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.

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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.