Reaching a young audience — from a student

A while ago I posted the response from one of my Eastman students to a question I gave my Eastman class on a takehome exam. How would you design a concert to reach students your own age? Leah Goldstein thought she’d get people in the audience to help write the music.

(The course, by the way, is on the future of classical music. It’s a shorter version of the one I teach at Juilliard.)

So now here’s another answer from Kara LaMoure — long, detailed, smart, and passionate. Of course I’m putting it here with Kara’s permission. I’ll let her speak for herself, but note two important points she makes. First, that people her age don’t want to be educated at a concert. And, second, that — no matter what older people might think — people her age don’t need visual stimulation at a concert. Instead, she says, they’re likely to find it gimmicky.

Here’s what she wrote:

This question is considerably harder [than the other question on the takehome exam] because it involves something that doesn’t exist–that is, a symphony or similar entity that performs with my age group in mind.  I wonder if I am the right person to devise a solution to the problem, though.  In this course we have established that only a teeny-tiny percentage of young adults make up the classical music audience, and since I am a fanatic and avid student of classical music, I don’t know that I would be a good representative of my generation in this instance.  Besides, for me, the current status quo is good enough.  When I attend symphony concerts with my fellow music students, we analyze the performance as a spectator does at a sporting event, laugh at the composition as one might for a line in a movie, and gossip about the performers like tabloid journalists.  The symphony as it is works well for people like us, which is why I propose an alternate kind of group altogether for a performance geared toward lay young adults.  This group would be a chamber orchestra that goes on tours much like a rock band would (I’m pretending here that money is no object).  When making artistic decisions for this group, I think it is important to focus on what the people of my generation, unlike the older audience at the symphony, do not want from a concert.

The first thing that we do not want is an education.  We have already spent our entire remembered lives in school, and now we think that we can discover things for ourselves.  We want to bike across entire continents, run campaigns for politicians and parties we just learned about, impart our vast newfound wisdom to the poor younger generations, and take up wild new hobbies like skydiving and classical music.  If we really want to know something, we will go to, and if we are among the lucky many who have ditched our Bachelor’s degrees in Medieval Literature and Philosophy for jobs in finance or analysis, chances are we will access the website immediately from our iPhones.  All this is to say–enough with the program notes and the pre-concert lectures!  In my generation, we already know everything, and if for some reason we’ve missed something, we will learn about it ourselves (maybe by going to more concerts!).  Program notes for my traveling orchestra will feature headshots and bios of musicians, even the ugly or strange ones.  After all, fat Indie rockers who hide behind their hair and their glasses still end up marrying hot actresses.  Artist statements are a must.  The audience needs to realize that the performers are just as smart, hip, and funny as they are.  Composers, too!  For a piece by Mozart or Brahms, I would let the composers speak in their own words by publishing excerpts from their personal writings about the piece or their work.  Including an old dead guy with the living composers would be seen as humorous but also trendy.

My program might include the following:

A commissioned brass fanfare.  This would be played in “surround sound” with the instrumentalists standing in all areas of the theater.  Brass players are lucky in that they can play as loudly and as passionately as they want to.  I would never tell them to back off during rehearsal, even though they might blow out an audience member’s ear.  The beauty of placing performers in the audience is that each person hears the piece with a different balance.

[Arvo] Pärt:  Tabula Rasa.  I did not discover the music of Pärt until I was in college.  At the time I was not majoring in music, but I was taking a seminar about contemporary art and noise, so I brought Tabula Rasa in to share with my classmates.  I had planned to play only a small section, but when the music started, the whole room sat in awe of the piece, and our teacher allowed us to listen to the entire work.  This piece is amazing in that it can facilitate meditation, relaxation, or just the absorption of its beautiful sounds.  Another piece that would work similarly is Kayhan Kalhor’s Silent City.

Stravinsky:  Pulcinella.  I say Pulcinella, but I think any of Stravinsky’s chamber works, like the Octet or Histoire du Soldat, would work very well.  They allow the audience to really appreciate the virtuosity of the performers while not completely overwhelming them with strangeness.  The way that Stravinsky mixes in many different styles of music and manipulates the timbres of instruments never fails to blow me away.  I also think that smaller works such as these can pave the way toward an understanding of the composer’s great masterworks, such as his ballets.

Improvisations over drum-and-bass or other electronic music.  People in my generation listen to music so loud that they can feel it.  Honestly, it’s the most powerful way to experience it.  In the absence of a Mahlerian orchestra, complete with pipe organ and massive regional chorus, I think some nice bass beats could do the trick.  If the jazz musicians that play at Java’s Coffee are any indication, watching people improvise is one of the most amazing ways to connect with a musical performance.  Let’s combine these two elements and see what happens!

Original compositions for world percussion and chamber orchestra, or any other world music ensemble.  Here I am thinking about the Silk Road Project, which must have been one of the most successful civic music projects in recent memory.  The music satisfies my generation’s cravings for the exotic and also eliminates any worries that my group is pretending to be a symphony orchestra of the same old Western tradition.

Pieces by well-known indie artists (we’ve discussed Jonny Greenwood…how about Sufjan Stevens or Jonsi Birgisson from Sigur Ros?).  Works by these composers, or songwriters, or however you would like to call them, already contain many of the same elements as “classical” music, but they are way more popular and way more exciting to listen to.  I suggest that we just forget that there is actually a distinction between classical and rock and just play some amazing music for the instrumentation of my ensemble.

Which brings me to my next point of what my generation does not want.  We do not want just a “rock concert” or a “classical concert”.  We want a concert of the artists that we like, who are of course very independent and defy all classification.  My hypothetical ensemble would be marketed as primarily that ensemble and not so much as a group of compositions to come hear.  Yes, the composers of the music are important, and the music is nothing if it does not convey its story, but the audience members must first make a connection with the performers in order to enjoy a performance. 

My generation doesn’t

need bells and whistles, either.  I am thinking of the popular trend for symphony orchestras to play video while music is being performed or for actors to act our scenes that correspond to the music.  I think that a generation of people who grew up with the over-stimulation of video games, computers, and busy soccer schedules would see these things as gimmicky.  If we cannot go to a progressive classical music concert and feel like we’re escaping the normal flow of life, then what is the point?  My ensemble will wear all black, and we will not constantly keep the audience separated from us by darkness.  If the whole orchestra is playing, then the stage will be lit accordingly, but if something is happening in the audience, or if there is just a soloist playing, the lighting will change.  The Pärt might be played in darkness, and a rousing world music piece might be played with all the lights on. 

The composers and conductors will participate in the music-making–they will serve as members of the ensemble when their pieces are not being played.  This way, all the musicians are on a level playing field, really.  And there will be multiple conductors.  Conducting is of a higher quality when someone can be an expert on the piece, and if the audience members come to talk to us after the concert, we can refer them to different conductors who each have different strengths.

I close with this thought:  it is important to keep in mind that not everyone will like the music that we play.  Even the most popular rock bands have their haters, and I hope that the classical music world or my imaginary ensemble won’t be offended if we can’t convert the whole world to the wonders of our craft.  We must simply do what we can as performers and hope that we have somehow helped satisfy the audience members’–and our own!–desires.

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  1. tiger walters says

    Have you given any thought to the trend of music from videogames being played by symphany orchestras in concert halls? For the most part they’ve played sold out shows, mostly to a younger crowd. And the pieces are much more professional and elaborate than one would expect.

    Here’s a clip from ‘Play! A videogame concert’:

    Yes, we’ve discussed this here on the blog from time to time. I agree — it’s a successful way to draw younger people to a symphony orchestra. Not quite the same thing that Kara had in mind, since she was trying to do a concert of classical pieces for a younger audience. But video game music concerts can be part of an orchestra’s mix of activities. Very good way to sell tickets, draw younger people, create buzz, and show that the orchestra understands what’s going on in the world today.

  2. Michael Christie says

    Aarrgghh! You missed the entire point of the article tiger walters. Ok… let’s assume you want this to be in the form of an orchestra. Yes, you can have 60-100 musicians on your payroll who come together and play orchestra music as the market will support, including the video game concert. It will be comprised; however, at least partially of people like the ones this student has described. The mother ship (orchestral association) provides the infrastructure but the “factory floor” is more dynamic and RELIES on the ingenuity, energy and open mindedness of the musicians themselves. If one truly taps that specific market, the mother ship benefits from loyalty, a brand and most importantly a BUZZ of community support that enables the next ensemble to form to meet another need of the community. I predict in fairly short order the mother ship would learn what the balance of concerts would need to be to sustain the operation and have Research and Development resources built in to nurture the next group of musicians in your orchestra, who have a identified an artistically compelling and profitable concept, which in turn allows the whole group to grow artistically and financially. I just gave this very address to the Harvard Club of Phoenix last week, by the way. I swear it will work.

    Well, you’re my conductor hero for outlining this plan.

    But I do think you’re a little hard on Tiger Walters. He was proposing something different, and in fact something that many orchestras have successfully done. I know it’s not the same thing that Kara proposed, or that you and I are looking for, but I think the videogame music concept has proved itself, as one part of an orchestra’s larger mix, especially in bigger cities.

  3. says

    I’m 30 years old, and that concert sounds like an ordeal to me. Pulcinella and Tabula Rasa is already a little over an hour, with no stylistic cohesion whatsoever, and then you add all that unrelated stuff. Plus drum ‘n’ bass is so boring, and I have no idea why anyone dabbles in anything else when there are go-go rhythms in the world: And I like program notes a lot. (I was just thinking 20 minutes ago about how much I appreciate Tomas C. Hernandez’s notes, which he writes for the Library of Congress’ chamber series.)

    All of which is to say that there will likely have to be multiple experiments undertaken to reach other audiences, according to the convictions and whims of many different artists who are unified by their willingness to break with convention and present the music they love in the manner they think works best. If I saw an announcement for the concert described in this post, I certainly wouldn’t go, but I’d wish it well nonetheless.

    Thanks, Andrew. Another demonstration of why it’s such a good thing to have comments on this blog.

    In fairness to Kara, you’re surely not the target audience for the concert she proposed. You go to classical concerts already. But it’s also fair to say — and I’m sure she’d be the first to agree with this — that the concert she imagined is a work in progress. So for all we know, she’d want to change some of the details if she ever had a chance to actually produce it. That’s happened with just about everything I’ve produced. And with so much else in life.

    Thanks for your lovely acceptance at the end of your comment. We can all learn from that.

  4. says

    I would dearly love to see the idea of a world music ensemble – taiko drumming, koto music, sitar, all those crazy instruments with names I can’t remember – there are just *so* many timbres out there that are completely ignored by western symphonic music. In fact, hearing something like this has been a dream of mine for a while now. I will be checking out the Silk Road project momentarily (via wikipedia and youtube of course!)

  5. says

    How about classical music in non-traditional venues? As someone who is 30 and has been listening to classical music my whole life, I have often found that symphony halls come across as too stuffy for my friends. Living in Seattle, I am thinking of the Triple Door Cello Quartet featuring 4 of Seattle Symphony’s star cellists at the Triple Door bar/cabaret/concert venue.

    They sold out concerts of both classical music and chamber settings of Radiohead and other popular bands.

    Or how about the ‘Opera on Tap’ concerts in New York and other cities?

    If we, as classical musicians, continue to relegate ourselves to musical ‘museums’ we need to expect that we are greatly limiting out ability to reach the ‘masses.

    Excellent point. And something we’ve discussed here from time to time.

    There’s a lot of change in the air, and it takes many forms. Playing classical music outside the concert hall is one of the strongest forms of change, and I’m happy to hear about the ones you mentioned. (Somehow I haven’t heard about Opera on Tap, even though it happens in NY, which is one of my homes (don’t ask), but i’ll check it out.)

  6. eduardo farias says

    I’m not young, but have already been young. In those days, I started going to concerts because I feard a few of the LPs and 78s my family had and I liked the music! I also heard rock and it didn’t said much to me. The problem, I think is that there is nowadays a culture of short time spans and commercialization. People are never exposed to any kind of classical music and only hear the flavour of the minute. Put a classical musician in a TV serires and things will probably change.

  7. says

    Kara makes some interesting points, for example, I agree that the process of “learning” more about classical music can take place on an individual basis in ways that are much more effective than the traditional pre-concert lecture, unless that’s really well done. (Although I don’t know what Kara finds so bad about program notes…no one’s forcing you to read them at the moment, but maybe if the music does spark your interest it might be nice to have them later to look at. Or at least a link to a website that may contain more authoritative and complete information than a wikipedia entry.)

    But the basic fallacy of going way down the road she describes can be found in her following statements:

    “People in my generation listen to music so loud that they can feel it. Honestly, it’s the most powerful way to experience it…” and “…pieces by well-known indie artists… already contain many of the same elements as “classical” music, but they are way more popular and way more exciting to listen to. ”

    Leaving aside the implication that being “way more popular” makes one kind of art better than another, the honest truth is that people who feel that way are very unlikely to ever delve very deeply into classical music, no matter how much marketing effort is made to woo them. Their values lie elsewhere. I love lots of so-called alternative music, indie artists…but for me (and many others) there is precious little out there that gets anywhere close to the combination of courage, inventiveness, just plain INTEREST than what can be found in, say, a Bartok string quartet. There is some great stuff out there but I’m waiting for the indie Boulez, the indie Partch, the indie Feldman. And so that’s why classical music lives. It’s always going to be for the people for whom alternative popular music just doesn’t go far enough.

    Luckily for Kara, she’s young, smart, and curious…and so she’s going to get to discover and…shhh…learn some things in her life that are going to be VERY surprising to her. It’s a blessing we all get as we age.

  8. Why All the Spectacle? says

    This hypothetical concert would only strengthen the prejudiced isolation new audiences feel toward classical music. It further mystifies the real “classical” concert by overtly democratizing it. People (young concert-goers like myself) want honesty – or at least the appearance of it – from their musicians. When classical concerts go out of their way to distinguish the “new” audience by radically changing the music experience, they sense condescension. The message of a concert like this is that “you are not yet prepared for the real thing. Because you are different, I, the classical musician, will provide something different, something I am not naturally inclined to provide” This does not sound so problematic if it weren’t for the cult of genuineness that precedes musicians today. People at concerts in every genre want to believe that the music they’re hearing is something sacred to the musician, and this concert would deny them that. Lighting changes, thumping bass rhythms, exotic-sounding improvisations, explicit genre-bending – all of it sounds more like a spectacular allusion to Jones Beach with the Dave Matthews Band than any classical concert I can imagine. The point is that you do not need to be Dave Matthews to get rid of the elitist aura that surrounds classical music. Other simple changes will do. The real question is not what kind of concert will get the uninitiated listener excited about thumping basses – this is ultimately a truism – but what we can change to make a night of Brahms more inviting. For the sake of classical performers and their future audiences, there is something “essential” about the classical experience which is not worth compromising.

  9. says

    Bless you, WATS. You got to the core of it all.

    Well, my two cents — I think there’s a lot of speculating going on here. People like Philip (hi, Philip) have their idea of what they think classical music is about, as we all do, and then they decide how others are going to react to new ideas. In practice, I don’t think it works that way. Younger people have in fact reacted with tremendous delight to all sorts of approaches, including some that Philip and WATS have decided won’t work. So the first place to start is with what actually works. For me, Kara’s suggestions are in line with my experience, so I like them. Above all, though, we have to be open to what actually happens, and be ready to admit that our ideas might be wrong. Including your idea, Philip — and don’t you think you’re being just a hair patronizing? — that people who now identify with indie rock are going to grow up and learn that classical music is better. That hasn’t happened to me yet, at age 65. Why do you think it’ll happen to everybody else?

  10. says

    The problem with the idea of trying to “appeal to young audiences” in itself is that it implies that “the youth” is some kind of big monolithic bloc — especially if you live in a large city, it should be immediate obvious that people tend to form cliques based on taste, cultural background, education, socioeconomic level, etc. Classical music institutions tend to have a bad habit of oversimplifying social phenomena, which is probably why their attempts at creating bridges have mostly ended in flops. In this regard, Hollywood has actually done a much better job accomodating people’s tastes by using niche marketing — sure, some of the stuff they produce can be pretty bad, but people at least feel like they’re being paid attention to. The record industry managed to create a plethora of cultures and sub-cultures over the last few decades that makes it virtually impossible to keep track of — classical music, on the other hand, only has a couple, at least in terms of style.

    Regardless of what branch they might be a part of (Romantic, Modern, or Postmodern, etc.) I get the feeling that classical musicians are still attached to the idea that their music still carries the capability of being everything for everybody. Well honestly…a lot of these cross-genre concerts feel tounge-and-cheek to me, as if the institutions were throwing a bone to these “young peoples” in an attempt to trick them into listening to something important. I’m sure there are good intensions behind these gestures, but a lot of the time it just becomes condescending in a different kind of way. (I have never seen anybody “convert” a result of these concerts, for instance.) I don’t mean to be overly negative, but I’ve spent most of my life hanging around non-musicians and this seems to be the norm.

    If people are really interested in learning about popular culture, they need to actually talk to the people who participate in them and get an idea why they love the kinds of musics they love to begin with. There are reasons, many of them very personal, why someone decides to like a certain type of genre or style. Rather than trying to pander toward a non-existent bloc, I think it may be better for classical music to be more willing to define itself in terms of what it stands for — if people feel like the music speaks to them, people will come. People go to concerts for the experience, not for its novelty.

  11. Alice says

    Ryan, just to pick up your point (and actually the point that Kara is making to) – so much of this goes back to the programming (which of course in an ideal world flows into marketing, presentation etc.) I should be a prime candidate for one of the young ‘uns orchestras are trying to attract – I’ve got a degree in music, I’m interested in it, I often bring along other people to see things with me, I have a job that pays me enough to at least go to a few shows every now and again.

    For the last 18 months, I’ve lived two minutes walk from the main symphony hall in my city, yet I’ve only been twice, both times when I had free tickets.To be fair, for one of them I had intended to pay for – a concert of 20th century American classical music. (which may sound commonplace but I can assure you is not on the other side of the world!)Why haven’t I been more? Simply because the programmes don’t interest me. Like Ryan hasn’t pointed out, there’s no “one” audience for classical music, so why do orchestras insist upon trying to pretend there is? I don’t want to pay $60 to sit at the back, hear one 15 minute piece that I love, but then feel compelled to sit through the rest of concert of pieces I’m not interesed in, no matter how jazzily presented it is, or whether I can download an audio guide to it and listen on my Ipod or whatever. (and I totally agree with Kara on the video – orchestras, please, don’t do it unless it really adds something to the event e.g the gaming music example – otherwise I just feel embarassed).

    I suspect this over-emphasis on trying to be all things to all people is part of reason groups such as Andre Rieu and his orchestra sell out all over the place – it’s the equivalent of the big Hollywood blockbuster – certainly it’s not for everyone, but a lot of people love it, and they know what they’re getting.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be so interested in the exact concert Kara has described, but I don’t think that’s the point – I like her point about wanting a concert of artists that defy classification, that are independent. I’d sign up for that!

  12. says

    Very interesting.

    But how does she feel about the YouTube Concert, which seemed to garner a large portion of younger viewers? Is this type of concert aimed at a younger audience? It wasn’t particularly educational (and yet it was).

    However, I felt it short changed the younger audience by only providing snippets, short segments of much longer works, which only feeds the idea that the younger generation has a short attention span.

    Surround Sound, what of works by Palistrina or Ockeghem? who was doing this long before Dolby was around.

    Music with a beat… Bernstein has a beat and jazzy (West Side Story Suite) and yet, isn’t like hip hop. Or what about the modern composers who are incorporating hiphop, jazz and rock into their music. The Deadhead Symphony may be a bit dated for your students, but certainly fills that category.

    Perhaps her best point is that NO music is going to attract everyone.

    I’d be curious as to what she thinks of my own violin concerto or string quartet (posted on my blog) to see if it fits the criteria she would want in a concert….


  13. Gyan says

    From my perspective, the principal goal of youth outreach efforts by the classical music world is to offer young adults accommodating experiences so that they can develop an affinity for the various diverse styles of music usually classified as (western) ‘classical music’, and then hopefully become passionate patrons. I don’t see how Kara’s program advances that goal.

    By her own admission –

    “We do not want just a “rock concert” or a “classical concert”. We want a concert of the artists that we like, who are of course very independent and defy all classification.”

    Faithfully applied, peer influence and cultural focus will make these concerts mostly “rock concerts” indeed. Young adults, at large, don’t ‘like’ classical music, the impetus for this thought exercise in the first place.


    “the audience members must first make a connection with the performers in order to enjoy a performance.”

    This is fine, but concert musicians are usually performing works by dead white men. Popular musicians are usually performing/miming work attributed to themselves. Personality is paramount in the latter case, given the social role of music, but what does it mean in the former??

    Kara’s program, for the most part, seems to be orchestral adaptations of hip music in a concert hall. That’s a start, I guess, but a flimsy one.

  14. says

    We need to go back to basics,in the 17th,18th century it was very affordable to go to classical,opera performances,small venues for the masses,if bars and pubs around the world were used to stage, scalled down violin,cello and piano sonata’s,concerto’s etc.Mozart,Beethoven,Bach, would again be available to the masses,so they could see what there missing,plus a few beers will losen them up to the joy of classical music,get on the road all you budding stars.I have a nice classical music videos website if anyone would like to come along and see, take care,glenn

  15. Zachary Faltersack says

    I enjoyed coming across this article. It made me laugh because it addresses some issues that a group I’m playing with right now is grappling with. My friend just graduated and began a non-profit company, calling it The Electric Opera Company. We take operas and perform them with electric instruments, tweaking the sounds to best emulate their given orchestral equivalent (i.e. we used a wah pedal pushed permanently down to try and get the nasally sound of an oboe on guitar, etc). The stated goal of this group is to instill an interest in younger audiences towards classical music by presenting great traditional melodies in a non-traditional way.

    We haven’t been around long, but we’ve done Rossini’s Barber of Seville and are currently working on Gounod’s Faust.

    I just wanted to share the approach we chose to accomplish what sounds like similar goals.

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