Audience-Building Thoughts at the Football Game

One of my new School of Music colleagues works from about 8:00 Am to 11:00 PM or midnight.  (I know this because he’s renting a room from me until he and his wife can sell their house in the state whence he came to DePauw. So much for those who think college professors, especially at undergraduate teaching universities, have a light workload.  With all the prep work, especially as a new faculty ember, it’s easily a 60-80 hour per week gig.)

So I called him this morning and told him he had to take a break and let’s walk over and watch at least the first half of the football game.

As we sat there and I looked at all the students there–so many more, even on the field, than come to a major ensemble concert, I wondered, how would we get them to a concert?  Voluntarily? These thoughts crystallized for me:

  • Undergraduate music majors should be engaged in a four-year conversation about and experiment in getting students their own age to classical concerts.
  • This can include permission and empowerment to create new-format musicking events.
  • A great project would be to have a class or a self-selected group go to athletic events and interview students there to find out what their history is with classical music and what would attract them to an event including classical music.  (The success my first-year seminar students have had in the past has come, in part, from informal interviews of their friends who gave them ideas for an event.)

This question sprang to mind: what would it take to get the entire football team to come to an orchestra concert? (Or a choir concert;  as a cellist, things like orchestra concerts tend to materialize in my imagination before others.)  The corollary, of course, is, what could the orchestra or choir do for the football (or basketball or track) team in return?

Which got me thinking: what do college music ensembles do to visibly contribute to the life of the whole college/university community.  Sure, we put on concerts that anyone can come to.  But they don’t.  Our traditional concerts are in many ways, public class presentations. On some level they are perceived that way.  What does a music school or department do to genuinely make a difference in the life of the community?  What do we do to be perceived as and genuinely be central to the life of the academic/creative/social organism?

I looked at the young men in front of me enthusiastically cheering on the DePauw Tigers, who were easily trouncing the Rose Hulman Engineers. I imagined they had been to few if any symphony orchestra concerts.  Our students need to talk to them. How do we get the entire university community to feel the same sense of identification with the choirs, orchestra, and concert band that they do with the sports teams.  (By the way, we are a Division something-or-other school with no athletic scholarships, so our teams are made up of genuine student athletes, many of whom are truly scholars.)

I don’t know the answer.  My intuition and my intellect say that in large part it means getting musical performances out of the sacred caves we call concert halls–which at DePauw, as at many schools, are pretty well hidden.

It’s a challenge for those of us teaching music on the college/university level.  Especially for those of us over 50, the job is less for us to figure it out ourselves than to empower and facilitate our students in discovering and creating.  Not to say that I wouldn’t encourage ensemble directors to get together with the coaches and sports teams and brainstorm on how each organization could help the other.

Recovering from an illness, I made it through the first half of the game.  The vision of the entire DePauw Tigers football team at a DePauw Symphony concert is still burning in my imagination.

Each of us in music education (in every domain–primary, secondary, and collegiate) would do well to be letting our imaginations run wild, challenging our young student friends, and experimenting like crazy.



Filed under audeince building, DePauw, future of college/university music education, Musicking, non-traditional concerts

9 responses to “Audience-Building Thoughts at the Football Game

  1. Janis

    ” … what would it take to get the entire football team to come to an orchestra concert?”

    Put together a program called “Fight Song.” Do orchestral and quartet arrangements of all the best-known college football fight songs, including your school’s rivals. Conclude with your own, of course. If you have a marching band, invite their best-known brass players to do solos. Program a few somewhat martial pieces of music that are similar in structure to the typical fight song. Decorate the stage in the school colors; invite the team mascot to play-conduct the final piece.

  2. Janis

    BTW, do it over Homecoming weekend, and market the living hell out of it all over campus in school colors and banners. Have a drawing for a season football ticket. Invite the coach on stage.

  3. Janis, I like the way you think.

    A concert of fight songs–I’m just thinking out loud and appreciate the idea–would be the kind of thing to get a team to come one time. My fantasy is more ambitious. I’d like to see a football team at an orchestra concert that isn’t about the football team.

    I suppose there could be a fight-song, celebrate-the-team aspect to the concert along with some “classical” (I’m feeling irritated with that word, hence the scare quotes) music that celebrates struggle and triumph. Something with a composer–attached program (“Mars” from “The Planets,” which would be new to much of a college-age audience, even if overly familiar to an older classical audience) or something with a traditional but unofficial program, say Beethoven Fifth. Beethoven Fifth plus fight songs, that could be great. And some cool new piece, new.

    And I am absolutely for marketing the living hell out of it all over campus.

    What about the orchestra playing the fight song and some other selections at half time at the football game? That might take some negotiating at a big school with a marching band. At a small, private university with a school of music and a liberal arts college, it could be feasible. Visible, contributing, connecting. There are lots of ways to do this.

    • Janis

      “I’d like to see a football team at an orchestra concert that isn’t about the football team. ”

      Baby steps. 🙂

      And it’s good to expand people’s awareness, but you have to take it very carefully, or else as well-meaning as it is, it comes across as, “How can we get them to care about the fabulous stuff we like instead the dumb stuff they like?” No matter how you dress that up, it’s not going to go down well — it bumps up too easily into the “my shit is stuff but your stuff is shit” message which no one will pay for.

      Try a program that connects with something that those guys are likely to enjoy — hell, what was that dumb jock movie a while back … Sparta. (Seriously, it WAS a dumb jock movie.) There was probably decent music there, and you can program stuff that relates to the story of Sparta or other Famous Moments Of Asskicking Throughout History.

      I have to admit, I would be HIGHLY unlikely to go myself, but your average football player would probably find it cool.

    • Janis

      There’s also a more fundamental contradiction, I think, lurking somewhere between “classical music has to be relevant to the audience and accept that it will be changed by its preferences and culture” and wanting to get the football team to start caring about what rh-you likes instead of what they like.

      Does the culture of classical music respect the culture of its (departing) audiences or not? People nowdays are very open to the idea of programming, for example, world music in an effort to appeal to ethnically non-white people, but not because we want them to learn how to come to concerts that aren’t about them. It may be that the football players won’t learn to like Mahler. That’s their choice — but the orchestra may learn to like fight songs. 🙂

  4. Well put as always. Great point about world music, although I think the influence of non-Western music on Western music us more about Western-music people falling in love with music of other cultures than trying to attract non-whites. The joys of multiculturalism and a global culture.

    Of course this is all hypothetical at this point, since I’m just a cello professor and not an orchestra conductor. (Although I do have the ear of one.)

    Although I wasn’t interested in football when I was a young man, I’ve found myself enjoying it lately. Especially being a part of the social event that is a college game in a small college town. Turns out I’ve been missing something really great all these years.

    Well, as I looked at the guys on the field and the students sitting around me Saturday, I wanted to share what I love with them. And I want, or at least fantasize about, an orchestra concert having the same sort of campus social centrality as a sports event.

    You never know what starts with a dream.

  5. Sadly, I’m still not interested in football. I still don’t understand how my brother, Joe, became enamored with the sport but I was never able to share his enthusiasm. I remember how the co-workers of mine at the Walmart Distribution Center (in Greencastle) would always get together every Saturday to play for fun–a good proportion of the talk there was about football and I always felt a bit left out.

    Not that it bothered me so much but it is certainly a mainstream American preoccupation.

    I’m remembering a book by the Chinese linguist, Liu Dilin (“Metaphor, Culture and Worldview” ) and his (to me largely unsubstantiated) claims even if plausible at first view that in American culture sports metaphors permeate the language of business (e.g. economic’s “perfect competition”) and relationships (e.g. “getting to first base”) while in China business and relationship metaphors piggyback on food and eating (it’s actually similar in Thai for that matter).

    Whether there’s some underlying truth to Dilin Liu’s ideas is kinda besides the point–though seeing how easily stadiums, rather than concert halls, get built in US cities (often with the help of subsidies) the metaphor idea seems a bit more compelling.

    Not that I’m begrudging folks their leisure activities or entertainment preferences but the implicit competition implied in sports just doesn’t appeal to me much (and now I’m recalling the PDQ Bach “Beethoven’s 5th sportscasting” schtick).

    The world music issue is an interesting one. “World Music” as a “genre” was always more about a Music Industry marketing strategy which has taken a life of its own in the past couple of decades. Before there was the marketing category of “World Music” there were already plenty of immigrant groups and musicians playing music from their respective countries.

    There really wasn’t much money to be made with that for the recording industry at first so no need for the marketing category. Now–exactly for the reasons you’re saying, Eric–there’s a marketing need for the category though most of what started that need would be more truthfully called “World Fusion Music.” But for those few recordings produced in Western countries (like the Smithsonian Folkways recordings) of immigrant ‘indigenous musics’ having the more general “World Music” made it easier to lump those products with the world fusion even if those have never sold as well.

    But sweet Buddha, in the years I’ve been performing and interacting with world musicians and ethnic minorities I’ve come to realize how much musical activity happens below the radar of the music industry. In house events and concerts (often meaning intracongregational events and concerts) and private events are as ubiquitous in those populations as they are in the mainstream population if not even more numerous.

    In some cases even markets for music recordings can happen intracongregationally. I’m especially recalling Heather MacLaughlan’s ethnography “Innovation in the Guise of Tradition: Music among the Chin Population of Indianapolis” where she describes the marketing and promotional efforts of various Chin musicians throughout the scattered congregations and Chin populations in the US. None of those recordings are commercially available and there was no reason to make them so–this music is designed for that population is gets promoted “in house.”

    It happens to some degree with practically every minority group in the US.

    And I guess in some ways, classical music fans are a minority group. Difference is, there’re no overarching ethnic/cultural ties that differentiate this group from the rest of the very similar majority population who just happen to not share their music preference.

    I’m kinda divided about the sacred caves that are the concert halls. On the one hand, yeah–stuffy as hell with a ton of behavioral expectations. On the other hand, though, concert halls have always conferred some sense of legitimacy to whatever production happens within the space.

    I guess one of the most interesting things about having toured with Ray Price the past three years intermittently is performing in concert halls that the local Symphonies are often using as a regular venue. And being able to see the program books or brochures of the current concert seasons and the wide variety of shows and productions that happen in the same stuffy sacred caves that the Orchestras are playing–everything from touring big name pop musicians, to the touring Divine company (a production that merges several Chinese arts into one show), to Stomp, to local touring Arts ensembles, to the Moscow Circus, to…

    I guess the idea is that the concert hall seems to be the perfect place for general audience shows. Places that are all ages and where most adults would feel comfortable taking young children. I’ve been to and played plenty of rock concerts and clubs to know that there are some venues that it just wouldn’t be a good idea to take a kid to, sadly.

    While I think Matt Haimovitz’s experiment bringing classical music into the rock clubs is interesting, at the same time he’s bringing classical music out of an environment that would be conducive for nurturing the next generation of potential classical music fans. Of course with media being so easily available e.g. via the internet maybe this distinction doesn’t matter nearly as much anymore?

  6. Peter Linnett asks the question in a way that really highlights some the declining audience issues I’ve been thinking about:

    “What’s the relationship between offering participatory programs and drawing more diverse audiences?”

    I guess what I question is how much does participatory programming can actually help with audiences. Or another way to put it–does participatory programming make something more relevant to an audience as Greg Sandow and others are saying?

    Peter puts it:

    “One can imagine, just as a test of the logic here, a richly participatory experience at an art museum that draws exactly the usual (educated, white) suspects because that’s who shares the assumptions underlying the experience and feels comfortable and purposeful in such an environment.”

    I’ve been finding that in my experiences too–doesn’t matter how much I’ve tried to market my various groups to a more ethnically diverse audience, we usually play to the same crowds (granted, with both Ahel El Nagam and il Troubadore, the audiences consists of a much higher proportion of women than men).

    Those are usually for shows I have been involved in setting up. As for events both ofthose groups get hired for, that’s another story altogether–whether it’s a Greek Orthodox reception, Arabic wedding party, Indian Bharat, or whatever–we’ll usually be playing to a much more ethnically diverse audience for those types of events (obviously skewed more towards whatever ethnic group hired us in the first place).

    Peter says:

    “Or a traditionally presentational, one-way installation of work by, say, a hot African American artist that draws a diverse and large crowd (something we’ve all seen at art museums on occasion).

    I was trying to pick out the relationship between the fact that Bradford is African American and the fact that many people in the MCA’s auditorium were African American museum and arts professionals, artists, philanthropists, etc. If the guest speaker had been a correspondingly visionary Latino or Asian artist, the crowd would presumably have been different.”

    In other words, it’s not going to matter much how participatory you make an event if the participation is irrelevant for the target group (even if the target group is just a “more diverse group”).

    Many folks are more than happy to have a less active role as an audience member–which is a bit of a contentious statement to make since I don’t like to make the equivocation between “silent reception” with “being a passive audience” about which I blogged some:

    I love how Peter put this:
    “But beyond the challenge of comfort lies the challenge of relevance. I’m comfortable in a bowling alley but it’s really not my scene.”

    Some folks may be comfortable at a loud football game or rock concert but it may not be their scene. Turning a classical music concert into something more along those lines might jsut make it not their scene as well. And those other folks (the ones that would constitute the diverse crowd) who happen to enjoy silent and engaging reception of presentational concerts–well, it wouldn’t be their scene either.

    In other words, as Peter says:
    “Lowering the barriers and making people feel invited can get them in, but if we expect them to make the museum part of their repertoire, we’re going to have to do some more thinking about both what we present and how.”

    Worrying too much about the false dichotomy “Active engagement” vs “Passive reception” in favor of the former is just worrying about the “how” over and above the “what” (not that i think the two are necessarily separate, of course).

    Basically, as I think we all understand, there is no easy answer–but I think it’s probably even a little more complicated than it may appear.

  7. Wade Williams

    It’s not uncommon to see some level of disappointment (anger?) from more cerebral groups about the popularity of sports. I remember a history professor once telling me that if people were smart, 87,000 would show up for a history lecture, rather than a football game. As much as I can understand his point, as they say: “ain’t happenin.”

    I think the suggestions of a fight-song theme concert are excellent. Some other ideas: NFL films has some outstanding classical music which everyone would immediately recognize. Also, utilize film scores which would be familiar, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.

    Additionally, I think a great idea is to find some local bands that would be willing to work strings into at least a few of their songs, or cover famous songs that lend themselves to strings. I’m prejudiced of course and think almost any song can benefit from a cello part.

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