This August, Chorus America released the results of the first-ever systematic look at what moves and motivates the people who attend choral music concerts. In partnership with leading research and consulting firm WolfBrown, the Intrinsic Impact Audience Project worked with 23 choruses across North America to survey their audiences.
The participating choruses represented various sectors of the choral field, such as volunteer and professional choruses, children and youth choruses, and LGBTQ choruses. Over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, 14,326 audience members at 136 difference concerts completed surveys about their experiences.
We spoke with researcher Alan Brown and a number of the participating choruses about what they learned from the study and the implications the findings have for the entire choral field. Here are their takeaways.
Who Are Our Audiences and Why Are They Coming?
People with experience singing in choruses attend choral concerts. Current and former choral singers make up about two-thirds of all audiences surveyed, and they attend choral concerts in part “to keep the musical flame inside of them alive,” the study report states. “Many audience members read music and come to be reconnected with familiar works,” says Alan Brown, principal at WolfBrown.
This may help explain the popularity of frequently programmed masterworks, or the annual holiday concert. According to Brown, this kind of “ritual programming” is very much part of the value system people have around arts and culture. “It is critical that choruses offer these experiences as touchstones for people, and also create new ritualized gatherings around making music,” says Brown. VocalEssence, one of the choruses participating in the study, is considering a regular “come one, come all” singing get-together to better tap into the community of singers in its audiences, says executive director Mary Ann Aufderheide.
According to the study, the heavy representation of choral singers in audiences also points to “the symbiotic relationship between music education and the long-term health of the choral sector outside of education.” “There is a kind of virtuous circle of participation and attendance,” says Brown. “We really need to figure out how to harness the big alumni network of singers out there.”
Personal relationships fuel the audiences for choral concerts. Choruses often lament that their audiences are all “friends and family,” but the study suggests that these relationships are powerful and a source of strength. Over one-third of audiences of adult choruses, on average, have some sort of relationship with a performer.
Ways To Measure Impact
The Intrinsic Impact Audience Project used a framework for impact assessment developed by WolfBrown over the past 10 years. The study investigated the following five core constructs of intrinsic impact:
At any point during the concert did you lose track of time and get fully absorbed?
Overall, how strong was your emotional response to the concert?
Did the concert raise questions in your mind that you would like to ask the performers or creators of this work?
Were you already familiar with the artistic work of this chorus?”
Social Bridging and Bonding
Did you feel a sense of connection with others in the audience?
A number of choruses in the study are looking for ways to expand this circle of their audience by empowering singers and board members to invite their family and friends in a more intentional way. Seattle Pro Musica is instituting a discount for members’ friends and family for the first time this year. “It’s clear from the study how important it is to make that initial ask, to say, ‘I’m singing in a concert, will you come?’” says Katie Skovholt, executive director of Seattle Pro Musica. “We want to make it easier for our folks to do that.”
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir provides tools for its choristers and board members to promote their concerts, like pre-written emails to send out, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages. “But we want them to go beyond sharing information with their social networks,” says Anne Longmore, director of marketing.
The Club’s own data found that a personal invitation was most important for their much-desired 45-and-under age group. “We plan to share with our folks the research that says, ‘Look at how important your invitation is,’” says Longmore, “and help them understand how much they can help the organization they love and sing with.”
There are variations depending on the type of chorus. Audiences for concerts by volunteer singers, for example, tend to be more relationship-driven (50%), while audiences for concerts by paid singers are less relationship-driven (25%).
Among the four youth choruses who participated in the study, four in five audience respondents had a familial or friendship relationship with a young performer, and 54% were parents or grandparents of singers. For the Cincinnati Boychoir, such statistics are not surprising and have helped reinforce their mission and redirect their marketing strategy.
“We used to say, we know our families are coming. Now we have to reach the rest of the world,” says artistic director Christopher Eanes. “Now, instead, we say, we provide low-cost, family-friendly entertainment. We really don’t have to change our programming at all.” In other words, the focus of the group’s marketing has become anyone looking for entertainment for the whole family.
The three LGBTQ choruses participating reported that an average of 56% of audience members knew someone in the chorus, more often through friendship than a family relationship. The study showed that LGBTQ choruses are particularly effective at attracting singers’ co-workers and colleagues.
Here again, variations between choruses could be significant. Justin Fyala, who was managing director of the Windy City group during the study, and recently became executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, points to the fact that about 90% of the audiences of the Windy City Gay Chorus knew someone in the chorus, while the portion of friends and family in the audience of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was about 50%.
“The data really spoke to me,” he said. “On the one hand, how do you diversify an audience that is already mostly friends and family? On the other hand, how do you grow an audience that is already half made up of folks who do not know anybody in the chorus?”
Social motivations drive first-time attendance. First-time attendees to a chorus’s programs are more likely than frequent attendees to cite social motivations, the study found. “The promise of a socially fulfilling experience plays a larger role in attendance with people who have a weaker connection to the art form,” says Brown. “It’s only natural.”
To help build that connection, Seattle Pro Musica plans to host a number of events where first-time audience members can meet and interact with artistic director Karen Thomas. “We have talked about events in conjunction with the actual concert performance, or at a dress rehearsal or even at a local bar,” says Skovholt. “It’s all about social bonding around the event.”
What Do They Want from the Experience?
Programming choices have a deep impact on the audience experience. The study investigated five different kinds of impact: Captivation; Emotional Resonance; Intellectual Stimulation; Aesthetic Enrichment; and Social Bridging and Bonding (see sidebar). Using these, the study was able to characterize the impact “footprints” of individual programs.
Full-length classical works, for example, tended to generate high levels of Captivation and Emotional Resonance. A concert produced by VocalEssence saluting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (part of its VocalEssence WITNESS: Let Freedom Ring series) generated high levels of Social Bridging and Bonding and Aesthetic Enrichment. “The study reinforces that our concerts are operating on different channels and we can have these different kinds of relationships with audiences,” says Brown.
The study also uncovered a fundamental relationship between audiences and the artistic programs they choose to attend. “The audience is a reflection of what’s on stage,” the report states. “In curating programs, artistic directors are not just selecting repertoire but also curating their chorus’s constituency.”
Audience members for VocalEssence, for example, generally confirmed that they attend concerts because they want to be exposed to new or rarely heard music. “That was a great affirmation,” says Aufderheide, “that we had been doing the right thing for 47 years…Knowing that people really want those discovery experiences will help us form a strategy in creating our programming.”
That there is not one kind of audience, but many, depending on the kind of concert, is encouraging choruses in their programming choices. The Minneapolis-based men’s ensemble Cantus staged a recent concert, “Would You Harbor Me?,” around the theme of poverty and homelessness. It was challenging and “risky,” but survey results showed that it had a strong impact on audience members—just a different kind of impact than a classical work would have had.
Audiences want “curatorial insight” beyond program bios. The study found that audiences often left a concert with a number of questions—about program choices and overall design (22%); about the singers (19%); about the repertoire (18%); and about the texts (16%). They wanted to know the backstory on program design: why specific pieces were selected to be on the same program, and what inspired the artistic director to choose a certain piece, or to interpret a piece in a certain way.
“If you tie this to the fact that the majority of audience members are current or former singers,” says Brown, “this suggests an unmet desire to learn more about something they might already be familiar with…to go deeper into the music.”
Intrigued by this finding, several choruses are rethinking how they do their program notes. “We found that audiences barely care about the composer information,” says Katie Skovholt of Seattle Pro Musica, “but they care about what the conductor and the composer feel about the program. They want to know the why behind the program.” A task force of board members and singers is looking at how to create new, more compelling content, and cull out some of the dryer information.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir now includes reflections from the artistic director about why a program is put together the way it is and from a chorister about the experience of learning and singing the repertoire in program notes. “We are also wondering about the traditional bios of soloists,” says Anne Longmore, director of marketing. “Do we add in something more personal about their experience of the music?”
Thomas W. Douglas, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Bach Choir, is taking time before a concert to answer some basic questions audience members have, such as how long it takes to get a program into performance shape, how long singers need to sing before they can join a group like the Bach Choir, and how the pieces on the program were chosen. “These are kind of basic questions that you don’t think about,” says managing director Matthew Dooley, “but the audience thinks about them.”
Audience members who participate report higher levels of impact Audience participation is positively associated with impact. Of the four types of audience participation tested in the survey, “singing along to the music” – the most common form of audience participation (50% incidence, overall) – is least predictive of overall impact. “Clapping along to the music” (21%) is associated with social connection and overall impact. As might be expected, “talking to someone you don’t know” (32%) is a strong predictor of social connection.
“When those questions were added into the survey in the second year,” says Longmore of Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, “we thought, ‘standing and clapping in the aisles? That is not the kind of program we do.’” Nevertheless, a good portion of the Choir’s audience did report that they were moving to the music, or talking to someone they did not know.
“That was food for thought for us,” says Longmore. “How can we make that more comfortable for people? Might we create some social experiences after the concert to help people do that more if that is important to them?”
One the messages Eanes has taken away from the study is the “permeability of the wall between the audience and the performers.” In addition to his work with the Cincinnati Boychoir, that is something he is seeking to apply to the Collegium Cincinnati, the adult choir he leads. Last season, audience members were invited to sing the choruses in the Collegium’s presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. Another ongoing series, Cocktails and Concertos, is presenting the full cycle of the Brandenburg Concertos in a local bar. “It’s high-level music,” says Eanes, “and the audience is free to interact with us. Sometimes they even yell!”
What Are the Broader Implications?
This kind of data creates conversations about programming and mission fulfillment. The study’s focus on impact, as opposed to satisfaction, is intended to shift conversation away from whether audiences “liked” or “disliked” a program, and instead explore how they were affected by it. This recognizes and values the artistic vision of music directors as the primary force behind programming decisions, while still allowing for meaningful conversation about audiences.
“What’s exciting is that the study shows that the emphasis for programming can come from different places,” says Brown. “I hope that choruses will think a little more carefully about the impact that their artistic decisions will have on their audience and their community. And maybe this will give chorus boards a different lens or language to engage with their music director around season planning.”
WolfBrown used world cloud software to analyze audience’s emotional responses to different programs. Duruflé’s Requiem performed by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh generated an emotional footprint characterized by feelings of serenity (above). Cantus’s thematic concert on homelessness, “Would You Harbor Me?” generated complex emotions that included hopefulness and gratitude as well as concern and even anger (below).
Several of the choruses in the study said they would be mining the data for years to come. “The study has helped us to ask, ‘What do people want from a gay chorus?’” says Fyala. “We come from this tradition of camp and fun and jazz hands. What I would like to continue to look at is how to incorporate other music and still engage that audience that wants fun, energetic music alongside the people who want something a little more serious. The data can lead to those discussions.”
There is power in sharing information about impact with donors, board members, and singers. Audience members provided a wealth of information about their experiences of the concerts they attended. For each concert, WolfBrown produced a “word cloud” showing audience responses. Many choruses in the study found these to be effective and graphic ways to feed back the power of concerts to constituents of their organization.
“When I’m writing a grant proposal, I take a look back at the word clouds,” says Fyala. “The differences and diversity in words that people used to describe their experience has really helped to grow the language I am able to use. And grantors really like to hear directly from audience members, rather than just from me.”
Skovholt says having something more than anecdotal evidence of the impact of choral music programs will be important for the chorus’s grant applications. “To see so many people across the United States having the same reaction to what we do is illuminating,” says Skovholt. “We now, as organizations, have data to remind people how important singing in a chorus is.” Dooley of the Pittsburgh Bach Choir says that the data has already enabled the Bach Choir to get funding to reach out to market segments than they had not targeted before.
The word clouds from audience comments have also provided feedback that is important to singers. “So often a choir member is concentrated on creating that experience for the audience,” Skovholt says. “Your sopranos are thinking about floating those high Gs; the tenors are trying to come in in perfect unison with the altos. You’re seeing the elements rather than seeing the experience you are inspiring. So to see those words that express the impact—that is really nice.”
Brown says that kind of feedback loop is important for the choral field. “When you are able to reflect back to singers the amazing emotional impact of their work,” says Brown, “it completes a circle that is so meaningful to singers and audiences. That exchange of art and appreciation is one of the engines that is driving the whole field.”
The Intrinsic Impact Audience Project surveying tools and findings are all available for use by the field. The full report, executive summary, and survey protocol design template are all available on the Chorus America website on the Intrinsic Impact page.
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.