Enough Of What I Think, What’s Your Opinion?

The ubiquitous standing ovation. Just about every orchestra musician that blogs has written about this topic at one point or another and most share a common thread; audience response to a lackluster performance with a standing ovation can have an unintentional demoralizing impact. During the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MO) board retreat last week, we talked about how the organization can develop its interaction with the audience and this topic popped up. But instead of warming up stale conversation leftovers, the organization’s board president, John Simmons, offered an intriguing personal encounter that is worth sharing…


John. H. Simmons

My family and I have been classical music patrons for many years and I have known many of our local orchestra members all my life. When I was first asked to join our local symphony board and began to attend more orchestra functions, including parties after concerts, I always made a point of expressing my enjoyment of the evening’s program. At some point, however, it struck me that I could learn more about the music, the attitudes of the players and the success of the concert if, rather than immediately offering my congratulations on a fine concert, I first asked orchestra members how they felt the concert had gone. This was always done in an open, friendly way, and in no way suggested that I was critical of the performance. The conversations that followed were not only enlightening, but also very animated and enjoyable. As a board member I also began to learn a great deal more about the inner workings of the orchestra and the music being played. We certainly learn more by asking others for their opinion, rather than being too quick to offer our own.
– John H. Simmons, Springfield Symphony Orchestra Board President

Not only would an approach like this make Emily Post proud (after all, etiquette is all about making others feel comfortable through sincere engagement), but is serves as an excellent example for why regular musician-patron interaction should be approached as a sort of cultural preventive maintenance measure.

John’s approach is simple and thoughtful plus as he points out, it serves as a critical step in building listener confidence. All of this conspires to serve as the cornerstone for increased participation and a sincere feeling of ownership in the institution. It also serves to help musicians marginalize the cog-in-the-wheel syndrome by providing an opportunity to express individual artistic assessment (surprise: it just might differ from that of the music director!).

I challenge everyone involved in this business to find at least one opportunity throughout the next season to practice John’s approach: ask an orchestra musician how he/she they felt the concert had gone.

Over the next several months, I’d love to hear firsthand accounts so take the time to write in with your experiences and we’ll revisit the topic from time to time to see what’s been going on.

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5 Responses to Enough Of What I Think, What’s Your Opinion?

  1. Joe Patti Thu, May 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm #

    If they are not accustomed to being approached by audience members for their assessment of the evening, it may be worth reminding musicians about some of the tips Holly Mulcahy offered in her Partial Observer pieces about publicly conducting performance post mortems (http://www.partialobserver.com/article.cfm?id=3075) and alienating audiences (http://www.partialobserver.com/article.cfm?id=3118).

  2. Lisa Hirsch Thu, May 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    Brrrrr. I am not sure I agree about any of this, and have duly posted why.

    • Drew McManus Thu, May 28, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

      And I don’t disagree with any of your sentiments. In fact, I cringe at some of the conversations that approach will produce. At the same time, I do think musicians need to learn to interact with patrons and especially board members in a way that enhances the individual’s understanding in the way John describes.

      I don’t think I would go so far as to say ALL musicians should interact but there’s a real disconnect as things currently exist and I think it could be bridged with some help (like the type Joe pointed to above).

  3. Ron Spigelman Thu, May 28, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    I would go further and even say that John (who’s btw actually my board president)is actually doing his due diligence as a board member and especially as the president. By being president of our “Association” and not just the board he feels its important to visit with everybody including the management staff.

    My favorite story regarding interaction: I was the guest conductor for the last concert of an Orchestra’s 21st season, I asked audience members and Orchestra members who had been there from the beginning to stand. There was thunderous applause. At the reception after wards I asked some of the founding musicians how much time they have spent with the founding audience members. The response…they had never met them! 21 YEARS!!!!! This should not happen. At our last concert of every season we started a tradition where some musicians volunteer to get there early enough to mingle with patrons in the lobby. They carry their instruments with them so that they will be easily to identify to those who met them when they are seated back in the orchestra. The smiles are huge as a result and the feedback is great..from both groups!

  4. Christine Frank Sun, May 31, 2009 at 1:12 am #

    I like Mr. Simmons’ approach, and I may try to adopt it in other situations myself.

    I’d like to think that most musicians know that it’s not a good idea to tell anyone (except perhaps one’s comiserating spouse or carpool) about the 47 wrong notes one played in tonight’s concert. However, there are many great answers to the question of “how did it go” that will serve to start an interesting conversation. For example, “the pacing was a little slower tonight than last night, and I thought that made the coda especially exciting. What did you think?” Or “gee the new piece is really tricky”, launching into the interesting challenges of the piece.

    By the same token, there are many questions that can be asked that don’t elicit an “uncomfortable” answer. For example: How is this week’s guest conductor different from last week’s? Or, Did you enjoy playing the Mozart or the Brahms more?

    At the same time, musicians can take the initiative to create a conversation by answering a simple compliment with “I’m so glad you enjoyed the concert, especially because it’s a really challenging program” and launching into a discussion of the challenges. Or “gee thanks! wasn’t the soloist wonderful?” and elaborating on why one thinks so.

    The important thing is to encourage more meaningful interactions between listeners and performers, and Mr Simmons’ idea is one good way to do that.

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