A challenge!

Austin, TX, bills itself as the “live music capital of the world.” That’s one thing I learned visiting there last week, to speak to students at the University of Texas School of Music.

And — you saw this coming — classical music, including all the concerts given at the school, plays almost no part in Austin’s live music scene. Everyone I talked to at the school said this.

So there’s a challenge for us. If we have a music school surrounded by what might really be the most active live music life anywhere, let’s make the school part of that.

Of course, I’m in no position to work on this, since I’m an outsider in Austin. But let’s agree that this is a challenge all of us in classical music should care about. I’ve said many times that our highest priority — our absolutely highest priority — should be to build a new, younger audience. I’ve also said that music schools (especially those that teach entrepreneurship, which at this point means just about all of them) should encourage and help their students to find an audience their own age.

And where better to do that than Austin?

Again, I’m an outsider. But here’s one way they might proceed. The important thing, I’d think, is to start small. Don’t try to make the school a major player right away in Austin’s club and concert scene. It won’t work. Second, I’d carefully pick the performances that might work in Austin clubs. A lot of them, I’d think, would be new music. And few, at least at first, would be long performances of old repertoire, a complete Brahms trio, for instance.

Third, I wouldn’t try to map the path in much detail in advance. That’s because we don’t know enough yet about what will work. So I might pick some students who wanted, as performers, to make this leap into Austin clubs, and who had a chance of doing it successfully. They’d have to be carefully chosen. They’d have to be people comfortable in clubs, people who’d look right there, and who’d know how to handle themselves, how to talk during their shows (as bands do). And how to pick music that would work in clubs.

Once those students were chosen, or chose themselves, they’d get in contact with people who book the clubs. The school most likely should make preliminary contacts, to get the thing going. The club bookers would have to buy into this, at least in principle, before the students talked to them. I wouldn’t want to saddle students with all the work of blazing the necessary trails.

Finally, one thing is absolutely crucial. This is not an education effort. We don’t want to presume to teach anything to our club audience. We’ll assume that they’re smart people, overall, with lots of curiosity about music, eager to hear something new, and to roar if they like it.

So the question then is to find performances that speak entirely for themselves. Ligeti etudes, for instance. A pianist goes into a club, a pianist with a good club style, aces three Ligeti etudes, blows the roof off the place, and leaves people screaming for more.

That could easily happen, and it shouldn’t be hard to think of other music that would work. The first pieces to pick, I’d think, would be pieces whose sound blends with the music you’d normally hear in the clubs, which is why I think new music would generally work best.

But after our pianist establishes herself as someone who belongs in clubs, the next step is for her to build her fan base (something the school should be ready to help her do, with mentoring, encouragement, ideas, and maybe funding). And once she had fans, she could play things that might not have worked at first — a Chopin nocturne, a Debussy prelude, Webern’s Piano Variations. Once people like you, they’ll follow you to places they didn’t know they’d want to go.

And of course I might be wrong in some of this. Again, it’s not a great idea to plan these things too much in advance. I think my general approach would work, but once it’s in effect — stand back and see what happens! What actually unfolds (and unfolds with great success) might not be anything that we’d expect.

Footnote: the piano. Small clubs don’t have pianos. So I’d envisage getting funding, to bring pianos to the clubs. The apparition of a grand piano on a club stage would be a sensation in itself.

And if this turns out to be impractical, other instruments of course would work. Solo flute, solo clarinet. Solo bass. Tuba! And of course violin and cello. Find the right player, find the right music, and go.

Second footnote: this approach would work anywhere where there are clubs — in any reasonably large city, for instance. But if Austin really is the live music capital of the world, with a major music school in the middle of it, that would be a perfect place to start.

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  1. Brian Hughes says

    I noticed this very thing, Greg, on my one and only visit to Austin. It does have a fabulous music scene and you can hear just about everything (much of which is located on that one street–6th ave. or something like that?) The School of Music is a non-entity in the mix and if Ligeti et al can find a place in the clubs of NY (Le Poisson Rouge?) then one would think the idea would work elsewhere. After all, “if I can make it there….”

    • says

      Sixth Street, I think. New knowledge for me! I’d never been in Austin before. New York does offer a model here, because there’s a new classical/new music audience there. People like to say that NY is a special case, but I don’t believe it.

  2. says

    Those long lines of voters in Florida and other places on election day were great captive audiences. My band played for hours for Virginia voters. Classical musicians would have been welcome with open arms in those lines. There are other long lines in life we can entertain – like in the motor vehical administrations etc. Be creative!

    • says

      Matt was certainly a pioneer in playing in clubs. Lots of people do it now, though, and I think we’re due for a reassessment of what works best. Or maybe an assessment! Don’t think anyone has ever put together all the club experiences, and seen what works.

      • ken nielsen says

        Greg – I posted (I think) a comment on this but it disappeared. Is it in moderation or somewhere? If not, I’ll do it again…

        • says

          Ken, I think I remember approving your comment. But where is it? I can’t find it anywhere. Have no idea what happened, but whatever it is, I apologize. Would you post it again? I’m always happy to know what you’re thinking.

  3. says

    Thanks Greg! I agree that clubs is where we will build future audiences for classical. This wasn’t really practical before we had smoking bans. Classical Revolution (.org) has helped to prove this works. However, as we move from small, intimate cafes, bars and clubs to even a moderately sized club, it becomes imperative to amplify acoustic instruments. I’ve successfully managed this for my sextet with a simple 400-watt system: matched Yamaha amp/mixer and loudspeakers with cables and a pair of cardiod mics. Add to that a vocal mic with a switch for speaking/singing. It’s a pain to lug around, set up, balance, break down and lug back… but this way people can talk, drink, etc. and nobody misses anything. Isn’t this the inevitable future? Classical players need experience talking thru vocal mics, setting an inspirational context for instrumental music. Also, an amp system helps to play some hip background music from an iPod before and after the performances to keep the mood upbeat and show we like what our audience likes too. (street cred)

    • says

      The voice of experience! Thanks, Rick. “It’s a pain to lug around, set up, balance, break down and lug back…” — which means we in classical music are going to have to learn what bands learn. Since they have that problem every time they play. I remember, years ago, when a group of rock critics formed a band. I asked ome of them what he’d learned, going over to the other side, and he said; “I’ve learned how important roadies are!”

  4. says

    One of the huge chasms between classical music and “popular music,” to use the term in its broadest sense is amplification and sheer, deafening volume, which utterly precludes true listening. You mention Webern (whose music I love), who would simply be swamped in a club. Interesting that Phillip Glass has been popular with all age groups for decades (the classical equivalent of Tony Bennett). Another interesting example is provided by Red Priest who give hair-raising performances on unamplified baroque instruments (I don’t know if they sometimes amplify, I suspect so, but I heard them unplugged.)

    • says

      Why would Webern be swamped in a small club, that held perhaps 100 people? His music is played unamplified in concert halls much larger than that.

      Not all pop music is loud. I can tell you that pretty definitively, after spending years as a pop music critic. And loudness doesn’t preclude serious listening. Depends on the quality of the amplification, among other things, and also on what you’re listening for in the music.

    • says

      Hi, Dan,

      I went to the link you gave, to Classical Revolution Austin’s Facebook page. The first thing I saw was a post saying:

      “Is this EVER going to have an event? How long has CRA been extant and there’s NEVER been an event yet to my knowledge :)” The post announcing that CRA was founded dates from March, 2011.

      As for the Austin classical music website you linked to, sure. There’s classical music in Austin. I heard all about it. An orchestra, an opera company, and, according to the website, a chorus. But must because these things exist doesn’t mean they function as part of the explosive live music scene that so much defines what Austin is about. They’re off on the side somewhere, as people I talked to said they were.

      If you follow the links I gave in my post, to a website promoting Austin, you’ll find page after page about music, but only one fleeting reference to anything classical.

  5. says

    I’m so peeved (that’s the polite word!) that I didn’t know you were coming, Greg—Bob Freeman should have made this known to the faculty. We’d all have crashed the party!

    But I love your blogpost about Austin—having lived here thirty-plus years, working at the Butler School of Music at UT (where you spoke), I know exactly what you mean. “Live Music Capital of the World”, as long as you’re talking about Progressive Country and Garage Rock. Sometimes we do take our student groups into clubs, but the reality is that most acoustic music (especially new music) just can’t be heard over the din, and most people in clubs aren’t used to being quiet.
    (And it spoils everything if you have to ask them to be…) Percussion ensembles can work, and electronic music can work. I once took the New Music Ensemble (which I have directed for thirty years) into the club at the Student Union. We chose loud and attention-getting new music, dressed the part, and it worked for awhile…but I found most people don’t really want to sit still and not talk while they’re in the club. I guess, if the players are willing to be amplified up the wazoo and affect a rock attitude, these things can work….as they do in those Flash Mob videos in train stations on YouTube. But are those things real? The sound is, of course, recorded separately…

    I’m open to further suggestions, and maybe we should try again. it’s certainly true that we can’t only play in classical venues if we expect to expand our audience, but my experience (in orchestral situations, too) has been that moving classical music into clubs or other non-classical venues is usually better talked about than actually done. I still love that “Joshua Bell playing in the subway” story, though…right up to the part where the writer says “but if you offered any of these people a free ticket to hear Joshua Bell in the concert hall (where they could really appreciate him), they’d turn it down.”

    Come back, Greg! And tell me next time, so I don’t miss you!



    Dan Welcher
    Professor of Composition/Director, New Music Ensemble
    Butler School of Music/UT Austin

    • says

      Hi, Dan,

      Thanks for supporting what I wrote!

      And I’m so sorry I didn’t meet you. I’d hoped to do more in my visit, but that was out of my hands. I did put something in advance in my blog about coming, but I’m sure it was too little, too late. And, again, the shape of my visit was out of my hands. I’d love to come back, and do a lot more.

      About flash mobs, and your great idea of taking the new music ensemble into the student union club — these things have to be done repeatedly, and as part of a coherent, well-planned strategy, in order to have any lasting effect. I sympathize with anyone who tries a flash mob, has great success, and then can’t figure out how to follow that up. Or who goes into a new venue, as you did, and finds that people don’t pay as much attention as you’d like. That’s going to happen, and the strategy for reaching out has to accomodate the inevitable failures, as well as mapping a path toward overcoming them, by learning (through trial and error, if needed) what really works.

      The Josh Bell story, I have to say, missed a few essential points. The best rebuttal came from an accomplished busker, who said that the experiment was tried in the wrong place and at the wrong time. And that Josh didn’t really know how to busk, didn’t know how to make eye contact with the people hearing him. I’ve seen violinists on the New York subways, on platforms at busy stations, drowned out now and then by the noise of trains, and still gather a crowd of people who let their trains pass by so they get more time to hear the music. I fear that Josh Bell story will never die, but it doesn’t really prove what it thinks it did. We’re in a far better position than it seemed to show.

  6. says

    Agreed! Bringing classical music out of the concert hall and into clubs/bars is a fantastic way to attract new audiences. Luckily Austin is a great place to do just that and there’s an enthusiastic community of folks taking on that challenge in a variety of ways.

    There’s actually an exciting initiative called the Austin Classical Music Task Force that recently formed to assess the state of classical music locally and find ways to build a more vibrant and sustainable scene. One particular focus has been to figure out unique ways to bring classical music out of its traditional venues in order to draw new audiences. In fact, they even sponsored a performance by SŌ Percussion on Austin’s metro system just a couple of weeks ago.

    Aside from that, there are a number of organizations in Austin that present classical music outside of traditional concert halls and many of them take a very similar approach to what you’ve outlined in your article. Here are a few whose events I’ve attended in the past few months:

    Fast Forward Austin

    Austin Chamber Music Center

    Classical Reinvention

    Austin New Music Co-op

    Golden Hornet Project

    However, one aspect of your plan that I don’t see implemented very frequently is direct involvement by the University on behalf of student performers. Perhaps that isn’t specific to UT though and speaks to the general temperament of university systems in the US when it comes to helping students explore non-traditional careers/opportunities in music.

    Regardless, I’m confident that the growing network of dedicated performers, composers, and presenters in Austin will continue to ensure that the “live music capitol of the world” maintains classical music as a vibrant component of its widely varied musical landscape.

    • says

      You’re right about UT not being — not by a long shot — the only music school not to encourage students to move into the larger music community. I’ve never heard of a school doing that, and it irks me, I have to say. I hear lots of talk, especially now that schools have entrepreneurship programs, about students expanding their reach into schools, and homes for the elderly. But I don’t hear about students reaching what ought to be the most natural audience for them — and an audience classical music badly needs — which is people their own age.

      I hope I stressed enough that I’m an outsider to Austin, and might not know everything that’s going on. I’ll peruse the links you gave me. Thanks for them! I’m thrilled to know that the sort of thing I talked about is going on. I did take a moment just now to go to the Golden Hornet website, and I love what I saw there. The question then would be how many people these groups reach, and whether they’re steadily growing an audience of people not involved with classical music in the past. By writing that, I certainly don’t mean to say that these groups aren’t doing that! If they are, then they’re doing the most important work that can be done in classical music right now.

      Thanks again for the links. Exciting for me to see!

  7. says

    Hi Greg,

    Good points! I wanted to call your attention to a few recent events in Austin that speak to your post. One is an event developed by Texas Performing Arts through their Classical Music Task Force (of which I’m presently the graduate fellow) featuring SO Percussion performing a pop-up concert on the Austin commuter rail. The Task Force was created to try to address the very issues you bring up, and one solution is to bring music into the places where people live and work. Here’s a link to coverage of the event.


    Another example is the Soundbridge Project developed by P.K. Waddle and Lauryn Gould which brings contemporary music into a variety of venues.


    Fast Forward Austin has for the last few years held an annual all day festival, as well as several satellite shows dedicated to contemporary music in Austin.


    The Golden Hornet Project recently held the String Quartet Smackdown! (their exclamation) which featured 16 new string quartets pitted against one another in a Sweet Sixteen style bracket competition. While I’m happy to say (and should mention this in the spirit of full disclosure) my piece was among the sixteen selected works, I went out in the first round…


    And these are just a few of the events, most of which have happened in the past week or so, When you come back through town, I hope you’ll give one of these or a similar event a try!


    Andy Sigler

    • says

      As I said to Stephen Snowden, I was very aware of writing as an outsider. I’m glad to learn more! Of course I’d love to return, and see the full extent of what’s going on. I hope that happens! Meanwhile, thanks for keeping me informed, and I’d love to have some idea of how much impact the things you and Stephen mentioned are having on the larger Austin music scene.

      • says


        Thanks so much for this article — totally on board with everything. In addition to the previously mentioned projects (which are fantastic), just a few others to check out if you are back in Austin anytime soon:

        SoundSpace at the Blanton

        Winner of the Austin Critics’ Table Award, SoundSpace is a concert series that is performed throughout the galleries of Blanton Museum of Art. The programs are giant mash-ups of music, dance, theatre, visual art, and sound installation — all occurring simultaneously throughout the Blanton. The audience is free to wander the halls of the museum, choosing to experience the performance in any order they choose.

        Our past two concerts have featured audiences of 500+ for programs comprised of primarily contemporary music. Here is Andy Sigler’s fine account of our last show: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/blanton-soundspace-space-and-symmetry/

        After Hours Concerts

        After Hours Concerts transports the listener by performing in unique locations after hours. Both new and classical music creates a soundscape to reflect each location. AHC forges connections between local businesses and musicians, and builds community in this world-class city. Audience members are also invited to indulge in a complimentary food or product based on the theme that showcases awesome local Austin businesses.

        The next concert will feature performances by line upon line percussion and Bel Cuore Sax Quartet at Austin Beerworks brewery.

        Hope to meet you the next time you are in Austin!


        • says

          Thanks, Steve. An audience of 500 is impressive! Would you hazard a guess — or, of course, a solidly informed reading — of how many people outside the normal classical/new music orbit come to classical/new music concerts around the city?

          Next time I come to Austin I’m going to shout it from the rooftops! Looking forward to meeting you. And thanks for the support, and the info.

          • says

            Austin audiences are generally very curious and many of the folks that attend these types of concerts come from a variety of backgrounds. There is a wide smattering of ages, from infants to seniors, and folks who are both in the “classical/new music orbit” and otherwise, including the visual, theatre, and dance realms.

    • says

      I’m sure it would. What I’m not sure of is how much of a nonclassical audience LPR gets for classical concerts. A lot of classical shows there are album release parties, where the audience appears to be record company people and fans of the artist. I was there once when two ambient pop artists were billed with a performance of the Quartet for the End of Time, and there we had the kind of thing I was talking about in my post. Of course, I’m all for having clubs like this, where classical music is played. Even if you don’t get a nonclassical audience at first, it’s a good start.