. While it is always theoretically possible to do something better, perhaps doing the old things better is neither humanly possible given available resources nor the only route to salvation. I ask all musicians to consider with open minds what other changes we might make so that symphony orchestra concerts remain economically viable and artistically fulfilling and joyful.

With current audio equipment I can sit comfortably at home and listen to a CD that reproduces the sound of a concert. Not only that, but I can listen as many times as I would like for no additional cost. Why should I bother to go to a concert unless it offers me more than just an aural experience? There are at least three aspects of the live concert that go beyond the experience of merely listening:

  1. Visual Presentation
  2. Excitement
  3. Social interaction

A Concert Is an Audio-Visual Event

In public speaking it is common knowledge[i] that nonverbal communication accounts for most of a speaker’s message. The percentages usually referred to are: 55% for gestures, expressions, and movements; 38% for vocal qualities; and 7% for actual words. If we apply this concept to a symphony performance, over half of the overall effect is visual! In thinking back upon my musical training, the vast majority of emphasis was placed on the notes, and next upon the overall sound quality and expression; almost nothing was said about visual presentation. This emphasis is exactly the reverse of what the public speaking research indicates to be the order of importance.

During the past few years I have been attending concerts rather than performing them.[ii] Not only did I observe orchestras playing, but also I listened to intermission audience conversations (that is, I eavesdropped). Additionally I attended an audience focus group and listened to many discussions about audience comments. From this I know that the audience does observe what is happening on stage in detail. They enjoy watching musicians who are visibly engrossed in their music making. They wonder why so many musicians appear to be uninterested, bored and unhappy.

Now that I am back to performing, I realize how unaware of the audience and of visual presentation I tend to be while I am on stage. I think there are many reasons why I, and perhaps most musicians, have minimized awareness of the audience. To list just a few:

  • 1. The routine of playing so many concerts tends to take away the special event quality of individual concerts. Rehearsing and performing over 150 concerts a year makes the concert hall feel more like my living room than a place where I am on my best behavior. Indeed, I spend more time on stage than I do in my living room.
  • 2. I have donned my “orchestra black” so often that it truly is an everyday occurrence for me. During my years of performing I have developed a system to minimize my energy output in stage preparation. Out of curiosity, I timed my change from casual jeans to formal black. I was in and out of the dressing room in less than three minutes. I spent more time climbing the stairs to the dressing room than preparing to be on stage.
  • 3. Giving my best possible musical performance takes so much of my attention that I feel as though remaining aware of the audience and of how things look puts me into mental and emotional overload. It’s just too much to do all of the time so, over time, I have minimized the importance of acknowledging the audience. It’s just easier and more comfortable to make the audience invisible.
  • 4. Focusing on the hundreds or thousands of people out there listening tends to invoke a fear response within me. It is all too easy for me to go into my failure fantasy mode with a flurry of negative thoughts, such as, “What if I miss this note? What if I squeak? What if…?”
  • 5. In all of my musical training I received almost no instruction or guidance in stage etiquette and deportment and even less guidance in relating to and engaging the audience. Rather than risk the disapproval of the audience, I have just minimized their existence.

What Can We Do?

  • 1. When we have finished performing, we can place our focus on the audience and respond to their applause. It may be as simple as smiling and looking at the audience until they finish applauding.[iii] If you enjoy playing and are glad to be performing, let the audience see it in your gesture and expression.
  • 2. Wait to put away music and pack up until the audience finishes applauding. Putting away music, packing up and running off the stage at the first available moment gives the impression that we can’t wait to leave. We have invited guests to come to our house, the concert hall, asked them to pay, and given them a demonstration of our wonderful musical talents and skills. Then, when our guests applaud to thank us for the lovely evening, we do not even acknowledge their presence by looking at them and smiling. Instead we stand up, talk to each other, and busily pack up our things.
  • 3. Be aware that we are visible every moment that the audience is in the hall. We are on stage and should act accordingly. Take time to check your appearance on the way to the stage. Remember that someone notices each action and gesture on stage.
  • 4. Don’t talk during rests, announcements, and narration. Audience attention tends to be drawn to the activity of people on stage. We request that the audience not talk during our performance; let us offer the same courtesy to our colleagues and the audience.
  • 5. Experiment with some customs that are used successfully elsewhere in the concert halls of the world such as:
    • -Have the orchestra make a grand entrance as a whole at the beginning of the concert. In baseball, even though the team may have been on the field warming up, the players return to the dugout and are announced to begin the game.
    • -Ban cases and other nonessential items from the stage. All too often I have noticed miscellaneous papers, coffee cups, and generally unsightly messes spilling from instrument cases.
    • -Have an orchestra musician, when given a solo bow by the conductor, stand, bow to the audience, and then sit down, thus avoiding those uncomfortable moments when individuals are left standing amidst their seated colleagues.
  • 6. Experiment with dress codes. Traditionally orchestra members have dressed to minimize individuality and to keep a uniform appearance. In contrast, soloists tend to be acutely aware of the importance of their appearance. In recent years even male soloists and conductors have begun to appear in a greater variety of attire. Rather than attempting uniformity, individuals could be allowed and encouraged to dress in a more interesting, individual way. Even within the constraints of concert black, more variety could be allowed. Some concerts could be designated as special dress up events for both the orchestra and the audience. Women might wear colorful formal gowns and men black tie attire with the audience invited to wear the same. Similarly, there could be dress down concerts when more casual attire is worn by the orchestra and audience.
  • 7. Spend time and money looking good. The audience does notice what you wear and how you wear it. Perhaps orchestras could create an expense account for concert wear by putting aside an amount of money, to be paid to the musicians upon submitting receipts. Some orchestras have hired make-up artists for Halloween costume concerts. Perhaps makeup experts should be hired for a few regular concerts so that everyone on stage has appropriate instruction in how s/he might improve her/his appearance.
  • 8. Allow management to hire a consultant to work with orchestra members to improve their visual presentation. Professional theaters have a stage director who gives “notes” to the cast that include suggestions on all aspects of their performance. Much as we expect the conductor to offer us musical suggestions and guidance, perhaps we would give a better visual presentation if we had some coaching and suggestions from an appropriate professional.

A Concert Is a Unique, Exciting Event

Although most orchestras present many concerts a year, each concert is unique and can never be truly duplicated. It is the spontaneity, atmosphere, and excitement that, for me, set live music apart from recordings and create a truly unique, special, and magical event. A concert is a one-of-a-kind, totally handmade product.[iv]

We all seem to intuitively know when a special energy permeates a concert. The audience spontaneously and energetically responds. I tend to feel “up,” energized and happy, even though I may be physically fatigued.

All too often I feel it is exclusively up to the conductor to create this special atmosphere. After all, it is s/he who creates the overall shape to the composer’s score and is in the position to inspire or squelch my creativity and engagement. There are ways that we can encourage the excitement and creativity of live performance.

What Can We Do?

  • 1. Play in an exciting, committed manner. Each and every musician has the ability to do this. Although I always look outside myself for inspiration, ultimately it is my responsibility to play the best I can at every concert. For me, it takes more physical energy, concentration, and musical risk taking, but the rewards are well worth it. Although it is much easier to do this with an exceptional conductor, in a great hall, with great colleagues, and with a wonderful audience, it is possible to do it even in mediocre situations.
  • 2. Acknowledge and compliment orchestra players, soloists, and conductors who do have a special excitement and magic in their music making. Tell them. I respond well to positive feedback. Not only do I feel good, but also it gives me information on how I sound, how my part is fitting in, and how I am doing so that I can create an even better performance. Looking back upon my musical training, I was taught almost entirely by negative correction. I was told what I was doing wrong, which I would then work at correcting. Rarely was I ever told what I was doing that was right. Positive comments encourage me to play even better.
  • 3. Listen for audition candidates who play with a special musical magic. Risk passing players through to the next round who are able to tell a story musically. Although it is easier for an audition committee to eliminate players for technical and rhythmic imperfections, perhaps the quest for perfection is not as important as a musician who can say something truly special through her/his instrument.
  • 4. Experiment with audition protocol. Perhaps orchestras might revisit the old audition practice of not having excerpt lists. The audition committee might hear a truer level of general playing and overall quality by hearing unannounced selections rather than the perfect rendition of a small list of excerpts. This might also better demonstrate the experience level of the candidate.
  • 5. Encourage having successful candidates play in the orchestra for a substantial period of time. Use the probationary period as just that – a time of being on trial to see if a player is the right player for the job. As it is now, very few players are released in their probationary years. This creates undue pressure to get the “right” person in the audition. Or sign audition winners to a temporary contract of three or more months to create a significant period of time to see if the candidate truly is the right person. If it became standard orchestra procedure to grant a leave of absence for a player to go to another orchestra on a temporary contract, everyone could benefit. The new orchestra can determine on-the-job suitability and performance, the old orchestra can hire potential candidates, and the musician doesn’t loose her/his job security. Perhaps, if the audition committees were less concerned about getting the one perfect player, they might take more risks passing players to the next round or signing players to a temporary contract who show great musical potential, but still need a little refining or developing.
  • 6. Remain responsive to everything around you on stage. A concert is an event. It creates a mood. Be aware and sensitive to that mood and enhance it. Wait until the conductor puts down her/his hands at the end of a movement to move, shift music, tend to instruments, etc. Don’t fidget during quiet sections. Let the atmosphere of the music prevail.
  • 7. Listen for the special moments and don’t interrupt them visually or aurally. Perhaps swabbing out an instrument or emptying slides can wait until a very quiet section is over. I had been playing professionally for over twenty years before I discovered a way to quietly suck water out of a key rather than noisily blowing it out.
  • 8. Consider rehearsing in a venue other than the hall for subscription concerts. I find that rehearsing and performing in exactly the same acoustical environment allows me to be more comfortable and reassured. My sonic surroundings are familiar. But when I am on tour and playing a new venue every night, my ears are more alert. I have to pay more attention and make adjustments. Many tour concerts have a kind of brilliance and excitement that differ from those at home.

A Concert Is a Social Event

The audience is a group of individuals who interact with each other before, during and after a concert. Most people prefer attending with someone they know. Some people attend more for social reasons than for the music. Symphony Development departments have capitalized on the social aspects of a concert and have created rooms where higher level donors can go before the concert and during intermission. Social interaction is a human need – one that the best audio system cannot fill.

What Can We Do?

  • 1. Let people know you play in an orchestra. Tell them what excites you about your job. Invite people to concerts. Ask them if they’d like to come. No, I don’t necessarily mean that you should give them tickets. Give them brochures. Point out concerts they might find particularly interesting. I carry brochures in the trunk of my car so that, if someone expresses interest, my stash of materials is only as far away as my car. I never realized how important the personal connection was until one of my neighbors told me that now that I am back playing, she would like to go to a concert. Having previously met a musician who is on the stage is a tremendous draw. It makes a concert become a personal interaction.
  • 2. Use comp tickets to introduce new people to orchestra concerts. Rather than taking the easy route of giving tickets to family members or friends, make an effort to give them to people who would not otherwise come. Giving away tickets to people who will actually use them is time consuming. The best way I know to introduce someone to a symphony orchestra is to have her/him come to a concert to which s/he has been personally invited and where s/he knows s/he is welcome and valued.
  • 3. Be a good host. If there is someone in the audience you know, talk to her/him. Acknowledge her/him. Answer questions. Although it may not be appropriate to talk to them from the stage, a look and a smile can acknowledge her/him. Talk to the patrons you recognize while entering and leaving the hall. Introduce them to other orchestra members. Relationships are built on a one-on-one basis.
  • 4. Participate in events in which orchestra members interact with the audience. This might be an after concert reception or a speaking engagement. Perhaps orchestras should experiment with some new ways of mingling musicians, soloists, and conductors with the audience.[v] I have seen theatre companies in which the cast forms a receiving line in the lobby after every performance and speaks to the audience as they leave the theatre.[vi] Sports teams have special days for meeting the players, taking pictures, etc. What if we experimented and had varying groups of musicians stationed in the lobby or the front of the stage after each concert to talk to the audience, thank them for coming, and receive their congratulations?
  • 5. Be an ambassador. Everywhere you go you represent your symphony orchestra. Be the best representative you can be. Your enthusiasm and love of music is contagious if you just let it be known.

It is time for us to take action. At the very least we should be discussing, creating, encouraging, and participating in innovative strategies. Audience development is no longer something management can do alone. We can be a significant force in this process. Let my list be just the beginning of new efforts by musicians and the entire orchestra family working together to fill halls to capacity for every concert.


[i] Malcom Kushner, Public Speaking for Dummies®, p. 243.

[ii] For almost three years I was physically disabled from playing. During that time I attended concerts in several cities. Also I participated in a retreat where I heard Board members, management staff, conductors, and musicians frankly discuss problems of symphony orchestras related to audience attendance.

[iii] At least two American orchestras, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and The Houston Symphony, have directed those players at the front of the stage to turn towards the audience during orchestra bows.

[iv] Analee Dorough, principal flutist in The Houston Symphony, used the description of a concert as handmade in a pre-concert speech asking for annual fund donations.

[v] The former Music Director of the New Hampshire Music Festival would lead all the orchestra members out to the lobby at the end of the final concert of the summer season to greet the patrons, thank them for coming, and invite them back for next year’s season.

[vi] After a St. Louis Symphony Pops concert with the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers, all the performers came out to the front of the stage to talk with interested audience members and sign autographs.

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