7 Easy Ways to Engage Your Concert Audience

Mike Lawson • MAC Corner • June 8, 2018

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Let’s be honest, some of our concerts are not very exciting. The music might be performed with precision, the students might look great in their uniforms, but if our audiences can’t wait to hit the parking lot, then we’ve missed an opportunity to help them learn about music and get excited about music education.

While some concerts can certainly take the more traditional approach, I encourage you to think about performances as an opportunity to show off what’s been going on in the music room for several months. At Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, we are trying to take the traditional concert setting and tweak it so that parents,

friends, administration, and community members leave a concert more interested in music education than when they arrived. Here are seven ideas to make a concert more understandable, engaging, thoughtful, and fun.


We have continued to try and bring the audience closer! Recently we sat the audience on the stage for our spring jazz concert. We had audience members up and close to the players, and this allowed the audience to see all of the stage interaction between players and the director. It also made the transitions between pieces much less formal because the director could really engage the audience, tell stories, and involve the audience with what the band was doing. The

separation between the audience and a large stage can sometimes make it difficult for listeners to stay focused. We highly suggest trying a format that brings your ensemble and the audience together.

Circle Time

We have an annual evening event where the seventh grade band comes to have a rehearsal with one of our high school bands. The rehearsal is 90 minutes long, with the last 15 minutes set aside for a performance for the seventh grade parents. The event is simply…a rehearsal. It is a phenomenal night because the students truly get to build relationships. We alternate seating (seventh grader, high schooler, etc) and give the high school students a chance to encourage good posture, tone production, and rehearsal habits to younger students. We only rehearse the music currently in the seventh grade band folder. We do a lot of “back-and-forth” playing, where the high school students play a note, and then the seventh graders play a note, high schoolers play a phrase, seventh graders play a phrase. This imitation style rehearsal gets instant results and makes the night fly by because it’s engaging for both sides. To conclude the evening, when parents come to pick up their students they get to come into the band room and stand around the band in a circle.

They are up close to all the players and get to see them finishing up their rehearsal time. We show them what we rehearsed, how we rehearsed, and then we play a little section from each piece of music.

Then the high school band gets to “show off” a little and we play a short piece of music currently in the folder. This lets the 7th graders read along and see upper level music go by as the high schoolers play next to them. It’s a great night, very casual, very easy to organize, and very inspiring. I think one of the most informative parts of the night is when the parents stand in the circle around the band with lots of amazed looks on their faces as to how we actually put music together. No parents, we don’t just count 1-2-3 and wave a stick around.

Slideshows, Videos, Presentations…

If you are performing a piece of music that could be enhanced by a slide show, a movie, or an interactive presentation, I say DO IT. We’ve incorporated a variety of these ideas at concerts and the audience typically has many positive things to share. Most often I get a “thank you for including that explanation, it really helped me enjoy the piece, I’ve never seen that done at a concert before,” or “wow, that artwork brought a whole new dimension to listening to that music.” Here are some examples from recent concerts:

Display a slideshow of Norman Rockwell paintings that go along with each phrase of the music from Rockwell Portrait by Erik Morales. Have the students create the slideshow as an assignment and pick the best one to be featured at the concert.

Have a gifted student in video production? Have them create a collage video of scenes and pictures of redwood trees and the redwood forest when performing The Redwoods by Rossano Galante.

Recently when we performed this piece, one of my tuba players created a movie collage that was timed to the music. It was amazing, and difficult to conduct!

When performing Symphonic Essay by James Barnes, give a brief listening tutorial of all the themes and theoretical ideas that they will hear in the piece. Use sections in the band to demonstrate thematic ideas. I’ve used a PowerPoint to project images and icons that represent each musical idea, so the listener has a “map” to follow when listening to this piece. This takes a rather serious and complicated work and makes it manageable for younger audience members to make it through!


If music trains students to think and act differently, then prove it! Why will they be successful as a result of studying music? I have taken the popular YouTube video “Why an ‘A’ Is Not Enough” and replicated that very message using one of our concert pieces. If you haven’t seen Dr. Brennan’s video, I highly suggest viewing it (youtube.com/watch?v=Kpyz-GO2aQzE). Essentially you ask students to play a phrase of music without making any errors, and without any musicianship. You explain that this performance was worthy of an “A” because it was without error. Then, you go back and repeat that same phrase and you allow every student to make one error (it could be a note error, rhythm error, or a tone production error, but they only get to make one). This one error is an example of a student not performing with 100 percent accuracy and could be worthy of an A because they still played 99 percent of the phrase accurately. Then you ask them to repeat the phrase and they get to make two or three errors, displaying what could be an A- or B+. It is amazing that when each student makes even just two mistakes, the piece completely falls apart and sounds horrible! Then go back and play it errorless, and with musicianship, displaying what it’s like to go beyond an A, and how music performance trains students to learn that there is a level of achievement beyond what other classes might deem as “perfect.”

Parents have told me that when I do this presentation, they are reminded of how difficult music performance really is, and how inspiring it is to watch them all achieving more than what is asked of them from the notes and rhythms on the page. I think this is a wonderful message for students to communicate to their parents about what we “actually” do in music class.

Student Conductors

I know many programs already feature student conductors. I have always found it ironic that we allow students to be the conductors of the Marching Band, even though they have just about every possible variable working against them: spread out on a football field, under shiny lights, wearing an uncomfortable uniform with a hat on, marching backwards, with memorized music, and a flag flying two inches from their face while performing for an audience in bleachers eating nachos, all after two weeks of marching band camp…but we feel like it is too much for a student conductor to conduct a piece of music that has been in the folder for four months, sitting down in an acoustically perfect environment, and the music is on the stand in front of them.

So, we’ve started to incorporate this little by little. If you are like me and you haven’t turned over an entire concert to the students yet, try letting them conduct one piece. I had so many good conductors that I decided to let four students conduct. Each of them led a movement of Brian Balmages petite symphony, Elements. They were outstanding, I got to stand on the side and just marvel at their leadership and musicianship, and ENJOY. I’ll be doing more of this in the future…

Theme It

One way to engage your audience is to simply announce that the concert revolves around a theme. It’s a creative way to have your audience follow the flow of a concert, and it shows that you have put a lot of thought into the concert. Most symphony orchestras do this, and yet, many of us feel afraid to commit to something so simple. I’ve used themes to tie together three or four seemingly unrelated pieces, and I’ve also used themes to help me program repertoire. For instance, a green theme could include “Irish Tune from County Derry” (Grainger), “J.S. Jig” (Karrick), “Blue and Green Music “(Hazo), and “The Lords of Greenwich” (Sheldon), or circus train could feature “National Emblem March” (Bagley), “DreamCircus” (Deemer), “Sensei’s Ride On The Cherry Blossom Express” (Smith), and selections from How To Train Your Dragon (arr. O’Laughlin). You can be as loose or legalistic as you want to be, but this helps audiences enjoy a large overarching idea when they come to listen.

Ask Them A Question

Before you play your last selection for the night, ask the parents in the audience what their favorite piece was from the concert, and why. Encourage them to have a discussion in the car ride, or when they return home for the night, with their student.

Follow up the next day in class with a discussion about what piece the parents enjoyed most and why. You will be amazed at the feedback and it will inform your next concert repertoire choices for sure. It also helps students have a conversation about music education at home, something that might need to be nurtured for some individuals.

With all of these ideas, a little goes a long way. You could implement a single idea during one performance this year, and it would ignite creativity for the future. You certainly don’t need to do these types of activities at every concert, but try to throw one in here and there. It’ll challenge you as a teacher, and them as listeners. Your goal is to educate your audience by teaching them about the music in an innovative approach. When Leonard Bernstein produced the Young People’s Concerts back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the goal was to educate people about how to listen to classical music, and if you watch those videos, the concert is nothing short of a giant music lesson. When you watch a professional sports game on TV, there’s an announcer that helps and informs you as you enjoy the game. I encourage you to find ways to educate, advocate, and engage your community to listen to music the way you listen to music as a musical expert, so that they can understand why students should continue to pursue music learning for a well-rounded education.

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