We are the Music


The fastest-growing section on my bookshelf seems to be the autoethnography corner – researchers turning the lens on themselves and their own tribe. The latest addition to my collection, joining the ranks of Richard Hoggart, Lisa McKenzie, Kate Fox and al., is Marvin HarrisWhy Nothing Works, an “anthropology of daily life” published in 1981, digging deep to retrace the roots of everyday evil in contemporary America.

“This book is about cults, crime, shoddy goods, and the shrinking dollar. It’s about porno parlors, and sex shops, and men kissing on the streets. It’s about daughters shacking up, women on the rampage, marriages postponed, divorces on the rise, and no one having kids. It’s about old ladies getting mugged and raped, people shoved in front of trains, and shoot-outs as gas pumps. And letters that take weeks to get delivered, waiters who throw the food at you, rude sales help, and computers that bill you for things you never bought. It’s about broken benches, waterless fountains, cracked windows, dirty toilets, crater-filled roads, graffiti-covered buildings, slashed paintings, toppled statues, stolen books.”

Marvin Harris, ‘Introduction’, Why Nothing Works

How and why does all of this happen? The underlying causes of all these disparate problems are, according to Harris, centralisation, bureaucracy and oligopoly, the dark side of unfettered capitalism that ends up killing – in the name of maximising shareholder profit – the sense of initiative, quality control and efficiency that led to prosperity and progress in the first place.  

If the cause is centralisation, it would only be logical that the solution should be decentralisation (and Harris’ is always reassuringly logical, even when he turns upside down entrenched myths and rock-solid narratives). Already in 1981, Harris was calling for legislation towards greater local autonomy, “legal barriers against takeovers of new energy technologies (…) by multinational conglomerates” and support for “small business and community-based cooperatives” – an unlikely but necessary scenario that finds many advocates today, such as the partisans of the Transition model.  

The human-scale, everyday damage of capitalism is illustrated in the first two chapters – ‘Why Nothing Works’ and ‘Why the Help Won’t Help You’. Harris introduces up a simple concept that peaked my attention: if your new toaster burns everything it touches, or the shop sales assistant has no idea (and no interest in finding out) when they will restock your size, that’s because the social link between maker and user is broken. In a small-scale economy, the transaction between the person making and the person using the object is much more than monetary: there has to be trust, care and accountability. Objects made for oneself, a family member or next-door neighbour are perfect and durable because there’s a direct relation between the maker and the user: Harris give the examples of a sea canoe and a parka, which failure would be life-threatening on a freezing hunting trek. Inversely, in modern-day manufacturing and service industries, ever-growing layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy fragment the making process and separate each employee both from the product or service and the end-user.

This made me think of “music-making” – a term I’ve come to like for giving music – technically, a series of invisible waves – a physicality that makes it easier to relate to the people at each step of the process, the makers (musicians), users (listeners), but also the enablers, such as producers, promoters… It clearly places music within the frame of a communication process.

Music as a social link between people is an idea that I find helpful to think about activities that fall within the range of education, outreach, engagement and participation: of course, music can be ‘beneficial’ in itself, and the well-being and cognitive benefits associated with playing and listening to music are well documented, but the power of live music is also that it’s created by someone to share with others. Organisations like Live Music Now, as well as many orchestras, take music to people who can’t otherwise access it – inside hospitals, special schools and community centres – and as LMN founder Yehudi Menuhin says in this short extract, it’s about communicating and touching people one by one.

When music is played together, from a duo to an orchestra, a special chemistry happens between players, which, when it ‘works’, becomes a thrilling, enthralling bond between performers and audience. The context is hugely important in creating this connection, as the audience experience is shaped and influenced by a multitude of details that are mostly completely out of the control of the musicians: venue layout, sound quality, interaction with staff or volunteers…

And when thinking about the user-maker relationship, I wonder if we could think of the audience themselves as both creators and receivers of their own experience – that of being part of a crowd, a community of feeling. Then it’s perhaps the social link between listeners that is broken when rules and etiquette are erected to contain emotion and exclude rather than include participants. I’m thinking here of the concert hall experience often associate with classical music, and the stilted attitude to fellow audience members that can come with it – see the baffling episode related by Gillian Moore, Head of Music at Southbank Centre, who was chided by an audience member for moving her head in appreciation of the music.

There has been much done recently to allow the audience to develop and express a collective emotion while listening to classical music, by playing in more informal venues, from pubs to clubs and car parks, playing with presentation format, like the annual festival La Folle Journée in Nantes, or even making it a multi-sensory experience, like in the experiment below by BitterSuite.  

As I revisit these initiatives to reinvent the classical music experience and constantly discover new ones, it strikes me that I just can’t find the same type of information for jazz, another once-popular genre now soul-searching for new audiences. There are plenty of innovative jazz promoters out there inventing news ways to be with live music, but they just don’t get shared the same way that classical music case studies do – for example, I don’t know any jazz equivalent to this photo-heavy collection of 40 innovative live classical music case studies from around the world compiled by audience specialist Johan Idema. One for the to-do list? In the meantime, I take this call for responsible listeners that concludes Aaron Copland’s “preparation for listening” manual as a reminder that not all responsibility lies with the promoter:

“Take seriously your responsibility as listener. (…) Since it is our combined reaction as listeners that most profoundly influences both the art of composition and interpretation, it may be truthful to say that the future of music is in our hands.

Music can only really be alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one’s whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glory of mankind.”

Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music (1939)

Children’s Corner


The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.
– Albert Einstein

I’ve been playing the piano from the age of 5 and haven’t discovered anything yet – but I can certainly feel everyday the benefits of having studied music. Growing up in a musical family made it easy not just to pick up an instrument, but also to stick with it: my parents and older siblings were there to help me understand and accept that the road to perfection, or at least to being able to play to satisfactory standards, is paved with hours of practice.

To follow up from my previous post about music and the brain, and more specifically the Royal Conservatory of Music’s advocacy for early years music education, I’m looking now at a few schemes that introduce children to music. The examples below are actually only about classical music, mainly because being hosted by large institutions means that they come with structured learning programmes, nice videos and evaluation reports – and also that they’re easier to find.


El Sistema / In Harmony / Big Noise

Back in 2009, I got to spend a full day at a primary school in West Everton to observe musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra teaching pupils (and their teachers) for several hours a day, from singing at the morning assembly to practicing their tiny violins in small classes then rehearsing as a full ensemble in preparation for their performance at the Royal Festival Hall. This was the very first year of In Harmony Liverpool, a learning scheme inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan “system” based on intensive instrumental practice and orchestral performance embedded into the daily life of underprivileged children with an overt goal to promote individual and collective change. Or in the words of its founder, musician and politician José Antonio Abreu:

An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.

El Sistema has attracted its share of praise over the years, but also criticism – most recently by British academic Geoff Baker, who has just published El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (previewed by Baker in the Guardian, and reviewed pretty much everywhere – I especially like the responses from El Sistema-specialists Tricia Tunstall in Classical Music Magazine and Jonathan Govias on his own blog – watch out for the aggressive comments by the reviewed author himself!).

Wile the debate is raging, El Sistema-inspired schemes are still going strong in the UK and have grown to 6 official programmes in England, where they are called In Harmony, and two in Scotland, where they are known as Big Noise.

Children & the Arts: Start & Quests

Children & the Arts is a national charity backed up by the Prince’s Foundation with a mission to introduce children who are least likely to discover the arts to high-quality artistic experiences. Their approach is based on long-term partnerships between venues and schools to develop year-round engagement programmes, with regular visits, participatory activities and embedded learning. I found out about them through the Relaxed Performance Project that they piloted a few years ago, enabling children with special needs and their families to enjoy live theatre together.

They offer two main types of programmes: Start, fostering partnerships between primary schools in deprived areas and cultural venues that are geographically local to them yet a whole world apart; and a series of year-long Quests focusing on one area and one single art form at a time and structured around teacher support, workshops with professional artists, access to free performances and opportunities to create and perform. Quests have so far explored architecture, poetry, theatre, orchestral music, dance, opera and visual art.

They also run Start Hospices, work with children’s hospices to enable children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions to enjoy a cultural outing with their family in a welcoming, friendly and very supporting environment.

Evaluation reports, case studies and free teaching resources are available on their website.

Orchestras Live: First Time Live

I came across Orchestras Live recently via their new music scheme Beyond the Premiere through my ongoing research on new music commissioning. They also run a large-scale national outreach initiative, First Time Live, a touring programme that not only brings orchestral music to young people, but also involves them in repertoire selection, production and presentation of the concert.

In 2013 and 2014, First Time Live – Youth brought 20 concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia to young people aged between 10 and 14 years living in 10 locations in the bottom 20% for arts engagement across England (Hull, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Grimsby, Luton, Harlow, March, Peterborough, Thurrock and Mansfield).

Here are a few selected quotes taken from the evaluation report of the project’s first phase, from both Young Producers and teachers.

‘It just felt like it wasn’t something we were ‘allowed’ to experience but we were the ones creating the experience’. Young Producer 

‘I’ve learnt that I definitely want to be a music teacher, because the [project] experience has shown me how really accessible music is to children, no matter what age and I want to support and encourage that’. Young Producer

‘The children were very impressed and gave standing ovations – which took us teachers by surprise. I think this demonstrates the strength of their feelings towards the concert. They chatted about it for days afterwards too’. Teacher

The project has now entered a ‘legacy‘ phase, building on the success of the first tour to develop and consolidate new outreach and participation models. In Barrow-in-Furness, 30 young producers aged 12-15 organised two concerts by the Manchester Camerata for their school peers; in Spalding, young people devised their own collaborative concept for a concert with the City of London Sinfonia and young local musicians; in Harlow, a group of students worked with composer John K Mile and the City of London Sinfonia to commission and promote a collaborative piece with young musicians; and in Luton, young musicians created and performed a new orchestral piece with the City of London Sinfonia on the theme of Carnival (work-in-progress documentary below).

Klassik im Club

Tools of the Trade

I am preparing a workshop on audience development for jazz promoters in the North of England, and to procrastinate in a productive way, I have decided to research case studies for a completely different genre. Classical music has its own challenges, and even if the initiatives below don’t apply fully to a different context, there is a transferable lesson to be drawn from their success: they are offering audiences not a new content, but a new way to experience it.

There are plenty of questions about the future of classical audiences in this lecture given by music critic Alex Ross to the Royal Philharmonic Society – considering the etiquette, rules on applause, participation… – which the examples below address in their own way. Too expensive, too stuffy, too complicated, too boring: no wonder audiences are not flocking to the concert hall, unless these perceived barriers are efficiently removed.

The price factor: tsoundcheck

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) offers $14 tickets (about £9) to audience members aged 15-35. The scheme, called tsoundcheck, has its own microsite, a dedicated ticket desk on concert nights and even a subscription series. Only selected performances are available for tsoundcheck members – so no Lang Lang at $14 – but they also get offers on concerts outside the scheme. Online registration is mandatory, which is perfect to track audience behaviour. The very nice touch in this scheme is that tsoundcheck members can purchase 2 tickets, and there is no age restriction for their guest. Last time I went with a friend, I bought me a drink at the venue and we were pretty much even. Members also get their own parties, with a chance to mingle with musicians and sponsors like any other symphony patron, and they are encouraged to volunteer to support the education and outreach efforts of the TSO.

From the TSO Media Room:

With over 24,000 TSOUNDCHECK tickets being sold annually (and over 10% the TSO’s total ticket sales being from TSOUNDCHECK members), the TSO audience is one of the youngest and most diverse in classical music.

Cheap tickets for younger audiences are quite the norm in orchestra marketing, but what makes this scheme special is the membership system, the dedicated website and the subscription offers, that all add up to offer an easy transition from non-audience to regular subscriber. The age range is also considerably extended compared to other discount offers, which are usually up to 25 or, at a push, 30.

tsoundcheck offers can be announced 1 week before the performance, so one would suspect that it’s also a good way to paper the house (i.e. get bums on seats) for slow-sellers, but this last-minute mode can also appeal to an audience that sees going to the symphony as just one of their activities and like to seize such bargains.

The TSO season is full of interesting takes on changing the audience experience, such as the Afterworks series (earlier, shorter and with free mini-burgers) and the Exposed: What Makes it Great?® (puzzingly ‘registered’) series, where “each program features a first half of discussion and demonstration from the featured work, followed by a full performance of the piece.”

The beer factor: The Night Shift 

Drinks are always welcome, even encouraged, at our events and we’ve ditched those irksome classical rules – so feel free to drink, cough, clap or even boo when you like.

This is coming from an orchestra that plays only with period instruments – but also that ran a series of photos entitled ‘Not all audiences are the same’, featuring musicians and audience members, as in the example below. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has made it his mission to change the rules and break the conventions, as shows their take on audience development.

The Night Shift also gets its own microsite, describing the series as a “unique classical night brought to you by the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment”: “Running since 2006, it puts great classical music in a different context; Late-night, laid-back and contemporary. An hour-long classical concert, presented from the stage is the centrepiece, but is bookended by other live performances and DJs.”

Concerts can also take place in unconventional venues, for classical music at least, such as the Pub Tour, which initial season last year saw OAE playing “in 5 packed pubs across London, bringing Purcell, Pints and Pork scratchings to your local”. A crowdfunding campaign is about to be launched to support the next Pub Tour, fittingly for an ensemble that plays so close to its audience.

A case study available on cultural marketing knowledge hub Culture Hive  explains the origin of the Night Shift, springing from a 2005 series called Listening in Paris that “examined the radical change in concert going that occurred in 18th and 19th century Paris – a period which saw audiences transformed from being rowdy and irreverent into the quiet well behaved ones we know today”

The idea to experiment with the experience of listening to music came next, and OAE launched the first Night Shift in 2006. Here are a few key points taken from the case study:

  • Constant evaluation, important in securing funding for the event and also in monitoring audience satisfaction.
  • Crucially this is a sustained programme. We only got the produce ‘right’ at the third event. In order for a programme like this to be successful, we believe that a sustained approach to programming is necessary, rather than mounting a one-off event.
  • This kind of programme is an investment. Return on marketing is lower than for a traditional concert as this audience is harder to reach.
  • Be aware of events and periods that may impact on the target audiences ability to attend i.e. we try not to schedule events outside of university term time
  • Make it fun.

The next Night Shift event, at historical Wilton’s Music Hall, is priced at £12 advance, £15 on the door, £4 students – another factor that makes it easily accessible.

OAE has also launched a new series called The Works,  “the classical music equivalent of a museum audio-guide, taking you through the piece step-by-step. Afterwards there’s a Q+A with the Orchestra and then a full performance of the music.” The event is sometimes followed by a speed dating session with the orchestra members, allowing 1-to-1 interaction between patrons and players.

The club factor: Yellow Lounge

Yellow Lounge brings classical music bang up-to-date, leaving a trail of twin-sets, pearls and grey suits in its wake.

Established seven years ago in the Berlin club scene, Yellow Lounge took the classical rule book and tore it up before ingeniously stitching it back together.

Kicking and screaming, flashing and dancing, Yellow Lounge fuses the greatest international performers with cutting-edge DJ and VJ sets in a variety of urban spaces.

Experience the evolution of music.

If it all sounds rather threatening, it could be because Yellow Lounge is not just a late-night classical series, but also a Universal MusicDeutsche Grammophon initiative (hence the colour), and it has a certain corporate whiff about it. Launched in 2001 in a Berlin club, the event is now happening in London and Paris, as well as Amsterdam, Salzburg, Zürich, Vienna, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Dublin – and more. Programmed in iconic clubs such as Fabric (London), Berghain (Berlin) or Batofar (Paris), the event is priced at £6 / €10 for advance tickets, again significantly lowering the price barrier generally associated with classical music. Berlin organiser David Canisius explain in this interview that such low prices are made possible by the association with DG, from which roaster the artists are regularly taken: Hélène Grimaud, Emerson String Quartett, Daniel Hope, Magdalena Kožená, Hilary Hahn, Andreas Scholl, Albrecht Mayer…

Whereas tsoundcheck and Night Shift aim at building a new type of relationship between audience members and an orchestra, Yellow Lounge seem to be shifting the focus on the crowd – the club experience is a collective one – and the star performers. Interestingly, the ‘About’ section on Yellow Lounge Facebook page identifies the barrier for new, younger audiences as “the main audience at classical concerts, predominantly grey haired people in grey suits”, and the biggest challenges for newcomers as “how to dress right, how to behave properly, how to know when to applaud”. Their solution: programme classical music in conditions familiar to the clubbing audience, from bouncers to VJs.

New Yellow Lounge websites are popping up for the varied national scenes they serve, and the event is of course very active on social media, with a dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter accounts per country.

Here is British violinist Daniel Hope at techno club Berghain, which, accordint to Wikipedia, “has a strong reputation for decadence and hedonism” – and plenty more photos that prove that classical music is not that stuffy after all.

Daniel Hope & Friends @ Yellow Lounge,  23JAN11 Berghain © Stefan Hoederath