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Q&A – Jocelyn Lightfoot from the London Chamber Orchestra: Classical Music at a Crossroads

Hello and a belated Happy New Year

We’re kicking off 2023 with a thought-provoking Q&A on classical music with Jocelyn Lightfoot from the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO). 

I started chatting with Jocelyn last year on LinkedIn after we both attended an event – ‘The Orchestra of Influence’. 

Then we jumped on a Zoom call and started putting the world to rights; we talked about the grassroots development of talent, engaging new audiences online and how to attract and engage modern musicians. 

But I felt like we were just scratching the surface so I reached out to Jocelyn to learn more about some of the important topics within classical music and the challenges it faces today. 

I think orchestras are grappling with the accessibility paradox at the moment and with that comes a jostle between a younger audience with social ambitions and the established core dedicated to the art and integrity of classical music… 2023 feels like the right time to be having more conversations about this. 

A bit about Jocelyn

Role: CEO at The London Chamber Orchestra 

Interesting fact: Shrimp shed as they grow. I found this out when I was developing my tropical aquarium and I was shocked to see what I thought was a dead shrimp. A quick google set me straight! They are a brilliant addition to an aquarium.

How you can connect: LinkedIn

Tell us a bit about your journey so far, Jocelyn, and how you ended up at LCO. 

In my previous life, I was a professional musician. I had a pretty standard musical education and I was firmly in the bubble. I started my professional career in 2007 and there was so much variety; travelling, fun, and friends. For a twenty-something, it is a dream profession.

In 2011 my outlook started to change when my sister was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next few years, I had to take a lot of time off to visit her and I started to realise that being a freelance musician meant I didn’t really have much support. My first child was then born and was very poorly which also impacted my ability to work and travel and it began to dawn on me that the profession wasn’t sustainable in many ways. That inspired me to look outside of the bubble as I wondered how everyone else in the world coped when going through difficult times. What I saw shocked me. A world where people either were employed and received sick pay etc or a world where being self-employed meant you were paid enough to pay yourself sick pay. Obviously, this is a beer goggles view but even that existing was a light bulb moment.

I wanted to know more so in 2017 I enrolled at Northampton College and got my CIPD level 3 and then 5 in People Management. I also stopped playing and got a minimum wage job scanning employee files in a food production company. This was ideal because I essentially got to see a snapshot of how a medium-sized company was structured. It was fascinating! After working in another company doing payroll and data analysis I had the opportunity to continue with my own company which I had started a few years earlier as a consultant with LCO and then started the CEO job in October 2021. We had survived COVID, just!

Is it just me, or is classical music a little intimidating? How does this link to inclusivity? 

It’s not just you! I generally think if one person thinks something then there will be others. I think it is a culture which was purposefully pushed in the early 20th Century. An elitist pastime for educated people who could afford it. It was then embedded in the upper classes and it is taking a while to shake that off!

So we now are in a situation where if you’re in the industry or are familiar with it through learning an instrument or something, then it all seems fine but if you’re not, it seems alien. We use language that people don’t understand. We wear semi uniforms which nobody else really wears and we present our performances without any direction or explanation about what an earth is going on. We have knowledge of an entire cultural history that the general public knows almost nothing about. It really is about as exclusive as it gets. So that is the link to inclusivity, it is the direct opposite!

What’s driving the need for greater accessibility in classical music?

This is a really interesting question and I think I have a few slightly contrasting views on it. Firstly, I think survival! We are terrified of the prospect that classical music is dying out and not relevant and so we are desperate to prove that people like it! I also believe that the environment at concerts is, like you said, intimidating and people these days with social media etc are rightly vocal about it.

Can we achieve accessibility whilst maintaining artistic standards?

YES! Absolutely we can and I think even the fact that this question exists is proof that we are nowhere near there yet! I guess the question I would have to ask is how does accessibility affect artistic standards? The more I explore these ideas the more I feel the two things just are not related. I don’t think we need to change the product to interest people. It is just the environment and our attitudes that need to change. We need to focus on what the audience or potential audience needs and wants rather than what we want to deliver as performers or how it has always been done.

Did the pandemic help to democratise audiences?  

To an extent but as we still don’t have a huge digital reach and we don’t respond much to consumer behaviours and needs it didn’t affect that side of things hugely. I think what it did do was open the playing field. The big dominating organisations had to stop and it left room for the smaller and more diverse groups to come to the fore who were much more accessible and less entrenched in tradition. It also gave us an opportunity to see if online concerts were ever going to be world-dominating and I think we can safely say that they’re not so it helped us to get clarity on what classical music is here for.

How can we balance audience experience with artistic intent? Can we take as much from it when we’re walking around as we can sat in silence?

I think there is a place in the middle which works just fine. The same environment that most theatres, cinemas and gig venues provide. One where everyone is welcome, and it isn’t assumed that everyone knows what is going to happen. It is no one’s right of passage and everyone is welcome. You can bring in drinks, post on social media, go to the toilet if you need to and get openly excited about the really incredible things that you are seeing on stage. If this is reflected by the musicians on stage too, then even better. Then everyone can share in the experience, have a lovely time and build a socially, and emotionally engaged community.

Is there a talent deficit in the industry today? How can we overcome cultural barriers? 

There is still a huge breadth of talented performers although that may change in the UK over the coming years depending on education and career prospects. In management, we are at a bit of a junction. Traditionally, artistic management has attracted people from within the industry but I think there is scope to start bringing in people from other industries especially when it comes to marketing. The more we can learn from successes elsewhere the better.

How can we encourage a younger generation to engage with classical music? 

As an industry, we need to start looking at ourselves as already something that everyone can engage with. I think we can see from other parts of the world, there are organisations becoming much more consumer-led and they are seeing incredible results in terms of audience growth. I mean, looking at social media you can see that there are groups and followers in the millions of all ages. TwoSetViolin currently have just under 4M subscribers on YouTube and Esther Abrami has a large and growing following on Instagram and TikTok. For me, it is less about age groups and demographics and more about personalities and people looking for interesting and enjoyable experiences.

Given the choice and budget, how would you invest in digital? 

It would all be about communication for me. Creating a continuous conversation and growing presence and high quality, engaging and interesting content. The biggest thing would be communicating what the experience of coming to our concerts is like and then augmenting the experience when there with interactive programmes and live audience reaction and feedback.

If you could be transported 10 years into the future – what would you like to have changed and why?

Well, firstly I would like to see musicians being valued and celebrated in the UK as the incredible talent that they are. Looking abroad, musicians are often local celebrities and huge personalities who are celebrated and respected. In the UK most musicians are anonymous and certainly not household names.

Secondly, I would like to see classical music much more embedded in the whole of the entertainment industry rather than as a separate section.

Lastly, I would like to see full audiences of happy people!

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