“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.