Some notes on audiences and accessibility

27Dec08

In my first post, I said classical music annoys me sometimes. If you can’t imagine why, this post is for you.

In all the recitals and concerts I’ve ever performed in, there’s an obvious preponderance of parents, music teachers, and people with white hair. I don’t have anything against old people, but I can’t help but feel frustrated that the only people interested in coming to see classical music concerts are upper-middle class 40-60 year old white people.

(My own use of “classical music” here is going to encompass all music on scores, played in concerts attended by non-participating spectators. More specifically, in this post I’m usually referring to my understanding of vocal music throughout my experience as a choir student in Texas public schools, then a vocal performance major at a small, mostly unheard-of liberal arts school.)

So what’s wrong with audiences made up of mostly old white people, as long as they support the arts?

A better question is, why are the “arts” are worth supporting if they mean nothing to non-old, non-white people?

One of the best things about classical music is also one of the most troublesome. We have the art preserved on scores that are reinterpretable by new performers several times over. Performers strive to achieve what the composer originally intended for the music, but for the average modern listener, the sociological conditions producing the music someone like Mozart wrote are lost. I bet you a few bucks that on average, the average listener starts thinking about hir shopping list shortly after the first few notes are played. We experience music in a fundamentally different way than Mozart experienced music, and it’s difficult to get anyone to listen to it if a) they don’t have a vested interest in the performers (teachers, parents), or b) they have the time and money to feed a classical music hobby (retired people). It also helps if friends from your community are in attendance, and classical music halls don’t exactly make themselves friendly to punk kids.

Many young audiences aren’t getting classical music, because it isn’t speaking to their experience. I think it should figure out how to.

Classical music seems to grow more and more esoteric, and in an age where more popular music spreads across the Internet like wildfire, this is problematic. This stems in part from underfunded music education systems in many public schools (more on this later). In our distracted culture, it’s going to be more difficult for people who haven’t grown up around classical music to enjoy it. But it definitely still has the capacity to reach out to everyone. It offers a means of meditation, of practicing the sustained concentration and resulting enjoyment that it somewhat uniquely provides and that is sorely lacking in almost every other corner of modern experience. The benefits of experiencing in this way, I think, may offer a means of resistance to the more negative effects of industrialization, the most important of which may be alienation and its trappings.

Documenting and thereby understanding the way people consume music today and its effects on them is important if we want to use it to actually communicate rather than look fancy.

Productions that refuse to acknowledge the differences between classical composers’ and our lived experience effectively lose sight of how best to communicate the musical points they were trying to make. Thoughtful dramaturgy and audience-specific programming would help this problem immensely. Now, how to fund such things?

That’s all I have time for today, but before I go: one amazing example of how to fuel excitement for classical music in public education is Venezuela’s el Sistema, which my friend Kenya told me about earlier this year. Apparently they’re making a movie about it too.

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3 Responses to “Some notes on audiences and accessibility”

  1. brooke, you write really well. it’s kinda freaky sometimes.

    anyway, i’m really glad you have this blog up and running. i am looking forward to seeing more and more posts. :]

    how funny that you post that video.. my family from venezuela is here in miami right now (the cousins i never get to see!) and last night we were eating dinner and watching this:

    check out the expression on the face of the conductor (and the kids)! it is something that truly makes me happy… wish it was going on all over the world.

  2. That video’s so great!! Perfect example of how letting kids make music is empowering… rather than forcing them to do stupid choreography and sing to canned christmas carols/patriotic songs (as any viewer of Channel 17 in McAllen will observe). gives me an idea for my next post, hm!

    Are your cousins in el sistema?

  3. Hi Brooke! I got to your blog from your Twitter follow–an incredible confluence of ideas, opinions, and outlooks, you and I (except for the vegan thing :P), and I’m happy to have found you/your blog.

    I’ve written/said oodles on this very subject, and what it really comes down to has nothing to do with “reinventing” classical music as much as it is these days about educating people how it permeates their daily lives whether they realize it or not. Film scores are obvious, but commercial ditties, rock/pop melodies/chords, etc. don’t just have their basic roots shared with western classical music, it’s outright stolen on a regular basis. Finding a connect, a starting place, and following that thread back to the beginning is where I think the most success lies with modern, young audiences.

    I more to say on the marketing/”white hair phenomenon” and it has little to do with disposable income, but I don’t want to hijack the comments/post, so I’ll leave it at that. 🙂 I look forward to more…Happy New Year!


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