Thoughts on “The State of American Orchestras” and What We Can Do About It

Tell a Friend

Related articles


This was originally drafted as a comment on Raquel’s fantastic article titled “The State of American Orchestras”, though its length quickly lent itself to a response post. Please read Raquel’s article here and comment on her page as well.


I have for a long time thought that the listener base of orchestras is literally dying off.

That is, the group that is most commonly associated with ‘going to the symphony’ are the elderly, many of which are either no longer able to go due to financial and health problems, or, and please forgive the harsh language, literally dying.

This is simply not being replenished by younger listeners. The problem is in this persona itself.

Problems with music education

Beginning with our youth in the school system, classical music is taught in a very unfavorable manner. Students almost never elect these courses, rather they are shoved down students throats as a method of “music appreciation”.

Lessons often resemble a history lecture, and students end up memorizing names and dates rather than making connections to modern music and the learning the importance of what they are hearing.

In basic terms, the kids don’t care, and the way the subject is taught equals another old person yapping about the classics. Modern techniques of reflection and creative thinking have been lost in this field.

Orchestra = museum?

A similar phenomenon happens to 20 and 30 year olds, to a lesser extent, who have nothing to get them interested in the music.

This group will also see the orchestra more as a museum visit than an actual evening of entertainment, such as a movie or a bar would be.

Video game generation

Video games have been growing in popularity in these young adults for ten or more years. Scores for games are more and more likely to be played by full orchestras, as the trend for movie scores leans toward sequencing and computer production.

Why then, are public orchestras unable to accept video game music into their repertoire as they have with movie scores?

Outdated concert experience

A classical pianist friend of mine once commented to me after seeing one of my shows,

Why do bands get to play at bars, with people drinking and dancing, while I have to play in a concert hall in total silence?

Indeed, the form itself seems archaic. Modern attitudes towards music and society are trending away from etiquette and social norm, and towards personalization and individualism.

Proper attire and politeness in a concert setting are a major turn off for younger listeners. Great musicianship is still appreciated by this age group, but lost on music they cannot connect to.

Gaining the interest of the youth

It is my belief that expanding the listener base of an orchestra must involve gaining the interest of younger members of society, not merely of society as a whole.

These listeners will inevitably age, and as long as groups change to find new young listeners, the public acceptance of orchestral music that we once held will return.

Although breaking the customs of the historical orchestra may seem like a disgrace to a great art form, Raquel’s noted trend of “bankruptcy, strike, bankruptcy, bankruptcy” seems to be the biggest disgrace of them all.

6 Responses to “Thoughts on “The State of American Orchestras” and What We Can Do About It”

  1. Jon Gorrie says:

    Great follow-up article!

  2. Kat O'Kane says:

    I’m willing to bet that symphonic attendance has a higher ratio of youths:eldery in areas like Boston where many Mass colleges have music majors/where Berklee is located. Also, it depends on the time of year… for my high school, we were heavily dependent on our music program (I know, weird for a public school) – subsequently many of us would take trips to Boston to see the symphony. And what is your definition of an orchestra – TransSiberian does pretty well for itself attracting younger audiences. Empirical data for this is hard to come by – most venues don’t ask for age information when selling tickets unless they have a senior discount option. To get data on this, I’d either look at rates of senior discount or actually do case studies on specific, high volume halls – a few days in the week and a weekend day and maybe count 1/10 tickets to provide yourself with some evidence of this.

    Though I would tend to agree with your opinion on how music education is presented, for my high school in particular, music was the one creative thing we were allowed to do, and all of us loved it. Almost half of the district was involved in music in some way, and something like 95% of students that were in band actually went on to college. Many of these were also music majors at local universities, some even going to Berklee. I really have a hard time thinking students don’t enjoy music because of their education but rather with the culture of popular music. Pachelbel’s cannon still gets awarded grammy’s (think Hey Soul Sister), and Ben Folds, Arcade Fire, Radiohead and other more theory-based bands generally run off concerts rather than high volume airplay.

    My guess is people don’t appreciate complication, and the simpler something is to listen to, the simpler it is to enjoy. Back in the Baroque period, most people didn’t listen to these composers. They were enjoyed by the well-to-do at social gatherings, and that is still mostly what Symphonies represent. Bringing textured music to the masses has always been a rare feat.

  3. Kat, thanks for your comments. I get the feeling that Boston is an exception to this phenomenon, as there are a high number of colleges, specifically music and arts colleges, in the area. Perhaps that is why it doesn’t seem to be victim to the troubles as the cities Raquel mentioned in her blog. Maybe feeding into my idea about activating young viewers, though not in the way I mentioned.

    I like your comment “…enjoyed by the well-to-do at social gatherings, and that is still mostly what Symphonies represent. Bringing textured music to the masses has always been a rare feat.” Interesting, that now these orchestras seem to be worse off than ever.

    Maybe it’s the well-to-do they should be catering to.

  4. Kat O'Kane says:

    I’m sure there are links to continuing education and parents as well. Both of my parents were involved in music, and I grew up appreciating it. Because the town I went to high school was so music centered, almost everyone’s parents were band-parents, and if you weren’t you were sort of an out-cast. Maybe the under-development of community sentiment is also a bit to blame as far as children are concerned. A lack of community spirit in the last 50 years or so has been blamed for a lot of disparities.. from nurturing racism to increasing violent crime. It wouldn’t surprise me if music was also a casualty of the destruction of community.

  5. Joe Young says:

    I wrote a little bit on this same subject. I think that some of the points in this article above are very true. It is a constant struggle to make classical music more appealing and fun to younger generations. I AM the younger generation, and I’m also a music student. So I can relate between the younger generation that DOES appreciate and those that DO NOT.

Leave a Reply

Recent articles

Brass Musician welcomes Kate Wohlman aboard as chief editor and newest contributor! Brass shows its mettle Relaunch of Iconic 1950’s Jazz Catalog, Bethlehem Records, Announced by Verse Music Group & Naxos of America Jon Sass Low Brass Seminars

Our contributors

Sponsored ads