From John Steinmetz: A life-changer


From Greg: 

John Steinmetz is one of several people I’ve gotten close to after meeting them online, because (apart from liking each other) we share an interest in the future of classical music. He’s a bassoonist, composer, thinker, and (I think this is right) a musical activist, based in Los Angeles. 

More than a year ago, I invited him to blog here, and though he was happy to do it, life took him down other paths. But I’ve now learned once again that all things come  to those who wait, because now John has a post about something he encountered as a teacher. 

We all, John included, have theories about how to bring people to classical music. But as John explains, the reality can be far more complex. And, maybe, more exhilarating, too. There’s lots to think about in what he’s given us.

comeagainLast fall I taught music appreciation at a community college for the first time in several years. I tried to teach about music, rather than just classical music, but I did require everybody to attend a professional classical concert of their choice and write about it.

There were about forty students, mostly in their early twenties, in their first or second year of college, and judging from their writing, many had been seriously shortchanged by their previous education. A few were music majors, but most of the students had never attended a professional classical concert. I didn’t do much to prepare them specifically for concertgoing, and I was a little worried that some of them might dislike the experience.

On the day they handed in their reports about the various concerts they attended, I drew two lines on the whiteboard and asked everyone to make a mark on each one to show how they expected to feel about the concert and how they actually felt about it. The bottom line shows expectation (negative on the left, positive on the right) and the top line shows experience. As you can see, the class as a whole had a better time than expected.

steinmetz image

Many of the students’ reports described their surprise about this. Here is an especially vivid example from a student who attended a chamber music concert (Brahms 1st Violin Sonata and Schumann Piano Quintet). After the required description of the music, he gave this answer about how the music affected him. (I have left the writing unedited, although I shortened it a little.)

I honestly didn’t want to attend this concert. The fact that I had to listen to classical music for an hour was dreadful. I was so close to leaving the concert but I decided to stay when they announced the performers for the there first piece. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Halfway through the first movement it hit me that classical music was not so bad. The more they played the better it got. Live classical music is way better than recordings of it…I wouldn’t listen to it in recording but live you bet I will. I didn’t think it would be possible to like something a lot but also hate it.…

It was so unexpected how amazed I was. It made me forget about the thought of leaving the concert. The main reason why i liked it so much was the pianist Rina Dokshitsky. She was just amazingly talented. They were all talented but she stood out the most to me. Cause of her you can say i’m a fan of the piano. Could possibly be one of the best instruments eve invented if you ask me. I payed attention the most to what she was doing. It was just incredible what she did.

All the time and effort they put to there performances was greatly shown without a doubt. My excitement was the proof of how good it was. I felt no worries. All my problems were forgotten temporarily due to the fact that I was wrong. Classical music is not boring. I will not judge music without hearing it. I was calmed and relaxed. It made me reminisce about all the arguments i will get with people about classical music. Saying it was boring and what not.

I was sad when it finished, I actually wanted to keep hearing more.…The performance blew my mind away.…It was my first live professional classical concert and it is not going to be my last.…It was a life changer.

Other students reported similar feelings and expressed interest in hearing more concerts. I was surprised—stunned, really—by the number of positive reactions. I want to speculate about how this happened, and then I’ll suggest two ways that musicians and organizations might get involved with listeners like these. 

What mattered?

Before the students handed in their concert reports, I asked them to talk about the experience. Apparently the music itself won them over, along with the intensity and skill of the performers. And it was crucial that the music was live. Several students mentioned that recordings did not affect them in the same way.

Meanwhile, factors that I assumed were important didn’t seem to matter. Most of the students didn’t know much of anything about what they were hearing—no historical context, no connection with the composers, little or no familiarity with periods, genres, forms. Hardly any students researched the music or listened to it beforehand. As far as I could tell, no performers talked from the stage. Some students found themselves much younger than others in the audience, some of them noticed a not-too-welcoming atmosphere, and some felt a kind of formality or stuffiness, but most didn’t mention these things until I asked, and these factors didn’t seem to impede their enjoyment.

Repertoire didn’t seem to matter either. Some heard the L.A. Phil play Bruckner, or Vivaldi, or a mixed program with a new piece. Some heard chamber music; others heard recitals. The performers were local professionals, faculty members at nearby colleges, touring soloists, minor and major orchestras. Venues ranged from the drab to the glamorous, and included college recital halls, a museum auditorium, and Disney Hall. As far as I can remember, every kind of event produced at least some enthusiastic reports.

I can’t help noticing that these concerts included none of the innovations that Greg and many others, including myself, have been advocating as essential for inexperienced listeners. Nevertheless, the music managed to engage these students. How did this happen? What’s going on?

The simple truth is that I don’t know. But I’ll speculate.

What we did in class

I suspect that some of the class work may have made the students more receptive to unfamiliar music. As I said, I didn’t prepare them very much for concertgoing, and I didn’t tell them about the music they would hear. My way of teaching is very little involved with learning information; it is mostly about sharpening the experience of music. To that end, I emphasize musical work, as distinct from the historical work and vocabulary work that dominate music appreciation textbooks I’ve seen. We had spent weeks trying to hear more in music, trying to become more aware of personal responses to it, and trying to describe those perceptions and reactions in words.

Students also built never-before-seen instruments out of junk. They created brief ensemble pieces and performed them with their instruments, and then they discussed their perceptions and reactions. Maybe the concert videos they watched, of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth and the Rite of Spring, prepared them a little. (Though at least one student heard the Stravinsky in concert afterward, and made that now-familiar comment, that it sounded much more compelling live.)

None of the classroom work was particularly sophisticated; much of it was pretty basic. I couldn’t tell whether the activities were having any effect, because the students didn’t show much enthusiasm, and because their pre-concert written responses to music were mostly perfunctory. Most of them seemed incurious about unfamiliar kinds of music. And if the work we did made students more ready to enjoy a concert, they themselves didn’t know it. As the whiteboard shows, many of them expected to have a bad time.

But perhaps the work changed these students just enough that they could listen to unfamiliar music in a style some of them expected to dislike, and surprise themselves by liking it.

I wonder what would have happened if a control group of random students, without any class work, had been assigned to attend the same concerts. My guess is that some would have liked the experience; the power of the performance would have won them over. But I assume that the number of likers would have been smaller, and that more of those who expected to have bad time would have been right.

By the end of the class, a few weeks later, many students said in their final papers that the class had affected them. Most of these reported hearing more of what goes on in music, and several mentioned  open-mindedness toward different types of music. But at the time of the concert reports, none of that was apparent to me.

So here are my very tentative conclusions:

  • Doing musical activities in class helped students to be at least slightly more receptive to unfamiliar music.
  • What really won them over was hearing the music live, in person.

I’ll teach this class again in the coming months, and I’ll try to learn more about causes and effects. I’d probably need several years to learn what activities and experiences most powerfully affect responsiveness to music.

What can we learn from this?

Because so many of the students expressed interest in hearing another classical concert, I’d like to challenge this community to think about how to meet that interest. Certainly that is relevant to classical music’s future. How might we follow up with students like these? They don’t have much money to spend on concerts, and they are not receiving attention from classical music organizations. Is there an opportunity here? What might your organization do, what invitation or welcome could you offer, to lure these students back to become repeat attenders?

Another opportunity, perhaps a huge one, is suggested by the students’ surprise at the power of live music. In colleges across the country, non-musicians take classes about music, and many of those courses focus on classical music. I suspect that the classes often rely on recordings. Why not represent the music better? I know that colleges’ resident ensembles sometimes play for music classes, but what about visits from local professional musicians, local ensembles, and concert organizations? 

Whenever musicians came into my class to play, even if it was only a simple demonstration, the atmosphere changed, charged by interest and attention. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising—lots of people find instruments fascinating and enjoy watching musicians work them—but the strength of the shift surprised me. Live music could help to make these classes more compelling.

Of course, performing classical music for completely unprepared ears might not produce stellar results right away. Students might need to practice tuning in to acoustic sound, perceiving details, and making connections between perception and emotion. These skills improve with practice, and that practice ought to be more fun and more effective with live music.

What do readers of this blog know about all this? How often does live music visit college classrooms? What are the effects? Does anybody know of a concert organization involved with a music class for non-majors? I hope you’ll share your experiences. (The only story I can remember is a negative one, from a music appreciation teacher who every term took his class to a culminating performance of opera or symphonic music in the nearby metropolis. He mentioned that those organizations showed no interest in his efforts.)

In your community, someone is teaching young adults about the tradition you represent. To show that tradition in its best light, consider helping that instructor by performing music in the most vivid and compelling way—up close and personal. It might be a life changer.

DSC_5623John Steinmetz is a worker-bee bassoonist in Los Angeles, a composer, a writer, and a teacher. His article “Resuscitating Art Music”  circulated widely. Various labels have released recordings of John’s compositions, such as War Scrap and Suite from an Imaginary Opera. More information, music samples, and writings are at

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  1. says

    Really wonderful story John… thanks!
    I think the fact that you gave them no pre-judgments facilitated their own openness. Surprise and epiphany are among the chief “drugs” music delivers. If newbies learn how to access those effects, they’ll come back for more. Wouldn’t you say the driver seems to curiosity… and having their burning questions answered? Did they ask why it was called classical… and what did you answer, if so?
    I hope you mentioned the Classical Revolution chapter in LA.
    I also think that you got them to think about the basics (sound production, playing, and coordination) was pivotal to their willingness to listen with thought and experience. We must all find ways for non-musicians to enter the circle (game)… even if it’s with a drum, cowbell, shaker or something.
    I’m PUMPED!

    • says

      One thing that I’ve found to work well, is to describe concert-going as “listening in the spirit of meditation”… to let the music itself take us on an adventurous ride in partnership with our own imagination (surfing the waves of sound). Usually the first part is enough… but with that automatically comes the reason for listening in silence. I can then recommend closing their eyes for long periods to maximize the impact of the music.

  2. says

    From my experience teaching, people now don’t get the chance to actually listen to music. Most forms of popular music aren’t really designed to be listened to. It is rather an accompaniment to live. When you ask people to listen to music without the props and the allowance for distraction of popular music it might seem to first timers like a kind of attentional boot camp. But the power of bodies and minds committed to classical music performance is there if only you can clear a space in peoples distracted and directed lives. I think this is what happened with Johns classes. I wonder whether really good musicians could make appearances in doctors waiting rooms, it’s a space where a lot of distraction is removed and people find the waiting a chore. I want to say that my explanation is probably not the whole story but it might be of some use.

  3. Caroline Markos says

    A fantastic little beacon of hope you have here in your post! Now the only question remains as to how to get more people in this age group who aren’t taking a music appreciation class into a seat at a classical music concert venue. I love your idea about classical music organizations reaching out to local colleges and universities to draw them in. While music education for wee children is very important (I don’t want anyone to misconstrue what I’m about to say here), I feel that too much emphasis is put on this within these organizations’ outreach and education departments. I strongly feel, like you’ve suggested, that they should be reaching out more often to students in this older age group because they’re the ones who are going to have the free will and (hopefully) the funds upon graduation to be regular concert goers much sooner than 5 and 6 year olds who are many years away from being out of their parent’s care, decision making and weekly allowance payroll. I’ll look forward to more posts from you!

  4. says

    Thanks for an enlightening, and in many ways encouraging post! This speaks directly to my frustration as a co-director of a chamber ensemble. We are a small operation and are struggling all the time to bring in the kind of audience you describe above–but a sighting of a teenager or Gen X-er at one of our concerts is a rare event indeed. And this despite the fact that most of our concerts are free and easily accessible. Absent a mandate from a teacher to attend I fear that most of that generation can’t be bothered.

  5. Jeanette Challingsworth says

    What a refreshing piece about an important topic, John. It seems as though musicians and concert managers are too busy dreaming up creative lures that they often lose sight of the fundamentals of audience building you described. I always find it fascinating to ask people (non-musicians, those not interested in classical music) what classical musicians could do to make it more interesting. One of the oddest responses I had was, “Maybe they could write more of their own music.” That answer spoke volumes to me as a concert manager. Classical music lovers and players really do come from a very different point of view. Instead of responding with the obvious, “We re-create, we don’t create the notes on the page. That’s not what classical music is about!” I thought to myself, “Huh. Maybe we are thinking about this all wrong.” It isn’t that I think classical musicians necessarily need to start writing their own tunes, but I do think the industry needs to understand the huge gap between what the uninitiated consider “normal” and what it is classical music does. There is a serious gap in expectations, which your class illustrated. And it is not only that they were afraid it would sound terrible, or be boring or a generalized fear of the unknown — it’s that classical music doesn’t fit their idea and expectations of what music is today, and what it’s purpose is.

    I like the idea of not over-preparing new listeners before they attend a concert. Let them exercise their imaginations and feel the joy of being assailed by their emotions. This is a similar allure of live concerts in any genre. The mind makes of music what it will, and that is a superbly human process that is so delightful to any listener, but especially to young people and new listeners.

    The sad reality is that the vast majority of non-musician college students will only sample classical music when forced to do so, under threat of getting a poor grade in a class. Even more disheartening is the tiny proportion of those who were so amazed and thrilled by attending a live concert and so certain they would go to classical concerts in the future in fact actually ever do. They seem to keep an open heart to it, but unless an “influencer” takes them by the hand and leads them back to another concert, they are likely never to attend one again, despite having memories of being elated by the experience. This, too, is human nature. Unless the road to classical concert going is established earlier than college, people are off in a different rut and it is hard to re-route them.

    I believe it would help create new listening habits if students were to attend concerts throughout the course, with extra points given for each concert; doubled if they manage to make it to a recital, a chamber concert, a choral concert AND an orchestra or chamber orchestra concert; and tripled if they also attend an opera or ballet.

    I applaud your decision to make your class experience very hands-on, building instruments, having them sing in class, pounding out rhythms, even breathing and dancing. This helps them to feel what it’s like to make music, itself a major tipping point toward listenership. That is of immeasurable value to students so accustomed to sitting alone, texting, gaming or studying instead of mastering their 3D life. And that has nothing to do with musical genre. It has to do with expanding their notion of what’s fun to include musical expression and elicitation of emotion, the stimulation of imagination, even music’s ability to allow for self-expression, or its ability to divert and soothe or excite mind in new directions. Keep on showing young people how to exercise their higher selves. It can only improve those individuals and our society.

  6. Steve Sinner says

    I firmly believe that classical music’s formal visual image is a serious put-off for today’s younger folk. They know and appreciate the music aurally, because it is endemic in our culture; movies, advertising, everywhere. But they have absolutely no interest in the tuxedos and tails that date from centuries ago, but have an inexplicable headlock on our performing groups.
    I find it particularly interesting to watch the reactions of people during flash mob classical performances. I often see initial disgust at the beginning of a flash mob turn to interest, and then to joy.

  7. says

    It would be interesting to follow up with the same students in a year or so and see whether they actually do continue to attend concerts.

  8. says

    Thank you, everybody, for taking time to write, and for these generous and insightful comments. I’m going to try some of these ideas.

    Rick, the students didn’t ask why it’s called classical, and I don’t think I explained. I did ask a couple of times about issues they wanted to discuss or questions they wanted to raise, but that one didn’t come up.

    Peter, I agree that some music can affect people even when they’re not paying attention. Some popular media seize and direct the audience’s attention so well that some people find it difficult to direct their own attention. That’s one of the things I’m trying to learn about through this class: what helps students learn to direct their attention toward music and into it? I don’t think it’s a hard skill to learn, but people don’t necessarily stumble across how to do it. Some of the pleasures in certain kinds of music are only available to listeners who know how to direct attention.

    Susan, one way to attract a particular kind of listener to your concerts is to invite a few members of the target group to help you design an event that will appeal to them. I was involved with a couple of projects like this, and the results exceeded our hopes. Not only did our co-designers have valuable insights, they also got excited about the event and helped to promote it to their peers. Having civilians on the creative team helped presenter and performers break through the usual ways of presenting music.

    Jeanette, I love the civilian’s comment about performers writing their own music. Very provocative.

    I agree that most students from classes like mine don’t go back to attend another concert, so my question for everybody is about that issue: what can organizations and ensembles do to encourage students who say they want to attend again? Are there ways to find or create more of the “influencers” you talk about? Would vouchers help? Some kind of personal contact at the first concert that leads to follow-up?

    It’s not just a matter of making the events more attractive. This is about building relationships. Music organizations spend lots of time building relationships with donors, subscribers, media, corporate sponsors, and opinion leaders. Surely some of this expertise could apply to first-time young concert-goers. Don’t just take their money and then let them slip away!

    I’d like to see much more R&D in our field, looking into this question and others. The field needs experiments.

  9. says

    In Helsingborg, Sweden where I grew up there was a wonderful collaboration with the symphony orchestra and the school board. They provided coupons via the music teachers for all music students to attend as many concerts as they wanted absolutely free of charge. The idea was that by making us love it when our minds were young and open we would want to continue going after entering working life and then pay for the tickets and keep the concert hall full.
    I think we might also have been given some credit or volunteer hours for going so even if some were reluctant at first, that was an added incentive.

  10. says

    Ingrid, thank you very much for this information. Do you know anything about how this idea worked out? Did very many of the children who used vouchers grow up to become ticket-buying concertgoers?