This Generation: Memo to Music Institutions - Adapt or Die

Yoko Rosenbaum on December 12, 2013

Several years ago, my third grade class was discussing our role models. I named Yo-Yo Ma, a cellist who I believed would be well-enough known outside the classical music realm to trigger instant recognition. Much to my chagrin, one of my classmates immediately asked me whether Yo-Yo Ma was a Pokémon character.

And so began my fear for the future of classical music.

With 130 students in my freshman class, I am one of precisely five serious classical musicians. While my school has a well-deserved reputation for having a strong focus in the arts, there are still less than 15 students in our orchestra. More discouragingly, only a small percentage of the student body is aware of or attends its concerts. These circumstances, although not uncommon, threaten the future of classical music as a whole. My generation is being raised to enjoy commercial pop music, and most regard the older fine arts as irrelevant.

One of my classmates asked me whether Yo-Yo Ma was a Pokémon character ... And so began my fear for the future of classical music.

Due to pop culture’s vast influence, exposure to classical music requires effort. Fortunately, many programs designed to introduce to children to classical music are unfolding and blossoming. It excites me to see the number of budding, young musicians around the country. It seems as though the number of classically trained musicians is increasing, although my observations might be skewed since I attend institutions devoted to classical music.

However, the audience willing to pay for and attend classical concerts is dropping. As music critic Greg Sandow has eloquently explained in his blog for Arts Journal, the youth attendance at classical music concerts has dwindled, and with that, the median age of concertgoers has risen quite dramatically.

The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey from 1982 until the present, gauging the age of those who attend classical concerts. It showed that the only age group that attends as often as they used to are people over 65. In fact, the attendance of those under 30 has fallen by roughly 50 percent. And while some might argue that older people are beginning to attend classical concerts, the study also showed that the percentage of people in attendance who are in their 40s and 50s is also falling. It is not clear if the post-baby boom generations will demonstrate the same commitment to live classical performances that the senior population does today. I am particularly concerned that if appreciation for classical music is not developed at an early age, future audiences for classical music will continue to decline.

Part of the problem is that outreach programs to spur children’s interests in classical music are few and far between. At Disney Hall, I wasn’t able to obtain student tickets until this year, when I entered high school. While this wasn’t detrimental to me, given my early exposure, it is very difficult to entice and develop the next generation of classical music audiences. For most students, having to pay the full ticket price is a major deterrent. If concert venues reach out to the youth in the community and entice them to attend by means of advertisements and perks such as discounted tickets, the percentage of students would increase noticeably

According to an article in The Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Orchestra offers $25 annual memberships and rush tickets to students. The president of the orchestra, Allison Vulgamore said that they are able to sell up to 350 student tickets per night for the concerts given this strong encouragement to attend.

Part of the problem is that outreach programs to spur children’s interests in classical music are few and far between. 

But simply offering student discounts might not be enough. For many, the traditional modes of presenting classical music have grown stale. While several decades ago, going to a hall with reserved seats and listening to an excellent concert for two and a half hours was the widely-accepted norm, such is not the case today. With recent technological advances, the means of listening and being exposed to music has changed dramatically. It is no longer necessary to leave home to listen to music or watch a concert, and with that, future generations will not be willing to attend without the promise of perks, whether they are discounted tickets, prime seating, or even incentives as simple as a reception with food and drinks afterwards. Classical music has to change its conventional approach to presentation and delivery or risk losing future generations of audience.

But all is not doom and gloom for classical music. While the statistics might look grim, there are still thousands of young musicians who love and cherish music just as much as their predecessors. All art evolves — just look at the profound differences between cultures and time periods of Bach and Stravinsky. But classical music can no longer afford to retain its orthodox reputation and remain stagnant. In times of change such as these, music must adapt and change with it.