Traditional concert environments are not always the easiest places for people to come in, but by thinking creatively we can remove many of the barriers that stop people being able to come.
Most groups reading this hire venues for concerts; this resource is not about work the venues need to do to be more accessible (for that see Euan's Guide and Attitude is Everything). It is about the work the concert organiser can do to create an environment where all audience members are comfortable, relaxed and ready to experience the live music performance.
Composer and conductor Ben Lunn has designed inclusive audience experiences with Drake Music Scotland (and others), and spoke about this to Making Music members in an online event in 2022. This resource uses his thoughts, ideas and some of his words, and is for people who organise concerts - either groups like concert societies who present and promote concerts, or groups like choirs and orchestras who perform their own concerts.
- What could be challenging about attending a concert?
- Programming and marketing to include
- Giving the information needed before arrival
- Guiding the audience through
- Taking it further
- Top five takeaways
1. What could be challenging about attending a concert?
To notice what might stop someone attending or enjoying one of your concerts, think about some of the things in the traditional concert experience that we take for granted - being out late in the evening; sitting still on a hard seat; being silent; knowing why an audience is clapping or laughing.
Live music performances come with a culture, rituals and built-in expectations of behavior and knowledge - and these are different across different types of music. Think about it: a concert hall has a jazz concert on Friday and a classical music concert on Saturday. In the jazz concert, every time there is a cracking solo, the audience applauds. In the classical concert, even when a piece of music sounds like it is finished at the end of a movement, the audience quietly sits with no applause. Confusing!
But it would be wrong to say that these environments, cultures and rituals are by their nature exclusive, or oppressive. If concert organisers are aware of the things in a concert experience that are unfamiliar, which can be disorientating, uncomfortable or stressful, then they can make some changes that can help. If we can create an environment that enables people to deal with challenges, they will feel more welcome, less anxious, more able to focus and ready to engage with the music being performed.
Things that could be challenging to an audience member include:
- Finding and entering a building for the first time
- Knowing how to access the facilities (toilets, water etc.)
- Buying a ticket
- Feeling out of place or unwelcome
- Moving around the building and auditorium
- Sitting for a long time
- Being completely silent
- Knowing when they are expected to do something (clap, stop talking etc.)
- Worrying about not understanding the music
- Coping with a stimulating environment
- Drawing attention to themselves if they have to leave
It’s hard to say exactly which potential audience members will experience a challenge that becomes a barrier big enough to exclude them. The challenges for people with physical disabilities are more obvious, but there are things that neurodivergent people (e.g. autistic people), people with mental health or neurological conditions, and people whose cultural background didn’t include this kind of concert-going will find challenging. The great news is that if you can make some adjustments to the way your concerts are designed, you can include so many more people. Often the changes that you make benefit people in unexpected ways, and more people than you expect.
The key is not to think about changing the character of your group or the essential nature of your concerts, but what you can do to open up the experience to as many people as possible - e.g. brass bands are loud; but can we support someone who finds unexpected loud noises stressful to prepare and then enjoy a brass band concert?
2. Programming and marketing to include
To make a concert accessible, you don’t need to change your repertoire. Some music is considered 'hard' - but who is to say who will or will not enjoy a particular piece of music? Giving someone the chance to access and experience a performance of Mahler, Schoenberg, improvised jazz or contemporary classical music gives them the agency to decide how much they want to be challenged by art.
In 2019 Hebrides Ensemble and Drake Music Scotland’s Digital Orchestra came together to present the world premiere of 'Symphonies of Instruments' by composer Ben Lunn. The music was complex and Ben says, 'We didn’t want to dumb down or patronise a disabled audience, we wanted to challenge them, show them that 'people like you' are making music like this.' They did however have to consider the environment they presented the music in carefully, making it an environment where the only thing the audience were challenged by was the music. You can watch this performance on YouTube.
There are some things in your programming to consider to open up access.
Length – A shorter concert will be more accessible to people who find sitting for a long time difficult, or who tire quickly. If you want to keep a long programme, consider cutting it into smaller sections with more intervals. If you really can’t make this change e.g. if you are playing a 70-minute symphony in full, can you have an 'open door' policy so people can leave and return if they need to?
Regular, longer intervals – Intervals should have enough time for people to attend to their personal care. 20 minutes is better than 15, but length should also depend on how far away toilets are and how many there are, if there is a queue to get water etc. Use your intervals tactically; if you need to change the set up of instruments e.g. remove a drum kit - would this be a good time for a 'chat and move' break for the audience?
So how are you going market this exciting programme and will everyone get the information they need and feel invited? Making posters, flyers and printed material easy to read should be top priority. If you use web marketing and social media, you can use built-in accessibility tools. Check out our resource on inclusive communications that offers lots of guidance for creating concert marketing.
Consider making a direct invitation to people that might feel a traditional style concert is 'not for them'. Approaching community groups, day centres etc. to let them know about the concert, answer questions and even offer reduced price or free tickets will give a clear message that you want them to come along. Making Music members have invited groups of refugees, people from the Deaf community etc. with great success, building new relationships in their community as well as growing their audiences.
3. Giving the information needed before arrival
When someone is thinking about or planning to come to your concert, having the information they need gives them the agency to make an informed decision about whether they can attend and what arrangements they will need to make. It will also reduce anxiety about the unknown, so they can arrive confidently and ready to listen and enjoy.
What information do people need? Venues provide lots of information already – postcodes and maps, public transport, toilet facilities etc. – so make sure you have provided access to this information by pointing people to their website and also giving out their phone number or email, so people can ask specific questions. But often the venues we use in this country are old buildings and access is not ideal, or the information only covers building access and not the other things they need to know. As the concert organiser, you can give out more information out, by being clear about what is and is not offered and providing details on the experience as well as the building.
An example of how information helps:
A concert is being held in a venue with no lift, but that can be accessed using stairs and ramps. An audience member can use stairs or ramps but walking up them will be very tiring for him, as fatigue is a symptom of his medical condition. The access information tells him exactly how many stairs and ramps he will have to walk up to access the performance. He can then decide whether he will be able to manage that on the day of the performance, and perhaps cut something tiring out earlier in the day to reserve this energy. Even if he decides not to attend that day, that potential audience member now trusts the concert organiser to support his needs and he’ll be ready to attend in the future on a day he has more energy.
When organising the Drake Music Scotland concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, Ben realised that they needed to provide more detail than the standard access information. They made a short video that shows the experience of attending a concert, from arriving and collecting a ticket, to finding a seat and the facilities, and also shows what the auditorium is like with a concert audience in it. It provides sensory information, like how dark the auditorium gets and also what to expect from the experience e.g. someone will ask to see your ticket, you might have to wait in the foyer until the auditorium opens etc. That video now sits on the venue website, with more detailed written documents on how to access the building, buy a ticket and a description of the auditorium.
Concert organisers could make a short video like this, or write a 'guided tour' document to add to the existing venue access information. You can give information on:
- How to get in and around the building e.g. if there are automatic doors, how steep the ramp is, if there are uneven steps
- How to buy/collect tickets e.g. where to go, what you can use to pay
- Who the people are that you will meet e.g. will there be someone at the front door, what do ushers wear
- What the signage is like that directs around the building e.g. the route up to the higher level of seating is signposted 'Grand Circle', the sign directing you to the toilet is a male/female symbol (include a photo)
- What the seats are like e.g. hard or soft, fixed or movable, do they flip up
- Anything that may cause sensory stimulation e.g. bright or flashing lights, strong smells, sudden noises, textures and surfaces like shiny floors or heavily patterned wallpaper
- Dimensions of ramps, doorways, seats etc.
It’s not possible to include every detail, so always give the option to contact the venue or organiser to ask questions about access. If you also ask people about their access requirements when they buy a ticket, you can provide them with the specific information they will need. Check out our resource on how to ask about and provide access.
4. Guide the audience through the experience
When an audience member arrives at the venue, the people they meet guide them through the concert experience - ticket sellers, ushers, but also comperes, music leaders and musicians who speak to the audience from the stage. Every member of this team (who are often volunteers) plays a role in making sure audience members needs are met, they are confident, relaxed and ready to take part. When a concert environment is unfamiliar or disorientating these guides can explain and interpret.
Front of house – Have plenty of friendly and informed people available at the entrance and throughout the concert to guide and support. If your venue is staffed, you could use additional volunteers to provide a friendly welcome, extra support and the specific information about the programme and performance that the staff won’t know.
An example of how an extra usher helps:
There is a very heavy door at the back of the auditorium and it squeaks. An usher posted by the door can open the door quickly and quietly, so the auditorium is truly 'open' and people can come and go without too much disruption.
Comperes – A compere is the person who introduces the performance. This could be the music leader, conductor or music director – the person who is already front and centre. But it could be a role taken by someone who is not performing, or by a few performers to split the task.
At the Drake Music Scotland concert, Ben Lunn took this role. Here’s what it was like to be in the audience with Ben as compere:
Ben spoke to the audience from the stage before each piece of music was played. He spoke clearly into a microphone so his voice was amplified. He read from a script, and his words were projected on the wall behind him (pre-prepared Powerpoint slides with one paragraph of text, projected from a laptop). His introductions included the names of the pieces and composers and some context about how the piece was written. He suggested things to listen out for in the piece. He also told the audience what was going to happen and when they were expected to do something, e.g. 'When I’ve finished the introduction we’ll listen to this piece. Once it is finished you can clap. You can clap like this (hands clapping) or like this (hands waving – BSL sign for applause). The performers and composer will bow, maybe from their seat. Then we will move on to the next piece.' At the beginning and throughout the concert, Ben reminded people they were welcome to go in and out of the auditorium, move around, drink and otherwise take care of themselves.
Ben’s intention was to welcome, explain and interpret the whole experience for the audience, so they were prepared and ready to listen and felt fully included in the event. Audience members knew what to expect, felt calmer and more confident. Giving them context about the piece and things to listen out for meant they could be actively engaged in the music.
He suggests that doing this as part of every concert, and not only at performances designed for families or as 'relaxed' performances, is levelling and has benefits for everyone. 'If you tell everything and tell everyone, no one is singled out and everyone is brought into the same experience.' An access adjustment is not always an extra for a few people, but can be an enhancement that makes the concert experience better for the whole audience.
An example of support that is generally helpful:
Projecting the lyrics of songs. This helps people with hearing impairments or for whom English is not their first language. But actually, it can be difficult for many of us to hear and understand words when they are sung so being able to read the words easily will help a lot more people connect with a song.
5. Taking it further
The ideas so far don’t need much resource, although they do need work and time to get right. If you’re ready to invest more time, and maybe some funds, then there is more you can do.
Seating – Concert seating is traditionally in rows, which can be long and hard to get in and out of, seats are often small with no space between them, and your view is often blocked if you are a shorter person. Free seating gives the opportunity for organisers, or the audience themselves to arrange seats so they can get comfortable and see and hear well. If the chairs in your venue can be moved around, you could try spacing them out more, seating people in groups at tables and leaving floor space with no seats. If you have to be more rigid with seating arrangements (to get to full capacity or for health and safety reasons) consider where you leave space for wheelchairs or people with mobility aids. Make sure there is a seat for a companion beside them, so they don’t have to sit alone and consider a space other than the front row, which can be an exposing place to sit. Give people who need the right seat to be comfortable the first choice of seats, maybe by letting them in early.
Sensory aids/toys – Using sensory aids helps some people to focus and relax when they are experiencing something new. You might recognise fidget or fiddle toys - but some everyday objects work too. A beach ball vibrates in your hand when music is playing, great for people with hearing loss. Ear defenders and ear plugs help if music gets very loud. You could provide aids for the audience to collect on entry or lay them out in the auditorium.
Quiet spaces – A quiet space is a room or a separate space with no stimulation and a comfortable place to sit, so people can take time out of the auditorium when the experience becomes overwhelming or uncomfortable. Meeting rooms or other uncluttered spaces close by are great. You can make it easier for people to leave and return to the auditorium by placing an usher at the door to help, or even leaving a door open.
6. Top five takeaways
- Not everyone knows the rituals and expectations of a traditional concert environment and not everyone finds these easy to be a part of. But a re-design is possible and can open up the experience to new audience members.
- Don’t think about changing your repertoire but instead about giving more people access to the music you choose to make and present. Shorter programmes, longer intervals and accessible marketing all help.
- Provide as much information as you can to people before they arrive at the venue, including sensory information and 'how to' instructions, not just disabled access info.
- Use ushers and comperes to guide audience members through the experience. Explaining what will happen, and the music that they will hear will get them ready to listen and fully include them in the performance.
- If you’re ready to do more, you could try alternative ways of seating an audience, providing things that will help them get comfortable and focus, and creating quiet spaces.
We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.