Lessons from Detroit

Anne Midgette’s recent blog posts “Orchestras and Outreach” and its follow-up post – and also this post by my Twitter friend, Cory Davis, got me thinking about whether or not music education has any affect on the number of people who attend classical orchestra concerts.

To start off, I must admit, I haven’t been to an orchestra concert in two years. And I’ve had many years of musical training.

It wasn’t always like this.

In college I attended a recital or concert nearly every night, many times, two in one evening. My friends and I would switch venues at intermission depending on what was on the program. Like Cory, I went to concerts because I wanted to hear friends, or friends of friends, or faculty who were performing or who had pieces being performed. I also went because the concerts were free. And finally I went because there were good times to be had post-concert. This was my social life.

Today I really have no excuse. I just don’t feel like going. In my opinion, at this point in my life, sitting in a crowded concert hall, with cramped seating, and listening to a long symphony by Bruckner or Neilsen can be uncomfortable and sometimes even boring.

Yet I’m happy to listen to Bruckner or Neilsen at home while reading about the composer online, following the score on IMSLP, or reading reviews of performances by various conductors and orchestras. I’d prefer to be free to pause the performance while I get up to get a glass of lemonade, or take a phone call, or talk to one of my kids. I like that I can repeat sections of the piece, or switch to another piece of music altogether. Believe it or not, sometimes I even watch an unrelated video while I listen to music (not often). Other times the music has my full attention. I also like to write blog posts while I listen to music. As a matter of fact I’m listening to cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, perform in yesterday’s final gala concert of the Tchaikovsky Competition as I write this blog post.

Just try to take the wrapper off a piece of candy in the concert hall!

Are our 21st century lives changing too drastically for us to ever be comfortable sitting and listening to concert hall performances whether or not we’re musically educated? Or are we looking at the end of an era and just don’t want to admit it? Are big concert halls and community orchestras destined to go the way of many large churches? Or for that matter, some of our large cities?


This morning I was reading about the new entrepreneurs who are rebuilding the city of Detroit. I Am Young Detroit is a movement of young creatives who are turning Detroit into the next Tribeca. From urban farms to pop-up shops, restaurants and bike shops,  a new generation is reinventing Detroit. Read about them in this article from the New York Times.

Maybe it’s time for orchestras to stop trying to squeeze more money from the usual donors, put a hold on the outreach, and stop trying so hard with the creative programming. What’s the worst that would happen if we just let things take their natural course?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a group of young musicians waiting in the wings to rebuild from the ground up with fresh new ideas that we can’t even begin to imagine.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Detroit

  1. For me, I consider myself a serious classical music deadhead, and even I have only attended maybe six live performances over the past couple years. I don’t think either of us needs to give an “excuse” though, or justify ourselves. In order to go to a live performance, especially on a weeknight, I need to:

    1) Take the entire latter half of the day off work. Driving ANYWHERE is a serious production in my part of the country, and this is a very urban, very developed area. Nevertheless, that’s half a day completely gone. For just me. Imagine that with a spouse and kids. Or if you worked an hourly-paid job.

    2) Sit on the freeway for quite possibly three hours. Not a typo.

    3) Pay to park.

    4) Drive home afterwards when it’s something like 10:30pm, I’m likely to get home at midnight, I have to go to work tomorrow, and I’m nearly dead from a combination of the work morning, the drive, and sitting at the concert. And I now have upwards of a 60 mile drive to look forward to. (Again, try that with a family.)

    No way in hades will I do that for anything shy of a concert so wonderful that I would be covered in a black cloud for the rest of my life for having missed it. I’ve done it for the following:

    1) Gabriela Montero. Joseph Mengele designed the parking at the Hollywood Bowl. I’m just saying.
    2) Andreas Scholl. I drove 90 miles to see that one.
    3) Time for Three. I was on the 91 freeway for 80 miles. In July.
    4) A Haendel opera. LA freeway hell, and that ticket was EXPENSIVE.

    In all of those cases, I would have collapsed in despair if I’d missed them. But not only was it a serious, serious inconvenience for me, but it would not have been doable with even a spouse much less a spouse and kids.

    And music education wouldn’t have helped. I had private piano lessons from the time I was very small, and grew up in a family that loved classical music. But three hours on the LA freeways is three hours on the LA freeways!

    And I’m not sure compulsory music education is the answer. It sure doesn’t seem to work regards making kids fall in love with the multiplication tables and “Silas Marner.” It’s last-resort thinking to imagine that we could force kids to love it if we just lock them in a room and shove it down their throats until they surrender. That just doesn’t work.

    Besides, the lack of school-based music education doesn’t keep anyone from loving all sorts of other music. Even classical. Lots of kids on YouTube practice all sorts of classical music on secondhand electric guitars. It’s just this one tiny, narrow mans of delivering it that’s suffering. The music itself is fine.

    • Exactly what I was thinking today while I was driving (and listening to music.) Classical music doesn’t seem to be the issue with concert attendance, it’s…as you say…”the means of delivering it.”

      On a somewhat related topic, I gave a clinic for a music teachers group last month and I was talking with one of the young people who was working the audio/visual. She was NOT a music teacher. She came up to me after I was finished and said she wanted to tell me she had classical, rock, jazz, everything on her iPod. All the music she liked…not divided by genre. She wanted to let me know that classical music was just as important to her as all the other types of music she listens to. It wasn’t in a separate category to be saved to special occasions.

      • Yes. It’s no different from other music … and that’s a tough thing for a genre that lives and dies by live performance. 😦 For most fans of a given rock band, seeing them live is a once-in-a-lifetime, very special thing. At least, it was when I was a kid. It was and is entirely possible to be a HUGE fan of any particular band without ever seeing them live. People who saw Journey at JFK in Philadelphia (the concert I missed and that I still feel nauseous over having missed nearly 30 years later) still talk about it like it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

        It’s hard. The aesthetic of live performance is a big part of what makes classical music unique. It’s not an autotuned, beat-detectived, we’ll-fix-it-in-post sort of music thank god. You do it right, then and there. That’s such a special, wonderful part of it. And here is this live delivery vehicle trying to survive in a world where seeing it live is not really doable. Or not always. Or is very, very special. Even fans of a given rock band don’t go to see them every month. Now rock bands tour, of course. But still, it’s entirely possible to be a complete balls-out fan of any band and never see them live. There are SO MANY ways to be a fan of other forms of music and participate in the culture without going to a concert.

        But people are talking about the possible death of the live symphony performance as the death of classical music in toto. Does the difficulty that the live performance industry is going through mean that classical music goes the way of pop and rock, where we’ve started to suffer from technologically created performances that can’t be created live, and hence we have performers miming to CDs and calling it a concert?

        I think maybe classical music could stand to market itself as a sort of “no additives no preservatives” type of stuff. Like a foodie movement for music …

  2. When I first went to a concert, it just made me realize how good musicians can be at their craft. I used to take piano lessons then and whenever I would come back from a concert, the next month or so I would just be drawn to my piano. So I think going for such concerts definitely gives you that push you require as a music student.

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