Rethinking Concert Presentations

For a long time, a special interest of mine has revolved around rethinking concert presentations of classical music. Particularly motivated by a performance opportunity in India, my fascination with this subject led to participating in a workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada in 2015, and culminated in my dissertation project, “Reinterpreting the Classical Music Market Crisis: An Opportunity to Innovate Concert Presentations.” Writing as a classical musician for classical musician readers, the project is intended to challenge classical musicians to reconsider their roles as cultural ambassadors, educators, and thinkers. I propose that musicians ought to become more culturally aware of traditional performance practices and consider ways to more effectively connect with non-concert-attending audience demographics. I dedicated this document to my family who has taught me so much about what it means to communicate well. Feel free to browse through the "Prelude" (Introduction) to my dissertation below. If you happen to make it all the way down, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Yours,

Eugenia

PRELUDE

Personal Story

In September 2009, I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long outreach tour sponsored by an arts organization in Seattle. My teammate, violist Zach Dellinger, and I reached out to a total of 1,674 children at 12 underserved schools, from kindergarten through high school, in the rural communities of eastern Washington, from small classroom to large assembly settings. A large number of students we encountered had never been to a classical music concert or been exposed to live classical music before.

At one of the schools, following a performance of a movement from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite by Zach on the viola, we asked the students if the music made them think of anything. Many hands went up among the lit-up faces, some enthusiastic and some shy, but I was especially moved by a boy who quietly raised his hand and said that the music reminded him of his grandfather who had recently passed away. In another classroom, we were able to engage in a stimulating dialogue about practicing methods with Latino American high school students in a Q&A session after our performance. It was there, being able to bring classical music to the students and watching their imagination and creativity spark, that I realized that the joy of music is exponentially increased when it is shared, especially with those who have not had the opportunity to understand and appreciate it.

Two years later, another opportunity came – this time, in Bangalore, India. I had the opportunity to work closely with music educator Sandra Oberoi[1] and her students for three weeks. There, performing in front of a predominantly Hindu audience with little exposure to western classical music was a fresh and humbling experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to ask some tough questions. How many times had I performed without thinking about to whom I was communicating? What kind of classical musician did I want to be? It took being 8,000 miles away from home to learn how ignorant I had been about my audience and realize that communication built on a mutually understood framework is just as important as the skill itself.

I was privileged to be a part of a number of unique performing experiences that happened outside of my usual context, all of which challenged me to reassess my role as a classical musician in my community and throughout the world. Facing audiences from different social and cultural backgrounds outside the walls of academia and traditional concert halls forced me to wrestle harder with aspects of the performance tradition of classical music that are only understood in certain Western circles. It was performing in these non-traditional performance venues far removed from the typical context that led me to confront the ignorance and elitism inherent in my own approach to piano performance.

These two experiences were catalysts in shaping the way I perceive my role as a classical musician today. The years in academia have provided an intensive learning context that enabled me to grow in my discipline, which has been essential in my growth as a musician. But for me, it is being able to share the joy of music with the wider community both in concert halls as well as in unreached classrooms that breathes life, meaning and purpose into who I am as an artist.

I find myself constantly pondering ways to bring classical music to diverse audiences in creative ways that would enhance their experience. How can we preserve what is unique about classical music and yet present it to the modern audience in ways that are innovative and relevant? I have come to believe that it is my responsibility as a performer and communicator in the 21st century to address this question.

The Project

Twenty-first century classical musicians in Western contexts function in different spheres outside concert halls as marketers, social entrepreneurs, curators, and educators. With increasing opportunities to dictate the programming and presentation of concerts, and more direct contact with the audience in concert settings and beyond, performing musicians have a unique role to play in shaping the audience’s appreciation of classical music in intimate and powerful ways. This gives them greater responsibility to be informed about the changing patterns of new audiences in order to navigate effective ways of communication.

There is clear and sufficient evidence that point to changes in audience consumption patterns in classical music over the last few decades in North America. For instance, periodic surveys conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Research and Analysis on a five-year basis from 1982-2012 report a market crisis in live concert-attending U.S. adults.[2] Additionally, hundreds of publications in the U.S. related to arts participation studies between 1985-2015 reveal drastically changing audience demographics and arts consumption patterns.[3] However, despite the increasing volume of quantitative data related to the market crisis and changing arts consumption patterns in contemporary audiences, a significant body of classical musicians are neither absorbing nor responding to this information in effective and productive ways. For many years I have been a personal victim and observer of classically trained musicians’ tendencies to be culturally insulated. This shows through our overreliance on formulaic concert rituals,[4] unoriginal programming, and uncommunicative presentations and marketing strategies that alienate target audiences of the non-attending demographic. This dissertation research will substantiate these issues and contribute to the existing research by synthesizing the information in innovative ways.

Classical musicians are cultural mediators who have the ability to bridge the classical music repertoire and contemporary audiences through performing and marketing live classical music events. In order to do this, classical musicians must develop a cultural awareness of changing patterns in audiences by critically interpreting current data reporting audiences’ negative reception of live classical music events. Moreover, as a practical response to the market crisis represented by declining concert attendance that can be understood as a performer-audience crisis, classical musicians ought to take initiatives to address these issues by rethinking the presentation of classical music concerts, because this is the primary form through which we communicate with audiences. This research can be understood as a call to action for classical musicians to reinterpret the market crisis as an opportunity to reimagine presentations of classical music and the culture surrounding it.

This document is largely organized to address motivational issues and practical solutions to cultural gaps that have formed between classical musicians and the non-attending audience demographic. First, I provide historical context to the changing performer-audience relationship. Then, I describe the existing cultural rhetoric and the reductive discourse that has emerged from it, leading to problematic assumptions about the market crisis. After redefining the market crisis as a divorced relationship between performers and the non-attending audience demographic, I describe specific barriers that are alienating younger non-attending audience members from attending live classical music concerts. Based on recently collected data, I deduce four areas of audience-perceived barriers. Lastly, I explore current initiatives by large organizations, and look to four smaller musician-led initiatives and grassroots organizations that are currently exploring innovative solutions to each of these areas.

Chapter 1 argues that performers (not just scholars, arts administrators, and cultural critics) need to listen to the market crisis in declining and aging concert-attending audiences. Contrary to commonly held views by musicians, the market crisis offers a realistic and insightful portrait of the performer-audience relational crisis due to cultural changes that have happened over history. I demystify the market crisis in this chapter by redefining the data often perceived as threatening or non-relevant information to performers, by parsing out the performer-audience crisis that lies at the heart of the numerical data. I propose that the data is personally relevant for performers because the numbers actually represent a problem of audience reception that does not denote classical music’s downfall; but rather, presents new and urgent opportunities for classical musicians to recognize and participate in the changing landscape.

In Chapter 2, the focus shifts from musicians to audiences, as both sides constitute a mutually communicative relationship. This chapter looks at common assumptions held by young, potential consumers of classical music and aims to understand what they perceive as barriers. This chapter argues that the cultural gap largely relates to the concert presentation and culture surrounding classical music to a greater degree than the inherent qualities of the music itself. Based on the data, I show that the audience barriers largely relate to four areas: poor marketing, formal concert atmospheres, formulaic concert presentations, and insufficient music education. These areas forge a perception of classical music as an elitist, intellectual art form.

Finally, Chapter 3 addresses how classical musicians can constructively use this paradigm by planning more thoughtful, audience-minded presentations of classical music and taking a more active role as marketers, social entrepreneurs, curators, and educators. I explore four solutions to the areas that performers can pay more attention to by focusing on current musician-led initiatives that present promising models in their innovative strategies. Specifically, in response to the students’ negative criticism on the culture surrounding classical music discussed in Chapter 2, the final chapter of this document challenges performing classical musicians to rethink how we can more effectively reach the non-attending audience demographic through exploring 1) better marketing strategies, 2) informal performance settings, 3) innovative concert presentations, and 4) audience education strategies. Exploring these innovative strategies and challenging traditional aspects of presenting concerts inevitably raises questions surrounding the authentic value of live classical music events and qualities worth preserving; thus, Chapter 3 discusses further considerations that can be useful for classical musicians seeking to bridge gaps between the old and the new. The inevitable tension between preserving tradition and adjusting to the changing cultural climates is felt throughout.

[1] Music educator, classical vocalist, founder and director of Harmony Music School (Bangalore, India). MMEd, Northwestern University, 2015.

[2] National Endowment for the Arts, "Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 1982-2012 Combined File [United States]." Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) [distributor], 2014-12-22.

[3] A sample of archived publications can be accessed through the National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture website. National Endowment for the Arts, "National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture," http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/NADAC/index.jsp.

[4] Johan Idema, "Present!: Rethinking Live Classical Music," (Rotterdam: Muziek Centrum Nederland, 2012).


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All illustrations © 2013 Aaron Becker.