Stories Classical Music’s Soccer Problem

By Ricky O’Bannon

Classical music is grappling with a problem that has long befuddled soccer supporters in the United States.

Many kids play the sport in recreational and competitive leagues growing up, but as that generation ages, their early participation doesn’t translate into adult fandom. Likewise, even when arts education is being pared back, American children participate in classical music education at a far greater rate than adults attend classical concerts.

The median age of classical concert attendees increased from 40 in 1982 to 49 in 2008 ,and while audiences grew more ethnically diverse according to 2012 data from the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of audiences over 55 continued to reach 36 percent.

For music teachers, connecting what kids are doing in a band or orchestra hall to what happens in a concert hall is difficult, but community outreach from professional or university ensembles can help bridge that gap.

“The higher institutions need to make that effort to reach out, and get [to] those students who [have] that special interest and really capitalize on it,” said Mark St. Pierre. “I'm living proof. It turned my life completely around.”

St. Pierre was one of 31 K-12 teachers who participated in a recent weeklong Music Educators’ Academy, which included side-by-side rehearsals and master classes with musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conducting classes with New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Case Scaglione.

He credited outreach and opportunities to audition for private lessons with the Peabody Institute at John Hopkins and involvement with the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra for encouraging him to pursue music and then become a teacher for Baltimore County Public Schools. There are some opportunities, he said, but accessibility is key for teachers like him to be able to train not just the next generation of performers but the next audience that will listen to them.

“Music is sometimes not taught [to make] everybody a musician, but to appreciate music. And through music appreciation, it will... allow us to keep playing music,” said St. Pierre. “If people don't know what they're supposed to be listening for and how to get enjoyment from it, then we become obsolete. … I don't want to see us go the way of the CD, tape or record.

“For today's kids, we're competing with everything — video games, Internet, social issues, family issues — and to be able to reach them at a musical level, it's difficult,” he said. “I think in the past you could tell a child that you could aspire to become a part of an ensemble much like the BSO. Today that's the last thing on their mind.”

Krystal Williams teaches music for KIPP Baltimore Schools and said part of the challenge is exposing students to a instruments and a style of music that they are unlikely to see at home and to show them that they are welcome.

“It’s not just about students coming to the concert and going back to their school,” she said. “It brings them into a world that they may have never been invited. And I have to say invited because if it's not replicated in their community, it has no meaning.”

Many of her students, Williams said, might never see a clarinet where they live outside of her classroom. Having opportunities to show them what their instruments can sound like makes the music more accessible and opens them up to learning about the context of a piece they might play and what is being communicated.

“You could listen to anything and say ‘that's good.’ But once you have an understanding, and have an idea of what the composer was thinking, and what was happening at the time — when you have those connections it makes it more tangible,” Williams said. “I wouldn't want to play football if I had never seen a football game. I could read a book about football, and it's not the same feeling as watching someone throw a ball down the field and someone else catch it.”

Lisa Free, who teaches for Baltimore City Public Schools, outreach programs that connect music programs with classical institutions can also help educate parents, who might not have any experience with classical music, particularly on a professional level.

“That's why having the partnerships with the BSO and the school districts is so important because it does educate parents when they see their kids participating … because sometimes parents don't believe it is achievable,” she said. “As a product of Baltimore city, myself, being raised by a single mom, she [said], ‘You're going to do what as a living? Why don't you get a nice job? Be a nurse.’”

For parents who don’t see members of their community involved in orchestral music, Williams said the unknown can scare them and discourage their children from getting more involved with classical music. But when institutions get involved and provide opportunities, that can change.

“It's a fear factor with them, because they don't want their kid —­ their pride and joy — to be a struggling musician,” Williams said. “But it's attainable to be a successful musician or music educator. … It’s for everyone. It surpasses economic levels, education levels, race, everything. Everyone is represented.”