Saturday, October 6, 2012

Are Australian youth orchestras failing to develop tomorrow’s audience?

Being a bit of a music fan I often to the many concerts in Perth. If  it is a gig at the Ellington Jazz Club or as part of the Perth Festival, many of the people are my age or younger but when I go to a classical music concert and look out to those enjoying the performance, I can’t help but notice that, collectively, the audience is not looking so young any more.

Along with other forms of art such as ballet, classical music (and to some extent music education) seems to stir up socio-economic connotations that relegate it as bourgeois activity only available to the “elite”. As a result, opportunities for people to be exposed to music and to understand it seem to be limited.

There are few opportunities for people just to have a go.

This is a real shame because it is a genre that has many different styles and I am sure that if there were more opportunities to participate just for the fun of it, people would be more likely to buy tickets to watch the professionals play.

If we make it all about the elite we forget what music is really about.

The benefits of music of every kind have on people and communities are regularly spoken about. It inspires us, it also lifts our spirits and it helps us connect with others. The educational benefits for children of playing musical instruments of every kind and genres are well documented.

Australian Commentator Hugh MacKay’s pointed out that ‘learning to paint or write (in a class that creates its own sense of belonging), putting on plays and musicals, organising festivals, making movies, taking up photography.....singing in choirs, dancing, playing in bands....these are pathways to mental health for people whose daily lives are mostly spent in non-creative pursuit’ (2007:339).     

Since the health and social benefits of music are so obvious then why are opportunities segregated to the “gifted and talented” so soon?

Why the disproportionate focus on developing players rather than developing a wider appreciation of the art form?  

community orchestras, where people play for fun
One study that I looked at argued that, generally, Children exposed to the arts though a good quality art education programme are much more likely to have a lifelong participation in the arts (Kotler and Scheff: 513-529).

Would it be in the best interest of professional orchestras to improve the quality and reach of their education programmes so that that tomorrow’s adults actually want to pay to attend concerts?
Since one of my jobs as university student was as an Arts Administration Student with the Youth Orchestra here in Western Australia, I wonder how youth orchestras in Australia are ensuring the sustainability of the art form both in terms of players and of audiences.

For orchestras to be sustainable, they need people to buy tickets to see them perform.

At the moment in Australia the focus seems to be two fold. The focus can be split in to two unequal parts: “Player Development” and, to a lesser extent, “Outreach”/“Community Access”.

It is the overemphasis on the “Player Development” to the detriment of “Audience Development” that causes people to ask if Australian classical music is in crisis.

The problem is that Youth Orchestra Associations as well as many of the State Orchestras disproportionately work on developing the next generation of players rather than people who will come to listen.

My concern is that in 20 or 30 years there will be many orchestras full of gifted and highly trained players but no-one to watch them play because no-one other than these gifted musicians have been exposed to any kind of classical music.      

While there is nothing with elite musical training (because we all appreciate great players, including the synergy that occurs when they come together) but it is a lack of investment in those who will continue to buy tickets in the future that, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems facing the sector today.

The “outreach” part of the equation usually involve tokenistic performances aimed at pre-schoolers (aptly named “cushion concerts”) or the odd concert in school halls on the fringes of the metropolitan area. Kids are hardly going to hooked for like as a result of 40 minute concert.

But the thing is, while Youth Orchestras and other non-governmental arts organisations are the only ones with the responsibility for this but they are the central part of the solution.

There is an interesting article called “Actively Finding an Audience” Greg Sandow, argues that is defiantly worth a read but I posed him a question on the role of youth orchestras in improving the attendance at classical music concerts.

In his answer he described an interesting paradox where the youth orchestras in the states are thriving but ironically, this doesn't translate into people going to concerts

So, what are we going to do about it?

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) Musical Director and Lead Violin Richard Tognetti once said, in an interview on ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, “that if you look after the milk, the cream will rise to the top”.   

Meaning that if you widen the net of opportunity to a wider range of people, there is no reason gifted and talented will not reach great heights and continue to entertain us with their music.  

It is worth taking a look at some great but under-reported work done in this area. Both the ACO and Britain’s Orchestra of St John Smith Square actively run programmes for with kids who might not be future musicians but just to get them excited about music.

Pity that these sorts of programmes are small in comparison to what happens elsewhere in the world.

Take a look at the youth music programmes in the Berkshire area of England with something for all instruments and abilities. They seem to understand that playing music isn’t just something that should be enjoyed by those who are going to make it their profession but by everyone. 

As a result and as Kotler and Scheff argued, these programmes will have a lasting impact on those who participate in them including greater participation in music later in life.

It will be interesting to see if there will be any classical music when I am 85 years old and if I am the only one in the audience but I am sure it will work itself out, it has to.  Luckily there are lots of other kinds of music to be enjoyed and I look forward to tagging along with my nieces and nephew's children to whatever gigs will be on at the time.   


Kotler, Philip and Scheff, Joanne. Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1997) 

MacKay, Hugh. Advance Australia Where? (Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2007) 

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