Four questions to ask before starting any digital project

Blog post by Nick Walshe, Orchestras Canada

Last month, I attended the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) second Digital Stage Symposium. The Digital Stage is a collaborative project between the COC, the National Ballet of Canada, and Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre, and is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. It is designed to explore and embrace new technology in the arts, equipping arts organizations with what they need to thrive in a constantly changing digital landscape. From apps designed to help audience members engage with the works presented at a concert (last year we wrote about the Winnipeg Symphony’s adventures with an audience engagement app), to ‘smart’ wearable items designed to help performers and artists monitor their bodies, the Symposium presented a wide range of cutting-edge digital technology. More information on these technologies and others can be found in their initial Digital Horizon Scan.

Download the Horizon Scan here.

Unsurprisingly, there was no single technology that stood out as a game-changer for orchestras. The question of how we engage with our audience digitally or live is complex, and only complicated further by the wide range of sizes of Canadian orchestras and the diversity of the communities they serve. I came away from the day with more questions than answers and felt that rather than providing a list of new technology to explore, it could be more useful to share a list of questions I kept coming back to when looking at how orchestras might engage more deeply with digital technology. This non-exhaustive list of four questions is designed to spark discussion and thought before starting any digital project.

What problem are you trying to solve by undertaking this project?

As they say, “every solution has a problem”. It’s important to look at what problems we’re trying to solve with technology, and what other solutions may exist to the same problem. Our audiences can feel when the use of tech becomes ‘gimmicky’. Considering how stretched resources are at arts organizations, it’s important that our investment in technology aligns with our organization’s goals. Are we trying to educate the audience? Increase audience numbers? Deepen their engagement by livestreaming or creating ways for them to participate digitally?

Has it been done before, and did it work?

While Canadian orchestras operate in diverse communities with different tastes, strengths and demographics, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every digital project. It’s worth exploring who is using the new technology being considered and seeing what they learned from implementing it. These examples may not come from the orchestra world; we have much to learn from other art forms’ use of digital technology, from dance to theatre to visual arts.

What does this do to the live product?

Or perhaps, what IS the live product? Every exploration into the digital realm has the potential to make us more aware of the live product we present. We often talk about the live experience as one of the most important aspects of what we do as orchestras. Can we bring this experience to more people? Do the forms of digital technology we plan to use enhance or detract from the experience of our live audience? In a digitally connected world, it’s important that we acknowledge online forms of engagement for people that are unable to get to the concert hall for a variety of reasons.

What resources are we lacking in order to get there?

With many arts organizations running at (and pushing) the limit of which they are capable, it’s important to have a plan to bridge any knowledge or resources gaps. Issues of time, money and the knowledge of people within the organization are critical. Is an outside consultant needed, and how much of their time can we afford? Are there additional funding streams we can apply to for this project?

These questions are designed as a starting point for discussion before embarking on a digital project; there will no doubt be other important conversations to be had. We’re excited at the possibilities that new technology will bring to the orchestral sector and the arts world, but acknowledge that this is fast-moving and requires a smart investment of time and resources from decision-makers at our orchestras.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Digital Stage project is ongoing and scheduled for completion in June 2020. Learn more at https://coc.ca/digitalstage.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra goes Digital

Daniel Raiskin and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Orchestras are always looking for ways to broaden their audience and engage more deeply with them. Many orchestras cite an aging audience and the move away from specialized music education in schools as reasons for a slow but steady decline in audience sizes. In recent years, however, there has also been a trend for orchestras to want to make up for this gap in specialized music education and to appeal to a younger new audience, while fostering a deeper engagement with their current patrons.  This is done in a variety of ways from pre-concert talks to ‘Symphony 101’ type guides. In the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s case? They went digital.

To elaborate, the WSO is making use of a companion app called EnCue at three of their concerts this year, with the intention of integrating this app into more concerts in coming seasons. EnCue is a free-to-download app that sends users live, real-time program notes, images and stories during the performance. The EnCue website lists the app at $350 USD per concert, with potential discounts for multiple concerts. The WSO launched the app at their October 18th (B)eyond Classics series concert, for the performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Though app-users weren’t separated from the rest of the audience, the screen is dark lit and the hall lights are brought up to avoid disturbing other patrons. This is the first example of something like this being done in Canada, though several orchestras in Europe and the United States have integrated similar technology into their concert programs. Advertising for the concert mentioned EnCue as a point of interest for prospective patrons.

RBC Resident Conductor Naomi Woo during the concert. Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

For Jean-François Phaneuf, VP Artistic Operations at the WSO, the benefits of the app are twofold. “We’re excited about using this app to appeal to new audiences and increase the level of engagement with current and prospective patrons. We saw some audience members who were deeply moved by the experience. You get to read about Rachmaninov’s thoughts when writing his work and Music Director Daniel Raiskin’s personal connection to a special passage while hearing it all unfold on stage in front of you.” Over the course of two months, Jean-François Phaneuf, James Manishen, Artistic Associate and RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo worked hard to prepare the necessary materials. They tested their content among musically-educated and non-musically-educated WSO staff, and found that short slides (5 seconds to read) and images helped to keep people listening actively. The learning curve for programming the app was steep, but with satisfying results; basic concepts were explained for those unfamiliar to orchestral music, and more complex ‘tidbits’ of information were provided for experts. During the concert, Naomi Woo was backstage with the score, synchronizing the slides with the music for the approximately 200 patrons that downloaded the app. The response from app users was generally positive. By and large, patrons were excited to try something new. Some concertgoers expressed resistance to changes to the concert experience they know and love, but many felt a greater understanding of, and deeper connection with the music through the new information they were given.

There is no intention from the WSO to use EnCue at all of their concerts. It is planned only three times this season for one piece per program. WSO audiences will next see EnCue at the closing concert of the New Music Festival in January, for Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and during Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in March. There are plans to integrate EnCue into the second half of every concert for their (B)eyond Classics concert series in 2020-21. With a tech help desk in the lobby at the October 18th concert, most technical challenges were avoided. More studious patrons also requested receiving the slides in advance to ‘study up’ for the concert. Both the WSO and Orchestras Canada are excited about the opportunities presented by giving a wider audience more ways to open the door and access orchestral music in a way that enhances what is presented on stage.

Learn more about the question of digital technology in the orchestral industry by reading our interview with The Space’s Fiona Morris on building a digital organization.