More trouble with outreach

Why can't we get a young audience?On Twitter I got a passionate objection to my previous post, in which I said that outreach and education — as a focus for all of us in classical music — should be replaced by a direct and passionate search for a larger, younger audience.

The objection, from a terrific musician in the alt-classical world, was that by going into schools, and otherwise reaching younger people,

we can show that being passionate about something, anything really – can change your life. It’s about setting an example of passion-driven learning and hard work – and that could be done through arts, sports, anything.

I’d love him to post this (and more) here as a comment. And how wonderfully his passion is burned into his words.

So i think it’s important to say that I’m not against outreach. But when students at music schools are encouraged to go into schools and minority communities, while nothing is said or done about reaching an audience of people like them — their own age, their own demographic — then something is wrong.

Why? Because we need that audience. We used to have it. Up through the 1960s, the audience for classical music was no older than the population at large. In one study, done in 1955, a major orchestra found that half is audience was under 35. (See my blog sidebar on the age of the audience for details.)

When our audience started to age, it started to shrink. We need to rebuild it, and one way to start is for young classical musicians to market themselves to people their own age — people who in so many ways are just like them (and are their friends), the only difference being that the people we need to market to don’t yet listen to classical music.

If we don’t do this, classical music may well die, because its audience will disappear. No amount of outreach or education can fix that. And if we want to do outreach to instill the values and passion the musician on Twitter so eloquently wrote about, then even more do we need to build up our audience. The bigger our audience, the bigger an impact we’ll have on the world at large, and the better we’ll be positioned to do whatever work with kids seems most important to us.

And the same is true about reach minorities. If we found a young, excited new audience — and it was as multiethnic as the audience for hit TV shows — then we’d have changed the complexion (pun intended) of classical music more than we ever will by going into minority schools. And, again, if we do want to go into minority schools (and we should), we’ll be far better positioned to do that.

So why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we finding ways to reach the audience of people just like us, who don’t happen to listen to classical music? (And it’s not just people in their 20s we need to reach. I know people in their 40s, classical music professionals, who say that no one they know of their own age is going to classical concerts.)

The most basic reason, I think, is quite simple. We don’t believe we can do it. We don’t believe these people can be reached. We think the classical audience will always be what we see now — older people, 60 and over, well off (for the most part), and wedded, with so much love, to the standard classical repertoire.

But if that’s true, we’re dead, because this audience isn’t being renewed. Younger people — even those in their 50s — aren’t joining it. Studies done by the NEA showed that in every age group (except those 65 and above), the percentage of people who go to classical concerts is dropping. If you believe that the audience always will be what it is now, then you also believe (if you follow the implications of your belief) that it’s going to be smaller, and that it may someday vanish.

And why don’t you believe that we can find a younger audience?

I’ll address that tomorrow or Wednesday.

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  1. Mark Lindeman says

    Greg, as you know, I don’t think of myself as a classical music guy. In fact, I am one of those problem people, one of those who has treated classical music much the same way as some parents treat religious services, as something that is good to do for a while for the sake of the kids. This despite the fact that I almost always really enjoy classical music performances, and love to sing it. I just can’t seem to silence the voice in my brain that says that Classical Music is for people who like to dress up — it’s a wholesome influence, perhaps, the very antithesis of an intoxication. Classical Music is to be performed properly and correctly for proper, correct audiences.

    Perhaps it’s from this background that I found myself both cheering and intensely frustrated by your previous post on the trouble with outreach. I’m still puzzled. Here you paraphrase your previous argument: “outreach and education — as a focus for all of us in classical music — should be replaced by a direct and passionate search for a larger, younger audience.” Getting into the schools _should be part_ of the direct and passionate search for a younger audience. It’s in schools that I learned that Shakespeare was writing for an audience of real people, not for “the ages” or just the literati, and that his work makes more sense that way. Honestly, and I’m not proud of this at all, but if someone had taught me that about classical music, I’m fairly sure that I would think about classical concerts with the same anticipation I bring to Shakespeare.

    I suspect that the trouble with outreach isn’t exactly that classical musicians aren’t reaching out to people “like them — their own age, their own demographic” — although there may be something to that. I think that, regardless of the ages involved, “outreach” and “education” tend to fail when they come with a strong whiff of condescending moral uplift, which is almost inherent in the words. Regardless of age, the message is that the outreachee can aspire to become more like the outreacher. And that can work: people do learn to like things that they associate with higher status, for instance. But a message with broader appeal is: “This is amazing, this will blow you away”; by implication, we already have that in common.

    So it makes sense to me that you’re shifting the question to “people just like us.” I don’t think that’s mostly a matter of age. It has to do with whether enjoying classical music is aspirational or natural.

    • says

      Mark! What a pleasure to see you here!

      I certainly agree with your next to last paragraph. Reminds me of something Stravinsky said, which someone recently quoted to me — about music appreciation efforts teaching people to respect classical music, but not to love it.

      And as for “the strong whiff of condescension,” I fear we have that far too often. People believe that no one can appreciate classical music without being educated to do so. So the education effort starts with an unspoken premise, something like, “You don’t know enough yet to appreciate this music that you ought to like. So we’re going to teach you.” Translation: We’re better than you are.

      The difference between education and the more direct appeal to an audience that I’m advocating — first, it’s a matter of how long each effort will take. If education really could produce a new classical music audience, it’ll take a generation. Whereas the efforts I’m talking about can produce results right now.

      Second, it’a a matter of what we can actually influence, and where, therefore, we might want to put our efforts. Can we get classical music education instituted in all of our schools? How will we generate the political will, at all levels of government, to make that happen? Where will the money for it come from?

      I’d say our chances of succeeding are very small. Whereas the effort I’m advocating is something we can do on our own, right now, without waiting to win over local school boards in 50 states. So I’d think it’s a better way to spend our time, money, and energy.

      • says

        “Second, it’a a matter of what we can actually influence, and where, therefore, we might want to put our efforts. Can we get classical music education instituted in all of our schools? How will we generate the political will, at all levels of government, to make that happen? Where will the money for it come from? ”

        Then’s the the issue of what kind of music education to fund, right? The Bay Area Chinese American population has done a fantastic job of getting music education into their schools–but traditional Chinese music education. They’ve built up a system of feeder programs at the k-5 level that funnels into the handful of traditional Chinese Youth Orchestras, that eventually funnel into the 20 or so traditional Chinese Orchestras and ensembles which populate the Bay Area.

        It’s a population that isn’t very interested in getting violins, clarinets or tympani taught in the schools since those instruments and other Western instruments have next to nothing to do with the erhus, pipas, and guzhengs which make up the traditional Chinese Orchestra. Similar infrastructural changes can be seen happening in other regions of the us with densely populated ethnic groups.

        The thing is all of them are actually going the education and outreach route and I think some of the reason for this is these groups understand that this country isn’t necessarily conducive to playing non-Western Classical or Pop, so they’ve been building practically from scratch in some cases for decades. The one recent exception being the New York Arabic Orchestra–just four years old and they’re getting ready to hold their first fundraiser to help build an Arabic Music School in New York.

        • says

          Very interesting, Jon. And of course you raise a key question. If we want to see music education in all our schools, what kind of music education should it be?

          The idea of having universal classical music education strikes me as culturally blind. (A less polite term would be “racist.”) We have a tremendously diverse culture, and a tremendously diverse musical history. Kids in school have very little idea of the history of American music. They don’t know anything about jazz and blues, for instance. The students I teach at Juilliard are perfect examples. They’re educated musicians, and they know hardly anything about jazz or blues, which means they don’t know some of the deepest music ever created. And — for the American students — their own country’s music, too.

          We have to honor all of our musical heritage, in any music education we do. Which, as you’ve so eloquently pointed out many times here, Jon, means all the world’s musical heritage.

          • says

            Maybe ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘Anglocentric’ might be more kind!

            Yes, kids in school have next to no idea of the history of American music–and to be honest, music students in conservatories and universities in the states also know next to nothing outside of the few canonical American composers. But I think that even in educational contexts, there’s a very selective bias going on with regards to what might get included in courses on the history of American music. This, even in those programs or courses that do focus specifically on American music history.

            For example, take a look at the past century–we might talk about Jazz, Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway from the earlier half of the 1900s, but what little discussion of Country usually gets relegated as a footnote leading up to the career of Elvis and Rock and Roll. And no one discusses the 5 Chinese Opera companies in operation, for example, in New York City during the depression era following the Asian exclusion act.

            I just saw a fabulous show some months ago by Jewish Cowboy, Scott Gerber, that completely shatters some of our cherished stereotypes of American Jews. His mission is to basically tell in song the story of his people in this wonderfully odd mixture of Yiddish and Cowboy folk tunes. I think that we’re finding more and more ethnic minorities wanting to reach out in the US in ways that the mainstream has been doing–and this applies to both the Art music as well as the popular music sides and I think this is wonderful.

            I think there’s been this sharp divide between mainstream American genres (e.g. Classical, Rock, Jazz, Pop) and the ease with which they get propagated through American culture and what we might call underground American ethnic genres which usually got transmitted through the relatively closed (to outsiders) inter-community and intra-community networks.

            And if these ethnic minorities are anything like the generation I grew up with, the constant pressure of only being surrounded by the mainstream Classical and Pop only made it more difficult for us to integrate easily–usually we just give up our familial motherland traditions and ease ourselves into being classical or rock musicians unless there happens to be a big enough local population that can sustain a non-mainstream genre.

            I think the changing infrastructure of American music is becoming a little bit more favorable for the non-mainstream musics and that is part of the problem for things like Classical music and stadium Rock concerts which the NEA study has shown have had a decline in audience participation at ‘benchmark events!’

  2. says

    I’ve been thinking about your last post on this subject quite a bit (which was probably your intention).

    The thing I keep coming back to is something that Rick Rodgers discussed in his 2001 report on arts participation in the UK, Creating a Land with Music. His study showed a strong positive correlation between people who participated in an art-form and its audience. And it makes sense: if you’re interested in doing something as an amateur, you have a much more immediate and complex interest in how experts do your thing. Because it’s yours already. (And conversely, people get involved in amateur arts by seeing a performance and thinking, ‘I want to do that!’)

    So I’m wondering if the idea of building audiences is a distraction from the real work of attracting participants. You don’t see sports clubs selling their interest by saying, ‘hey come and watch other people doing this!’, they want people to come along and take part.

    And of course, developing enough skill at either music or a sport to feel some sense of ownership over its experts takes a good deal of time and tuition. So my worry about outreach/community programmes (at least in the forms I’ve met them over in the UK – I realise this may not entirely generalise elsewhere) is that they are tokenistic – presenting enough of the material that people can say such-and-such group has had access to the art, but without any actual commitment to offering enough to be usable.

    This is resonating in some slightly jangly ways with a post I wrote recently about stereotypical ways that people associated repertories with social identities:

    I haven’t quite worked out where this thought is heading, so please forgive me posting it in this somewhat inchoate form. I’ll probably figure out what I really think about the middle of next June ;-)

    • says

      Hi, Liz,

      I think you made your points clearly! Theae are difficult issues, very hard to sort out. So it’s no surprise to me when I think it’ll take me until next June to get clear about them. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good discussion to be had along the way.

      We have similar data in the US, about arts attendance and participation. But I think it’s too hasty to say that a correlation shows us anything about causation. my understanding of how classical music functioned, at least in the US, in past generations, was that listening to classical music and playing classical instruments came from the same source. Classical music was a normal, thriving part of the general culture, with an audience of all ages. So naturally people listened to it, went to concerts, took piano lessons. Naturally classical music was taught in schools.

      If we look beyond the arts, the correlation you cite pretty much disappears. Most of the people who go to the movies don’t make movies. Most if the people who write novels don’t write fiction. Bebop, in the 1950s, became big among artists, intellectuals, and the beats, even though few of those people played jazz. The rock explosion of the ’60s happened before it was common for kids in high school to play in rock bands. In fact, kids started playing in bands so widely because listening to rock had so widely exploded.

      Which, when you think of it, sounds like the normal course of events. Surely, as a general rule of life, people start learning how to do something because they’re already interested. I’m not saying that things can’t happen the other way. But common sense would seem to say that participation is far more likely to come as a result of attendance, rather than attendance coming as a result of participation.

      • says

        Hi Greg,

        Yes, point taken that correlation isn’t the same as causation, and indeed that the causal arrow often seems to point the other way. As Lucy Green documents, listening and copying is how popular musicians learn their craft:

        The other idea that was floating round my head waiting for something to connect to it was Arnie Cox’s theory of musical meaning as covert mimesis:
        He makes a reasonably convincing case for the role of mirror neurons in making sense of music as heard; i.e. that listening and participation are neurologically much more similar activities than the social situations in which we do each would make them look. Indeed, if you watch small children listening to live music in situations where there is room to move around, the mimesis is often very overt. And Mark Iacoboni (in ‘Mirroring People’, p. 217) makes the point that mirror neurons respond more strongly to something in which we are expert than those we don’t know how to do ourselves.

        So, yes, there is a circularity in the audience-participation relationship. Which is why, as you say, audiences looked like the general population when people learned classical music as a matter of course. And why I continue to worry that a focus just on the audience-building end of the dyad without also working on building participation could see a lot of that effort dissipated. Audience-building isn’t just a matter of increasing numbers, it’s also about fostering the pleasures of connoisseurship.

        And I’m not sure I agree that the correlation between participation and consumption disappears outside music (not least because Rodgers’ study demonstrated it elsewhere – I particularly remember dance as another example). It may simply be that the level of accomplishment achieved is such that it is not much shared for public consumption. Until youtube, we mostly didn’t see what other people were doing with their home movie equipment…

        • says


          I appreciate the research you cite, and in many ways it’s fascinating.

          May I be forgiven, though, if I say that we might, here, be getting more complicated than we need to get? There’s so much fine writing — not scientific writing, not talking about neurons, but instead talking about old-fashioned subjective experience — about the joy of loving music. I might cite, for instance, passages about jazz in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I assign one of them in my course on music criticism, so I can link to it: Or else the famous passage about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Forster’s Howard’s End (which I also assign: Forster, I’m sure, played the piano at least a little, as his characters would have. Kerouac never played jazz (though after he got famous, he’d sometimes recite poems while jazz musicians played).

          My point, though, is that both writers penetrate deeply into the music without in any way reflecting a knowledge of it that could come from formal participation. Instead, what they do — if I may speak naively — is open their minds and hearts, and participate purely in listening, in a whole-hearted way. Anyone can do this. You just have to love the music enough to try. I’ve seen people with no training in classical music, no participation in it, do exactly the same thing, reacting orally.

          To be honest, I’m wary about thinking that “we” need to ensure anything about the way people listen or participate. There’s something George Bernard Shaw wrote, in his days as a music critic, that I’ve long loved:

          What we want is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim.

          Shaw, of course, was talking about a larger issue here. There had been calls, in the 1890s (when he wrote this) to provide “music for the people,” and Shaw, responding to larger social needs, said that if people had decent lives, they could take care of their musical needs themselves.

          But a similar principle applies here. We’re talking about how people can get the chance to be excited about classical music, and suddenly, on top of that, we find ourselves worrying about what the nature of that excitement should be. I’ll trust people here. If they get excited about the music, they themselves will figure out what they need to know about. And if there’s something essential that we can tell them, they’ll ask us for it themselves. Or be glad to let us provide it, once they know it’s there.

          We’ve seen, since the 1960s, the greatest musical revolution the world has ever known, the creation of new kinds of music, one after another, from rock & roll itself right through hiphop and the most advanced forms of dance music, all created by the people themselves (or, to be more precise, by a dazzling array of subgroups of people). And of course the revolution had begun before the ’60s, with blues, jazz, gospel music, bluegrass, country music, Broadway musicals, and many other forms of popular music. The revolution I’m talking about was the sweep of this people-created music into worldwide dominance.

          If people can do all that for themselves — and with such dazzling power and subtlety — I’m happy to trust them with classical music, to use however they like. (In fact, they’re already doing that. As is shown by the many ways classical music has been used in pop. For an out of the box example, listen to Josephine Foster, a folksinger, sing German lieder:

      • says

        Actually Greg, and I might be mistaken about this, but didn’t the NEA data show a higher correlation between producers of art and ‘entertainment’ and consumers of it? Or maybe that was something in Richard Florida’s book? I’m not saying it’s causation one way or the other, but I think that there tends to be at least a higher percentage of producers that make up consumer groups of any particular art or entertainment.

  3. says

    Dear Greg,

    I vote goes to programs like the Venezuelan based “El Sistema”, which goes way beyond looking for audiences, to creating musicians. It does so much good for the kids to actually play and sing. Even the old fashioned notion of teaching the kids recorder resulted in fewer scholastic problems with the basics of reading and math.

    Based on motivation people will fall into elite, moderate and poor performers, but they will all gain from the exposure. And lots of them will become butts on seats.

    We need people to become more active in music. In the prisons that have used music education, whether playing or sing, there is less recidivism and more enrollment in courses that enable people to get better jobs upon release. This speaks volumes about music’s ability to change lives, and yes a good many will become appreciative audience members.

    • says


      With all respect, I vote for hiphop over El Sistema for one key reason. El Sistema was brought into troubled communities from the outside, and — no matter how much people in classical music might value it — has had almost no influence on world culture. Hiphop, by contrast, was developed by people who live in troubled communities, became both a strikingly new form of art and (eventually) a multi-billion dollar business, transforming both world culture and the lives of the people who created it.

      Of course, some people in classical music may think hiphop is bad, shallow, or even dangerous. But they might ask themselves how much they really know about it. I’d suggest they read Dan Charnas’s definitive book on hiphop history, published last year, and prepare to be astounded. I myself was astounded, and I thought I knew that history, and had even (in a small way, believe me) been part of it.

      In closing, let me ask a blunt question. Is anyone willing to state, categorically, that kids from poor black communities are incapable of creating art on ther own?

      • richard says

        Ah yes, the death knell for instrumentalists. Hip-Hoppers don’t need players, they have machines to do that (synths). If we’re lucky, maybe we instrumentalists can accompany them in the background and pick up our paychecks. Of course, a jazz based “El Sistema” would be wonderful, but it is harder to play a horn than rap.
        Anyway, it’s old white peoples music. I wonder what wouid pop music be like if the whole human race was struck dumb.

        • says


          I’m sorry you want to ridicule a musical that might not lie precisely in the center of your comfort zone, or your best area of expertise.

          When hiphop started, the only machines used were two turntables, and the most basic kind of mixer, allowing output to switch from one turntable to the other. The early hiphop DJs put two copies of an LP on the two turntables, and picked out short passages to sample, repeating them over and over by moving the needle back to the start of the passage, and, while it played, switching to the other turntable to move the needle on that one back.

          The virtuosity involved here — and of course they’d use more than one sample from each LP — was staggering. And entirely new. Th virtuosity of the rhymes could be staggering, too. (Good outstanding relatively early proof of that: Eric B. and Rakim.)

          Synths were a relatively late entry in hiphop history, since at first hiphop records (which came some time after live hiphop emerged) used samples as their instrumental tracks. Sometimes the samples could be used in complex ways. The great Public Enemy songs are built from countless tiny samples, lasting just a couple of seconds each, in some cases, layered on each other in complicated ways. I once watched a sample-based recording being made in an LA recording studio. Much simpler than Public Enemy, but nobody should discount the skill involved. A new kind of skill, I’d stress, something beyond the skill sets of people who play live instruments, or compose for them.

          By now, of course, hiphop uses the full range of sound production available in all pop music. If you think, though, that synths simplify things, or that they’re used blankly or mechanically, or that they make it unnecessary to have any musical skill, I can only suggest that (as I’ve done) you acquaint yourself in some detail with how they’re used in pop music creation, and then try to do it yourself. I can’t speak for what your experience might then be, but I was humbled. One thing that’s numbingly obvious: Synths aren’t used to replace live instrumentalists, but to help create sounds and textures that live instrumentalists can’t create.

          A worthy exercise, for anyone: Take an up to date synthesizer, and program it to make a new sound not included in the banks of sounds provided by the manufacturer. Again, I can’t speak for the experience of everyone who might try this, but when I did this, I was faced with an almost limitless range of creative possibilities. Professionals who program synths would probably agree with what I’m about to say (though they’re better at this programming, by far, than I am): To create a hackneyed or uninteresting new sound takes only a few minutes. To create a striking, creative new one can take an hour or more.

          I recommend Dan Charnas’s book (Google it) on the history of hiphop, for anyone who cares to learn what hiphop really has been.

          • says

            “When hiphop started, the only machines used were two turntables, and the most basic kind of mixer,”

            If I remember correctly Greg, the early mixers did not even have a cross fader. I think it was Grandmaster Flash, an electrician by trade, who looked inside and realised the mechanism was simple and could be customised. Maybe this is why the ‘baby scratch’ was so common – listen to Herbie Hancock’s Rockit with Grand Mixer DST to hear a popular example.
            Turntablism is really difficult as you have said. I have scratched live and on tracks and I had to practise like mad just to do the basic things I needed to do – and I studied classical piano!

          • says

            I’m sure you’re right, Ian. I may have forgotten this detail. The early hiphop DJs weren’t exactly rolling in money, and two turntables would have stretched them financially. A mixer might have been more than they could afford.

            A striking, rather lovely detail in Charnas’s history: In 1977, there was a blackout in New York. Accompanied, more or less inevitably, by looting. In the South Bronx, what was looted from electronics stores was, above all, turntables and mixers. So kids could go out and be DJs. That contributed quite a lot to the spread of hiphop.

  4. says

    One of the most interesting discussions of popular culture–and one with a whole chapter on popular music–was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. It is worth looking at because it was written at a time when the tsunami of popular music had not long before washed over the culture. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the odds of classical music winning back a younger audience, Bloom’s analysis is interesting.

    I discuss it at some length here:

  5. says

    Hello again Greg,

    I have spent a good part of the past few days thinking about all these ideas and in a few cases talking about them with some of my students. One of the thoughts that keeps coming to my mind, especially as you mentioned American Idol, is that there has been a few forays into the lives and psyches of younger audiences by classical artists in the past few years. I think about the remarkable popularity among the younger generation (albeit on a far smaller scale) of the Ahn Trio. And on a larger scale one only needs to look at the rockstar-like popularity of Eric Whitacre. What is it that they understand that others seem to miss? I think that it comes back to the unabashed passion and love that they show toward their craft and their muse. At the same time I found myself wondering which heading you felt they would fall under; educators or “searchers?

    • says


      I love your thoughts here. But — just so we correctly place classical music in its larger cultural context — Eric Whitacre (along with John Rutter) certainly has hit a vein of popular delight that most classical composers never get near. But I’d be cautious about calling it “rockstar-like.” It might feel that way, inside the classical music world. But there’s a simple measure of pop-star popularity, and that’s the number of recordings they sell, as recorded on the Billboard pop charts. These charts aren’t closed to classical music. Van Cliburn’s recording of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto did very well on the pop album chart, back in the day, and (in the ’90s) so did the original Three Tenors album and a Gregorian chant recording, And, more recently, Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach album for Sony reached at least the lower regions of the Billboard Top 200.

      But Eric Whitacre, to my knowledge, hasn’t cracked this chart. And certainly hasn’t reached the top levels of it, where the rock stars live. Sorry if I seem pedantic here, but I think that we in classical music live, to some extent, in a closed world, where we don’t clearly see what happens in the rest of our culture. I’m trying to adjust that, to whatever extent I can.

  6. Sasha Hnatkovich says

    How about we worry about general music education rather than one that is Euro-centric classical music centered?

    I recently worked for an orchestra and learned two lessons that will make you and other advocates of classical music very sad: 1) that I am no fan of it (and probably never will be), and 2) that we over fund the sh*t out it. Why? Seriously. I don’t understand why this music, which has a largely white, elderly, wealthy audience get sooo much arts funding (besides the fact that it requires an absurd number of people on stage most of the time.. don’t get me wrong, they are [usually] very talented musicians). Why, for example, are we (i.e. tax payers) in the Bay Area funding one “big box” orchestra (which does great work by the way, even if I find their concerts so boring I want to cry), at least ten city/county orchestras, two period instrument orchestras, at least two contemporary music chamber groups and so many chamber music vanity projects I can’t even remember them all. All of these groups are having trouble filling their houses (no matter how small) unless they are playing seasonal fare or have a celebrity soloist, and definitely can’t fill them with any diversity that matches general public around them. They definitely divide a reasonable pot o’ donation gold into too small portions all around. And, worst of all, few of these organizations have any education programs that make any deep impact, if any at all.

    I say give up the ghost, consolidate or die. And don’t force the kids to learn outmoded music they have no interest in. I might have stuck with the trumpet and other brass instruments had I not been forced to learn dreadful classical and marching band tunes and had a better teacher say: hey! check out these jazz! swing! big band! funk! ska! mariachi! hip-hop! rock! arrangements with… yup… trumpet.

    I am in the life long process of learning guitar. More relevant to my likes, even played in punk band briefly. If you want kids to learn an instrument (which we should), make it relevant to them. This has something to do with what is called a “feedback loop” – be exposed, get involved, get more exposure, get more involved (all with positive encouragement and constructive criticism of course). Check out Wired’s recent article about feedback loops and behavior.

    These days, much of the better independent “pop” music is about hybridization, here are some of my current favorites: Tunng combines electronics with traditional folk music, Explosions in the Sky composes for rock instruments in a way very reminiscent of older classical works and Hauschka uses prepared piano to compose music that is percussive and reminiscent of electronic music (and has used electronics), etc. etc. In other words, when we look to the future of music GENERAL MUSICAL EDUCATION is much more important than one that is centered in one style of music.

    If a kid learns to love Mozart or Beethoven or Stravinsky or Wagner or Mahler or Cage, awesome, if not, don’t force him or her to. That kid may not be the next Dudamel, but they may be the next Ozzy, Ellington, Selena, Ga Ga, B.B. King, Beyonce, Hank Williams, Mongolian throat singer, whatever. Music is about taste. Some have different taste than you, the classical music advocate. And, Euro-centric classical music, may just not be in taste these days. Sorry.

    • says


      Thanks. I love every word you’ve written here. I feel a little more optimistic than you do about the possibility of people liking classical music now, but where we start — in any effort to get more listeners — is with what you wrote. That’s the world we live in. We need to understand that (a) classical music doesn’t, as it’s presently presented, speak to the world we live in (b) many people may never like it, and (c) nobody is required to like it. Once we understand these truths, we can start making our case, in the most human and direct way possible, without any of the pomp and snobbery we’ve seen too much of in the past.

      I agree with you very strongly about overfunding. How — with money so short, the economy in such bad shape, and a multicultural society in full bloom (with a nonwhite majority shortly to come) — can we keep taking such a large part of our resources to fund something with such a limited audience?

      • says

        I think this is a bit related to what we were discussing above in this post, Sasha. But I think that in come ways, the whole idea of teaching music in the classroom is also Eurocentric. And that’s a discussion we never really get into in the US and Europe (for obvious reasons) but had been the object of debate as many countries start to adopt a more Western-centric educational system.

        I think those debates can be helpful in this discussion if only because there are so many levels to consider and so many case studies throughout the non-Western world that can show the conceit of the idea of a general music education program and how such a program can profoundly alter how music is produced and valued.

    • richard says

      Sorry you had such a bad trumpet experience, so why didn’t you study with a good jazz player, or was trumpet not “Hip” enough for you? I’m a band teacher, I show my kids blues progressions, but showing them how to solo, that’s a different story altogether. I’ll teach a few riffs. but sophisticated, creative jazz making is more than stringing together a few riffs and trading 8s. (I do work with my private students on improvization). There just isn’t the time during the school day to do this and myband kids (4th through 8th). don’t have the chops.

    • says

      Hi Sasha,

      I’m going to strongly agree with a couple of things you say, and, respectfully, disagree with some others. Thanks for putting forth, clearly and strongly, your argument–one that many people share.

      Here is where we agree: I too think it is unjust that taxpayers, especially in California where there are serious funding problems for basic public services, be forced to pay for cultural institutions that they may have no taste for. I also agree when you say “don’t force the kids to learn outmoded music they have no interest in.”

      You say that you are “in the life long process of learning guitar.” Me, too. I have played guitar for 45 years. The first few I played electric bass in rock bands, then acoustic six string in Bob Dylan-type material, then I was struck by lightening and have devoted the last forty years to the classical guitar. I have been a classical guitar teacher for the last thirty-five years. I have never accepted a student who was forced to take lessons. Usually I have auditioned students and accepted those that seemed to have the most aptitude and interest. I find myself teaching harmony, counterpoint and composition more and more as my own interests shift from performance to composition. I give this brief precis just to give you some context.

      But here is where I have to disagree. I think that music education has to have a focus on music at the core–not diversity, not hybridization. It has to be grounded in both the history of music and in an awareness of what quality is. I write this not from any ideological position, but from experience. One of the wisest things I have ever heard said about composition was from Arnold Schoenberg. Pointing to the eraser end of a pencil he told a composition student, “this end is more important than the other end’” Why? Because when you compose you churn out passages both good and bad and it is only your sense of musical quality that can drive you back to erase the bad ones.

      A sense of musical quality has to come from both listening, playing and study. The, as you call it, “Euro-centric” tradition has the intellectual and aesthetic foundations and tools to understand music that other traditions lack. Jon Silpayamanant and I have been having a discussion on my blog about the notation of Turkish music and one of the things that came out was that it derived from ancient Greek notation, passed through the Armenian church and has been replaced by modern Western notation (perhaps with the loss of some elements). The Euro-centric tradition has contributed two things to music that are absolutely fundamental and were discovered in no other musical tradition. These are a system of notation that accurately captures counterpoint, harmony and rhythm and the invention of counterpoint itself.

      You end by saying:

      “Music is about taste. Some have different taste than you, the classical music advocate. And, Euro-centric classical music, may just not be in taste these days. Sorry.”

      Yes, very true. But where does taste come from? Is it shaped by whatever is being broadcast today? Is it simply a result of random listening? Is it based exclusively on what has been created in the last ten years? Or six months? Can taste be developed? How would you do that? Lots of questions come to mind.

      These are questions that I pose and try to answer on my blog. Here are some recent posts that get into these kinds of questions:

      • says

        Bryan, I just noticed and responded to your latest question at your blog and since we’re talking about notation systems and education through any particular (in this case the Western Classical) tradition, I thought I’d elaborate a bit here on what I said there.

        The Euro-centric tradition has contributed two things to music that are absolutely fundamental and were discovered in no other musical tradition. These are a system of notation that accurately captures counterpoint, harmony and rhythm and the invention of counterpoint itself.

        I’m assuming that by ‘accurately captures counterpoint’ you mean maybe that in actually score form the counterpoint is relatively transparent? Obviously individual parts would give us no better sense of the counterpoint in a work than just performing a line without music. It’s the score, as a system to show all the various lines synchronously that allows us to see that. Obviously two lines can be shown in just one stave, and I think that’s just a reflection of the hierarchic nature of Western notation that the full score for more than a few voices is also an expansion of–so yes, harmony and counterpoint co-evolved with the staff notation in the West.

        But I think there are other ways of showing complex musical ideas in ways that the staff notation is inadequate for–the microtonal complexity found in the musics we’re discussing at your blog is incredibly difficult to notate without unintuitive extensions in the notation and I think that’s why a number of proponents of Byzantine and other Eastern notation systems agree that a notation system that describes pitch relations relative to the preceeding note is much more useful for realization through reading than using the Western staff and adding in up to a dozen extra symbols for non-standard accidentals. You would have a very small range of symbols to read that would denote, say, a quarter-tone above the previous pitch or a whole tone below the previous pitch, etc. Many Greek Orthodox churches still use and teach Byzantine notation for their choirs (though in the US this is becoming less common).

        While a modified Western notation system has been adopted in the Middle East, in China it has been abandoned in favor of jianpu, which is basically a number notation system. Since the range of most traditional Chinese instruments is much narrower than modern Western ones, the need for staff notation which can show the full range of pitches available is cumbersome in realization through performance. Having a smaller range of symbols to read is much more practical and in many ways much more intuitive (I do actually find it easier to read jianpu than Western notation when I play my erhu–and I’m not even trained in that system of reading). So for the Bay Area Chinese I mentioned above, their notation system fits in perfectly well with their traditional Chinese Orchestra program and switching to a Western notation system would prevent them from easily reading nearly a century’s worth of traditional Chinese Orchestra repertoire.

        There are actually more and more studies demonstrating musical style acquisition–so many of these follow along the lines of research being done in early language acquisition and the tools, techniques and battery of tests to show attention to certain aural qualities that have been developed in the service of the latter. And Diana Deutsch has been doing research for decades that demonstrates some profound connections between certain languages and the ability to hear certain musical qualities. Other studies have also suggested that linguistic prosodic elements like the rhythm of a language is highly correlated with the types of rhythmic structures found in the bodies of the musical oeuvre found in the language speaker’s country. So there might be proclivities for learning certain types of musics and rhythms dependent on the mother-tongue of the individual which can have profound effects on how easily certain types of music systems can be learned in a population. It’s only a hop, step and skip from there to discussing how taste is created!

  7. Eddie S. says

    It’s funny that this article happened to pop up right now.

    I’m a college student enrolled in a required speech program, which requires us to pick a general problem to address and then create structured speeches revolving around that problem. My topic focuses on preserving the diminishing art form that is classical music, quite similarly to how you are doing so on your blog.

    My next speech happens to be a motivational speech, where I attempt to convince my audience (general college students) that classical music is both a genre that should be preserved, as well as enjoyed by the masses. Therefore, I’m directly reaching out to my fellow peers that have little to no background information on classical music.

    I’m interested to see with what ideas you come up with. I think where I can really shine in my presentation is the use of listening examples which can generate excitement and curiosity. But I thing outright saying why one should listen to the genre isn’t very effective. Classical music is such a huge genre that it’s overwhelming to even know where to start listening. I mean heck, I’m not a huge fan of Mozart or Beethoven, yet it’s the first thing people think of when they hear the words “classical music.”

    I think one of the genre’s problems is that, in a sense, we enjoy it with an almost backwards mentality as from other genres. In certain instances, one may listen to a current rock group then trace influence back to earlier rock. With classical, it seems as though we start from the 1700s to late 1800s then move forward (at least for some people). And 300 years is a large backwards step to take when it comes to listening. Therefore, how can we reach a modern audience if we are simply preserving past creations? Is there no network which provides news on the introduction of new classical works (publicity)? I mean, NPR does a pretty good job, but the publicity is severely lacking.

    Classical music still does have a chance. I think when some people read your blog, Greg, they get the sense that you want to push for classical to take ideas from pop music, thus becoming a watered-down version of the real thing. But that isn’t what I think your saying, nor do I believe in. Classical music has been generally losing it’s “coolness” factor, and re-installing that is crucial for the growth of the genre.

    I don’t know if you have been keeping up with current indie artists, but I’m seeing an increased use of traditional orchestral instruments in arrangements. Joanna Newsom appears first in my mind: heavily classically-influenced, yet incredibly relevant.

    • says

      Good thoughts, Eddie. Thanks for posting them, and good luck with your presentation!

      I do think classical music has a lot to learn from pop music, even artistically. And I don’t think it’ll get watered down, if it learns these things. But then that’s a long discussion, and partly depends on what any of us thinks about pop music.

      I agree — a lot of pop musicians have picked up on classical sounds and techniques. And a lot were classically trained, at least to some degree. But there are also things about pop (for instance a much sharper sense of rhythm, and a much greater variety of sound and texture, not to mention treatment of contemporary life) that classical music doesn’t know about. Or doesn’t know much about, at least by comparison. If classical music is going to have any kind of contemporary sensibility, it’ll have to incorporate these things. As it’s doing, in the work of many younger composers.

      But this is a big endeavor, and my ideas aren’t necessarily right. We need all the help and ideas we can get — including yours. Glad you’ve joined this effort!

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