2020: Opportunity for Change
There is a rift between current concert musicians and the concert audience. The generational gap is growing as concertgoers grow older. The expectation of what a concert experience should be is changing.The elitist attitude exhibited in this genre detracts from its value by alienating the public. If we are to survive the future of music, we must reevaluate our demographic, challenge the status quo, and change our attitudes towards other musicians and genres.
Audiences keep getting older. The standard concertgoer is of the older generation, usually the World War II or “Silent” generations. Born between 1922-1945, these generations inherently trust establishment and rarely shake up the norm. Now between the ages of 65-88, they make up the bulk of our audience and have the disposable income to affect our funding and choice of concert repertoire.The baby boomer generation, and every generation since, has exhibited a distrust of establishment and have not become regular audience members. The compounding problem of relying on our donors and not appealing to younger generations has set the stage for the current situation and the unhappy projections of the future of classical music.
Concerts are not for entertainment; they are an avenue to experience the human condition. Classical music has the potential to be an almost religious experience for many listeners and many symphonies have relied on the music speaking for itself to draw audiences, but the culture of instant gratification no longer attends a concert only for the music. Live events are seen as entertainment, and as such, having great music is no longer enough. NBC demonstrates this difference in audience expectation by their programming of the Olympics. The network rarely focuses on just reporting or documenting the events as they happen. There are 15 minute segments devoted to telling the background of a particular athlete before they even compete. Medals are secondary to the human experience that the audience desires to share. The story behind the athletes and their romances or ability to overcome extreme obstacles is what sells. The athletes with the most inspiring stories are featured while the rest are passed over, even if they placed well on the podium.
This can also be seen in classical music. Guest performers that interact with the audience are far more admired and remembered longer than those who gave “only” the performance. Audiences want to connect to the performer and know their story so that they too can rejoice in their triumphs and rally in their troubles. The music, like the Olympic podium, is secondary to the human experience; it is an avenue to explore an adventure beyond your own limitations. Conductors can take advantage this desire for humanity by explaining the history or program of the music, thereby endearing himself, the orchestra, and the music to the audience. Performers can also take advantage of this by interacting with the audience before or after a performance, and even from the stage.
This does not solve the problem of declining attendance. The stigma surrounding classical music is detrimental to the genre, the musicians, and the concert venue. The elitist views of the musicians alienate the audience by denying them the human gratification they crave.
The St. Louis Symphony recently held a Disney concert, featuring soundtrack music from the “Golden Age of Disney”. Songs that drew a much younger crowd including young children and their parents and twenty-something’s whose first real introduction to music was through Disney. When I approached the harpist to congratulate her after the concert, she looked surprised and said, “What are you doing at this atrocious concert?” She failed to understand that though I am classically trained, I still love the songs I grew up with and will happily go hear them in any setting. Her reaction demonstrates the elitist attitude instilled in musicians by their teachers and, I believe, a lack of self-confidence. If we are to get people back in the seats we need to be human again. We need to relate to the audience with our similar love of music and stop isolating ourselves as “better” than other groups, other musicians, and the audience. This attitude adds to the fracture between the stage and seats.
If the genre of classical music can change its attitude and involve the audience, it could be revived and flourish again. If not, it will die out. Elitism cannot sustain itself, an attractive concert experience can. When recently asked if there was any kind of music he would refuse to play, a DMA student at Eastman responded, “If it has a paycheck and a downbeat, I’m there!” This sentiment expresses the attitude of a musician who will survive the future because he can adapt to the audience without allowing his own musical preferences to get in his way. This changing dynamic will cause 2020 to adjust the standard concert method of music-intermission-music. It will involve more audience interaction and participation, more extensive programming and outreach concerts to attract a new demographic, and a more collaborative spirit between symphony and community.
As a professional musician in this changing world, the challenge will be to adapt. I see 2020 as similar to my life now in my willingness to play different venues and perform for many types of people. My concerts usually involve a speaking component where I explain both the harp as an instrument and the piece to the audience. Once while performing in a rural church in Missouri, a teenage girl in the crowd would not look up during my concert. I assumed she was either bored or texting and devoted the remainder of the concert to eliciting a response from her. I never saw her face for more that a few seconds before she went back to looking at her lap.I felt outdated. I could not get this teenager to respond.
After the concert she approached me with a notebook. Surprised, I asked if she had enjoyed the show. Her face brightened; she showed me her notebook with pages of scratched handwriting and then asked me to repeat some of my stories because she had not been able to write them down. This confirmed my hypothesis that the human aspect of any live performance is what draws the audience. My explanations of my relationship with my music interested a teenage girl enough to take notes for no other reason than she was interested. The music did not speak for itself; we spoke together.
My role in music organizations will be to try to change the conventional attitude and encourage new programming. The symphony experience can be marketed as so much more than a classy date. As a soloist, connecting with the audience in and around the music is my first priority. It creates a following that encourages word of mouth with positive dissemination of my work, as well as a base on which to build a performing career.
The world will be a different place for music in 2020, if these obstacles can be overcome, it will change in a way that rejuvenates audience attendance. The challenges are daunting, but opportunities to bring back the music we all love in a new way. Artists are inventive and resourceful, we will make it work.