TAFTO 2008 Contribution: Matt Heller

It just isn’t TAFTO without a contribution from a bassist and veteran blogger and Calgary Philharmonic bassist Matt Heller fills that billet in spades. In his contribution Matt ponders what sort of worst-case-scenario inviting a friend to one of his concerts could produce . The results are not only highly entertaining (Take a Friend – but not too good of a friend – To Orchestra) but they should alleviate any sort TAFTO induced anxiety for all those on the fence about inviting a friend to an orchestra concert.

Matt Heller
Matt Heller

Taking a friend to the orchestra is a bit of a tricky matter when you play in the orchestra. Most of my friends either play in the Calgary Philharmonic themselves, or have been coming to concerts their whole lives. And when I do get to know someone from a different sphere, and find they’re enthusiastic about hearing an orchestra for the first time, I’m not always in the best position to guide them through it. I’ll be up on stage, hoping they managed to get there, didn’t feel too lost or bored, and maybe we’ll get an opportunity for a post-concert chat. I don’t get to help them out or answer their questions, at least until after the concert has ended.

The worst scenario for me would be to invite someone and find they’d been completely alienated by the experience, hated the orchestra and me for inviting them to it. (This hasn’t happened, I just have a very active negative imagination – leading me to envision “Take a friend to the orchestra, leave an enemy!”) Because I fear this happening, I’m often reticent to invite people I don’t know pretty well. This story is about an occasion when I did invite two new friends, and it worked out surprisingly well.

It was a Baroque-series concert in late January, somewhat alarmingly titled “The British Are Coming”, and I had two comps for it. This concert was on a Thursday, in the middle of a frigid week with temperatures in the -20s, and giving away these comps was proving surprisingly difficult. My orchestra won’t always offer comps to musicians, and when we do the system of distribution seems to be:

  1. the orchestra manager stands up on podium, either before rehearsal or during a break
  2. he holds up a stack of comp tickets
  3. musicians descend like a pack of vultures

So managing to swoop in and snatch two tickets was a big victory for me, and I wanted to make them count. I would feel awful to leave them unused – what a waste, what a letdown! Then again, giving them away to someone who found it a tedious chore to have to use them might be even worse…

The morning of the concert day I went to my yoga class, and was leaving the center when I remembered the tickets. I dug them out of my bag and asked my yoga teacher Harmony, “Do you know anyone who might want some tickets to hear the CPO tonight?”

Despite my unenthusiastic pitch, she was instantly excited and said, “Oh, we would!” She and her husband Jeff both teach Ashtanga yoga in the Mysore tradition 6 days a week, which means they start practicing and teaching around 4 am almost every day. As a result, I doubt they make it to a lot of concerts (also, yoga teachers don’t earn much money). But they’re very musically attuned people – and involved in an eastern tradition with a lot of similarities to western classical music.

So handing off those tickets to Harmony felt good, but still a little queasy. I didn’t know how they would react to this concert of mostly Baroque, English music, but with Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony as the concluding piece. Maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t accompany them to the concert. I would have just babbled about music history and stylistic periods; whereas the experience of seeing and hearing an orchestra for the first time, all the distinct sounds and gestures of the musicians and instruments, might only be  diminished by too much explanation – like a magician explaining how a trick was done. In a recent article on magic, Adam Gopnik writes:

What they call “the real work” isn’t the method, which anyone can learn from a book (and, anyway, all decent magicians know roughly how most tricks are done), but the whole of the handling and timing and theatrics of the effect, which are passed along from magician to magician and generation to generation. The real work is the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas. The real work is what makes a magic effect magical.

— “The real work: modern magic and the meaning of life”, The New Yorker, March 17, p. 57

I think our art has a similar, unexplainable dimension which new audience members are best left to discover and savor for themselves. Whenever I do answer an audience member’s technical question, about German bows or C-extension machinery or the physics of pizzicato, I often have a sense of vague disappointment. I can explain the principles involved, but I’ll never unveil the mystery, power and beauty that all that craftsmanship makes possible.

One of the magical things about bringing new listeners to the orchestra is that they can restore our own sense of the wonder and magic in what we do. I received this e-mail from Jeff:


I can’t thank you enough for the tickets last night.  What a powerful performance.  Harmony and I really enjoyed ourselves! The music actually brought tears to my eyes more than once. The discipline and the dedication of the musicians is so evident. True yogis! True communion. It is incredible what depth and complexity these great composers must have had… What a fantastic, moving life you have chosen.

You are a great, great man! Thank you so much for your kindness!


Reading that was a huge morale-booster for me; and after watching that performance, Jeff told me, he and Harmony have both been especially careful not to dislocate my wrists or pull a shoulder out of its socket while adjusting my yoga poses! So I suppose in all respects it was a successful instance “Take a Friend to the Orchestra” — no friendships were harmed in the making of these new audience members!

– Matt Heller

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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