Classical Music in an Age of Pop

That’s my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, which I teach every spring, on Wednesdays. You can go to the class webpage, and see the full schedule, as well as all the assignments. Which, if you’re interested, or curious, you can do yourself. All the reading and listening can be done online. 

The course this year — at least for me — has been bedeviled by weather. Now that I don’t have a NYC apartment (as one change in my life created by my fulfilling NY-Washington lifestyle), I have to come into the city from my place in the country, about an hour away. And each Wednesday since the course began, there’s been serious snow. Yesterday, I had to rush back to the country as soon as I’d finished teaching — no lunches with friends, no museum visits, no shopping, not even the haircut I ought to get fairly soon. 

And the first week of class, I couldn’t get into the city at all. But that led to something good. Normally I spend part of the first class meeting asking the students why they’re taking the course. It’s a good way to get discussion going, and — maybe best of all — to start to get to know the smart, motivated, interesting people I’m going to be working with for the next few months. 

So since I couldn’t do that in person, I asked the students to email me. And that led to deeper discussions — and, for me, a better sense of who the students are — than we might have had if the class had gone on as scheduled. The next week, when we met in the flesh for the first time, I thought there was a much happier sense of anticipation (certainly for me, and, I’m going to take a leap and say, for the students, too) than there would have been if we’d had the class the previous week. 

We had a good class yesterday. Two guests were there. One was a jazz student at Juilliard, who wants to audit the course. He’s welcome, of course. And the other was my friend Eric Edberg, a cellist who teaches at DePauw University, and who’s in NY this spring on sabbatical. And whose blog is wonderfully rewarding to read. And very much in tune with what I write here. 

Each week, beyond everything that’s in the course curriculum, I plan to pose something for all of us to discuss. This week it grew out of a discussion we’d had last week, on musicians wearing formal dress when they play classical music. We’d discussed the pros (it makes classical music special, can help musicians focus on playing) and the cons (classical music seems odd and archaic). 

So I tried to take that one step further, by asking whether — if musicians are going to wear formal dress — the entire concert should be more formal, with a sense of awe and ritual, and (for sure) no orchestra players sitting onstage at the start, as they normally do in the US, talking and practicing their parts. Which then leads to many other questions — which music, for instance, would a truly formal concert be right for? Surely not a Rossini overture! 

Or would the contrast between high formality and wacky Rossini be weird enough to be fun?

I’ve taught a shorter version of this course at Eastman, and would be happy to do it elsewhere. It could even be adapted for a short visit — I could, for instance, teach it in a week, or even in three days. 

Anyone interested? 

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  1. Jose M. Sanchis says

    Hello Greg,

    I teach Music management in an Arts Management Master for the International University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain, and at the same time I work for the Barcelona Symphony administration. I’ve been following your posts and articles for several years and although I do not agree with some of your points, they have been very useful. My University does not have the resources to invite you over, however, if you ever come to Barcelona I would be very grateful to meet you and introduce you to my students.

  2. Randy Fisher says

    I appreciate the questions of minor differences in dress or presentation, but surely you know these questions have been well-discussed throughout – and before – my 35-year career. Clearly, the many slight differences in presentation have made little impact. I believe that is because the real connections that can be made with the audience are more personal. And these opportunities have been little explored or organized.

    Nice when a conductor talks to an audience – or anyone beyond Board members and donors. But, as in teaching a class, how much difference can be made if what is said is not connected with a thread through other concerts during the season? For deeper, more enduring impact, that thread can be extended to pre- and post-concert offerings and even a series of offerings leading up to the concert.

    We know the power of outcome-based thinking and Eric Booth’s Entry Points – of starting by relating to the common experience of those whom one is addressing.

    I’ve found throughout my career that a tremendous number of concert-goers – even those interested enough to come backstage after a concert – often make astute observations about music, but usually immediately disparage their comments by saying, “But then I don’t know anything about music.” This includes those who come to pre-concert talks, and I’m certain it’s because they get a huge range of information about three pieces at each concert, and rarely anything that builds this information from preceding talks or connects it to subsequent talks. So after many seasons, devoted audience members often feel they’ve not grown in the knowledge and appreciation, for all their investment in attendance – and donations.

    People watch bowling or golf on tv because they know what to expect – and a commentator leads them through the experience. Smart people don’t like to feel ignorant – and I believe this is our most substantial barrier to engaging audiences more deeply. If classical music presenters made a serious effort to welcome and engage their audiences – beyond dress code or staging or the Board President’s ‘thank you’ – they would build enduring relationships with people who care to grow with them.

    It’s a power something like what you discovered in knowing more about your class through their emails, lying just beyond our grasp – and our discussions. As in Michael Kaiser’s book, “The Turnaround” – you’re selling something unique that the organization offers the community, not each individual concert. It’s important to be a major arts organization in a community – it helps attract business, etc. But that’s not in itself offering something unique to the community.

    Symphony Education staff know a lot more about their community than Music Directors and Board members – and the musicians – but have less a voice in planning. What they most have to offer is from working with teachers about how to frame effective presentations, with proven techniques of re-engagement and building knowledge sequentially. Adults learn the same way as kids.

    A decline in attendance is not because the music or program has lost interest, it’s the lack of relationship to underpin the offerings. Most of the 9 professional orchestras in which I’ve played have doubled attendance in a few years at some point – and then halved it again in less time. Is this because of programming, dress or staging?

    30% of your audience are core supporters. The other 70% need a connection to draw them from all their other – less expensive – choices for an evening. What’s our “value-added” to gain their interest? I’m guessing it has little to do with what we wear – though I’d be quite happy to trash my tails!

  3. Christian Michaelson says

    These are great questions that you’re asking your class, and in general, asking on this site. I really think that people need to start to (or continue to) broaden their definition of “classical music.” I’m a huge fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, who have some truly amazing compositions that are very intricate and very exciting. There’s a composer named Silas Durocher who is doing sort of similar stuff. I just read that he’s premiering a “funk symphony” with the Sarasota Orchestra sometime soon. And then of course moving further along the spectrum are ensembles like Alarm Will Sound and the NOW Ensemble. Where does all this stuff fit? And how do formalities like attire, seating arrangments, no standing or dancing at concerts, etc. detract from (or maybe add to?) the experience? Any thoughts?