Classical idol — scalable

I asked my students — both at Eastman and Juilliard — to invent a concert that might attract an audience their own age. And the responses have been fabulous. I’ve posted a couple from two of my Eastman students, Leah Goldstein and Kara LaMoure. Leah had a sparkling idea for a concert with music partly by the audience, and Kara designed an enticing concert, with some important notes on what people her age like and don’t like.

And now Kathryn Eberle, one of my Juilliard students, came up with an idea for an American Idol-style competition for classical musicians. The idea itself isn’t new. The Cincinnatti Opera, for instance, just announced an American Idol-style competition for hopeful opera singers. But Kathryn’s presentation seemed more vivid than most, and it also got me thinking.

Kathryn thought the event might be held in a club. And that made me think that it could be held in a club very inexpensively, if the club made the space available. In fact, I think anyone could organize this just about anywhere. What would you need? Enough contestants to make the contest interesting, which could mean no more than four or five. And then professional judges, but maybe no more than two, and maybe even just one, if you picked the right person. The judges would score the contestants, and of course would also make tasty (and helpful) comments. And then the audience would vote on who went home each week.

So you’d also need an audience. But that, I’d think, would take care of itself, once you got the shows going. Anywhere there’s enough of a classical music community to find the contestants, there are people who’ll come to watch — friends and colleagues of the people competing, just for a start. And once word got around, I’d think many other people would show up, too. Or at least they would if the shows were fun.

And that’s really it! If you had the space, the contestants, and the judges, you’d be ready to go. Well, OK, seating arrangements, microphones for the judges, and some good, sharp planning to shape the dramatic flow. But none of that costs anything much. So — as I said — anyone could launch this, just about everywhere. You could do it weekly, until you had a winner, maybe a sensible plan, since interest could build over a month or more, and a club might want to host the show on whatever night got the lightest attendance for other things. Or you could do it on successive days, which makes more demand on your venue, but — at least if you already had interest — might build excitement even higher.

So there’s a plan. Another way to pique interest in classical music. And also for classical musicians to have some fun. And to learn how to excite an audience. The combat of instruments — and voices — could be fascinating in itself. Violin vs. marimba! Soprano vs. laptop! And, shock of shocks, a really sharp violist runs off with the prize.

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  1. says

    Great idea, and it has already shown to be a successful way to get people interested in classical music. The Bravo!Canada series Bathroom Divas ran for two years (I was one of the pianists for the show). It started off with a nationwide tour auditioning aspiring operatic singers, after which six finalists were selected for a reality show. It was a big hit for two years, and season 2 won a Gemini award. Alas, the show was canceled after the second season when CTV bought Bravo!Canada.

    I also judged a one-day idol-style classical singing competition (in Whitehorse, of all places!) and it was both a useful educational experience for the contestants and a huge hit with the audience.

    Thanks, Chris. Really good to know about all this.

  2. says

    We did it for a couple of summers in Minnesota, offering a concerto competition for kids (both a junior and senior division) judged by the audience, with an onstage host from Minnesota Public Radio. It seemed to work pretty well, but it was an undeniable fact that the winner wound up being whichever kid managed to convince half their school to come along to the finals…

    Hi, Sam. Very helpful comment. You’ve pointed out a pitfall in (a) doing these things on a small (or relatively) small scale, and (b) having the audience be the only judges. It’s not all that hard to stuff the ballot box. That’s why it’s good to have professional judges, who first rank the contestants, leaving the audience only free to choose which of the top people should win, and which of the bottom people should be voted off.

  3. says

    This has also been successful right here in Rochester, NY. The Rochester Oratorio Society has hosted a Classical Idol competition for singers for the past three years. It has quickly gained ground as a competition, drawing singers from all over the country and offering prizes up to $1500. and has proven successful as a fundraiser for the ROS. There are preliminary rounds by recording, a closed semi-final round and a public final round. The singers receive immediate feedback on stage from the judges, and there is an audience choice award. I played for Evan Jones as he won the audience over with Rossini’s “Largo”.

    Thanks, Liz. When I wrote the post, it crossed my mind that people had surely tried the idea already, and I meant to say that. Then I forgot. Thanks for telling us about Rochester. My only doubt might be how wide a public you’d get for something, when the public only gets to see the final round. Seems more effective to have the public involved at every stage, but (as I said in response to Sam) to have professional judges pick the top and bottom people at every stage, whom the public then vote on.

  4. Michelle says

    When I was a publicist at the Baltimore Symphony, we held an “American Idol” style competition to find a young person to sing the Star Spangled Banner at our annual July 4th concert. Fearful of being sued for infringement by using the AI title, we dubbed it the “Oh Say Can You Sing?” competition. It was less about developing classical audiences, more about engaging with a broad community and, frankly, it was a good PR opportunity (I am, after all, a publicist!).

    The results could hardly have been better. We had a panel of judges, including a local bass who was on the faculty at Peabody, two music administrators, and a “celebrity judge” from the local pop radio station. Almost 100 kids 18 and under auditioned, and our local Fox station did an American Idol segment. The little girl we found was maybe 10 years old and had the biggest Broadway voice, of a very good quality.

    The audience LOVED seeing this adorable kid belting out the National Anthem, and it really drove home the fact that the hometown orchestra was accessible. The girl seemed star-struck, from the moment she rehearsed with the full orchestra, to the minute she stepped on stage to thousands of screaming fans. Local media had fun with it too, so in the end it was really a win-win for all involved.

    At the end of the day, competitions like this have the potential to build value, whether with core classical audiences or beyond. And hello…it’s fun!

  5. says

    Without meaning to detract unduly from your excellent post, Greg…

    …OMG, Chris, you were on Bathroom Divas? That show was fantastic! Heartbreaking to know that it’s gone; I’d long wondered.

    You are now officially a Celebrity in my eyes.

  6. says

    Yes, I was the guy at the piano for most of the two seasons of Bathroom Divas.

    (Off-topic) What was fascinating about the show was the career trajectories of the finalists afterwards: Elton’s country career took off, Laura Landauer recently performed in a one-woman show in the Toronto Fringe, Sonja Gustafson went back to graduate school, and Sonja Anderson recorded a Sibelius CD and also brought most of the season 1 cast up to Whitehorse for a reunion concert.

  7. says

    Yikes–I actually had this idea a few years ago and emailed it to my friend, the great producer, David Foster. I called it American Classical Idol. I figured David would know the right people who produce the Idol and would either take it or leave it. No bites guys. I also suggested the judges.

  8. J.D. Considine says

    Not to douse cold water on a good idea, but …

    Note that apart from Bathroom Divas, the examples cited above are small and local. Nothing wrong with that, in general, but it’s hard to generate culture-defining buzz from one-night events in cities. (Or, to be honest, on cable TV in Canada. But then, even “Canadian Idol” got the axe up here.)

    The tough question is, would it be worth making compromises to reach the mass audience American Idol has? It can be done. Britain’s Got Talent, the ITV series that brought us Paul Potts and, more recently, Susan Boyle, is a mass-market, buzz-producing show that doesn’t limit its content to singers and pop songs.

    The good news is that it leaves room for classical performances — and not just vocalists, as the string quartet Escala made the semi-finals. The bad news is that the classical content isn’t all that classical, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that the show comes from the same brain trust responsible for Il Divo. Flash and dazzle, the cheapest attributes of virtuosity, definitely have the edge, as do such non-musical attributes as image and personality.

    But that’s kind of endemic to this sort of enterprise. The “American Idol” approach to pop singing is equally vulnerable to flash, dazzle, good looks and a telegenic personality, and I doubt I’m the only person who feels that on it debases pop singing. Then again, it’s not about music so much as about the thrill of competition, and *that’s* the ultimate flaw in the “Idol” model.

    So, here’s my counter-question: Do you want buzz and popular interest, or do you want to further the interests of music? Because I don’t think you can do both with this approach.

    All very reasonable, J.D.

    Except…the BBC reality series Maestro — in which second or third tier celebrities competed to be conductors — was both entertaining and musically enlightening. For classical music, that’s the gold standard.

    And I tried to make it clear in my post that I’m interested in local iterations of this. Classical music is going through a surprising growth period right now. There’s a growth of interest in it, of acceptance of it, and above all (which certainly contributes to the previous two things) a growth of new approaches coming from the classical music world. Because there are so many new approaches, I’m not looking toward any one of them to be *the* solution, or even the main solution.

    And because so much change is happening, local initiatives can make a big difference. Besides, classical musicians need to learn how to function in the mainstream. A local idol competition in a small venue — and, most of all, not sponsored by a big classical music institution — would be a terrific way for musicians to learn that.

    Finally, I think pop and classical are in very different places where all of this is concerned. Pop music has no problem reaching people, no tiny bubble it needs to break out of. So Idol-like events can be judged harshly on their musical merits. Classical music needs to burst free of its bubble, so the sheer audience-pleasing (and even audience-inspiring) side of an Idol event would mean quite a lot. The musical side of things wouldn’t be so endangered, at least at first, because even classical musicians who might go too far in pleasing their public are still musically responsible, compared to people in pop who do the same thing.

  9. says

    I agree with JD. I am not a publicist. I am speaking for myself as a composer and for musicians who speak to me “privately.”

    And among musicians, American Idol is a barometer for everything that is wrong with audience perception of singing and musicality. Not to say that there hasn’t been truly moving performances on these shows. But in general, the technique is all over the place, the judges literally have no idea what they are talking about (how many times are they going to say “You’re pitch was a little off at the beginning…”), and just the notion of the “best” singer getting a “prize” at the end of a creative venture is something most artists don’t take seriously.

    I think this template creates audiences that are at least more confused if not completely disconnected from the “reality” of artistic growth.

    P.S. David Foster? Didn’t he have a “reality” show featuring his two spoiled brat sons running through his money and wrecking everything they owned? Careful what you wish for…

    If you could see Maestro, the BBC reality competition for conductors (or actually celebrities who wanted to be conductors), you might change your mind. Or, more precisely, you might agree that these shows can be good or bad, and that a good one can be very good. Maestro, unfortunately, has never been shown in the US, and the BBC website won’t show the episodes to anyone not in the UK. I got DVDs of the series from the BBC, and was very impressed. As were some friends in the British classical music scene. They were skeptical in advance — who could blame them? — but were converts in the end.

    And again, remember — I was talking about musicians doing this on their own, on a small scale. Not sure there’s any need to bring in global worries about mass-market TV shows. Or are we going to believe that no audience input can ever be trusted, and that only the opinion of sanctified experts is worth anything? Which in practice means only the opinion of the experts we approve of, because of course experts differ.

  10. says

    Maestro sounds like a fun show.

    “Or are we going to believe that no audience input can ever be trusted, and that only the opinion of sanctified experts is worth anything? Which in practice means only the opinion of the experts we approve of, because of course experts differ.”


    Greg, all singers have to know when to trust and when to ignore their audience, their teachers, and / or themselves. I’d be surprised if you thought that these three entities are ever in total agreement. History shows they never are. And any singer (or composer or choreographer) will tell you that they do have to consciously ignore praise and or criticism throughout a career. You have to listen to someone, a good coach, your spouse, your fellow bandmates…but not Simon or Paula Abdul (I can’t believe I’m writing this…)

    Watching the NBA playoffs, I realize that players in sports deal with it too – basketball players, golfers, swimmers, etc.

    But it may be I’m not understanding your response.

    I think we disagree about “history shows they never are.” History actually shows that agreement isn’t entirely unknown, and may even be reasonably common. For instance, Springsteen’s Born to Run, which he loved, insiders loved, critics with rigorous taste loved, and which sold in the millions. Or the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper. Or Verdi’s Aida and Otello, and the Requiem. I use those as examples, rather than anything earlier of his, because it was those late works that musically high-church Germans began to respect.

    Or Wagner, in the early 20th century. Just gigantically popular by then, no matter how much he had to fight earlier on. Or Einstein on the Beach. A smaller audience than Springsteen, obviously, but among the people open to that kind of art, it was (as I so vividly remember) a huge success across the board, selling huge numbers of tickets for its run at the Metropolitan Opera, and being hailed by serious critics. And of course Philip loved it. Steve Reich, in the same era.

    Radiohead. The first Arcade Fire album. Vampire Weekend last year. The Sopranos, on HBO. Waiting for Godot on Broadway today. And, surprisingly, among a certain set, aalso when it first ran on Broadway in the ’50s. Proust. Not read by so many people, but universally respected.

    Could extend this list almost indefinitely. Handel’s Messiah, a tremendous popular and critical hit from the day of its premiere. Tom Johnson’s Four Note Opera, in the ’70s. Written by one of the leading downtown composers, as a perfectly serious piece for which he never dreamed he’d get mainstream attention, and so adored by so many people that it ended up on TV.

    Of course any artist has to be protective of his/her work, and of course there are varied voices that have to be sorted out, and of course popular and critical opinion and the artist’s own judgment often diverge. But to say that there’s never any convergence seems historically not right at all.

    (I know that a few of my examples are about success long after a work was created, but even if you take those out, the list is still long.)

  11. says

    Hey Greg,

    I love this idea, it makes so much sense. We already have tons of instrumental competitions but none that involve clubs and regular people. It might even be fun to have judges that are based in pop or rock culture and not based in classical music. They could be judging for stage presence or audience relatability (i know its not a real word). Something that isn’t as technical as “oh he missed that high E flat by 5 cents, he’s out.”

    I had an idea for a venue, or rather a venue style. What if instead of having an official concert in an official club or hall, you just had a free concert OUTSIDE or in the subway or somewhere that you are aloud to play anyway. “4:00 PM at the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. Admission FREE.” It would be free by design and you would catch so many people that are just walking by. A few giant, well placed, posters, and a whole bunch of fliers for people to take and you have just made a thousand fans. All you would need is some permission from parks and rec to let you crank the volume.



  12. says

    Greg, you and I aren’t on the same page.

    I listed teachers, audiences, and themselves (the artists) in my list of entities that never agree. I name teachers since we’re talking about vocalists singing and then being judged as to who is the “best” vocalist. The relationship between a musician and their teacher(s) is a crucial one, and not immune to disagreements.

    And strangely, it is a relationship noone here has brought up i.e. what would a vocal teacher tell their student about American Idol?

    In your response, you left teachers out of the equation and instead made the obvious but irrelevant (to this discussion, in my opinion) point that yes, sometimes work artists and critics like find large audiences.

    In fact, these artists you cite probably were able to achieve their goals by ignoring (or politely disagreeing with) the entities I cite.

    Just trying to be clear – it’s hard with this medium we call “the blog.”

    Thanks for the clarification, Chris. But I don’t know that teachers, audiences, and musicians rarely agree. Why not? For instance, doesn’t John Corigliano support all the success his former student Mason Bates is having? Which involves quite a lot of success with audiences.

    After years in this business, including 12 years at Juilliard (plus my own years at music school), I’ve learned a lot about the relationship between students and teachers. In recent years, students have more or less routinely said that their teachers don’t support new initiatives in classical music performance, but on the other hand, that’s not uniformly true. Some students even cite their teachers as inspirations in that regard.

    As for what a voice teacher would think about American Idol, how often would that come up? Or, rather, how often would it come up in any way that mattered for a student’s career. Though I’m talking here about classical voice teachers, at places like Juilliard. These students aren’t going on American idol.

    But at the many large universities with programs in commercial music (as it’s often called), you’ve got students studying pop singing. Those teachers might well encourage someone to go on American Idol. Or not, but I’m sure the discussion would be strongly grounded in reality, with the main concern being how the show would or wouldn’t help the student’s career.

  13. says

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