We all want to grow the audience for our art form, but few of us know how to design programs that satisfy us yet are relevant and appealing to the non-aficionado. Why not take a page or two from the teaching artist’s book? TAs are expert in listening to people who’ve never given chamber music a thought, much less come to a concert.
As musicians we spend much of our time working on our expressive powers—and rightly so. And even though we may be experts at listening to one another musically, we are not inclined to listen to the concerns, opinions, and interests of our audiences, whether current or potential. Some say we shouldn’t—what does the audience know anyway? But we all know that the public demand for chamber music needs to be nurtured, expanded. And based on years of rich interactions with audiences of all kinds, I think a better question is: How do the best audience-listeners out there do it?
Who listens to audiences? Whom should we consult? The default answer: the marketing experts, with their surveys and focus groups and access to “big data.” They are helpful to all of us in understanding trends and habits and how people invest their arts dollars. We might also consider consulting the expert folks in fundraising and public relations. They are in constant communication with key community leaders, and they can often paint an accurate picture of how music organizations and ensembles are perceived. But I’d like to add another source: teaching artists. They are truly exemplary “audience whisperers,” because they spend lots of dedicated time listening to and interacting with all kinds of audiences, from pre-K to senior citizens.
Teaching artists are constantly grappling with the central questions of the relevance and power of music, and they do it in dialogue with the people that represent a cross-section of our communities. If you ask teaching artists, they just might have some invaluable information from sectors we don’t usually listen to.
Listening Across Ages and Sectors
Since most arts-education programs focus their energies on public schools, teaching artists come into contact with people across a range of socioeconomic and social backgrounds. They also spend time working with music educators, who, in turn, work with wide swaths of school populations. Teaching artists’ work in schools and after-school projects and brings them into contact with young ensemble musicians, teenagers who might not have musical training, and even teaching artists in other disciplines who might have a particularly useful viewpoint about jazz or classical chamber music. Through work in community settings, teaching artists talk with the elderly in senior centers, patients and healthcare workers in hospitals, and the funders and civic leaders who support the work.
In response to the challenges they face at these types of venues, teaching artists have developed some important listening practices. Here are two teaching artist listening techniques you might find helpful.
Whether it’s organizing the set list or setting the concert program, planning almost always happens among the musicians and presenters, with little or no input from the audience. Teaching artists have learned that in their work, a collaborative approach to planning yields the greatest learning and the best results. For instance, when a jazz trio approaches a residency in a high school, the planning session allows focused time to learn about the repertoire the students are working on, what technical challenges the students might face, and what the teachers at the school have discovered about what is most relevant to them.
Audiences as Event Planners
Some arts professionals have taken this to heart and invited all types of audiences to curate (or co-curate) concerts. Take for example, The Student Producers at the Chamber Music Society for Lincoln Center (www.the studentproducers. com), where young people are invited to create, promote and attend a series of concerts aimed at their peers.
Each year, the teens are selected through application, form a group, and brainstorm ideas for three concert programs and surrounding pre- and post-concert events that they think will appeal to listeners their age. These events are for teens, so they always include food. The producers do extensive research on the music and the artists and then design the promotional and marketing materials with supervision from the professionals at CMSLC. (Not surprisingly, the events feature young chamber music artists with hipster credentials, like cellist Nick Canellakis, whose YouTube video interview series with pianist and composer Michael Brown is terrific.) They create a social media plan and support the event, as any producer would do. All along, they are planning with the performers, the professional staff, and—most importantly— the teenage audience. The whole project is a kind of souped-up planning session with a serious mission— to attract teens as audience members to events that usually draw older adults.
Audiences as Creators
Another area where teaching artists have been innovating is what is often referred to as a “creative learning project.” In terms of audience engagement, it’s several steps up from the co-curated concert. First, the audience members participate as performers. They also create music that is inspired by a composer, a theme, or the subject matter of the main work that anchors the project. For example, this past March, several schools, city agencies and musicians from across the country participated in a project focused on Duke Ellington’s late works, the Sacred Concerts. Two hundred young singers drawn from New York City schools learned the choral parts, several high school instrumentalists joined the professional big band, and the final concert was presented by Carnegie Hall.
Alongside the performance project, a variety of community members wrote songs and created arrangements inspired by the affirmation found in Duke Ellington’s music. Some came from the high school choruses, others from workshops of young people who had been sentenced to probation, and still others came from online projects overseen by composer Darcy James Argue to arrange Ellington tunes like “Come Sunday” and “Heaven.”
All of these new creations were presented the following week at Zankel Hall, the downstairs of cousin of Isaac Stern Auditorium. The project allowed musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center and trombonist Chris Washburne’s ensemble SYOTOS to collaborate with young performers. Professionals got the chance to listen to and perform new work that evoked the participants’ concerns and ideas. It created excitement and a place for dialogue outside the music—an extended opportunity to listen to lots of different community members and their varied opinions about Duke Ellington and about life in general.
Creative learning projects like this one remind us: if you invite people to contribute to the work in meaningful ways, you gain their trust, and they will open up. Thinking of this idea on a smaller scale, imagine a jazz ensemble producing a creative learning project based on Miles Davis’s All Blues or a wind group inviting new songs about childhood, based on Janácˇek’s Mladi.
What can we learn from these listening practices? Naturally we can apply them to our own programs, projects, initiatives, but we can also learn about deepseated concerns, some that have to do with music and others that are larger community issues.
In South Carolina, for instance, the Parker String Quartet and the DeCoda Ensemble have both responded to the need for music in the state’s correctional system through residencies funded by Chamber Music America. And if you wonder about the legacy of this kind of listening to community, then take the example of Red Cedar Chamber Music in Iowa. Ten years ago they responded to the community’s past and present through a project focusing on its Czech/Moravian roots and Dvorˇák’s visit to the state in 1893. They involved young, local composers and forged strong partnerships both here and in the Czech Republic. The success of the project is well documented; but it’s also notable that ten years later the group still enjoys a productive relationship with the successful Iowan composer Michael Gilbertson, one of the under-18 commissionees from 2004. Gilbertson now lectures at Yale and has even started a new chamber music group in Dubuque.
So where do we go to listen to community? It isn’t always the town council or community boards. Schools are often good barometers for the prioritization that communities give the arts and other subjects at any given time; we also hear how music strikes our young listeners and their teachers—we learn a lot about the relevance and irrelevance of different kinds of music; we find out about the musical processes that speak to them and the ones that don’t.
Ensembles that worry that parts of their repertoire might be too sophisticated for young listeners often haven’t taken the time to listen to them analyze a Kanye West song in detail. If they did, they might not worry about offering L’Histoire du Soldat or “’Round Midnight” as engagement projects. And when we work with young musicians in schools, they teach us about what in the music stirs them, moves them, motivates them to practice and persist in the art form.
In community settings, we can also learn about the nonmusical things that are on people’s minds, like civic identity, youth unemployment, or homelessness. Once we understand something about the pressing concerns of a community, we can begin to respond effectively and intentionally. Knowing that students in Seattle needed structured afterschool arts programming, for instance, the arts education organization Arts Corps, and its teaching artists created free classes for youth in a variety of disciplines. And while that may not seem a direct answer to building traditional audiences, it’s the kind of responsive educational programming that develops relationships and increases relevancy. If you are providing something that is necessary, communities learn they can’t live without you.
Around the edges of their work, teaching artists often encounter government officials and get a chance to hear them address the arts – they often hear what the politicians say when they are not speaking directly to arts organizations. While sitting at the piano bench during a fifth-grade graduation ceremony this past June, I heard the New York City comptroller and the Manhattan borough president describing their priorities for young people; and while they were supportive of the arts, their number-one priority was encouraging kids to engage in public service. It’s made me wonder about the confluence of music and city politics, and how our different agendas might intersect.
What’s All This Listening For?
The kinds of listening that teaching artists and musicians can undertake matters greatly to understanding the communities in which we live and work—it helps us learn about their greater concerns and how might we connect to them. It matters to our relevance as musicians in the world, and relevance is the key to building audiences. Listening can help us gauge the temperature of our work in relationship to what’s going on around us. It helps us reconnect ourselves to the transformative power of music both in and beyond the concert hall, and that’s an energy boost we all need as musical artists negotiating an increasingly complex world.
Composer Thomas Cabaniss teaches at The Juilliard School. He is host and composer-in-residence for Carnegie Hall’s LinkUp program and has served as music animateur with the Philadelphia Orchestra and as education director of the New York Philharmonic. His music is published by Boosey & Hawkes and MusiCreate.