Why Are You Here Tonight?

“Why are you here, tonight?” I asked the group of concert attendees seated in the pew next to me. We had just listened to a rather sedately presented performance in a dark church with poor sight lines. Receiving a number of quizzical looks, I further explained, “We musicians are always looking for ways to grow audiences.”

The 20-something woman to my left thought a moment and said, “Let me ask you a question. This music is great. But is it the music itself or the culture of classical music you want to preserve? If you played it in more interesting places with a more comfortable atmosphere, you could get a lot more people to come.” 

It was an astute point. Is Beethoven really more powerfully transformative if the performers wear white ties and tails as opposed to jeans? Do we lose something more important than acoustical quality by limiting our venues to concert halls and churches? And what about the purity of genre? Can classical music be effectively heard alongside other types of music in today’s shuffled, mash-up culture — one in which more and more people say genre labels don’t make sense? Expanding classical music audiences without lowering artistic standards is one of the primary challenges facing classical musicians in the 21st century.

Expanding classical music audiences without lowering artistic standards is one of the primary challenges facing classical musicians in the 21st century.

At the DePauw School of Music, the subject of audience development has seen a natural evolution over eight years — from class discussion to experimentation. In 2006, our first seminar classes introduced the traditional classical concert along with the unwritten rules of audience etiquette. What began with a lecture format quickly turned into a Socratic discussion. Students posited: What if there were no rules at classical concerts? What if you could clap when you wanted, dance if you felt like moving, and the performers weren’t formally dressed?

As we discussed these questions, I had a growing sense that in order to find the answers, we needed to experiment. I’m a guy who likes to put his money where his mouth is, and so, somewhat impulsively, I made the students an offer: If you bring two nonmusic students to my upcoming faculty recital (because inviting people is the best way to get them to a concert), we will suspend all the rules, and you can choose my concert attire. 

Accepting the challenge, they chose sneakers, denim, and a red Hawaiian shirt for my wardrobe (the pianist accompanying me wore a similarly casual outfit), and the “classical music in jeans” concert was born. The result? A completely full recital hall with intermittent dancing in the aisles. Audience members clapped when we did something particularly pleasing as well as with the beat in rhythmic passages. It was a heck of a lot of fun.

One of my traditionalist colleagues walked out in dismay, others loved it and, most importantly, a lively online debate ensued. At the end of the semester, the students presented and designed A Musical Buffet — a multi-genre event, promoted as a “last week of classes” study break with free food. Needless to say, we had a standing-room-only crowd. Since that first year of experimentation, A Musical Buffet has become an annual event and expanded beyond DePauw’s campus boundaries to various locations around Greencastle, Ind.

…if we allow for experimentation and a little rule breaking, we may be on to something.

Today, learning to “create audiences” is a critical part of our curriculum. Students are required to conceive, plan and present a musical event in a nontraditional concert space for a target audience of college students. The process includes research, where students interview their classmates to understand the factors of decision making in concert attendance; early “prototype” development, where students develop possible models for a performance; and then feedback leading to the final production.  

Even suspension of the traditional concert rules has lead to some amazingly creative concert experiments. One of my favorite examples is a student project inspired by contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas, who was known for writing works to be performed in total darkness. The concert series invited audience members to bring sleeping bags and blankets and “lie down and listen in the dark” close to or even interspersed among the performers. It was a unique experience for the audience as well as for faculty who attended. It evolved our thinking about what boundaries we had placed on ourselves simply through tradition.

There are no simple answers to the classical music conundrum of audience development, but I believe asking questions and not being afraid of the answers is a start. And, if we allow for experimentation and a little rule breaking, we may be on to something.

Eric Edberg

An educator, classical and improvisatorial cellist, drum circle facilitator, workshop leader, consultant, and noted blogger, Eric Edberg is the Founding Artistic Director of the Greencastle Summer Music Festival.   …more 

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7 Responses

  1. Abigail Martin says:

    These sound like amazing concerts to witness, and my first question is–why don’t we do it more often? DePauw University School of Music claims to be a place preparing 21st Century Musicians, but the experimentation I have witnessed in my first year here has been mostly the work of professors in their solo concerts. Darcy McCoy gave a piano concert at the beginning of the 2015 spring semester, in which she invited students to bring their homework and sit up on stage with her. It was one of the best attended concerts I have seen this year. DePauwPalooza, where we meet students in their environment in a casual, comfortable setting with free food is extremely well attended, and the students enjoy it. Music is being made on one side of Holton Quadrangle while frisbee is being played on the other. And maybe we all need to learn that that is okay. I would like to see, as a student, more experimentation from the large ensemble concerts, which tend to be sparsely attended at best. Students put in a lot of work for very few results. What if we put our choirs in colorful clothing, the types of things they wear on a daily basis, and had them perform over free lunch in the Great Hall–a concert where students could eat, do homework, walk through, stand and enjoy. Not with chairs set up like a formal concert, but more similar to the a cappella setting Millennials feel comfortable with. Or what if the orchestra chose to forgo its “black tie” for jeans and performed outdoors for one of their normal concerts, possibly even in the nature park or at Prindle? I often get students commenting that the School of Music seems unapproachable and that people from the College of Liberal Arts feel like they can’t understand the music. Even worse, they say that SoM students give them that impression. As students, we need to first change our own attitudes before we can change our audiences.

    • Isabel Lopez-Roldan says:

      Abigail, I completely agree with you. I’ve found that a lot of College of Liberal Arts students don’t feel comfortable in the formal environment of our concerts. This doesn’t mean we should completely get rid of our formal events in Kresge or Thompson Hall, however we should make some performances more accessible to the general audience. I loved the friendly and welcoming atmosphere in Dr. McCoy’s concert. It made me so happy to see children dancing to the music, the entertaining interaction between performer and audience, and seeing students sitting on stage in awe of her virtuosity on the piano. Dr. McCoy’s beautiful music wasn’t being neglected at all; it was just being appreciated in a different way. We should take some of our performances out of the “intimidating” atmosphere of a formal theatre setting, and make a greater effort to bring our music to the wider audience.

  2. Sierra Graves says:

    I definietly think that if we took music to different setting rather then sitting in the same place for the same type of music we could cause a very unique event to happen. Classical music could become a popular again for many occasion. today’s society is constantly doing something moving working play, so as a musician we should give them free will to do daily activities. For example: A concert at the park near a play ground not on a huge stage become apart of the audience as well as a performer.As a performer we should connect ourselves to our audience not connect our audience to ourselves by bringing them to our comfortable area we should go to them.

  3. Allan Whitehead says:

    I agree with Abigail and Sierra that we should continue to venture out of the concert hall and try innovate the classical music concert setting. DePauwpalooza was an awesome representation of going outside the concert hall (literally) because we were surrounded with our friends from the CLA and community while making music. I think that pop up concerts are a wonderful way to spread classical music. Pop up concerts are wonderful because listeners can just be doing their everyday activities and be surrounded by music. If we are to keep classical music alive and appeal to younger audiences, then we need to change how we present the classical music concert.

  4. Tyler Schaefers says:

    In today’s society, most people don’t like to crammed into a dark and stuffy recital hall. Allan brings up a great point about pop up concerts. They’re a great way to bring music to people who usually wouldn’t be caught dead in a concert hall. Pop up concerts are a great way to bring music to a different audience.

  5. Megan says:

    I think that making classical concerts more comfortable and casual would make them feel much more accessible to the average person. Making some concerts less formal and giving them interesting settings would probably allow for a wider range of people who attend. I agree with Allan that DePauwpalooza was a great example of making classical music more accessible.

    • Emily Hoyland says:

      Like Megan mentioned, I think more casual concert settings draw a greater audience. I’ve often found that friends and family members who don’t usually go to traditional concerts are very willing to go to an outdoor concert, particularly with pops music. They are able to enjoy orchestral playing while not feeling confined or like they will do something “wrong.”

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