Why Youth Orchestras Don’t Equal Youthful Audiences

Today, there are more youth orchestras than at any other time in history. Yet, there is still the misconception that only people over the age of 70 enjoy classical music. Why? Because when one looks out over the average audience at a classical performance, there is a sea of white hair.

So, what’s happening to these young people involved in music programs across the country, and indeed the world? Why aren’t they filling the seats?

Soccer and Symphonies

Classical music is not alone in this dilemma.

On any given Saturday morning, nearly every park is filled with hundreds of kids wearing shin guards and cleats, chasing a black and white ball around a field. Youth soccer is a huge industry. However, here in the US, that young enthusiasm hasn’t translated into a big passion for what everyone else in the world calls professional football.

Far more kids play soccer than American football, but you’d never know it if you judged by the sports adults watch. Americans seem to have a very hard time drumming up enthusiasm for the World Cup, even as we take our children to soccer practice every Tuesday and Thursday.

Classical music faces the same conundrum. Every evening, thousands of children are diligently practicing their instruments, yet nearly every classical performance is devoid of these young enthusiasts.

Checking Boxes, Not Building Passions

So why does youth involvement not lead to adult participation? In part, it is because parents sign children up for band, orchestra, and music lessons (as well as soccer) not to foster a love of classical music, but to foster the skills that come along with diligent practice of any team effort – persistence, teamwork, comradery.

As students get older, it is often they who sign up for these same activities, not because they love them, or are even particularly interested in them, but because they check off some box on some yet to be completed college application. Music: check. Sports: check.

The Missing Piece of Music Education

For all of the diligent teaching of scales, rhythms, dynamics, and working in concert with other players, there is often very little instruction in one critical part of music – listening attentively. There is a lot of focus on the individual student and even the group as a whole, but not much on the importance of music as community and communication.

Certainly, some teachers break the mold. They vigorously encourage students to go hear professional performances. They keep an ear to the ground, looking for opportunities and programs that will enthrall their students, and then put together groups to go en masse. These are the teachers who are most likely to run into their own students at the local symphony’s performance of Harry Potter – they’ve instilled a certain enthusiasm that grows even without direct involvement.

Programs and Preferences Are Important

Of course, it’s not always as easy as it should be for these teachers to find suitable performances. While it’s true that virtually every single classical performance is open to young people, it is also true that very few of them go out of their way to engage younger audiences.

I once invited a young cellist to come see a performance of an orchestra I was conducting. This 12-year-old had some interest in perhaps pursuing professional music, and we both thought it might be nice for her to see what a real orchestra does. She was enthusiastic to be there but was sound asleep by the middle of the second piece. There was nothing she could relate to in the music at all. There was nothing familiar, nothing to latch onto, so she got bored. When I mentioned this to the director of the orchestra, he said, “Well, that’s not my audience.”

He’d just missed a chance to gain a new loyalist, an enthusiastic player who may have attended performances for ten years before becoming a professional herself, and he couldn’t have cared less.

This is the wrong attitude to take. No, it isn’t necessary to cater specifically to a young audience, as we’ve discussed before, but you can be certain that a program that at least considers the engagement of all audience members will certainly be no less popular among the typical (read: older) members. 

First Things First

Yes, classical music has been shown to have many benefits. It makes you better at math; it increases your attention span. But the real purpose of classical music or any music for that matter is enjoyment, beauty, and emotional connection.

If parents and teachers focus exclusively on developing the brains, skills, and resumes of young players, they are never going to instill that true love of classical music. And that love is the key to developing audiences.

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

Who cares about live music?

"Tell Someone Who Cares"Time for a rant/ rave/ vent, methinks. It’s been a while. Bear with me:

Who cares about live music?

Everywhere I look there are stories of musicians being yelled off their stage, performers crying for “decent” pay, orchestras and opera houses closing down, music schools diminishing beyond recognition, and a host of other music-related news that simply doesn’t play a pretty tune.

So, who actually still cares about music?

  • Musicians do (instrumentalists, singers, composers, conductors).
  • Politicians will if it makes them popular.
  • Some film producers and directors do.
  • Music writers and administrators do.
  • Music teachers and professors do.
  • Some corporate executives hoping to make their company look good by supporting local musical establishments might.

Who else?

  • And don’t tell me dancers do – if they did we’d still have live musicians at every performance.
  • And don’t tell me most audiences do – if they did they’d willingly pay the costs of every concert.
  • And don’t tell me clergy do – if they did they wouldn’t be promoting celebrities who sing to pre-recorded tracks.

But despite the seemingly exhaustive list of supporters, first: look how many people who experienced music directly in their lives are those who remain passionate about it, and second: I can’t help but feel an underlying podium of obligation and hidden-agenda persuasion.

The fact is, in 2013 there are very few people who care about one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of expression. “Music” has been around for as long as birds could whistle and people could control the pitch of their voices. For centuries it was just a part of everyday life for just about everyone.

16th Century Gregorian Chant Song Book

This 16thC songbook in Seville Cathedral contains many chants “composed” over hundreds of years

Then, about 500+ years ago, someone figured out a way to write it down so others could repeat what was being expressed. (Actually, music was used in the church to aid priests with their memorization of liturgical text – a trick that is still used today.) I’ve seen one of the earliest songbooks known to exist, currently housed in Seville cathedral, and when people stop to consider what it represents, it is an awesome thing. But, like so many museum pieces, most people just wander by and say ¡Qué Bueno! (“That’s nice.”) You can hear the apathy in their tone.

Since then, there’s been a direct split between formal music and popular music. Even these words seem insufficient to describe the horrors of classifying and labeling just about each individual’s specific tastes, desires, likes and academic output of organized sound-based expression.

But what really scares me are these two facts:

1. Older generations are telling younger generations that music is unworthy, not to be valued, and an interrupting annoyance. Instead, we are taught by decision-makers and influencers that it is a gimmick, a sometimes useful but very expensive tool of persuasion, and wholly unessential or unnecessary for anyone’s well-being. Example: “Our youth groups don’t want to see an orchestra on stage – that’s not our vision for them.” Example: “Oh! That youth orchestra is just way too loud whilst we’re shopping. C’mon, let’s leave.” Example: This whole flashmob was commercially staged, including the little girl at the beginning – the bank the performers were in front of was celebrating its 130th birthday.

2. Musicians are out to prove their relevance/ worth/ value, demand certain rights, and are using Music as a political means to get what they want (be that income, satisfaction, their own worth/ value, proof that they matter or haven’t wasted their lives pursuing something pointless, etc.).

Ouch.

And I’m fed up with it.

In today’s technological digitized world, is there even a future for music? At all? We have created machines that compose and conduct, and devices that source every piece of music that has ever been recorded or constructed as an audio file. [And that’s a whole other rant – are we listening to the performers, or the sound system? More on that another time.] Music provides some sort of background sensory stimulation in almost every activity many Western humans undertake, including shopping, using public toilets, driving, office work, jogging, and so on.

The recent spike in popularity of orchestras playing music whilst a film is displayed above them is an extension of the old piano-playing cinemas of… wait for it… not even a hundred years ago. In Beethoven’s time it was rare for concert halls to have seats. People mingled, chatted, ate & drank, and had a good old time hanging out. In Mozart’s time, operas told stories of faraway places and unknown cultures with drama and costumes and scenery and, of course, dramatic music.

Mention opera nowadays and most people yawn.

What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are humans headed next? Hardly the dearly desired World Peace, that’s for sure! And I fear the loss of music and the senses that rely on it for their useful/ proper/ full development, will transform humans into unthinking creatures of survival habit.

And yet we’ve come so far…

What do you think? Add a comment below and let’s talk about it…

Maybe it’s just in specific cultures. Maybe this is all totally imagined. Regardless, I’m upset so many humans around us are dismissing live music making, and I’m getting angry enough to do something about it in my little circle of influence. More about that soon!

 

#PsalmQuest 10 – Mirror 2 for solo harp

Writing this piece of music was probably one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done. Perhaps that’s why it turned out to be a good one.

The harp can be a daunting instrument: it is large yet delicate, piano-like but not a piano, strings plucked with four fingers per hand not hammers hit by five fingers.

However, the learning process about harp technique was made considerably easier by Jacqueline Pollauf, who has kindly posted a list of guidelines online.

Anna Kate Mackle, Florida Orchestra

Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra

But I must admit, I also cheated a little – I asked Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra, for some input. Back in the mid 80s, Anna Kate and I were both in the New Jersey Youth Symphony and also attended the same summer camp in North Carolina, the Eastern Music Festival. It was such a terrific six weeks of intense music activity that we hardly saw each other, and when I moved back to the UK a few years later we lost touch until I moved to Tampa Bay some 20 years later. (EMF was so good, Anna Kate now teaches there every Summer).

Anyway, Anna Kate enthusiastically shared her perspective on a couple of corners during the creation of Mirror 2 and so I couldn’t resist but dedicate the piece to both her and Jacqueline. I do hope they’ll both find occasions to play the piece at some point (Maybe during next year’s Festival of Psalms).

Perhaps another reason this piece turned out so well is that I have a kind of fondness for the harp. Whilst in college in London I dated a harpist and spent a lot of time carrying and transporting her harp all over London and Kent. She attended the Royal College of Music and I attended Trinity College of Music, but we didn’t let that rivalry get in the way as we were both members of the Kent County Youth Orchestra (upper age limit 21), and my mom & her dad worked together at Kent Music School!

(Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure being a percussionist very used to carting about large and heavy instruments came in pretty handy during that relationship!)

Stephen P Brown has a history with the harpAnyway, in the past month or so I’ve learned a great deal more about the harp than I already knew (such as multiple note harmonics per hand) and tackled this composition with a different kind of energy. As one independent industry reviewer commented, the piece is “beautifully haunting.”

Mirror 2 is based on psalm 38 which is structured in 5 sections, namely A, B, C, then B again and finally A again. To me, that’s a mirror image. I don’t know if there’s a formal musical structure out there that imitates a mirror, but I’m not bothered about that – I’m calling it a Mirror in the same way that many pieces are called Sonata or Rondo based on the music’s structure.

By now you know that my compositions, although currently rooted in a more traditional Russian Romantic idiom, are far from normal. Typically we associate the harp with angels, prettiness, light cotton candy, beautiful sweeps and whooshes, and happy weddings.

So this piece is dark, low, deeply emotional and far from angelic! Each of the five sections of Psalm 38 are about Prayer or Pain. See Longman & Garland’s commentary for more details.

Use the Reverbnation player below to listen to the piece (it starts quietly) and then see if you agree with George’s assessment below. Let me know in the comments what you think.

I’m giving the sheet music for this piece away for free for an entire week, so if you know any harp players, be sure to send them this post using the share buttons below so they can download it and try it out. Both you and I would love to know what they think of it, right?!

Listen here:

Click here to get your copy of the sheet music.

So, do you agree with George?

George Algozzina likes Mirror 2 by Stephen P Brown

George Algozzina is, amongst other things, a tenor in the Clearwater Chorus

“My life has been truly affected and enriched this morning when listening to Stephen’s new song, ‘Mirror 2.’ It was wonderful to awaken and experience an entire day’s worth of feelings and emotions in just a few minutes through a truly amazing and beautiful musical composition. I do not know the emotional reaches or spiritual intentions Stephen has for his piece, but it took me from an ominous (almost hopeless) place…to one of acceptance…and then to one of self-awakening and the chance of peace, tranquility, and hopefulness. Thank you, Stephen, for making a difference in this moment and in my life!”

– George Algozzina

 

Add your own thoughts below…

 

Memory lane: Was it good, bad or empty?

Each month I keep an eye on the conversations I’m having with people to find topics for my next #OrchChat – an hour of discussion on Twitter about orchestras. Usually the three topics of each chat are quite diverse but so far have somehow bled into each other. It’s really a fascinating hour.

Click here to read the transcript of January’s #OrchChat

Over the past couple of weeks there is one conversation that has cropped up several times from several sources, including the excellent & brief daily snippet of arts news You’ve Cott Mail, and I was just wondering about your experience in the arts. This topic just might be included in February’s #OrchChat (on the 12th at 6pm ET).

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

For example, when you were in school or even college, did you ever sing or play a musical instrument? Were you in a play or musical? Did you ever attend a school concert or show that a friend or sibling was in? What about in the community?

My point of barraging you with these questions is to find out what, if any, experience you had with music and the performing arts, especially whether or not you enjoyed it.

Are there any specific memories of good feelings or events that come to mind?

Have a think about it.

Then send me an email with your observations and experiences. If you feel like sharing, go global so all the world can learn: add a post to my Facebook page.

 

Composing A: Foundation

Sometimes it starts with a title. Sometimes a melody. It could be based on a chord progression. But at the heart of any piece of music I write, there is structure.

This is an exploration of the way I compose. You may think it intriguing, fascinating, incorrect, backwards, exemplary, but none of that matters to be honest. Authors write novels in different ways, and composers are no different. I can’t even say this is my ‘method’. What I can say, is that in this highly productive era of musical output in my life, this is how I’m composing right now. Let’s explore the organic growth of a new piece of music, as it’s being written.

It’s a risk! There are extremely productive weeks, and weeks where other things in life get priority. So, either I’m taking a risk and hoping I’ll have enough material to share with you, or I’m setting myself an unconscious goal of having made sufficient progress on the piece that there’s something worth writing about.

Tweetable:
Project blogging risk: has sufficient progress been made to have something worth blogging about? via @Stephen_P_Brown

Today, we launch the new. A brand new piece of music. Let’s take this creative journey together:

This time, I’m actually starting with the instrumentation. It’s very easy in this case because it is already defined. I am writing for the Patel Conservatory Composer’s Orchestra – one of the ensembles in the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra program. Why does that make it easy? I already know two things:

  1. What instruments to include in the composition, and
  2. The skill level of each of the players.

When left to my own devices (i.e. not having any specific players in mind), my mind often wanders into the realm of “is it even possible to play like this?” as I’m composing. Not good! So, knowing who the performers are and what they are capable of playing is a huge benefit.

Our new piece is being written for the following instruments:

  • Flutes (2)
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • French Horn
  • Bass Trombone
  • Violins (3)
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Bass (Double Bass/ Contrabass)

That’s it! That’s my first step. In my incredibly useful composing software, Sibelius, I’m going to create a score for just these instruments.

Oh! Here it is! (Click on it to see a larger version)

Score of Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown's new piece

The creation of this music begins with a blank score!

 

What you may notice is some generic stuff I haven’t decided upon yet – like, the title. The time signature is also 4/4, which means four crotchet (quarter note) beats grouped together in each bar, but I might change my mind about that. There’s also no tempo (speed) marking in the top left corner, and no key signature which determines which common group of notes to include (for example – the piano’s white note “B” or the black note next to it “Bb”)

That’ll come next week…