Breaking out of the ghetto

As I keep saying, people in many places — all over the world — are moving into classical music’s future. Nobody (as I also keep saying) catalogs these wonderful efforts, and so I’m trying to share as many of them as I can here.

The latest — and of course this is a “solutions” post — came in an email from Billy Robin. He’ll take it from here (quoting his message with his permission):

I am a music student at Northwestern, and I can vouch for the ills of audience participation of classical music on campus.  It is nearly impossible to attract non-music majors to School of Music performances at NU, despite an active and vibrant campus life.  For whatever reason, we cannot break out of the “ghetto” of our own performing arts buildings. 

One of the solutions, in effect as of last year, is Northwestern’s now-annual Music Marathon.  Music Marathon is a 26-hour benefit concert featuring student performers and raising money for The People’s Music School, a non-profit in Chicago which provides free lessons for underprivileged youth. Last year we were able to raise over $17,000 for the school, enough to provide over a thousand music lessons.

Because of the unusual length of the concert, as well as involvement from classical, jazz, rock, and a capella groups all around campus (as well as music faculty and local Chicago professionals), Music Marathon attracted a diverse audience last year.  By marketing this is not just a classical event, but a Marathon and fundraiser, we drew on multiple strata of the NU demographic.  This year we hope to do the same.  We opened up registration to all Northwestern students, and have attracted everyone from string quartets to random guys with guitars.

Students sign up for a 15 minute performance slot and pledge to raise $100. However, we also open up donations to anyone who wishes to be involved.  You can donate via Paypal on our website, I would encourage you to post this on your blog, since I think it is a great cause as well as one of the many “solutions” I have worked on (I am a classical saxophonist, musicologist, and president of the NU School of Music student government) for classical music audience involvement.  You can read more about this on my blog here

It’s an entirely student produced, grassroots event–the exact kind of focus classical music needs.  And for the alt-classical viewpoint, I am again leading an ensemble in a midnight performance of In C (last year we did it at 2:30AM, with a huge crowd in the audience).

The moral of this story: to break classical music out of its ghetto, do something special, something really notable, and mix classical music in with other genres, so it registers as part of everybody’s normal life. This isn’t the only way to break out, but it’s a good one.

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  1. Bob Yesselman says

    This is a wonderful idea and a worthy effort. I wonder however, if there is any tracking of how many marathon attendees attend subsequent classical music performances? Is an audience being built?

  2. says

    I wish, but we don’t have the infrastructure. But I think that’s my point, and one that Greg’s made before too: it’s not all about audience building or sustaining a subscription-based dedication to classical music. It’s about creating individual, special events that appeal to a broad swath of demographics. Earlier this year we were presenting jazz concerts at our student union as a way to advertise for performances in our concert hall; but we didn’t get any new audience for the larger concerts. And then I realized, why not just host these free concerts at Starbucks for themselves? Why not build an audience for these events in themselves, in a venue where people will always be and always enjoy them? Sometimes, especially in the setting of a college campus when everyone has something fun to do every night of the week, you have to bring the mountain to Mohammad.

  3. says

    There’s a earthshaking idea in there, that in order to be part of people’s everyday lives classical music should come out of its concert halls and out on the street where people live. I’m reminded of the folks who take that literally—the street and subway musicians, many of them quite good, that grace New York when the weather’s warm.

    But “the street” is really TV and the Internet, isn’t it? (Just as well—you can’t really fit an orchestra on a subway platform.) I suppose you could have classical musicians as guests on Letterman.

  4. says

    Awesome idea. You are so right in that for classical music to be relevant in today’s world we have to adjust and approach it differently than we have in the past. Progress hasn’t magically skipped over the musical world and I applaud all who are able to creatively create an appreciation for classical music in a society where most kids’ exposure to it is limited to TV commercials and movie soundtracks!

  5. Edward Proffitt says

    I am a well-published writer (check Amazon) looking for a classical composer to collaborate on a libretto I have recently finished. Entitled “Orenthal” (the “O” in O.J.Simpson), it is in two acts and calls for a wide range of music, from rap to full orchestral duets, octets,

    choruses, etc. What can I do to find a composer? Any suggestions?

    Ed Proffitt

  6. jj says


    There are several websites that you can try out to connect with a composer ( and are two that come to mind). If you see a composer doing things that you like in a similar vein, you can try to contact them directly and see if they are interested. There are also independent opera companies across the globe that are currently doing some very interesting projects and may be able to hook you up with a composer. Good luck!

  7. Tomoboe says

    To David – In years gone by, classical music and artists were a mainstay of TV. Many classical artists have performed on The Tonight Show and Letterman, etc. That still goes on to a small extent. But I remember growing up with the Huntly Brinkly Report, ABC’s nightly national news show. The theme music was the scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. NBC had regular opera broadcasts, CBS had Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and Omnibus. My point is, classical music used to be far more prevalent in “the street” of mainstream entertainment. So what happened? Is it less so now because someone had the idea to ghettoize it or was it ghettoized because people simply weren’t interested?

    It turned into a niche activity, in the media, because people weren’t interested. And, on the other hand, were more interested in other things. I once surveyed Time magazine’s music coverage in the ’80s. In 1980 Time ran two pieces about classical music for every piece about pop. By 1990, the proportions had reversed. It wasn’t long after that Time stopped having a classical critic.

    That’s just one example of the large-scale cultural shift — as it relates to classical music — that’s gone on since the 1950s.