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How Competition Could Revive Classical Music

When did classical music lose its competitive edge?

by Holly Mulcahy
June 4, 2007

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How Competition Could Revive Classical Music

As a professional orchestra violinist you can count on a few steady dressing room conversations between colleagues. As of late, the alarming drop in ticket sales and concert attendance is a popular topic. Someone will say something like "There are more people on stage than in the audience, what is up with marketing?!" Frankly, as a performer, it is hard not to take low attendance rates personally. All of the effort and commitment required for 75+ colleagues to produce a successful performance should be rewarded by a large audience.

Orchestras across the country regularly promote their ensemble as a "truly a world class symphony." But how do they determine that their ensemble is world class and if it's true, why is it not good enough to sell tickets?

If you search Google for "world class orchestra" you get links to ensembles in Houston, Pittsburgh, Ft. Worth, Dallas, Toledo, and a dozen more ensembles. So what does the label "world class" mean for orchestras in the U.S.? Just about everyone assumes, at the minimum, ensembles from the traditional "Big Five" fall into that category (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia). Many listeners are familiar with the Philly sound, the Chicago Brass, the Cleveland Strings, etc. but "world class" criteria can also be measured by an organization's budget size, how many full time musicians they employ, and city size. These additional standards allow groups such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and Minnesota to be included in that "Big" grouping.

But what is so special about every other orchestra claiming to be a "world class" ensemble? If they don't measure up through historical accomplishment or current criteria, can they back up their bold statements with the quality of their performances? And if so, how can this be measured?

In the U.S., we are obsessed with rank and competition. Just look at the variety and volume of reality television shows which center on competition, just when you think there's a show for just about everything imaginable, the networks come up with something new.

NBC's The Biggest Loser details overweight people competing to lose pounds while loosely educating the general public on weight maintenance. Fox's American Idol shows singers getting critiqued after each performance by a panel of judges. The program regularly shows footage of the judges tearing apart contestant's ability, or lack of, along with offering guidance on how to make it as a pop singer. American Idol is a blunt, yet effective, tool for educating the public on just how much effort it takes to become a pop star.

And who would have thought that gourmet cooking could turn into ratings bonanza for Fox. "Hell's Kitchen" displayed chefs competing for a top restaurant job by making, of all things, jalapeno tortellini or foie gras with a quail egg. How did anyone determine this would be exciting?!  Well, it does once a basic competitive edge is added to the formula. Not only will the audience learn why one chef's braised short ribs on a parsnip puree with a honey mustard sauce is better than another's, they will begin to develop a preference, or displeasure, for the chef's personality.

All of these programs have a common thread which apparently resonates with viewers:  contest shows increase viewer ownership by educating them on how intricate and artistic any of these mediums can be in an entertaining, inclusive process. In a sense, what has been crated is a new way of educating people without lecturing at them.

Why can't the same thing exist for orchestras? Why not host a series of competitive concerts between orchestras designed to build an audience while educating them about the art form along the way? I'm not suggesting that Fox create an orchestra based reality television show (even though it could be really cool); however, I am suggesting orchestras unite create a healthy competition in the name of selling tickets, educating patrons, and growing an audience. 

Wouldn't it be interesting to see how the Columbus Symphony would fare against take neighboring ensembles in Cincinnati or Cleveland, both of which have substantially larger budgets? These orchestras could be given the same concert program so that judges could make comparisons across an even playing filed. The audience could be kept up to speed by reading judges comments (maybe in a blog) along the way and when a winner was named, the audience would be able to understand why.

I think it would be a huge boost to orchestras across the country if their listeners knew more about the components which make one ensemble better than another. There's nothing preventing new listeners from learning why the phrasing in one ensemble was more moving than another. Judges comments would explain what phrasing is and why it worked better one way than another. Maybe the violins in one group were not in sync with the leader, the judging panel could explain how bowings work and how effective it is when all in the string section play exactly in the same part of a bow. Maybe the brass in one symphony was overpowering the woodwinds, the panel could comment on melody vs. harmony and explain what needs to be heard. Concrete examples like these are numerous and as a professional musician, I know these ideas aren't so complicated that newcomers can't pick up on them.

Regardless of how a "winner" is declared, the audience learns how the judges listen, why they came to a particular conclusion, and how they can use those same skills the next time they attend a concert. I know the amount of cooking knowledge I have gained simply by watching "Hell's Kitchen" (and other programs like The Food Network's "Iron Chef") is astounding. The topic of gourmet cooking should seem very difficult, and untouchable, but somehow I felt involved in the process and discovered that it wasn't as unobtainable as I once believed. Now I appreciate every aspect of what goes into a gourmet meal and there's nothing preventing listeners from gaining that same level of connection with classical music.

Ultimately, I think an orchestra competition is the key to rapidly increasing ticket sales and the general level of understanding orchestral music. At the same time, a competition could capitalize on a prominent tendency among Americans to root for the underdog. Can you imagine the flood of local interest if a smaller budget orchestra beat someone like the New York Philharmonic? Not only would there be an instant spike in interest for an already talented smaller budget group, but there would also be a pride in the hometown team that over came. Even if that smaller budget group didn't win again, they would likely retain a new core group of "fans" that will continue to support their new interest. Or, shouldn't the big five have the opportunity to prove why they are the big five?

The thing that is odd to me about the orchestra business is you start off as a child competing in student competitions, then bigger concerto competitions, then competition to get into a good conservatory, competitions for scholarships, and after all of that there's the biggest competition of all: winning an audition for a full-time orchestra position. After growing up with all of that competition, there seems to be nothing to strive for except personal interpretations of what does and does not constitute an excellent performance.

While that is a goal every musician should strive for, this doesn't exactly help build a connection with our audience and concerts will eventually fade away without audience interest. Audiences certainly can be entertained by the traditional methods of the symphonic experiences, but why not, in the words of Emeril Lagasse "kick it up a notch?"

Comments (8)

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Bill Brice from South Florida writes:
June 4, 2007
OK... but, wouldn't each orchestra have to play behind a screen?

Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
June 5, 2007
Interesting idea, a little impractical perhaps with what goes into setting up an orchestra and the large volumes of people to transport and house! All of the other competitions you mentioned are individuals against each other, we can get to know them and their specific skill (or lack of it) and we are ultimately engaged and drawn in by them personally. Plus we can all turn on a stove (which most of us have) and follow a recipe (well most of us can), which is a little different to preparing a concerto, there isn't a Violin hanging out in the pantry waiting to be "4 Seasoned". This also might be a bit hard to do with a group of 80, with not enough time to look into everyone's troubled childhood, humble beginnings etc... or other human interest. The Iron Conductor might be a little more interesting....rehearse Bolero in 5 minutes (it can be done)...your time starts now! The deeper issue is that the orchestra is not a global business, it is a local business whose competition are not other orchestras. While in Fort Worth for 7 seasons as associate conductor, I believe we did not share one subscriber with the Dallas Symphony just 35 miles away, and if there was a competition to decide which was the better orchestra, that wouldn't change...I hope. Our real competition is what ever else is relevant to our immediate population. The craziest argument I ever heard for falling subscriber numbers was that marketing was at fault. I'm sorry but if you have a subscriber sitting there all season long and they don't come back, the last reason would be because they don't like the thickness of the paper in the renewal brochure. Most likely (and we find it hard to fault ourselves), it is because we are not engaging them and are not relevant. We need to look at ourselves, our venues god forbid our programming, our involvement in the important issues at hand that are on people's minds. If local taxes are rising, find a way to do more free concerts, if there is a problem with children in poverty, find a way to engage more of them with music by going to them or bringing them in. If a new minor league baseball team is starting, offer to be the opening day national anthem. By striving to be a relevant community service organization, you will find the community will then serve you. All of the above has been happening here in Springfield MO where I am music director and in 3 seasons we have broken all records for ticket sales, overall attendance (increase is over 60%) sponsorship and advertising. I have said this in other posts (including on Drew's blog) and it is something that I truly believe to be the key to our future and that is, we are not in the music business, we are in the people business, and our job is not play and conduct, those are simply skills, our job is to touch people's lives with music. By the way I wish someone would take San Antonio (a great orchestra that I loved working with) to task for their waste of time and money campaign to get the "younger audience". Lunacy, discriminatory and destined for failure (after a very small intital success which will be blown out of all proportion). I call it putting the *** in CLASSICAL. I am looking forward to more of your blog!

Holly Mulcahy from Chicago writes:
June 5, 2007
I agree that moving around entire orchestras would be near impossible, which is why I have always imagined that the orchestras would simply perform in their home venue and the panel of judges would travel from city to city. At the same time I think the idea of a competition would put an orchestra in a position to improve every one of the other issues you pointed out such as the concert environment, etc.

I also think that orchestras are individuals the same way as the reality show contestants you pointed out. One of the things which makes one orchestra more valuable than another is the individual sound they develop. At the same time, I think that orchestras have become more one dimensional in overall sound, which is why I think competitions would help move them away from that trend. There’s no good reason Philadelphia should sound like New York or that Omaha should strive to develop a “Chicago” style sound. If anything, I think competition would help increase individual identity in sound and concert environment.

I would say those points add up to the larger idea: competition provides a familiar way for orchestras to begin addressing these issues while raising the level of community interest, pride, and understanding of the music. I also agree that as musicians one of our primary jobs is to reach people with our music and one of the biggest challenges as a section performer is to fight against the cog-in-a-wheel syndrome. I think that in order for musicians to reach people we need to be in a position to give exciting performances every time we walk out on stage.

Public outreach is good but having played too many meaningless, boring in-school education concerts, I can say that those don’t do anything worthwhile to build community awareness. Worse still, they are demoralizing to the musicians who have to serve up bland cafeteria style music in a cafetorium setting (where Mozart is music the same way that ketchup is a vegetable). I’m not advocating eliminating public outreach, quite the opposite, I think we need to focus more on doing what we do best: making concerts exciting.

Tim Judd writes:
June 5, 2007
Holly Mulcahy has written a funny, thought provoking article. I agree that it is important that outreach and education programs are not always done as well as they should be and that poor education programs are demoralizing to musicians. It is important that students have the chance to experience a full orchestra when possible and that the choice of music and comments are appropriate for the age of the students. Remember, the number one goal is to get students EXCITED about music! Orchestras should make sure they are serving up the same, exciting musical cuisine offered at the concert hall rathor than soggy, square pizza and grizzly chicken nuggets on styrofoam.

Bill Harris from http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/ writes:
June 5, 2007
Holly, what a provocative idea!

If you were to follow in the footsteps of some of those reality competition shows, you might think of (I'm hiding behind a large object as I type this) making auditions the competition. Their individual nature seems closer to what other shows have done. Think of Dancing With the Stars: schedule 10 weeks of shows where 11 violinists (or pick your favorite instrument) compete for a slot playing with (insert your favorite orchestra here). Each week, they get coaching from established professionals and perform (on the show) pieces from a different period or of a different style. Perhaps they play in ensembles, or perhaps it's all solo work. Perhaps each week has a sight-reading section. They get critiqued by a panel of articulate judges with attitude, and perhaps (if you were to follow the TV show model) they get voted upon by viewers. Based on the results, one gets sent home each week.

At the end, the last one playing gets a year's contract with (your favorite orchestra), a shiny trophy, and who knows what else -- maybe a recording contract.

You'd have to think about whether you'd really want to go that far, but it does seem to follow the seemingly successful TV model.

Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
June 12, 2007
I have been thinking about this some more and want to share some ideas, because what you said about those "outreach concerts" in schools I agree with. The problem is that if an orchestra defines those kinds of events as outreach then they are not making any real effort. If we need to "kick it up a notch" at concerts then we need to in outreach as well. Outreach is not performing concerts in schools, true outreach is when we actually connect on a personal level so that people don’t feel the need to have be knowledgeable to be involved or moved. Greg Sandow's post on March 16 about Pittsburgh Symphony musicians being out in the lobby demonstrating passages of Higdon’s new piece to the obvious delight of individual and small groups patrons…now that is true outreach because of the personal connection being emphasized over education. Instrument demos in schools and YPC concerts that are just introductions to the orchestra are not outreach concerts, they are purely educational experiences and should not be included as an example of outreach. We spend so much time wringing our hands at how we can make concerts more exciting with gimmicks, competitions, series for the younger audience etc… and yet the key to make people to come to music is to prove it’s relevance to them, not how hip or cool or “interesting” it is. We desperately need to make the effort to make outreach exciting and meaningful to prove its relevance and then instead of creating one time audience members, we create long term music lovers i.e subsrcibers!. Applying relevance to music education would mean that instead of teaching about music, music would be used to teach students about everything else which makes concerts more relevant to children. The most startling experience I had with the chasm between the orchestra and the audience came a few years back when I guest conducted the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra for the last concert of their 21st anniversary season (they are an awesome group by the way). Before the final work and in the spirit of the celebratory mood, I asked the charter members both in the audience and in the orchestra to stand and be recognized to thunderous applause. Later at the reception, I asked some of those charter orchestra members if they had met those original audience members, and they hadn’t!!!! 21 years and they had never met. This helped prompt me to start teaching a class called audience connections at Drury University. This is a class dealing with current affairs in music and students are required to read several blogs and Arts Journal, so we can have discussions on what is going on right now in the arts world. The class was featured in Joe Patti’s Butts in Seats blog on March 20 2006 (if you want to read about it) and is now a core subject for Arts Administration. Here in Springfield Mo where I am Music Director our newest proposed outreach effort (prompted by Pittsburgh) is a Musicians Initiative Fund to be included in the annual budget (It will be voted on next month). The players will have total control over it and it is designed to be used as a way for any musician who has a creative idea for an outreach program, to have funds to help start it. Their own peers will award them funds to get it started so it will be a true musician initiative. If the idea proves a success then the orchestra can develop it further to add to the other outreach programs we already do. If a player runs into a situation where a student can’t afford to buy music or strings for instance then this fund can be used for that also, anything that creatively brings more music to more people will be looked at. It is an encouragement for the musicians to be directly involved in outreach and to be creative with it. This is one of many new outreach programs we have started or will be starting and our 60% increase in overall ticket sales over the last 3 seasons did not include PDA program notes or a “Beer and Jeans” concert series etc.... It has largely been through personal engagement and true outreach which have minimal costs and unbelievable returns. I would love to share more of these ideas sometime.

Holly Mulcahy writes:
June 14, 2007

Being a former member of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, I know exactly what you are stating. BCO has had awesome receptions for donors/patrons and musicians and the potential to meet patrons at these events should be a no brainer. But I vividly remember all of the patrons conversing with themselves and all of the musicians conversing among themselves as well. Never did I meet a patron/donor. I plan on writing about this in the next few months.

You are right on the money about outreach in schools. I have many strong feelings about that as well, and shall write on that topic soon, too.

Also, since music critics seem to be rapidly disappearing, a panel of judges to rate orchestras might just be the thing to keep groups in check. Too often orchestras have used the words "critically acclaimed" and "top reviews from critics" etc. How sad it will be if there is no benchmarking. Competition amongst the orchestras would certainly be a very contemporary and relevant thing to do.

Rick Robinson from Detroit writes:
May 24, 2010
I COMPLETELY concur with your call for orchestra competitions Holly! Getting to the level where orchestras, even if only EXCERPTS, becomes a popular televised SPORTING event will certainly help "clam" affect some American culture on a mass scale. It will take years to work out the bugs, so let's get started NOW! I've been seriously proposing this idea for years and asked that OUR orchestra CHALLENGE BIGGER orchestras! It would be HUGE news!

I very much like the Audition show idea as well.
Btw, there ARE quartet competitions with very experienced judges who have judging down to an art form. A competition could include an (unofficial) AUDIENCE vote too. Special halls could be built that have DOUBLE STAGES for the audience... an orchestra ARENA! This would promote the use of robotic cameras and big video screens in the hall so everyone could watch the conductors (coaches) make faces and the players sweat!

Orchestras would negotiate DIVISIONS of their levels. And winning your division, you might challenge a higher division orchestra to ASCEND!
Competition DOES help us improve our skills! I hope you continue pressing this idea with industry leaders. It's time has come! Why NOT?

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