There is an ever-growing concern as to how to get people, particularly younger people, into our concert halls and opera houses.
Marketing teams try everything imaginable — from updated productions… to off-beat venues… to discounted student tickets. Some ideas work, some don’t. Frustratingly, what might fly beautifully in one instance completely backfires in another. There simply is no formula that produces the desired result one hundred percent of the time.
While ticket sales typically cover only a fraction of an overall operating budget, arts organizations need bodies in seats in order to justify their existence. As a result, grants often require groups to reach out into the communities in which they reside and offer innovative, no-cost performances that are geared to developing the next generation of classical audience members. I applaud these efforts, which have exposed thousands of children to the arts for the first time through schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, and local libraries.
This type of outreach is a vital step, one I wholeheartedly embrace. It’s a step designed to ignite the imagination… whet the appetite… instill a lifelong love of the arts. But it is just a step. If a child’s interest isn’t capitalized upon by an adult who can then take her to a concert or opera, her interest and enthusiasm will surely wane. As with many things in life, efforts initiated by an outside organization that are not supported at home are likely to wither and fade.
Bach and kids really do mix…
I recently performed an all-Bach concert at the spectacular Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although I’d been warned that our chamber ensemble probably wouldn’t come close to filling the 900-seat venue, wonder of wonders, we actually did. Granted, admission was free. But I personally know the leaders of the two largest performing organizations in my city and they often have trouble giving away tickets. So lack of attendance is not always just about the cost of a ticket.
As I entered the sanctuary and viewed the sizable crowd, I definitely saw what arts organizations refer to as the “graying of the classical music audience.” But I saw something else. Children! And not just children. Quiet children! Sitting attentively. Seemingly engaged. I’ll admit to a moment of horror when I saw two young kids sitting in the front row. The front row! Really, people? If you need to make an unobtrusive getaway, well… you can’t! But they sat respectfully and quietly throughout, proving it can be done. (Kudos to the parents for whatever they did pre-concert to prepare and educate their children.)
This experience got me thinking: Are we, as parents and concerned adults, offering up opportunities that allow children to experience classical music in the appropriate dosage? Are we putting the same emphasis on learning to listen as we do on getting up on stage to perform? Are we doing enough to train the next generation of listeners? (I use “train” deliberately. Much has been written lately about the seeming inability some people have to experience a live performance without the simultaneous need to record, tweet, or share it in real time. This is a great time for us to put our own phones down and set an example.)
A few tips for finding kid-friendly options…
I’ll never forget the time I took my “little sister,” then aged 8, to an opera. Her incredulous reaction stuck with me: “This is opera? But I thought opera was supposed to be boring.” Granted, I didn’t take her to Wagner’s Ring. It was a 30-minute version of La Boheme performed in a local library. Still, she was spellbound. I hope she’ll never fear walking into an opera house or concert hall.
The tips below may help you introduce classical music to a smaller someone:
Just show up…
I am incredibly gratified when people show up for live concerts and operas. With so much available online and on-demand, it takes extra effort to get off the couch and deal with traffic and parking. (Not to mention the effort it takes to get out of your yoga pants.)
People are under no obligation to show up for live performances. But when they do, they are taking a vital step toward keeping live performances alive. And for those who occasionally bring a child along, well, all I can say is, thank you. Your personal commitment may help ensure that we have audiences for classical music in the next generation.
Being an attentive, informed, sympathetic listener is a big job. And someone has to do it.
Diana, this is as inspiring as ever! You have encouraged me to find ways to give my 9 year old live-listening opportunities, and to look for ways to incorporate even my youngest 3 year old. I love the idea that attentive listening is a skill to be developed, and I hope to instill this in my children!
I was at Diana’s Bach concert and had the same reaction when 3 young children sat in the row in front of me. I groaned (quietly of course) and thought my concert experience was going to be ruined. To my surprise, the children were perfect audience members. Quiet and attentive.
Diana’s article has made me rethink my bias against children at concerts. We definitely need to cultivate the audiences of the future.
As adults now, my "children" tell me that I "forced" them to go to concerts, when I thought that what I was doing was exposing them to the music I loved.
As both an music educator and a performer, I am in awe of what I see when I am in front of an audience. The youngsters I encounter - typically under the age of 11- will be wrapped in the story of whatever they happen to be involved in seeing. Past 11, something changes, and we get sucked into these little digital boxes we refer to nowadays as phones. Somewhere around 11 years old something happens, and we start letting “life” take away our imagination, our ability to pretend - thus, we allow ourselves to believe that whatever else is going on around us is more important than what is actually happening in front of us. We have then, as Ms. Price in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” put it, “...Reached the age of not believing.” A sad event, to be sure.
I find it the responsibility of ‘us,’ the adults, to set the example. Children are like little sponges waiting to soak up every morsel mom or dad or whoever puts into their path. Leave the distractions behind, the cell phone in the console of the car, and bring your full attention with you to ANY live performance. Theater, opera, a poetry ready, a concert are all meant to be enjoyed in the moment, not recorded for posterity on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. If we are good stewards of the arts, so will our children be. We all inherently love things that make our souls grow, and the arts do just that. Through these endeavors we are taught patience, diligence, creativity, and how to be a better, gentler, more thoughtful person. In essence, we are cultivating kindness.
Thank you for reminding us all of how valuable young audiences are, and how necessary it is to cultivate that behavior as a parent!
The scornful attitude of uptight symphony patrons is also a major turn off for a lot of young concertgoers. I cannot even remember all the instances when people gave us killer looks, even said mean things to me and my three (high achieving pre-college conservatory) kids for just being there or seating next to them. My children are cultured, play and understand music better than most adults, I am myself a conservatory trained violinist with a performance degree. Yet, old cantankerous people consistently look down at us in classical venues and make us feel unwelcome because they assume we won’t behave based on our looks and age! This is a shame! Because I am an insider, and because they love it, I keep taking my children to classical concerts, but I’m sure that this kind of attitude deters number of people to do so. Oh and also, this seems to be a US specialty - coming from Europe, we never suffered this back home...
I am so appreciative of all the thoughtful comments!
I've also witnessed that line of demarcation when children reach "the age of not believing." That is truly a sad event... one I wish we could suspend entirely.
In a separate conversation with Laurie, she noted the issues that exist for busy parents and suggested perhaps grandparents can also get involved. A wonderful idea!!!
I just saw the comment from 18.104.22.168 and couldn't agree more that people (myself included) need to make sure we don't make children feel unwelcome in our concert halls. I admire you for not letting cantankerous folks stop you from bringing your children.
Diana, et al.,
Thank you. As one who has a small "studio" I do try to get my students to come to concerts. I've tried to get the parents to participate but, at least in my experience, the parents are never going to model the concert going behavior.
Why? My contact with young musicians is through the local; and second oldest continuously operating Youth Orchestra in America. When I mention the idea of going to a concert with their children I get the "deer-in-the-headlights" stare. To them, music education is just another Tic-box in the development of their child. I have found that few of the parents listen to orchestral music at home or in the car.
That being said, as the young musicians get more interested I have managed to take them along with my wife to local chamber concerts where there is always a post concert reception where they get to meet the professional musicians (most of them are younger than me) and they are amazed to discover that they are now part of the community of musicians.
I would really love to get the parents to model the behavior, but if the activity doesn't check off the tic-box - they aren't doing it because there is always another tic-box to check off, and it's probably a sporting event.
Just my parents exposed my siblings and me to to classical music via broadcast media and recordings from our earliest years, so I gave that experience to my children.
As preschoolers, I took my kids to special performances geared to children.
My children's main education for experiencing concerts were the wonderful performances given by our local high schools several times a year. These were family friendly and were delightful opportunities for everyone in the community to experience a variety of musical forms. With frequent pauses as various groups entered and left the stage, there were times that restless listeners could politely exit while the experience was still positive.
George, I'm appreciative of your perspective, which I tend to share. (You nailed it with the "tic-box" analogy.) You and your wife are modeling behavior that is so important. People like you inspire people like me to step in when we see an interest or passion that needs to be fueled. Thank you!
The subject of "off-beat venues" for sharing classical music has been on my mind a lot the last few years. So if you see the phrase show up in some of my own writings, it's definitely coincidence.
What first piqued my interest in classical music was that my parents often listened to this music on radio and recordings. If only more parents would do this. By age 7, I had made my own Saturday routine each week, during the dreary, gray stretch from November to March, of sitting in the living room for several hours, listening, on my own, to one album after another from their collection.
Soon after, I heard a professional orchestra play at my elementary school. This is when the violin muse got hold of me. Now I could see, as well as hear, how professional musicians brought to life some of the scores I'd heard at home.
I did most of my attending in person during and soon after my student years. Although I majored in violin performance, I developed a strong interest in opera during my student years and studied quite a few scores on my own time. I did see performances of the above-mentioned Boheme and Wagner's Ring. I don't speak Italian or German; but thanks to the homework I'd done in advance, I understood what the characters were saying. I was also able to get passes to two dress rehearsals and one staging rehearsal. So I ended up seeing Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) three times and Wagner's Siegfried twice. Side note: I don't recommend Siegfried for the tired business traveler. It definitely takes some heavy-duty homework in advance if you're going to get anything meaningful out of it.
My schedule keeps me away now, but I have a lot of great memories of what I saw and heard. I am a YouTube Premium -- formerly YouTube Red -- subscriber. So I feel better, knowing that I'm not getting something for nothing.
I think part of the problem is that 'classical' music is early head in the general public any more. When I was a kid lots of stores still played classical music, classical music was common as a phone waiting filler and church and local choirs sang regularly at community events. This meant that even growing up in a cult that thought music was generally evil, I had exposure to something other than the pop music my school friends played. Now choirs sing pop song arrangements and you're lucky to hear choral versions or carols at Christmas (much more likely is film or pop singer versions).
I've worked (teaching English not music) in both lots of low SES schools where learning music is not even considered an option, as well as my current upper middle school where most kids have had a musical instrument (ususlly piano or violin) and a sport as part of their early hothousing and all the primary schools has be a band. (Most drop music at the beginning of high school or carry on under protest till grade 8 which gets them. Points for university entry).
My observation from both ends is that 'classical' music is a foreign language for both groups. The only time they hear it is in films (sometimes) or ads (less and less), or in class where it is characterised as work (either as music practice or in school where is often connected to worksheets). Even baby and children's music is mostly stylistically related to pop or rock.
To borrow from the world of technology, Apart from a small section of "classical music native" families have created a group of classical music "immigrants". This is not conducive to maintaining a performance/listening tradition. In the 21st century, we live outs lives to a soundtrack, but outside the very limited world of people on this site and our musical friends, how many of these soundtracks include classical music? And when's the last time you saw a parent stop to listen to a busker for longer than a minute or two before rushing away? What lessons is that giving?
I'm not sure what the solution is. Can we find ways to normalise classical music in the non-classical world?
Certainly all of Diana's points are pertinent. So to is George's comment about youth orchestras (seeing classical music as something for kids their own age surely has more impact than watching adults they performed as ancient).
Classical instruments need to be a available to everyone. Preschool and infants classes need to have qualified music teachers. There need to be lots and lots of kids performing, even (or maybe especially) at beginner levels, to audiences other than each other, perhaps in contexts where they can interact and explore instruments.
(I know the latter will be a anathema in the classical world but, from my observation, meeting and sessioning with performers and trying out instruments is a big chunk of what keeps the folk scene vibrant despite the limited scene - listening and playing go hand in hand, and professional musicians session with amateur and beginners in a way that rarely happens in the classical world, making concerts personal and relevent. Even audience members with no interest in playing can hang out with musicians and chat or have a drink with them).
Pop music is normalised and has celebrity status, folk music has certain inbuilt cultural norms that (mostly) keep it functioning, but classical music operates primarily outside the norm and at an elite level. If we can find ways to make it an acessible part of the every day, there should be lots more kids like the ones at the bach concert...
One thing I'm beginning to realize now that I'm at an age where many of my friends have young children: don't sell young children short. Their attention spans are a lot longer than most people realize, if they really get into something.
This spring, I had friends bring their three-year-old son to my orchestra's "family concert," which is expressly geared to elementary school children. I didn't know the program until the day of the concert, so I was a little dismayed when I saw that we were going to finish the program by playing a symphony in its entirety. It was William Grant Still's "Afro-American" Symphony, which we had played in our most recent subscription concert -- a short symphony at about 24 minutes, but still longer than I expected young children to be able to sit through. And my friends' son was probably the youngest child in the audience that day.
I could see him for the entire concert, because he was in the front row. Every time I glanced in his direction, his attention was clearly fixated on the music and the musicians on the stage. For that matter, I didn't hear any other impatient noises or see more than two or three people exit between movements.
What I would suggest: don't worry about the length of the pieces, at least up to 25 minutes or so. If it's good music, and if you can tell a story that gets kids interested in it, the music will hold their attention. Now that I think about it, it really isn't until age 10-13 that most children really become conditioned to consume music in pop-song-sized bites.
To 22.214.171.124: How wonderful that you carried on the tradition your parents started with your own children. And how fortunate that you had local schools that offered such kid-friendly concerts. Thank you for sharing!
To Jim: Your comment is wonderful! I love your Saturday routine. I wonder if your parents realized how much their habits and interests rubbed off on young Jim. Also, I'm always happy to meet another opera lover!
To 126.96.36.199: You bring up so many thought-provoking ideas, I hardly know where to start. So I'll simply say that you've given me something I'll be spending a great deal of time thinking about: "...ways to make classical music an accessible part of the every day." Thank you!
To Andrew: Your comment is heart-warming. I can almost see that little 3-year-old boy listening to the symphony! I sometimes think the younger they are, the greater the attention span. Think about how long a baby can play peek-a-boo and remain rapt! These little ones have an ability to focus that, unfortunately, is all too quickly lost. Thank you for your thoughtful comment: "If it's good music, and if you can tell a story that gets kids interested in it, the music will hold their attention."
"Our local opera company lets students attend the final dress rehearsal for free, with accompanying adults paying just $5." I often wonder how cost is deterring attendance. Every free classical concert in my area is very well attended, by the thousands actually toping up with a major annual event with attendance of 40,000+, which shows that there is a strong interest in classical music performance, but a string quartet (@$35 ticket) is lucky to get over the 50 people showing up. I for one only occasionally attend such performance in spite of my interest as I find it too expensive for regular attendance, especially considering that I will be sitting on either a hard folding chair or church bench. A 1 1/2hr performance, if I had kids, could easily cost over a $100, which is not insignificant when on a tight budget.
To 188.8.131.52: Thank you for your comment, which has provided much food for thought. I believe cost definitely deters attendance. It pains me to know that ticket prices are a barrier for many of us. And I truly do applaud efforts to provide low/no-cost opportunities. I'm heartened to hear that free classical concerts in your area bring in such large crowds. That is wonderful! I wrote in my article that we have experiences here where we literally can't give away tickets. What I've come to realize in reading your comment is that while free admission is appreciated by those who have an interest in the event, free admission won't necessarily entice someone who has already made their mind up that they don't want to go. In the famous words of Yogi Berra, "If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."
Great ideas, Diana! And thanks so much for setting a good example for the community by putting these into practice yourself!
Loved that article Diana. It’s right on. My family was all about music and I have such vivid wonderful memories of going to the “Community Concerts” as a child in Queens, NY. My parents took me to every single one for years and I loved them. I saved the programs for many years after. Those concerts, along with the music I heard at home certainly ignited my imagination and whet my appetite. I’m so thankful that I was fortunate enough to go to them. Little did I know then that I’d be eventually working in the music field.
As a stage manager for opera companies, I see who’s in the audience at every performance and I see the graying of the opera audience. I must applaud so many of the opera companies, especially the Knoxville Opera Company for their outreach programs where they take shortened versions of whatever opera they’re producing to local schools. I have another vivid memory of a theater group that came to my elementary school and performed a shortened version of Macbeth. I remember sitting in the first row (I was well behaved and didn’t have to make an unobtrusive getaway) and when the witches ran to the edge of the stage pointing to the audience, I sunk down in my seat totally engrossed in the moment. I was hooked.
I do have a lifelong love of the arts which started as a child because of my exposure to so much music. We took my daughter to as many concerts and shows as possible and she now is also a marvelous performer and attends musical events as much as she can. I was a teacher for many years and always found that the kids involved in music were the smartest. Yes, one has to show up. Sometimes I just don’t want to get out of my chair at home, but when I’m there I’m so thankful that I decided to go!
To 184.108.40.206: You are most welcome! Thank you for your kind comment!
To Joe: Thank you so much for sharing your own history with music as a child. You describe perfectly that feeling of being "hooked." (It's not unlike falling in love.) There is such clarity in that moment. Not necessarily clarity about what we want to do with music, but clarity that music is something we always want in our lives. For me, that moment was upon hearing Misha Dichter perform. I literally felt transported. Oh, to be able to have that kind of artistry! I am so appreciative of your comment and, more importantly, the way you live your life with music at its core.
The one thing I wonder is: what can we do to get more of the 11-18 age group interested? My impression is that, once children get into double-digit ages, outreach seems to focus mostly on those who already play an instrument with some proficiency -- the group that needs it least. I've commented before on how my public school district had no beginner string ensembles in middle school and high school, not because of a lack of resources, but because they were more interested in showcasing the talent they had than in expanding access.
I came to both string instruments and classical music late. I had my first real exposure to both when I was 12, because I grew up in an expat family in the Middle East where Western classical music was nonexistent at the time, and neither of my parents had any interest in listening to any genre of music (classical or popular). For some, like me, geography makes it difficult to hear live classical music. I was hooked when I went to my first live concert, shortly after returning to the US at age 12, but even so, because I didn't have the chance to listen to classical music regularly until college, I often feel that I came very close to missing the bus not only as a musician but also as a listener!
I also notice that, outside the "classical music native" population (as described above), there seems to be a common perception that young children aren't ready for classical music -- even among parents who sometimes attend concerts. I've had to convince people that their 9 and 10 year old children are old enough to enjoy classical music. While I was in law school, one of my professors, an occasional concertgoer who had brought her 8-year-old daughter to my semi-pro orchestra's most recent concert, asked me whether I thought her daughter was "old enough" to start violin lessons.
So outreach to parents of younger children is one thing, but I feel very strongly that we need strategies for engaging those who for some reason or another have gotten to middle school or high school with little or no exposure to classical music.
To Andrew: You've given us all a great deal to ponder. I certainly don't have any answers, but will add my thoughts to yours.
As to the "perception that young children aren't ready for classical music," that does seem to be a common misperception. I think children get classical music on their level... just as they might get a movie on their level and miss nuances that an adult understands. There's nothing wrong with a child hearing music through a child's ears. Those ears will continue to develop and become more refined with age and experience. It doesn't mean the child's experience isn't valid.
As for a child being "old enough" for lessons, my experience has been the opposite. I've found that many parents feel that if their child didn't start lessons at a very early age, then it is too late. They don't want their 12-year-old beginner competing with 12-year-olds who have been playing for 8 years. So, the "too late" mentality often curtails the exploration of an instrument for a child before it even begins. (I raised an athletic son, and the same mentality exists in youth sports.) I also feel that educators are at somewhat of a disadvantage when trying to work with students at various levels. More to the point, it is a challenge to have a string program in which you have beginners through advanced. It does require more resources and, perhaps, more creativity on the instructor's part. I, too, wish our education system was more open to having children begin something at an older age and not feel they were too late.
As I re-read your comment, I'm wondering how often we, as parents, impose characteristics on our children as they get older -- that 11-18 age group you defined. "He doesn't like...." "She won't ever..." "That won't work for him..." and we box the child into a way of being that doesn't allow him/her to truly experience a variety of things and make his/her own decisions.
I'll close with something from my own experience. My son came home from school when he was in 4th grade saying he wanted to go see the Shakespeare troupe that had performed at his school. I would have bet the house he wouldn't have made it through 10 minutes. We went to an outdoor production and he absolutely loved it. As a grown man, he's now an avid reader of Shakespeare and recites many monologues. Again, I would never have thought at age 9 that he was old enough to grasp the content, nor appreciate it on any level. He did both. So, perhaps as much as we need parents to get involved, we also need them, at times, to get out of the way.
Finally, Andrew, I am so glad that you did not miss the classical music bus! Thank you for grappling with these issues. I will continue to do the same.
So... I've definitely seen perceptions about age run both ways. I was rejected by multiple teachers in my early teens because I was supposedly too old to start a string instrument. And I've heard at least two string players call themselves "late starters" because they started when they were 8.
There's no question that people in the "classical music native" community definitely tend to believe that children need to start early, but I'm also noticing that some people outside the existing classical music community can be afraid that children might not be ready before they're older. And in the latter case, it becomes harder to get a good introduction to classical music either as a player or as a listener, because the children inevitably encounter other people with the "too late" mentality.
Regarding school music programs, the main reason I brought them up is the impression I've gotten (as a musician, not as a parent) that outside organizations' outreach to middle schools and high schools often focuses on students in bands and orchestras, the exact students who are most likely to already be listening to classical music to some extent. (This is in contrast to elementary schools, where outreach is almost always to everyone.) That's where the lack of beginner music programs at older age levels could hurt: fewer opportunities to get into school music programs means less engagement as listeners.
That said, I also see and appreciate George's point that many young musicians are not really engaged as listeners, and certainly the musicians can benefit greatly from realizing they are part of the greater music community. There is a balance to be found there. I tend to think more effort can be directed at casting a wider net.
I also wonder if middle school and high school outreach efforts are too focused on the students perceived as being most likely to show interest, which runs to the exact same issue of imposing characteristics on older children and making assumptions about what they would and wouldn't be interested in.
In any case, to summarize all my thoughts, I think we can do better at both ends of the 0-18 age range. I believe young listeners can enjoy much more substantial pieces, at much earlier ages, than most people give them credit for. And at older ages, continuing to engage new classical listeners as well as later-starting musicians needs to be more than an afterthought. I certainly agree that both parents and educators need to refrain from making assumptions about older children's interests.
And before I forget: Thank you, Diana, for a very insightful post and your thoughtful responses to all the comments! And thank you, everyone else commenting above -- it has been an excellent and wide-ranging discussion so far.
To Andrew: More great food for thought! As for casting a wider net, in my community, when the symphony and opera do outreach in the schools (elementary, middle, and high), they tend to do school-wide (or grade-wide) performances, and not just for the band, orchestra, or choir students. But I suspect this practice varies widely among school districts. The bigger frustration in my area is actually being invited into the schools. With the pressures of a core curriculum and various standardized test requirements, teachers are hard-pressed to give up classroom time for a classical performances. That is the saddest, and most frustrating, aspect of the situation in my community. And I understand, and am sympathetic to, both sides of the issue.
Andrew got me thinking about a paper I read recently in which some computer programmers were trying to develop instructive printed materials available for handout to newbie classical music concert goers. They focused on things like phrase-by-phrase pictorial representations of which instruments were playing, and symbology for depicting the overarching form of a piece. My initial response was that these things were unnecessary, and that even if people had not studied musical form or learned to distinguish instruments by tone quality, there was much to be enjoyed by just listening. However, it does add to a musical experience to understand something about its structure, and about what a piece intends to convey. Out of curiosity, do folks in this group have a priority list of what you would "symbologize" or at least include in the program notes to help newcomers of any age navigate a concert?
To 220.127.116.11: An interesting question, and I am hopeful others will weigh in. It would be interesting to see if the "supertitle" technology that exists in opera houses would be at all helpful (and not glaringly obtrusive) for use in pointing out certain structural forms or themes in an orchestral concert.
Your comment reminds me of a performance I heard with Robert McDuffie performing Bernstein's "Serenade After Plato's Symposium." McDuffie spoke to the audience before the performance and described/played each theme. (He literally pulled these out of the air in an incredible show of memory and musicianship.) Hearing the themes in advance made the overall listening so much more enjoyable for me! (A page from Bernstein's own Harvard lectures.) Just the other day, I heard Elgar's "Enigma Variations." It was a great feeling to identify the theme on various occasions, but I know I missed a thousand references. It would have been nice to have some kind of visual, just for fun.
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October 14, 2019 at 12:29 AM · Thanks!