why the symphony needs a progress bar

(photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Choral Society)

About three years ago, my work-life balance started to improve – start-up sleep deprivation was no longer a constant norm. I didn’t have enough time to restart violin lessons but season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony? Yup, I could swing that.

I bought tickets for myself and my husband, Todd, a relatively new concert-goer. But after a few shaky experiences, I was worried that Todd would back out of a subsequent season subscription. I started doing anything I could to avoid the, “Oh my god – is this only the first movement?” mid-concert terror. Seeing the experience from a newbie’s perspective, my UX instincts kicked in and I started jotting down the, “If only the symphony had…” moments. Three years later, here’s my list:

If Only the Symphony Had…

1. A Progress Bar

Even the most devout classical music listener has, “OMG is this over yet?” moments. When you’re not responding to a performance, the experience becomes torturous if you don’t know whether you’ve endured 5% or 95% of the piece. A progress bar would make a world of difference. Nearly every other performance genre has accompanying scoreboards, screens, tickers, or subtitles to track the event’s progress. A JumboTron might be inappropriate but a few progress lights on the conductor’s podium would really help.

MTT Talks

2. People Who Talk

Half of the fun of following a sports team is getting to know the players. At the symphony, you regularly have a two-hour experience with over a hundred performers with absolutely no words exchanged. I love encores because the artist announces the piece they are about to play and I can suddenly match a voice to a performer. Then they become real. I’d love for the conductor or soloist to provide a 3-4 sentence introduction, “Thank you for joining us this evening. Tonight we will be performing…” It’s only natural that the audience feels more engaged when they hear a performer’s voice. In the three years I’ve attended the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve never heard Michael Tilson Thomas talk!

quiet candy

3. Quiet Candy

The symphony season is almost perfectly aligned with head cold season – fall through spring. No one wants to cough during a performance but when that annoying tickle happens, you can only hold your breath and writhe in agony. I’m sure Ms. Stewart would endorse a hospitable offering of wax paper-wrapped candy in the entryway as both a welcoming gesture and a potential quick-fix to hold you over until you can make a mad dash to the water fountain.

4. A tl;dr opener

My typical symphony experience started with leaving Meebo a little early without dinner and finding myself starving in a 101-N traffic jam with a spouse who is thinking, “Wait a second, if we miss the symphony, we can skip the concert and get pizza instead!” We have never missed a performance but we sprinted from the parking lot on a few occasions. With seconds to spare, I’d see Todd crack open his program to find a dense Ph.D. thesis on the first piece. Two-three sentences in, the lights would dim and suddenly Todd was grasping his dark, useless program notes with no idea of what he was listening to.

Here’s a San Francisco Symphony program written for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (click to read the 11-page version):

In all of the 2,000 words, the title, “Exotic Birds”, is never translated! Assuming Todd made it through the first paragraph before the music began, he’d know the commissioner, dedication, and all of the locations and conductors who have played this piece of work since 1956. This is not helpful information for someone who is going to listen to Messiaen for the first time!

The first paragraph needs to be oriented to a 30-second, the-lights-are-dimming panic scan. Here’s what I wish preceded the lengthy write-up:

Oiseaux Exotiques (“Exotic birds”), 1956
Duration: 16 minutes (no movements)
Composer: Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), France
Period: 20th century
Influences: Roman Catholicism, birds, colors, Japanese music, landscapes
Instruments: Piano and small orchestra
Listening notes: Forty-eight birdsongs are played throughout this piece. Messiaen was not familiar with American birds so many of the birdsongs such as the Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Prairie Chicken, Oriole, and Finch were exotic to his ear.

concert notes

5. Program notes on the fold

While I’m harping about program notes, I’ll also mention a personal pet peeve. I dread the moment when I accidentally close my program and realize that I’ve lost the position to the concert notes. I’ll need to carefully open and flip through pages to locate the notes again without squeaking a chair or elbowing my neighbor. I know that it might make economical sense to bury the program notes amidst diamond cocktail ring advertisements but I’d really appreciate a program that naturally falls open to the concert details. If the advertising dollars can’t be missed, then offer a lightweight $.99 iPhone app that has white-on-black text (to avoid glowing screens) that can be flicked in the dark.

6. Programming for beginners

When you launch a new product, you inevitably have a few crazy, very vocal early adopters (why don’t you support Opera’s browser yet?) that you have to selectively ignore if you want a product that appeals to a wider audience. The symphony is the same. About half of the audience attends for a pleasant symphony-going experience. A small minority will be hard-core educated symphony folks who needle, “Why haven’t we heard more atonal music by post-Ján Valašťan Dolinský Slavic composers this season?” The remainder are the musically tepid spouses and children who have been dragged to the hall and are just trying to stay awake and to clap at the right times.

To sustain the symphony, there needs to be beginner programming at every concert – even if it’s just a 3-minute warm-up to perk up newbie ears with a, “Oooh – I’ve heard of this!” moment. Pre-concert talks are fantastic but I’m battling hectic schedules and a seatmate who (though he’d graciously never admit it) probably wants to spend less, not more, time at the symphony. However, it’s these seat-mates who determine whether I repurchase symphony season tickets and who will probably determine whether the symphony thrives longterm.

I can imagine that in two hundred years people will attend rock concerts performed by historical cover bands and wonder, “Why do they require that we stand for the entire concert?” Or, “If the concert really begins at 11pm, why do they print 10pm on the tickets?” The symphony was intended for entertainment and our rigid adherence to its nineteenth century form has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate. A progress bar is long overdue!

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11 responses to “why the symphony needs a progress bar”

  1. superb ideas! Well done for documenting and then publishing them. Maybe someone in the arts will draw some inspiration here and implement some/all.

    If you’ve been doing this for other areas of normal life that could use some “2.0” do keep sharing.

  2. I’ve been working on these kinds of issues in the museum world for a few years now–trying to help insiders identify and shift the secret language of the form that is limiting or downright confusing to newer audiences. If you ever want to come down to Santa Cruz and help hack the conventions of a museum, we’d love to have you. We also have great pizza.

  3. This is music to my ears – forgive the pun. Here in the UK, I’m working on my startup focusing on audience/visitor experience (www.theexperiencebusiness.co.uk if you’re interested) and I’m inspired by everything’s that is going on with UX and Design Thinking. Your open, honest, UX thinking makes for a fabulous read, and an intuitive response to making symphonies more audience friendly. Wished you lived in England … the chats we could have. Oh my!

  4. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments!

    Nate, the solutions are a little tongue-in-cheek but I think the problems are very real.

    Nina, museum hacking sounds awesome and I’m always up for a field trip. Let me know which museum you’re affiliated with and I’ll be there! At the least, I’d love to hear what you’ve been thinking about.

    Lisa, I was just in London and went to the Royal Opera House where I was so happy to hear, “Throat lozenges available to anyone upon request.” So good! I’m sure I’ll be in London again shortly and always happy to chat.

  5. I would like to suggest that candies or lozenges be wrapped in edible paper. I find the sound of someone unwrapping their paper during a performance excruciating. Especially if they’re trying to be quiet and it takes forever.

    Brilliant post!

  6. Some great ideas! Especially #2 and #4! I always prefer concerts where the conductor talks, instead of pretending the audience is behind some big screen and it’s just his (or her) bad luck that they have to put up with every cough, sniffle or seat creak interrupting the performance. Even as a performer I value the conductor talking – when I’m on stage and an audience is visibly enlivened by someone acknowledging their presence and having a conversation about the relevance or meaning of the music, it kind of gives me the mental ‘reset’ that I need to put myself in the right place for conveying the music as best I can to them. And I like your program notes idea too! A breakdown of dates, style, influences and listening notes is much more likely to be read than someone’s thesis-length commentary (insightful though it may be).

    As for the progress bar, even something much more subtle would work just as well. Last night I saw the Hilliard Ensemble & Australian Chamber Orchestra and in the program was one line that gave an indication of duration: 12 – 7 – 24 – 4 – INTERVAL – 27 – 14. Simple. Even though I enjoyed the whole concert immensely, it changes your listening process somewhat when you know roughly how long a piece goes for.

    About to go explore the rest of your blog – I like the way you write!

  7. Bronwyn Mitchell points out that the Australian Chamber Orchestra offers what could be considered the equivalent of a progress bar, by listing the estimated durations of the works on the program. The Sydney Symphony and Musica Viva Australia (a major chamber music presenter) do the same, as do many other concert presenters in Australia.

    In fact, it’s interesting to note that many of the great things suggested in this entertaining post are already quite widely practised in Australia. For further examples…

    * Several of us accompany our longer essays on the music with brief “keynotes” (sitting at the top of the note or in the margin of the first page) that can be quickly read before the lights go down, or we structure the notes in a modular style with short, discrete sections (see the Sydney Symphony’s Meet the Music programs, which can be downloaded, together with other programs, from the orchestra’s website).
    * We put commissioning, instrumentation and performance history information at the ends of notes not the beginning. (Which doesn’t stop the performance histories being a popular element with our audiences.)
    * Musicians do talk to the audience (not as a matter of routine or obligation, but when they really want to and have something to say).
    * We don’t load up every second page of the program with an advertisement (as many American programs do, but to be fair there’s a different financial model operating) and we place the ads we do run sensitively, so they don’t disrupt the content too much.

  8. PS. I’m astonished that in three years of attending SFS concerts you’ve not heard MTT talk at a concert. I’ve only had the opportunity to see him conduct twice in my life and on both occasions he spoke to the audience. In fact, I would have counted him among the more ‘talk-inclined’ conductors out there. Perhaps things are different on home territory…

  9. Why would you drag your spouse (who doesn’t like symphony music, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to infer) to the symphony? Make some symphony friends!

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