Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Engaging New Audiences

Engaging New Audiences

A sticky note wall gives Peabody concertgoers a chance to share their reactions.

For decades, an unwritten code has governed audience behavior in concerts: Sit in silence. Don’t flip through the program or unwrap a cough drop during the performance. Applaud between movements? How uncouth.

That code — an honoring of the concert hall as a sacred space where deference was paid to the musicians on stage — has not sat well with some people who might otherwise attend a performance. And it’s been particularly at odds with the daily living mode of a younger generation that views events as a chance to comment upon and share what they’re experiencing.

With a focus on finding ways to invite in new audiences and prepare students for changing expectations, Peabody has started exploring how that concert code of behavior can be recast.

“We have multiple audiences — both within the concert halls and for the programs we present externally,” says Sarah Hoover (DMA ’08, Voice), special assistant to the dean for innovation, interdisciplinary partnerships, and community initiatives. “We have to ask ourselves if we’re listening and responding to the needs and desires of our audiences.”

To accommodate those audiences while preserving the attentive-listening character of concerts, Peabody has tried two experiments, with a third scheduled for the spring.

The first was a tweet wall in which audience reactions to a concert were posted on a digital screen in the arcade outside the hall itself. To allow tweeting to happen during the performance, a separate section in the balcony was roped off for smart-phone-carrying audience members. This ensured they wouldn’t bother those who didn’t want to be distracted by people staring at and tapping on screens.

The second was a low-tech version of the same: a sticky note wall. Concertgoers were given a few sticky notes and small pencils to scribble their reactions, which they were invited to post after the performance.

The reactions from both concerts ranged from expressions of the sublime — “That piece was amazing!” (reacting to the Second Symphony by Aaron Jay Kernis) to the programmatic — “Early music and new music (together) is like a weird outfit that works” — to the … well, somebody just drew a picture of a hamburger on the paper and scribbled, “I’m hungry.”

In April, the third experiment will be trotted out: using a mobile app called Octava as an electronic addition to those crackling paper programs. Octava, developed by two faculty members at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, provides real-time commentary on the music as it unfolds. A Peabody student, sitting backstage with the score, will release the preprogrammed note at the appropriate measure — all the better for audiences to better appreciate what they’re hearing.

No word so far on a way to mute cough drop unwrapping.

— Michael Blumfield