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What’s Turning Young People Off Classical Music Concerts?

Music in the Round, Sheffield, UK. Image Credit: Independent Sheffield (http://independent-sheffield.co.uk/music-in-the-round/)
Graham Strahle
| July 3, 2017

It’s been a much debated subject for years now, but what are the barriers that seem to be preventing, or disinclining, young people from going to classical music concerts? Even a casual glance across the rows of seating at a typical symphony concert will yield the truth of the matter. Children and young adults are conspicuous by their absence, and this is despite the strenuous efforts of the creative and marketing teams behind our orchestras to acquire new audiences.

Why exactly is this so? Numerous reasons have been put forward, including how concerts in their traditional format are too long to suit the listening preferences of younger generations, ticket prices are too expensive, and the formal, sit-in-silence atmosphere inside concert halls is too stifling. Others have suggested that newcomers to classical music are put off by the unanimated demeanour of the musicians themselves while they perform, which seems to hide their own involvement with the music and even make them look bored.

So the logic goes like this: by making classical concerts shorter, cheaper, more informal and visually engaging with elements such as lighting, projections and movement on stage, this could entice more young people to come along. The problem with this kind of thinking, though, is that it underestimates the intelligence and acumen of the people to whom it is directed. They’re not so easily swayed. Millennials, who have grown up in a jungle of marketing, know repackaging when they see it, and they don’t necessarily find truth in it. As one commentator put it: “they’re not moved by flashy ads, big promises, and “wow” factor. They want authentic messages, authentic brands, and authentic interactions”.

Hearing what young people themselves have to say about classical music seems more important than anything else. Orchestras routinely run focus groups to help them find answers to programming, but published studies in this area are rare. An interesting piece of research in the Journal of Popular Music Education suggests the views that young adults hold toward classical music are not as malleable as might be imagined.

Entitled ‘(Un)popular music and young audiences: Exploring the classical chamber music concert from the perspective of young adult listeners’, it asked 40 young people about their reactions to chamber music concerts at Sheffield’s Music in the Round series to which they were invited to attend. All were aged under 25 – which is commonly the most under-represented age group in classical concerts – and they sat in on performances of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms.

The authors, Lucy Dearn from the University of Sheffield’s Performer and Audience Research Centre, and Stephanie Pitts from its Department of Music, came up with interesting results. They found that most of the participants, even including those who were studying music at university level, experienced difficulty in identifying with the music emotionally, and with the concert experience as a whole.

They concluded: “While some respondents were pleasantly surprised by their enjoyment or impressed by the performers, most remained fairly fixed in their views, and it would clearly take more than one concert to begin to assimilate classical music listening within their established musical identities.”

The main obstacles that prevent them enjoying the concerts were “the emotional pace of the music”, the length of concerts they attended, and “the restrained behaviour of other audience members, which was interpreted by some as being indicative of a lack of emotional engagement”.

Dearn and Pitts also concluded that concert setting was to blame. They note in their observations that it was “serving as a distraction as participants became concerned with whether they were welcome and how they should behave”. This is despite the fact that the Music in the Round explicitly aims at creating an informal atmosphere by eliminating a conventional stage, positions the audience 360-degrees around the musicians, as its name suggests, and encourages the latter to speak about the music in between performances. (Find more about its concert series here.)

Clearly the challenge is on for musicians, promoters and venues to think of further ways of creating an atmosphere that makes young people feel more comfortable and welcome. So-called ‘third places’ in libraries and recreation centres might be useful models: with their informal layout, these serve as anchors of community life by offering easy accessibility and opportunities for social engagement. The stiff, formal atmosphere of traditional concert halls seems archaic by comparison.

Perhaps the thing we call ‘classical music’ is itself also changing in the hands of young people. Perhaps they are listening to no less of it but in ways that are more relevant to them, through movies and computer games. In these mediums the orchestra, real or virtual, continues to find new incarnations, and perhaps that is where its future also lies.

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