Who is Our Most Important Audience?

Everyone in the classical music world in America knows that we have a major problem: classical music audiences in America are getting older—not younger. Young people are not interested in going to classical concerts, whether by ignorance or by choice. If we do not fix this now, we are in danger of eventually losing our audience all together. Our dilemma originates outside the music world. America is a country that idolizes youth and looks down on the elderly. It is just not cool to be old. Because parents are typically the ones listening to classical music—or so we remember—young people associate this music with "being old." It does not help matters that the music that is programmed is typically by dead composers. It is like sitting around watching black and white films with mono sound, only worse because you usually have to leave the comfort of your own home to partake of the experience. Younger generations are so intensely into youth culture that they could care less about a refined experience such as listening to a concert of classical music. The thought of being refined, at least in some youthful quarters, is almost frowned upon. When I say younger generations, I mean Baby Boomers or younger, not just Generation X. Classical music audiences in America are typically made up of retired folks who are white and financially well off. This is definitely not the way it should be.

Young people have to be interested in classical music before they will want to go to concerts: this is a no-brainer. This will not happen unless they learn an appreciation for classical music early on. What factors will help? The most important one that comes to mind is education. We need to educate children early on to appreciate the fine arts. In general, education will probably not come from parents: it is too late for that. Most parents these days grew up in the age of rock and roll and jazz. They themselves are not familiar with classical music. In fact, once young people learn an instrument in school, it is typical for them to drag their parents to the concerts! It is clear that education will have to come from teachers and schools.

Children are definitely one of our most important audiences. Although they do not contribute financially to the concert experience—at least while they are young—appealing to them now in whatever ways possible is an investment in our future. If we turn them on to classical music now, they will acquire a taste for it. The problem is that composers typically write music with adults in mind, especially from a technical standpoint. This is even true when thinking about "children’s" pieces such as Peter and the Wolf. Pieces like that are meant to be played by adults.

So, how do we entice young people at an early age? Here are a few ideas:

Write music for children to play.

This should be a self-imposed mandatory task for every composer. This is the reason that some of the great, long dead composers are very familiar to certain musically inclined children: since some of their music is playable by young people, they grow up appreciating the music of these composers.

All classical concerts should be free for children.

Yes, sure, orchestras and chamber groups might lose money, but this would be a tremendous investment in our future audience. Perhaps the government could reimburse orchestras for a portion of the tickets given for free to children. Tickets should also be discounted for teenagers.

All chamber groups should make an effort to play in schools.

Many chamber groups already do this, but all chamber groups should do this every so often. Orchestras already do it —a lot—so should chamber groups. It does not take much effort to play one concert and give one talk per year in a school. If every chamber group did this, the positive effect would be colossal.

All children should learn a musical instrument.

As anyone who has ever played sports before knows, its is always easier to have an appreciation for someone who is good at what he or she does if you have done it yourself. Young basketball players look up to Michael Jordan because they know how hard it is to do what he does. Likewise, it is easy to appreciate Bach, Mozart and Beethoven once you have either played an instrument or tried to write music.

Educate children as to what is great about classical music.

Children are like sponges, and they are certainly more open-minded than many adults are! Give them a chance. I have a feeling that if you explain to them how a piece of music works or why it is written the way it is, they will probably be intrigued. If you explain a story behind a piece of program music, or explain under what circumstances a piece of music was written they are probably going to have an interesting response. Ultimately, young people need to know that the word "classical" does not just mean old European music: it means music that is great enough to be cherished and listened to over and over again because it is so amazing.

Commission composers to write music that is incorporated into community events.

In an age of the global, cosmopolitan composer, we need to remember that people very often feel closest to figures that are active in their own communities. Sure, you might pay attention to a famous visiting composer who is from Europe, but what if you had a local composer who was part of your community, who you saw at the grocery store and walking down the street? What if children were able to go up to this community-based composer and ask the silliest questions, questions only a child could think of?

There are many other ways of introducing classical music to young audiences. These are just a few ideas. We need to take this seriously: if we keep expecting that our audience will be there without doing any maintenance, it eventual will not be. We need to focus on children and young people—they are our audience of the future.

May, 2002