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Teens and Classical Music: Why Shostakovich and Sheeran don't Mix
Could this generation be the one to hammer in, in the style of Mahler’s sixth, the final nail in the coffin for classical music, to end its slow, expensive death? With just 0.9% of Americans consuming it actively as a genre, it seems the end is frighteningly near. Orchestras are charities; philanthropy is the iv-needle keeping them on life support. And with youth interest diminuendo-ing away into silence, it could only be a matter of time before the white-haired philanthropists are gone, before classical music loses its last foothold in the world of rap, rock, and roll.
But why has it all come to this?
Everyone knows what the answer isn’t: a typical needle in the haystack, the glorious chord at the finale after a symphony of searching. The answer is indefinite, like Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn”, half-resolved, ambiguity lingering on after the last notes lull away.
For centuries, music had a reverential charm due to its rarity: either live or none at all. It wasn’t just about listening; it was a reason for families and friends from distant places to come together, quite a major event for the time. “People would socialize, have a festive meal, and enjoy after-dinner drinks listening to Haydn performing his new symphony,” says Brian Cox, band teacher at CB South. Comments, noise, applause during the music itself, were all the norm.
But this relaxed atmosphere did not play on forever. As artists broke more rules, program music, the hallmark of the incoming Romantic Age, became the new big thing. New ideas, new names –Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Strauss – filled up the programs. Before, music only entertained; now, it told a story. The aural medium itself had transformed, richer in subtlety than ever before. Mahler’s third symphony for instance, at an hour and forty-five minutes in length, contained the entire world (creation, life, death, love), the whole subscription package rolled into one colossal work.
But why didn’t classical remain on the podium?
Cox blames the development of a “crazy culture”, a stuffy, uncomfortable atmosphere surrounding classical music. “When you go to the concert hall nowadays, you have to be silent,” he says. No clapping between movements, no coughing, nothing, all so that the subtleties can be noticed. But teens today, who just want to participate (to whip and nae-nae), would feel straitjacketed by all the rules. Nearly a fifth of them cited this as the main reason they preferred pop. In an almost poetic twist of irony, the classical music etiquette had backfired. Born to venerate, it grew to alienate.
But it’s not just the culture which turns young people off; it could be the music itself. We all know some version of the famous anecdote: a teen goes to a pop concert, jamming out, having a blast, staying up all night raving about it on Snapchat. But when that same teen goes to Shostakovich’s Seventh, to the bewilderment of his grandparents, he manages to fall sound asleep (despite the 130-member orchestra playing at fortissimo).
Maestro Gary Fagin, prolific composer and conductor of the Bucks County Symphony since 2002, can pinpoint a cause for this paradigm shift: technology. “We are now able to access music from any culture, any time period, anywhere in the world,” he says. “The playing field has been leveled.”
And on the flat, undiscriminating record disc, this was literally true.
From this unprecedented access to music, an entire industry developed. Companies churned out new works at prestissimo pace, but with a new, underlying purpose: profit. Listening to music now a push-button, once-and-done affair, capable of determining the fates of even the largest music corporations, a song had to capture an audience immediately to keep food on a musician’s table.
“You have all these styles tailored towards likeability, whereas classical music was structured on complexity and a deeper level of understanding” says Scott Hensil, orchestra teacher at CB South. But complexity made for a costly tune; major cuts had to be made. Symphonic form, simplified, distilled down to just a few, pleasant chords on endless repeat; length, shortened tenfold, from fifty minutes to five; lyrics, the SparkNotes for music, added in to ensure understanding. And the eventual result? Pop. Hensil compares it to Burger King and Chipotle: tasty, accessible to the general population. “Just like not everybody understands the fine culinary arts of great eating, not everybody understands the fine art of classical music. You have to build to that.”
Let’s face it: teens prefer listening to Beyoncé over Beethoven. It’s simply easier. But only 6% actually consuming classical as they would any other genre is still surprising. To put that into perspective, for the Bucks County Symphony to fill a mid-size auditorium with enough interested teenagers, it would have to advertise to over 8,800 of them. It’s no wonder they need philanthropic support.
However, out of the other 94% surveyed, only 12% hated classical music with a passion, as per the stereotype. The rest are just about indifferent, their opinions flexible. And through the rest, orchestras hear a pianissimo hope to keep themselves solvent for the future.
Most musicians agree on a solution: exposure. Over half of the teens who don’t like classical music blame its slowness and lack of lyrics. They’re flat out wrong. (Ever heard of opera?)
And where to start? Education.
Thirty one percent of teens don’t like classical because it’s not hip, not relatable, and not comfortable. School music programs, fundamental to building appreciation of it, could be the key to dispel that preconceived notion and get teens more relaxed with classical. Almost half of those who already liked it were in a music program. “By the time people graduate from the orchestra class, the number of listeners to classical is significantly higher, even if it is only what I exposed them to,” says Hensil. Even if students don’t get hooked, going through orchestra class still gives them a more accurate perception of classical music from which to base their opinions.
Cox and Fagin have also had successes in exposure. For Cox, a band trip to a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal left his students mesmerized. For Fagin, public school performances with his orchestra players showed kids a side of classical they never knew existed. Emphasizing the importance of keeping an open mind, he suggests that, for teens to get interested, they should listen to the big names in classical—Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms—and expand out from there. “If I were able to get every kid I could to stand where I stand and listen to a full symphony orchestra play fifteen seconds of a Tchaikovsky symphony finale, believe me, they’d be blown away.”
But perhaps one unexpected form of exposure crescendos above the rest in terms of success and lucrativeness: movies in concert. “What I actually see is that classical music left the concert hall and went into the theaters, the movies,” says Hensil. Their brilliant scores disguised as simple soundtrack all this time, great composers like John Williams are the new face of classical. The music from Star Wars is just one of countless examples. Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite, the source for John William’s inspiration, is at its heart and soul. Hearing the movie in concert and a short classical encore could serve as a stepping stone, a gradual build-up to the real thing.
Brian Cox sees teens’ interest in classical music as a pendulum, swinging away as interest slumped for most of the twentieth century. Now, he urges, it’s time for change.
“We have to start pushing the pendulum back in the right direction.”