Category Archives: future of classical music

“A degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”

Everyone in the music world has now sent each other Joanne Lipman’s NN Times article, Is Music the Key to Success? (We seem to agree that yes, it is.) Lipman writes about the many  people who are highly successful in other fields while being active musicians.

Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

The article reminds me that Harold Best, who was the dean of music at Wheaton College for over twenty-five years, once told us at DePauw that “a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”  (I’ve written about this before.)

We are very excited  at DePauw about our 21st Century Musician Initiative, supported by a fifteen million dollar gift from Judson and Joyce Green. I spent a good part of a sabbatical three years ago developing courses on music entrepreneurship and audience development and then participating in the process of developing this program.  Music entrepreneurship courses are fast becoming central parts of professional music education. We in the higher education music establishment collectively turn out thousands of graduates with performance degrees each year, while the job market for classical musicians seems to get tougher each year.

It can be hard on us. We know that music is a calling that does not always lead to a career. Some of us struggle over whether or not to encourage young people to study music in college.

My answer? Yes.

Even as we work to do a better job preparing music students to succeed as professional musicians through entrepreneurship and career skills programs, we can take comfort–even rejoice–in the fact that we are also preparing them for a life of making and otherwise engaging in music, regardless of their profession.  Their musical and  liberal arts education has been central to their development in every dimension.

I’m proud of my former students who make a living in music (especially those like Jon Silpayamanant who do it in an entrepreneurial, creative way). I’m equally as proud of those who grew into extraordinary people through the process of being a music major and make their difference–and earn their living–in other ways.
As Harold said, a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.


Filed under entrepreneurship, future of classical music

Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

OK, last post of my morning blogathon.

My friend, colleague, and former student Jon Silpaymanant has a number of posts questioning the interpretation of data widely used to document the aging of symphony orchestra audiences.  What many of us believe to be the case is that absent innovative programming, presentation, and (usually) a fantastic new performance space, orchestra audiences are shrinking because new generations are not becoming regular attenders, ticket purchasers, and, most importantly, donors.

The audience, we overgeneralize, is aging, graying, and dying out.  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” wrote Mark Twain, attributing Benjamin Disraeli.  “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so,” most widely attributed to Will Rogers (but also to Twain), has a lot of truth to it, and it’s what Jon is getting at, it seems.

The audience hasn’t aged as much as we think, Jon says, not very much at all.

If so, that’s some good news.  Because it means that a continued attendance (and donor) decline is even less inevitable and inescapable than many fatalistically assume.  Obviously many orchestras–my local Indianapolis Symphony is a an example–have low attendance and huge financial issues.  Can they thrive with bold, innovative leadership that makes the concerts and the entire enterprise genuinely valuable to the community? Yes.

Whatever the hard-to-truly-measure demographic realities may be, there’s a lot of work to be done–and fantastic opportunities.



Filed under future of classical music, Jon Silpayamanant

Classical Music, Churches, Clubs, and Galleries: Is “Serving Art and God” Next?

For years I’ve thought that the parallels between the challenges facing mainstream, traditionally-presented classical music concerts and those facing mainline Protestant churches were striking.  Shrinking and (so it seems) aging audiences and memberships.

What I didn’t know until I read this New York Times article was that evangelical Christians are taking to coffee houses and art galleries just as young, “we don’t believe in genre labels,” post-classical musicians are.  So the parallels continue.

[le] poisson rouge‘s slogan is “Serving art and alcohol.”  I doubt we’ll see we’ll see anyone promoting “Serving God and alcohol” any time soon, but now that I think about it, given the high-alcohol content (which helps germ-killing in common cups) of the wine used in Episcopal communion services I attend, God and alcohol has been going on for centuries.

Walter Russell Mead, commenting on the Times article, points out how every generation has it’s own new forms of worship.  Urban churches became suburban churches after WWII.  (I’m reminded that Robert Schuller started out holding services at a drive-in theater.) The enormous mega-churches emerged in the nineties. And now among many young people there’s desire for smallness, intimacy, and an integration of socializing and spiritual engagement.

About two years ago I heard Gabriel Kahane say that one quality so many composer/performers of his generation share is “a hunger for human connection.”  So many church services, like so many concerts, can leave one feeling totally alone.

Rod Dreher and Alan Jacobs have interesting comments on the Times religion piece; you can see how much the issues they raise mirror those in the conversations about the alt-classical/indie-classical movements.

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Filed under classical music/church parallels, future of classical music

One way to get the audience age to “plummet”

Want younger audiences? One more great quote from the Carolyn Abbate interview on opera (links in my previous post):

What would be brilliant is if an opera company or directors and producers tried to re-create [the social aspect of performances]. That’s artificial — maybe it shouldn’t happen — but I suspect then the audience for opera would get younger if it was slightly more unruly. The New York Philharmonic has done some semi-staged performances where the orchestra sits on the stage but the singers are in front and they walk up and down the aisles and use the audience space. The lights are up in the audience and you can read. And they allow you to bring water to drink. When I am at those performances, which are a little bit freer, the audience age plummets. [Read more:]


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In What Ways is Opera [and Classical Music] Thriving and in What Ways is It in Crisis?

Fascinating interview from Failure Magazine (!) on the state of opera, with Carolyn Abbate, co-author of the recent A History of Opera.

Much food for thought (comments/questions from the article author in bold):

  • “For starters, one should know that opera performances weren’t always the stuffy, solemn engagements they are today. They were social events in which ticket holders were free to eat, talk, and move about, and paying attention to the stage was optional.”  EE: This doesn’t mean that I want to go to the MET and have people milling about and talking during the performance.  But it does mean we can keep asking ourselves how we want people to be able to relate to each other at events.
  • “In what ways is opera thriving and in what ways is it in crisis?” EE:  This question absolutely hits the nail on the head when it comes to all of the larger “classical music” field.  Aspects of the larger classically-rooted music profession are in crisis; others are indeed thriving.  Some symphony orchestras (see LA Phil, Cincinnati, etc.) are doing fantastically well, while others (Indianapolis, Minnesota, St. Paul, etc.) are facing crises worthy of a Richard Nixon memoir.
  • “Earlier you mentioned that there are more young people at opera performances as compared to the symphony or string quartets. Why?  (Abbate:) It’s partly that opera isn’t just music. It’s also a visual and theatrical experience. I have teenaged sons, and I ask, “What’s the difference between a [popular music] concert and the opera?” They say the difference is at the opera you have to be quiet and you can’t move.”  EE: We see more and more individuals and ensembles embracing the visual and theatrical aspects of performances.  There is always a visual and theatrical element, whether we are aware of it or not.  Concert performances can be more engaging in these dimensions in ways that enhance the art, not cheapen it.

Whole interview is well worth reading, and I am going to get the book, too!

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What’s Wrong with Classical Music? Too Much Agora or Too Much Temple?

Here it is, Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m minding my own business, not worrying about the future of classical music.  Just eating too much, hanging out with my shopping-addicted boyfriend, and spending too much time on Facebook.  But fretting over the future of classical music kept coming to me as links appeared on my computer screen and iPhone.

First was the evidently not-meant-to-be-humorous short essay Agora or Temple?, written with delightfully withering snobbishness by George Slade, on the hard-to-read (white type on a black background) site of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  I wrote members of my first-year seminar class that its alternative title could be “What’s Wrong with Classical Music,” and that depending on your point of view, what’s wrong is either either the clinging-to-the-concert-hall-as-temple attitude of Mr. Slade, or those eating, drinking, socializers he so clearly believes miss the point.

The performance is all—the communion between musician, music, and listener the sacred and irreplaceable triumvirate inspiriting this unique moment. Everything else is trimming. The Dove bars, the money changing hands for discs, deals, and ducats, the jabbering marketplace of the outside world; once you enter the temple, excellence drives out the quotidian. . . . All the portico posers and agora agonists must concede their presumptions and face the music; no, you don’t get time to finish your drink. The performance, not the periphery, is the sine qua non. Someone must have fiddled with the balance sheets to make anyone think otherwise.

Of course, his is a somewhat romanticized version of what actually happens even when everyone sits down and shuts up on time.  My grandfather used to fall asleep in concerts my grandmother dragged him to back in the 1930s-1950s.  I’ve been at extraordinary-to-me concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center where others made their boredom and irritation readily apparent.

It’s not that I don’t like experience-the-music-with-silent–reverence concerts and concert halls, I do.  But come on, the fact is that many people go to concerts to experience connection and relationship with other human beings.

Even Mr. Slade recognizes this: “Ironically, when the Minnesota Orchestra musicians played their Gala Opening at the Convention Center in October, the lobby came alive after the performance, when musicians joined audience members in the afterglow of a uniquely spirited program.” First, I don’t get what’s ironic about it, unless he meant to emphasize after the performance.  (Many great parties have happened after a great concert, just not always in concert hall lobbies.) Second, this could only have happened in a space like a convention center, where the lobby is big enough to accommodate an orchestra’s worth of locked-out musicians and hundreds of audience members.

If I played in an orchestra (or was a fan of its musicians) whose Board and management were asking me to take a major salary and benefits cut (the musicians say they are being asked for 30-50% cuts, while management says the cuts are merely 20-40%) when more than $50 million was just raised to pay for lobby renovations, I’d be pissed, too.  But as I see it, there’s no denying that part of the future of classical music is a greater sense of connection between performers and listeners.

Most concert halls are designed as temples, and the older they are the smaller the lobbies tend to be (think Carnegie Hall).  For better or worse, not many people want to join the participate-in-a-ritual-at-a-temple game.  The relationship between performers and listeners has to be more personal and connected.  I’m sure one of the things that was wonderful about the performance Mr. Slade refers to is that the audience was family, friends, and the most dedicated fans of the musicians.  There was relationship.

If you’re going to have a relationship with your audience, you need a place to relate.  Like it or not, if major symphony orchestras are going to remain financially viable in coming decades, the places in which they play are going to have to be more agora (a public gathering place, according to Wikipedia, that was “the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life”) and less temple.

Meanwhile, today’s New York Times Sunday Review letters section features a discussion on Is Classical Music Dying?  Les Dryer, retired from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violin section, says the classical music recording industry is dying, the NY Phil and the Met are doing almost no free concerts, and we need to wean kids “away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of ‘American Idol’-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music.”

OK, that is funny. Les, just try to get someone under the age of 30 to watch any old movie, classical-music score or not, and let us know how that works out.

(OK, my daughter will watch All About Eve with me, but she’s an actress and I’m her gay dad and she does stuff like that for me.)

The Times posted the original letter online and various reader responses were selected for today’s paper.  Respond they did.  “Mr. Dreyer, you don’t get it. Classical music is dying because it is and long has been an expensive, mannered and stuffy enterprise as far as the public is concerned,” writes Grant Wiggins, who meanwhile dismisses symphony orchestras as “‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.”  One of my students has taken aback by that remark, but I think he has a point.  My favorite letter is from Charlie Hathaway:

[I]f someone is used to frenetic pop music with lyrics and videos, don’t bludgeon them with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Instead, let them see and hear performances of some of the great modern short pieces, which can be frenetic or languid, but never boring. Expose every seventh grader and a parent to John Adams, Toru Takemitsu and Christopher Cerrone, to name just three of the many, many contemporary composers whose work would never be lumped with the dreaded “classical music,” and we might be on our way to a new generation of listeners.

The future of classical music is not in its past.  The future is in the new, exciting, forward-looking music being created and yet to be created.  People are listening to Mozart on the radio?  So what?  We are listening to Brooklyn Rider on our iPhones.

Meanwhile, I found Kevin Stevens’s letter telling.  He stopped going to classical concerts after another patron chastized him for attending a Boston Symphony concert informally dressed, and senses “condescension and class snobbery” at the Buffalo Symphony (which he doesn’t attend).  He’s neither what Mr. Slade calls a “portico poser” nor an “agora agonizer.”

He’s a stay-at-homer.

“We survived Bush, you’ll survive Obama” is the name of one Facebook group.  Classical music can not just survive but thrive in the new century and its evolving culture.

More agora, less temple.


Filed under Brooklyn Rider, crisis in classical music, future of classical music

Engaging New Audiences While Maintaing High Artistic Standards

I returned to Indiana a little over a year ago, after living in Manhattan for five months, as part of a sabbatical, attending concerts and other events nearly every night (and sometimes days).  My purpose was to prepare for teaching a course on music entrepreneurship, and more broadly, audience development.  When I arrived in NY, I thought I was looking for answers: how to get people to concerts, how to promote yourself, etc.

By the time I left I’d discovered that when it comes to developing new audiences under 40 (which is important if we want there to be future audiences over 40), no one really knows, especially when it comes to traditional classical music.  Sure, there are things that work here and there, and lots of speculation.  And some of those things, like multi-genre programming, more use of lighting and other theatrical elements, etc., upset some classical musicians.

It came to me that instead of finding the answers, what I had found was something infinitely more valuable.  A question to shape my own work (including conversations with students, colleagues, and other music lovers):

How can we engage younger audiences without sacrificing artistic integrity?

A lot of classical-music traditionalists are concerned about new ways of programming and presenting music resulting in a lessening of standards.  How do we make it work for everyone?  How do we do music really, really welland do it in a way that engages new audiences?

Questions are more powerful than answers.  Continuing to ask the question, even when you’ve found an answer, opens enormous possibilities.

Lots of people are engaged with the question, framed in a variety of ways.  Greg Sandow has been for years, and is the person who first got me engaged in the conversation.  He’s been a quite  blogging role recently, with a new series of posts:

A friend recently pointed me to composer Chip Michael’s blog Interchanging Idioms, in which he explores, among other things, ways in which orchestras can develop an under-40 audience. Here’s a fascinating (if a bit meandering) conversation he posted on YouTube:

Finally, for today, multi-genre cellist Jon Silpayamanant, my friend and former student, suggests in his most recent blog post that for some failing large institutions, audience development may not be enough to rescue the enterprise.

Lots to think about as we imagine the future(s) for both classical music and classically-trained musicians.


Filed under attracting younger audeinces, audeince building, future of classical music, Greg Sandow, Jon Silpayamanant

Thanks, Greg!

If you read this blog, you know I am a fan of Greg Sandow and his blog.  (And like all fans I don’t agree with him all the time!)  On sabbatical last year, I had the good fortune to sit in on an entrie semester of Greg’s “Classical Music in an Age of Pop” course at Juilliard.  He got his students to shift–for at least a while–into a mode of sharing what their music making really means to them, and to imagine how they can use that to connect with potential audience members.

When Greg recently started offering online branding workshops for professionals, I was one of the first to apply.  Today we finished our three-session course, and I have a new sense of clarity of who I am, what I do, why I do it, and that it really is worth doing and telling people about.  Greg is imaginative, knowledgeable, encouraging, challenging, and most of all see what’s special and wonderful in other people.

My wesbite–and career planning–are about to take a quantum leap forward.  Exchanging ideas with other participants and was engaging, enlivening, and thrilling.

So if you’ve read about Greg’s online branding seminars, look into them. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I doubt he’ll be this accessible and such a low price for very long. I know he pisses some of you off some of the time–that’s part of his mission in life.  His work with individuals on getting clear on who they are and imagining how they can present that clearly to the world is totally independent of whether some orchestras need a new model or not, or if there is a classical music crisis or not.

I’ll be first in line for whatever he sets up next.

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Filed under branding, entrepreneurship, Greg Sandow, marketing

Sunday Night: Lie Down with Bach

Katya Kramer-Lapin, a wonderful pianist finishing her doctorate at the IU Jacobs School of Music and one of my DePauw colleagues, is playing the Bach Goldberg Variations tonight (Sunday Nov. 13) in the beautiful Methodist church nestled in the heart of the DePauw University campus.

We’re dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and, most importantly, making as much floor space available in the sanctuary as possible.

Floor space?

Yes, so the audience, most of whom we expect to be college students, can bring comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows, and listen to the music lying down. Pajamas are welcome, even encouraged, if not required.

You know what?  There’s some buzz about it.

A bunch of young people who would not voluntarily sit for 90 minutes in a church pew or an auditorium seat are excited about being able to experience Bach while lying down. There’s a legend to this piece: that it was commissioned by a wealthy insomniac patron, for the latter’s keyboard-prodigy servant (Goldberg) to play while his master tossed and turned trying to sleep. So it seems apropos to offer a similar opportunity to a larger group.

And, of course, listening to music while lying down is wonderful.  People do it at home all the time; in a public space, very rarely.  But how extraordinary it should be to stetch out, relax, and experience a world-class pianist making music.  I’m really looking forward to it.

We’re framing the event as a study break and a time of meditation.  We want to balance the informality and novelty with the idea of a peaceful, quiet space, and not have it devolve into a silly pajama party.  It’s all come about through conversations between Katya, me, and members of the first-year seminar class for music majors I teach at DePauw, in which one of the topics is the question of how to get college students to enjoy classical music.

I’ve just read through Greg Sandow’s recent series of posts (hereherehere, and here), and the 93 comments to date (many voluminous and all surprisingly civil in tone), on outreach, education and what I think is Greg’s brilliant insight, one that’s changed my life, which I’ll paraphrase: hey, before anything else, let’s get our peers to listen to our music. My head is still spinning from the discussion, which roams through white colonialism, the brilliance of hip hop, the lack of African Americans in classical music (with notable exceptions).  Images of a graduate course on “Rhythm” at SUNY Stony Brook, where I couldn’t understand most of what people were saying, or why they were saying it, came to mind.  (I sat in on the first session and did not register for it.  I do remember, though, that most of what I couldn’t understand, which flowed forth spontaneously from eager-to-impress theory, musicology, and composition students, was quickly dismissed as the bullshit it was by the professor, although he didn’t use that word.  It was just more bullshit than I thought I could handle.)

Which is not to put Greg or any of the commenters down. Greg started off by saying that while outreach and education are great, we, especially young musicians, need to be getting “people like us” to come to concerts. The conversation, though, does seem to want to avoid the question (perhaps not surprisingly, since it’s so hard to answer) of how we engage new audiences–especially people under 40–without sacrificing artistic quality.  That’s not exactly how Greg phrases it.  For me, though, that’s the question.  My sabbatical in New York, the hundred or more different performances I went to, Greg’s Juilliard course that I sat in on, and everything else?  What I got from it was a question. This question. For me, the question.

Questions are more important than answers.

And so I’ve been asking it of lots of people, including those who play and sing in concerts I organize. Katya’s one of them.  So are my students.  We imagined this together.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.


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Filed under attracting younger audeinces, audeince building, Greg Sandow, Katya Kramer-Lapin

Invisible vs. Visible Music Making

Elaine Fine writes fascinating posts and does it with a regularity that evokes increasing admiration in me.  I read everything, even the recipes, even when they don’t appeal to me.  What can I say?  I’m a fan.

A recent post prompted by Labor Bureau statistics (“what is she writing about now?” I wondered) develops into a wistful meditation on invisibility.

(The Invisible Violist.  Now that could be a great name for a blog. And I know, fodder for innumerable viola/violist jokes.)

I imagine that most people who are not musicians have no idea about how hard “classical” musicians work in order to, as Trey Anastasio puts it, spend “countless hours of work just to be invisible.”

What a fascinating way to put it.

Elaine, like many of our generation and one or two that preceded us, is proud of her invisibility, at its purest when other people play her compositions. She’s a bit dismissive, it seems to me, of others who embrace their visibility, most of whom, in my experience, are younger than we are. Elaine doesn’t frame it as a generational issue, but it seems quite clear to me that it is.  And I have a different sense of where these young musicians are coming from than she does.  My comments in blue italics:

There are “classical” musicians who are trying to break through the cloak of invisibility that covers us most of the time. It’s good Elaine put “classical” in quotes.  Because lots of them don’t think of themselves as “classical” musicians.  They are musicians who play, among other things, the music formerly known as classical, and they don’t like labels. They wear wild clothes and make upplay rock music, and/or go for sex-appeal in order to have respect of the people who they believe (or their managers and advisers believe) need some kind of extra-musical stimulation in order to pay attention to music. They are dressing like their peers, and they embrace rock and other musics not out of insincere calculation but because they like it and often find it not just as engaging and stimulating as classical music, but often more so.  And the “extra-musical stimulation” isn’t extra-musical to them, because their generation hasn’t grown up listening to LP albums in the dark, like we did.  

(Me again.) Learning a new piece? They watch a performance on YouTube.  The visual aspect of human beings making music is, to these younger generation, integral.

The new culture(s?) is/are very visual.  The technological revolution of audio recording created the phenomenon of musicianless music–the invisible musicians of which Elaine writes.  But before radio and the phonograph, that didn’t exist.  And now the ubiquity of video has put the musicians back in the music making.

It was nice while it lasted, I guess.  But, “the times they are a changin’ . . .”



Filed under future of classical music