Mar 08

why the symphony needs a progress bar

Progress bar at the symphony

(photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Choral Society)

About three years ago, my work-life balance started to improve – start-up sleep deprivation was no longer a constant norm. I didn’t have enough time to restart violin lessons but season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony? Yup, I could swing that.

I bought tickets for myself and my husband, Todd, a relatively new concert-goer. But after a few shaky experiences, I was worried that Todd would back out of a subsequent season subscription. I started doing anything I could to avoid the, “Oh my god – is this only the first movement?” mid-concert terror. Seeing the experience from a newbie’s perspective, my UX instincts kicked in and I started jotting down the, “If only the symphony had…” moments. Three years later, here’s my list:


If Only the Symphony Had…

Progress bar at the symphony

1. A Progress Bar

Even the most devout classical music listener has, “OMG is this over yet?” moments. When you’re not responding to a performance, the experience becomes torturous if you don’t know whether you’ve endured 5% or 95% of the piece. A progress bar would make a world of difference. Nearly every other performance genre has accompanying scoreboards, screens, tickers, or subtitles to track the event’s progress. A JumboTron might be inappropriate but a few progress lights on the conductor’s podium would really help.


MTT Talks

2. People Who Talk

Half of the fun of following a sports team is getting to know the players. At the symphony, you regularly have a two-hour experience with over a hundred performers with absolutely no words exchanged. I love encores because the artist announces the piece they are about to play and I can suddenly match a voice to a performer. Then they become real. I’d love for the conductor or soloist to provide a 3-4 sentence introduction, “Thank you for joining us this evening. Tonight we will be performing…” It’s only natural that the audience feels more engaged when they hear a performer’s voice. In the three years I’ve attended the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve never heard Michael Tilson Thomas talk!


quiet candy

3. Quiet Candy

The symphony season is almost perfectly aligned with head cold season – fall through spring. No one wants to cough during a performance but when that annoying tickle happens, you can only hold your breath and writhe in agony. I’m sure Ms. Stewart would endorse a hospitable offering of wax paper-wrapped candy in the entryway as both a welcoming gesture and a potential quick-fix to hold you over until you can make a mad dash to the water fountain.


4. A tl;dr opener

My typical symphony experience started with leaving Meebo a little early without dinner and finding myself starving in a 101-N traffic jam with a spouse who is thinking, “Wait a second, if we miss the symphony, we can skip the concert and get pizza instead!” We have never missed a performance but we sprinted from the parking lot on a few occasions. With seconds to spare, I’d see Todd crack open his program to find a dense Ph.D. thesis on the first piece. Two-three sentences in, the lights would dim and suddenly Todd was grasping his dark, useless program notes with no idea of what he was listening to.

Here’s a San Francisco Symphony program written for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (click to read the 11-page version):

In all of the 2,000 words, the title, “Exotic Birds”, is never translated! Assuming Todd made it through the first paragraph before the music began, he’d know the commissioner, dedication, and all of the locations and conductors who have played this piece of work since 1956. This is not helpful information for someone who is going to listen to Messiaen for the first time!

The first paragraph needs to be oriented to a 30-second, the-lights-are-dimming panic scan. Here’s what I wish preceded the lengthy write-up:

Oiseaux Exotiques (“Exotic birds”), 1956
Duration: 16 minutes (no movements)
Composer: Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), France
Period: 20th century
Influences: Roman Catholicism, birds, colors, Japanese music, landscapes
Instruments: Piano and small orchestra
Listening notes: Forty-eight birdsongs are played throughout this piece. Messiaen was not familiar with American birds so many of the birdsongs such as the Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Prairie Chicken, Oriole, and Finch were exotic to his ear.


concert notes

5. Program notes on the fold

While I’m harping about program notes, I’ll also mention a personal pet peeve. I dread the moment when I accidentally close my program and realize that I’ve lost the position to the concert notes. I’ll need to carefully open and flip through pages to locate the notes again without squeaking a chair or elbowing my neighbor. I know that it might make economical sense to bury the program notes amidst diamond cocktail ring advertisements but I’d really appreciate a program that naturally falls open to the concert details. If the advertising dollars can’t be missed, then offer a lightweight $.99 iPhone app that has white-on-black text (to avoid glowing screens) that can be flicked in the dark.


sing along

6. Programming for beginners

When you launch a new product, you inevitably have a few crazy, very vocal early adopters (why don’t you support Opera’s browser yet?) that you have to selectively ignore if you want a product that appeals to a wider audience. The symphony is the same. About half of the audience attends for a pleasant symphony-going experience. A small minority will be hard-core educated symphony folks who needle, “Why haven’t we heard more atonal music by post-Janáček Slavic composers this season?” The remainder are the musically tepid spouses and children who have been dragged to the hall and are just trying to stay awake and to clap at the right times.

To sustain the symphony, there needs to be beginner programming at every concert – even if it’s just a 3-minute warm-up to perk up newbie ears with a, “Oooh – I’ve heard of this!” moment. Pre-concert talks are fantastic but I’m battling hectic schedules and a seatmate who (though he’d graciously never admit it) probably wants to spend less, not more, time at the symphony. However, it’s these seat-mates who determine whether I repurchase symphony season tickets and who will probably determine whether the symphony thrives longterm.


I can imagine that in two hundred years people will attend rock concerts performed by historical cover bands and wonder, “Why do they require that we stand for the entire concert?” Or, “If the concert really begins at 11pm, why do they print 10pm on the tickets?” The symphony was intended for entertainment and our rigid adherence to its nineteenth century form has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate. A progress bar is long overdue!