• Sensory-Friendly Top Ten

    Posted on July 31, 2015 by Jessica Ryan in Accessibility.



    Resident Conductor Lawrence Loh and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform during “Celebrate Pittsburgh” on Saturday, June 27, 2015.

    Last month the PSO welcomed about 850 patrons of all ages and abilities to Heinz Hall for its first sensory-friendly concert, “Celebrate Pittsburgh.” Patrons raved about the experience. One told us, “This concert was wonderful. To see our son’s joy at hearing and seeing a symphony playing his beloved classical music brought tears to our eyes. We will never forget how happy he was and thank the Pittsburgh Symphony and all the organizations and volunteers that made it possible.”

    The sensory-friendly concert was also a wonderful experience for us, and we learned so much by planning and presenting this event. Here are the top ten things we discovered in our efforts to make this program happen:

    1. The key to presenting a successful sensory-friendly program is to create a welcoming and inclusive environment. You don’t need to drastically change your artistic product to make a program sensory-friendly. For example, our advisors told us to avoid sudden, loud sounds that could startle patrons, but they recommended that all other aspects of our performance remain the same as at any other concert. Tweaks may be necessary, but keep these to a minimum because these performances exist to give new patrons the opportunity to see the same product everyone else enjoys in a safe space.
    2. Sensory-friendly programs are important because they give patrons options. Many patrons told us they had never felt comfortable coming to the symphony before, but they felt completely relaxed at our sensory-friendly concert. In the future, some of these families may only come back for sensory-friendly programs, and some may feel ready to transition into attending other performances. We need to continue providing a sensory-friendly option so patrons can always choose to attend the program that will best meet their needs.
    3. People of all ages and abilities can enjoy sensory-friendly programs. When we started thinking about themes for our performance, we settled on “Celebrate Pittsburgh” because Pittsburgh universally appeals to all Pittsburghers, and we programmed a variety of musical selections and guest artists so the program had something that would interest everyone. We wanted to provide an experience that multi-generational groups could enjoy together, and our efforts to design an inclusive experience paid off. Patrons ranged in age from 0 to over 90, all abilities were represented, and based on the smiles and laughter we saw at the event, as well as our survey results, I can safely say everyone had a great time!
    4. It is extremely important to set appropriate expectations. Materials like our pre-visit story, picture schedule, playlist, and videos showed patrons what the experience of seeing a concert at Heinz Hall would be like so they could plan responses to potential challenges and feel more relaxed while at the hall. Training sessions provided musicians and volunteers with information about the audience and modifications in place so they felt prepared to perform for and interact with patrons, and as a result, patrons taking the post-concert survey frequently commented on how much friendly conversations with volunteers, ushers, and musicians enhanced their experience.
    5. Environmental modifications make a big difference for the patrons who need them. Many patrons did not need our quiet room, pre-visit materials, earplugs, ASL interpretation, Communication Access Realtime Translation (also known as CART, which is essentially real-time open captioning), or other services that were provided at the event. However, these modifications made the experience much more comfortable and enjoyable for the patrons who used them and were therefore worth providing.
    6. Planning sensory-friendly programs takes time. We attended many professional development events and learned from volunteering at other sensory-friendly programs in 2012 and 2013, and we didn’t begin planning our performance until May 2014. Back then, our concert seemed a long way off, but in the end, we needed this time to establish connections with new patrons and organizations in the community. Allowing a full year for preparing the event also gave us enough time to think about how we could make every aspect of the experience optimal for patrons.
    7. Listen to the community. Countless organizations and individuals provided help as we planned our sensory-friendly event. These experts who knew what would work for our audience ensured that we provided a great experience for patrons. Thanks in large part to their counsel, many patrons remarked that we did a good job of understanding and preparing for their needs. Listening to the community doesn’t end when the concert ends, either! Give patrons the opportunity to provide insightful feedback through surveys or other mechanisms.
    8. Partner with other organizations. This is a continuation of number 7. From spreading the word about the concert to deciding on appropriate pre-concert activities, to training and recruiting volunteers, to lending or donating materials for our quiet and activity rooms, other arts and disability service organizations were integral to making this event a success. Find your champions in the community, and together you will accomplish great things!
    9. It takes effort to build an audience. We relied on key players in the disability community to hand out fliers, forward e-blasts, and establish credibility so patrons trusted that we understood and could meet their needs. In addition, we built personal connections by spending time at events likely to draw members of our target audience, and we also promoted the event through more general avenues, because not everyone with a disability is connected with the disability community, and as mentioned above, we knew some individuals without disabilities might like to come too. Good work pays off, though. We have already heard that those who attended and had a positive experience this year will tell their friends to come next year!
    10. Presenting a sensory-friendly performance is well worth the effort. This concert made our audience so happy that we can’t wait for next year’s program! In the next few months, check out our website and social media pages to learn more about the concert, which will be held on Saturday, June 25, 2016. We’d love to see you there!

    To see what the event looked like, check out our Facebook album or watch the video below. If you’d like to learn more, come see us present at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, August 6!


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