Reviving Classical Music in Our Generation

Davies Symphony Hall, home to the San Francisco Symphony
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Growing up in a musical family, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to classical music at a young age. Car rides to school were spent listening to KDFC, the Bay Area’s classical music radio station. Family game nights included sight-reading chamber music with my mother, father and brother.

At the same time, my childhood was not spent in a bubble of only classical music. My iTunes library is an eclectic mix of music ranging from the Bee Gees to Brahms to Beyoncé.

I have learned to appreciate many different types of music; after all, a catchy tune can be found in various music genres. Yet, for many in my generation, pop culture usually doesn’t encompass classical music. I have often asked myself why this is the case. If parents play the popular “Mozart for Babies” series for their children, why does it seem like (from my anecdotal experience) interest in classical music suddenly stops once their children are no longer considered babies? Is it because classical music has a stereotype of being “stuffy” and pretentious? Perhaps many of my peers prefer music they can sing along and dance to? Or maybe it’s because music classes are being dropped from school curriculum?

It appears that classical music has an extremely niche market. Many orchestras in America have been trying to find ways to draw in younger crowds. For example, at Lincoln Center in New York City, students can get “student rush tickets” for New York Philharmonic concerts, Metropolitan Opera performances and more for a hugely discounted price.

However, the “rules” for attending a concert can be intimidating.

For one, concert-goers and the musicians dress very well when attending or performing in a concert. The formality itself probably feeds into the “stuffy” and pretentious stereotypes. When the music is playing, silence is expected of the audience; you can only clap after an entire piece is completed (and not in-between movements or else you will get the stink eye) and—heaven forbid—if you should get a cough, you should be stifling it until your face turns blue.

Okay, I exaggerated a little on that last one, but you get the point. For new listeners, these unspoken rules can be a huge deterrent, especially if no one explains them outright.

A few institutions have been working to change the way classical music is presented.

The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra attempts to make their concerts more accessible to a wider audience by travelling to different locations to perform, rather than designating a specific hall for their concerts. Subscribers pay a set price for a whole year’s worth of concerts, which helps the orchestra maintain a steady revenue. The San Francisco Symphony, like many other orchestras around the nation, also holds annual holiday concerts specifically targeted towards younger children.

As a member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, I have always delighted in sharing our music to an audience with a wide range of ages at Davies Symphony Hall. I think there is something particularly inspiring when we, as young adults, get the chance to share the beauty of music with others our own age. I feel that if at least one person in the audience, whether they be young or old, becomes inspired to learn an instrument or to listen to classical music more, our job will have been done.

So how exactly does one make classical music “cool” again?

Although many serious musicians might scoff at the idea, I believe that the relevance of classical music can be revived through a hybridization of pop culture and classical music.

I have experimented with creating covers of pop songs on my viola and violin. During my freshman year at Lick, my brother and I performed a cover of the popular song “Secrets” by OneRepublic as a community offering. At first, I was not quite sure how people were going to respond. However, after we performed, we were met with standing ovations and roaring cheers. Students came up to us afterwards and told us how much they enjoyed our rendition. When we put up a video of the performance on YouTube, it was amazing to see the comments we received. Many viewers told us about how our video had inspired them to learn the violin or cello. Although we did not play a classical music piece, we were able to connect with others through our instruments. To date, the video of our performance has over half a million views.

Free music streaming applications such as YouTube and Spotify have made classical music easily accessible to anybody with an Internet connection. Curious listeners can now stream recordings created by some of the world’s greatest musicians with the click of a mouse.

It is true that pop music does have a toe-tapping kind of infectiousness; at the same time, there are many different styles within the classical music genre that are just as catchy.

Take Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (It’s an amazing piece! I recommend checking out the animation that Disney’s Fantasia 2000 created to go along with the piece.) It incorporates elements of jazz, classical and contemporary pop all into one piece.

If attempts at bringing these two musical worlds together could achieve wider recognition, perhaps these hybridizations can act as the gateway to the classical music world for many people. I believe that if the kind of inspiration I saw from those YouTube comments could happen more often, many more of my peers would view classical music in a different light. Of course, listening to a Mozart Piano Sonata or a Mahler Symphony might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope that stereotypes will not be the issue holding people back from giving the genre a listen now and then.

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