Make Your Next Concert an Experience – Learn from the Mouse!

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceMarch 2021 • March 6, 2021

I am privileged to have a professional development relationship with several young musicians and educators (see my column in the August 2018 issue of SBO, “Be a Mentor – Get a Mentor”). For each of them there are monthly assigned readings that we both read and then discuss at our next session. I suppose as the “mentor” I’m supposed to be doing the teaching but, in many cases, they suggest the readings which then expose me to new ideas that are applicable to what we do as music directors and educators.

I’ve recently been doing a lot of reading about Disney trying to learn how they have become so successful, especially in their theme parks. There are several books that give some insight to Disney. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins (one of my all-time faves), Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service by Theodore Kinni, and The Experience: The 5 Principles of Disney Service and Relationship Excellence by Loeffler and Church provide a pretty in-depth look at the Disney “magic.” But what can a middle school music director with no budget and no staff glean from the practices of a multi-billion-dollar global entertainment behemoth?

Attractions and shows at Disney’s theme parks are never treated as just “entertainment.” They look at every event and try to make it a multi-sensory experience for the guest (Disney-speak for customer). For our concerts, that means stepping back and looking at everything our guests experience from the time they arrive until they depart. Is signage clear? I recently performed at a concert where audience members (and performers) wandered around in circles trying to find the auditorium. They were annoyed before they got to the concert! How are they greeted and who’s greeting them? Often, we have multiple groups performing on our concerts. Could audience members be greeted and welcomed by students performing later in the program? Perhaps the band, chorus, orchestra, and theater students can do this for each other. Remember, people come to live concerts to make a connection with the performers. When they enter the performance space (which may be your gymnatorium), is it clear where they can sit? Do you have a way to avoid the audience clustering at the back of the hall?

As they get to their seats, how can you start getting them into the “experience?” Can you show video? Even a simple portable screen showing candid shots of students in rehearsal, news of coming events, and information about the school, with a generic (copyright free!) sound track can make the waiting go faster and more importantly, begin “the experience.”

How does your concert start? If you normally warm-up and tune on-stage, please ask yourself, how much better will the performance really be compared to doing that in the band or orchestra room and then walking directly to the stage? An organized entrance followed immediately by an “opener” will send the message that they are in for something special. Notice, that the “opener” is not preceded by boring announcements or speeches. Keep talking to a minimum. They came to see their young musicians perform, not to hear speeches.

Do you plan stage movements (who enters from where)? Are students taught how to acknowledge applause, to bow, and most importantly to smile? Can you do anything with lights to enhance the show? For transitions between selections, the cost and technological hurdles of producing video introductions is not an issue anymore. But, you are thinking, “I have no staff and no time to do video!” In reality, you have an amazing staff who would love to produce these videos; they are sitting right in front of you. Which is going to engage the audience more, you mumbling into a microphone or one of the students telling what a piece means to them or how hard they had to work on it? Parents and administrators will love seeing students that are engaged in the learning process in multiple mediums.

Transitions between groups are the dead spots of concerts, the time when all the parents start looking at their phones. Obviously, you can use videos to bridge those gaps but how about a small group of students performing in front of the stage? Perhaps you can feature a vocal or drama group or even have some students tell about their exciting science project (administrators love it when we work with other disciplines and what science teacher wouldn’t enjoy having their students featured in front of a big audience?).

How will the concert end? Again, try to make an exciting piece of music be the last thing the guests hear. Get the announcements and acknowledgments out of the way ahead of time. As the guests leave, have students in the lobby to thank them for coming and be available for pictures.

Making a concert an “experience” doesn’t require big budgets. It does require us to think about how we can truly inspire, entertain, and educate our guests by using our most precious resource, the creativity and personality of the young people we work with.

In next month’s column, we’ll review Richard Floyd’s book, The Artistry of Teaching and Making Music. As always, please share your thoughts by contacting me at

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