An audience your own age

From March 25 to March 27 I’ll be at the Yale School Music (where i got an MM in composition in 1974), for a variety of activities, culminating in a talk on the 27th at one of their Think Tanks, a series of discussions they’ve set up for students involved in community outreach, and which they’re advertising with a slogan that says “reimagining the future of classical music.”

When they asked me to speak, i asked if I could deviate a little from standard ideas of community outreach, and talk about how I think music students should be reaching an audience their own age. (Which of course is exactly what I’m working on at the University of Maryland.) They agreed, and I’ll be doing it. They asked me (as they’ve asked  all their other Think Tank speakers) if I’d provide an outline of what I want to talk about, plus questions for the students. With their permission, I’m posting what I wrote for them.

It’s also available through the page of their website they linked to, but sensibly, I think, they like the idea of expanding readership for what they’re doing, so they won’t require you to read my material only in their own shop. Their site is worth looking at,. though, starting with the home page. It’s a lot livelier than many music school sites, and you’ll see that they’re streaming many of their events, and that they highlight their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Here’s what I wrote for them. Much, of course, will be familiar to many readers here:

We all know that the classical

music  audience is for the most part old. And sometimes strikingly old.

Just to give one example, listeners to WQXR, New York’s classical radio

station, have a median age of 73, which means that half of them are

older.  

But it wasn’t

always like this.  Many people in classical music believe that the

audience was always the age it is now, but studies from past generations

show that this isn’t true. To give just one example, a survey done in

the 1950s showed that half the audience for orchestra concerts in one

leading city was under 35. Here’s

a link to more data, both studies from past years, and anecdotes

from the past that show the younger audience in all its glory.  

So here’s a question. Why can’t

the audience be young again? We’re facing a crisis here, because the

classical music audience, as it ages, isn’t being replaced. The latest

data from the National Endowment for the Arts shows this very

starkly. (The link goes to a blog post I did on this subject.) Since

1982, the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical performances

has dropped nearly 30%. The only age group that goes as it used to are

people over 65.  

So we need a

younger audience. And that’s where young classical musicians —

including music students — are crucially important. You move in two

worlds at once. You share the wider culture that everyone else your age

is part of. But — unlike most other people yor age — you’re also

deeply involved in classical music. If anyone can bridge the gap between

classical music and the rest of our culture, surely it’s you.  

So here’s what I propose. I don’t

have anything against community outreach, to public schools, or

underserved communities. But why not also look for an audience your own

stage,  an audience of people very much like you? And why not start with

the people you see all around you, every day of the week — other

students at Yale?  

This

might be a radical idea. But I think it’s crucially important, as one

big step in finding a new and younger audience for classical music.

There’s also lots of evidence that the project is possible. In New York,

classical concerts have attracted large younger audiences, for instance

the annual

Bang on a Can marathons, and an

orchestral program on the Wordless Music series.  

And others are trying to make this

happen. This year and next, I’m working at the school of music at the

University of Maryland , to help students develop exactly the kind of

concerts I’m talking about here — concerts that will reach other

students at the College Park campus, students who don’t normally go to

classical performances. We did a kind of pilot project at the National

Orchestral Institute at Maryland last summer (information on it is here,

here,

and here),

and the first

stages of the work this year are really quite exciting.  

This is more than community

outreach. It’s a direct approach to people very much like you, people

who might be your fans and supporters, once you find a way to talk to

them. To do this, we’d need to find completely new kinds of marketing —

viral marketing, guerilla marketing — and promotion. We might also

need to reimagine the way classical concerts are given, as the NOI

students did last summer.  

And if this succeeds, a whole new world might open up. We might

see the rebirth of classical music, as it reconnects to the world

around us, and becomes a vibrant force in our larger culture.  

Some questions:

Is this a crazy idea? Maybe you

think it can’t possibly work. If that’s what you think — and you have

every right to your opinion — what reason would you give? Why do you

think this idea can’t work?  

Why don’t Yale students come to your concerts already? What

obstacles would you have to overcome, to attract these students now?  

What kind of audience do you get

for your performances now? What kind of audience do you expect to have

in the future, as your career develops? What kind of audience — quite

apart from any ideas I’m suggesting — would you like to have?

Do you like the way classical

concerts are given now? If you were free to change classical concerts —

as the students in Maryland will be next year — what changes, if any,

would you want to make?

Some links to further reading:

My blog

on the future of classical music

My book, Rebirth:

The Future of Classical Music, which I’m unfolding bit

by bit online

The syllabus for the graduate

course I teach at Juilliard, called Breaking Barriers: Classical

Music in an Age of Pop, including links to all reading and listening

assignments.

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Comments

  1. says

    Fantastic article. I teach students of all ages strings, and I mix contemporary with traditional. Although I agree with Milton

    Babbit along the line of Who cares if you listen, but I agree that professionals my age (30) can do more to reach out to our age group.

    Thanks, David. On the who cares if you front, I’m on both sides .Artists should follow their inner vision, which isn’t measured by the reaction (or lack of it) that any artist might get. But at the same time, anyone who cares about the health of an artform has to notice where it sits on the cultural spectrum, and any artform that wants only to be in the “I have no audience and I don’t care” corner can’t be very healthy. I’d expect a distribution on the popularity scale in which relatively few artists have no audience (or only an audience of specialists) and thrive that way. (Leaving aside any question of whether this position has the highest quality and the most integrity, or, on the other hand, whether quality and integrity are distributed throughout the popularity spectrum.) Most of the great classical composers, for what it’s worth, very definitely had an audience in their time.

  2. Callum Moncrieff says

    I agree – some great thoughts Greg!

    Something I am always pushing for is for the repertoire to represent a greater cross section of the audience, and of course this is tied in directly to the age of the audience. Many older audience members won’t come to a Shostakovich work because it was written when their tastes had already been decided and it just doesn’t appeal to them. This is the reverse case for me with some of the chamber music programs here in Australia (Musica Viva or the Australian Chamber Orchestra etc). Sometimes all they play is early Romantic or Classical works and this just doesn’t interest me as much as a new work or something from the Twentieth Century rep.

    I am fearful of what will happen as the current audience stops coming to concerts (I was astounded by the median age of the radio station you mentioned!!), and feel that we absolutely must push classical music to the younger generations.

    The West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert was last Friday and the programming was very much along this line of thinking. The very first work was a world premiere by Andrew Ford, commissioned by the Orchestra, this was followed by Debussy’s La Mer and, after the interval, Vaughan-Williams’ Symphony No.1, the Sea Symphony. You can see the connections here immediately but what was welcoming was the lack of standard works like Beethoven 9 or similar. It featured the broader works of symphonic repertoire, further out towards the edges of the boundaries.

    I performed with a group last week called fused in a series at the Fremantle Arts Centre called Soft Soft Loud . This group blends classical stlye and instrumentation with pop and jazz music. There were also two new commissions performed. This is much more of a niche market but I was very pleased to say that I was ‘recognised’ the next evening at the WASO concert. This is great because it means that a member of the classical audience set was interested enough to try out something a little different – if only they were all like this!

    I also think that, like David above, if we can get people who aren’t musicians and that are our own age to come to concerts we can start to fan the fires of a classical music audience revolution!

    Ramble over.

    Great ramble, Callum! Classical music institutions are going to have to change their ways to appeal to a younger audience, and doing more new music is a big part of that.

    Here’s a thought that crossed my mind at a performance of the Verdi Requiem a little while ago. That work was premiered in 1874. Which then brought me back to 1974. I remember what my life was like back then. (Just finishing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music.

    Cut back now to 2010. The Verdi Requiem now is much more than a century old. The works premiered a century before this present year are more like the Rite of Spring

    (OK, the hundredth anniversary of that premiere will be 2013, but that’s close enough.) If we imagine a sort of cone of influence stretching forward 100 years from any date, and helping to define what still might be the norm 100 years later, we’ve now rather definitively moved out of the 19th century, for our musical norms, and into the 20th.

  3. Steve Soderberg says

    Greg, in your summary you lead off with this:

    We all know that the classical music audience is for the most part old. And sometimes strikingly old. Just to give one example, listeners to WQXR, New York’s classical radio station, have a median age of 73, which means that half of them are older.

    There’s a self-editing technique that you might find helpful to avoid these comments that some readers might find unbelievable and possibly offensive. It just takes a little imaginative word substitution. I call it the “How does it feel to wear that shoe?” test (not a very original idea, but it works). When tested, your statement might look like this:

    We all know that the audience for the classical music blogosphere is for the most part old. And sometimes strikingly old. Just to give one example, the readers of the blog “Sandow” have a median age of 73, which means that half of them are older.

    Now, I’m not making that claim (it’s just a how-does-it-feel test, remember), even though it’s plausible that, once you cede the point that the classical music concert audience is aging you really have to acknowledge that only the aged would want to read anything about classical music or its problems — QED as they say. But if I did make that claim, wouldn’t you, at the very least, ask for something more than my word?

    So what I am asking is for a cite to the study that came up with the 73 median age claim for WQXR. Prima facie it sounds absurd to me, unless you inflate the count using unintentional listeners in assisted living facilities. But I’m realistic enough about our culture to brace myself for the unhappy surprise that what you said is verifiably true.

    And if 73 was just a little typo, please make the correction and forget I ever said anything.

    Yes, 73 is correct, though I now understand that the number has softened to merely 72, perhaps because of a small influx of WNYC listeners who hadn’t listened to WQXR before WNYC acquired it.

    The data comes from WNYC’s own studies, as passed on to me by a high-ranking member of their music staff. This person was the one who stressed, almost in disbelief, that when you state a median age, you’re saying that half the audience is older. Couldn’t resist passing on that emphasis, since it’s data that seems to have staggered at least some of the people at WNYC.

    And how about this? They’ve now found out that 1/4 of the WQXR listeners are nonwhite, mostly African-American. No explanation yet of why that’s so.

  4. Steve Soderberg says

    Wrote a response but I forgot to type the recaptcha words so the computer dog ate my entry. I’ll try to recreate later — this is now fascinating.