Why audience beats advocacy, every time

My last post got a bigger, happier response — here, and on Twitter and Facebook — than anything I’ve written in many months. So here’s more.

A quick summary of what I’m going to say: The classical music business loves to do advocacy (which we also see being done for the arts generally). Which means going out in the community and trying to show we’re valuable. But if we filled our halls with an excited new audience, we’d have nothing to prove. And our future would be secure! So why isn’t that our absolute highest priority?

In my last post, I outlined some history. Once nobody doubted that classical music had transcendent value, and transcendent importance in our world. But at the same time, classical music had a kind of everyday popularity it doesn’t remotely have now.

So what’s been our reaction to that? Well, looking at the largest picture, classical music is evolving, changing, creating new ways to function, new ways that make it fit with the culture that’s changed so much around it.

But at the same time, we’ve in many ways gotten rigid. (Understand that I’m painting a broad picture here, and that everything I say has nuances I’ll for the moment leave out.) What Joseph Horowitz calls the “sacralization” of classical music began generations ago, but it picked up steam after World War II, and especially in recent decades. I can put what happened very simply: the more classical music lost public support, the more some people in the field insisted that what we do is special, beyond everyday understanding, and in fact beyond the understanding of the people we’re trying to reach (if we want to find a new audience).

Some aspects of classical music performance turned into fetishes. Silent listening, for instance. As I’ll show in a later post, there’s dismay, even outrage, if someone suggests that audiences could be more relaxed, could respond spontaneously, could even tweet their reactions to the music. To name just a few things that might happen.

And the horror of popular culture — aka the horror at the ways our larger culture has changed, the things that now make classical music very distant from most peoples’ lives — this horror also has grown. So that denunciations of popular culture have become a common part of classical music advocacy (and arts advocacy in general). It doesn’t seem to matter that these denunciations are wildly inaccurate. Ignorant, in fact. They’re trumpeted as if they were inescapable truths.

Now, I’m sure that only a minority of people in our field play this kind of hardball. But they’re a vocal minority, and in one way their views have spread pretty widely. Many people, it seems to me, want to fix classical music’s problems without having classical music change.

And so they propose remedies that don’t involve much change. Music education, for instance. If only we can educate children to understand and love classical music, we’ll have a future audience. Doesn’t seem to matter that this is wildly unlikely, for many, many reasons. But start with this one. If the problem is that our culture doesn’t value classical music enough, how are we going to get classical music taught in all our schools? Why do we think people who don’t value it will create a classical music curriculum all over the US, especially when money is short, and schools are not adding things, but cutting back?

There’s much more to be said about that, but how about other things that people are doing? Connecting with communities. By, for instance, generating support for food banks, which orchestras did a little while ago. Or doing outreach to schools, to minority neighborhoods. Or building ties to community organizations. Or arguing, in any available public forum, that kids exposed to classical music (or to the arts generally) have higher test scores? Or that classical music institutions — orchestras, opera companies — generate economic activity, income for downtown businesses?

The League of American Orchestras has a nice term for this — they want to build the “public value” of orchestras, the sense that having an orchestra is a good thing for a community.

And, surely — in the most general terms — having an orchestra really is a good thing.

But how do we argue for that? In my view, if we do good things in the community — supporting food banks, working with community organizations and local businesses — we may well do good, but we’re evading the central issue, which is that people don’t care to come to our performances. Maybe, after many years, we’ll get at least some people to come, as they get to know us better.

But we’re not addressing the central issue. This may seem harsh, but I’ll say it anyway. Why don’t we just offer to mow peoples’ lawns? Babysit for their kids? Wash their cars? We’re almost apologizing for ourselves. “Yes, we know you don’t want to come hear us play, but we’re good people! You’ll like us!”

And as for more hardball advocacy — we improve your kids’ test scores! we generate income! — these arguments have a fatal flaw. Other people come along and say what they do improves test scores even more, or generates even more income. The income-generating argument has problems anyway. Economists aren’t impressed. One, quoted to me by a social scientist friend, said it would make just as much sense to boost prostitution, that this, too, would generate income for a community.

And the public also isn’t impressed. When the Syracuse Symphony started to go out of business, the Syracuse newspaper ran story on the orchestra’s problems. In the story, people were quoted saying how much income the orchestra generated for the community, putting a very high dollar figure on it. Cut now to the online comments on the story, which were blistering. People overwhelmingly didn’t think the orchestra should be supported, and when they reacted to the economic claims, were more blistering still. If the orchestra really was so potent, as an economic force (they asked), why was it so short of cash?

You can agree or disagree with the reasoning there, but you can’t deny the fury the commenters felt.

So all these ideas of how to restore classical music are — it seems to me — gigantically fraught. And, again, they sidestep the largest problem, which is that we’re losing our audience. (Or, more precisely, mainstream classical music is.) So solutions that don’t address this seem like the wrong solutions. Especially since all the goals of outreach and advocacy would be 100% met if we filled our halls with a new, excited audience.

How many times do I need to say this? I understand that it’s a radical thing to say, but isn’t it a no-brainer? Fill the hall, get new people excited, get them coming to concerts, and nobody doubts the public value of what you do. Nobody doubts you’re good for your community. Nobody doubts — if, as of course is the case, your ticket-sales income isn’t enough to keep you going — that you deserve public and private support.

So why isn’t building this audience the highest priority classical music institutions should have? Why are grants announced, supporting community initiatives, but saying not a word about building an audience? One reason, I think, is that people don’t believe an audience different from the present one can in fact be built. But then aren’t they saying that classical music will die?

Though I also think people understand — deeply, if unspokenly — that performances will have to change before a new audience will come. And those changes scare people. Won’t we debase ourselves, lose everything that makes classical music great?

Cut back now to what I said about rigidity. And the fear, which pervades so much of the debate about classical music’s future, that we’re in danger of losing something.

Which now is my cue to say that I now — of course! — will be accused of saying that the audience is all that matters, that we should sell our art down the river, and do anything that’ll attract a crowd.

As anyone who really knows me will tell you, that isn’t remotely what I mean. In fact, I mean just the reverse. I think a lot of what we do — because of our rituals, our rigidity, our sense of entitlement, our sense of superiority — seems off-putting, and in fact dumb.

So we have to be smarter. More challenging, More adventurous. Better, in countless ways, than we are now. I’ll give some specifics in future posts.

Added later: I know there are also practical reasons why classical music institutions don’t make a new audience their highest priority. For the moment, they depend on the old audience, both for ticket sales, and for funding. They can’t neglect that. They know, too, that the new audience — if it’s younger — won’t donate anything near the amount the current audience does. I might say, then, that these institutions should go down two tracks at once, tending their existing audience, while building a new one. But that’s hard. They’re just about maxed out — even the biggest institutions — maxed out in spending, and in staff time and energy.

But still it has to be done. They’ll have to find a way to do it. 

Footnote: I’ve said here and elsewhere that music schools  — instead of, or alongside, encouraging students to do community outreach — should be encouraging students to reach an audience of people like them, people their own age. Schools in fact should have programs that teach students how this can be done. 

When I said this on Twitter yesterday, I got a wonderful response from Jade Simmons, who made my day by saying:

“PREACH Rev Sandow! It’s nice 2 come on stage & see urself reflected in the audience!Artists, Find ur tribe & get’em 2 ur concerts!”

There’s such profound truth in that. 


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  1. says

    The question that people seem to skirt is: “What does this music have to say about the world we live in?” Whether you agree with their ideas or not, in pop music the message is more often than not very clear, and there’s a very good reason why people respond to the music.

    Classical music is thought of as being more “abstract” (hence lofty) but it doesn’t really have to be that way…but we need people who can better articulate the importance/relevance of the music happening in relation to what’s happening in the present moment. Sure it’s transcendental and that’s what gives the medium its power, but it needs to connect to the audience on some gut-level in order for them to be willing to go on the journey with you.

    We need the help of living composers (i.e. music of our time) but at the same time it needs to framed under such an approach or it won’t connect with the audience in the way that it needs to (a symptom of what’s been happening in the new music scene for the last couple of decades).

    • says

      I think the best music being written today DOES reflect the spirit of our time, which is why I’ve devoted so much energy to promote it (not to mention creating some of it). I really believe the key to audience development lies in contemporary music.

      One problem, however, lies in the way some of our musicians are educated. The best programs seem to have begun clueing in to the fact that “classical” (and man, does THAT term need to be retired!) music does not, in fact, exist in a vaccuum but that it has always reflected the spirit of its time (and, in the case of the great masterworks, transcends it) and that contemporary classical musicians should embrace their own (popular) culture and reflect it in their performance, composition and advocacy. But there are still some holdovers that produce a hermetic attitude that looks down on the general culture and scoffs at anything with a whiff of the popular (nevermind that pop music may as well be our version of folk music, for all intents and purposes).

      Mind you, pop music’s message is not always very clear, nor do pop audiences always listen for a message. Sometimes it’s more about the visceral, physical reaction to the music. The best music transcends (there’s that word again!) this initial response to be embraced as a classic (compare the careers of, say, Radiohead and the Spice Girls: one of these bands was openly compared to The Beatles back in the 90s, the other has shown a Beatles-esque openness to wider influence and stylistic growth with each of their albums. Which one is still culturally relevant?). One of the things I think we classical musicians allowed ourselves to forget is that visceral appeal. Frankly, we lost track of how much fun music is, regardless of style. It’s not just about lofty ideals (though those are certainly also appealing); this music is just damn fun. THAT’S why I got into it, at least.

      • says

        Bravo, Armando. I agree.

        Here’s a thought. Sometimes the visceral appeal carries a deeper cultural message. Cultural messages don’t have to be consciously understood to be received. And so when a new kind of sound sweeps through pop music, it can tell people that something new is happening out in the world, and also (in the complex feedback loops that get created) make people feel that the new things they’ve already adopted are widely shared.

  2. says

    Nice one Greg! Thanks for helping us face the loud music that some 90% of Americans don’t think that classical has anything to offer them. Catering to the veteran audiences has become a sure way to avoid considering new products (concert formats) that might appeal to new audiences. But it takes a shift from art-centrism to audience-centrism… at least for as long as it takes to produce the prototype… and then our art-centrism mode is very likely to kick back in and negate the whole effort.
    I certainly hope our established institutions can learn to serve two masters. I believe the Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra have made some positive progress in this direction! As long as we dissociate art with entertainment, this will be a huge stone to roll uphill. Once we admit there is great entertainment value to our art, and vice versa, that stone begins to roll downhill! Playing under Neeme Jarvi in Detroit Symphony so many years taught me to love all audiences as much as the art.
    Classical music will never die. But if we truly care to draw in curious music lovers we CAN easily develop new series (plural) that introduce the whys, whats, whos, whens and hows of this music and with respect to other styles of music. CutTime.com proves it works.

  3. says

    I don’t think that your ideas are radical at all! In fact, most artists my age are focusing on building an audience of our 20-30 something year-old peers. Many of our friends are young professionals who love coming out to performances and appreciate new music even though “they know nothing about it.” The hardest part about building a new audience is getting the word out. Without adequate media exposure, our best efforts to publicize a concert tend to bring in the same people.

    One of my friends has a very creative solution to the young audience dilemma. At every performance he has a large group of beautiful women in attendance. His idea is that if he gets known for having an attractive female following, it will encourage men to come out too, therefore expanding the audience. It’s somewhat like the formula for getting people into clubs. So far it seems to be working for him!

    • says

      Hi, Cristina! Well, of course you don’t think my ideas are radical! Because they’re very much your ideas, too. Not in every detail, but you and I know each other, and I know what you’re doing in your own work. We’re certainly in broad agreement.

      But of course you’re one of the younger people I think classical music should be aiming at. You’re in the fold already, but you know what has to be done to find other people like you. I’ve noticed something when I engage in these discussions. Older people, or orthodox classical music people, wring their hands, and ask what can be done to attract a young audience. I say my piece, and then the older or orthodox people wring their hands more, and disagree with most of it. Meanwhile, the younger people hearing me say they agree! There’s a lesson in that, don’t you think?

  4. BobG says

    I look forward to hearing some concrete suggestions for attracting a new audience. But it seems to me that no matter how welcoming and comfortable you make the music experience, if the music itself doesn’t appeal, what have you got to offer? And if people are going to do other things while at a concert (chat and chew), then haven’t you turned the music into background noise? You could play a radio for the same effect.

    • says

      Bob, I’ll be writing more about this. And, I hope, answering your questions.

      Quickly, about the music. It really does appeal to people. If you look, for instance, at the Roundhouse in London, and how they’ve gotten their pop audience to go to concerts by the likes of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It’s the concert presentation that’s the problem. By which I don’t mean that we need all kinds of entertaining bells and whistles. I mean that the musicians look like they don’t care about the audience, or the performance. And that there’s no sense of why the concert is taking place, why the particular pieces on the program are being played.

      I’ll write a lot more about this.

  5. Orchestra Manager in Early Retirement says

    Excellent blog post. I agree with most of what you have to say except that orchestras, in your view, are not trying to build audiences. When managing orchestras, I felt that increasing audiences was priority #1. Simply for the self-evident reasons that full halls look good, make fundingraising so much easier than when you have half or 3/4 full halls and that an orchestra in the 21st century MUST maximize ticket revenues. Every penny counts. Full halls also demonstrate that you are in touch with your audience and are able to challenge them on many levels, from the intellectual to the entertaining, and that they are comfortable with coming to your concerts.

    I have criticized the organizational structures of American orchestras before, and I will do it again: You can’t have two captains running a ship when you’re heading towards an iceberg. Not unless you hire an Executive Director and Music Director together, who know and respect each other and can bounce ideas off each other. Unfortunately that happens all too rarely.

    My sad experience has often been that Artistic Directors, who have been with the orchestra for 8-15 years – or more – grow lazy, lack vision, treat the orchestra as their personal synthesizer and have no sense of excitement stemming from their lack of desire to discover and keep learning new things.

    They just want to perform their favorite music with soloist friends they like or who can help advance their careers, arrive to an orchestra sitting down with the music in front of them, rehearse, perform the concert, collect the paycheck and get on to the next gig. It worked for 15 years, so why should I change it now and make more work for myself? These conductors rarely get fired because everyone is oh-so-careful not to upset the artistic ego.

    I am being brutal here, and I am certain there are exceptions to my experiences, but I am tired of the maestro myth BS and board members who have gotten so used to the conductor after 8-15 years and generally lack sufficient knowledge of what sells, what generates PR and their lack of understanding that it just MIGHT have a connection with their maestro, who still lives and acts as if we were still in the 1970s or earlier.

    This, of course, is a problem for smaller to medium sized orchestras in particular, because when you have a limited number of concert productions and few if any guest conductors, the Music Director gets an excessive say over the repertoire. And according to most contracts, s/he has full control over artistic matters.

    Until orchestras develop a clear management model with one captain at the wheel, more and more of them will continue to sink. Even those large enough to have a season that involves guest conductors. Look at the Peloponnesian War; the Athenians second-guessed their generals, brought them to trial and executed them, and then decided democratically that they should invade Syracuse, for which they had neither the communications nor the manpower. Off went their best generals to die in a slaughter caused by too many voices demanding irrational behavior. Predictably, a more totalitarian state, Sparta, won the war in the end because they were able to act decisively under one king.

    Even the Romans had the good sense to know at the peak of Rome’s democratic period that a single commander had to be appointed and followed in times of crisis. Generally speaking it worked pretty well until the end, but that’s another story.

    I personally don’t care if it’s the Artistic Director, Executive Director or the hall sweeper who makes the final decisions, even if they may not be popular with some initally, but that, in my opinion, is the only way to do reach one’s goals. Naturally, a brutal one-person dictatorship would never work in an orchestra, but an enlightened leader with some diplomatic skills should be able to handle the responsibility.

    With the proliferation of arts management degrees in the US, there should be enough people who have both a musical and administrative background as well as the imagination, intelligence and skills that are on a level where they can make a decision on their own that are more rational than the usual attitude prevailing in orchestras of “don’t lift your leg at MY fire hydrant – use your own and good luck.”

    I still meet musicians who think that the administrative staff is there to serve THEM. I’m sorry to say to them that it’s not a one way street, and that if they just expect the administrative staff to market tickets and raise funds with the product they often get pushed down over their heads, they’re dead wrong. It tends to make the staff very sour and demoralized, because they have experience in what will attract audiences in their area. If they’re competent, generally they can sense that what the Artistic Director has scratched together will be a dud season in advance if is the same old – no matter how hard they market and fundraise. If the administrative staff is just a bunch of paper-pushers, get rid of them all and see what happens. That the staff would be up the creek if they had no musicians to work with goes without saying.

    • Orchestra Manager in Early Retirement says

      PS I once worked with a conductor who said he didn’t care how large the audience for his performances were, or nobody showed up. He was producing great art and those who werent there for the performance were the real losers!

      Now how do you build audiences when a key orchestra employee says something like that?

    • says

      Such excellent points! I wish I’d read this before responding to your earlier comments. Silly of me to scroll through the comments in reverse order.

      I’ve worked a lot with orchestras, and I learned early on that most of them don’t have anyone who can be called the artistic director. The music director, just as you say, is mostly concerned with her or his own concerts. The executive director (with exceptions, of course, like Tom Morris) normally doesn’t know music well enough to take command. The artistic administrator (or, more recently, the VP of artistic affairs, or whatever the title might be) doesn’t have enough clout. (Again with exceptions, like Bob Moir in Pittsburgh.)

      So most orchestras just slog along, doing what they do, and not creating an artistic profile that might be interesting to anyone.

      About building audiences — of course you were concerned with that, as is everyone in the field. But the marketing and audience development I’ve seen is mostly concerned with building the standard, existing audience. Getting the people in it to come more often, and finding more people like them. Whereas I’m talking about finding an entirely new audience, younger, more contemporary, livelier. And, mostly, new to classical music. So that’s why I think what I’m asking for is radical. I’m asking for a completely new effort, to reach new people in new ways. Of course you know that this is a lot to ask. Orchestras, as I said, are maxed out, just doing what they normally do. But if they don’t go all out for a new audience, I don’t know how they’re going to survive.

  6. says

    Concert Halls are a late-C19th phenomenon.

    Prior to then classical music was heard in more everyday locations. We need to get back to that, and take classical music off the pedestal where well-meaning bumblers placed it.

    It’s a mistake to sit waiting in concert halls waiting for people to show up there. Why should they?

  7. Elaine Calder says

    At last! It’s really good to read this, but you’ve pre-empted me with your final comments.

    At the Oregon Symphony we’ve spent the last few years successfully attracting new and bigger audiences by diversifying our performances in a couple of important ways. Carlos Kalmar takes an imaginative approach to classical programming for our ever-more-exciting orchestra and audiences, and we’ve added a broad range of non-classical concerts to appeal to a greater number of market segments. Paid attendance has increased from 54% in 2007 to 74% in 2012 – but our donor base hasn’t grown by anything like that amount. Our assumption is that people who purchase tickets to hear the orchestra with artists like Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck or the Northwest Gospel Chorus consider their relationship with us to be strictly transactional. (Are you asked to make a donation after buying a movie ticket?) But our existing donors and sponsors applaud what we are doing, so yes, we are working on two tracks.
    I suspect this was the thinking behind the SPCO “new model” but they chose to engage with their community in a different, much less commercial way than we have. And this being a market economy, it’s possible that foundations, corporations and even individual donors are more impressed by an orchestra’s efforts to increase its earned income rather than take a mission-driven approach.

    • says

      Hi, Elaine. I’m flattered to have a comment from you here, especially one so thoughtful, one so packed with subjects each worth a long discussion. And of course you have practical experience that I don’t have, in making things actually work.

      I think we need a brand new model — something even newer than what you did with such success in Oregon. I’m all for doing concerts that aren’t classical, with the results you set forth (with admirable economy, I want to say — many points made in very few words.) But I think the main emphasis should be on renewing the way we present the strictly classical concerts. I’ll say more about that in future posts.

      Good luck in your future endeavors! And if you’d ever like to talk one on one about these issues, I’d be delighted to do it.

    • Elaine Calder says

      How about great music, well played + imaginative programming with contemporary works thoughtfully introduced in pre-concert remarks, placed in an intelligent context?

      Carlos doesn’t always hit the home run he struck with “Music for a Time of War” (a program that has since been repeated at Toledo) but he’s really good at this – and we have a growing and increasingly diverse audience who come out and cheer every time he’s on the podium.

      BTW, I don’t take credit for doing anything particularly new as far as programming is concerned. Don Roth was doing the same thing here in the 1990s.

      • says

        All of that helps, Elaine. Though I think that current culture has moved very far away from classical music, and that the classical music world has to make very big adjustments to reach a new young audience. Bigger adjustments, I fear, than many people may think. I’ll be blogging about this in some detail.

  8. says

    I’ve enjoyed reading many of your posts, including this series of critiques.

    This year I finally got around to reading Mozart’s letters, and was struck by his descriptions of contemporary concert behavior. Mozart expressed his delight at Parisian reactions to his 31st Symphony, shouting out loud “da capo!” when he returned a particular tune just before the coda in the first movement.

    And I would agree that, for Mozart Symphonies, as well as a lot of other Classical-era works (Haydn, anyone?), there could be a lot more room for letting our hair down. But I think the repertoire is too varied to have a single response to audience engagement. I could easily see performing the Rite of Spring, heavily amplified, so people are getting hit with 120+ decibels of sound the same as at a rock concert (performing musicians wearing earplugs, of course, the same as rock musicians). That, to me, is a no-brainer, and one day I hope to perform a concert of heavily amplified classical music that fits that sort of approach.

    But my question to you is…what do we do about the Ring Cycle? Or, what do you expect an audience to do for the last five minutes of Mahler 9? Cheer? Clap along? TWEET THEIR FEELINGS? I mean, Mahler is pouring his soul out, somehow I think that demands us to sit down, shut up, and focus for one single minute without looking down at our smartphone screen. Remember too, that while Mozart delighted in hearing shouts of approval from his audience (it’s amazing how often he uses the word “pleasing” to describe his music to Leopold), it was Mahler who was at the vanguard of this New Seriousness–banning latecomers, staring down noisemakers, insisting that applause be held to the end, etc. So, while there may be historical precedent for some classical music to be enjoyed in a way that’s looser, freer, and arguably more fun than they are no presented to us. And yes, I absolutely agree that certain composers, or certain works, can be performed in a way that more people can relate to, and that can and will generate the excitement you describe. But at some point, with certain kinds of music, the audience really does have to bring something more in terms of decorum, concentration, and, yes, reverence. The Britten War Requiem, or any Shostakovich Largo, demand it. And, funny to note, movie theaters are really cracking down on cell-phone use–in the future, maybe the concert hall will pass by the movie house on opposite escalators of audience behavior standards!

    Come to think of it, I view the situation in a way that’s quite similar to movies. I love to go and see giant Hollywood blockbusters; I’m a fan of popcorn flicks. Even when the acting is so-so and the plots are predictable, I still enjoy the spectacle. I also love and will stand in line to see a Terrence Malick movie. And it goes without saying that you need to be in a certain state of mind to really enjoy one of his films. Assume for a minute that classical music is more on the Terrence Malick side of the scale, as opposed to Jerry Bruckheimer. I would absolutely agree with you that we aren’t getting anywhere trying to depict popular culture as bland, useless, and not edifying, etc. And I do want to see more efforts made at getting people excited about classical music on its merits, because it happens to be great music, exciting, thrilling, and not some eating of cultural vegetables. But at the end of the day, some of what we do IS different, and requires something from people, something that many Americans don’t want to do–to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. (Just ask your local Cinemark!)

    Carmina Burana can absolutely be presented in a way that blows people away; Brahms 4? Perhaps. Mahler 9? Not on your life.

    • says

      N8MA, I agree with you, as I’m sure readers of this blog know. And Mahler 9 is my usual example, when I talk about music that might best be listened to in silence.

      But I don’t think this is a difficult question, as your point about movies suggests. It’s not hard at all to create varied concert environments, for varied kinds of music. And to make these environments unmistakable, so that people coming to the concerts know what’s in store. Soloists and chamber groups can do this very effectively with body language. And also by talking to the audience, something more or less taken for granted when other kinds of music are performed.

      Brahms might be a gray area. At the premiere of the violin concerto, the audience applauded the first-movement cadenza. Brahms also was one of a number of prominent 19th century musicians who thought music (very much including his) should be played differently for audiences not familiar with it. He wanted more contrasts in the performance, if the musicians and audience weren’t familiar with the piece.

      The history of performance in past centuries can be a huge surprise to people brought up on classical music today. Much that we take for granted — even not applauding between movements, which in the US only became fully established in the 1950s — is a relatively recent invention. And some of the things that went on (parts, for instance, of the 2d act finale of Don Giovanni being improvised at the premiere) can really be a surprise to us.

      • says

        I also think it is a mistake to assume that a modern audience cannot be quiet when it is called for. Have you ever been at a rock concert when the lighters (now lit cell screens) come out? The hush is palpable! The quiet moments do not open the concert however. First the band builds anticipation, which leads to excitement. They commune with the audience to build intimacy, and when that feeling of connectedness reaches it’s peak – BAM! they bring out the ballad and the hush falls. Imagine how powerful this technique would be if used in the concert hall!

        • says

          Many people, I fear, who object to bringing such things into the classical concert hall have never experienced them. I agree with you. That’s a magical moment at rock shows, and proves that the audience cares, knows what it’s hearing, and — as you say — can treat the music with rapt respect. And with a sense of tangible communion (which is obviously in effect now that people are holding up their cell phones; they’re sharing the moment with their friends).

  9. says

    Greg, you always bring the most compelling issues to the forefront. It is not an easy task to take today’s culture and society and get them involved in classical music. One thing I think still applies is bringing the music to the schools where the funding is slim or non-existent. Many performers visiting cities normally don’t have a problem doing outreach. Just keep bringing the music to the youngsters as much as possible.

    • says

      Bringing music to kids/music education — complex questions. I think all kinds of music should be brought to kids. Impossible, in a multicultural society, with an emerging nonwhite majority, to think that music education can be wholly or mostly classical. Kids today don’t know the great history of American music — jazz, blues, and the rest. My Juilliard students don’t know it! Not to mention world music, something else they mostly don’t know. Our job, in my view, is to bring kids the greatest variety of music possible. With no special pleading for any one kind. If then they still show no interest in classical music, that would be our fault, because of the way we present it.

      • richard says

        I’m glad you’re not totally writing off mu-ed in schools (hey, that’s my day job). A while back I told you about writing a work for an indie-rock/progressive jazz bands. Two of the kids in the band are former students of mine, and and I’d like to think that I had something to do with shaping their tastes. (They borrowed recordings of Varese, Bartok, Ives, Coltrane etc. from me). I even introduced Gamelan music to them.

        • says

          I’d love to see a study of how many indie rock people had classical training when they were young. More than we’d imagine, I think. I remember reading an interview with Amanda Palmer, one of the biggest cult indie stars, who stressed how important her classical piano lessons had been early on.

  10. says

    The symphony orchestra as an institution is being pulled in many directions: Audience size and demographics are important, but ticket sales will never meet expenses – so the institution has to please donors, grant administrators and corporate sponsors. If donor money is important, then the donors – and especially the corporate sponsors – want to keep classical music as a privileged cultural niche in the eyes of society. Does a bigger, more diverse audience change that if it does not free the institution from having to solicit donations and grants?

    Finding a wider audience is always a good thing, but does it address all the constituencies that are present on the symphony board of directors?

    • says

      Hi, Paul. I’d say the larger issue is whether the people on the board are aware of the constituencies they need to reach in the city around them. I once spoke to members of the Cleveland Orchestra board about how to reach a young audience, and they were astounded by what I said. Afterwards a 30-year old member of the staff came to me, and said I’d gotten her generation exactly right. I’m telling this story not to pat myself on the back, but to stress that the conversation between the board members and smart, educated (and, very commonly, tattooed) 30 year-olds is something that isn’t happening now very much, but has to happen.

    • says

      Very, very interesting. The link goes to a reports of increased attendance and ticket income at British classical concerts. Along with a nice increase in the percentage of British adults who go to classical concerts, up to 17%, when it was 11.6% at the end of the 19990s. All this, evidently, is part of a trend in which interest in many kinds of music has increased. Interest in rock is up 71%, in jazz 82%, and in classical music up 46%.

      These stats, like all such data, need interpretation. It’s fascinating, for instance, to see the increase in attendance partly explained by the building of new concert halls. If this is a main cause of the increased attendance, then the increase doesn’t show a growth in popularity for classical music. Instead, it shows the emergence of a dormant audience, people who always would have gone to large, well-publicized classical concerts if they’d had a chance to do so.

      • says

        From personal experience – though the article doesn’t touch on it – is the ‘show up and pay a tenner’ policy that is nearly standard in British halls – for nearly all types of performance. Five minutes before curtain, any unsold ticket can be purchased for 10GBP. Although there is no formal policy in place for this, most halls follow the practice from tradition. It is rarely advertised – you just stop and ask.

        When I was in University in Scotland (2005) it was common for my friends and I to randomly decide to check out a concert because of this. Back home in the US I had to pick and choose concerts in advance because I could not afford to attend them all.

        • says

          i’ve known situations where student tickets were tricky to get. Show up on midnight when there’s a full moon, and get a voucher you can exchange for a ticket on any Tuesday afterward. I exaggerate (obviously), but I think there’s sometimes a fear of selling too many tickets at less than full price.

          The Toronto Symphony is one organization that’s been selling inexpensive tickets, without strings attached, for more than a decade. And one result of that (and other things they’ve done) is an audience that they say is 35% under 35.

  11. Vicki Rulli says

    As a fairly new resident of Springfield, OH (5 years) I must comment on the Symphony here.
    It is remarkable to me that in a town of 60,000, in the middle of Ohio, we have a successful orchestra that the community loves and supports.
    While I enjoy the symphony, it is their inventive programming that keeps me and my family coming back. We can spend our entertainment budget in many places (we are lucky to have a lot of amazing options here that don’t rely on sports teams) and the symphony is one of our choices.

    Here are a some articles that show a few examples of why I think we are lucky enough to keep a symphony in our town.




    Thanks for the interesting article. It made me appreciate what we have even more.

  12. says

    Quote: I might say, then, that these institutions should go down two tracks at once, tending their existing audience, while building a new one. But that’s hard. They’re just about maxed out — even the biggest institutions — maxed out in spending, and in staff time and energy.

    I’ve been advocating for this two track philosophy. I do think though that orchestras are not “maxed out.” Instead they need to shift their resources toward audience development. I do not think they are spending their resources wisely when they keep doing the same things over and over, expecting different results. If orchestras were to make audience development a priority by focusing their resources on this endeavor, they will build their audiences. I have worked with orchestras with small staffs and budgets, and they are starting to see increases after they made this shift.

    I also feel that we need an awareness campaign to point out the instances where classical music is a part of our every day lives. Perhaps this awareness would increase value, even if only by a little bit. We need to start somewhere.

    • says

      I think it might be easier for smaller orchestras to do this than for larger ones. The smaller ones, among much else, have more time between concerts. They’re not — like the big orchestras — constantly producing performances. That’s what tends to get the big institutions maxed out. They have very little down time.

      But of course, as you say, they really do have to change their emphasis. Or add a new emphasis to the one they already have. And they may have to prepare for a few years of turmoil, in which the benefit of the new ways isn’t yet there. Or fully there. But if they don’t do this, they’ll be in worse shape down the road.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!

    • says

      I’m WITH you Shoshana! We can easily develop informal and introductory concerts that complement the traditional ones. It’s just a matter of shifting resources. Take it ultimately into speakeasy but non-smoking bars/clubs and we’ll start making the case by setting a new CONTEXT for classical. Some will eventually UPGRADE to traditional concerts. It’s that simple but it’s a medium-term payoff. Club Classical will become a new normal! And I’m transcribing/writing all kinds of symphonic music for this time… can’t wait!

  13. says

    What a thought-provoking post; one that needed to be written. As both a performer and music educator, I understand how important it is to ask these questions and brainstorm ideas for growing and nurturing audiences for classical music. Actually, a few moments after reading your post, I attended a music camp recital at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where I teach. The question of how to engage young people crept into my observations of the rest of the audience throughout the recital. The audience, by the way, consisted mostly of adolescents. The program consisted of a couple of movements from a Haydn trio, songs by Guastavino and Schubert, a bass trombone piece by Robert Spillman, a movement from Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole for violin, an original pop composition for voice and guitar by Megan Makeever (a 2012 St. Olaf graduate), a flashy French alto sax piece by Bonneau, some Bach on viola, and contemporary works for trumpet by Kennan and Mendez. As I observed, it was clear that, while these young people were more fidgety than a seasoned concert audience might be, they were definitely respectful of each performer. It was also clear that the concert elicited a response of fully rapt attention (even SILENT, fidget-less attention as a group) at least twice in the program (and more like four times). One of the obvious times was during the original pop song by Megan. As soon as she began to play the simple guitar accompaniment and English lyrics to her song called “Okay,” the young audience seemed to stop breathing. They hung on her every word. (Was this because the musical language was simple and they could understand what was being sung? Or was it because it was pop? Or was it because the singer was a recent graduate, or the song was about love? – I tend to lean toward the first guess.) Another obvious moment was during the contemporary trumpet pieces at the end of the concert performed by faculty. Trumpeter Martin Hodel introduced the pieces and offered vivid images to go along with the music. “Like a sunset,” and a “Spanish bull fighter in June.” (Was it the human touch of Marty’s talk that invited the audience in? Or the images? Was it the technical mastery? The joy the musicians displayed? The music itself? All of the above?) Displays of commanding stage presence, memory slips, rapid technical passages, or unexpected sounds (flutter tonguing, muted brass, lowwwww bass trombone notes) also grabbed the attention of these youth. (I responded to these things, too.)

    This, again, was a summer music camp audience. These kids are already into music. Some of them come from high school music programs. Some do not have music in their schools at all. But I think that what engaged them in this concert partly depended upon the connection each performer had with their own music and moment on stage (for example, these kids know when a piece HAS or HASN’T been rehearsed enough, and they know when a performer bails out mentally from the heat of the moment), and partly upon the connection they FELT from the performers as real and true – I know “real” and “true” can be very subjective words, but that’s the best way I can describe it at the moment – (for example, this audience seemed to give more attention to performers who actually looked–and felt–like they enjoyed being in this concert with this audience).

    • says


      I’m greatly honored that my blog gets a response as deeply felt and deeply thought as yours. I loved following your mind and your heart, as you worked through these questions. I’d always say that there isn’t any one answer. But I think you’re really getting to the heart of things (at least as I understand the world), when you say that the students in your audience could tell who was deeply involved, among the performers, and who might not be. Beyond that, I can only say that I’ve rarely read such a thoughtful and sensitive description of how an audience listens. No — description isn’t the right word. You’re not just describing what you saw. You’re living it along with the audience, as well as you can, thoughtfully speculating when you don’t know things for sure.

      If I might use your thoughts as a springboard to something more general, it strikes me that the experienced classical music audience — knowing that it ought to sit silently — to some extent, maybe a great extent, hides its reactions from us. Only by the quality of its applause, often, can we tell what it was feeling during a performance. To someone new coming into a classical performance, this might seem a bit unnerving, or not quite real. But the kids in the audience you evoked for us react more naturally, and bring us, maybe, into a truer understanding of how performance and audience really relate. Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

      • says

        I rarely leave blog comments, but the topic is so important that I’m grateful I wrote this one. Thank you so much for your reply to my thoughts. Actually, the connection between performer and audience was the subject of my dissertation (The Soloist’s Path to Optimal Musical Communication – Rice University, December 2011), though focused mainly on the performer’s perspective. I interviewed 38 flute soloists to discover what they experience as “optimal musical communication” and to learn about how they prepare for such moments. The results were fascinating. One take home point is that 92% of these musicians indicated that the most important aspect of optimal communication depended upon CONCENTRATION (in preparation and in performance).

        • says

          Thanks for this, Catherine. It would be interesting to compare what the musicians you talked to said with what pop musicians would say. I suspect that someone like Bruce Springsteen would say that a sense of flow between him and the audience is what creates optimal communication. And that this would be the dominant feeling in pop. Of course, you find people like Bob Dylan, who seem to care less about flow back and forth (and, in Dylan’s case, may actually discourage it, to avoid being treated like a big star). But I think the two-way flow — which isn’t at all a kind of pandering, or working overtime to please an audience — is basic to musical communication, but is something that’s somehow been lost in classical music. We even might frown on it, thinking that what we present doesn’t depend on the audience for any of its value. Which opens doors to a very long discussion.

      • says

        With all the superb comments about audiences, I would like to recount an event I witnessed at a chamber music recital last year. An elderly gentleman (in his eighth decade) whom I had recently met was seated next to me at the concert. This man, I learned earlier, was a practiced and avid listener of classical music at his home for most of his life but rarely ventured into the concert hall. So I invited him to the recital.

        As the program progressed, I could see he was clearly moved by the action from the stage as the violinist and pianist performed several sonatas together. Those of us seated nearby observed the elderly man articulating with sound and words (perhaps a bit too loudly) his unfiltered feelings of enjoyment and wonder during and after each movement performed. It seemed every magical moment or surprising turn of a phrase caught his attention and he reacted immediately and honestly.

        I was astounded at the unabashed display of emotion and enjoyment this person was experiencing in real time at the concert – something that I myself feel when performing and teaching – and smiled at his lack of concern or awareness of concert etiquette. Here was a person who had spent many years listening to BUT not attending live music performances and was clearly enjoying every moment of the event.

        Has the modern concert experience perhaps molded the listener into an uninterested or at least non-invested participant?

        What a thoughtful and responsive blog you have created, Greg. Keep it up!

        • says

          Thanks, Ray. I’m very moved by your story, and grateful for what you say about the blog.

          In centuries past, the audience was far more vocal in their reactions than we generally think we should allow now. There are wonderful stories, for instance, of audiences for Beethoven symphony performances in Paris during the 1820s crying out in delight at passages that astonished them. Or the famous comment by someone in Handel’s audience, a servant of an aristocrat who attended (there was a special place for servants to stand). Hearing one of the singers, this servant shouted out, “She has a nightingale in her throat!”

          For my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, I’ve prepared a small anthology of reports, scholarly papers, and anecdotes about performance in past centuries. It’s here: http://www.gregsandow.com/PopClass/anecdotes.pdf. Separately I assign the students Mozart’s famous letter, about how he composed some details of his Paris Symphony expressly to get the audience to applaud (during the music). That letter is here: http://www.gregsandow.com/PopClass/mozart_letter_text.pdf

          Finally, I also assign them portions of a book called “Listening in Paris,” which is a history of precisely that. The parts I assign are about how the audience behaved during Lully and Rameau’s operas, and to say that its behavior didn’t exactly fit what we’d now think is the austerity of that music…well that would be a vast understatement. http://www.gregsandow.com/PopClass/paris.pdf

  14. says

    i am not a scholarly person, nor do I have any formal background/education in music , but i applaud your sentiments and arguments, Mr Sandow, as they reinforce my own small experience as a self-taught amateur composer writing in a classical style

    in my spare time i amuse myself by creating small 3 minute classical works in an accessible melodic style – i then blatently take advantage of YouTube’s fair use policy to borrow images for videos around these 3 minute works

    i am very happy now that my classical channel averages around 1,000 views a day – and i don’t go out my way to badger people or beg strangers to listen by sending them links

    now i am not advocating what i do as a model for anybody else; it’s just something that suits my own style, and seems to suit some demographic out there who will listen to an ‘unknown’ composer for at least 3 minutes if there are pictures included

    • says

      Paul, you’re a hero, at least to me. First, you’re doing something you love, and making it work for you. Second, you’re finding your own audience, just as I’ve always urged classical composers to do. And it works! If you can do it, why not composers with the whole bag of musical/professional credentials? The difference between you and them? You thought of doing this, and they didn’t. So more people are hearing your work.

      Some #classical composers might find your work not to their taste. Too popular, maybe. Too purely emotional. (I’ll let them go beyond what I’ve said, if they want to.) They’ll claim they could never get 1000 hits a day, because their music is too serious/complex/challenging/whatever.

      Fine. So they build their audience, and it’s smaller than yours. They get 50 hits a day. Wouldn’t they love that?

      • says

        you comment is most kind and greatly appreciated, Mr. Sandow – thank you

        perhaps i’m the crazy hybrid result one gets from a child that fell in love with both Tchaikovsky and Sherman brothers’ Disney songs