Changing the Way We Look at the Arts with Cal Symphony’s Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer

Written by Jade Shojaee

DRAA has been a long-time (very PROUD) supporter of California Symphony and this year, we had an incredible opportunity to fund their brand-new, never-been done Saturday-Night Series.

Gracing the Sunday matinee crowd for years now, Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer saw an opportunity to build Cal Symphony’s audience base by adding a Saturday evening performance for each concert in the series. When she came to us with the idea, we were thrilled and jumped at the chance to help.

Savvy, sophisticated and passionate, Aubrey has taken Cal Symphony to new heights since coming on as the Executive Director. Innovating the way the organization navigates audience retention, marketing, donor cultivation and audience accessibility, Aubrey hopes to change the community’s relationship to local arts organizations and remind the world why the arts matter.

An advocate of gender equality, music education and culture consumption, DRAA is proud to support Aubrey and Cal Symphony in their endeavors and looks forward to a long and prosperous partnership.

In this interview Aubrey talks to DRAA about what it takes to become a prominent musician, how the arts sector can change its business approach to attract and retain audiences, and the impact of music education on both adults and children.

Cal Symphony has launched the careers of many renowned musicians including violinist Sarah Chang and cellist Alisa Weilerstein. What is the audition process at Cal Symphony? What qualities do you look for in the musicians you hire?

For musicians in the orchestra, the audition process is blind, and this is standard for professional orchestras across the country. When I say blind audition what I mean is, when you audition for professional orchestras there is a scrim or screen that separates the musician from the committee listening and reviewing. What this has eliminated is all kind of bias. The panel doesn’t know if the musician is a male or female, or what ethnicity they are. All you can do is judge them by their performance and their sound. That has been huge for orchestras across the country in terms of equality, gender parity and helping qualify minorities of all kinds. In other words, if you’re a good player, you pass the test. Our orchestra is now exactly equal in terms of male and female. and we’re really proud of that.

In terms of soloists, they are hired a little differently. They don’t audition. They earn their badge of honor by winning competitions, especially when they’re younger. An added bonus we have, in terms of identifying young talent, is that our music director Donato Cabrera used to be Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and he was also the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra so because he’s been in the Bay for so long and conducted the youth orchestra, he has had tons of exposure to amazing young talent that came up through the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra. In addition to that, he has been a guest conductor all over the world. He brings so much knowledge by keeping his finger on the pulse of who are the rising stars in our industry. A lot of times, lucky for us, they’re right here in the Bay Area.

Since being brought on as Executive Director in 2014 you have doubled the number of donor households, increased individual giving by a third and increased attendance by 16 percent. What is your secret?

The secret is focusing on retention. I feel like that sounds obvious but for so many arts organizations that’s not what gets focused on. It’s sort of a trend to always look for new audiences. New audiences and younger audiences, and we’ve sort of wrongly taught ourselves that that is our goal. The truth is if we all looked at our databases we’d see that we are actually, as a whole, great at attracting new audiences. The average statistic is that arts organizations attract tons of new audiences every year but that 90 % of them don’t come back. So, the problem is not about attracting new audiences. It’s retaining those new audiences. So, what we have done is focus on retention.

For us it starts off with a first time attendee. We send you an offer to come back quickly. If you can get somebody to come back within a year of their first visit, their lifetime loyalty to your organization will sky rocket, so we focus on that. Also important is what we don’t do for first time attendees. We don’t ask new attendees for a donation. The only next step we want that new attendee to take is to come back and buy another ticket. We are really focused, deliberate and strategic. We look at every type of patron and no matter where you are in your audience journey with our organization, we have a very specific plan for you. And that’s different than most organizations.

You share so many of your business/marketing strategies with the public vis the Cal Symphony blog. Doesn’t it seem counterintuitive?

It’s not counterintuitive. I would say there are two goals with the blog. One is that arts participation breeds more arts participation. There’s research behind that. Sometimes in the arts world we think our competition is each other, and that’s the farthest from the truth. It’s not necessarily Cal Symphony vs. Smuin Ballet. No way. If somebody goes to the ballet, they’re more likely to go to the symphony and vice versa, and we want that. We want to cultivate that. So that’s one reason we give it all away. We want people to participate in more culture consumption because that is better for all of us.

Goal number two is to change the narrative for arts organizations. You’ve already heard me say so many times that what we think is conventional wisdom for our organizations is not true and we believe these things that are not serving us well. We need to change the way we do business. As an industry, we’re not dying. We can do better. If we believe in what we’re doing, and are really smart about how we do it, we can achieve so much more.

One of your goals has been to attract audiences under 50 to the Symphony? What are the challenges of reaching that demographic and how do you overcome them?

Attracting younger audiences is necessary for the survival and continuation of our art form. What we’ve done is observe the fact that people are coming but they’re not coming back. What are we doing that’s creating those barriers to making that first-time experience so great? And so much hinges on first time experience. Anything we can do to make that first experience as awesome as possible matters in the long term, and that’s why we do care about trying to make the experience more accessible.

We’ve done a lot of experiments and focus groups and research projects of our own that examine the first-time attendee experience and what we’ve learned is that there are so many things we do in the way we talk about ourselves and talk about music that are not fundamental for somebody who doesn’t go to an orchestra concert. Part of the reason for that is the decline in music education.

As a whole, we all talk so much about the decline of music education in our country, and how that’s a disservice to our art form, and that’s one of the reasons we are seeing declines in our audiences and yet, so much of the time when we talk about our own art form we still talk about it in a way that assumes basic understanding. But that basic understanding doesn’t exist because music education doesn’t exist. And that was such an awakening for us to realize. What we think is some sort of foundational understanding is a myth. We really had to hit reset and say this is not dumbing it down or catering and pandering to people. There are really smart people who live right here in Walnut Creek, and they just don’t know what concerto means and it’s our job to remove that barrier. We want to take a step back and address this problem by talking about ourselves in a way that is still smart, but also accessible.

The California Symphony had a booth at the Chevron Family Theatre Festival this year that included an instrument petting zoo and a story-telling area. How were you received by the families who visited the booth?

We’ve done the Chevron Family Theatre Festival (CFTF) for the past two years now, and there are two different components. We’ve done the instrument petting zoo for years, and have recently upped our game by bringing the petting zoo to a lot of places in the Bay Area because of its popularity. What we’ve learned is that in its simplest form, it’s really fun for children to touch, feel, hold and play the different instruments in the orchestras. So, there is that component and that does start to address the issue of teaching kids the names of the instruments in the orchestra, and getting back that basic level of understanding.

We have also learned, and this was fascinating to us…we thought it would appeal primarily to kids. Oh, no, no, no. it was Mom and Dad touching and playing with those instruments just as much as the little ones, and that’s awesome! When you think about it, these parents are these same people that we’re trying to attract to the symphony. The older Millennials and young Gen Xers. It’s been really awesome to see Mom and Dad like the petting zoo as much as the little kids.

We also do the story time. The past two years as part of our booth for Chevron Family Theatre festival we have had this story element that connects to our holiday program, which is our most popular concert of the year. We have two performances, and last year we totally sold out. It’s our most family friendly program of the year. What we’re doing this year is a piece called The Composer is Dead during which the narrator reads words written by Lemony Snicket. So, the story we were reading at the CFTF is exactly the same as what we’re going to be doing at the concert, except of course, at the concert you will have the full orchestra accompanying this reading.

The whole idea is that the composer is dead. Somehow, he has gone missing, and someone in the orchestra is guilty. At our concert, through the narrator and the way the music is written, we unravel this mystery. At the CFTF booth we read the story to get people excited for the concert and hopefully inspiring them to come hear it live.

What role do you think music education plays in youth education and what do you feel we’ve lost by making cuts to these programs?

Music education is beyond the music part, and what I mean by that is music education produces so many more skills than just an appreciation for classical music. We see in our Sound Minds program, students who participate in an after-school music education test higher in math and reading than their peers who don’t participate. They also show more leadership skills. The principal of the school we serve was telling us of his student councils. It’s the students who are part of the Sound Minds program that are the better leaders. They’re more effective in their student councils and they are better at communicating. All of these things that are not testable or measurable the way we do standardized testing, but all of these skills are so important for anybody to succeed in life, and its music education that’s helped build that confidence and awareness and ability to accomplish these things.

I’m really passionate about the fact that music education goes beyond the musical component of it. There are so many benefits that have been tested and proven time and again explaining why this is so important to our community and our society.

We are so proud to have Cal Symphony as one of our Cornerstone Producers. What role has DRAA’s support played in the success of the Symphony?

DRAA has been so loyal to Cal Symphony and so faithful. There’s a long-term answer and a short-term answer. Over years and years DRAA has been fundamental in helping us build, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without that ongoing support. That’s the long-term answer.

In the shorter term, DRAA has been immediately helpful in that this season, we have expanded our performances. We’ve added a Saturday-night series, and that’s because of DRAA. This year, DRAA funding is to sponsor and underwrite significant costs for that Saturday-night series. We are now serving more people in Walnut Creek because of DRAA and for us, having a Saturday-night concert has never happened in the history of Cal Symphony. When we talk about younger people and look at all the development in Walnut Creek, there’s a whole different demographic we can reach by performing on a Saturday evening, in addition to Sunday afternoons.

All of that for us is a really big step, and it’s totally achievable and doable because of the support we receive from DRAA.

What does the future hold for Cal Symphony?

We want to continue to build on the successes that we have built over the last three seasons. For us, it was a big step to add that Saturday series. A huge opportunity for us to continue building audiences. It opens the pipelines for us to serve more people.

We are also looking at expanding our Sound Minds program now that we have so much data showing the positive results of that program. We’re looking at expanding to more schools. We are looking at building an adult education program which touches on the concept of grown adults not knowing certain things due to lack of music education. So much of music education focuses on children, but what about adults? There’s research that shows that adults who consume educational content about a brand are 131% more likely to buy from that brand. So, apply that to an orchestra. We have a wealth of educational content we can deliver that then translates to ticket sales and brand loyalty. It’s all part of this same cycle.

The last thing I’ll add: diversity is becoming a big focus for us. In the midst of all this growth we know that our audience at the LCA is not fully representative of our community at large here, and so we have work to do on attracting specifically Hispanic and Asian audiences. We want our audiences to be more reflective of the demographics of Contra Costa County. That’s something we’re really doubling down on in the coming season, and we’re about to roll out some stuff that ideally will help in attracting those audiences.

Come see their concert Lyrical Dreams at the LCA this Sunday September 4th at 4pm

A pre-concert lecture begins at 3pm