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Many of the most highly praised and influential orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, face a looming issue – their main audience is not growing. However, younger generations are constantly developing new interests and pastimes, so it is much too risky to assume that they will suddenly develop a taste for classical music and become regular attendees. The question of how to attract those audiences remains. Participatory shows and other niche events can only do so much to attract younger audiences: the real draw stems from an appreciation brought upon by a stronger and more widespread music education during a prospective attendee’s formative years.
Whether it be classical music, plays, opera, dance, or other various art forms, there is a strong correlation between childhood arts education and adult arts participation. The Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts, or SPPAs, have shown over the span of 30 years that childhood involvement in the arts is the largest predictor of whether or not someone will attend art events, such as classical music concerts, in their future. Over 50 percent of adults who indicated that they had any form of arts education in their childhood stated that they had attended an arts event in the last year, while less than 30 percent of adults without an arts education had attended a comparable event. The results are more apparent when one looks at the relationship between a higher level arts education and arts participation as an adult. The same survey stated that over 70 percent of adults who received an arts education as an adult had attended an arts event within the last year. Although the correlation is stronger with adult’s education than it is with children’s arts education, very few American adults within the survey took advantage of arts learning opportunities that had none as children.
Luckily, orchestras around the country have taken the information about childhood arts education to heart, creating programs to engage and enrich the education of young arts students. Whether it be the LA Philharmonic’s YOLA Project, the Chicago Symphony’s Institute for Learning, Access, and Training, or the San Diego Youth Symphony’s Community Opus Project, many programs exist across the country to engage students in music education programs, while still retaining a commitment to strengthening the presence of music education in public schools. Socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers who have high levels of arts engagement or arts learning show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers, and a great orchestra such as the BSO can be instrumental in providing that engagement.
As you can see, I am trying to prove that childhood arts education needs to be stronger and more prevalent in order for orchestras to survive. However, it is not just your orchestra that will benefit from arts education, the entire Boston community will. When looking at the statistics of music education within public schools, the facts are sobering. Schools with a larger proportion of students in poverty are substantially less likely to offer music education programs. Among elementary schools offering music education, the presence of music specialists declines as the school’s poverty rate increases. The declines in music education for African American and Hispanic children over the last 30 years are quite substantial — 49 percent for African American and 40 percent for Hispanic children. Why must this be the case when multiple studies show at-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experience demonstrate achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population? Luckily, there have been large advancements in the last few months for all public school students. A new federal law was signed in 2015 – the Every Student Succeeds Act. Not only did it include a 20 million dollar grant towards arts education throughout the country, but it offered infrastructural changes to arts in public schools, especially by integrating arts into STEM education.
As much as I advocate for arts education, I am not trying to say that participatory performances should be disregarded. It is not new information that orchestras attract larger audiences when performances are more accessible. In fact, participatory performances attract some of the largest audiences that orchestras perform for. From orchestras playing recognizable film scores, to the Seattle Symphony performing alongside Sir Mix-A-Lot, people are attracted to what they are comfortable with. In his paper about HONK! Pedagogy, and the benefits of participatory performance, Reebee Garofalo references the sense of community that can come out of a fun and improvisational show. However, even he admits that that particular teaching style is no wholesale replacement for a traditional music education. It is impossible for a great orchestra such as the BSO to solely rely on these types of niche, participatory shows – it would turn one of the world’s greatest orchestras into something they are not. As I have stated previously, and will continue to state time and time again, there must be an infrastructural change in the way young adults engage in the arts in order to consistently attract them to classical music concerts.
As fun and lively as participatory performances can be, I believe that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has plenty of more effective methods it can utilize to create a younger, livelier, and more engaged audience. From expanding community outreach to helping organizations support arts education for all young people, I firmly stand by my belief that orchestras, such as yours, need to do everything they can to ensure an arts-filled future for the current generation of students. If you manage to do so, I strongly believe that you can attract an engaged youth: not just for one or two concerts, but for good. I hope you take my words into consideration, and I wish you and the entirety of the Boston Symphony Orchestra the best of luck.
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