TAITMAIL Our children are leading us back to orchestral music

This is to be the third and the last in our series on music in the community, focussing today on a symphony orchestra’s research into audiences, but first the BBC…

The BBC is the most influential cultural entity in the world through its broadcasting but also through its five orchestras and choir, but with the swingeing 20% cut of its professional musicians in the Beeb’s frenzied government-directed cost-cutting – including the disbanding of the famous BBC Singers after almost a century – Auntie’s managers are reversing that influence in the toxic culture that seems to be gripping and choking the poor old centenarian. How Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer, can call the decision “bold, ambitious, and good for the sector and for audiences who love classical music” defeats me. The day of the announcement was a very dark one for the BBC, for music and for music lovers.

Back to the script. Before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Cadogan Hall concert got under way on March 2, Jonathan Ayling, the orchestra’s co-principal cello, got up and spoke to the audience, a task that would normally fall to the conductor or, more often these days, more distantly left to the programme notes. He introduced the orchestra and the star performer, the pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (pictured here with the orchestra) who is the RPO’s current artist-in-residence and was to perform Dohnányi's Variations on a Nursery Song, a joyful and inclusive piece of classical music 

Except that in the RPO’s developing audience-inclusive persona (of which allowing Ayling to emerge as a real person rather than an anonymous component of a well-oiled machine is a small part), the orchestra doesn’t play “classical” music. It’s “orchestral”: classical can be perceived as elitist, excluding, perpetuating a high-brow projection the RPO has a mission to dispel, says its managing director, James Williams, to enfold new audiences; “orchestral” covers multiple genres 

Ostensibly wanting to know why the number of pupils taking GCSE music was tumbling, Williams and the RPO commissioned a report from the data analysts Maru/Blue and got rather more than they were expecting. The report has just been published as A time to look forward: Trends of engagement with orchestral music  after a survey of 2,000 people across the country, and it’s come up with some startling trends pointed up by the pandemic and the post-Covid period.

More people are listening to orchestral music as part of their daily lives, especially young people 

More people are listening to orchestral music while doing other things - running, working, cooking, gardening – while listening during a commute has fallen away.

Nearly 80% want to explore unfamiliar music.

Young people are more interested in performing than their parents were, from podcasting to teaching themselves to play an instrument.

Boundaries are becoming blurred. There’s an increase in the number of “core-classical” music fans turning to film music.

Since the pandemic more children are listening to music while doing their homework, and when they are relaxing.

Two in five children want music lessons in schools, and a quarter of primary school pupils rising to a third in secondary schools said there was no encouragement in school to learn an instrument.

Low-income families have a strong appreciation of orchestral music but are not encouraged to experience it let alone play. 

Those in rural communities are among the most engaged, but their children get little encouragement at school.

Williams interprets the data as showing a new appetite for live performance and doing things as a community. “People want an event” he says. “They relish the joy at coming together in a shared experience”. There’s a desire to connect more, and Jonathan Ayling and his colleagues stepping up out of the crowd is part of that. The perceived barriers that seem to make concerts forbidding are just that – perceptual. There is no rule forbidding listeners expressing their appreciation with applause between movements, and you are certainly not required to wear evening dress with orchestras now casually clad for most of their work. The report, he says, is a way of listening to audiences. “We’re thinking more and more about how we communicate with audiences - and more importantly, what we communicate” he says. “So this is as much about listening as communicating. We hear from politicians and teachers and educators, but we don’t often hear from the people themselves”.

Covid appears to have had a profound influence on our appreciation of orchestral music and the concert hall is only one channel for it. Pre-pandemic music played little if any part in the workplace, but working from home and improved digital technology has changed that with music accompanying us not just as we work alone but as we go about the rest of our lives.

Film music is also orchestral and there is a growing appreciation of it, with film music concerts increasingly popular. And our children are getting familiar with orchestral music in their streaming outlets and their gaming, but getting no music teaching in their classrooms.

Happily the report is in tune with what the RPO is already doing in its residency with the borough of Brent, where it is targeting low-income neighbourhoods to offer cut-price tickets to selected concerts, such as evenings of film music.

But no orchestra can do anything about music teaching in schools. “We’re here to support, enhance, inspire but not to deliver education” he says. “That requires proper investment and commitment from the Department for Education. That’s why we wanted this research” 

He says that the RPO and the other orchestras, the Association of British Orchestras, the Musicians’ Union and the Independent Society of Musicians lobby politicians constantly, and reports like this provide data which is what the Treasury can work with. The initiative, though, should be with the culture and education departments, and Williams sees a disconnect between DfEd and DCMS as they strive for the same outcomes in different ways and shackled by insufficient funding. “Together” he says “they might actually be able to make the impact that’s required”. Yet there is no inkling of a change in attitude from Whitehall or Westminster in this week’s Budget.

More profitable, Williams thinks, is to cultivate civil servants who are not hide-bound by the electoral cycle and have much deeper knowledge than their elected masters.

The report, he says, reverses the narrative of falling audiences and lessening interest in orchestral music. “Orchestral interest is clearly growing, young people have told us so, but while talent is everywhere opportunity is not. What we’re finding from this survey is that young people are seeing that now, but we need a proper sustained plan from government. And the political will to make these things happen”.

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