Listening to classical music: The concern of a generation.

I have had the chance to go to a few concerts over the last week. It has been refreshing to take part in the wonderful social experience of the concert after a long and busy summer, a time in which the ‘routine’ of concert culture is often broken or unpredictable. 

The concerts were excellent: the musicians played beautifully, the repertoire was fantastic and well chosen and the venues were intimate. There was just one issue: the audience was old. Very old.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have nothing against the chronologically advanced. But it is quite disheartening to see an audience comprised almost exclusively (often but for the family, students and friends of the performers) of senior citizens. Where or where are the 20 and 30-somethings? For that matter, were are the 40-somethings?!

It is an ongoing problem, one which orchestras across the country are struggling to address. From marketing campaigns to special pricing on concerts, from music in the schools programs to ‘crossover’ events, classical music organizations are looking for solutions. The results are heralded in different ways, ranging from the benign (being more active in the community, being a community leader in education) to the boderline-suspicious (Revolutionizing Classical music! Making classical music cool!)

The lamentation of this issue is often met with a chuckle, usually followed by a gentle sigh and shrug of the shoulders as if to say ‘Well, what can we do? Times are changing. Young people don’t have the same interests or traditions their grandparents did.’

I spoke with a friend of mine who is not a classical music aficionado nor a regular concert-goer; however, she enjoys classical music, has a good education, a good career and an appreciation for culture. She’s also in her late 30s. This makes her a perfect example of the ‘type of person’ that we hope to get into the concert hall regularly. I asked her directly: Why don’t you go? What would get you, or your friends or students, to make classical music a regular part of your life? 

Her reply was quite frustrating, and something I’ve heard before: “Give the kids something they can relate to!” she offered. “You know, you could bring in a hip-hop group and have a violinist play something over the hip-hop beats…and the kids might think ‘Hey, this is cool–now I think I’ll try listening to it with just the violin.’ That could be good!”

I know what the reaction might be to my frustration: accusations that I’m an elitist, a snob, stubborn. But that isn’t it. Not this time. It made me frustrated. It made me mad. And maybe, just maybe, this could be an acceptable response. Why? I’ll tell you why.

There is no reason that classical music itself could not be an independent frame of reference for young people. Why shouldn’t young people–children, teens, young professionals–have a basic knowledge of Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky? These men wrote long before ‘hip hop’–along with rock and pop–ever existed. And they were not living and writing in ivory towers: their message, for lack of a better term, was for everyone. 

And the idea that classical music needs to be made ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ is insulting. Nobody should have to apologize for Beethoven and Mozart. Nobody should have to dumb it down. Nobody should have to dilute it or allow it to be associated with just one mood. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me Oh, I like classical music…it is so relaxing….

I will not apologize. 

There are other criticisms: concerts–or even single pieces–are too long. The atmosphere is stuffy and formal. There are all these rules. The music is boring and antiquated–sorry, old fashioned.

I’ll give you one of those for free, but I’m taking issue with the rest. Sure, the atmosphere can be stuffy. You know why? Because some people relish the chance to be snobby. Well, that performance was okay, but it wasn’t nearly as good as my Bernstein recording!” Ok, buddy, we get it: you collect records, you know a bit about classical music, and you enjoy lording it over people you perceive to be less educated and intelligent than you are. But you know what? That snobby comment may have just turned a future subscriber into someone who will never set foot in here again. Nice going! And you know what else? Being snobby doesn’t make the music any better. The guy who bravely bought a ticket to his first symphony concert has every bit as much the right to enjoy the concert as you do. So yes: those who allege that concerts can be stuffy, I acknowledge your complaint. We will work on that. 

Now, onto the rest:

Concerts are too long? You can’t sit through a 45 minute symphony? Believe it or not, sitting still and concentrating for extended periods of time are actual, important life skills. Grown up skills. If you can’t concentrate on something for 30 or 45 minutes, the problem may be with you rather than with the music. That doesn’t mean that every 45 minute long piece of music is a masterpiece–but maybe you could take the time to find out. And frankly, these composers wrote about some pretty serious things: life, death, love, faith, desire, war. Those things can’t always fit into a 3 minute song. Sorry. 

Next: The setting is formal and there are rules: well, yeah. First, not every concert is formal. Plenty aren’t. But lets assume you’re at a concert which has a bit of formality involved. Fine. You know what? Putting on the big boy pants, tying your own tie and being polite aren’t the worst things in the world to have to do. Again, these are actual life skills! Consider it practice for your cousin Marge’s wedding. We know you don’t like Marge that much–but trust us, you’ll love this Mozart. And those rules? Sorry, sometimes you have to follow the rules. Sure, trying not to cough, rattle paper, make a call or make other noises at certain times can be tough–but if you can’t at least try it for a couple of hours, again, the problem may not be with the music.

Finally…the music is boring? Excuse me? Boring, did you say? Listen to Shostakovich. The guy lived with a bag packed, looking over both shoulders, waiting to die a long, painful, horrible death for, you know, not wanting to call a violent, erratic sociopath (Stalin) the greatest guy who ever lived. Good ol’ Dimitri defied official orders time and time again; he was brave, and he was honest: this fear (and his love of his homeland) found its way into his music. Listen to the 3rd movement of the 8th symphony. Go, ahead, do it–then tell me that this music is boring. What? More examples? Hm…well, lets see….how about the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th: if you can listen to that and not want to dance, then you are not alive. How about the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 5th? Chaos! Barber’s Adagio–need a tissue? And there are many, many more examples I could give–thousands, quite literally.

Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the classical music world is hardly without sin. But the music needs no apology. I am through apologizing for this great music, this wonderful tradition, this living history. 

It is time for a new generation.


13 thoughts on “Listening to classical music: The concern of a generation.

  1. Very good! Already the generation of parents and sometimes even grandparents is socialized with popular music. So there is no classical music in the homes, and there is too few in schools. Popular music is like a drug. It has to be banned totally from schools. And it is important to bring classical music to the children in an early age, when they are still open for it.

  2. Thank you for a well written and inspiring article. I agree with almost everything you say.
    Having worked for decades with concerts for young audiences my experience is that most young persons are surprisingly well acquainted with the ‘language’ of classical music. They have a quite good capacity to appreciate the classical music affects and expressions. However, evidently most of them have almost no experience of the live concert concept. Music for most of them is something mediated in films, on DC/DVD, on the computer, mobile, or just as a sonic background. This fact leaves us with several questions, e.g. what is the main reason for visiting a live concert. Unfortunately many people visiting live concerts belongs to the category for whom it’s more important to have been there than for the musical experiences they hope to get. I believe the concept of the live concert has to be regenerated, especially the classical music one. The clue with the live concert – of any genre actually – is that it is an instant on-going communication between humans, through music. It’s live, and where the audience also ‘makes’ the concert, provided the artists are sensible for this communication. Too often I have experienced classical musicians that shows little or no interest in who he/she is actually playing for, with an attitude that is more like ‘please be quiet – we are actually working here’. This attitude might be OK for the concert habitué, sometimes even expressly appreciated, but it will not work for a young, inexperienced concert goer. There are brilliant exceptions on this, classical musicians with excellent outreach, strong presence and with a genuine interest in the audience. I have seen this several times, also with quite modern contemporary music. Those artists are the hope for the future.
    Then there are a lot of other aspects on this issue, the social aspect, labelling, accessibility, and a lot of others. Leave that for others.
    Per Ekedahl
    President, JMI

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Having spent over thirty years in the classical music industry I am always frustrated when I hear the same old comments about ‘ making classical music relevant to young people’. We must stop apologising for the nature of the product and concentrate on educating children as young as possible about how wonderful music is. If every child was taught to read music as early as they are taught to read and write generally then classical music would be accepted as ‘normal’ in every level of society. The reading of music from an early age would also be accepted as a desirable and even neccessary life skill which enhances the quality of life.

    By all means let us continue to look at ways of reducing further any perceived formalities which may still exist in the delivery of live music ( although an ocassional bit of formality in life is no bad thing ), but let it not be by tampering with or by the dreadful ‘dumbing down’ of the very thing which thrills us all – the music itself.

  4. I love classical music! And as an amateur flute player have studied classical works for years. To help young children learn about some aspects of music understanding and musical instruments, I have written storybooks. Stories about animals learning music. Fun stories that inform as well as entertain. This is my attempt to share with youngsters the need for them to learn about the world of classical music. Cheers Chrissy

  5. I think one answer to this frustrating concern, is to expose young children and their families to classical music in a way that is relevant to them.
    In collaboration with the Ann Arbor Symphony and our local library, I have created a program called Music and Motion: KinderConcerts for children 1-6 yrs. old. We offer concerts 3 times a year with myself, a pianist and a guest musician. The programs are free and tailored in a way that gets children involved with their grown-ups and even able to sit for a short time and listen. I highly recommend taking this approach. We have been doing the program for 7 years and the response is overwhelming. Children and parents that might never have this opportunity are listening to great works of music, up close and personal. If anyone would like to hear more about our program, please feel free to contact me. There is more information on my web site.…Gari Stein-Music For Little Folks-Ann Arbor MI

  6. Well said! As someone in her late 30s who does love classical music, I wish more people would give it a chance. It’s not just big orchestras who have trouble finding an audience – I’m an active member of community bands and other local groups, and it’s a constant struggle to fill the seats.

  7. Many thanks for putting this out into the open so succinctly, JoachimAmadaeus!
    The time is ripe for a World Musicians’ Forum on the topic of Music Education – one that follows through with a world petition to all nations’ education systems demonstrating 1) the multitude of benefits for all youth (and others), for learning the foundations of music in schools (beginning in kindergarten), and 2) the need for government subsidised free music appreciation ‘concerts’ (which society always wants and supports). If we stand united across nations, as music performers and educators, we might have a chance to implement change. As you have all indicated, the defining ‘Holistic Approach’ holds the keys to success. I will just say here, the term itself ‘classical’ is definitely a major problem with the non-practising public, and has been for decades now. It is a misnomer anyway, an anachronistic term leftover from the earlier 1900s, and puts many people off instantly because they have either not been initiated naturally (since school music education was dropped or been downgraded), OR they have their own connotation of ‘classical music’ and seen that they do not fit the mould displayed. Leonard Bernstein was a fabulous performer-educator role model in the late 50s and 60s, in that he quite naturally made ‘classical’ music compelling for everybody (taking the stuffiness out of it) and crossed genres without the slightest problem. Some young performers are learning to communicate differently in a compelling mode and manage successfully. These are the daring, courageous personalities who defy traditions. Just consider that creative individuals (especially composers, but also performers) always looked to the past, taken what is appropriate and created something new for present society, (perhaps even changing the setting /environment). So it seems appropriate to re-consider and revamp the traditional approach without losing the necessary depth and quality.

  8. Excellent comments which I agree with right across the board. The only problem is that I think listening to classical music is a lonely occupation not shared by many people. Nobody will take the time. How can one change that ?

    • Trevor, surely is through the social aspect that classical music will survive and that is what we need to work on. Look at past centuries. In Europe the tradition of classical music on the streets is still strong. In Munich you can even hear Beethoven played through speakers at the underground train station and classical student musician buskers are heard throughout European countries. That’s how they can best practice. Music performed on the streets in Prague is breathtaking. In times of personal crisis people are known to often find solace in classical music even if they are not classically oriented, so we need both the social and the personal aspects, one feeding into the other. Variety of venues and styles – look at the evergreen popularity of the London Proms, decade after decade, that remains an important part of young and not so young people’s lives. It is part of the English culture. We must make it part of our culture – in an attractive package – including present day composers who talk about their work. Make it an experience. But it has to start as a child. (I can remember going to concert excursions). There needs to be more interaction on both sides?

  9. Bravo, Bravissimo! Degeneration in early education in music-playing an instrument, basic literacy-is part of the problem as well. The process of playing an instrument at any skill level and in any style (‘guitar hero’ aside) leads to better appreciation of all music. It is ironic that we live in a time when music surrounds, and invades, our environment and fewer and fewer people actually listen

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