Sunday, August 10, 2014

Walking on water wasn't built in a day


When Timothy Leary first offered Allen Ginsberg LSD the poet objected, saying "Walking on water wasn't built in a day", and responses to recent posts here underline that the new audience for classical music also will not be built in a day. My appreciation of Arnold Dolmetsch's work with young people prompted Philip Amos to comment:
The second paragraph of this fine post serves to bring again to my mind that the potential saviours of classical music are now about five years of age, if not younger... The key is to expose children to classical music at the latest in their first year of school and thereafter. I do not mean teach music. Nor 'music appreciation' classes if that entails another sort of blether. Just expose. I can remember the first classical works I was conscious of hearing -- and listening to: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Morning from Peer Gynt, Water Music...I was five and these were the among the works played as we gathered for morning assembly.
On the same post D. Whitley comments:
Agree entirely. I believe it is a big mistake to believe that classical music needs to be specially prepared, packaged and presented to "young people" to get them listening. This, IMO, assumes that the genre is incapable of generating sufficient appeal on its own merits. The most important thing, I think, is simply to avoid putting them off in the first place. I spent a fair amount of time with my grandparents up to the age of 11, in the late 1950s. It was not a particularly musical family, but they had a dusty loft with an old gramophone and a collection of shellac records which had belonged to my great grandfather. I have forgotten what most of them were and my parents foolishly threw them out when my grandparents died (which tells you something), but I know there was a fair amount of G&S, Wagner and Beethoven.
In an email prompted by my post about the oversupply of classical music, Gavin Turner, director of the William Byrd Choir, reflects on their recent very successful concert in Salle Church, Norfolk, and ponders on the paradox that, although the concert was well attended, it attracted very few teenagers and students:
We advertised an £8 half price student reduction in the £15 seats ... and apart from three parents who brought along quite small children, we sold less than half a dozen £8 tickets (out of a total of 331) to older school and college students.
Gavin's experience of the lack of response to student reductions mirrors anecdotal evidence given to me by the Britten Sinfonia about performances by them to which I have contributed pre-concert talks. Received wisdom dictated by commercial agendas dictates that the prime target audience for classical music starts with teenage and older rock/pop fans. This received wisdom is based on fast moving consumer goods marketing, where, if you want to sell brand Y cornflakes you target the market for brand X cornflakes, and this translates into the Max Hole strategy of expanding the market for classical by targeting the market for rock and pop. This is an appealing approach for Universal Music and the rest of the music industry, because it should be a quick fix. But quick fixes rarely provide lasting solutions, and the flaw in this approach is that while brand x and brand y are both cornflakes and consumers already have a taste for cornflakes, classical music is not rock, and rock fans have no taste for classical music. This fallacy is tacitly acknowledged by Max Hole who proposes neatly circumventing it by turning classical into a sub-set of rock, which may help Universal Music's sales in the short term, but does little for classical music in the long term.

There is a strong argument which says that the music tastes of teenagers and post-teenagers are so well formed they are unlikely to respond to classical music, even after prolonged exposure. This supports Philip Amos' observation that the potential saviours of classical music are now about five years of age. But we have to be realistic and accept that targeting the sub-teen market is very difficult. It is not a quick fix, and therefore will not appeal to a corporate controlled industry that is desperately looking for a fast way to boost flagging audience numbers. In fairness the BBC has made moves in this area including its 'ten pieces' project in primary schools and CBeebies Prom. But bitter experience suggests these initiatives are unlikely to survive the BBC's strategy of using classical music first and foremost as a way to promote its own brand ahead of the 2016 license fee review, and its equally toxic strategy of sublimating art into entertainment in the interest of audience metrics. With regard to the latter observation, a thoughtful and generous review by Gavin Dixon of the recent CBeebies Prom is telling:
And what of the music? It was good to have the excellent BBC Philharmonic on board, but the orchestra was seriously underused... Given the age range of the target audience, the educational potential of the event was quite limited...
We also have to be realistic and accept that classical music is no longer played in school assemblies - that would be too 'elitist' - while the hegemony of digital formats means that the wonders of Gilbert and Sullivan, Wagner, Beethoven et al no longer lurk in attics; nor do we have the equivalent of splendid institutions such as Leonard Bernstein's Young Person's Concerts and David Munrow's Pied Piper and Sir Robert Mayer's Children's Concerts. Paradigms have shifted irrevocably and, as has been recounted here before, classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts. Philip Amos is quite right, if classical music has a future, its saviours are now about five years of age. Instead of wasting their time tinkering with concert hall conventions and dumbing down classical radio, the self-appointed classical music experts should be searching for the digital equivalents of the great animateurs of the past who exposed the sub-teens to classical music. But, as Allen Ginsberg told us, walking on water wasn't built in a day. So, to protect classical music in the short term, the industry should finesses its core audience instead of driving it away, while also tightening its belt by driving oversupply and profligacy from the supply chain. The header image shows my first classical record, the story of it is here.

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2 comments:

Pliable said...

Paul Dickens comments via Facebook:

I was reflecting on this and your last post, Bob, and my own early musical education. I have vivid memories being aged about 7 being taught musical structure and form (!) at the Blue Coat School Birmingham by the music teacher, Mr Beswick using "light music" - the Dambuster's March and Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony. He took the view that knowing how music was structured at that age would help us be intelligent listeners later in life - I agree!

J. said...

In all fairness, I think there might at least some degree of interest laying dormant in people with "already formed tastes". I can count myself among the converts - discovering classical music in my early 20s - and I did have some friends who shared similar path (sometimes coming to the classical in their mid-teens, sometimes a little bit later).

The problem, as I see it, is classical music stand-offish attitude to a certain subtype of such cases. Sure, we were very welcome to participate - as a consumers. But classical world had very little to offer to us, as a potential co-creators. My friend had a quite serious ambitions as a composer (certainly not unheard of - I'd point to Alberic Magnard as a very competent case of a late-starter), while I wanted to pursue performance in a slightly deeper manner than customary with a later beginning.

Perhaps that's one aspect to the whole dispute. Every other music genre offers a point of entry for people of both persuasions - "consumers" and "co-creators" - no matter your age (at least up to certain point). While classical allows late-comers only passive participation (or unsatisfactory active one - that, of course, depends on a place of residence in broader sense), leaving any sort of developing "creative" ambition for a hermetic, elite class of "wunderkinds", music students, and the like - future professionals following the well-trodden paths. Yet, participation as an amateur can feel a little bit disconcerting at times - like being talked down to by an older - no doubt well-meaning - relative. You are indeed loved and accepted in the family, but you shall not cross our tried modes of behaviour - for your own good, of course.