Adapting the Model, Relaxed or relaxed?

There’s been a re-ignition of the debate around inclusivity at orchestral performances over recent months – who are the current audiences for the performing arts, and who should they be?

Back in the summer, Matt Griffiths, CEO of Youth Music, questioned the programming of Relaxed concert performances. He suggested, by implication, non-Relaxed performances weren’t open to everyone; therefore reinforcing a two-tier approach to audiences.

He wasn’t alone in voicing questions. In Arts Professional, Christie Romer outlined a recent report by Vanessa Brook, which among many findings, comments that in instigating Relaxed performances, a theatre might give the impression that they only welcome audiences to experience theatre in the company of people like themselves, and questions that as a comfortable choice.

Sound Around Relaxed Concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Northampton (c) Photocall Event Photography

It’s refreshing to hear experienced commentators within the sector inject their perspectives into the debate.

At Orchestras Live we want to support the orchestral sector’s drive towards greater inclusion. We know we’ve not collectively solved the issues yet, but adapting traditional models to provide entry points for new audiences is something that we want to celebrate whilst fostering a positive environment for continued debate and learning.

In comments on the Arts Professional site, Kirsty Hoyle, Director of Include Arts, makes the point that Relaxed performances better suit peoples’ needs, that they are designed to work as a soft landing; a relaxed performance as their first – stress free – experience, after which they may well feel more confident and prepared to attend a non-Relaxed performance.

We know from colleagues at BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Albert Hall, that for those underrepresented audiences, this summer’s Relaxed Prom provided just this. Satisfaction levels outstripped non-Relaxed performances and were a testament to the invisible work behind the scenes, additional staff, communications and, critically, specialist training. The vast majority indicated that they would attend similar concerts in the future. Amongst overwhelmingly positive responses to the performance, perhaps the most striking learning point is that audience members stated the welcoming and relaxed environment as the most enjoyable aspect of the entire experience.

Surely all organisations should be viewing Relaxed performances as one element of strategic audience development, and not as an end in themselves. Their existence shouldn’t be tokenistic, but rather one of the ways in which an organisation’s audiences are segmented based on their needs; artistically led but audience focussed, to offer the widest audience appeal in the long term. To a large extent, we’re embarking on action research and, whilst not every initiative will succeed, data collection, monitoring and evaluation will support improved understanding and delivery.

Sound Around, an Orchestras Live holistic Audience Development project, places a collaborative approach to Relaxed performances at its heart. Our independent project evaluation has suggested this goes beyond engaging new audiences, and is a “game-changing approach to live classical music performance” offering the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra a chance to explore and experiment with different forms of what a performance might be. Adam Wright, chair of the RPO Board and player echoed the idea that Relaxed performances offered the organisational change that some commentators are seeking. “This project was particularly special just because it went that much further, it really, really pushed us. The variety and diversity of the audiences made us think differently, and work differently, even more than we’re used to.” The way in which Sound Around has generated opportunities for interaction and engagement between players, music leaders, young producers and audiences has demonstrated that inclusive practice brings creative, as well as business, gains.

Orchestras Live has amassed over 50 years’ experience of working with partners across England to develop their audience development priorities. Most recently we’ve worked with venues such as Bridlington Spa to explore how adjustments to concert programming, formats and timings can create an environment for people to experience classical music in ways that suit them. And it’s working. They are now programming more orchestral concerts with a more adventurous repertoire to a larger audience.

I wonder if we are getting trapped by the semantics, which inadvertently segregate. Our upcoming Lullaby Concerts for very young children aren’t billed as “Relaxed” but are presented in ways that are naturally inclusive to families with additional needs. We have also welcomed a Deaf musician to the creative team and are seeing a positive impact on building new and inclusive audiences from the preparatory workshops. It’s incumbent on all of us to take practical steps that respond to what audiences, participants and practitioners with additional needs are telling us, and ensure that these are rolled out across all our work. This won’t happen overnight, but I am confident that the extensive work that the Royal Albert Hall and BBC Proms undertook with their teams for the Relaxed Prom will ultimately impact on how they support an excellent experience for all audiences.

The same applies to our marketing and the messages we send out to current and potential audiences. As Kirsty Hoyle points out “there needs to be clarity across arts marketing so that audiences attend Relaxed Performances (or not) based on their needs, not diagnosis.” Audiences want and should be able to choose from an informed position. And while we support the ambition that a relaxed approach will be absorbed into mainstream promotions, we also recognise that specific audiences will continue to look for performances tailored to their needs.

Travel companies offer a wide range of experiences for people to choose from, and people select their holiday according to their preferences and needs. I have no desire to trek in the rainforest or climb Kilimanjaro – too many bugs and not enough stamina. A city break is more my style. The point is, I have choices available. A number of factors will influence a decision to book: as providers of world-class music experiences, we have to create a wide range of options for audiences – a “relaxed” concert is just one of them.

Of course, the majority in the sector advocate for accessibility in its widest sense. Pricing, staff expertise and a mixed repertoire all significantly contribute to disrupting our current process and pointing us in a positive direction. Initiatives such as the Relaxed Prom and Sound Around are as much about learning as achievement: they are fantastic experiences in themselves, but what they are revealing to us will make a fundamental difference, over time, to our core business.

Small acts can be radical; relaxed performances can create waves across organisations but surely more importantly, open out a world of music that’s previously been tightly locked away.

Sarah Derbyshire, MBE, FRSA
Chief Executive, Orchestras Live

Read more about the debate:

Matt Griffiths (Youth Music) All Concerts Should Be Inclusive
Christy Romer (Arts Professional) Relaxed Performances Slammed for Segregating Audiences