Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

SOS Orchestra

Discuss with Stephanie how we can improve our orchestras

In this video, Stephanie tries to answer this question: How can orchestras increase their impact on communities and on the general public? What should they do to spur more interest and increase their audiences? Please, post your suggestions on this video's page!

Released on February 1, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, all. I'm Stephanie. Today's discussion is based around my thoughts and ideas developed through my contact with people generally. Students, teachers, musicians, individuals at schools and conservatoriums, but also just general folk. As well as the reading that I've done, so this could be from books or newspapers or indeed social media. The video is therefore simply the start of a discussion that you guys will then continue to guide and dictate. So no shyness please. Let's begin. I don't go to orchestral concerts very often. Like all parents, there's only so much you can do independent of family responsibilities. However, my daughter is now well past 8 years old, can stay up till 10 p.m. at a push and vaguely knows how to behave in public. So the last six months has been a much happier time for me concert-wise but also something of a shock. Maybe it was always this way and I just never noticed but audiences do seem to be something of a blue rinse parade. The average age is 70, 75, with a large majority women, presumably because the other half have popped their clogs. Now why? Where are the other generations of the '60s, '70s and beyond? What is the reason for this desertion of the orchestral experience, an experience that encompasses around 400 years of differing repertoires, styles, aesthetic, and orchestral make-up? And where our human ability for working together...generally pretty poor, granted...seems to excel here as the 50 or so individuals in front of us are united in their goals, passion and, above all, instrumental mastery, clearly we've a polarity in the concert hall: Youngish orchestral players consumed by an older audience. The players themselves seem to have no one of their generation supporting them. Well, the whys could be anything. One thing that does spring to mind is that consumption via TV, and more recently by way of computers and phones, means that maybe younger generations feel less need of physical contact with live performances. Everything's at their fingertips, after all. And yet with this situation, one could actually argue the opposite. Lack of contact prompts people to go out and experience firsthand. Now this is very much a sociological question and certainly not my area at all, so if any of you out there are able to shed some light on this, you'd certainly liven up the conversation.

Another reason might well be the formal stiffness that seems to prevail in these concert halls. Now if you think about it, this is quite a contradiction to our increasingly informal societies. I mean, why the tuxes? Why the reverent silence? Why the clapping at set places? And for that matter, why not whistling or crying out, you know, "Yeah, Beethoven." Historically, people used to clap whenever they heard something that they liked, you know, in the middle of a piece or a song, rather like the situation you get at jazz concerts. They were able to express themselves as audiences and also created real time nonverbal dialogue with the musicians. Today, and for a long time now, the overall setup by comparison seems to be a bit prescriptive and sterile. Direct communication between audience and musicians seems to be limited to formulaic interludes. And of course, for those people with less knowledge about classical art music, this becomes a turnoff. Of course, maybe people simply consider listening to past musical styles an anachronistic activity. But even here, this does not explain why contemporary composers, with the possible exception of John Williams, are likewise shunned. Now as regards the younger audience, I personally think there exists the notion that classical music is for fuddy-duddies with one foot in the grave. So there's an automatic self-exclusion for anyone under a certain age. Immature and frankly ageist though this thinking is, my time with teenagers, younger students, and not to mention my contact with 20- and 30-somethings, repeatedly reinforces this perception. A kind of division, if you will, between our music and yours. Yours, of course, being the aged. Now the irony here is that time will ultimately jinx you anyway.

There's another name for this, of course, and that's musical bigotry. And as with all bigotry, this stems from formal and informal educational inadequacies. But the home situation, school, society, and indeed the marketplace, have a part to play in a person's overall formation. But in general, the burden of responsibility unfortunately has to be placed on educational programs, institutions, and teachers. My musical education at school essentially consisted of doing, singing ad nauseum, recorder, and that was about it. I took violin and piano lessons privately, of course, but even here, and up until an advanced level, I did instruments, technique, scales, pieces. You know, it seemed that music was about acquiring knowledge only through doing. University radically changed things. I was asked to question, make links, debate, discuss, and challenge myself and my own preconceptions. Through this, I realized that the small pieces that frankly should have been put together years back were only just now coming together and taking shape. And that made me annoyed. The intrinsic beauty or interest or dislike or whatever of a piece of music had never had the chance to be fully examined. And it's the same today, variations in regional, national curricula permitting. My daughter's school, for example, continues this trend. Sure, she's learning to read music through recorder studies and sings ad nauseum, but I've yet to hear her come home and explain to me what an opera is or that she's heard dreamy music, which would be impressionism. Or that she's even had a discussion where musical likes and dislikes are talked about in her class, you know? Basic justification of personal taste. Whilst our children do the listening, analytical, discursive experience of music...arguably the most important for building a repertoire and constructing the basics for intelligently discussing and independently exploring music...well, that becomes delegated to the external market of children's programs and MTV. The musical aesthetic, if you can call it that, is therefore formed by the time you're 10 and the musical bigotry to which I referred earlier, well, that's complete. That lasts a lifetime.

Dwindling audiences are the result of a listener's conformity to the omnipresent cultural marketplace, but also to education's well-meaning but inadequate response to this. People are completely disassociated from and unable to possess their musical heritage. The anecdote? Ha, well, I'd like to hear what you've got to say for this. For my part, whilst I recognize that orchestras are much more open to popular concerts, we need to recognize that this is simply a market response and by definition superficial, especially given the vast repertoire of fantastic music that we've inherited from our past. So I'd encourage the integration of music meaningfully with the world so that dialogue is at the heart of musical experiences. Get members of orchestras to informally chat, dialogue, and debate with audiences during concerts, through Facebook, whatever. You know, get them to do interactive mob flashes. Avoid alienating formality. As regards education, well, change classroom music from the earliest years so that students can build and develop a more analytical, open-minded approach to music via listening and which encourages lifelong, independent musical exploration. If we don't, I fear there'll be no audience left in 20 years and therefore no orchestras. So am I being dramatic and hysterical? Have I read our society all wrong? Have I drunk too much red wine? Most probably. Get in touch. Share your thoughts. And please don't hold back. Really looking forward to hearing what you've got to say. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Terry Shade on May 4, 2018 @11:08 am PST
Hello Stephanie! My name is Terry Shade and I am the author of String Basics, a method published by Neil. A. Kjos. My co-author and I, Jeremy Woolstenhulme, love coming across people who are involved in the orchestral community! Please feel free to check out String Basics! After, we can discuss what you thought and if you believe this method could be the answer to everyone's prayers! 
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @3:21 pm PST
Well, this debate is not new. 45 years ago, the same themes could be heard, with symphony orchestras going downhill. They are indeed going downhill beacuse of lack of public funding in Europe in many places. But the haven't died out.
But the dull formalistic way of listening in silence in a big concert hall turns people away. The concerts that get the most enthusiastic audience here in Belgium are the Queen Elisabeth competition concerts, where candidates are being listened to, judged by the jury and by the public, interviewed on radio and TV, etc. Or the night of the Proms in Antwerp. Concerts need to be fun or attractive, and the 9th symphony of Beethoven is just no longer sexy enough today.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:10 pm PST
Hi Paul, Beethoven's 9th not sexy? Now that's an adjective I've never heard associated with good old Beeth! As for Belgium, I never knew you had a 'proms' in Antwerp. Did you take the idea from the Albert Hall in London or did we British copy you...and do you Belgians like Elgar as much as we Brits? Let me know. Steph
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 2, 2017 @9:48 pm PST
Of course the night of the proms has been copied over from the Brits ... I don't believe Elgar is as much in honor as in Britain, certainly not as much as in Worcester and Herefordshire where I was on vacation last summer. But a night of the Proms needs some Pump and Circumstance, I suppose.
Ignacio Esquivel Pérez on March 1, 2017 @11:50 am PST
That's really thrue and it's a pane, we need change our vision and young arts general vision about culture arts and marketing-culture, very thanks for
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:01 pm PST
Hi Ignacio, thanks for getting in touch and sharing your opinion. Hope to hear from you in other posts! Steph
Reid on February 1, 2017 @7:25 am PST
You raise an important issue in the decline of the prominence of the orchestra as an entertainment source for mainstream society. Well, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra in Canada seems to be rising to the challenge successfully. Two weeks ago, I attended a concert that embraced modern technology to entice concertgoers of all ages and backgrounds to attend their concert. The orchestra presented 3 choices to the audience each time it played that night. The audience voted for their favourite piece with their cell phones and a large screen behind the orchestra showed the percentile votes. The audience clapped and loved it when the results appeared in real time and people really got into the music once the orchestra started. Coupled with a conductor renowned for his all-age audience engagement, John Russell of the Cincinnati Pops, people felt at one with the orchestra, the music and the experience. It was great to see families with teenagers and all sorts of folks enjoying the evening. The trick seems to be to make the orchestra relevant in the context of today's technological society, pull down the perceived stodginess and 'elitism' of sober serious music and set the experience for a few hours of great music. This can lead listeners on to explore more complex pieces when a fine orchestra and an enthusiastic conductor are interacting with them.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on February 3, 2017 @2:28 am PST
Dear Reid, thanks so much for taking the time to share this with all of us. It's exactly as you say, the 'feeling at one with the music' factor. In that way, the audiences don't just consume the orchestral experience, they are the experience! Reid, you've made me want to live in Canada! Steph
Reid on February 3, 2017 @8:23 am PST
:- it's a fine fine country to call home. Best to all your readers and commenters, Steph.
David willmore on February 1, 2017 @2:16 am PST
The cost of taking the family is to high, free places for children would help. The stuffy conductor that has no contact with the audience. Take a leaf out of Andre Rui's book interact with the audience!
Stephanie Lewis - host, on February 3, 2017 @2:32 am PST
Hi David, thanks for getting involved in the conversation. Yep, you're right. Regular concert going is very expensive and simply prohibitive if you've a family. Our ministries of culture throughout the world could certainly do more. And as for the stuffiness, its easy enough to change. Thanks for this David. Steph
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