About why I think the Pittsburgh Symphony things I described are so good…

I talked about a pre-concert happening, in which people in the audience could find musicians scattered in various places in the concert hall, playing excerpts from a Jennifer Higdon piece on the program that night. The listeners could talk to the musicians, ask them questions, get to know them. I said that would energize the audience, and make them more excited about the concert. But not simply because they now knew something about the piece! It’s a classical music myth — part of what I’m calling the Classical Music Ideology — that you have to know something about classical music before you can enjoy it. (In the High Church version of this myth, the essence of classical music lies in its structure, and so if you don’t follow the form of a piece as it evolves — and, for some people (see Julian Johnson’s book Who Needs Classical Music?), if you don’t follow every note of the piece, from beginning to end — then you haven’t listened to it at all.)

Thus arose the idea that people have to be educated to enjoy classical music, and that the best preparation for a concert would be some kind of educational event, a lecture, traditionally, or (in more contemporary versions of this practice) some kind of participatory event, in which people who go through a series of activities designed to teach them the wonders of what they’re about to hear.

But I do think the idea behind this is a myth. I think people are perfectly ready to enjoy classical music, most of which doesn’t pose any great difficulty to anyone disposed to enjoy it. (I say this after coming from a concert last night in which some pretty difficult music, including a piece by Pierre Boulez, was played for a group of teenagers, who liked it just fine.) Once people like the music, then many of them will want to learn more about it, which of course is a simple human thing, not anything specifically linked to this art form of ours.

But what makes people disposed to sit through a classical concert? The present concert world — or maybe I should say the traditional one, because the present one is changing — isn’t much of a turn on. You have to sit there silently, absorbing Great Art as it’s fed to you, as if you were a little bird being fed by its mother. There’s no chance for you to interact. Nobody’s going to ask you what you think, or what you’d like to know. In fact, the traditional concert ambience suggests just the opposite — that your role is to sit humbly, and take what you’re given.

The Pittsburgh event I described changes that. You come by early, and you meet the musicians. If you like them — and why wouldn’t you? the Pittsburgh Symphony is full of terrific people — then of course you’re interested in what they’re going to play, especially if you’ve just heard some of it, and talked to the musicians about how it strikes them.

So what we have here isn’t an educational event. Instead, it’s a variant of what I think is sometimes called the “halo effect.” Because people like the experience of being in the concert hall, quite apart from the music, they like the music more. They’ll also typically like other things as well — they’ll like the parking facilities better, and they’ll have a happier view of their experience with the ushers in the hall, and with the box office or the ticket-buying page on the website. Similarly, in one case I know of, someone running a chamber music series at a university was having trouble selling tickets.

Finally she got the idea of e-mailing everybody on the faculty, and giving them a free membership in the chamber music series. This meant that they now could buy tickets at a discount. Suddenly her ticket sales soared, not simply because the tickets now were cheaper, but above all because the people who got the e-mail felt cared about. The series had reached out to them, and they responded.

That’s what seems to be happening in Pittsburgh. The orchestra reaches out to its audience. The people in the audience feel that the orchestra cares about them. So they’re more enthusiastic about concerts, and more likely to buy tickets, and even to subscribe. That’s a lesson all institutions should learn — and then learn how to extend the caring to people who aren’t buying tickets yet.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Paul A. Alter says

    People are more likely to become fond of a piece of music if there is something in it that grabs their interest during the first hearing. There’s a phrase, maybe lasting only a couple of seconds, that sticks in his/her memory. They want to hear it again. So they listen, and in the process, they hear another such bit. So they listen again, etc. There is a cumulative building up of familiarity with the piece, until finally it becomes an “I love it” piece.

    Eventually, they become satiated with that piece and have heard it enough — at least for a while. But in the process of pursuing this piece, they have heard another one, some part of which has stuck in their brains. So, the process repeats itself.

    Case in point: A middle-aged woman I know with very little interest in classical music attended a ballet incorporating parts of the Polevetzian Dances. The next day, she asked me to play them for here. She is now hooked on them.

    To my ears, a high proportion of the classical music of the last era had no hooks — just skittering, effects, dynamic extremes, glissandos, and percussion. There was nary a hook to grab me. So, no matter how hard I tried to like Carter and Sessions (except for “Black Masker”) and Shoenberg and Webern et al, I couldn’t. Berg is a special case; there are things in Wozzeck that grab me, so I enjoy it. But, even though I know I’m supposed to, there is nothing in the highly acclaimed violin concerto — for me, at least.

    I agree with you that the idea that teaching people ABOUT a piece makes them like it is not valid. What that does is train them to think about those things in the unlikely event that they ever hear that piece again. What it does not do is condition them to want to hear that piece again.

    Sorry, when I started this comment I merely want to say, “Bless you, you’ve got it right.” Guess I got carried away.

    I’m the same way. I always think my posts are going to be short…