Next week, the latest instalment of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score project will air on WETA. Keeping Score, for those who haven’t been, well, keeping score, is a multi-part, multi-pronged outreach project illuminating the lives of selected great composers (the new instalment focuses on Gustav Mahler) on television, radio shows, and an extensive website. The project is spearheaded by Michael Tilson Thomas, the SFS conductor who is one of the leading advocates of so-called new technology and the ways it can be used by classical music organizations: his San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony, in Florida, are doing some of the most interesting things with various forms of broadcast technology, from Keeping Score in San Francisco to the integration of film in New World Symphony concerts, in the country.
Last week I attended a San Francisco Symphony panel that purported to be on just this subject: the use of technology in classical music. What it became, though, was a discussion on outreach. Orchestras’ rationale for using new technology, after all, is to reach new audiences, a need dictated by a steady erosion in the number of subscribers and ticket-buyers. On any given night, said Brent Assink, the executive director of the SFS, one-quarter of the audience is experiencing the hall and the orchestra for the first time; how should that affect the way the orchestra presents itself? And today’s audience, especially a new audience, may have different expectations from audiences of the past. “People do not want,” Assink said, “only to be played at.”
The response of orchestras is to work on being more interactive and building up audiences. This begins, for many, with programs in the schools. The conventional wisdom these days is that music education in the schools has declined, and therefore we’ve lost audiences, and therefore we have to put lots of energy into school music programs so that we can build up our audiences again. A lot of the emphasis is on teaching instruments. Some 74% of the orchestra audience, according to a Knight Foundation study based on six selected orchestras, has experience playing a musical instrument; therefore, let’s get instruments in the hands of schoolkids who will grow up to be the audience of the future.
I am all for teaching as many children as much about music as possible. But this idea, as outlined, is a logical fallacy. For one thing, the audience that’s declining right now is an audience that DID have the benefit of music education: my peers, the people in their 40s and 50s who are not turning to orchestral concerts in the same way that their age group did 30 and 40 years ago, came through the schools before the massive slashing of arts education programs that has been going on for the last couple of decades. They got the music education: they’re still not subscribing.
And it’s equally fallacious to see playing instruments as a key to developing audiences. If that were true, audiences would be in fine shape, since instrumentalists are not in short supply today. It’s true that schools are slashing music programs and we need to work to counteract this trend, but this is a separate issue from building orchestra audiences. After all, conservatories today are full of young people who play instruments. But these young people don’t necesarily go on to attend orchestral concerts. I was struck, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra instituted its Rusty Musicians concerts, giving serious amateurs a chance to play with Marin Alsop and the BSO musicians on Strathmore’s stage, by how many of the musicians who showed up to play had active amateur careers - and how few of them attended BSO concerts. Many of them (in an admittedly anecdotal survey) said they were too busy playing themselves. The event was certainly a good marketing move in that it made many of these musicians feel a new allegiance to their orchestra. But it also demonstrated that there’s not an automatic correlation between the love of making music and the love of going to it.
There’s therefore a certain futility to orchestras putting all of their outreach eggs into the school education basket. In many cases, one senses that they’re doing it because they don’t know what else to do. Going into schools or bringing kids to rehearsals is an established thing, and orchestras are good at doing established things. There is less precedent for going out and building new audiences in other ways. But if most orchestras keep aiming the bulk of their outreach efforts at 10-year-olds, even in a best-case scenario -- if the 10-year-olds really do grow up to attend orchestra concerts -- it will take decades for their investment of time and energy to pay off.