When do you experience a concert as ‘good’? Audiences often feel uneasy or insecure when evaluating a concert they attended. “But I’m not an expert!” is a response often heard when asking concert goers about the quality of a performance. But why would you have to be an expert to evaluate classical music concerts? Where does this idea come from? And what other ways are there to talk meaningfully about classical music than in terms of musicological expertise?
The ritual of classical music assumes that you know about the composer and composition so that you understand the context of the music and what is relevant about it. This relates to the idea of Bildung [edification]: audiences need to be educated in other to understand the meaning of classical music. This ‘Bildung-paradigm’ in addressing classical music audiences goes back to nineteenth-century aesthetic ideas and ideals about classical music compositions as works of art.
Many audiences have internalised this idea of Bildung. When asked by researchers about the quality and value of concerts they attended, they answer hesitantly and mention that they do not consider themselves to be experts. This perceived lack of expertise is described by Hoffman (2018) as “the Classical Music Insecurity Complex” (Hoffman, 2018). A problem with the Bildung-approach of audience participation is that it excludes and neglects the diversity of experiences and appreciations of concerts by audiences.
“It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come—of course, not so as to disturb the others—; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fräulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is “echt Deutsch”; or like Fräulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fräulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings.” (E.M. Forester (1910), quoted in Bonds (2009, p5)
In marketing surveys audiences feel more at ease to voice their opinion. Here, audiences use a variety of criteria to qualify their concert experiences. They use artistic criteria (such as the technical excellence of the performance, virtuosity or refinement), social criteria (such as a joyful evening out with friends), personal criteria (such as whether the concert invoked certain emotions), or societal criteria (such as the relevance of the musical work, the composer, or the programming for today).
There are many ways in which classical music concerts can matter to you as audience member – of which the artistic quality in technical expert-terms is only one way of talking about concerts. Enjoying the concert evening as a social gathering with friends, or as a more emotional or personal experience are equally valuable ways to talk about classical music. What other ways are there to talk about classical music? And how to do that?
Researchers in the Artful Participation project experimented with different ways to discuss and evaluate classical music concerts. For example, researchers talked to audiences in after-concert talks. Using a long table in the foyer in the concert hall, audiences were invited to share their opinions and valuations of classical music concerts in different ways. Before, during, and after selected concerts, audience members could freely sit down and chat with each other, and the researcher and musician present.
Many concert-goers found it hard to articulate what they liked about concerts: they often feel not entitled to voice their opinion. During conversations, a researcher tried to open up the ways in which one can talk about classical music, by probing audiences for their personal experiences, anecdotes or memories regarding specific musical works. This enabled the audience members to freely talk (extensively!) about the meaning of certain musical works or composers in their lives.
In The People’s Salon, researchers and staff of the orchestra further elaborated this approach. We invited fifteen ‘friends’ of the orchestra – regular visitors of the orchestra’s concerts who donated to their orchestra – to program a concert evening. Through qualitative interviews and two focus groups with the Friends, personal stories and memories were collected about how a particular classical music composition had been important for them during certain moments or phases in their lives. These stories formed the basis for developing the program of the concert evening.
Read more about The People’s Salon.
Through personal stories, you give meaning to classical music by embedding it in your own life. For many regular concert-goers, classical music plays an important part in their lives.
How does classical music matter? Talking meaningfully about classical music is a vital form of audience participation. However, many listeners experience uneasiness when evaluating classical music. The dominant way of valuing classical music is through technical and codified expert-language. Talking about memories, experiences, anecdotes, or ways of listening classical music at home opens up ways you can talk about (evaluatively) about classical music. For many regular concert-goers, classical music has a special meaning in their lives. In contrast to talking about the technical refinement and qualities of the performance, sharing such stories opens up the ways you can talk meaningfully about classical music.
Eve, I. (2020) The Same but Differently. Maastricht: Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy & the Public Sphere.
Bonds, M. E. (2009). Music as thought. Princeton University Press.
Hoffman, M. (2018, April 18). A Note to the Classically Insecure. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/opinion/classical-music-insecurity.html.
Continue your journey
Why do we behave as we do during a concert? Where do our concert rituals come from? And how could they be different? Audience participation starts with an understanding of how your participation in a classical music concert has a long history.
Practice exercises to learn skills needed for audience participation!