I'm often blown away at how many people have some kind of connection to classical music. Even if people don't listen to classical music regularly, a majority grew up playing an instrument or enjoyed classical-cultural staples like Disney's Fantasia. Even recent TV shows like Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle are a testament to this nostalgic connection that people have with classical music.
In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts reports that 90% of American adults in have this kind of exposure to classical music. But what's shocking is that even with this massive exposure, only about 10% of American adults actually pay money to sit in a concert hall and experience classical music live.
And you don't have to look far to uncover why...
Think about your experience of a concert hall. You rush into the lobby with your ticket in hand; an usher tears it, hands you a textbook guide to the evening's program, and you meander to your seat. Now it's time to study -- you don't want to miss anything in the program notes. The lights dim, and out comes the board director to thank the sponsors for donating flowers, coffee, and your chair. The Executive Director comes on stage to share that there are still tickets left to other concerts... "and by the way, we need your donations because that's really what funds this orchestra". The orchestra tunes, and after a long pause, the maestro comes on stage. You nervously sit through the first movement, already forgetting what you read in the program notes. And after sitting silently in a hot theater for 45 minutes, intermission comes and it's a mad dash for the bathroom. Did you talk to anyone? PLEASE -- you gotta get in line before they flash the lights and you're crossing your legs through another 82 minute masterwork. And at the end of the night, you applaud through a few bows, and leave.
Sure, the acoustics are pristine, but you just paid hundreds of dollars to sit quietly through what might be an unfamiliar (and very individualistic) experience, only to have the organizers shout that you didn't pay enough and they'd love to have you back.
And that's just the experience. There are all kinds of other contributing factors, like you might be the youngest person in the crowd, or you're unsure of when to clap, etc.
This kind of experience is no different than arriving at a foreign city and attempting to use public transportation. Can I eat on the subway? Which one is the quiet car? Where is this train even going?
I can say with confidence: it's not that listeners don't like classical music. They just don't like the experience of classical music.
As a millennial myself, I often hear "millennials just don't like classical music", but I think that couldn't be further from the truth. I fell in love with classical music attending a symphony performance. I remember how personal and nostalgic it felt, like it was written just for me. At first, the music was so unpredictable and broad, but as I listened to more I latched onto the complexity and how real it felt. And above all, I connected to the story of it. It felt like I knew each of the musicians on stage, and felt the struggle of the composer. And for me, it feels like there are so few experiences where I can unplug from my busy life and experience something deeply personal.
After that life-changing symphony performance, I dedicated my career to showing my generation how incredible classical music is, and I went on to become one of the youngest influencers in industry. I worked with organizations around the globe and collaboratively studied hundreds of other organizations before I pioneering a new project in the Greater Seattle Area called Emerald City Music.
Emerald City Music is the meeting place for incredible world-class music (like what you find in a concert hall) and a lively, social, casual, drink-in-hand concert experience. We're removing the stigma of stuffiness in classical music to create a diverse community of people discovering classical music together. There's no veil between the audience and the musicians; you can connect so personally to the story of the music, and feel like you know these world-class musicians on a first-name-basis.
In launching this new endeavor, I've heard multiple times, "Hey, it's not just millennials who don't like the concert hall". And the point is valid. By building an alternative concert experience, Emerald City Music is reinvigorating a multi-generational audience; an audience that enjoys classical music and is eager for a means to connect more personally with it.
There is a nation-wide trend for creating new experiences in classical music. In San Francisco, the Symphony converted their rehearsal hall into a periodic nightclub concert space, where audiences can mingle over drinks in a lounge setting and hear new-composed music. Seattle Symphony created a similar experience with their lobby concerts series, [Untitled]. And in living rooms on either coast, Groupmuse offers up-close-and-personal informal classical concerts.
Marin Alsop, lauded conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recently charged the orchestra world with a change in focus, boldly declaring, "We need to ask ourselves if artistic excellence is the ultimate goal, or if other things may be more important."
And the other things that are just as important as artistic excellence are the very same things that brought me into this broad and deep world of classical music: a personal, human connection to something beautiful.
Allow me to paint a new picture of your classical music experience.
You arrive at the door and are greeted by an usher, saying "Is this your first time here? We're so glad to see you! Would you like a glass of wine?". You walk into a warm, open room. There is music playing, people chatting, and musicians sharing about their flight into town. After a short while, the lights dim and people pull chairs around the piano. A violinist shares a personal story about the music, telling of how she connects to the composer's struggle. They start performing, and you're pulled in by the intimacy of the music. You're so close to the stage that you can see the violinist and pianist interact with each other. As you reflect on the violinist's story, you enter another world; colorful, vivacious, harmonious. The music ends, applause roars, and you walk up to the musicians and share your story and how you connected to the music. And before you leave for the night, you mingle with other people who had that same experience. You walk away with new insight, returning to your daily life changed and inspired.
Music is so real, and so raw. It bridges diverse generations and backgrounds, connecting people around a deeply personal shared experience. It's time we unleash it from the concert hall so that we can experience something beautiful together.