Adapting Concerts for a Broader Audience

Orchestra on stage with a full audience
Photo Credit: J.J. Gill

As a way of opening up their concert halls to a greater number of people in their communities, several Canadian orchestras have produced Relaxed Performances. Last year, we shared resources from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Let’s Dance concert. On November 1st, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) produced their first relaxed performance, as part of a matinee concert series. This ‘blended’ concert was designed to be performed for two audiences at the same time: the WSO’s regular matinee audience, and to new concertgoers seeking a less exigent, more relaxed concert experience.

What is a relaxed performance?

A relaxed performance is designed specifically for audiences who would benefit from a more relaxed sensory experience at a concert. They might include parents with babies and toddlers, people on the autism spectrum, or people with sensory communication disorders or learning disabilities.

Usually these concerts are added as a special event to an orchestra’s activities, but the WSO decided instead to adapt an already-scheduled concert. The education team started working on this in Spring 2019, and took advantage of partnerships they already had in the community. These partnerships proved valuable in providing an experience that was accessible to as many people as possible. Most significantly, the concert environment was supported by volunteers experienced with sensory-friendly events and environments, students and faculty from the music therapy program at Canadian Mennonite University, and faculty from Prelude Music, a music studio specializing in musical instruction for neuro-diverse individuals and those with sensory challenges.

Getting Ready

Image of the cover of the Relaxed Concert Guide: "I will be attending a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Concert"Preparing for this concert was more complex than usual. The team at the WSO created two new documents to help prepare people attending: a pre-visit guide, and a concert experience guide. These documents were created by and in consultation with individuals who were close to the WSO, and have worked with or been a caregiver for someone on the spectrum. Through the pre-visit guide, potential audience members are walked through what to expect from transportation to the venue until arrival at one’s seat. The concert experience guide prepares people for what to expect during the concert itself, and lists some of the amenities available to them, including fidget objects, colouring activities and reserved spaces for a more or less intense experience (at the very front or back of the hall).

The WSO offered free tickets to select community groups through their Share the Music program, but the majority of tickets were purchased as for a usual matinee performance.

Regular matinee subscribers received an email and a physical mailing, to inform them that this concert would be different to their usual matinee experience. WSO staff also briefed the guest conductor and musicians before the first rehearsal for the relaxed concert.

According to Education & Community Engagement Manager, Brent Johnson, anticipation was high leading up to the concert. How would regular patrons react? Would people find the relaxed element of the concert welcoming? Was this concert too different from the usual experience?  Not different enough?

Concert Day

Photo of two volunteers in the lobby of the hall before the concert“As soon as the doors opened, there was a different feeling in the air,” Johnson said.  For the approximately 600 audience members, there was a real excitement that this concert was bringing new people to the symphony who may have experienced barriers in accessing this music before.

Volunteers were critical to the success of the event. Faculty and students from Canadian Mennonite University and volunteers with appropriate experience from the Royal Manitoba Theatre were on the ground to help people find what they needed. There was no self-identification by people who were there specifically for the relaxed elements of the concert. With many spare spaces in the hall, and reserved seating right at the front and back, audience members were encouraged to move around as required, and to respond to the music as they would like (clapping, moving or vocalizing for example). A separate quiet room was provided upstairs, with fidget objects, activity books and weighted blankets for those who chose to use them. The house lights were also brought up to half throughout the performance.

Next Steps

The process of producing this concert allowed the WSO team to investigate what is and isn’t working for patrons in their venue. They identified a handful of things that might be creating barriers for anyone attending concerts. For instance, the WSO is planning to expand the FAQ and accessibility information on their website and in pre- to ensure that all patrons feel welcome, ready and excited to be at the symphony!

Given the WSO’s intense schedule, the WSO team plans to continue to refine the ‘adapted’ concert model. The pilot version of this model was highly successful, and with careful concert selection, the WSO will offer three relaxed concerts in 2020-21. To access the resources from November’s concert, follow the links below.


The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra presents its next relaxed concert at a February 21st matinee: Hétu & Franck. Learn more about their relaxed concert series on their website.

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.