How Do We Fix Classical Music? Here's What You Told Us.

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Can classical music still reach people today? Its countless devotees have plenty of ideas. Getty Images hide caption

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Grand Piano On A Sandbar

Can classical music still reach people today? Its countless devotees have plenty of ideas.

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Ten days ago, we posed the question: What's broken in classical music, and how do we fix it? We asked you, along with a few prominent musicians, to ponder that question and come up with a few thoughts and crafty ideas. And, heavens to Beethoven, you came up with a lot — hundreds of solutions, criticisms, praises and personal stories.

From how to rename classical music and enliven the repertoire, to concert attire and music education (to name just a few), the scope of topics was especially broad and thoughtful.

But one overarching sentiment made me feel hopeful: The responses were terrifically passionate. While it's clear that the relevance of classical music will always be arguable, the devotion of its countless fans is steadfast.

Below, I've gathered a rather large group of responses over the last week and a half, divided into categories when possible.

"Defining Classical Music: What Is It"

"Fretful Finances"

"The Concert Experience"

"Composers And Compositions"

"General Overhaul And Repertoire"

And there's no need to let the discussion die here. Please leave your thoughts (once more), in the comments section.


"Defining Classical Music: What Is It"

In response to composer David Lang's post about renaming classical music.

Donald Harrold (poetman1945) wrote:

Leonard Bernstein tried to correct the misuse of the term "classical music" in a young people's concert more than 50 years ago — the correct use referring to the period of Haydn-Mozart-early Beethoven. No luck there. "Serious" or "composed music" doesn't work either, though closer. We can always fall back on Ellington's two kinds of music: good and bad — if you're willing to back up what you're classifying. But then classifying seems to be the real problem — for which we can all thank Aristotle. "Music" is all there is — but of course we can't all agree even on a definition of that.

George Heathco (gmoneymcfly2k) wrote:

I don't think anyone wants to dumb classical music down to anything. The only thing in question is the term "classical," which for many is an outdated and misleading label.

The words "artistically sophisticated and enduring" can be applied to so much music that spans well beyond the realm of classical music. Those words could easily describe a Wynton Marsalis septet album, a Bjork song, a piece by Mason Bates, or even a mix by Girl Talk. It is as though musicologists and other "true musical scholars" completely overlook the fact that Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, Byrd, and countless others wrote lots of music in popular dance styles.

What about the music of China, India, Turkey, South Africa or other countries and cultures? A lot of these cultures adhere to predominately monophonic textures, yet are artistically sophisticated and enduring. Though we might refer to Hindustani music as "North Indian Classical," I have never seen it appear on a program of Western chamber music. Labels work as cheap marketing tactics, but don't serve music well at all.

Samuel Landry (Le_Berger) wrote:

The making of music is the making of music — from the tribes of wherever hitting on whatever all the way to the most intricate scherzo. The greatest and most imaginative modernist and postmodern composers were those that embodied this vision.

There is no such thing as classical music, or anyway it's so broad a terminology and encompasses so many diametrically opposed and utterly different things all at once, that to believe it is a rigid classification with selective prerequisites is entering a world of elitism which there is very little room for in today's society.

I personally am intrinsically convinced that the genres or classifications of music are labels added on top of it, guidelines, conceptualizations, helpful tools of communication. But the more validity we grant them, and the more we become restrained in terms of compositional freedom, and that is a very sad thing.

Setting out to make this kind or that kind of music is at best a directed and concerted effort, and at worst a hindrance to creative freedom. I repeat, the making of music is the making of music.

Tristan Eckerson (T_Eckerson_Music2010) wrote:

The term "classical" music in and of itself is a problem. What is it? More importantly, what is "contemporary Classical?" Kind of an oxymoron, right? I see a lot of mention in the comments about Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, etc. YAWN... they're old dudes. I live in San Francisco, and I'm a composer, and yet I rarely want to go to the Symphony because of the old, conservative, elitist programming. What about Johann Johannsson, Ades, Gabriela Montero, Brooklyn Rider, Philip Glass, etc.? Even some Ravel and Gershwin would be nice. Debussy-where you at? Gabriela Montero, who improvises on Bach and is a classical pianist, is playing at the SF JAZZ festival this season. That says a lot. Liszt was a ROCK STAR! Back when Mozart was composing, orchestras were playing his scores as soon as the ink was dry, and people loved it. It reflected the current culture, feelings, politics, etc. (well, maybe not Mozart, but you get the idea.) What now? Even in San Francisco, the symphony audience is probably 80% Elite Caucasians age 50+ on any given night. Modernize! Drop the opus numbers and antiquated terminology. Rock out! Make "Classical" music interesting & new. As Wayne said in the "Contemporary Classic" film Wayne's World, "Live in the Now!"


"Fretful Finances"

Jim Willard (jwills) wrote:

I really think ticket prices are a problem. If I wish to attend the symphony with my wife, I must pay nearly $300-$400 for two seats. That makes it tough to attend regularly as I wish I could. I appreciate the LA Phil and their theater broadcasts a lot because of this. Attending the symphony isn't quite the same in a broadcast but the cost is more like $40 for the two of us. I understand budgets are tight and to pay all of the musicians the ticket prices must be high. But what if the groups gave more frequent concerts at lower prices? Or if there were the occasional sales or specials on ticket prices on occasional shows to help out? I personally would rather pay $20 to see a college orchestra than give up a paycheck on a couple of shows from a larger, more professional group. The economy is hard on all of us — not just the symphony orchestras.

Veronica M (VeronicaM) wrote:

I play in a community symphony. Last season we played much of the same repertoire as the professional symphony in town with just as much accuracy, and we had a full house every concert. I think one of the things that kept our audiences full was that our ticket prices were a fraction of what the professional symphony charges. As well, our symphony is an embedded part of the community and has a lot of support from the locals. For what I can see, our symphony is doing pretty well.

What I see as the issue here is for-profit symphonies. Those players have high degrees and often have to supplement their symphony jobs with teaching just to make ends meet. How do you pay 100 players a wage relative to their education level, let alone all other operational costs, without charging more than $75 a ticket? How does a professional symphony that has to charge this much money just to survive compete with the same size non-profit symphony playing the same music that charges less than $20 to get in the door?

In my opinion, more people would go to the symphony if they knew there were talented community orchestras around that cost as much as an afternoon at the movies. For me it's not the art form that's dying – it's the professional musician.

Sylvia Edwards (traveller512) wrote:

"It's the economy, Stupid!" And because economic problems of one scale or another are nearly always cyclical, I have hope that this time will also pass and a recovering or resurgent general economy will result in robust support for all the arts once again.

Artists deserve fair compensation for their talents and investments in musical development and training, plus the costs of acquiring scores and instruments. On the other hand, capturing the interest (and future loyalty) of young audiences is key. Not all young people have enough disposable income to afford regular attendance at classical music performances, nor are such live venues available in broad swathes of this country.

Take heart, however. My teenage son has 75 full-length operas loaded into his iPod and they are his "go-to" choice on road trips and flights. He is equally interested in languages, statistics, economics, classics, government, and mathematics. On a recent visit to Boston to compete in a Quiz Bowl tournament, the highlight of his trip was attending a concert of the Boston Symphony. He is the future audience classical music needs to cultivate because, while he will not be one of the performers, he will be one of the season's subscribers for many years to come.

John Holenko (HungryMonk) wrote:

I wonder why everyone thinks that there should be orchestras everywhere? The Symphony Orchestra is very odd combination of instruments that is unique to the 18th and 19th century Western classical music tradition. It has almost never supported itself. Whether funded by the church, the royal court, academic institutions, or corporate underwriting, the modern orchestra has never existed on its own in the marketplace. How could it? It's way too big and requires way too much feeding. Ticket sales do not support orchestras. Our music schools are turning out thousands of musicians trained to play orchestral music and then sent out into a world that does not support their skills. We must make a distinction between "classical" music (or whatever we decide to call it), and orchestral music. They are not the same thing. Orchestras trying to reach out through pops concerts, young people's concerts, and the like, will always miss the mark if they don't play good, meaningful music. (to me that means new music, but that's just me).


"The Concert Experience"

In response to pianist Leif Ove Andsnes' post about a more comfortable concert experience.


Charles Harris (CalSun) wrote:

The "standard" classical music performance is fast becoming a boring anachronism for most people in our "up-close-and-personal" age. I believe audiences don't dislike "art music" (for lack of a better term), they just can't relate to it, for several reasons.

First, music education has virtually disappeared from our schools. Second, the atmosphere of a "standard" classical music performance is isolated and impersonal. Third, the performance takes place in an intellectual vacuum; the performer (often, as Mr. Andsnes says, dressed in old-fashioned clothes) walks onto a distant stage, plays, then walks off, the end.

Some possible remedies: Why/how did the artist choose the programmed works? What's the artist's relationship to the composer(s)? What are some of the challenges in performing these works/composers? What are the historical/social contexts surrounding these works? What are some salient aspects of the composer's life that may have influenced these particular works? One nice approach can be heard in Andras Schiff's lectures on the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Michael Reingold (MichaelinNewYork) wrote:

It was a funny coincidence that I read Mr. Andsnes' comments about some people feeling uncomfortable going to hear classical music in a concert hall — right when I got back from hearing a wonderful house concert featuring a terrific young violin and piano duo.

A group of about 16 of us were treated to an evening of Ysaye, Beethoven and Ravel (and wine & cheese and a great view) in an intimate, social setting. A bunch of the people in the audience were not active concertgoers and most had never been to a house concert before. I'm confident that they enjoyed the house concert experience much more than they would have enjoyed hearing the same program in a recital hall.

I have presented close to 100 classical house concerts in New York over the past 6 years and I'm always impressed by how much audience members, performers and hosts love them. While they can't replace the concert hall experience, they are a great introduction and treat for many people.

Eli Bensky (ebhb2004) wrote:

Young people today are interested in 2-4 minute "songs." How about an orchestra distributing MP3s of classical hits, e.g. the opening of Beethoven's 5th or Orff's "O Fortuna," and then having a free program that that plays the movement of the work that comes from (not the whole work), creating the "Ah-ha" moment, letting let the students come up front like a mosh pit at a concert, instead of sitting in boring seats. Of course this implies a conductor who speaks the students' language and can communicate with them, honestly.

John Holenko (HungryMonk) wrote:

If I were the musical director of an orchestra (and I do work cheap), the first thing I would do is have a tuxedo burning concert and put it on YouTube. Go!


"Composers And Compositions"

In response to posts by composers Missy Mazzoli and Jennifer Higdon about the state of today's composers


Ken Field (kennykeys) wrote:

As a composer myself, this is an issue I struggle with on a daily basis. I have composed both classical "art" music from avant-garde (performed by the Kiev Chamber Choir) to minimalistic. I also do alternative rock which I play, write and sing. I have two MySpace sites — one devoted to my 'art' music and one devoted to my alternative music.

Why haven't I blended my music into one unitary style? The issue intrigues me, but it is not as easy as it would seem. The "art" music appeals to my intellectual, analytical side. It is more planned out, has more inner structure, and yes, I use Latin sometimes. My alternative music appeals to my emotional, more uninhibited side. Less thought goes into the music, it is more improvisatory, and more heart is evident.

I think many listeners are divided in the same way — head vs. heart. I don't think we can say that one is "better" than the other, because we are all different. I agree that the composer should not feel pressure to conform to any particular style or trend, that "simple" is okay, but complexity is okay too if that is how the composer is driven.

Tom Makeig (Opervati) wrote:

G.B. Shaw said the greatest ideas are born as blasphemies and die as dogma. So it goes with the innovations of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. There is a young generation of musicians and listeners who are ready to be transported by anything, if it's compelling. The only real difference between a "composer" and a songwriter is in the degree of challenge the composer is willing to issue to a listener. Contemporaries freaked out over Beethoven's late quartets, and they were right to! It's audacious stuff. Today it might sound more familiar, unless you really listen to it. A composer asks to be really listened to. That's the only distinction I can make between popular and classical music. So compose what you love and expect us to really listen.

Michael Chang (goldenmean) wrote:

I remember being asked to play in a string quartet for a composition student to showcase his most recent work. It was nothing more than 5 to 10-bar sustained cacophonous triads with some crescendi and decrescendi and an occasional tri-tone shocker. Yes, funding for music education is paltry, and yes, we need to support up and coming composers, but nobody's going to give a #%#@! if your music does not appeal to them.

I'll take old brilliant "stuffy music" (Beethoven quartet, Brahms sonata, Prokofiev piano concerto, Mahler symphony) or more contemporary, brilliant, heart-thumping, ADHD-friendly creations (Radiohead, the Dead, Animal Collective, Old Crow) any day over something that is academically sound and trying so hard to make an impact but simply does not stimulate dopamine release in me noggin. Even Jonny Greenwood, quite respect-worthy, has written some symphonic-based music (score for There Will Be Blood) that is incredibly moving but could not reasonably capture a live audience because it's written for a movie, not a show. I suppose there's something to be said for pleasing oneself as a composer, being true to one's art, but the audience needs to be made happy, whether they're in a suit or skinny hipster jeans.

Tharen Wilder (K187) wrote:

First off, let me say I personally love a good deal of classical music, and have, in the past, worked as a classical music announcer on the radio.

The answer as to what mainly plagues classical music was given decades ago by Leonard Bernstein. He spoke at length about how the symphony halls had become museums. In other words, they were simply elegant places (sometimes) that housed a bunch of artifacts — in this case, a relatively small handful of pieces that had withstood the test of time and had built cache.

Despite great efforts, there has been virtually no new "classical" or orchestral music written for the concert hall in the past 50 years or so that's had any discernable impact on the culture at large. There's been a great deal of music for film or Broadway stage that's caught on, but the same can't be said for symphonies, concertos, etc.

The current audience for classical music is aging, and it is not being replaced with a younger audience. It's a funny time. On the one hand, there are more ways than ever before to access classical music. Often times, some of the most popular downloads at online file-sharing sites are classical music pieces. But while there's a niche, there's not a sustainable core audience there.

Erin Bell (Eleisabelle) wrote:

My husband is an elementary school music teacher, as well as the director of a couple of local choirs, and a composer.

Yesterday, for his 3rd graders, he played two very different pieces of music: a song by the Gipsy Kings, and a movement from Arvo Pärt's Berliner Messe (1990). A lot of these kids would never have been exposed to Pärt, and the musical language they understand is very different from what they heard.

According to DH, the kids enjoyed the Pärt a lot, and were able to come up with some interesting similarities between the dichotomous pieces.

Similarly, DH wrote a piece that one of his adult choirs performed recently. It's new, and while the language is not as far beyond the understanding of an audience as some might think new music would be, it still incorporates current music theory. Nevertheless, there were comments that it was the most interesting piece the choir performed that night, in a concert that included Vivaldi's Gloria and "A Musicological Journey Through The Twelve Days of Christmas."

We can pick up new musical language. It might take a little longer for adults than for kids, but with a little willingness to be exposed to it, we can grow into the exciting music that's being made right now.

Geoff Gallegos (Stravingus) wrote:

I'm happy to see this topic going. One reader mentioned the importance of marketing to the under-30 crowd, which I agree with. I think the fundamental need is to program music that has a relevance to the living audience.

Whether it be commissioning pieces from living composers, or programming concerts that more accurately reflect the musical taste of the times. I'm not saying to abandon the Shostakovich cycles or the Beethoven Nines, but to add shows that will get new bodies in the door, and create an interest in symphonic music, and possibly open the hearts of those who otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to the genre.

I run a hip-hop orchestra in L.A. called daKAH. We do original pieces, as well as orchestrated approaches to classic hip-hop tracks. Over the last decade, the orchestra has ended up providing an important service to symphonic music. While what we do could be considered relatively simple to the seasoned ear, it is incredibly complex and exciting to someone who has never checked out the genre. I'm happy to function as a gateway drug to classical music, and in the process, help to create a group of concertgoers who otherwise wouldn't be there.


"General Overhaul And Repertoire"


Kelsey Schoenbaum (kschoen) wrote:

I think the problem is people don't know how to really listen to music anymore. What I mean is this: You have to think about and pay attention to classical music; it requires concentration and patience to get the most out of it. It's not spoon-fed to you as it is in mainstream pop and rock, and I happen to believe that 90% of people who buy such music don't actually pay attention to it when they play it. They put it on in the background, and go on with their lives. As a result, there's an entire population of people who literally don't know *how* to listen to music, and you have to be listening to hear a cadence, or a counter-melody, or any of the countless things that make classical music worth listening to. It's no wonder, then, that most people peg classical music as long-winded, incomprehensible, and of course, boring. And once they've categorized it like that, people never give it a second chance. And they certainly won't attend a live concert, where classical music really comes alive.

The solution? Better music education in the schools, I think. If we teach our children how to listen to and appreciate classical music, have greater intelligence, longer attention spans, and not to mention lives greatly enriched by music.

Paul Gambill (OrchestraRemix) wrote:

Orchestras are in the business of engaging and inspiring audiences. Surveys prove that audiences are shrinking, so orchestras need to change their product line to recapture their standing the hottest, must-see, can't-miss event in town. But not everything needs to change.

Traditional programming that serves our sustaining audiences should continue. Along with those traditional concerts, orchestras need a new product line to attract those that don't care about traditional programs. The iPod generation is all about shuffling and unique playlists. The monochromatic concerts that are the staple of most orchestras are all about yesterday. We need to create programs that you can't get downloaded or streamed.

Hybrid classical works and programming are breaking down the barriers between what most orchestras place in classical and pops boxes. And young, new audiences are paying attention. Let's stop thinking about what "classical" work could fit alongside Beethoven 5, and start thinking about what music, of any style, could engage audiences to be inspired by Beethoven 5 in a program that challenges them to discover something new about themselves and their world. Isn't that why we came to love classical music in the first place?

Jason Wietlispach (capnreverb) wrote:

I host the last remaining classical music program in Milwaukee, Wis. on Sunday afternoons. It seems kind of strange that one of the country's largest cities has been reduced to three hours of this music once a week.

I believe a lot of it comes down to exposure. In Chicago, where I grew up in the '70s and '80s, the classical stations played little to none of anything challenging. I would have given up on the genre completely if I had not had the good fortune of working at used record stores. Only there was I exposed to interesting and life changing music by artists such as Giacinto Scelsi and Alfred Schnittke.

Now at least there is the internet and YouTube, which makes getting the classical music bug so much easier to get. Now if I fall in love with an artist such as [Romanian-French composer Horatiu] Radulescu, I can go online and learn of others like him. Twenty years ago that would have been a lot harder, if not next to impossible.

I think that the powers that be that control radio play did a disservice by basically turning classical radio into a top forty of Mozart, Haydn, and other pre-1900 composers. I know plenty of my peers whose whole insight into classical music would have been more inspired by hearing artist like Steve Reich, Morton Feldman and Xenakis instead. Gloria Coates, anyone?

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