Rob Coleman – ‘Classical music: what’s in it for young people?’

Young Writers' Month


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


Unable to avoid cliché, the future is in the hands of the young. This is no different for classical music in Australia, where the future of our artform is in the hands of creative musicians, performers, educators, journalists and commentators, and all those in the music industry with the capacity to cultivate new, especially young, consumers of classical music. It is up to us to work within our industry to find innovative ways to highlight the relevance of classical music to all people, and expand the role it plays within the Australian community.

There will never be a time when people aren’t creating and consuming classical music

There will never be a time when people aren’t creating and consuming classical music. Given people still whittle, carve butter, and subscribe to flat-earth theories, I feel safe in saying it’s rare for cultural practices to completely die out. While this provides little peace of mind, it may inspire not only a cultural responsibility but also a material motivation for young people in the music industry to work tirelessly to ensure a vibrant future for classical music.

Despite numerous commentators who have built careers proclaiming the death of classical music, often at the expense of the young, there is much to be optimistic about when considering the future. We are living in a time when (albeit passive) consumption of classical music for the purpose of emotional stimulation is at its highest, seen by its use in film, TV, video games, and other digital media. Given the enduring power of this art to reflect humanity, the aesthetic relevance to all people is self-evident.

It’s easy for those not personally invested in the arts to overlook its non-economic value. Here, we often see comparison to sport. However, the accepted social value of sports exists mostly because of economic value (primarily gambling) underpinning its political support. Since the intrinsic value of classical music is not financial, we are reliant on the cultivation, or rather illumination, of its social and cultural value.

We must find innovative ways to educate future generations of classical music consumers

The principal means by which we demonstrate the relevance, and foster appreciation, of classical music is through education. The catch 22 is: to gain support for music education and expose people to its cultural value, classical music requires a generally accepted cultural value. This is highlighted by the lack of an Australian national curriculum in music and the limited accessibility of music education offered in many Australian schools.

Given this reality, it is within our own teaching, performing, and commentating that we must find innovative ways to educate future generations of classical music consumers.

As educators, we cannot overlook musical literacy, criticism, and appreciation in performance-focused curricula. As performers, we must acknowledge that every performance is educational, and not shy away from educational engagement with our audiences. As music commentators, we have a responsibility to intellectually engage with the general public – particularly the young – to challenge and inspire.

In addition to this professional work, we must take advantage of the political potential of classical music to fight for and defend the value of our art. Whether through our professional output or the direct action of political activism, unionism, and mainstream politics, championing classical music should be a priority.

Intersecting the worlds of creativity, education, and marketing concert programs is an important way to engage current and prospective audiences. The repetitive, risk-adverse programming of many major arts organisations cultivates audiences alienated from unfamiliar repertoire. This lack of diversity is also partly responsible for reports of declining artistic satisfaction amongst performers, which can only negatively impact the excitement and intensity of live performances. The presentation of diverse repertoire in musically coherent programs should be used to develop the tastes of current concertgoers as well as attract new audiences.

Exposing audiences to new music is the only way to develop tastes for this repertoire

The championing of modern works by conductors such as Boulez, Bernstein, and Koussevitzky demonstrates the potential to broaden the musical appreciation of audiences. Pairing populist repertoire with lesser-known repertoire can be used to educate audiences to the evolution of classical music, and celebrate living and local composers. I wholeheartedly believe that exposing audiences to new music is the only way to develop tastes for this repertoire. The appeal of contemporary repertoire to young, progressive audiences who aren’t victims of stereotypes surrounding classical music, and the perceived relevance to their own material reality, has been shown by the success of ensembles such as Kronos Quartet. Without the incorporation of contemporary music into mainstream programming, musical tastes of Australian audiences will languish, creating a musical ghetto for new music.

The financial potential of diverse programming, I believe, can overcome the fiscal concerns used to excuse the current paradigm. The popular appeal of film music is an obvious example, and the tip of the iceberg inside these discussions. Instead of programming movie music in stand-alone concerts or as live backing tracks to the films themselves, we should move to program popular film, video game, and television repertoire into traditional concert settings alongside standard repertoire. Does the film and theatre music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bernstein hold more musical value than the works of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Ennio Morricone? The output of film composers could easily be programmed alongside the sound worlds that inspired them. John Williams fans could quickly fall in love with Wagner. Lovers of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores (many of which were published as concert suites) could find themselves taken away with the music of Khachaturian. As logical as these ideas appear, popular film music rarely appears outside stand-alone concerts; the audiences of which often never attend traditional concerts.

The elitist presentation of classical music has been shown to alienate new audiences, particularly young first-time concertgoers. While I believe listening must be the focus of classical concerts, this shouldn’t need to create an environment akin to a funeral service. The restrictive atmosphere, archaic concert dress codes, and condescending attitudes of some long-time subscribers can make newcomers to classical performances feel out of place and uncomfortable. More concerning are attitudes towards children at concerts. I would much rather hear a child disrupt a concert than a coughing septuagenarian unwrapping boiled lollies while their ill-fitting hearing aid whistles through the auditorium. Classical concerts and regular concertgoers need to be accepting and welcoming of new audience members. This also applies to our interaction with audiences as performers in and around concerts; I can’t imagine the success of pop artists (beyond some obvious countercultures) who don’t treat their audiences with respect and appreciation.

Prohibitive costs present issues challenging the development of young audiences. Given the current financial reality of young Australians, the disposable income required to regularly attend concerts and purchase recordings needs consideration. Misplaced focus discussing concert length overshadows issues of cost. It is hard to accuse someone who binge-watches five seasons of House of Cards in a week of not having the attention span for an opera or hour-long symphony. Instead, we must further investigate reducing ticket prices for the young to make live classical music more accessible for audiences potentially less inclined to risk spending money on their first classical concert over a safer option. Exploration of alternative venues such as outdoor, home, and pub concerts is essential in creating comfortable environments to share music. While some financial reasons are used to defend the preference of half-empty halls over discounted halls, perhaps economic rationalisation could extend to reduction in excessive conductor and executive pay rather than increasing earned income at the expense of young audience numbers?

Thankfully, the music industry is developing new ways to increase the number of consumers, led predominantly by young people

Thankfully, the music industry is developing new ways to increase the number of consumers, led predominantly by young people. The appointment of audience development officers in major arts organisations is an excellent step towards the cultivation of new, young audiences for classical music. The proliferation of digital platforms for the distribution of performances, led in this country by groups such as the Australian Discovery Orchestra, along with the use of social media by the likes of TwoSet Violin, increase the exposure of classical music to both new and old audiences. Progressive programming of classical music in arts festivals and amongst smaller institutions broadens the content of performances and provides exposure to emerging artists. The success of home concerts seen with Groupmuse in the USA, and pub concerts around Australia, show an exploration of venues outside the traditional concert halls. St Paul’s Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota openly discussing the decision to offer free student tickets highlights the logic of financial accessibility. I took full advantage of the $30 season passes offered to students by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra while studying there, without which I could not have attended many concerts.

So while changes certainly need to be made, it must be said that – witnessing the passionate discussion, both public and private, surrounding the direction of classical music in Australia – the future looks not only safe, but also exciting.


About Rob

Rob Coleman is a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and University of Tasmania. Holding Bachelors Degree of Classical Performance and Graduate Diplomas of Professional Performance Practice, he studied bass trombone under Michael Bertoncello and Joshua Davis. With performance experience in many styles, Rob has a keen interest in contemporary art music and has performed across Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and throughout South East Asia with numerous ensembles. Rob is undertaking research into the programming of Australian music, and the cultivation of audiences for classical music. Away from music, Rob fills his days with literature, politics, film, and TV.


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


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