AlivenArts developing formula for growing classical music audiences

Nat Chaitkin

Nat Chaitkin

By Nat Chaitkin


That’s the percentage of people in America interested in classical music, based on CD sales data some years ago. Arts presenters often cite this number to highlight the challenges they face in presenting classical concerts.

I am a cellist and a teacher, and I have a solo music education program called “Bach and Boombox.” I teach in the preparatory division of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, and I am a member of both the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus. As someone who works to reach new audiences, I’m confronted with those challenges all the time.

Here’s another, much bigger number – 83. That’s the percentage of the U.S. population that plays or has played a musical instrument, according to Tom Long, co-founder and COO of the recently formed nonprofit AlivenArts. For Long and his co-founder, CEO Rachel Kramer, that number represents a tremendous opportunity. They founded AlivenArts with the goal of increasing public access to the arts, as spectators, participants and patrons. They believe participation is essential in building a love for any art form.

Rachel Kramer

Rachel Kramer

Through AlivenArts, Kramer and Long work to create performance opportunities for amateur players. They accomplish this through programs like the Queen City Music Fest, which began last February with more than 100 pianists participating. They also want to create opportunities for underserved youth through their Music for Little People program, which offers participation opportunities to 3- and 4-year-olds.

They’ve also opened the Center for Adult Music Study, which offers programs designed to “turn spectators into participants,” as Long puts it. One CAMS program took a music historian to a retirement home. He taught the residents to sing parts of a piece and shared some of the work’s history. Later that day, the residents attended the May Festival performance of the same work, their enjoyment greatly enhanced by their experience earlier that day.

This interest in adults, in my opinion, is what makes AlivenArts such a potentially powerful force. Much arts philanthropy focuses on providing opportunities for children, and rightly so. It is my belief that music should be as much a part of education as math and reading. But fewer opportunities exist for their parents, who may wish to play, too, and many of them also have the financial resources to become the loyal patrons all arts organizations need.

Kramer and Long are both pianists. They met when they worked for Baldwin Piano, developing teaching materials and helping that company connect with its customers, piano teachers and students. The company’s founder, D.H. Baldwin, was an educator and businessman. The company’s culture – balancing artistic ideals and the realities of the business world – helped Kramer and Long develop the skills needed for AlivenArts to be successful.

Many years of corporate marketing experience helped Long learn how to reach people effectively. He has transferred those skills to AlivenArts, helping to “re-engineer how people engage with the arts community and vice versa.” Many in the arts community struggle to reach potential patrons, and AlivenArts hopes to help them expand their reach by better understanding what audiences want.

One example Long cites is the impact of local tie-ins. When being given background information for a piece of music, audience members responded far more enthusiastically to a Cincinnati connection – whether for the performer, the composer or the piece itself – than anything else they might have heard in a pre-concert lecture or program note.

The power of local connections is something I’ve witnessed many times. In my “Bach and Boombox” program, I play a clip from a James Brown song as an example of similarities across musical genres. When I mention it was recorded at Cincinnati’s famed King Records, eyes light up.

Helping arts groups utilize information like this, by engaging with their patrons (and potential patrons) is what AlivenArts hopes to do. As Kramer puts it, many people “haven’t been engaged in the right ways – they’ve been played at, or sung to…we have ways to engage them.”

As someone who has seen arts organizations large and small try to adjust how they do business (with varying success), I think AlivenArts will be a great resource for Cincinnati. Kramer and Long are attacking the most fundamental problem at its core, by creating more opportunities for people of all ages to make music. Their combination of artistic idealism and data-driven market research is exactly what every presenter needs. I look forward to seeing how they can help Cincinnati’s already vibrant arts scene further expand and thrive.

For more by Nat Chaitkin, visit his blog:

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