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Are Young People Avoiding the Symphony Because It Makes Them Feel Stupid?

Symphony Series Topic: Attracting Younger Audiences [part one]

When trying to attract younger audiences, one aspect of the symphony-going experience that is often overlooked is symphony etiquette. There are many unspoken yet socially enforced rules for behavior during an orchestra performance, and those rules can alienate potential newcomers and make them feel stupid—like they’re in a foreign country and they don’t speak the language. To overcome this barrier and relieve this discomfort, it helps to understand specifically what is making people uncomfortable. Here are some common complaints.

  1. I don’t know what to wear. Symphony performances are part of high culture, and even the youngest potential patron knows that you don’t show up in your pajama pants. Still, that doesn’t answer the question of what is considered acceptable dress. Clearly communicating to your patrons what is acceptable attire will put them at ease. Be flexible and tolerant with your definition. Younger generations don’t experience the social pressure to “dress up” the way older generations do, and their definition of casual may be different than yours.
  2. I don’t know when to clap. Like the dress code, people also know that there is an expectation for applause at certain times throughout a performance. Traditional etiquette is to clap after the piece or work is entirely done. For example, Beethoven’s 5th symphony has four movements with pauses in between, and the audience is expected to hold its applause until the final movement. Other works are played without pause. People experiencing a symphony for the first time may not be familiar with the music and may not even know what a “movement” is or when it ends. Movements can also stir different emotions in the audience, and some may feel compelled to react immediately afterwards.

When trying to attract younger audiences, one aspect of the symphony-going experience that is often overlooked is symphony etiquette.

Most orchestras and conductors don’t mind this natural reaction. In fact, it’s often a sign that newer audiences are trying the artform for the first time, which is a good thing for orchestras. It’s also important to remember that younger audiences are used to more interactive experiences that invite and encourage spontaneous responses. Regardless of which response your orchestra encourages, educating your audience before the performance will help everyone feel more comfortable.

  1. I don’t know anything about symphonies or orchestras. Like experts in any discipline, it’s easy to erroneously assume that your audience shares the same fundamental knowledge as you. The words “symphony” and “orchestra” are right in your name, so it’s natural to think that everyone attending a performance knows what these words mean and that they know the vocabulary that goes with the experience. First-time symphony-goers, however, are often looking for a new experience and a new opportunity to learn. They may have a broad perception that a symphony orchestra performs classical music, but it’s really up to you to educate them beyond that basic understanding. This creates a more satisfying experience for the conductor and orchestra, who often view themselves as educators and preservationists, and it gives the audience the comfortable and satisfying experience of learning.

Teaching new audiences how to attend a performance is just as important as teaching them about the music itself. Making this kind of information readily available to your patrons demonstrates a holistic approach to educating the next generation and will help make their orchestra experience and yours more satisfying. Shifting your attitude toward your audience from “you should know” to “did you know” can make all the difference.

Remember to check out part two of this series as well.

Wavelength can help you get younger attendees to your venue.

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