How Can Symphony Orchestras Attract Young Audiences?

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Many have considered the problem of how to cause classical music to become more popular, especially with younger audiences. Data indicating a shrinking audience for live concerts, particularly among younger people, have worried arts organizations and educators for some time. It has also been noted that while attendance at live classical concerts has often decreased, sales of recorded classical music has fared better, indicating a shift in how people prefer to listen. With home theater technologies and digital recordings, the sonic quality of recorded music can rival that of a live concert; and with added convenience and the elimination of the threat of the dreaded and prolonged candy wrapper distraction, there are aspects of recorded music listening that are appealing.

Still, I’m a supporter and enjoyer of live music, and I want to see live classical music organizations and venues do well. This week, while in attendance at a Young People’s concert with my fourth grade students, I observed something that I believe will shed some light on this issue of what will make classical music appealing to young listeners. The program included two works: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Elliott’s The Remarkable Farkle & The Wolf. The latter is based on actor John Lithgow’s book of the same title. Both works had a narrator, who told a story that each took the audience on a tour of the orchestra. But there was one important difference. For Peter and the Wolf, the narrator acted the story. Using props as puppets, he entertained the audience with a lady’s purse with whiskers and a tail attached for the cat, a feather duster for the duck, a stick with a light scarf tied to it for the bird, a suitcase with ears and a tail and big teeth inside for wolf, and the narrator himself as Peter (donning a hat), grandpa (with a cane) and the hunters (carrying plungers for rifles). The students were spellbound by the acting, and they couldn’t wait to see what prop would be used for the next character. Through it all, they still enjoyed the music, too. I know this because some of them were singing Peter’s infectious tune on the way out (and in two cases during the concert) For Elliott’s opus, the narrator spoke, but there was no acting. Though the music was excellent, the students were visibly disinterested while the orchestra was playing, but craned their necks to see the instrument families as they were introduced.

What can we learn from this? Those students wanted first to have something to see. They wanted to watch something that developed and changed, like a story or a new sound. Once the visual aspect of what was going on became familiar, they were no longer interested hearing the music. In order for classical music to be appealing to contemporary young people, I believe that what they have to look at must be more changeable than a lot of people sitting in one place on a stage. Music that changes timbres and direction often is interesting. Music that is accompanied by acting, or by video, as for example John Williams’ hugely popular movie nights are, are much more likely to succeed than classical music that does not change visually, and presents an overall homogeneous blend of timbres. Lest those of you who tend toward purism object, may I remind you that Handel had his music played by orchestras floating on barges, Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony featured players leaving the stage as the work went along, and Tchaikovsky wrote music that includes a part for live cannons. Surely if these masters could avail themselves of such showmanship, it is not beneath today’s orchestras to take advantage of similar resourcefulness.

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3 thoughts on “How Can Symphony Orchestras Attract Young Audiences?

  1. Interesting. I was trained as a story teller, and sometimes used a recording of peter and the Wolf conducted and narrated by Leonard Bernstein as a story time. I told the story with Bernstein, had the children act it out, with me acting it, and them following, the children loved it, and often asked for it again and again. I attended a lot of Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and was quite surprised and interested to see how many young people there were in this incredibly well attended performances. These were possibly all music students, but I was pleased to see them all there and really enjoying themselves. Went to other London concerts as well, which also seemed full of young people, but perhaps this was awhile ago; through the 90’s into the early 2000nds, and is no longer the case. Certainly out here in South Africa, at concerts, you see hardly any young people, the audiance all look to be well over 60.

    • The audiences here in the U.S. are similarly aged. I think one of the issues is that those who are now young have lived entirely in a culture that is defined by electronic media, with short sound and video bytes that keeps them always anticipating and enjoying quick change. The generation that populates our concert halls grew up in a culture where books, movies and even the evening television news unfolded in a more calm and gradual manner. Older people are simply used to this “classic,” slower, more literary if you will pace, and so are quite at home siting through extended musical works without much visual variety.

      • Yes I would agree, with that, I think classical music, has always had to look for younger audiences over the last century, hence the sterling work by people such as Bernstein, Schumann etc., and each generation, seems to have had its struggles, but perhaps now more than ever.

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