What Professional Orchestras Should Learn From YouTube

These days, when symphony orchestras make national news, the topic is usually not a happy one.  Yet one group has received a very different kind of coverage: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO).  Culminating in a performance at Australia’s Sydney Opera House on March 20, 2011, this experiment has generated unprecedented buzz and excitement.

True, when considering professional orchestras and the YouTube version, we’re not comparing apples with apples.  Nonetheless, struggling orchestras can—and should—learn valuable lessons from YouTube about what it may require to remain viable and relevant in the 21st Century.


With traditional symphony orchestras, applicants audition behind a screen. This system was implemented to ensure that players would be selected based on the single criteria of outstanding performance.

The YTSO took a different approach.  Initially, candidates applied via video.   The conductor whittled down a short list of players who were outstanding enough to participate in the group.  But then, finalists engaged in Internet campaigns, where fans were encouraged to vote for their favorites.  Those with the highest ballot count were likely to get the gig.

This process has understandably received some criticism.  Will people with better marketing and social media chops be more apt to advance, even if their playing isn’t quite as strong?  Perhaps.  But isn’t that exactly what orchestras need?  More members actively advocating, cultivating a following, and motivating their own networks.

Imagine the institutional transformation that would occur if orchestras broadened their audition process.  After selecting a small group of qualified finalists, what if candidates were asked about their ideas on marketing, connecting with audiences, and building a following?  Or if local communities were encouraged to decide who they wanted to represent them in their orchestra?

The reason more people don’t patronize the local orchestra isn’t because they aren’t good enough.  It is because they’re not relevant enough.


YTSO VirtualDuring the YTSO show, video profiles of several members were projected.  These montages explored the lives, backgrounds, challenges, and joys of members.  In other words, musicians weren’t simply interchangeable cogs who happened to sit on a stage together.  They were real human beings with unique personalities and amazing talents.

People become more excited about art when they feel connected to artists. Professional orchestra members can: speak at concerts, interact during intermissions, be featured in videos, become media personalities, blog, lead pre-concert talks, offer engaging outreach activities, etc.

Eliminate anonymity and watch interest grow.


Conventional wisdom for orchestral programming contends the following:

  1. People only want to hear the classics they already know and love.
  2. Long or multi-movement works must be programmed in full.
  3. People come to orchestra concerts for the sole purpose of hearing orchestral music.

The YouTube event blew gaping holes through these theories.  One of the best received works was the premier performance of Mason Bate’s “Mothership.” Isolated movements of several works were included. This made it possible to program no less than a dozen works on this program.  And nestled in the program was a solo organ Toccata by Bach and a didgeridoo feature with percussion accompaniment.

Some individuals, myself included, can be excited by hearing just a few wonderful extended masterworks on a concert.  But many people today are more inclined to enjoy a greater assortment of musical experiences and traditions—new and old; familiar and unfamiliar; solo, chamber, and full ensemble.


sand AnimationThe YTSO event was stunning visually.  Projections accompanied almost every piece, including live streaming, lighting extravaganzas, and even the work of a sand animator.  Clearly, the YTSO spent months and considerable financial capital ensuring that this event looked amazing.

Such visual spectacle is impossible to expect from orchestras with different shows on a regular basis.  But a little attention goes a long way.  The incorporation of even small amounts of dance, video, slides, lighting, or staging can make an enormous impact, especially if done tastefully.  In fact, just having musicians smile and physically connect to the sound produced can move an audience.

Some folks argue, “great music should stand on its own.”  And perhaps that’s true.  But in this visual age of YouTube, it’s simply not the reality for many young and middle-aged audiences that orchestras so desperately need to attract.

And despite expert suggestions to the contrary, visual elements aren’t inherently distractions.  On the contrary, they can be the key to drawing people towards your music.


YouTube AppNot surprisingly, this YouTube event had a heavy emphasis on technology.

  • All players were given a website and smartphone app, powered by InstantEncore.com.
  • All players were given a Samsung Nexus S phone, enabling them to easily capture and upload video.
  • Thousands of YouTube videos—auditions, video diaries, rehearsals, concerts, reflections —are publically available.
  • Every member contributed online content.
  • Their event was available for free viewing via YouTube, the YTSO app, and every individual member’s website.
  • In total, there were 1.8 million unique live viewers; within two weeks, it had been streamed over 33 million times to 189 countries!

While technology alone can’t solve all of the challenges facing symphony orchestras today, it can be an enormous instrument for cultivating audiences and generating excitement.

With this in mind, symphony orchestras should post video content regularly.  All members should be encouraged to maintain a visible web presence and contribute to the organization’s blog. Fans should find ample opportunities to post comments, network, vote (favorite pieces?), share concert photos, and download recordings from events attended (gratis or for a small price).

Use the tool of technology to help build something great: an audience for the future.


In several ways, the YTSO event embraced traditional orchestral rituals.  It incorporated standard literature featuring standard instrumentation in a standard concert hall setting.  But it also built upon these traditions in innovative and forward-looking ways.  These unique, and sometimes controversial, solutions clearly generated a buzz.

We must face the obvious truth: It takes more than great art to thrive in today’s world.  In order for professional orchestras to avoid extinction, re-invention is necessary.

Yet I remain optimistic.  Professional symphony orchestras already provide outstanding and powerful art.  And now they have a new role model that offers a possible path forward: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.




For a follow-up article, including feedback on comments by readers, see Dumbing Down or Smartening Up?

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579 Responses to “What Professional Orchestras Should Learn From YouTube”

  1. Nina Perlove says:

    Great article! I agree on every point. I was a flutist in the first YTSO and on the social media/promotions staff for the YTSO 2011 and I think your comments are right on target. I hope this project will give new ideas to orchestras around the world.

  2. David Cutler says:

    Nina, must have been a great time making history. Hope you had fun in Sydney.

  3. Joel says:

    Always spot-on, David! Really nice article – especially about relationship building. As artists we have a hard time looking beyond our colleagues and the those that “really understand” the classical art form. In order to connect with a new audience they have to be able to connect with us on a basic level.

  4. Lee says:

    Excellent article, thank you.

  5. Julie says:

    Very good article, David!

    One thing I keep in the back of my mind, though, is the reason we need all this new, innovative stuff is because the technology has made it impossible for us to compete for our audience’s attention, mostly because it has become next to impossible to sit and just listen — we have to have something else going, or as many things as possible, going at the same time.

    One article (I believe it was in Slate) talked about our growing inability to deal with silence in our lives. The author was dead on correct. When you think about silence being a compositional tool — an important one used especially by Romantic and 20th century composers — it loses its power and impact with what I would be inclined to think of as sensory overload.

    Flashing lights and slideshows have a place in modern programming, but we have to be careful else it comes back to bite us.

  6. Devon Estes says:

    Hi Dr. Cutler,

    Not sure if you remember me – I used to be in one of your musicianship classes way back in 2003, but now I work for one of the producers of YTSO. We absolutely loved working with Google, and the real creative driving force behind the project, Michael Tilson Thomas. In fact, much of the technology used in the concert, and the idea to give everyone in the orchestra ways to create their own content, wasn’t Google’s idea but MTT’s! He really isn’t just a great conductor, but he’s also a great thinker about where music is going, and what can help it thrive.

    Happy to see you have this great blog, and I’m sure the book is wonderful as well! Duquesne is so lucky to have you there.

  7. David Cutler says:

    Devon, great to hear from you and I hope you’re well. That’s great to know that you helped produce YTSO! Hope you had a blast.

  8. Hello: Great article and EXACTLY why I started a new professional chamber orchestra here in Houston. It is about the musicians and the relationship to the audience through music, not about the music itself as top priority. River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is a very different model. We are in our sixth season and growing rapidly with musicians from all over the world and guest conductors. Our principals are our soloists, we actively commission, we have early, short concerts that are interactive. We have had audience members text responses to premieres and to performances. We have childcare during and after 5pm concerts. Check it out! Thanks for this article!

  9. Tom Whittaker says:

    So now we should transform every concert into a MTV video.

    Thank God for my CD collection and stereo, because there won’t be many live symphony orchestras around 10 years from now.

  10. Dundili says:

    Great Article.

    It is indeed true that we face a short attention span society
    that wants relevance and buzz.

    But the reason why is sad – a simple lack of education. America is growing dumb by the hour and taking the whole world with it. (just look at the comical issues in politics – things that a civilized society would be embarassed by – all for a few dollars more)

    I don’t need any gimmicks or buzz to enjoy music, no one does. What
    you need is an open mind and a realization that
    the arts and culture increase your understanding and
    quality of life.

    Or you can chase the money and try and buy your happiness (good luck with that).

    Sad and disappointing world we live in.

  11. While in principle I agree with most of the points, this also is an apparent “dumbing down” of the art, mainly as it has to do with programming. The “greatest hits” mentality is akin to ITunes and “tracks” vs. Albums. Performing just favorite or the most accessible movements is fine to do on an occasional concert, but when done as the regular diet is not doing the art form any service. The concept of the “album” is all but dead, with the approach of each track requiring it to be a “potential hit”. That mindset has changed the concept of an album, as all tracks are created to be “a hit”. The whole pop music artform is measured by single track downloads. In Classical music, performing only the most immediately appealing movements (notice I didn’t say “the best movments”) as the norm will change the way composers of the future will compose, and we will lose any movement which is longer than 10 minutes. Goodbye Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner, Eroica funeral march, etc. This will lead to a change in the way musicians are trained, and change the artform based on immediate gratification. This isn’t all bad, but it’s partially bad, and in fact horrible.

    There still are things in life which take time and can’t be hurried. Growing up into adulthood. Development of relationships and love. Reading a long book. Developing skills such as reading. Cooking a turkey (can’t be microwaved in 1 minute).

    We have to find ways to show (and educate) how music is already relevant (and it IS already relevant). And society has to value what the arts do for society. (It makes people learn how to feel). And yes, people have to get back to talking on the phone instead of “texting”. It’s all about human interaction.

    If one is using today’s society as the measure for what is relevant, we are all in trouble.

    Lawrence Eckerling
    Music Director
    Evanston Symphony Orchestra

  12. Chris says:

    I think the idea here isn’t to “dumb down” the art. The idea is to raise awareness. If you throw out a concert that will appeal to the masses such as the YTSO did then suddenly you have people going out looking for more like what they enjoyed. Not to mention that if an area orchestra is advertised as performing a name they recognize their interest will be piqued.

    Yes doing this all the time would demean the art to a point, but you are right when you say people don’t come because they aren’t educated. How do you educate them other than teasing them and drawing them in? You have to make them want it personally or we will never survive the changing times. You can’t educate the population if they don’t show up.

    Chris Simerman
    Music Educator

  13. [...] This was an interesting piece discussing what professional orchestras might learn from the recent YouTube symphony concerts. I was particularly struck by the technological aspect of the whole enterprise, but especially the idea that the musicians themselves had more to offer than just sitting there and playing. Sound familiar? [...]

  14. Richard says:

    from one comment: … It is about the musicians and the relationship to the audience through music, not about the music itself…

    All the techniques and features used by the YouTube Orch (voting for players, posting personal activities and impressions, constant linking, fast changing visual stimulus) are not the formula for a music concert, but rather for a TV Reality Show.

    I guess the professional orchestra model of the early 20th century is truly dead.

  15. Jeff says:

    I don’t agree that other orchestras should take this approach. YouTube is interesting fluff, but not comparable to a real, live concert experience.

    As for performing parts of pieces, would you read parts of novels, see parts of plays or movies, eat part of your dinner, and call it a complete experience? I don’t think so. Just because there is more “noise” out there to compete for people’s attention, that’s not an excuse for feeding that tendency. What will result is every orchestra becoming some version of the “Andre Rieu Symphony”, and real musicmaking and the human experience in sound will be lost to another momentary, fleeing amusement.

    And I doubt very much that this idea can compete with the quality of the performers in the symphonies in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and others. You don’t get that kind of artistry from video auditions where the most popular video gets a slot.

  16. [...] Saavy Musician has some interesting ideas for orchestras in this post. more options Posted by Childs at 7:11 [...]

  17. Galen Zinn says:

    David, I’m glad we have musicians like you calling the shots!

  18. [...] I read it here. [...]

  19. Sean Dynan says:

    Hey Savvy Musicians!

    The Virtual Choir 2.0 premiered yesterday! Check it out.


  20. Sean Dynan says:

    Eric Whitacre is doing is stuff just as noble. He was also a speaker in this year’s past TED convention.

  21. TR says:

    Allowing professional musicians to “speak at concerts, interact during intermissions, be featured in videos, become media personalities, blog, lead pre-concert talks, offer engaging outreach activities, etc.” sounds like a fantastic idea.

    Now put yourself in management’s shoes… if you allow your musicians to do that, they may develop personal connections to subscribers and *gasp* donors, and there goes that “greedy, entitled, elitist musician” card orchestra managers play every time contract negotiations get tough.

  22. Great thoughts here David. So why do you suppose higher education isn’t jumping on this bandwagon? After all, they don’t have to sell tickets. Seems to me that college orchestras and wind ensembles could be the perfect “experience lab” for the real world.

  23. Paul Gambill says:

    It’s hard to read that some people — even music professionals — still think that wildly successful projects like the YouTube Symphony, which reach new and younger audiences, are somehow bad for classical music. On what planet are these people living where classical music is thriving, young people are buying tickets and orchestras aren’t folding left and right or at least struggling to survive? Not this planet.

    We have to be fearlessly innovating and not be afraid to lead audiences, rather than living in the past and hoping that audiences will somehow magically be drawn to hear the orchestra. Thanks for the post, David. You’re right on the mark.

  24. [...] MusikerInnen hat David Cutler zu einem sehr interessanten Blogbeitrag inspiriert. „What Professional Orchestras Should Learn from YouTube“ ist er überschrieben und enthält einige bedenkenswerte und natürlich auch provokante [...]

  25. [...] been an exciting week!  Since my article What Professional Orchestras Should Learn from YouTube was posted, many conversations have erupted, debating the question of whether initiatives embraced [...]

  26. Olivia says:

    After reading the article and then the comments, my first thought was why is everyone so completely cynical and so oppose to change? I realize that things are by no means the same these days, but us artsy-fartsies saying that Americans are slowly growing dumber by the day is the reason WHY people don’t want to attend our concerts anymore. Why are we so entitled to this opinion? Since when did the arts become too good for anyone?
    Instead of complaining and entitling ourselves, let go and embrace the change – because it will happen regardless of our opinions. Remember that people never remain the same – and neither do the arts.

  27. Phil Bohn says:

    Your points about anonymity and programming were the most spot on in this article. I had never stopped to consider why these conventions were simply carried out as if they were written in stone somewhere. I just got out of class where you were talking to us about being leaders in our profession, and I feel that this sort of thing can apply not only to the Symphony Orchestras of the world, but to the Elementary and High School bands. Putting on a true show to highlight each of a student’s or player’s talents is more interesting to a patron or parent than is the simple fact that “they can play this particular piece in this particular way.” Thought-provoking. Glad I read it.

  28. [...] dessen Beitrag „Orchester : neue Wege, um Klassikfans zu gewinnen dank Youtube?“, der auch auf David Cutler’s Artikel „What professional orchestras should learn from Youtube“ verweist. Die Frage die [...]

  29. [...] with bottom-up decision-making and hierarchies. In another of his posts from this past year,“What Professional Orchestras Should Learn from YouTube”, Mr. Cutler includes refreshing ideas on the audition process, relationship building, [...]

  30. [...] a possible path forward: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. David Cutler | April 5, 2011 Weblink: http://www.savvymusician.com/ Tags: orchestra Search [...]

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