My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, June 18, 2012

City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part I

First a true story:

A local cello studio in town, mostly made up of school-age children, is approached by a young engaged couple that is wanting to have classical music played at their upcoming wedding.  The teacher replies, saying that yes, the studio has a cello quartet that is available for the event.  The couple then asks if they might be able to come by and hear the kids play sometime before agreeing to hire them.  The teacher gives them a time and a place.

Here's where I think it gets interesting...

The fiancĂ© then asks what they should wear to this arranged time.  The cello teacher responds by saying that they can just come as they are.

Fast forward a bit to the actual meeting.  

The couple shows up at the pre-arranged place and time dressed up, as if they are going to a formal recital, with both individuals looking quite nervous and uncomfortable.  

When I heard this story a few weeks ago I went through an evolution of emotions, from shocked, to embarrassed and saddened for this understandable but unnecessary reaction to classical music culture, to determined not give up on making my way in a rural community as a classical musician.  

Since hearing this story I have read many posts and articles, ranging from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's blog to the Wall Street Journal that have all had to do with the issue of classical music culture.  In them I hear the common arguments that seem to go back and forth between those that think that the classical music world needs to change in order to stay alive and those that think it is fine just the way it is.  In this last round of dialogue I've chosen to remain quiet, partially because I am not in the mood to get caught in the firestorm and also because I feel that each camp is firmly dedicated to their own position thereby making discussion pretty futile.  But I also didn't join in because quite frankly, I wasn't quite sure what to say.  After much thinking, and a doozy of a migraine, (those things can inspire some pretty interesting revelations,) I now feel like I have something to say although it may take a few posts to do so.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham,
from Wikimedia Commons
After growing up as a city girl, surrounded by classical music and now living as a country girl where bluegrass and folk music are the staple, it seems to me that there doesn't have to be just one type of classical music culture that works.  Where I live now, the more formal performances that one finds in the larger cities rarely seems to fit the rhythm of the community.  People don't know what to expect, they don't know the music, they don't get all the "rules" and why should they?  Most of the people here grew up here and were not exposed to classical music, to symphonies, to ballets.  We have to drive over five hours to get to Washington, D.C. to catch a big city symphony performance; we have to drive an hour away to get to a see a Met broadcast of one of their operas; we have to drive to another state or even fly to a big city to get our instruments repaired!  Rarely do the top-level performers venture to our small area and I don't blame them.  I get it.  There isn't much of an audience here.  But that means we need to understand this when it comes time to draw in an audience.  I believe this is the reality for many musicians living in rural America and for the communities that we're trying to reach with classical music.  

So what can those of us living as country mice do to keep our music alive?  Personally I don't think we should abandon any type of musical presentation.    If performances in the concert hall cease, a lot of passionate listeners will be left out in the dust and they will be denied an important source of musical and cultural inspiration.  If we give up on performances in more informal venues - in bars, libraries, outside on the lawn - we're going to risk having lots of people, especially young ones, slip through the cracks out of sheer lack of exposure. It seems to me that right now organizations and musicians are either trying to merge the two approaches or they are trying to push for one above the other.  I don't think either way is going to solve any problem or pull in new audiences.  

So here's my most recent hair-brained idea and I think this could apply to both city mice and country mice - perhaps we could come up with some sort of rating system like they do for movies, not to embarrass anyone or to say that one person is better than another, but simply so the expectation is made clear as to how a given concert will be presented and what those in the audience and on stage can expect:

E = Experienced audiences: for audiences that have been steeped in classical music culture and that are comfortable with a more reverential performance.
G = General audiences: for audiences that may or may not have experience in classical music culture but are looking for an opportunity to take it in without fear of breaking any etiquette rules.  These performances may also include non-classical music.
I = Informal audiences: for audiences that don't have experience in classical music culture but would like to experience it in an informal setting, free of any etiquette rules.  These performances may also include non-classical music.

Using a rating system like this might address a few issues:
  • It would encourage presenters and performing organizations to decide what it is they really want for a given performance.
  • For people that are nervous about attending a classical music performance this would take some of the mystery out of what would be expected from them.  
  • For people that have been steeped in classical music, this would enable them to go to a performance with the expectation that those around them will be seeking the same sort of atmosphere.  
  • It would encourage families with children to take their children to concerts.  They could start out with I and G-rated concerts, ending with E concerts if that's something that attracts the child.
I realize that there are probably countless numbers of arguments against setting something like this up, but what has become very clear to me, especially through scenarios like the one with which I opened this post, is that the classical music culture can be highly intimidating for many, many people.  I didn't realize that when I was a city girl.  As a country girl now I'm trying to figure out a way to share what I love in a way that will make sense to the people in this community.  It seems to me that taking the mystery out of our world, especially when it comes to performances, might be one step.  We should at least foster an environment where people feel like they can truly come as they are when we tell them they can come as they are.

Stay tuned for some more thoughts in the days to come.  And as always, I welcome your own thoughts and experiences.

Other posts in this series:
City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part II - repertoire and programming


  1. I look forward to the rest. Like you, I realize there isn't one solution and it's based on personal preference. Once we realize that, then we can choose the type of audience we want to cultivate for ourselves.

    What you did in Part One is actually begin to suggest a solution which is a lot more than most other people publicly arguing for one way or another. I agree with it...this could be utilized in a concert poster in a unique way that could capture attention, too. I applaud you!

    1. Many thanks for reading, Alexis! And for your encouraging words. It does seem a bit crazy and I highly doubt it could be instituted but as a consumer, I know I like to know what I'm getting into before laying down money or taking the time to go to an event, especially when my daughter is involved. Same goes with movies. I would never go to a movie either myself or as a family without looking at the rating first. Although I don't always agree with how it's rated it gives me a pretty good idea and quickly eliminates some options.


  2. Yes - applause from this side of the Pond as well! Your rating system is pure genius.

    The way I can see this perhaps extended is to the performers themselves.

    Personally, I'd be hard pushed at performing in formal wear these days and would far rather concentrate on general/informal deliveries but that's not to say that any other mode should be judged as "incorrect".

    What we're talking about here I think is an embracing of all styles of delivery rather than individuals and audiences being forced into a one size fits all box.

    Great post Erica!

    1. Wow! Comments from my two favorite cheerleaders, all within a matter of minutes - thank you!

      And here's to many ways of presenting what we love! Many different types of listeners, many different types of music, many different types of musicians...let's keep thinking about all the different combinations we can make to suit everyone!


  3. I love the way you think! It really is a great idea. I am also a city girl, but with an extra connection to the concert mom was a violist in the San Diego symphony. So I grew up on classical, traditional style concerts (rate those E). But there was also th Summer Pops concerts (rate them G or I), and the Summer Light Opera (also G and I) series. As a result, I love all kinds of concert experiences. The sad thing is that I still live in a city, and there is an abundance of opportunities all around...but the cost keeps me at home listening to recordings instead of sitting in the concert hall letting it all wash over me in glorious multi-faceted tone. On a rare occasion I get a discounted or promo ticket, or spend big bucks for an evening. But I run off in a different direction, bottom line, this is the first real example I have seen of a solution to "how can we keep classical music alive without destroying where it comes from?" dilemma. BRAVO!!!

    1. Thank you, Janet. It's always great to hear about how others grew up, especially when it comes to attending performances. I have some thoughts about what you touch on in the end of your comment - about the whole cost thing. I'm in much the same boat - it is simply too difficult for me to fork out a lot of money to attend live events even though I'd love to be attending more concerts. Stay tuned!


  4. This is a wonderful idea! I would love to see it used everywhere.

    At the risk of saying something you're going to address in an upcoming post, I'd like to suggest broadening this concept to include not only 'concert atmosphere' and audience behavior, but also the music being performed as well.

    All too often, performers (and experienced concertgoers) groan and roll their eyes at the thought of yet another rendition of "overplayed" (read: "familiar") works. Pieces like Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata, etc. This is often because they have heard so many questionable renditions of them during student recitals (like so many music store employees hang signs that prohibit trying out the guitars by playing "Smoke On The Water" LOL).

    But I grew up in the country as well (a rural midwest town pop. 900...there were 98 kids in my high school, which was the only one in the school district, the year I graduated). I didn't hear live orchestral music until I was in college. To this day there are probably only 4 or 5 people in that town who have ever heard live classical music in their lives (I'm being generous with that estimate, and 2 of those people are a couple with a daughter who's a professional orchestral harpist).

    Those 'overplayed' pieces *are* overplayed because they are familiar and accessible. People like hearing them. This is exactly the type of music that can entice a new audience to dip their toes into live classical music.

    The process of broadening people's musical tastes can be a slow and delicate one. The most common response to someone hearing music they don't like nowadays is to immediately turn the radio off, hit the skip button or change the channel.

    Trust needs to be built between performer and audience...especially to entice them to live performances. Too many times people resist going, not only because they don't know how to act, but they're afraid they're going to be "trapped" in their seat listening to something 'way too long and boring' or 'wierd-sounding.' There needs to be a relationship wherein the performer can say "trust me on this, give it a chance" and the audience is willing to do so because they've enjoyed past performances.

    With Experienced audiences you can take the training wheels off and indulge yourself as a performer and the audience as experienced listeners. But I suggest that General and Informal performances be heavily peppered with familiar, accessible least at first. And NOT just "kids" or "pops" stuff.

    1. Liz,
      So many insightful comments here that are giving me extra fuel for my fire. Thank you! I completely agree on all your points, especially in regards to rep that is chosen for the G and I concerts. I've learned a lot from performing in more rural areas and I'll be sharing them. It definitely involves playing the gems that just about everyone loves (but that the experienced sometimes bemoan as being overplayed) and playing ragtime, standards, jazz, you name it. Most people don't actually seem differentiate between the genres. In fact, when someone asks me what I play and I say, "classical music," they often look at me like I have 3 eyes! That's not what they were looking for. Usually they just want to know what instrument I play.

      I'm learning...slowly!

      Thanks again for your comments and for reading.

      All the best,

  5. I find it interesting that we tend to link challenging and difficult music into 'formal' audiences and accessible music with 'casual' audiences. I believe this is faulty reasoning.

    I am one of those 'country mice' who saw my first live orchestral performance at the local high school (it was pretty bad) and did not see a professional live orchestra until I was in my 20s. I like Stravinsky, Debussy, Bernstein, Adams, Meyers and Glass (and of course, my husband, Chip Michael). Beethoven bores the pants off of me. I can take or leave Strauss. Mozart is wonderful, but I've rarely heard him done with the fire I like. The thing is, I rarely feel compelled to go to the concert hall because I ALWAYS feel stifled.

    This is the confession of one girl who is an 'outsider' in the formal concert hall:

    I grew up with bluegrass, country, gospel and the blues. I am used to cheering and clapping astounding solos. I am used to a feeling of collaboration between artist and audience - they perform, I demonstrate appreciation throughout the performance. The more I cheer, the better they play - AND the longer they play. They talk to me. The artists on stage work to make it an experience we share. I leave the concert with a feeling of 'ownership' of the music and the experience.

    In the 'traditional' concert hall this level of interaction is not only frowned upon, it is actively squelched. I must sit quietly and 'absorb' until the end when evidently I must clap and clap and clap while the conductor takes bows - and leaves - comes back and bows - an leaves - comes back and chooses which instrumentalists HE wishes to highlight - and I clap and clap in general with very little feeling of personal connection.

    By the end I am almost always drained and anxious to leave the hall. Not at all the feeling of being energized by the music I am used to.

    In a concert I find myself thinking about esoteric things like why are the women always dressed two to three or more levels beneath the men's formality? Are women lesser players? Or, why is clapping between movements considered disruptive, but all the coughing, feet shuffling and cough drop unwrapping is not? If I laugh during the scherzo will I get ejected from the concert hall? In other words, my mind wanders because I feel no more connected to the musicians than I am to a CD at home - and at home nobody gives me the stink eye if The Rite of Spring brings on a booty shake.

    This is a long way of saying: I like your ideas of concert ratings - but I think the music programming should be just as complicated and challenging as possible for both types of audiences.

    I would love to see a 'Casual Friday' approach. If an orchestra plans to play a set program for four nights, one of those nights can be dedicated to a casual 'come as you are' audience with interaction embraced and encouraged.

    I think this would have two effects: 1) The orchestra would be invigorated by the level of enthusiasm people like me would bring to the hall and 2)People like me could feel, at last, that classical music played live is for us too.

    If we were lucky, it would have one final effect which is to prove that the music can survive and even thrive in atmospheres outwith the 'traditions' of the past 100 years.

    1. Brava, Eddie Louise. And I have to say that I'd love to see a booty shake going on in the middle of a symphony hall - would definitely make things exciting!

      I love your thoughts about the music that is chosen to be performed at performances and I love your idea about the casual Friday performances. Advertising it as such would, I think, cause more folks to give it a go and feel comfortable doing so. To add to your thoughts, and something I'll bring up in this series, is that I often wonder why people don't offer movements of larger works instead of making newcomers listen to an entire gargantuan work. Movements are really, really hard for a lot of people to understand and although I see the artistic statement in performing such pieces in their entirety I do think the effect is often lost on those that don't have much of a background in classical music. And entire symphonies are, quite frankly, hard for me to sit through sometimes. As far as I know a lot of these same large works were presented movement by movement when they were premiered. I'd like to see us return to that model, especially for the more casual style of concerts.

      I also love what you have to say about wanting to feel connected to the performers. As a performer, I am learning more and more that what motivates me is feeling connected with the audience. I don't like being anonymous on stage anymore and I don't like playing for a dark hall where I can't tell who's there and who's not. I love hearing stories from the audience about how pieces connect to them and have been known on occasion to hear from the audience in between pieces and I love that! I'll never forget the performance when in between movements of a Haydn piano trio a gentleman raised his hand. I wasn't quite sure what to do at first but eventually I called on him and he asked a very interesting question. We tries to answer his question and then moved on. Although it was different and a bit surprising at first I'm so glad he did this - it shows that he was engaged at some level and curious to learn more.

      Thank you again for reading, Eddie Louise, and for taking the time to leave such personal, insightful comments.


  6. I really like this idea. It is not that far from many orchestras already dubbing certain concerts as Family Friendly or having general outreach and family concerts available for the community.

    The only main arguments you might hear, since I recently came across similar criticism, is the fact that it will divide audiences instead of integrating. Plus, not all orchestras have these types of concerts set up either, so there would need to be a leap of change for the industry in general and for the individual orchestras to make it happen.

    I would say though that if an orchestra's mission is flexible (or could become flexible), this system has fantastic potential to grow audiences. The management would need to be diligent in keeping relationships with their audiences to progress them toward other types of concerts when audience members are ready.

    Since classical music and jazz are not the "popular" music of today, we do need to introduce whole new generations to these forms of art music and be welcoming to the generations that have already had a taste, but may not have had a fair experience without the built-in directions. Having a system that can relieve any nervousness to getting started and help them to progress on their listening journey is worth exploring!

    PS I do want to comment that the G performances do not have to program the same old, same old over and over. New works that are ear friendly could be programmed as well. This could help develop a very well rounded listener from the start (open to all kinds of music)and be a new opportunity for building audiences for today's composers!

    1. Thank you, Shoshana.
      Yep, I definitely see that argument about not wanting to divide audiences but that's what I'm saying - I don't see what the danger is, really, at least for a while. I truly think it can be done without alienating or insulting anyone. Typically I hear this argument from those that would be attending the E-rated performances and I can't see how they could be insulted. As for those who aren't experienced, I don't think anything could be worse than being glared at with any misstep in the concert hall.

      I also agree with you and with many others that have commented in regards to the music that is played at any of the G and even I performances. In my experience it is the less experienced listeners that are actually less critical and are more open-minded when it comes to music whether it's older rep or new music. And with kids I don't think they even get the division between genres, really. It's all music to them. I think these concerts would be the perfect opportunity to mix it up and to get people simply loving music, and music performed live, right in front of them, foibles and all. Last but not least, going back to new composers, I think there is so much we can do to encourage a connection to new music simply by the fact that the composers are still living and are eager to interact and relate to performers and audience alike. Connection is a powerful thing, as Eddie Louise was mentioning in her comment, and new music provides a perfect avenue for a multi-level connection.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting, Shoshana! You always make me think!

      All the best,

  7. Great idea!  This is easier to implement with current marketing and more familiar (at least in the US) than my idea of labeling 2 incompatible concert experience styles as "Express Yourself" or, more colorfully, "Express Yourself with Classical Music for Rebels" (which would apply to presentation style, audience response, programming, dress, maybe refreshments) and something like "Deep Listeners" or "Intense Listeners."

    I think 3-4 may be too many for orchestras but certainly can help individual artists define their niches. 

    Well done!

    P.S. What would S concerts be? ("They could start out with I and G-rated concerts, ending with S concerts if that's something that attracts the child.")    

    1. Thank you, RachDminor. And should I ever need an editor I am going to give you a call. You're the only person so far that mentioned my little typo in there regarding the S rating. Originally I had "S" for "sophisticated" but I really didn't like that at all so switched it to "E." I'm still not crazy about that either but oh well. If you have some better options, do let me know!

      All the best,

  8. Love the idea of varied performances, including some ice-breaker pieces played by the musicians. I'm reminded of a casual appearance on a regional news show that my favorite violinist did one time, Rachel Barton Pine. She was appearing to support a classical performance she did (Mozart and Ravel), but after the typical question-and-answer thing she did with the interviewer, she proceeded to whip out some blues, "Sweet Home Chicago." She was so good that the studio guys in the newsroom started applauding. It was clearly not what they were expecting.

    The interviewer in fact asked her to play by saying, "Now this is fiddle country, so you probably won't play any fiddle tunes for us, but let's hear your violin." Even he was blown off his pins when she cranked out some blues.

    Just because you're there as a classical musician doesn't mean it's ALL you have to play -- make a respectful nod to the music of the area. Play some bluegrass or rock as well, some of the non-classical stuff that YOU like, something that will connect with the people who are there to hear you and show that you don't expect THEM to go all the way to meet you, but that you'll meet them in the middle.

    Also, one more quick comment relating to "For people that are nervous about attending a classical music performance this would take some of the mystery out of what would be expected from them." Sometimes, the "experienced" performance can also be fun for people who are unfamiliar with the classical music culture and looking to see what it's like -- sometimes the "mystery" as part of the fun. Maybe those folks in the anecdote felt out of place in fancy clothes, but sometimes people can relish the opportunity to play dress-up as well. I've seen people going to operas in blue jeans, and I've seen people going there in gowns and lace shawls. Often, the former group are the ones who are monied and feel the most at-home in the frou-frou atmosphere; it's the average people in the rented gowns who are having a fun night out in the opera house, enjoying dressing up and being surrounded by The Fabulous Types. :-)

    It's all just a matter of what the audience is after ... which is why your argument about having a variety of experiences to choose from is so important. In general, I've found the concert halls to be far more accommodating to varied classes; the frou-frou clubs that we think of as "more accessible" sometimes have parking lots full of Jaguars and Lexuses.

    1. Janis,
      I love the story about Rachel Barton Pine...I've been impressed by her versatility and most importantly her enthusiasm for her versatility for a while now. It makes her seem like so much more of an honest, open book as an artist and I really respect that and aspire to that at my own level. (You won't see me touring the world like she does.)

      And it's funny you brought up the idea that that I could "make a respectful nod" to the community in which I find myself. I partly got my inspiration for writing this post and for the posts I'm about to write from my recent dive into learning how to play fiddle tunes on the cello for an upcoming event with a local author. It's a long story why I'm doing this and it's something I'll explain in a post that'll get written soon, but I'm learning more than I thought possible in doing this, not only about music and the lines that are truly blurred between styles, (try playing a Bach Gigue back-to-back with an Irish Jig...pretty fascinating in my opinion) and about the musicians that play in our community. And although my fiddling "debut" is making me feel a bit terrified at this point, simply because it's so new to me, I am determined to find a band to play with after this event is done so that I can turn that nod into something a little more than a nod.

      In regards to your final point, I love how you describe the different combinations of experience and expectation that great the various venues and what I love is that with different options we can pick and choose based on what we're wanting and looking for at any given moment, with any given situation. I think what I was after with the rating system is a way to give people more info so that they can make a more well-informed choice.

      Thank you for reading, Janis, and for taking the time to comment! I look forward to more conversation.


    2. "I think what I was after with the rating system is a way to give people more info so that they can make a more well-informed choice."

      Absolutely! I just wanted to interject that sometimes people who are unfamiliar with the culture might be attracted to the E-type events as well, and that the communications for those events may also have to assume unfamiliarity. Sometimes it can be a real treat for someone who spends their day in a hairnet or steel-toed shoes to get the chance to dress up.

      I just wanted to make sure that there was a decoupling of "likes the formality" with "is familiar with it." A formal atmosphere can be intriguing sometimes.

    3. You know, I'm thinking now that maybe a good way to put it might be "Formal/Casual Chic/Informal/Family-Friendly."

    4. There you have it, Janis. I love it. "Formal/Casual Chic/Informal/Family-Friendly." Rolls right off the tongue ;-)