TAFTO Contribution: Blair Tindall

"Walking a mile in another man’s shoes" is the theme for oboist, journalist, and author Blair Tindall’s Take a Friend to Orchestra contribution.  Helping patrons over any anxiety or self consciousness issues are critical elements in building tomorrow’s audience today.

Blair’s first book, Mozart in the Jungle, comes out in late June. Composer William Bolcom says "Blair Tindall’s book combines a personal memoir of her years as a gigging oboist in New York’s Upper West Side musicians’ ghetto with a trenchant analysis of what’s wrong with classical music today." 

With a review like that, how can you not be interested in what Blair has to say about bringing your friends to an orchestra concert? (Yes, I realize Blair is the second contributor who is also a professional oboist. Maybe it’s just a double reed thing; perhaps all of that back pressure helps stimulate neural activity.)

Recently, I saw Renee Fleming on one of the morning news shows where
pedestrians outside the television studio are visible through a glass
wall. Svelte in her contemporary hairstyle and pantsuit, Fleming looked
nothing like a stereotypical diva. She began to sing and people on the
sidewalk gathered to listen, their faces becoming calm and beatific.
Almost certainly, some of them would have said they didn’t like
classical music and yet all were mesmerized by Fleming’s simple, moving
Watching the impromptu audience confirmed my
belief that everyone possesses an innate feel for music. Classical
music uses the same twelve tones and rhythms as pop tunes which
sometimes borrow symphonic melodies verbatim — so why are the classics
often perceived as foreign and difficult to comprehend?
the case of Renee Fleming, the music was brought into the listeners’
everyday lives; they were not plopped into a world of classical music
that can seem forbidding, from price to protocol. As other TAFTO
contributions have pointed out, today’s concert format bears little
resemblance to our 21st-century lifestyles. With so many fast-paced
entertainment options available today — many of them interactive and
involving multiple senses — asking a newcomer to pay top dollar to sit
still for two hours is asking a lot.
Let’s follow "Eric," a
fictional friend who works as a web designer. He’s the go-to guy in his
office for different musical genres rock, zydeco, hip-hop, anything but
classical. But Eric rented the film, "Amadeus" and was surprised at how
much he liked the music. He decides to try the local orchestra’s Mozart
festival that was featured in yesterday’s newspaper. After checking for
tickets online, he almost changes his mind because admission costs more
than he’d anticipated. Still, he buys a single seat and randomly
selects a date since he doesn’t recognize any names or works on the
Once inside the concert hall, Eric feels like he’s
landed on Mars. Is anyone else wearing jeans? Why are the musicians
costumed like extras for a Victorian-era film? He relaxes upon
recognizing the first piece from "Amadeus" — he loved that music! He
moves to applaud when it ends. But no one else is clapping, and the man
in front of him glares. Eric slides down in his seat, feeling
hopelessly stupid. He’s so intimidated he can’t even focus on the next
piece. He leaves at intermission. "What was I thinking?" Eric mutters
to himself. "This classical stuff is over my head."
Eric told you about his interest in classical music instead. You load
three different Mozart works into his iPod and ask him a week later
which one he likes best. Although he doesn’t know the name of the
piece, he mentions a work for piano and orchestra. That particular
concerto is programmed on the Mozart festival, and you arrange for two
tickets to hear it. You add the Idomeneo overture and Jupiter Symphony
to Eric’s music library, since they will round out the program. Eric
attends the concert with you, looking forward to exciting live
performances of the music he has become passionate about through
When music is introduced into ordinary life, a
newcomer is free to evaluate what he or she likes without feeling like
an outsider. The music speaks for itself, and it’s essential that a new
concertgoer feel confident, intelligent — that his taste is valid and
he holds ownership of his concert experience.

I’d like to offer some ideas   and they are only ideas, not prescriptions — for introducing a friend to live classical music:

  • Let your friend discover his taste in music. Lend him CDs of four
    works from different periods perhaps Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a Mozart
    piano concerto, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Mahler’s Fifth or
    pick works that are actually scheduled to be performed in your area
    soon. For a more advanced listener, diverse contemporary works might be
    more appropriate. After a few days, ask which piece is his favorite,
    and to describe why in his own words. By choosing the concert based on
    these preferences, your friend will approach the performance with a
    point of reference so that the environment will not seem so foreign.
  • Consider informal concert formats for first-timers. Many
    orchestras have become sensitive to changing American lifestyles by
    offering shorter rush-hour concerts at convenient times. Outdoor
    concerts and open rehearsals are other possibilities.
  • Choose a concert that includes a descriptive work, like
    Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a Strauss tone poem, or Beethoven’s
    Pastoral symphony. As a little girl, I was bored by long evenings of
    concert music but loved opera because of its story line a phenomenon
    that might explain the enduring popularity of film and theater.
  • Look for concerts that feature a lively pre-concert talk or
    a conductor known for interacting with the audience. For example,
    Michael Tilson Thomas’s comments from the podium are balanced to
    embrace neophytes without patronizing subscribers. Another great
    communicator is Robert Kapilow, whose "What Makes it Great?" programs
    educate in a smart but fun format.
  • Consider taking not one, but two newcomers to the concert.
    Their shared experience may lead to a more candid conversation about
    the music they’ve heard.
    By offering these suggestions, I
    don’t advocate dumbing down the concert format or suggest that
    recordings substitute for live performance. What I propose is to
    separate pure music from its ritualized presentation, and to gear an
    introduction to classical music to each person’s personality and level
    of knowledge.
    Who’s the "Eric" in your life?

– Blair Tindall

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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