May 16, 2019     Jon Linker

What Any Ensemble Can Learn from Military Bands About Audience Engagement


Perhaps “innovative” is not the first word most musicians think of to describe military bands.

When it comes to audience engagement, however, there are a number of things military bands have been doing successfully for many years that could offer lessons to music directors everywhere.

If your concerts are standing-room only, then by all means keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’re looking to get more bodies in the seats, it might help to try something new.

Having spent 20 years performing around the United States and Europe as a trumpet player in U.S. Air Force bands, I have seen first-hand how the audience experience at military band concerts often differs from college and/or professional performances.

Military band performing on stage

While professionalism and high-quality musicianship are always priorities, one of the main missions of military bands is to make a connection with the audience. To that end, band members regularly mingle with attendees in the lobby prior to a concert and meet them in the aisles afterward to say thank you for coming and to listen to their stories.

Band members also talk to the audience during the performance.  Concert emcees offer (hopefully) interesting and entertaining information about each piece on the program to help everyone better understand and appreciate what they are hearing.

A person in a military band tuxedo speaking into a microphone in front of a military band performing.

Technology is welcomed. Audience members are not only encouraged to turn on their cell phones, but actually use them to take photos and send tweets and post to Facebook and Instagram. Before intermission at our concerts, we started inviting audience members to post questions to our Facebook page or Twitter feed and would pick one or two of them to answer at the beginning of the second half. Those whose questions were chosen would receive a free CD.

In addition, projected images and video are often used to accompany the music. In many of my Air Force band performances, we would display static images throughout the concert and use still pictures, video, or a combination of both to accompany several pieces on the program.  Rather than distract from the performance, comments from audience members suggested this enhanced their enjoyment of the music.

In the foreground, backs of audience members heads looking at a band performing on a stage in the background.

Perhaps these things don’t seem all that revolutionary. However, think about the last professional symphony or college ensemble concert you attended. Did any of the musicians talk to you before or after the concert? Did anyone explain what you were listening to or were you expected to just rely on written program notes? Were there any visual aids or images to go with the music?

Incorporating some of these ideas that have worked well for military bands may be a great way to get more people to your performances and make a deeper connection with your audience.

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