New Audiences for Classical Music-Where are they?
Young contemporary musicians and their audiences can listen to a wider range of music than at any other time in history. They can, and many do, listen to the music of many cultures, every historical period. They have an understanding of and use of technology to create their own recordings and to share them widely. They network and perform at young ages. Their music is often highly original, drawing on broad musical influences. And they confront their lives through their music in very powerful ways.
This is my experience of teaching at a Music Conservatorium in a regional area, and now privately in the same area. Students listen to and create complex music, and are happy to attend festivals and concerts where they listen and engage with a broad range of music over days and sometimes week- long events. They engage differently with music-they dance, move to the music, socialise and identify themselves in some ways by the music they create and engage with.
I am talking about highly engaged listeners I suppose, but they are a potential audience (for classical music). I teach in a steel and coal town (declining) so I am not necessarily talking about affluent kids.
I haven’t found many students resistant to learning classical repertoire and some actively ask to learn it when their main music making is performing original music as solo or band members. I am always interested in hearing how coming to know a particular piece informs their writing and singing. I don’t confine teaching repertoire to classical pieces, I draw from a broad range of music (some that I get from students) I was introduced to Sigur Ros and Dirty Projectors by students.
I don’t find young students resistant to learning or listening to classical music, or that they lack the attention span to engage with it; they are more equipped than previous generations.
What the performance of classical music lacks in relation to the contemporary music these students are used to seeing is a sense of adventure and spontaneity in performance. This is what you get in good non- classical concerts, and you get it in the best classical concerts. But as a performance quality it is my belief it is undervalued in classical training. The most important thing is -to get it right. (And that is important!) Virtuosity valued over communication - and an aspiration to have as little as possible of the performer in the music.
Pop/ contemporary music values the performer in the song and in classical music we perhaps frown on this as a bit crass? A bit more investment in our uniqueness as performers. In our sound, what we have to say through our music, celebrating our differences. We all come from different social backgrounds, have different ways of expressing, feel differently and sometimes the same about the big issues music deals with. Taking risks maybe? Why wouldn’t we have quite different ways of doing the same thing? How we dress, how we speak to the audience, where we perform, with who, how we construct our programs, what events we support…
I think in Australia classical music serves a bit as a social marker of status and education. I know it is not the same elsewhere. When I first starting studying classical singing many of my friends asked why not rock or folk? And I said it was because I got to sing the best Western music of the last 4oo years, and that rock was only talking about the last 60 years or so.
I don’t believe that classical music has a monopoly on dealing with the fundamental questions about our humanity, or beauty, or power, scale and spectacle. I do believe that it can sit alongside non-classical music and listen and engage with the culture(s) we are now in.
I am part of an Indigenous Opera Company that is aimed at telling the stories of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia. The visionary founder of the company and composer of the opera-Pecan Summer is Deborah Cheetham (a member of the stolen generation) . Deborah went all around Australia and went through the Aboriginal networks looking for singers of any genre who wanted to sing Opera. An Opera about the first walk off from an Aboriginal Mission in the 1930’s. She uncovered some amazing talent and she took on the project of developing the opera and the singers in it. Deborah believes that the telling and singing of stories is a central part of Aboriginal culture, and that Opera is the ideal vehicle for it. And do we have amazing voices! 5 years down the track and we have performed first for the Aboriginal elders of the Yorda Yorda their own story as told to Deborah, and we were overwhelmed with the response. Since then the opera has been staged in numerous cities to great acclaim and the singers are beginning to get work in other areas.
Many criticised the choice of opera as a form for the story-but Deborah says it is the only form big enough for the subject matter. I have had some criticise the singing of the story in classical style (one person said-what Aboriginal person wants to sing opera?)
The answer is-not all, but some do. Same with audiences-there will be people who don’t like it. Some people hate jazz. But there is a bigger audience out there of people who have never engaged with classical music. But it needs to be passionate, engaged and speak to now. Not the same recycling of admittedly great classics, but that has been on the program again and again. And maybe some brave choices, new works, and brave performances.