Connecting with people is not what orchestras do best

Anne Midgette has written a thoughtful, timely and deeply penetrating set of observations in the Washington Post on what happens when well-meaning orchestras take their product to neighbourhood schools.

In two words: not much.

Anne went with Gianandrea Noseda and other musicians to CHEC on 16th Street NW. They might have descended from another planet for all the kids understood what the maestro was saying to them, or for the impact it might leave on their precious minds.

She writes:

How do you reach people who are new to classical music and make them want to come back? One answer is to give them the very best you can and hope something sticks, and that, Noseda is doing to the utmost. Orchestras across the country are experimenting with this kind of outreach program, but you don’t always see your marquee music director leading the concerts…

She continues:

Connecting with people isn’t rocket science, but it’s an area in which classical music consistently struggles… 

Very true. I have seen Mariss Jansons achieve something in the boondocks of Pittsburgh, putting a scratchy school orchestra through its paces, and I had exactly the same thought as Anne’s: will this make a difference to any of their lives?

I have gone with Baltimore players to a school under lockdown after the third shooting in a week. Again, I wondered: is this the best way? What do we have to offer in such dire circumstances?

It is, at best, a word in progress. Read Anne’s article here and reflect.


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  • Well meaning gesture but would be completely lost on most kids. Better to start off with something they can relate to rather than straight classical. Get the orchestra members to play a few pop numbers first and finish with a classical piece.

    • Young people do not listen to “pop” music. Better to find a well-known — and RECENT — movie that uses a classical theme, play that and then segue into more by the same composer, or get into video games,many of which are apparently using interesting music with classical overtones and transition from one of those to music similarly structured from the classical rep.

      as most of them seem to prefer rap, which has virtually no musical merit, it’s still probably a mug’s game. Anyway, they do not make connections. They live in a world uncircumscribed by considerations like the past, or anything THEY do not know and like. They have no reference.

      • Certainly. Orchestras are probably OK connecting with audiences who have even slight knowledge of context or background or history If the people in front of you neither know nor care about any of these you could find more pleasant ways of wasting your time.

  • As anyone who has ever worked with school-age children knows, events like this mean nothing and are a waste of time UNLESS proper preparation is done before the event takes place. It’s the same with field trips to museums, zoos, etc. Teachers (or reps from the orchestra in pre-concert visits) need to prepare the students for what they’re going to experience – this can take some weeks beforehand – so that they can get as much out of it as possible – so that they have as good an understanding as possible – so they have a basis for appreciating it. Just dropping kids into the deep end of the pool with no preparation does a disservice to both students and musicians. That being said, I have no idea if there was pre-concert preparation done, but for the program to have any chance of any type of success, it has to happen.

  • Despite the legendary lesson attributed to Marie Antoinette – “let them eat cake” – this is a profession which will always go the extra mile in pursuit of something crass rather than looking at the real problem.

    Trouble is, the real problem is a big one: that societal values have largely collapsed on the one hand and that no one sees relevance in what orchestras do on the other. The first is a truly tough nut to consider and the second is one no one wants to address meaningfully, given that most orchestral output around the world involves a parade of overpaid and under-capable “stars” whose presence substantially compromises the output of the lesser-paid minions who merely play the notes (usually with astonishing brilliance in the face of catastrophic leadership). Actually this is an industry which mostly sells fake “art” at massively inflated prices. Riches come only to those who are prepared to participate in the charade and so the status quo is maintained by a latent conspiracy of shared interest by a limited number of players.

    The fundamental purpose of “outreach” is nothing more than to please funders who buy into the political correctness without caring about the impact or outcomes. They might as well sponsor a fine-wine tasting for homeless people, it would be equally relevant.

    • Devastatingly true, every word. And devastatingly depressing. A lot of people will “down-vote” this because, well, denial is a river in Egypt . . .

      • Although I believe it to be a reasonable representation of much that happens, this was deliberately worded to be contentious to see what would happen. To be honest, its almost worse having someone agree – and accurately predict the general response. But I guessJack Nicholson was right!

        • The facts are the facts regardless of whether people can handle them or not. And to anyone with at least one eye open the facts are plain.

    • Marie-Antoinette did NOT say those things, they were part of a slandering campaign by the then ‘yellow vests’ to get rid of monarchy.

  • The most astonishing thing about this piece – if this truly does represent typical practice in US orchestral outreach – is how astonishingly far behind the times they are. Any good orchestral education officer in Europe or the UK would run screaming in dismay from a project as ham-fisted as the one described here.

    Heaven help this orchestra if this genuinely does represent progress for them – it’s a model of work that predates the 2nd World War. UK orchestras stopped doing this sort of thing in the 1980s for precisely the reasons outlined here. Serious orchestral school and community work today is built around creative participation, two-way communication and long term relationships, facilitated by trained education professionals. It should be self evident that a distinguished conductor is not necessarily going to be a skilled or even competent verbal communicator in this sort of context.

    I wish them well in future – we all should – but please, can we draw a line under this practice of citing the US experience as a universal norm? There’s certainly important work happening in the USA but the specific economic and cultural climate in which classical music is made in the US often seems to be uniquely retrograde and hostile. It’s important to know about US trends but they are not universally representative. The fact that education work at a high-profile US orchestra is decades out of step with modern practice does not mean that the sector elsewhere in the world is comparably out of touch.

    • It is, from my experience, an accurate reflection. And, yes, we do it better in some places in the UK, but not all orchs, and not evrywhere.

    • School concerts aren’t unusual. There’s a long history of them in the States. One of the largest and oldest programs is Young Audiences:

      These programs have a long history of effective work.

      Depending on the region, the participants and formats vary, in rural areas sometimes visits by the local high school band, in metro areas sometimes chamber groups from the local symphony, etc.

      Anne paints a negative picture, perhaps shaped to some extent by the postmodern philosophies about music education famously espoused by her husband, Greg Sandow, but I think that in general a lot of children are strongly affected by these visits and remember them for the rest of their lives.

      The difference today is that starting in the 80s the US education system was moved toward the STEM curriculum as part of the technology boom. And standardized testing was instituted to pressure under-performing schools. These trends marginalized the arts and their presence in curriculum was greatly reduced. The education necessary to contextualize visits by music groups was thus lost.

      Educators and the public are slowly realizing this was an error and are moving to STEAM, which stands for STEM plus Arts. The results show improvement, but it will take a good while to undo all of the damage that has been done by the STEM emphasis and rebuild arts programs in the schools.

      Still, the USA will never have arts ed programs like the Europeans until they develop similar systems of public funding that allow them to exist.

  • Always enjoyed instrumental classical music, learned an instrument through my public school, and got to play in the school ensembles. Never did understand opera though.
    Then our high school French class undertook the necessary musical and literary preparation and took a field trip to hear ‘Faust’ at the San Francisco Opera.

    I found it painful.

    My future encounters with the form fared no better. Odds are some kids in Noseda’s audience will have gotten something out of it. It is too much to expect that everyone will resonate with everything.

  • Time to revisit what Lenny did with the NYPO, and there are lots of DVDs of his Young People’s Concerts to reflect on. Of course attention spans are different today, but one needs a point of reference and am sure few would argue that what LB communicated in style and content are great starting points.
    I remember being in the hall when he introduced Mahler songs to kids mostly under age 12. You could hear a pin drop, though it helped to have Ludwig and Berry singing!

    • It’s my understanding that the kids who went to them were not school groups but kids who went with parents who exposed them to classical music.
      Am I correct?

  • Does she correctly quote Noseda if so ,how pathetic ! Her essay does show how stupid is the approach by the likes
    of Noseda and how these outreach programs are mostly
    feel good endeavors in bringing so called high culture to
    the great unwashed masses and in the long run have little
    or no effect whatsoever .

    • Hold your horses. How much prep time did Noseda have? Has he had ANY experience doing this sort of thing/ More to the point, did anybody prep or assist him?

      • Prep time ? for more stupid comments to an
        audience that would rather be somewhere else.What do these kids think of Vienna?
        much less think of its music history , bet most
        don’t know where to locate it on a map . His
        little preface to this captive audience is basic ignorance writ large this sort of outreach program is beyond farce .

  • Would we give children a bunch of books, and have an author talk to them if we had not yet taught them to read? Appreciation for classical music requires a long process of education just like learning to read so one can appreciate good books. How silly to think one can just stick classical music in front of them and they’re going to like it.

    There are two causes for these problems: 1) A superficial and parochial understanding of postmodern philosophy among the intelligentsia that defines music education as brain-washing and cultural chauvinism. 2) Our free-market fundamentalism defines the market as the only legitimate arbiter of taste. Music education and public arts funding are thus abandoned, leaving the pop-music-industrial-complex dominant.

    Europeans do not suffer these confusions. They thus have societies that strongly support classical music.

    Until these misconceptions in the USA are corrected, and we begin long-term programs of music education in our schools, there will be no progress. Understanding this isn’t rocket science…

    • God no William. My love of reading came from my parents reading to me as a small child. My love of classical music, from growing up in a household with a record collection. Nobody ever needed to explain any of this to me, you can’t teach someone to love something.

      And then, on reaching school age I ran into the classical music education system. If you had wanted to design a structure with the specific intention of killing that love, you could not have done it better.

      We cannot make a “Motherhood” case for music education until we have an urgent and serious debate about what that education should look like, because the decline in music education is for the most part, a result of self inflicted wounds.

  • The Sydney Symphony does a wonderful job of working with schools – its education department focuses on creating material for TEACHERS, supporting them so that they feel comfortable and knowledgable about the repertoire and the experience beforehand. The Symphony provides all sorts of resources for the classroom before the musicians arrive at the school or the school sends the pupils to the concerts – it’s a great way to engage with the schools as a whole. Getting to know the teachers helps the Symphony as an organisation understand what particular issues the school or a particular class is facing – the individual music education event stands a better chance in this context to make a difference to the school community.

  • “Some of the students are clearly excited for the concert: There are hand taps; there are pantomimes of conducting; there’s a chorus of approving wolf-whistles when each piece is done.”
    If it attracts some students then it is worth it – and even if it isn’t fully successful in the minds of SD readers, still better that NSO does this. Not everyone is going to like having to listen to a classical music concert at school and not everyone has to like it. It is ok to not like it. How many sports things did I have to sit through at school that I could have cared less about?
    So many downers and naysayers on the SD blog these days.

  • It’s tough. Kids aren’t naturally stupid. They know that this type of ‘old school’ cultural world isn’t open to them. Only a truly determined kid could cut through. Their parents have zero connection to this sort of thing, so they’re not interested in supporting them in such an endeavor. If you live in a project or small apartment, who wants a screechy old violin around, or a piercing trumpet. It can even be difficult to get the necessary parental support in middle class neighborhoods. That takes a very motivated and hard working music teacher. These kids know that it’s going to take countless thousands of hours of hard work to ever get good enough to make that kind of music. In ‘get rich, quick’ America, few kids are going to take that path. Basketball, football, rap music – those are the ‘paths of glory’ for them., and nobody is telling them anything different. It’s not Noseda’s fault. How much was he prepped for such an encounter? Without follow up and further music education, this will remain a close encounter of the third kind.

    • Err…it takes thousands of hours of practise to be good at “Basketball, football, or rap music”. It takes lots of practise to be good at anything. But the point is not to be good at it (only a few will earn a living at “basketball, football, or rap music”) but to enjoy doing it. It should be fun. Having a go does, usually, mean that you appreciate some of the nuances in professional performance.

  • Problem is, is that any program undertaken in school is bound to produce contempt in students. Human nature does not like it when something is forced down its throat (like classical music in this instance).

    Nothing is better at destroying the innate interest and curiosity of children than modern day schools.

    I have yet to see any of this “outreach!!” do any substantive good in spreading the popularity of classical music.

    …Sorry folks, but reality stings.

    • What a Philistine, and ridiculous comment. You seem to suggest that children would learn more if they didn’t go to school. But western society has made schooling compulsory, and raised the school-leaving age steadily over time.

      Sure, some students won’t like it, that is true. And bad teachers can cause damage. But others will enjoy it. And anyway, sometimes we only learn to appreciate it many years later. My experience is that most people reflect back on some of what they learned as children and really appreciate some of the literature, art, history, or music they were introduced to as children.

  • When orchestras, conductors, musicians, radio, whoever… understand that ‘connecting’ does not mean talking the whole damn time then we will be getting somewhere, there’s nothing worse in putting people off classical music.

  • As a former public middle- and high-school teacher in NYC, I can attest that this is the kind of thing that passes for “arts education” in most schools (most schools can’t even really call it “music education”) anymore. NY Phil, Carnegie Hall, Met Opera–the educational “outreach” programs offered by these programs are so inept when it comes to engaging kids (and, let’s face it, the teachers).

    Classical music can take a cue from other arts organizations like dance, visual arts, and theatre, and find REAL ways to get kids involved in the arts, rather than just talking down to them and treating them like blank slates. My students used to hate the educational programs/concerts because they knew how “dumbed down” and fake they were.

  • Old joke, probably floated here before…

    Those who can’t, teach.
    Those who can, can’t teach.

    Teaching is a performance art.

    It is expert knowledge plus on-target rhetoric plus standup comedy plus crowd control plus child psychology plus cheerleading.

    How many orchestral musicians have all those under their belt?

  • Let’s face it. Most orchestral musicians are not trained to be music educators.

    Sure, most can teach private lessons, do the occasional masterclass, and coach a sectional.

    But teaching in a public school setting (especially inner city schools) is not what they are trained to do nor is it something that they can do well.

    Unfortunately, the foundations love the term “underserved” and there is gold in those hills. Orchestras, if they can convince the Mellon Foundation and others that they are teaching inner city youth the inner workings of classical music, can make a good deal of income that can be moved around in the overall operating budget.

    There is a crying need for a special breed of musician that can serve to bolster the back of the second violins of a major orchestra without compromising the artistic product, and then go out the next morning and teach in the public school classroom in an engaging and thoughtful manner.

    I know of no orchestra in the US that is able to do this with conviction and make an impact that will move the needle in some measurable way.

    Until then, all we get is a big bowl of lukewarm mush.

    Eat up my friends, eat up.

  • Interesting topic this is. I grew up with five siblings so we always had things to do and someone to play with. My parents were not musicians though my dad played guitar for relaxation (almost every night) and my mom could sing like a diva. They were not into classical music. My brothers and sisters all played either violin, piano, or viola (ugh!!!) We had to learn classical music. Three of us stuck with it and three did not. The first time I heard an orchestra I was mesmerized by the sound. I knew other kids could care less but that didn’t bother me one bit. It was just a mystery to me why everyone didn’t just fall in love with this stuff. A mystery it still is.

  • The NSO (and all other orchestras) should be out recruiting younger audiences members for concerts. But they aren’t doing that because they don’t make the effort where there is the best chance of success. The schools they need to visit are the ones that have strong music programs as well as strong academic programs. The truth is that these kids rarely or never go to concerts either. You just do not see kids, any kids at concerts. The NSO and their maestro should go where they might have a chance at accomplishing what they hope to accomplish. Until there are substantial, long term investments in music education in all of the school districts, this type of visit will be a waste of time (prepping or no prepping). I live in a county where there are many kids playing in band and orchestra from 3rd grade through 12th who have never heard a professional orchestra. Visiting these schools makes a lot more sense.

  • In the US, another reason why many orchestras have these types of programs is that it puts them in a better position to receive grant funding. Funders put a HUGE importance on education and outreach, and orchestras that can show that their programs have an impact on diverse audiences usually receive more financial support.

  • I’ve watched a few of the Berlin Philharmonic’s education projects on the Digital Concert Hall. The gold standard is early in his tenure when they trained a couple hundred Berlin schoolkids to dance to the BPO playing Rite of Spring. Captured in the film “Rhythm is It!” (Sir Simon: “Royston, this is f-ing awesome!”).

    I believe it’s in the film that Sir Simon says that when he was in school, if they wanted to teach you about football, they give you a ball and sent you out to play; hands (or feet) on. But for music, they put you in an auditorium and played it at you. All passive. “Rhythm is It” and other BPO projects gave students a chance to get involved with the art’s greatest practitioners in a project none of them will ever forget. You can’t scale it up that much, but the key is to make the kids not the audience, but the participants.

    As for this NSO project: Playing for them Mozart and Beethoven? Come on. Play the opening of Die Walkure, Rite of Spring, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances. Loud and fast, jagged rhythms, and lots of percussion. Give them some sense of how the music they know evolved from “classical” music.

    • “but the key is to make the kids not the audience, but the participants.”

      Absolutely. I one orchestra I play with that does kiddie shows, every piece always has an activity for the kids, even if they are still sitting in their seats.

      “As for this NSO project: Playing for them Mozart and Beethoven? Come on. Play the opening of Die Walkure, Rite of Spring, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances. Loud and fast, jagged rhythms, and lots of percussion.”

      Yes, this. for kids’ engagement, raw energy is more important than refined elegance and subtlety. And they instantly pick up if you aren’t invested in the performance. Us musicians also tend to give a little more energy playing something like Bartok over the usual stable of classical composers.

  • I went to an 11 am concert the other week at the New York Philharmonic. There was in the audience at least one large high school group. The kids I talked to said that their excursion was made up of only members of the school’s orchestra and band so they already had some music background and preparation The kids listened attentively.

    With regard to general outreach programs, there is more government money available in the US for educational programs than for strictly arts funding. You can always use part of your government educational grant for overhead so the monies meant for education help support the other programs of entire orchestra or other music organization.

    But yes, in order for a classical orchestra schools outreach to be effective, there needs to be adequate preparation and this takes class time for music education that in this economically conservative and culturally disparaging US climate are considered unnecessary “frills”.

  • Neither Anne Midgette nor the Washington Post is in any position to evaluate relating to “the people.” This kind of hit-and-run snobbery is typical.

  • I think the title was a very good one: “Connecting People Is Not What Orchestras Do Best.” Right on. It’s part of why most orchestra recordings sell less than 100 units. As to the NSO working with schools. Well, I have news for everyone, the kids listen to music they like and they listen to it a lot. And, sorry, but it isn’t orchestral/classical. And, the kids probably get some sort of decent music and art instruction in their public schools. Not great, but not nothing, as had been the case for many years.
    Classical/Orchestral is a niche market, a luxury market. It exists only because wealthy people subsidize it. Think of Rolex watches or Bentley automobiles. All the king’s orchestra, opera, chamber music, and jazz outreach couldn’t put Humpty together again.

  • Midgette’s foray into “people” was clearly inspired by
    Alex Ross’s recent account of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing in the Washington community. The tones of the two pieces make an interesting comparison. When it comes to broadening the base for classical music, Ross has been walking the walk for years. Very little of that has been apparent in the Washington media community.

  • This may be instructive:

    And this: (don’t forget part ii)

    Also this gives something of a background to the problem of audience building:

    Not to forget this:

    I for my part believe that if the classical music world will be shrinking to only the number of people understanding it, this will be better for the art form than misfiring attempts to administer it to people, being them young or old, who are not open to it, for whatever reason. Serious art music has always been a high art form, and thus meant for an elite, in the sense of: people educated enough to be part of the cultural context where it belongs. Educational attempts should first make culture in general accessible and available, so that classical music can find a place within the right context.

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