Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Classical Music World’s Guide to Beginners

Everyone in classical music is trying to reach new audiences. Anne Midgette’s recent Washington Post article, A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying Classical Music, along with the subsequent discussion on social media demonstrate that classical music aficionados, critics, musicians, and administrators all care deeply about finding new audiences. Anne’s article inspired me to think about my own philosophy on solving this problem.
I myself begrudgingly admit to being a millennial. I am currently wearing my new “millennial pink” bomber jacket, the color of which I didn’t even know existed until three weeks ago. I have some cred with my Instagram peers, but I also grew up in the concert halls studying violin at a high level. I even played professionally for a bit. I went on to be an arts executive serving two nationally known choruses, and I’ve spoken on arts marketing and programming for new audiences in front of multiple professional associations. All this is to say that I can speak for the new audience demographic while also coming by my classical music snobbery with the utmost sincerity.
Anne and I aren’t the only people thinking about the power of music to transform new audiences (wait — are we done talking about pink bomber jackets?). The Recycled Orchestra is creating a new and unlikely generation of Paraguayan classical music lovers. The Royal Philharmonic is getting techiewith new audiences next season. Earlier this summer, ClassicFM put out their Best classical music for beginners list. Every composer on the list is dead and white (yes, this tone-deaf list was published in 2018. I had to double check the year as well). Refreshingly, Nick Luby and Susan Zhang recently brought their concert truck to new audiences in Baltimore. Many more people across the globe are talking about, and programming for, new audiences. The challenge is that many are doing so while stuck within the sphere of tradition.
According to one study of concert-goers under the age of 25, the main obstacles that prevent them enjoying concerts were “the emotional pace of the music,” the length of concerts, and “the restrained behavior of other audience members, which was interpreted by some as being indicative of a lack of emotional engagement”. Apparently, the venue was an issue too. The study observed that the setting was “serving as a distraction as participants became concerned with whether they were welcome and how they should behave.”
Here’s the conclusion from the authors: “While some respondents were pleasantly surprised by their enjoyment or impressed by the performers, most remained fairly fixed in their views, and it would clearly take more than one concert to begin to assimilate classical music listening within their established musical identities.”
Are you kidding me? They might as well beat the young patrons over the head with a viola until they say Uncle Mozart. Even when trying to study the problem, the variables were set up to assume the problem was with the listener, and the conclusion reflected this stubbornness. The problem is them, not us, you could almost hear the authors of this study lamenting with classical music royaltyI wish this were a rare sentiment, but it’s not.
Ticket discount programs, young professional groups, video installations, pre-concert talks (which I actually love), are all efforts being employed in concert halls across the globe, but the problem is that they assume people need to just “learn how to listen” or “get more exposure” to classical music in order to love it. Viola, meet head.
Mixing mediums is interesting to me. Many thought that showing video accompanied by live music was the silver bullet, and orchestras began to erect large video screens to capture the attention of young audiences. There’s some merit to this, and I kind of love the nostalgia of movies and videogames from my childhood which are sometimes presented in concert halls. On the other hand, I’ve heard some observe that this can feel like an attempt to distract the audience from the music. But maybe it’s okay if the music is part, not the whole, of a grand experience you won’t get anywhere else.
Another effort at attracting new audiences is to offer more “pops” or “new music” programming (which can be code for non-white and/or non-male and/or non-dead). Now, I love pops and new music. But I don’t love how classical presenters often segregate them as somehow different from traditional classical music, keeping the old dead guys (many of whom I also love) on this untouchable pillar, as if music written today isn’t really classical. This segregation only furthers the distance between classical music and that which actually reflects the experience of today’s audience.
If we want more people experiencing classical music, then perhaps we need to expand its definition rather than infantilize those who are creating and ingesting exciting new performances today. Aubrey Bergauer of the California Symphony agrees.
We also need to stop being so condescending when talking to and about “young audiences.” These are real people, who are living and thriving in an historically complex world while also trying to fix the problems left by earlier generations (pollution, social security, Nazis marching in front of the White House, to name a few). Millenials don’t always need to be taught. Maybe in classical music circles they need to be heard.
Millennials want connection, to feel something real. I mean no disrespect to my mentors and teachers who learned from their mentors and teachers, but during much of my upbringing, music was not real. Neither the performance nor the audience experience connected to real life. Rather, it was an escape from reality and demanded so many things that are not natural to us human beings: sitting in silence for 2+ hours; not looking at (and definitely not talking to) the people sitting next to you in the concert hall; never clapping or showing appreciation after an exciting climax of music unless the climax happens to come after the “right” movement, “interpreting” Bach the exact same way my teacher’s teacher’s teacher did because “that’s how you play Bach,” changing out of your work clothes to put on even nicer (and stiffer) clothes during your leisure time, and never ever committing the sacrilege of expelling air from your lungs in a short audible breath in the effort to clear a blockage from your throat (you know, so you can breathe) while the music was playing.
The standard presentation of classical music works to avoid, if not shun, the human experience.
We can talk all we want about which composers are least uninteresting to new audiences. But at the end of the day, those poor lost souls who don’t love classical music because they haven’t been exposed to enough of it still won’t want to put on the required suit / dress, sit still in a room full of people for hours in silence and watch another old white dude wave his arms in front of a group of (mostly) old (mostly) white musicians who don’t even know how to smile (seriously, when was the last time you saw an orchestra musician smile while they were playing?).
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with old, white musicians. I hope to be one myself someday. But we do have a representation problem, on stage and inside institutions. How many young people do you ask to join your board (put the money issue aside because a new perspective is worth more than you know)? What is your definition of a concert venue, and are you willing to get uncomfortable in that definition? How are you addressing diversity in the office? Are you demanding representation quotas in your internal policies? Are you even talking about diversity? Some organizations are doing amazing work around this and are true models. Others are checking the box and feeling better about themselves. Still others don’t even acknowledge it.
Audience decline is a real issue for classical music. There are lots of great people and institutions putting on great programs in an effort to keep audiences coming. Programming, venue, cost, concert etiquette, hiring, music education, and indeed the way we talk about, advertise, and critique classical music are all part of the solution. Yes, consumers could use more education in how and why to appreciate classical music, and I believe that starts with exposure to more music at a young age in every school system — public, private, and otherwise. But more than “teaching” people to like classical music, we need to teach ourselves as artists and institutions what it takes to connect with people and reflect real life today. If you’re still reading this, then you probably believe like I do that classical music can take you to other-worldly places and indeed bring some humanity back into the insane world in which we live. But only if we work diligently to put some humanity back into classical music.

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