Providing Context and Relevance in the Performance of Classical Music

Classical musicians are often accused of playing nothing but dead white men’s music. And though it’s true that much of the repertoire that appears in classical music programs were written by white men who are now dead, what these critics are getting at is something deeper. What they mean is that classical music feels irrelevant to their lives.

Context and Classical Music

Understanding the context in which a certain piece of music was written completely changes the experience of hearing that music. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was written to address a very specific set of circumstances in his time. Wagner’s Ring Cycle was very political in nature, Mahler had a particular purpose, a specific idea behind every single one of his symphonies. You can listen to a Mahler symphony and think it’s a great piece of music, but when you read the story behind it – when you understand the motivation – you have a much different, more profound experience of the piece.

Casual classical music listeners lack that context. People used to be very knowledgeable about classical music, but today, due to diminishing music education (and art education in general) the majority of the population is almost entirely ignorant about the lives and motivations of classical composers. Without context, of course, the music of dead white men feels irrelevant!

To address this criticism, many organizations have taken to intentionally programming music by living composers and under-represented groups. Unfortunately, without the name recognition enjoyed by the most famous composers, these contemporary programs often have even less to recommend them to audiences largely unfamiliar with classical music. For highly knowledgeable audiences, who’ve often developed strong opinions about various contemporary composers, these programs can even be off-putting.

What’s to be done then?

Perhaps sneak in a contemporary piece? Unadvertised and unannounced? For that matter, why tell the audience what you are going to play at all? How many people attend a classical music performance with no idea of what’s being performed? Not many. Why not?

Because they have no idea what they’re signing up for. 

On the other hand, how many times have you been provided a set list by a non-classical performer? Rarely, if ever. Yet, people still show up to watch Adele and Sting without any idea of which songs they are going to hear. Why does it work for popular musicians and not classical musicians?

It works because those popular music audiences are showing up for an experience. They may not know exactly what they’ll be listening to, but they know they are going to have a good time, they are going to be moved in one way or another, even if it’s just moved to dance.

As classical performers, we must make sure our audiences have the same expectation. We must instill confidence that regardless of the particulars, our listeners can anticipate a specific experience so that our name or the name of our ensemble is associated with a particular feeling. Feeling is always relevant.

Many orchestras are already on board. They offer different series, designed to provide different audiences with varying, but predictable experiences of music. The Florida Orchestra has a Masterworks Series featuring programming by the great classical composers, a Movie Series presenting the music of Harry Potter and other hits, and a Pops series. These three series offer three entirely different experiences while giving audience members a very good idea of what experience to expect.

A question often arises when thinking of programming like this: how much cross-over should we expect between audiences? Can we lure people into more “serious” programming by enticing them with something lighter or more familiar?

This question misses the point.

Every time you show up, perform, and your audience comes away better for the experience, you’ve done your job. You’ve succeeded. This holds true regardless of whether you played pieces by Mahler, Charlotte Bray, or John Williams. Create an experience relevant to your audience’s lives, and you make classical music relevant for all.  

If you would like to hear the live discussion about this topic, head on over to now.

If you are ready to learn more about how to build a profitable, fulfilling career as a performing classical musician, check out Concert University, and the free webinar that outlines 5 strategies for success.