The Negative Aspects Of Being Too Nice

It seems that there’s been a good bit of writing about how nice classical music has become recently.  The Washington Post ran an article that talks about how EMI took out a bad note sung by Pavarotti at La Scala and the resulting boos in extracted from the audience. The Financial Times published a piece about the history of booing and how it never really took hold in the UK or the US and AJ blogger Greg Sandow wrote about a pair of overly complementary radio commentators.

And to add to that mix, I published an article at my Neo Classical column over at The Partial Observer entitled “Are We Just Too Nice In America?“.  It examines the long term negative impact of nurturing an overly complementary audience environment and how it actually contributes to the decline in orchestra attendance.

In a nutshell, the article concludes that constant standing ovations and absolutely no negative responses – like shouting out a few boos or only providing tepid applause – contributes to creating a sterile, dull, artificial concert environment (But don’t take my word for it, go read the article anyway).

But the article doesn’t cover how orchestra administrators actually contribute toward creating this candy coated attendance culture.

Orchestra administrations are absolutely paranoid about receiving any bad press whatsoever (I can only imagine the resulting physical and emotional duress the PR directors of the Big 5 orchestras would have if one of their concerts was summarily booed by the audience!).  And for decades they haven’t been very interested in educating their audience.

Things are so bad that most orchestra audience education initiatives directed toward regular patrons includes topics such as “this is a clarinet”.  The indication is that even the audience of today doesn’t know very much about what’s going on.

As a result, they don’t feel comfortable enough with forming an opinion about the artistic quality of the concerts they attend.  Certainly not comfortable enough to actually stay in their seats for a change or even offer up a “boo” from time to time.

But orchestra administrators are going to have to start educating their audiences directly, not by program notes or some nifty on line resource material.  But by sending people out into the audience and even into communities to start educating people about their product.

If successful, they’ll create a much more stimulating environment that will far more attractive and interesting to a wide variety of social and economic demographics.

I’ll let an old joke illustrate my point:

A famous tenor performing in a famous Italian opera house finishes his aria but only the crowd from the cheap seats shouts “bravo, bravo, bravo”.  Nevertheless, they are so enthusiastic that he returns to sing the aria again.

And once again, they shout “bravo, bravo, bravo” and won’t cease until he return for a third time to sing the same aria.

Afterward they shout “bravo, bravo, bravo” again, this time stomping their feet and whistling.

So the tenor returns a fourth time, but before singing the aria he addresses the patrons “I’m flattered you enjoy my singing so much, but we need to continue with the remainder of the opera.”

In response, one of the patrons says “We’re not shouting ‘bravo’ because we think you’re good, we’re just waiting for you to get it right!”

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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