Music classes at Plaza Music Center in Brooklyn

Critic: How Not to Reach New Audiences

What’s the best way to find new audiences for classical music? Not through music-education programs, according to a June 27 column by Anne Midgette, classical-music critic of the Washington Post. Midgette challenges the line of thinking that by stepping in to replace music programs cut from public schools, orchestras can help reverse declining-audience trends by instilling a life-long interest in classical music that includes concertgoing. Her conclusion: There is “a certain futility to orchestras putting all of their outreach eggs into the school education basket.”

Midgette goes on to write,

“The conventional wisdom these days is that music education in the schools has declined, and therefore we’ve lost audiences, and therefore we have to put lots of energy into school music programs so that we can build up our audiences again. A lot of the emphasis is on teaching instruments. Some 74% of the orchestra audience, according to a Knight Foundation study based on six selected orchestras, has experience playing a musical instrument; therefore, let’s get instruments in the hands of schoolkids who will grow up to be the audience of the future.

The meaning of the word ‘audience’ is changing. As orchestras expand their relationships in and out of the concert hall, their audiences may include listeners on mobile devices, the amateurs who connect by playing in a master class or workshop, and patients in a local hospital.” —Jesse Rosen, president and CEO, League of American Orchestras

“I am all for teaching as many children as much about music as possible. But this idea, as outlined, is a logical fallacy. For one thing, the audience that’s declining right now is an audience that did have the benefit of music education: my peers, the people in their 40s and 50s… They got the music education: they’re still not subscribing. …

“I was struck, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra instituted its Rusty Musicians concerts, giving serious amateurs a chance to play with Marin Alsop and the BSO musicians on Strathmore’s stage, by how many of the musicians who showed up to play had active amateur careers—and how few of them attended BSO concerts. … There’s not an automatic correlation between the love of making music and the love of going to it.” In a follow-up column on June 30, Midgette reiterates her opinion that music education is vitally important and writes that some orchestras are finding ways to appeal to thirtysomethings and other younger audiences.

“This column raises some provocative questions about what services orchestras should be offering to whom and why,” responded Jesse  Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. “But having worked with orchestras my whole life and now as president of the League of American Orchestras, I think a few of the points have more complexity than they are accorded here. For example, there is the assumption that orchestras offer music education for the exclusive purpose of building audiences. That is simply not the case. Orchestras know that music education offers important intrinsic benefits to people and they are committed to delivering those benefits regardless of whether those people ever buy a ticket to a concert. Second, regarding the concern that orchestras are putting most of their audience development eggs in the education basket: nothing could be further from the truth. We are seeing a vast array of creative strategies, from programming to pricing to venue changes and more. And there are fascinating new collaborations between orchestras and universities, hospitals, and other community organizations. One size does not fit all, so each orchestra is figuring out what makes sense for its community. The last point I would make is that the meaning of the word “audience” itself is changing. As orchestras expand their relationships in and out of the concert hall, their audiences may include listeners on mobile devices, the amateurs who connect by playing in a master class or workshop, and patients in a local hospital. All of these are legitimate audiences who again, may not set foot in a concert hall. And I think that bodes very well for an orchestra’s future.”

What do you think? Do you agree with Midgette that music education is a weak link to future audiences for orchestras? Is there a correlation between playing an instrument and attending a concert, or are there other forces at work behind audience declines? What’s the best way to build audiences, and should orchestras target specific age groups at all?

Join the discussion by adding your comment below!

Pictured at top: Music lessons in Brooklyn, New York, April 1938, one of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project initiatives.


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