Here’s a quick cultural pop quiz. 1.) Do you know who Vladimir Horowitz was? 2.) When was the last time you listened to Brahms’s 5th Symphony? 3.) How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Now here are the answers in the order the questions were asked. 1.) One of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th Century and, if the historical records before audio recordings are to be relied on, one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. 2.) It's a trick question; Brahms only wrote four symphonies. 3.) It’s an old joke — and the traditional answer to the question is “practice, practice, practice.” The updated answer to the traditional question is “does anybody really care anymore how you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Classical music has always had a tough time of it, particularly in America. But back in the 1940s and 50s, it was inconceivable that venerable institutions like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Opera would one day declare bankruptcy. But in our current era, bankruptcy is all too frequent a fate for classical music organizations.
The marketing appeal of classical music has not kept pace in an America that’s becoming increasingly multicultural…
The unvarnished truth is that symphony orchestras and operas survive the same way that NFL teams and mixed martial arts events survive — the filling of seats. The New Yorker captures the grim, comic truth of this music/sports analogy in a cartoon without a caption published today, that shows the image of people mulling outside a concert hall. The marquee reads: “Tonight – Philadelphia Orchestra vs. Pittsburgh Symphony.”
For those who demand more exposure to classical music for students in primary and secondary schools, economics is also a big deterrent. State and federal funding are scarcely available for schools looking to enrich their curricula through the music of the masters. And, as for local monies, funding for high school sports will invariably win out over for funding for arts education.
While students are best off learning to appreciate classical music for its own sake, it’s worth noting a number of studies offering evidence of enhanced cognitive skills in students who learn to read classical music and play an instrument. One study shows such students were able to increase their IQs by as much as seven points. The study of music was also shown to be tied to the ease in learning a foreign language and improved memory.
But it’s not simply economics at stake here. Our Internet age, with its easy answers and diversions, can prove a source of distraction. Learning classical music requires persistence and discipline, characteristics kids are only too willing to walk away from if they’re not closely supervised. The thinning out of audiences for the great composers starts at an early age. Record sales bear out this phenomenon. According to a recent article in Slate, “just 2.8% of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35%; R&B 18%; soundtracks 4%.”
Also, the marketing appeal of classical music has not kept pace in an America that’s becoming increasingly multicultural. If you go to any classical music concert, whether offered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on the east coast or the LA Phil on the west coast, what you’ll invariably discover is an audience of gray-haired white people.
It’s a hard pill for classical music musicians to swallow; but if their beloved art is to survive, what they have to do more frequently is to reach out — even at the cost of pandering. We need more musicians like Jherek Bischoff, who write music that fuses elements of classical music with rock. And orchestras need to market themselves to younger audiences through webcasts and other contemporary efforts.
Otherwise, classical music is doomed. Consider the case of one of the finest violinists in the world, Josh Bell. As an experiment a few years ago, he stood at a Washington, DC Metro stop, opened his violin case, laid it on the ground, took out his violin and began to play Bach. Nobody recognized him. Nobody stopped to listen. If this response to classical music persists, its dwindling audiences will soon become the ungrateful dead.