Hanford Lam – ‘Classical music: what’s in it for young people?’

CutCommon Young Writers' Month


This blog was selected for publication from entry into the 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition.


The sincerest form of contact between a young person and classical music happens during a live performance.

Last month, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played at Hamer Hall and I had brought along two of my brightest students; 11 and 14 years of age, respectively. We were going to hear Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, granted entry by our student tickets. A majority of MSO concerts encourage concession tickets for those under 25 so therefore, I assign the term ‘young people’ an upper age limit of 25.

So there we were, three young people strolling in the wintry air. I asked them what they were expecting since it would be a new experience for them. This seemed to confuse the adolescents as they mumbled sotto-voce: ‘People playing music…?’. I prodded for more. With a winsome grin, the 11-year-old exclaimed: ‘An orchestra with violins!’.

Expectations that young people have for classical music are not rife with pleasure or excitement; they are only shallow – owing to the lack of thorough systemic education

Expectations that young people have for classical music are not rife with pleasure or excitement; they are only shallow – owing to the lack of thorough systemic education. For example, if you asked a tourist what they expected of an AFL game, they would answer: ‘Well, it’s a ball game, so that’s what I’d expect!’. Incidentally, asking the same question of a die-hard AFL fanatic would yield a response that probably includes the background of the teams’ rivalry over the years, an analysis of the conditions of the players, and a witty comment or two about the predicted outcome. Such difference is only possible with a different education or attained knowledge about the subject. Education largely affects appreciation. So what’s in it for young people? Not much if they don’t know much about it.

One of the ways young people can educate themselves in classical music is to attend concerts. I can tell you for sure, however, that the majority of concertgoers are not ‘young people’. Those that are considered as such are the ones often in pursuit of music education. Luckily, most orchestras seem aware of this and do their best to promote attendance for the younger population.

However, there is something sibylline about the purpose of concerts. Do they exist to please those indulgent in a life of hedonism; or as notabilia in a performer’s career? It is very difficult to pinpoint, as I am sure there are many factors that stipulate the conditions which allow an orchestra – and, subsequently, its concerts – to remain a part of modern society.

The study of classical music is seen as a luxury

If the purpose of concerts for young people is to educate, then a multitude of answers pertaining to the topic open up. The study of classical music is seen as a luxury; afforded only to those willing to make sacrifices, in exchange for knowledge to help unravel the intricacies of the ideologies and emotions classical music has to offer. Fame and recognition will be doused upon a limited few; while a deeper understanding of human feelings and joy, from being able to instantiate emotion from abstract sound, will be entrusted to those willing to be educated.

Being able to divagate into ophidian melodic lines such as those in Bach’s fugues. Developing a true-blue affection for compositions written in Mozart’s prelapsarian youth. That is what’s in it for young people.


About Hanford

Hanford is a student at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University. He began piano studies at age four in Singapore and completed his ABRSM graded exams at 12. Moving to Australia, he continued his education with David Riskin, a retired Russian concert pianist. Since then, he has been interested in the art of teaching and started investing in a career in music education.
Melbourne High School was the first place where Hanford connected with the organ. He later won the 2013 Melbourne High School Organist Prize. In 2014 and 2015, he was appointed organ scholar at All Saints’ East St Kilda Church and accumulated invaluable knowledge and experience of liturgical music and choral direction. He is now organ scholar at St John’s Toorak.

As a pianist, Hanford has toured China with the Australian International Opera Company. In 2016, he won second prize at the Great Composers Competition Series in the 17th and 18th century music categories. Hanford has performed in many locations in Victoria such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, Duneira Estate, Deakin Edge, Abbotsford Convent, Robert Blackwood Hall, and live on radio 3MBS. Hanford currently spends his time outside his music degree enriching the musical education of younger students, accompanying two fantastic choirs, and travelling.


Read more of these reflections on classical music as part of CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.


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