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NEO CLASSICAL
Virtual Learning Environments
Can an inexperienced concertgoer learn enough about classical music from machines to keep coming back or is interpersonal contact more useful?

by Drew McManus
October 25, 2004

If classical music is going to survive over the long term, more people are going to need to take an interest in actively participating by attending live concerts. This is true not only for large orchestra concerts, but chamber music down through solo recitals will need an influx of “butts in seats” if classical music is expected to prosper.
 
But how do you get more people interested in classical music right now? It’s not practical to assume that an inexperienced concertgoer will stroll into a Mahler concert and fully understand what’s going on enough to forever fall in love with classical music. That’s certainly the question most people concerned about classical music seem to be asking and the answers are not always forthcoming.
 
However, one new initiative is to create technologies designed to provide individuals with an outlet to “teach themselves” about classical music. Some other recent approaches favor relying on preexisting social relationships where some individuals already have experience with classical music and can help their friends develop an appreciation and understanding of classical music via the interpersonal connection.
 
Learn it on your own with the Concert Companion
The new Concert Companion is a palm device which maintains to be an “interpretive aid or ‘experience enhancement’ for classical music audiences”. It’s a simple straightforward palm gadget which provides the user with real time text which explains the music they’re listening to.
 
The device uses a Wi-Fi connection to display running commentary on the screen of the palm unit. The running commentary is something like program notes merged with surtitles; it doesn’t just throw out facts and vocabulary terms so much as it provides the user with a sort of “how to” listening guide.
 
The device is currently mid way through its development but a few orchestras have tested it, including the Kansas City Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Pittsburgh Symphony. So far, the device has been instantly appealing to a younger demographic with its inherent “cool” quality.
 
But one of the drawbacks is cost. It’s been a very expensive product to develop, costing well over half a million dollars just to get off the ground. It’s also expensive for orchestras to use. During these initial stages of implementation, Concert Companion executive Roland Valliere said it would cost orchestras at least $25,000 per concert program to use, although they hope to bring those costs down significantly after three more years of development.
 
In the end, the device is geared to be an individual use product. The user is going to have to decide for themselves to take the time and effort (and expense if Concert Companion comes with a rental fee in addition to the ticket price) to use the device. They’ll need to be willing to pay closer attention at concerts to fill in any “gaps” to what they’re learning to if they don’t hear what the commentary is referring to or understand any nomenclature associated to classical music performances.
 
It will be interesting to see how appealing the device is once users move beyond the initial “cool” impact that palm type gadgets typically evoke. What’s also unknown is how much effect the device will have on building a sustained interest in live classical music performances.
 
Other positives of the device include its ability to be used in a number of live classical music mediums (assuming the presenting organization can afford to use it). Concert Companion has the potential to be flexible enough to be used by chamber groups, soloists, and even at home while listening to recordings.
 
Learn from your friends with ORBIT
Another initiative focuses less on technology driven gadgets and more on interpersonal relationships to help generate greater interest in classical music.
 
ORBIT is a “proprietary web-based application which enables multiple ticket buyers to select performances, send personalized email invitations to their friends and associates, and track their invitee responses to performances.”
 
Essentially, ORBIT relies on concertgoers who already know about and enjoy classical music to invite friends to concerts with the hope that those experienced patrons will begin to educate their inexperienced friends.
 
According to ORBIT’s developer, Jon Hardie, the applet is inexpensive and easy to use.  The fee for licensing ORBIT for an entire concert season is based on the orchestra’s annual budget and runs $1,500 - $4,500 yearly. There is also a small annual web hosting fee.
 
ORBIT certainly helps create a more social aspect to concert events and can be used by any performing arts organization that maintains a website. ORBIT can provide a link back to an orchestra’s web-based educational material; however, the usefulness of that material to successfully educate listeners is entirely dependent on the quality of the web based content. 
 
Whether or not an orchestra decides to generate their educational material toward enhancing an ORBIT created experience is their own decision. So the usefulness of ORBIT is somewhat limited by how much educational assistance an orchestra determines to provide.
 
Get them while they’re young with tsoundcheck
One wildly successful program at developing the ever elusive 20 something crowd has been pioneered in Canada with the Toronto Symphony’s tsoundcheck program (pronounced with a silent “t”).
 
The tsoundcheck program provides “anyone between the ages of 15 to 29 to buy tickets to Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts at just $10 per ticket. They don’t have to be a student and they can invite on guest of any age to attend for the same ticket price. Tickets are available to tsoundcheck members for all TSO concerts except a few special engagements and family concerts and unlike traditional rush tickets, all tsoundcheck tickets are available for advance purchase.
 
Since the program started three years ago, it’s grown to a membership of over 17,000 according to Rob Piilonen, TSO audience development coordinator and tsoundcheck administrator. During the 03-04 concert season, the TSO sold 24,000 tsoundcheck tickets, which accounts for approximately 10-20% of all tickets sold to any given concert performance.
 
The cost to maintain the program is relative affordable, costing the TSO $20,000 annually to maintain. 
 
Tsoundcheck is very similar to ORBIT in that it relies on creating a social aspect and interpersonal relationships to build up an audience base. Tsoundcheck goes one step further, however, by providing special concert hall events, providing volunteer opportunities, and a dedicated online discussion board.
 
They even conducted their first tsoundcheck oriented fundraising drive which resulted in 131 members donating over $3,000 cumulatively. Many tsoundcheck members have turned into regular concertgoers and as a result the TSO has developed a successful special concert subscription package for tsoundcheck members who have “grown” out of the target demographic.
 
It’s apparent that the TSO has done something distinctive to cultivate a long term audience and it will be interesting to see if they are also producing knowledgeable patrons who attend concerts for cultural fulfillment as much as they are for social gratification.
 
Summing it all up
It appears that at least some orchestras are using web-based technology, such as ORBIT and tsoundcheck, to help take advantage of preexisting interpersonal relationships to increase active participation levels. It’s unclear if those same initiatives are being successful at actually educating concertgoers about classical music to such an extent that many of them would still be interested in attending live events even if the social aspect were removed.
 
Hardware based devices, such as Concert Companion, are still in their infant stages of development and as such are untested in their ability to generate enough new concertgoers to reverse the slide in attendance numbers. 
 
One thing all of these initiatives share is a sign that the classical music industry is taking steps toward reinventing itself and appealing to a wider potential audience base.



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