In 2009, I learned about an intermission feature at New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts called “Ask a Musician” that was started and run by musicians. Sarah Seiver (cello) and Mark Timmerman (bassoon) created “Ask a Musician” as a fun way to make connections with audience members. When Mark told me about it, I knew that’s exactly what we needed to do in North Carolina. As orchestra musicians, we all have the experience of looking out into the audience and seeing many of the same Friday- and Saturday-night faces looking back, not knowing them, and with virtually no prospect of ever meeting them. “Ask a Musician” has turned out to be a great way to get to know our audience members and for them to connect with us.
We have very good access to our lobby at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, so it is very easy for musicians to get to and from the lobby quickly during our 20-minute intermissions. I talked to my colleagues about what Sarah and Mark were doing in New Jersey, and with their involvement, I proposed the idea to a couple of our managers, who eventually agreed to let musicians make announcements from the stage before concerts. We invited the audience to meet us in the lobby at intermission, making it clear that absolutely any question was welcome, that they didn’t have to stick strictly to music-related questions. As the program evolved, “Ask a Musician” was listed in our program, and a sign was posted near the front door with photos of the two musicians who would be in the lobby that evening. Now we have a pre-recorded announcement before our concerts, reminding audience members to meet us in the lobby.
I thought that we needed a sign to direct people to us, so I went to Trader Joe’s, where employees walk around carrying “Ask Me” signs. I met the artist in charge of making the signs and gave her my orchestra comp tickets in exchange for an “Ask Me” sign of our own on a tall pole. She did a beautiful job—our sign is red and gold with a silver treble clef and the words “Ask Me”, and it is freestanding so that we can hold our instruments and stand next to it. If you look out over the lobby from a distance, you can see the sign sticking out above everyone’s head, and beneath it, musicians holding their instruments, surrounded by audience folks of all ages. I have passed along what we have learned here in North Carolina to Aimee Toomes (violin) in the San Antonio Symphony, where they have a thriving “Ask a Musician” program with many musician volunteers.
Recruiting my NCSO colleagues is not difficult, and more than 90% of the orchestra has volunteered at least once. We do it because we want to, because the audience loves it, and it’s a relaxing way for the extroverts among us to spend intermission. We don’t try to sell subscriptions, we are simply interested in making personal connections with our musical community. In the beginning, we tried to stick to one question per person, but we have become more flexible over the years. Sometimes, there are many questions from one person, while the next person just wants to chat about the music.
We are grateful for the help of our stage crew, who call it the “Wildly-Successful Ask a Musician Program”. They always run the recorded announcement, position the sign in the lobby during the first half so it is ready to go at intermission, and put it away afterwards.
The feedback we have received is that this program is very popular with the audience. But it has provided important benefits to the musicians as well. One of my favorite memories is of a violinist who had just come backstage from “Ask a Musician” at intermission, shortly after we started the program. With a huge smile on his face, he said, “Wow, they are really listening! They notice everything we do! They love us!”
Note: Readers interested in more information about creating a similar program may contact the author via the North Carolina Symphony Musicians Facebook page.
More information about the “Ask a Musician” program in the New Jersey Symphony can be found here.