BY FIONA MURPHY, 2017 CUTCOMMON YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR – RUNNER-UP
This blog awarded Fiona Murphy a runner-up place in the 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition. It responds to the entry question, Classical music: what’s in it for young people? We publish this story as part of our Young Writers’ Month.
I stumble as though on sea legs. I feel completely spent despite having sat for several hours in quiet concentration.
I have just seen Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. The night feels thick with silence after the storm conjured up inside Hamer Hall.
Opening with the gentle knock of cowbells, it was hard not to be transported beyond my seat. It felt like I was accompanying Strauss’ day-trippers across the meadowlands towards the mountain. The orchestra continued to feed my imagination. The serenity quickly became a distant memory as the musical ascent steepened. A sweet moment of reflection at the top of the ice-licked mountain peak was quickly dashed away when the wind machine started to twist air into a thrashing wind. The percussion section caused thunder to roll, splitting the sky and letting fat drops of rain to fall. The woodwind section created a headwind with wall-like proportions.
Now, as I wait for my tram, I feel slightly disorientated by the harsh glare of the streetlights. For that brief time, I was in the Alps.
There is scientific evidence that the heartbeats of choirs fall into sync — the singers become connected in breath and harmony. I wonder if this happens to people listening along. Are they lifted up and carried along with the pulse of the music? I suspect there is a physiological connection between audiences and music. How else can I explain the unsummoned swell of feelings that expanded in my chest during that Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert? It was as if my heart was muscling up just by being surrounded by a symphonic soundscape. And what about the breathlessness I feel when I listen to Philip Glass? Or my giddy reaction whenever I hear The Ride of the Valkyries? The battle cry is exhilarating even though I am a resolute pacifist.
Once you become enamoured with classical music, it can become hard to imagine not wanting to engage with it. The music is evocative and literally permeates your skin. So why does classical music struggle to find a young audience?
Take a moment to remember your journey with classical music. How old were you when you started listening to it? Did someone else introduce the music to you? Was the music readily accessible?
I have not always been swept away by classical music. Quite the opposite. Instead of finding it inviting or even companionable, it seemed intrusive and almost violently overbearing. First impressions do count; their impact can be long lasting.
Stretched out on the grass in The Domain, we smile widely and without a care; our teeth stained with red wine. We congratulate ourselves for being classy. We toast one another and top up our cups from the box. We had decided to attend a free Symphony Under the Stars because it suited everyone’s budget. There are thousands of people here, we stretch out on our picnic blanket and eat cheese as the sky darkens. We talk loudly and at length about our uni holidays.
The conductor leads the charge into the first passage of music, the string section working their bows at a fierce rate. We raise our voices and start to chat about movies we’ve seen. We pick apart plot holes in The Fast and the Furious. A couple of people around us cough. We get onto the business of figuring who will be the designated driver for the upcoming Splendour in the Grass. One man loudly clears his throat. We continue to plan the practicalities of camping; we make a list of things to pack. The percussion section is now thunderous, thumping through the next movement. We raise our voices again. Someone jots down tent pegs.
The people sitting around give us sidelong glances that quickly develop into outright stares.
‘The nerve of some people,’ one woman clucks to her partner. He nods and clears his throat again.
I blush when I think back to that evening in The Domain. It was only a few years ago. We regarded the music as nothing more than a score to our conversation. At that stage, I had only ever heard classical music brandished as a weapon.
The suburb in which I grew up featured in the national press on an almost weekly basis. It was a common sight to see camera crews milling outside the courthouse, or to hear helicopters flying overhead: spotlights doing a slow sweep for someone on the run.
The local shopping centre started to play classical music. Loud, trumpeting music. It was completely different to the easy listening tunes that wafted through the inside of the building. That music was fun. People would slowly dance their way through the supermarket aisles, hips shaking and lips mouthing along to the lyrics in front of the freezer section. The classical music did not fade into the background — it asserted its presence on passers-by. It flooded from the loudspeakers and washed over the entry steps into the carpark. The entrance, which was once crowded with teenagers slouching in tracksuit bottoms with ash tumbling from the tips of their cigarettes, was quickly deserted.
It became clear that classical music was not for us.
Employing classical musical as a means of crime prevention has occurred throughout Australia, Britain, America and Canada. The argument is that unfamiliar music is a successful deterrent because people are alerted to it. It isn’t easy to relax into. It can provoke caution rather than curiosity. Using music in this way has been shown capable of swiftly shepherding people away from public spaces.
While there is strong evidence demonstrating the positive physiological benefits of classical music — lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, promoting pain relief, bolstering general wellbeing — if your introduction to classical music is not welcoming, the listening experience may be uncomfortable. Initial impressions can endure and inform how someone engages with the music over the course of their lifetime. It may create a feeling of alienation from the genre.
I certainly felt that way about classical music. This feeling was reinforced by its inaccessibility. Besides spending a term in year seven learning Greensleeves on a keyboard, I did not receive any music lessons in school. This is not an unusual experience. In fact, I was lucky to even get that much. According to Music Australia, “as few as 23 per cent of State schools are able to provide their students an effective [music] education. In the private system, it’s closer to 88 per cent”. A musical education has essentially been sidelined as a luxury.
I suspect that if I had been given the opportunity to engage with classical music in a classroom environment, I would have embraced the genre earlier
I suspect that if I had been given the opportunity to engage with classical music in a classroom environment, I would have embraced the genre earlier; as I, like many of my friends, have always been deeply interested in music. I taught myself how to play the accordion and from the age of 13 started to regularly attend gigs. I was eager to hear new music, and my tastes changed regularly. I felt comfortable in mosh pits at anything from punk, Britpop, bluegrass, and house to hip-hop gigs. Yet, I had a block when it came to classical music. I had little exposure to classical music; I did not know anyone my age who listened to it. This was well before streaming services, so even if I wanted to listen to it I didn’t even know how to access classical music — that is, besides hearing it in the shopping centre carpark.
As I got older, I felt like the ship had sailed. I simply felt inadequate as I did not ‘get it’. It seemed like a vast and frankly overwhelming genre. I did not know where to begin. It was easier to ignore it and just ask for new music recommendations from my mates.
So what drew me into classical music? It was a series of small steps taken through chance and happenstance. It was by no means a planned and considered path. I got cheap tickets to a ballet; I thought it would just be about dance. I had nothing to benchmark it against; I assumed it would be on par to seeing a film: enjoyable and quickly forgettable. Yet, the shapes of the dancers bending, flexing, and leaping to the music looped in my mind for weeks afterwards.
Furthermore, the cheap ballet tickets were marketed to students; it felt ok to be young in the environment. Once I discovered that the arts offered discounts to people under 30, I felt motivated to experience as much as I could before the ticket prices rocketed out of reach. Yet, this incentive is not common knowledge, especially to people who have not grown up exposed to the arts sector. Given that disposable income is typically limited for most young people, highlighting the variety of ticketing options should be made front and centre in marketing. This could do a lot to shift the stigma that classical music is only suitable for the well-heeled elite.
My appreciation for the music was fostered by a sense of feeling invited
Looking back, I can see the gulf between how I used to experience classical music compared to now. Years ago, I would wilfully shut my ears to it — it had been weaponised. My appreciation for the music was fostered by a sense of feeling invited. The cheap tickets got me in the door, the regular exposure to the music slowly allowed me to feel more comfortable in this new environment. This was imperative for me to start to listen when I heard classical music. Instead of pushing it back, I began to sink into the sounds when I heard it.
It is important to be mindful that classical music has the potential to intimidate the uninitiated. Some orchestras are aware of this and are leading the way by creating innovative and inviting programming. This includes cross-genre collaborations such as the MSO and Flight Facilities, as well as the Australian Symphony Orchestra and Hilltop Hoods.
I recently attended a live MSO performance of The Godfather. The foyer was bustling. Most people were wearing graphic t-shirts of the movie poster. People chatted. Marlon Brando impressions were traded among those in the queue for the bar. The music that night was both sweeping and bold; it was also familiar to most people. Perhaps this is one way of letting people, both young and old, enter a concert hall. I can imagine this being the case when the MSO perform the score to Harry Potter this November. The foyer will surely be filled with cloaked Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, Gryffindors and possibly the odd Slytherin; each of whom are likely to become bewitched by the experience of hearing the music performed live. It will be a relatively easy stepping-stone for them listen to other classical music.
My experience of classical music continues to be piecemeal. Despite becoming a subscriber to the MSO, I still do not approach the art form in a linear fashion. Finances still factor in many of my decisions, but there is no doubt that I am now wholeheartedly committed to the genre.
I have even now become someone who tuts their tongue if people chat during free outdoor symphonies.
Fiona Murphy is a writer based in Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Age, FasterLouder, and The Spit Press, among other publications; and she’s a writer-in-residence for Feminartsy. Fiona is also an audio geek — she regularly reads the weekend news for Vision Australia radio, and co-hosts the podcast Literary Canon Ball.
Check back in as we continue to showcase talented young musicians responding to this question throughout CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.