Our new audience

From Marie Finnegan, a classical music fan “in snowy Maine” (as she says):

HI Greg,

I found your blog this morning and wanted to share a few thoughts. I am a 39 beginning flute player. I played tenor sax back in high school so music isn’t completely new to me. Classical music as an interest is, however. My band instructor wasn’t a great motivator or teacher of classical music. (Actually he lacked many talents and the band sadly shrunk because of it.) Our “band” also lacked a string section. (we were 12 to 20 strong on a good day) I came back to music as an adult because I missed playing. Now I get to play duets with my daughter.

To me I always thought of the audience for classic music as older stuffy types with money. I know that is a stereotype and it is based on my past perceptions. Like I said my interest in classical music is very new. I never really gave it a lot of thought until recently. I had an epiphany that part of the reason I love period movies is due to the music.

I also happened to catch a fantastic show recently on the Ovation channel about the London Philharmonic that sparked more of my interest. It had a lot of behind the scenes info which was fascinating to me. It really brought home the struggles of the orchestra as a group. Then I caught a piece on Ben Zander and was hooked. He made it even more interesting and I loved his teaching style. I now hope to go to Boston to see him conduct someday.

I think to a lot of “regular people” classical music is seen as complicated. I know I see it that way. There are many different composers with different styles and then there are interpretations of each piece by the conductors of each performance. Personally I am thinking about getting the Idiots guide to classical music to help me sort it all out. It is intimidating to us regular (uneducated in classic music) folk and I think forgotten that you don’t need to know the name of the music to enjoy hearing it.

I bet a reality show set in an orchestra would go a LONG way to educating the public about them and classical music. It would teach the people how it all works and let them know why it is important to keep people “in the seats” so to speak. Unfortunately TV is one of the best ways to reach the masses. Obviously movies also help. How many people know the name Mozart because of the Amadeus movie?

Call it nursing the audience if you will. None of use came out of the womb eating steak after all. You have to have a gateway into the music for the beginners to lure them in towards the hard stuff. I think in todays society many people don’t want to start anything they perceive as difficult.

Just some thoughts and ideas from the peanut gallery. I love the blog and will continue to check it out. Even though much of it is over my head.


All of us inside the biz can learn a lot from the new audience we wish we had. So thanks, Marie. And let me stress something — it’s not just that we want them buying tickets. It’s just common courtesy. Let’s speak with the people who get interested in us. Instead of keeping them out with forbidding rules. I know that many of us — most of us? — have learned this lesson, but it can’t be repeated enough.

So in that spirit, I wrote to Marie, and said: If you can’t understand something in my blog, please ask! Which of course goes for everyone else, too. I have to remember that not only experts are reading me.

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  1. says

    “I think to a lot of “regular people” classical music is seen as complicated. I know I see it that way. There are many different composers with different styles and then there are interpretations of each piece by the conductors of each performance.”

    Your correspondant is, of course, right that the public sees classical music this way. Of course Popular Music, as a collective unit, is every bit as complicated — hundreds of genres and subgenres all with their own idocyncracies and traditions. But most people don’t think of popular music that way because most people don’t like “popular music” as a collective, they like certain genres.

    There are two major forces at work here — one is that classical music is on the outside so it’s viewed by people on the inside as one unit, and the differences are partially smoothed over, but the remaining differences make for a very complicated looking scene. The second is that the classical music industry encourages this clumping — your average popular radio station would never program Beyonce in the same segment as The Killers, but a classical ensemble wouldn’t think twice about programming Vivaldi in the same concert as Brahms. The appearance of one large monolithic genre artificially raises the perception of how much information a listener needs to know, and that effect is coupled with other myths about the complexity and difficultness of the music.

    Furthermore, many pieces of information that the general public _does_ know create the impression of a world that’s more complex and arcane than it really is — most people know “you’re not supposed to clap between movements,” and they rightly find that custom somewhat strange. I suspect they also think “if that’s the wierd custom that I know about, what sort of landmines are out there that I _don’t_ know about.”

    To be perfectly clear, I don’t mean to imply that any of these problems are Marie Finnegan’s fault — the poor woman is a victim of circumstances and she deserves a lot of credit for forging ahead despite the odds. I worry about the other people who would love classical music if they had the chance but who are scared off by its image as “complicated”.

  2. says

    I’d certainly watch a reality show about an orchestra. You could have a miniseries focused on one concert, then make a recording of the concert available to fans, then have a final episode to discuss the aftermath. What’s not to like about that? (I’m sure there would be some prurience tossed in, but that’s fine with me.)

  3. says

    Concerts may have stylistic clumping to some extent, but all concerts feature music that can be played by the performers involved in that concert. You will never, ever hear a Bruckner mass on the same program as a Haydn string quartet. This is how one of my friends can decide that she likes solo violinists with orchestra, regardless of what they are playing. That’s her classical “genre.” (And she bought the relevant subscription at the local symphony.) I really do think a lot of people begin with an instrument, or an instrumental combination, and sort through things that way.

    I see your point, but…why not a Bruckner mass and a Haydn quartet? Suppose it was the Seven Last Words. That might be a striking program.

    Generations ago, orchestra concerts routinely included singers doing opera arias, and even songs with piano. Then things changed — but they could change again. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the audience of the future will be like the audience of the (recent) past. I think orchestras should present themselves in a far more varied way than they currently do. So the Philadelphia Orchestra might open a concert with the bluegrass group featured in the “Music from the Inside Out” film, the group two of their violinists star in. They’ve already opened a concert with a gamelan group. (And OK, that was to introduce the Turangalila Symphony, which has a relationship to gamelan, but still — this wasn’t conventional programming.)

    I’ve heard a San Francisco Symphony concert with John Adams’ “Harmonium” on the first half, and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto on the second half. Is that any weirder (by normal standards) than a string quartet and Bruckner. Cleveland not long ago put a Birtwistle premiere on a program with two Beethoven piano concerti. How weird was that?

  4. says

    Fellini made a movie in 1978 called “Orchestra Rehearsal” that was kind of like a reality show concerning orchestral life. Unfortunately it was a bit disappointing. Then again, reality for many orchestral musicians is spending a lot of time practicing (and many spend hours practicing scales and technical exercises), making reeds (for oboe and bassoon players), and driving. Then there’s the interpersonal politics that nobody would like to have aired on television. Orchestral musicians work in a hierarchal society, and because there are so few jobs and they are so hard to get, everybody tries to be on best behavior all the time. Passive aggressive friction between musicians is not a pretty thing, and it is certainly not something that would be entertaining for a television audience.

    But, you know, people love aggressive friction on reality shows. Isn’t that one of the big reasons why people watch? The orchestra involved would of course be horrified, because classical music organizations like to project a high-church, above the battle image. Viewers, though, might be mesmerized as a back-stand violist pitches a fit because he’s not allowed to move his stand one inch further away from the trombones.

  5. Thom says

    I thought one of most brilliant, and human portrayls of an orchestral player was the French horn player on Six Feet Under, third or fourth season I think–the one who dated Brenda. I thought, wow, musicians do have complicated lives, make mistakes, and have to deal with the same crap that non-musicians do. Plus, folks who watched that series know what a horn looks like and sounds like. You can’t buy that kind of publicity! How about Desperate Violists?