The first post-pandemic full season of Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts (WLCC) drew to a close with a beautiful rendition of Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, played by pianist and artistic director of the series, Duncan Honeybourne. This glorious piece of music was written by Schumann as a gift to his beloved Clara; for Duncan, playing it at the close of his concert, and the finale to the series’ 20th anniversary season, it also felt like a gift to our audience to thank them for their ongoing support.

I’ve been Concerts Manager for WLCC since November 2019. Shortly after I took over the role, the pandemic hit and we were forced to suspend all our performances. We resumed in a limited way in the autumn of 2021, presenting just two socially-distanced concerts before we were obliged to suspend the series once again. Throughout this time, our audience supported us, returning enthusiastically, though in vastly reduced numbers due to the constraints of socially-distanced performances (we could only allow 25 people in a church which normally seats 80), and adapting to new ways of doing things, including an online box office and advance booking system.

Having now completed my first proper season as Concerts Manager (absent a Christmas concert due to the omicron wave), I have seen at first hand the importance of trust between artistic director/organiser and the audience. In fact, it was my husband, who has been regularly attending WLCC concerts in recent months, who highlighted this significant aspect of the series’ success. Our audience place a great deal of trust in Duncan Honeybourne’s stewardship of and artistic vision for the series and because of this, they reward us with their loyalty, returning to the concerts month after month, regardless of who or what we are presenting.

So how does this trust manifest itself? For some audience members, Duncan is a friend, and this friendship fosters a sense of trust. He is also well-known and highly regarded in the local community, as well as in the wider British musical world, with a 20-year record of running WLCC, a reputation that counts for a lot. But I think above all it is Duncan’s unsnobbish, authentic and enthusiastic approach to music-making which makes audiences feel confident that they will enjoy the concerts. (And it’s worth noting at this point that the series specialises in presenting lesser-known and rarely-performed music and composers alongside classical favourites and well-known works.)

Promoters, programmes and audiences

As concert life returns to normal after covid, promoters and venue managers – and musicians too – need to rediscover or reconfirm a sense of trust with their audiences. From the most basic aspect of making people feel comfortable and safe when visiting the venue to the planning of programmes and featured repertoire, I believe a sense of trust should be cultivated at all times.

Unfortunately, it strikes me that some venues have a rather casual, untrusting attitude to their audiences, and I see this most clearly in the type of programmes being presented. I sense a certain unwillingness to trust audiences’ taste/discernment and instead to impose programmes, repertoire and composers on the audience. In some instances, especially with regard to contemporary music, a didactic, almost patronising attitude prevails – that one must listen to this music because “it is good for you” or because it has “an important message”. This misses the point of why, in general, people go to concerts: most of us want to escape the hectoring and finger-wagging of politicians, public health “experts”, commentators and others, at least for a few hours, rather than endure a polemic in music. And now, more than ever, because of the lack of live music over the past two years, many of us want to go to concerts to socialise as well. Concert managers and promoters need connect with their audience in such a way that shows they understand them: the most basic aspect of this is presenting the music the audience wants to hear. If you’re spending upwards of £25 on a concert ticket, in addition to the effort and expense of traveling to the venue, you probably want a guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the concert.

The anti-popular, anti-classical favourites advocates seek to impose their ideas of what audiences should be listening to and then wonder why tickets don’t sell and concert halls are half-empty.

Sadly, an attitude prevails in the contemporary music world in particular that the music matters far more than the audience and that considering the audience is an egregious form of pandering which devalues the “art”.

Music is there to be heard – a particular concern for contemporary classical music. But that music won’t be heard if the audience feels alienated but the way it is programmed and/or presented. Advocacy of new or neglected music is important, and audiences should be given the chance to hear that music for themselves. But in the end, however hard you argue a case for the music, audiences either will or won’t like the way it sounds, and there’s not much one can do about that!

A more trust-oriented way of doing things would be to plan programmes which include well-known repertoire as a “hook” to entice audiences, while also featuring more unusual, less familiar, rarely-performed, or contemporary music. Presented in a non-didactic way, audiences may enjoy the chance to discover new music, while hearing it alongside the more familiar. Thus, you can build a degree of trust with your audience by gradually expanding the repertoire alongside popular classical favourites. Open the concert with something familiar, so people don’t arrive late, then give them something new or less familiar. Programme another such piece after the interval but end with a box-office favourite so people stay to the end.

Musicians and audiences

The relationship between the musician and their audience is, or at least should be, founded on mutual trust.

If the audience doesn’t trust you, it won’t turn up for the concert. If there is no trust, people will be reluctant to listen to and engage with the performance – and, by the way, audiences are very good at sending whether or not the performer trusts them!

When I hear of A Famous Pianist complaining about audiences or insisting that they sit through 2-hour programmes without applause or a comfort break because that would “interrupt the flow” of the performance, or sneer at a perceived ignorance or lack of discernment in current audiences, I sense a lack of trust between performer and audience. In fact, this musician perhaps does not trust audiences at all, instead preferring to impose his will upon them.

Many performers are expert at creating a sense of connection and trust between themselves and audience from the moment they walk on stage – or even beforehand through posts and exchanges on social media (the British pianist Sir Stephen Hough is particularly skilled at this). Verbal and non-verbal cues can quickly set up a sense of shared experience and even friendship between artist and audience. Speak to the audience but in a language they can understand. Introduce the programme in a way that allows audiences to feel a connection to the performer – why is this music meaningful to them, for example? – rather than simply parrotting programme notes. Know your audience and where they’re coming from and respond accordingly. Show your gratitude to the audience – by playing encores (if appropriate) or by greeting them after the concert in the green room or at a CD signing, for example.

Concerts are a customer-facing activity, and while some may baulk at such a phrase in relation to classical music, accepting and understanding this can go a long way to making audiences feel welcome and trusting. Do more “Put the customer first”, and audiences will reward you with their support and loyalty.

Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash


Glenn Gould claimed to “detest” audiences, regarding them as “mob rule” and “a force for evil” (he retired from performing in public at 31), but most performers take a far more positive and generous attitude towards audiences.

Audiences – real living, breathing audiences – have been much missed over the past year with concert halls, opera houses and theatres closed for months in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing performances from empty venues like London’s Wigmore Hall are a poignant reminder of how important audiences are; they’re an integral part of the concert experience and without an audience a performance isn’t really a “concert” in the truest sense of the word.

Glenn Gould had a good reason for his dislike of audiences: he suffered from stage fright and saw the public concert as a “gladiatorial” experience, the audience a hostile force, hungry for evidence of weakness or errors on the part of the performer. The fear of making mistakes in front of other people – a natural human instinct – is very common amongst performers, professional and amateur, and is one of the main drivers of performance anxiety.

We don’t want to mess up in front of other people, of course we don’t. We want our performances to be as close to perfect as possible, with just the right amount of technical assuredness combined with artistry to draw the audience into the music’s soundworld, transport them, excite and enthrall them. But perfection is a human construct, an idealas opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. We are all human – even the most incredible musicians who enjoy almost god-like reverence – and we are all fallible. Accepting this is one of many ways we can better understand and manage performance anxiety.

Audiences don’t come to concerts hoping to see the performer fail. They are not there to spot errors or imperfections in performance; they have paid for tickets because they want to hear the musicians perform. They are there because they want to be there, to hear the music, and because they enjoy the concert experience and admire the performers. 

Performing is about connection not perfection. As musicians, we want to connect with our audience to communicate and share our music with them. It’s a sympathetic, almost supportive relationship, as the audience create atmosphere and a sense of occasion in the concert hall – and also affect the acoustic of the venue. That special relationship between musicians and audience has been much missed over the past year, and almost every musician I know cannot wait to be back in the concert hall performing to a real live audience once again.


Horse races run on empty courses, Premier League football matches played in cavernous deserted stadia, tennis tournaments “behind closed doors”, concerts performed into a void of silence. Without the roar of the crowd, the cheering and the applause, the collective experience of these activities is severely diminished, the punters, the fans and the audiences forced by social distancing in these times of coronavirus to engage via a TV set or computer from their sofas, living rooms and kitchens.

The people, the crowd, create atmosphere. At football and rugby matches, closely-packed bodies and loud unison chanting and singing produce a heady atmosphere that’s hard to resist. While football matches are being played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, TV companies are using technology to create “atmosphere”, with recordings of the roars and cheers of the crowd from earlier live matches. Fortunately, at the Wigmore Hall’s lunchtime livestreamed concerts, “canned” applause is omitted; instead at the end of each piece, the performers are greeted with silence.

In live classical music performances – and indeed in nail-biting tennis matches – the silence of the audience indicates intense collective concentration. There is an almost inexplicable silence which occurs during a particularly absorbing performance, when it seems as if the audience is listening and breathing as one, or that special quiet at the end of a particularly arresting performance before the applause comes. It’s as if there is a universal exhale as tense bodies held in suspended stillness by the power of the music, gradually relax and unwind. This is particularly potent at very large venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall, home to the Proms, and the performer or performers who can hold an audience of some 5500 in rapt attention, or shrink a concert hall such as the Royal Festival Hall (capacity c2000) to the size of an intimate salon, is surely a powerful and charismatic one.

Not only does a hall full of people have a different acoustic, but a living, breathing audience creates “a very active involvement in the music, and I think a performer senses this, the energy…and that quietness, when people are listening and attentive, and you feel an electricity there that you cannot replicate” (Stephen Hough, concert pianist).

Performers are very aware of the atmosphere in a concert hall and many would agree that the it enables them to play better, while also creating a special bond of communication with the audience, who then become complicit in the performance as active participants. Playing in a recording studio can be sterile and limiting, requiring the performer to attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a live performance through the power of their imagination.

While concert halls (and sports stadia) remain empty for the time being, audiences and performers must create their own atmosphere. Livestream performances cannot replace “the real thing”, but there is something powerful, and also profoundly poignant, in watching a live performance from an empty auditorium. The Wigmore Hall livestream lunchtime concerts have received huge acclaim, both from critics and reviewers, and also audiences sharing their reactions (often very thoughtful, honest and emotional) on social media. We have enjoyed exceptionally fine performances, in which musicians still give their all despite or perhaps because of the circumstances, and there has, via the networks, been a palpable sense of people listening appreciatively and attentively. In addition, there is a sense of quenching a great thirst after a long period of drought and also an certain optimism in the hope that we can soon return to our beloved concert halls and enjoy music collectively once again.


“….the quality and general culture of audiences has diminished in equal measure……The average listener of today has hardly the faintest idea about what he is hearing. He neither knows anything about new music, nor can he differentiate between outstanding, moderately good and poor performances.”

Sir András Schiff, The Telegraph, 8 March

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself bridling at criticism of “the audience”. There have been a few occasions, mostly in music reviews, where the audience and its behaviour have been commented upon in less-than-complimentary terms. I feel offended because as a regular concert-goer I am part of “the audience”, and I will nearly always rush to defend it.

And why? Because there’s a very simple equation here: without an audience, the musician/s does not have a concert, nor a fee. He/she/they may be performing to a handful of people or a full house at Carnegie Hall, but the audience is a crucial part of the concert experience. Without an audience, you are just playing into the void (sadly, some musicians are finding this is a necessity as concert halls close due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that’s another story).

András Schiff’s comments revive – yet again! – that tedious old chestnut that you need specialist knowledge or a certain level of education to enjoy, or better still appreciate classical music. The truth is, you don’t. All you need are your ears and a willingness and curiosity to submit to the sounds, to the experience, the flow of the music and the emotions it provokes. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy the experience, and there’s no test at the end of the concert to see if you “understood it”, no exam in musical analysis to check you know what Sonata Form is or the meaning of Allegro Amabile (“smile as you quickly play”). The majority of audience members are there not to show off their specialist knowledge, but because they enjoy the experience of live music. And in fact, contrary to what Schiff says, many audience members are highly discerning and really can spot whether a performance is truly inspiring or mediocre: they may not be able to express this in high falutin language but they can certainly sense it.

Performers like Schiff would do well to remember who is paying for the tickets to their concerts, for without those ticket buyers, those valuable (but, it would appear, not always valued) “bums on seats”, The Audience, there wouldn’t be the same opportunities to perform. This is especially true for less well-known musicians who are trying to make a living playing for local music societies and regional arts organisations, where the ability to pay the artist a fee is predicated almost entirely on ticket sales.

Patronising, arrogant attitudes towards audiences, and potential audiences, don’t really help an artform which is constantly trying to attract as wide an audience demographic as possible, and serve to reinforce the notion that classical music is “elitist”. If I was a newbie concert-goer reading Schiff’s comments, I think I might be tempted to head straight out of the concert hall, never to return.

Let’s stop behaving as if classical music is for the few, not the many; that it’s some kind of precious crystal that only a select minority can see and engage with. Instead, let’s endeavour to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of their credentials or knowledge.

Read Jon Jacob’s thoughts on this issue here



To be entertained
To be moved
To be transported
To be amused, amazed and bowled over
To hear familiar tunes
To hear rarely-performed repertoire
To learn something new
To be challenged
To have a “bespoke concert experience”
To enjoy whatever is on the programme
To feel the musician’s concentration and communication
To sense the synergy between ensemble players, or orchestra and conductor
To enjoy a concert in an unusual venue, by candlelight
To get up close and personal with the musicians
To applaud whenever they like
To exclaim at the soloist’s beautiful gown
To see more young people in the audience
To dress down
To dress up
To sit in comfy seats
To have value for money
To meet friends & have interval drinks
To have time for dinner beforehand – or afterwards
To not have to get the last train home
To not be patronised or treated as uneducated or ignorant
Performers can never please all of the people all of the time and usually need to balance their desire to play certain repertoire with the expectations of the audience. Personally, I don’t think performers should ever feel the need to pander to an audience 
Some actual audience views
…..quality, enthusiastic performances (not robots) and a diverse mix of repertoire

[I want] An ineffable mix of emotion, technique… and always something new. I want to be moved, educated, entertained, and astonished!
And some actual performers’ views:
……communicating. I want them to know and feel what I’m feeling in the amazing music

Audiences want to feel that they are engaged in the performance, that they are part of the communication. I think primarily they don’t want to feel patronised or bored. It’s probably easier to say what they don’t want. I think it also depends where you’re playing. In a village church with an audience who like classical music but might not want to feel challenged, you’d play something different to what you might do in an inner city concert hall……. different audiences want different things but ultimately they want to feel part of what’s going on.
This debate will run and run, in tandem with the endless hand-wringing and eye-pulling about the death of classical music. There is no simple answer. Maybe, as this article suggests, it is time classical music became more radical, to stop chasing audiences or worrying about ticket sales, and to simply revel in “great, challenging and rewarding music”. An idealistic view perhaps, but certainly one which merits consideration.
Why do I go to concerts? Because I love the uniqueness and excitement of a live performance, the sense that it is a one-off, created there and then (of course, as a musician myself I also appreciate the many hours of careful practising that go in to creating that performance). I love the sense that this is a shared experience, but one from which we can each take something personal and special – and that, for me, applies to all concerts, regardless of performer, repertoire or quality of performance.
As a performer, I believe the music was written to be shared and for me that is the fundamental motivation for performing.

Further reading
Issues in Planning Concert Programmes by Hugh Mather (who runs the excellent concerts at St Mary’s Perivale)

The following is from an address given by Christopher Stager at the 17th International Conference of International Artists’s Managers Association (IAMA), and is drawn from his perception of what American orchestras need to do to grow their audiences, and how understanding how audiences behave can be utilised to increase ticket sales and attendance at classical music concerts.

1. Audiences are drawn more to repertoire than to artists. This won’t come as a surprise to most of you: a little-known violinist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto is likely to sell more tickets than a “name” artist playing the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto. Of course, that “name” artist playing a popular concerto will sell the most tickets of all. But in such a case, orchestras struggle with the variance between the two artist fees – a margin difficult to cover through ticket revenue alone.

2. Make no mistake: audiences are shrewd, selective consumers. I am forever surprised by this. How else can we explain why Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony sells better than his Third?

I have heard board members declare that their presumed “marketing problem” can be fixed with “better” (their term), more populist programming. And I have seen their theory tested – always with a disappointing result. When the audience is presented only with peaks, they will find the valleys.

More than once I have seen Beethoven’s Second and Fourth Symphonies sell very well in a season in which they are the only Beethoven symphonies presented. But in a season of all Nine Beethoven Symphonies, their sales will be weaker; the audience will select the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth.

Better, it is an institution’s unwavering will to present interesting programs – not simply popular ones – that build audiences over time, and narrows the spread between high and low selling concerts. One of my clients recently presented Mozart’s Requiem. I proposed that the first half offer Messiaen’s L’Asencion. Each piece informed the other, providing a new context for listening. This remains the best selling concert in the orchestra’s history. Audiences came away with their expectations exceeded, and a deeper trust in the institution’s artistic values. Which brings me to…

3. Audiences buy what they know. Generally, this has always been. We often rail against the audiences’ lack of adventurousness, their limited interest in contemporary or challenging music.

But perhaps we should view “new music” as a subset of “unknown music” – whatever its age. If they only buy what they know, and they don’t know what is being played, what will entice them to come? Their trust in the organization’s artistic values.

Audiences select the familiar. By extension, then, audiences are also buying a pre-determined emotional response – therefore, the standing ovation for the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto is granted perhaps weeks before the performance, at the time of ticket purchase. Maybe to validate the cost of their tickets.

In the last couple of decades this new dynamic has contributed to our audiences’ timid sense of adventure. Ticket prices are accelerating beyond inflation. As a consequence, audiences are less willing to risk the investment in what they don’t know. As ticket prices increase, their trust declines. The burden, then, is passed on to the most loyal audience, most of whom will continue to pay whatever we ask. And as attrition reduces their ranks, we further increase the cost to an ever-shrinking base.

This vicious cycle disenfranchises and penalizes the adventurous through high pricing, squandering the organization’s artistic capital. There’s no real strategy to address this, and there is no end in sight. I have been as guilty of this as anyone, and this, more than any other issue, keeps me awake at night.

4. It’s not just “what” we play – but also “when” we play it. A strategic alignment of timing and programming can deliver new audiences. A couple of years ago, I recommended that one of my clients perform Berlioz’ dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet on Valentine’s Day weekend – and their too-large hall was filled nearly twice over. The coordination of programming to the holiday delivered a sizable audience, many of whom were attending for the first time – an audience I knew would not accept this work the other 51 weeks of the year.

5. It’s not just “what” we play – but also “where” we play it. Strategic alignment also exists between certain repertoire and where it is performed. Currently, two orchestras I am working with are presenting Bruckner Symphony cycles in their community’s largest gothic cathedrals over the course of several seasons. These performances fill quickly, far more quickly than the same works performed in their traditional concert halls. Why is this? Have we finally found the key to Bruckner’s accessibility? A space – both reverent and reverberant – that is the equivalent of the epic architecture of his symphonies? Ole Baekhoej [a participant on the panel] could cite numerous examples of experiences in presenting the Gabrielli Consort in non-traditional spaces.

6. Participation in school music programs is a predictor of attendance. No matter how distant the point of contact in one’s past, participation in school music programs is a strong predictor of classical music attendance later in life. This has been the breakthrough finding of the past decade. Brent Assink made this point yesterday, and it is a key point of understanding and, frustratingly to marketers, almost completely non-actionable. Past music education is not something we can currently query when we purchase lists of potential prospects.

7. Classical audiences are not graying. There is a common and often repeated perception that audiences for classical music are aging, dying off. But there is no substantive data to support this. My own research suggests that a 55-year average age is the result of several factors: children have grown, income is high, and household expenses are low. (We have found a direct correlation between longevity in one’s home – i.e., lower mortgage payments – and symphony attendance.) A substantial portion of the audience (and donors, for that matter) are enjoying a sudden windfall of disposable income at this point in their lives.

Curiously, the average age varies little from city to city and, if historic data is reliable, the average age hasn’t varied much in the last 40 years. With increasing life expectancy, a 50 year old couple entering the classical consumer cycle now will likely remain longer than they could have a generation ago.

And if in the coming decade, the average age should finally increase – should the audience actually become “grayer” – it is just as likely a function of a more elastic life expectancy. Our audiences will get to us later than in the past, but stay just as long.

8. Classical music – at least as it relates to audiences – is in transition, not decline. The problems we face may be global – but the solutions are almost always local. Conditions in individual markets vary widely. Consider…

  • Halls with high capacity in smaller cities; there is not the critical mass of people to fill all the seats.
  • Advertising costs fluctuate from market to market – it can be more expensive to sell tickets in some cities than others.
  • The proximity of the hall to where the core audience base resides –issues of access
  • The newness of the venue or music director – what to do in their third year and thereafter?

What is presumed to be declining interest in classical music may be our lateness – perhaps obscured by our traditions – in understanding the impact of post-war demography on participation. Almost all entertainment options – movies, television, popular music, even books – are now specifically targeted to a narrow potential audience. The indisputable evidence that this is happening in classical music should not be viewed as a decline of interest in the art form. Mark Friend of the BBC in yesterday’s session provided an astonishing number of examples of classical music niche “narrow casting.”

Consider the proliferating number of new music ensembles performing in non-traditional venues at non-traditional concert times. Or the growth of the audience for opera and its resulting expansion of the repertoire. Or the popular phenomenon of “crossover” artists such as Katherine Jenkins or Andrea Bocelli. Perhaps none of these audiences every actually “cross over” to the traditional symphony-goer. These collective but discrete audiences, taken together, represent a sizable market share. So, for the future, consider a delivery system that “right-sizes” the number of orchestra concerts to keep demand high and available capacity low, while offering a new music ensemble more concerts in an intimate space to accommodate its specialized, but growing, demand. And consider, perhaps, that these two audiences will never meet, never “cross over,” but each have their specific audiences served.

These eight points – how audiences behave, not as we think they should, or wish they would – are universal. I have purposely steered away from action steps, as they require market-specific solutions. But these points serve as a baseline to begin to understand audience behavior.