The following post was written by Belinda Ho, a violinist and music entrepreneur based in Miami, FL. Explore her projects at www.babybstrings.com and www.musicalfairytales.com.
In recent decades, the music industry has experienced total disruption. Surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) show that between 2008 and 2012, audience attendance declined for traditional art forms (theatre, classical music concerts and museums). Although attendance by the 55 and older crowd had increased by 2.5 percent during this period, only 8.8 percent of adults under 55 had attended a classical music concert. There are many reasons for this, including the rise of the Internet and new technologies, a diversifying audience, and an increase in entertainment options.
This skew towards an older audience has led many classical musicians – from symphony orchestras to solo artists – to grapple with the same question: how do we stay relevant and grow interest with younger audiences?
In my career as a professional musician, I’ve observed various innovative ways in which some ensembles are reaching out to and engaging younger listeners. Here are some ideas worth considering that have helped shaped their artistic mission:
Integrate and collaborate.
A common remark I hear about classical music from the casual listener is that they like and appreciate it, but they don’t know a lot about it. The differences between composers are often obscured by lack of listener experience and the massive amount of repertoire that exists can be intimidating. In order to help ease the audience into more serious work, every season the New World Symphony in Miami hosts a night called Pulse, in which their magnificently designed concert hall is transformed into a nightclub. The orchestra performs both classical and contemporary pieces, trades sets with a DJ, and performs a collaboration piece with the guest DJ.
Other famous groups have also made efforts to cross genres, like the Vitamin String Quartet, 2Cellos, and hip-hop duo Black Violin, who often sample pieces of classical repertoire in their music. Such genre-crossing collaborations are a way to expose new audiences to traditional music, reaching potential fans, who might not otherwise have explored classical music on their own.
Redefine the concert hall.
While establishing myself in Miami, I tried to find every possible venue to play in. I initiated collaborations with other local musicians so I could play in rock and jazz clubs. I even performed in a hospital, a national park, and many other unconventional locations. I ended up meeting a whole community of artists who didn’t know any violinists and people who had never seen a violin up close, and it shaped the way I thought about where string musicians could belong. In the years that followed, larger organizations like the Knight Foundation and the Miami Symphony Orchestra began sponsoring concerts in public places — even in an airport and a shopping mall — bringing live music to the average person’s daily life.
Musicians in Britain under the name Bach to Baby took it one step further by presenting chamber concerts that cater to babies and toddlers. Parents are encouraged to bring their little ones, who are allowed to bounce around, make noise, and enjoy the music in a manner typically frowned upon in a more traditional setting.
Prepare the next generation.
With school arts funding being cut every year, it’s never been more important to promote arts education. Programs can range from community outreach to family-oriented performances aimed at a younger audience and introducing children to classical music. Many orchestras regularly present children’s concerts, sometimes featuring an “instrument petting zoo” or themed performances.
A company focused on live performance film scores called CineConcerts produces several family-friendly shows that feature a symphony orchestra while the corresponding movie plays over head. Their titles include The Harry Potter Film Concert Series and Dreamworks Animation in Concert.
Along these same lines, Composer Oscar Bustillo and I have created a series called Musical Fairytales under the artist name Hobuco. Each narrated story combines classical repertoire (think Mozart and Beethoven symphonies) with traditional fairy tales in the spirit of Peter and the Wolf, Tom and Jerry’s Cat Concerto,and Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc?”. We wanted to make fine art fun to children in the way that these cartoons had impressed upon us. Adults love the concerts too, and performing them indulges the little kid inside of us.
Exposing children to classical music early on in a fun, age-appropriate setting normalizes orchestral music, piques kids’ interest, and sets them up for a life-long love of (and even nostalgia for) classical music.
Classical music isn’t destined to fade away. It continues to be present in every corner of our lives, moving and influencing us, sometimes in the most subtle ways. But we, as artists, can continue to create new ways to celebrate the masters that have come before us.