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.
Last 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.
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.
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.
John 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 www.johnsteinmetz.org.