Thursday, April 20, 2006

Children and Art

I'm a bit late to the dance, but wanted to add on to the discussion the other week about Steve Metcalf's Future of Classical Music piece noting, among other things, that we need to stop turning to "the schools" as a way to solve the problem. Like ACD, part of me feels like "the schools" is a bit of a straw man, i.e., I've never heard anyone actually propose a nationwide regime of classical music appreciation, though plenty have called it out as the absurdity it is.

That said, I think what people really mean when they posit a link between music education and later music appreciation--children participating as amateur musicians--is more than just gravy. Contrary to how it is usually framed, though, we're either doing fairly well or already improving on this count.

This 2003 Gallup poll for the American Music Conference found over 50 percent of households with at least one member with musical experience, and increasing rates of participation in private lessons, school programs, and other education. My mother, who has been running a children's and adult music education program in Chicago for the past 15 years or so, has seen enthusiasm for classical music education go from respectable to ravenous over that period. And why shouldn't that comport with the broadly recognized trend that significant numbers of children today, far from all being video game zombies, are in fact participating in extracurricular activities more than ever? They can't all be playing soccer, right?

Now of course, the horror stories about arts funding in public schools are serious, but I would suggest these relate to equity more than absolute access, and shouldn't necessarily make a difference when strictly talking about whether we get a critical mass of concert hall consumers out of it. Furthermore, instead of representing any turn on music education, such funding priorities are the work of generally reckless budget policy at the state and federal levels. The cold truth is that short of straightening that out, public school music education will remain under the axe.

Looking at Chicago, the reasons for this resurgence are clear: after many years of fleeing the cities for suburban isolation, the 1990s began to see more and more middle and upper-middle class parents choosing to raise their children in the city. These parents naturally expect the greater wealth of opportunities that comes with living in the city, and with strong resident communities of music professionals to draw on, increased music education is a given. They in turn set a certain standard for similar families in outlying areas, and the demand for music education and accommodating institutions multiplies.

Again, the equity issues are obvious here, and there's certainly no 'trickle-down' theory of primary education quality. But for producing more consumers of classical music, this can only be a positive sign. These students will be more likely to return to cities as adults as well, and more likely to participate in their artistic life. We're probably still on the early side of seeing this trend come to fruition, but I would be pretty surprised if it doesn't eventually translate into some bump in the crop of potential concert goers.

But ultimately I agree with Metcalf that this is only a small part of the story. Trying to get adult consumers interested in serious music by focusing on childhoods they've already had is an ass-backwards way to address the issue. We should be assuming that childhood piano lessons are as predictive of an appreciation of serious music as childhood literacy is predictive of an appreciation of serious literature. There's a connection there to be sure, but a lot can go down in between.

More on that to come.


Alex Ross said...

This is well said, wellsung.

Luxie P. said...

The one thought I have is that by focusing on getting children involved in (classical) music, you're often, by association, getting the parents involved. (That is, the parents who take any sort of interest in their kids' lives).

Not a complete solution, but I've seen more than one parent start going to concerts, buying albums, etc, because their kids had an interest in the music, and being exposed to it, so, eventually, did they.

There is a small trickle-down effect, there.

But in the end, it all comes down to exposure. People can't like something they don't know ANYTHING about.

That's why I think, regardless of what you think of them in terms of atristry, performers like Bocelli and such DO introduce a group of people to classical music that might never have been drawn to it, otherwise.

It's really fun and cute to watch people get excited over a piece of classical music because they heard a bit of it in a movie, in a rap song (Xzibit or Warren G., anyone?), in a commercial, wherever. I always take a moment, when someone asks what "that tune" is to plug a recording, or point out that, hey, that's Carmina Burana by Orff, or that's Mozart.

People are always pleasantly surprised when they find out something they already know is actually, gasp, Real Art. ;)

I guess the point I'm making is that exposure is the key to making fans. Familiarity breeds interest...

Alex said...

Fine point Luxie P. To go back to my mother--she's often struck by how many parents who bring their children for lessons, despite being educated and well to do people, are initially remarkably unfamiliar and uninterested in the music. Then, after a bit, start getting into it and going to concerts themselves.

However, I think that's actually at odds with your second point about crossover and pop-ified classical. There IS a higher bar to appreciating the music--and we shouldn't be afraid to say it. It is rooted in a tradition that operates on a conception of time and depth of expression that is at odds with the thrust and economic logic of modern commercial music. Adults get into it because of their children because they rediscover the joy of that deeper process of appreciation, and realize that, if their 10 year old can have it, why not them? They stay because, of course, it really is rewarding.

On the other hand, pop-ifying that tradition is all about pretending the bar to entry is lower than it really is. Accordingly, promoting familiarity along those lines just strikes me as a dead end.

Luxie P. said...

I don't know. I think it fills a gap, so to speak, as a stepping stone to people who might not, in any other way, be exposed to it. So long as the line is clear that THIS is pop and that classical is something else, it (currently) has its place.

I think the problem lies not so much that the bar of entry is/should be high, but more in the perception that classical music is:

a. snotty
b. hard to get into
c. somehow "better" or "above" other kinds of music
d. for rich people
e. choose any or all of the above.

There are so many conceptions of what classical music IS (some of which are really fostered by performers and companies and attendees, to some degree, especially that "higher art" shit), that it's no wonder people are afraid to get involved.

Until classical music as a whole gets a friendlier attitude, popera, as it were, will continue to exist, because there is a perception that it has a legitimate place.

Yes, it requires some attention, some understanding, work to appreciate it. But people don't see the reason to even try, for the most part, because really, what role does a snobby hobby (pardon the rhyme) hold in the average middle class person's life? Classical music MUST be seen as being culturally relevent, instead of stuffy, museum performances that only rich old snobs attend.

One of the best examples I've seen of this is a cellist who's been playing (in bars, no less!) Bach's solo cello concerti.

He sits, in jeans and t-shirt, and plays Bach in bars in TEXAS. No frills, no apologies or explanations. Just intense music. And people GET it - it's been a success and he gets asked back.

I think that's such a positive way of marketing classical music - just by DOING it without any frills or furbelows.

Henry Holland said...

Luxie, it's all well and good that Matt Haimovitz can do his Bach in Bars thing but, um, so what? It's a one off, that's not at all remotely translatable to 98% of the repetoire. I know people grab on to parts of the story -- Highly trained cellist plays in JEANS! -- but it's a dead end. Even small ensembles playing stuff like, say, Pierrot Lunaire-sized stuff would have troubles, let alone chamber orchestras.

There was an article in the NYT recently about another cellist--them again!--playing to late teens in some casual setting. Fine, all good, right? Well, it wasn't until the last paragraph that they just happened to mention that they played some of Yo-Yo Ma's crossover Silk Road stuff.

The point of that is that unless people doing these things are playing things like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy and so on up to the current day pieces, it's basically lying and a fraud. They're NOT playing what constitutes the standard rep (and its fringes), they’re not playing challenging pieces at all it seems, in fact they seem to be trying to avoid all that at every turn. So what if those kids dug the Silk Road pieces, would anyone seriously argue that they’re going to show up for an evening of cello sonatas by Franck/Rachmaninov/Brahms or the Bach 6 solo cello pieces, no matter what clothes the peformers wear? Swamp land, Florida, I'm selling.

To take your numbered points:

a. snotty

It can be, but as either Jonathan or Alex pointed out (and got flamed for) a few months ago, ever been to an indie-rock club with a shitload of hipsters? Take about *snotty*--if you don't know Pavement's singles in chronological order, you've never seen such attitude. (see: Jack Black's character in High Fidelity)

b. hard to get into

Not clear what you mean. Hard to get in to in terms of attending the concerts (not true at all) or hard to get in to in terms of understanding the music? If it's the latter, that's true and there's nothing to be done about it short of plonking one's ass down with a Beethoven symphony (or whatever) and listening to it straight through. And then listening to it again. And then again. And once more. And yet another time. And..... you get the picture. As Morrissey once crooned "To pretend to be happy/would only be idiocy"; to pretend that the music doesn't require a goodly amount of time and effort to appreciate at even a superficial level is absurd. If that's a horror in this "I want new stiumli every 30 seconds" culture we seem to be in, oh well, tough beans.

c. somehow "better" or "above" other kinds of music

Better? That's up to personal taste. "Above"? Writing a symphonic piece or an opera is simply is the pinnacle of writing music, it takes the most training, skill and imagination, full stop. Not to go all AC Douglas here, but it’s simply absurd to me to pretend that Radiohead is at the same level of musical discourse as Berg—I love both, but as Radiohead sings "Everything, in the right place".

d. for rich people

Partially true. It's expensive, no doubt about it. But I'm sick of this argument--I've checked the websites of the major orchestras in this country and all of them offer student discounts; most offer cheap tickets on a rush basis too. Here in Los Angeles, if there's no choir in any of the pieces, they sell the benches behind the orchestra for $15. Sure, they get snapped up, but it's *still there*.

This gets in to the sticky area of choice. Say a ticket in the balcony costs $25. You know what I paid for parking > ticket > popcorn > soda the last time I went to a movie in a theatre? $4 + $9 + $5 + $4 = $22. For freaking King Kong! Sure, the movie-in-the-theatre thing is dying a slow death, but for the right movie, people will pay that in droves. Know how much I paid for the last two rock concerts I've gone to in hockey arenas? $135 for U2 (for shit seats) and $75 for Rush (for even shittier seats). Even seeing a band in a 3,000 seat theatre can cost $60. People pay close to $100 to see a third-rate cast in touring companies of The Lion King. In comparison, the symphony is a bargain.

But people whine constantly about how expensive the symphony or the opera is. You know what it is? People whine because they can't sit 10th row center for $20--I actually saw this whine on Greg Sandow's site. Un-freaking-believable. It's a matter of saying "Hey, you'll pay $100 to see Cats, wny not go see three operas at the Met instead"? It's about choice in how people spend their disposable income and to be honest, I'm not going to pretened that I have the magic wand to make it all better.

And finally, I totally reject the "Andrea Bocelli" theory. I saw this happen with the *shudder* Three Tenors. Opera companies got boners because they figured all they had to do was throw on a shitty Turnadot and people would show up. And they did! However.....I personally went to two different productions of that opera around that time and each time, the same thing happened: the "newbies" squirmed and talked and got shusshed until Nessun Dorma, at which point they went nuts afterwards, then...back to fidgeting. In other words, there's a whole 1:55 of muisc that's not Nessun Dorma and those newbies weren’t really happy with that. I feel very strongly that this "hit single" kind of promotion ("Featuring the hit aria Nessun Dorma!!!") is flat out lying to people. Just say it! It takes a lot of concentration and effort to "get" a full length opera.

Look, there's no denying that classical and to a lesser extent, opera, are in trouble in terms of ticket sales in this country—Europe is different. I couldn't possibly care less that the audiences average 50-110 years old--it was that way in the early 70's when my dad started taking me to concerts because I'd shown a slight interest in Beethoven's 9th in between listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, it will always be that way.

What I think orchestras/opera companies should do is forget the 20/30-somethings that they so desperately market to and go after their natural audience: people in their 40's and above whose kids have moved out or are basically independant, with a good chunk of disposable income. Instead of doing lame beyond all words thing like "Singles Night at the Symphony" type bullshit, market it like you would expensive wines--something that's not for everyone, but if you "get it", the rewards are tremendous in terms of hearing great music.

As for doing it "without frills", what does that mean? I just roll my eyes when people think "Man, if orchestras would play in jeans and Arctic Monkey t-shirts, they'd sell more tickets!" or similar things (not that you are, necessarily). As far as the basic experience: orchestra dressed up, sitting there with no dancing cellists or anything, with the audience silent and still, applauding at the end of the piece, I'm all for that. Maybe the players could "dress down" but the rest of it is non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned. Again, if someone can't be bothered to sit still and JUST LISTEN for 1/2 hour - 45 minutes without feeling like they have to yell out "Alright dude!" after a hot violin run or "interact" or "be connected" then tough.

I went to a performance of Scriabin's great Poem of Ecstasy which had a Laserium light show playing at the same time. It was kind of....lame. Sure, it highlighted the changes in the music (like lights do at a rock concert) but it didn't really add anything. I guess if some people absolutely have to have visual stimulation with their music, it's fine.

The Los Angeles Phil had this series of specially commissioned movies that they got composers to write music for. They only did 2 of them, I think, because it was simply too much trouble and too expensive to do--the visuals always, always, always came second to the music.


Alex said...


All points after my own heart.

I would quibble, however, with the 'expensive wine' theory of classical music marketing. As you note, it's classical's dirty little secret that it's really very affordable compared to other professional live entertainment. Yet how many times have you heard "Yeah, I would like to go to more opera, but it's so expensive!" In truth, it is an easy crutch for otherwise sympathetic people who don't feel like they 'get it' or don't feel like they can spend the time on it, and it needs to be taken away. It must be clear that the 'bar' as it were has little to do with cost or exclusivity and everything to do with open-mindedness, patience, and some level of commitment.

To boot, investment bankers in the orchestra seats aside, the intersection between classical music lovers and people who would be tantalized by luxury goods seems pretty small. I mean, have you seen the people in fam circ?

To go back to Luxie P's comment for a sec, I want to take issue once more with the 'classical music's elitist attitude is destroying it' meme. Frankly, I just don't believe this populist fury against classical music really exists.

People have all kinds of reasons for being reluctant to get into classical music--a feeling that they won't understand it, that they don't have the time, that it costs too much, or just plain not liking it, and we should respect and explore all those reasons. But outside of Rush Limbaugh fans and some rock music critics, "sticking it to those lousy elitists" seems a pretty unlikely motive. And in any event, people who let their artistic preferences follow their culture war agenda probably aren't going to be the best classical fans anyhow.

And if I'm being naive about that and there really are bunches of people out there disgusted with classical snobbishness who we nonetheless want on the team, I'm going to suggest we don't operate like that's that case. Classical music hanging out in bars and trying to wear ratty clothes strikes me as about appealing and authentic as John Kerry on that motorcycle.

Luxie P. said...

*shrugs* I'm not saying that all this is how it really IS - I'm saying that's how it's perceived in many, many places.

And, coming from the pretty deep south, I'm telling you how it's perceived where I'M FROM. And I know a lot of people have a sort of "fuck the south, they're all stupid down there" sort of impression, but hey, the fans I've made from my home town are even more rabid than some "enlightened" attendees, because the home boys get personally involved.

For them, once they dive in, it's not a spectator sport. It's something personal to get behind and cheer and understand.

But it does take some effort to get them there, and pretending that putting up a sign "Symphony here!" and selling tickets (and complaining that no one really appreciates the art anymore/we shouldn't ever try to reach anyone but the already-predisposed) is going to get the average middle American involved, well, that's just not going to work.

While I agree that classical music will always be around in some form, I'd personally like it to remain commercially viable, particularly seeing as how I'm trying to make my living from it.

I know we all have our likes and dislikes as to how we like things performed, but really, if other people enjoy it, and it reaches out to them, where's the problem? If you don't like it, don't go, but don't poo-poo it solely because you don't PERSONALLY care for it.

Quite frankly, there've been a lot of performances (some I've been involved in, too) that I thought were over the top, tacky, and just...ugh. But then, afterwards, I'd always hear about how moving it was, and how it touched someone, etc. So if it reaches someone and says something positive to them, how is something artistically "bad"? It's a value-judgment, I guess.

Of course, this is an argument that can do on and on forever around in circles: artistic integrity vs. vulgarty and populist appeal. It's been going on for centuries (don't believe me? read what composers and writers of former eras had to say, quite virulently, on the subject!), and it's not likely to go away any time soon. :)

Alex said...


Far be it for me to begrudge anyone the music that they like. My point is that the crossover and popified classical realms just aren't going to be much help for getting people involved in appreciation of the music. It may bear some resemblance, but it dosen't demand the same sort of engagement that what is broadly known as 'serious' music does. That's not 'bad' its just different.

Recognizing these things shouldn't be some low-brow/high-brow battle or cause for offense, it is just the nature of the thing. If Andrea Bocelli is some kind of gateway drug to Janacek, then I will gladly eat my words. But I am inclined to believe that Bocelli fans are happy as Bocelli fans, and potential Janacek fans are going to seek something different.

As for getting the 'middle American' involved, I actually feel like the crossover realm is a bit of an obstacle here. An easily digestible classical substitute reinforces the message that classical is 'hard' and that there is a trainer version. It might take some more attention, but it isn't hard--and those of us with a vested interested in classical's future should be doing whatever we can to disabuse people of that notion.

Believe you me, I think it is long past time to get away from the stale integrity vs. vulgarity debate. The world is too big, and there are too many people in it, to boil things down to approved and disapproved forms of expression. But we can judge the kinds of experiences available to us, and it is our right as consumers of art to make those judgments, without fear of being labeled elitist or snooty.


Gert said...

I get annoyed by the knowledge that where I live (Britain) quite a lot of schools don't or barely touch classical music, either in their teaching about music or in performances. My interpretation of their reasoning is that classical music is only for the middle-classes or the posh people, or whatever and the children we teach simply aren't good enough for the better things in life.

This is acquiesced in by many parents who might really object if the same schools said "Your children are not as good as those at the next school, so we'll only teach them pretend Maths or a bastardised form of English. I'm sure you won't mind, because algebra and literature are elitist, and really your children are not an elite so they don't deserve them."

I don't think that concert halls and opera houses should worry too much about age profiles. There are lots of activities that don't especially attract 20-somethings eg scuba-diving and gardening. There's plenty of money to be made from the 35-90 age group and overt attempts to attract younger people might alienate the core demographic. Although clearly lots of young people do go to concerts and operas, but they have to fit them round studying, or onerous careers, or breeding or whatever.

I don't go to straight theatre or ballet very often, but I would have thought that a succesful marketing would be one that made me go more often, because I'm sufficiently au fait to go occasionally, so I don't need much of a pull (except that most of my money/time is spent on operas and concerts!)