Classical music reality show -- would it work?

June 11, 2007 at 04:45 AM · I came across a blog by Holly Mulcahy that suggested to create a TV reality show to attract general public to classical music. An articulate panel of judges will discourse why A's phrasing is better than B's, etc. In the process, the public will learn what to listen for in classical music. A learned panel could set the standard for classical concerts; what's considered good programming, presentation, connection with audience, even attire.

Would it work?


Replies (41)

June 11, 2007 at 09:48 AM · Maybe on PBS, and even then it would have to have a serious format as opposed to the circus you see with the "other"shows. I doubt it would work as the audience for such a show is very select.

June 11, 2007 at 11:33 AM · Bravo has reality shows which center around both real talent and the entertaining back-biting and competitive ploys of contestants. Project Runway (fashion designers) and Top Chef (chefs) are a couple good examples. Because there's some substance to the competition, the shows are definitely a cut above most reality show competitions.

As for learning about something new and gaining appreciation, Project Runway did that for me. I think a classical music focused show could do the same for an uninitiated audience.

June 11, 2007 at 12:24 PM · I think it will happen sooner or later. The general public is getting sick of low quality music. I believe classical music is set for an upsurge of popularity amongst younger generations. Many of the reviews/comments on youtube of classical performances indicate a renewed interest.

I hope so anyway. I want to have a job teaching all these new true believers in classical music and violin, and playing concerts for them too.

June 11, 2007 at 12:29 PM · They had a kind of reality classical music show on BBC1 a few months ago, where celebrities learned to play the musical instrument of their choice.

It was compelling viewing, especially when they delved back into the musical history of Diane Abbott (a Labour MP) whose violinist uncle had been reduced to playing the violin to help his children sleep when they were hungry and couldn't afford to eat.

We saw each celebrity going through a familiar journey - excitement at learning something new, elation at making progress, then depression when they realised it was going to be really hard work. At this point, things started to become less credible because the BBC wheeled out the top musician in the country to give the celebrity a boost, then a few weeks later celeb player was in the Albert Hall or Wigmore Hall playing to an appreciative audience. It must have been really annoying for professionals who could only hope to get this kind of break in their lifetime. And another thing, there was always a battle of wills between the celebrities and their teachers!

It was definitely a welcome change from the rest of the reality dross that we have on TV.

June 11, 2007 at 01:00 PM · You guys got your wish...even the principal second of the NSO is judging this....check it out- it will air on oxygen...

June 11, 2007 at 04:09 PM · PBS ran a reality show a while back called Operatunity, where contestants competed for a spot singing with the English National Opera.

June 11, 2007 at 04:27 PM · unfortunately i do not think there is enough interest in the general population to attract big enough corporate sponsors to make the show mainstream. companies can donate money so violinists can "play", but if the companies are actually making money in the process, they will behave very differently. they will help you pitch your show to the networks.

if you are into classical music, there are many competitions to go after, at least 4-5 major ones. that is reality shows right there.

to bring it to mainstream media is a totally different ball game. i do not see it coming to the west. may be in china or s korea.

June 11, 2007 at 04:41 PM · You certainly have a point Al. But it works for "So you think you can dance"

We can all hope it will also work for classical music.

June 11, 2007 at 04:44 PM · terry, if that dance show only features ballat, then it will be a hard sell imo. dance covers a wide range of different styles and expressions.

with violin, if you limit it to classical, then it is narrow imo.

June 11, 2007 at 05:56 PM · Yeah, probably true.

Looks like the show on pbs will feature other types of music as well - jazz, classical, etc. That might help.

June 11, 2007 at 08:11 PM · From the website Kevin Jang posted earlier;

America's Hot Musician, the "American Idol-Real World-like" reality television competition for instrumental musicians, will air as a sponsored weekly program on the Oxygen Network beginning July, 2007. National Symphony Orchestra Principal Second Violinist Marissa Regni and former Duke Ellington Trombonist Gregory Charles Royal will serve as judges.

We'll get our answers sooner than I thought. Kevin, thanks for the site. I wish they have a bigger panel than 2. I would think judges' commentaries that has substance without being too abstract and are entertaining will be crucial for the success.

As Peter Schafer pointed out Runway and Top Chef are doing well with good balance of substance and a bit of circus. I would think a violin competition can be as successful. It got substance and party tricks for entertainment. At any rate, to be successful, it should reach beyond NPR crowd in my opinion.


June 11, 2007 at 08:44 PM · It would be like The Osbournes but maybe even funnier. Then protests would start up.

June 11, 2007 at 09:30 PM · I think it would actually work really well in a "Real World" style house and stuff. I'd say most musicians know how to tip back a few.

Imagine, a reality show with a bunch of low brass players and bassists and all the liquor they could drink. Now that would be some good TV!

June 11, 2007 at 09:42 PM · "At any rate, to be successful, it should reach beyond NPR crowd in my opinion."

Technically, I don't think this kind of thing can qualify as "successful" if in the end it's supported by grants and donations :)

June 12, 2007 at 11:43 AM · I agree. Besides, how satisfying would it be to fill a house with people paying their own money to hear you?


June 12, 2007 at 12:11 AM · Well, maybe they could call it 'Choose your axe' or something, and fit in all the major styles like classical, blues, jazz, folk, and rock. On one week you could have people learning classical clarinet versus someone playing blues harmonica and someone doing banjo. A panel chooses the winner on progress, chutzpah, attitude, and stage presence.

Yeah, OK, maybe it ain't gonna work. Back to the drawing board.

June 12, 2007 at 02:13 AM · Look at the website further. There is a third judge in the program - a rock music (?) bass player/singer. It will be interesting to see what the rock perspective will be in addition to the jazz and classical perspective. (hopefully)

June 12, 2007 at 01:09 PM · When classical music tries to succeed commercially, it often drags in pop music, copying their approach outright or riding on. I don't know if it has helped. It looks to me giving up before taking a first step.

If we look at writers, they seem to do well without resorting steamy or violent scenes. How do artists do? I don't see too many pornographies in that genre, either. I am assuming they are managing. Why only in music is it that high music can't make? People seem to be more than capable of appreciating high art in other forms.


June 12, 2007 at 01:18 PM · Don't think so, unfortunately. It would attract people like us, but getting the rock, country,and alternative crowds interest is a futule waste of time.

June 12, 2007 at 03:04 PM · From the show's website:

The program combines the formats of American Idol and MTV's Real World, where contestants ages 16 to 30 live together in a supervised setting while they compete for a recording contract. The show is guided by two musical opposites in Royal and Regni.


The fact that people will get to see the contestents as people will help. Hopefully there's some really charismatic violinist out there that is flexible and can do lots of fun things. Then he/she hopefully will be able to beat out the dope fiend with the garage band...


I was about to say that it also helps that the show is sponsored by "American Youth Symphony" but read this. The Oxygen Network has told the American Youth Symphony to stop mentioning itself as associated with the program.

June 12, 2007 at 04:16 PM · This turn of event is speaking loud! Is NSO's principal second violinist still getting involved?


June 12, 2007 at 05:15 PM · I think Ray misses the point of how these shows find success.

The target audience isn't the rock or country crowd, it would be, assuming it's on Bravo, the typical demographic that watches Bravo who gets pulled in by an ad or an episode for the show and finds it intriguing. Believe me, watching a show about fashion designers (Project Runway) was the last thing I'd imagine myself doing but I became an addict.

It really is less about the content, it's about creating an engaging, dramatic show with very interesting characters -- those whom you love and those whom you love to hate. I'm pretty sure classical music is not lacking in such characters.

June 12, 2007 at 06:34 PM · The premise of such a show is indeed thought provoking.....and horrifying! My view is that such a show would ultimately put one more nail in the coffin of classical music. The decline of concert music in our time is, in my view, the result of cheap attempts to popularize it. When I was a child the average "person on the street" knew who Jascha Heifetz was and may likely have heard him on the radio, if not in person. Radio comedians would tell a joke on national network radio which depended upon the listener knowing who Heifetz was. People dared to call classical music "fine music", with the clear

implication that not all music was equally fine.

I think that the single worst change that I have observed in the public's attitude toward violin playing is in it being viewed, by too many, as a competitive sport rather than as an art. It is an easy way to make it understandable to ignorant people. Fortunately this most unhealthy view of music has not taken root universally. There is still some hope. We don't need some fool arrogantly passing judgement on performances in a TV show. We need reverence and profound respect.

June 12, 2007 at 06:19 PM · I think Holly has a great idea and with good production values and the right panel of judges, this could turn into something very useful for orchestras in particular and classical music in general (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am Holly's husband).

Case in point, the Boston Pops is conducting a competition (no, not the fight) which is obviously inspired by reality television programming called "PopsSearch". They are using YouTube to post videos of contestants and you can vote for your favorite performer. The BSO website describes the competition as:

"POPSEARCH is about discovering a truly talented singer and giving them the chance of a lifetime - to perform with the Boston Pops before a half-million people, then go on a national tour with the orchestra. "Making the competition national in scope through YouTube reflects our place as America's Orchestra," said Keith Lockhart. "To win a contest like this, competitors will need strong musical talents as well as charisma - they'll have to 'wow' audiences here in Boston and across the United States," he added."

June 13, 2007 at 12:09 AM · Could you write a blog about it? I would think a blog will reach more people than an entry in a thread.

This isn't a TV show though if it is on the YouTube, is it?

Oliver, it doesn't have to be trashy. Peter says it better than I can in his post above. Judges do a convincing job in those shows.


June 12, 2007 at 11:32 PM · Any of the classical music TV shows in question can be successful if you deliver them to those who will be interested to watch... I think there is a great potencial in uprising Asian market, and especially in China for all sorts of classical music TV shows, mainly because:

1)after the change of wind since Chinese cultural revolution, they are successfuly re-discovering so-called "Western Values";

2) their vision is that for the successful integration into the western societies for economical success, one shell chose the path of adopting the cultural values of the society they are aiming to enter;

3) until recently in Asian world classical western music was as alien and exotic, as for many of us are native songs of Papua-New Guinea tribes;

4) unlike in Europe, the access to classical music on the lower-right side of the world map is strongly associated with the Upper class education and values and parents often believe that the artificial development of those values in their off-springs will open for them an window of opportunity towards more prosperous future.

One of my friends was recently approached by one of Chinese TV chanels to become a host of TV show based around light classical music performance, with live performances, interviews, queezes, etc... I'll let you know if it will go on some time soon.

I wonder, what are the chances of something like this happening in India... but no, they seem too pre-occupied by their Bollywood activities...

June 13, 2007 at 02:09 PM · Ihnsouk Guim wrote: "Oliver, it doesn't have to be trashy."

I'm concerned about two related, but separate issues:

1. Does it promote reverence and respect for the art of music?

2. Does it portray music as an art, rather than as a competitive sport?

I find it hard to believe that a TV show of the type being discussed here could answer "yes" to both questions. From what I've seen of music history unfolding before me during my own lifetime, I believe that if it cannot answer "yes" to both questions it would cause harm to music.

June 13, 2007 at 02:48 PM · 1. Does it promote reverence and respect for the art of music?

Based on the way the Bravo network does these shows -- Project Runway and Top Chef -- I'd say, Yes, it's certainly possible.

2. Does it portray music as an art, rather than as a competitive sport?

Again, based on the Bravo shows, it would portray it as both art and competition, and would probably compare favorably to violin competitions in that regard (does behind the scenes dirt count as art or sport?)

June 13, 2007 at 06:00 PM · I second Peter. The success of a show will heavily depend on the judges in my opinion. They need to be articulate and entertaining without losing substance yet staying away from detailed technicality, something similar to the best of Met Opera broadcast commendators? In fact, successful judges may be able to set the standard.

In my limited understanding, side shows help with the show's success. I would think one could produce just right amount of behind the scene dirt without going overboard.


June 13, 2007 at 04:40 PM · it is quite interesting to read the different views on this thread-- some are logical and others, uh, a bit utopian...

if the worry is about treating music as a competitive sport rather than "art", then some may need to reevaluate all the violin competitions out there. some of the best ones out there, the role models for the next generation, hop from one competition to another.

why not give everyone first place? why not accept everyone to julliard? why not let perlman teach everyone?

is this distinction between competitive sport and art necessary? does it have to be either/or? can it be either/or?

mind you, you can compete with others as well as compete within yourself. set a goal and try to reach it. the you of yesterday competes with the you of tomorrow through hardwork and dedication, particularly for those amateurs out there, tolling in the joy and pain of playing violin, knowing full well it is not for money or fame. or even a healthy body:)

if reality show is such a great idea i would think mark burnett would have thought about it years ago. lets say memebers are approached to invest in a show of this nature on day one, with only business plans, no concrete commitment from networks whether the show will take. how much will you bet on it? what percentage of your net worth? no, this is not a FIDC CD.

the biggest hurdle imo is that classical musicians are guarding their fort very very tightly, so tightly that paranoia sets in. electric violn? bad. fiddle? cut it out. popular music? nauseating. waltz? did you say waltz:)? sickening!

so who out there is going to watch the show???

June 13, 2007 at 06:24 PM · When American Idol first made it onto TV, I started telling friends that it was only a matter of time before the sort of competitions I knew from my own experience got televised. Complete with commentary and interviews. Sort of like the QE is in Brussels.

To which my friends replied that the nature of the classical art form meant that a) the competition would be too esoteric for most and that b) the commentary plus the performances would necessitate marathon-length shows, since commentary DURING performances would be impossible. We would debate the pros and cons of a scrolling scoreboard-style commentary, but mainly in jest.

However, once I actually watched an episode of Project Runway and a couple of episodes of Top Chef, I realized that the nature of the "sport" being competed in was irrelevant. (After all, how does one taste food through a TV?) What was all-important was that there be personalities, fighting and b*tching openly and cattily. You need

1) An ingenue who is in way over his/her head

2) The most annoying person in the world

3) A contestant with talent

4) The equivalents of Star Trek "red shirts" (dead meat walking, contestants there as food for powder. PEOPLE TO ELIMINATE.)

Category 4 gets winnowed down during the course of the contest. Category 2 remains in play until the very end, in order to keep all those people saying "I can't believe this joker hasn't been eliminated yet" watching. The contest is won by category 1 or 3.

And hell, the classical competitive community certainly offers plenty of entries in all these categories. So from that perspective - and with the afore-mentioned realization that the product is irrelevant and only the catty on-air whinefests are of vital interest - why is the classical market not being tapped? Why, when there's boxing, film-making, cooking, fashion, hairdressing(!) and just living-in-a-house-together TV competition reality shows? Certainly it's not as though the formula hasn't been tried and tested on everything but bee-keeping.

Two reasons occur to me. First, the TV powers-that-be need to soothe, flatter and pander to their audiences and they must feel that introducing anything even remotely high-brow gets in the way of that. Personally, I'm amazed that the contempt for the viewer this displays doesn't get through to the American public and doesn't have them switch off en masse.

And second, and more prosaically, I don't know a single violinist who could keep a straight face through the pseudo-dramatic " of you will be the WINNER, and one of you...pause...pause some more...WILL BE OUT" (dramatic drumroll). And not a single violinist I've ever met in a competition has ever been so unimaginative, so plodding and so barefaced with their idea of cut-throat tactics as most of these onscreen jokers. In short, the most tasteless and classless competition violinist is far more socially adept and subtle than these two-legged bovines.

June 13, 2007 at 07:50 PM · Emil - I enjoyed reading your post. Needlessly to say, the show should be modified for our purpose. I wasn't thinking "One of you will be the WINNER" thing will be part of this show. I had a feeling the prospective models weren't keeping straght faces, either. I am sure there are other ways to dramatize.

I disagree that "sport" itself is irrelevent. After watching a few shows, I could tell what the panel was looking for in a model. It is implicit and shows mainly through their selections. That can be quite educational for classical music. Peter Schafer may have better examples from watching Bravo.


June 13, 2007 at 07:57 PM · Since there are going to be rock, jazz and classical musicians on this next reality tv show, there's a good chance that some of the more dubious characters will be filled up by non classical folks. I'm hoping that some talented musician might step up and crush the other hapless soul-less scumbags. (I'm rooting for you Emil if it's between you and "Mr-dope-fiend-with-a-tattoo-and-a-kazoo")

Bad publicity (such as Bobby Fisher's behavior in the 1972 world chess championship) can be better than good publicity or no publicity at all.

Or the whole thing could completely backfire and be a pathetic mess. That's why it's reality tv!!

June 14, 2007 at 04:07 AM · Just saw bits of Top Chef tonight. How can we match "Here's a kangaroo filet and here's some rattlesnake. Go to it." Hm?

June 14, 2007 at 06:21 AM · I've never tried kangaroo steaks. My cousin does cook them up occasionally, however. Blech!

June 14, 2007 at 06:46 AM · Well, your wish is BBC's command. Here is the link

BBC Classical Star

An extract from the brief reads The BBC is looking for young classical musicians with star quality to take part in a brand new TV competition. The competition will be filmed and shown on BBC2 later this year. The winner will receive a recording contract with a major classical music label.

We are looking for instrumentalists and vocalists aged 19 or under who have reached grade 8 standard and have the potential to launch a solo career.

Someone I know has applied and been selected for the first round that begin in July.

June 14, 2007 at 08:28 AM · Olena,

I just read your post re-classical music in Asia more carefully.

As you mention India and Bollywood, I have to add some information.

Indian TV produced a bit hit in the 1990's saregama (=doremifa), which was a singing competition. Although it was mostly Bollywood based, judges were either very very respected classical musicians (Zakir Hussain=tabla, Pandit Jasraj=vocal) and a host of music directors and singers from Bollywood's golden era..40s, 50s, 60s, all firmly based upon classical music.

Singers who won these were firmly trained in classical music and sang some from time to time.

Even in the current shows (Indian Idol 3, etc.) all singers who are into finals are students of classical music.

Why is this so? This is because despite all those flashy dance numbers that become popular around the world, most of the singing is very demanding and there in fact, has been only one "natural talent" i.e. untrained voice to have made it there. Popular music has very strong classical roots in India and even the lyricists working for Bollywood have always included some very eminent poets. Like having T.S. Eliot or W. Whitman to put words to your music!

Although the voting system and marketing is as melodramatic and money-making as anywhere else, the two top current singing shows have a noted poet and writer, a violinist and many well-known composers among others (all classically trained), as judges.

June 14, 2007 at 10:04 AM · Thanks, Parmeeta!

There is a black hole in the cosmos of my education at the spot where the westernization of indian culture and especially indian music had taken place.

So, you think they will be interested to watch the show Ihnsouk is talking about?

And if you can suggest any recordings of classical music by top Indian violinists -I will be glad to listen to them if come across.

June 14, 2007 at 11:47 AM · There is a lot of rubbish being produced as anywhere in the world; but any of these competition on indian tv sooner or later requires them to sing some classical-based songs, or songs that are very demanding on technique, expression, pitching.

I am sending you some links in a private mail re violinists.

June 14, 2007 at 12:11 PM · Emil - That I don't worry. Doesn't classical Music have its own Kagaroos and Rattle snakes? It probably is not limited to those. I bet it has dragons and Pheonix as well and a horde of others I can't even name.

Parmeeta - Thanks for the link.


June 14, 2007 at 03:05 PM · So many good thoughts on this topic! I started wondering about Orchestra competition after I was asked about my job in the Richmond Symphony. People always wanted to know which was better, Richmond or Virginia Symphony. Then it turned into something like, is National Symphony better than Baltimore...Baltimore vs. Philly....Philly vs. NY Phil...and so on. And now with so many music critics losing their jobs, this may be another way for Symphonies to gage their abilities. (Even though, as a symphony player, sometimes I can't stand critics!)

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