Orchestras: Boosting Younger Audiences Through a Sound Exchange

Feb 26, 2013

Emily Wozniak, artistic director and founder of the Sound Exchange
Credit Carlet Cleare
Suzanne Bell, a librarian at the University of Rochester Simon School of Business
Credit Sound Exchange

WXXI’s Carlet Cleare examines why classical concert participation among young adults is declining, and what one Eastman School of Music student is doing to reverse the trend. 

It’s no secret city orchestras across the globe are hanging on by a string. Lockouts, diminishing budgets and shrinking donor support are all taking a toll. Orchestras are also dealing with dwindling audiences.

"There’s lack of intimacy,” says  29-year old Luticha Andre-Ducette, a 4th-year bio informatics student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She says she enjoys bopping to Chopin around the house.

“I think classical music is fun. But a culture shift needs to happen.”                                                                                             

Across the country, audiences for orchestral music are shrinking. Their largest supporters are aging and young adults just aren’t turning out to concert halls in significant numbers.

Sunil Iyungar, the director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, says those between the ages of 18 to 44 are showing the sharpest decline – with a 39% drop in attendance between 2002 and 2008.

“To give an example, among 18-24 year olds about 11% of them, in 1982, roughly one-in-ten, had attended classical music performance," Iyungar says. "That’s down to less than 7% in 2008. That pattern is pretty severe and in other age groups too.  From 25 to 34 year olds, again young adults, you see it going from 13% to down to 7%.”

But there’s a glimmer of light, despite these depressing statistics. Iyungar says classical music remains the most popular art form that's accessed by broadcast and recordings – reaching approximately 40 million Americans.

Orchestras including the Rochester Philharmonic are experimenting to reach new young audiences. Suggested strategies include changing the way classical music is presented, altering repertoires and even having musicians play more intensely. But, none of these ideas address the challenge of how to lure young adult audiences who might be juggling a new family with work obligations.

"I think there's this stereotype that goes along with classical music. It’s elite. It's boring. It's stiff. And it's reserved for old people,” says hornist Emily Wozniak, who's the artistic director and founder of a student-run orchestra called Sound Exchange based out of the Eastman School of Music.

“The goal of the group is to redefine what an orchestra is," Wozniak explains. "An orchestra, to us, Sound Exchange, is not just a group of 80 people that plays in a big fancy music hall. We are a group of musicians that wants to share their music with people… It's an exchange between the musicians and the audience.”

That's by seating the audience inside the orchestra, so they can sit next to a tuba player or violinist.

"Then they get to watch the conductor and they get to actually experience what it's like to create a huge sound," Wozniak says. "They get to feel that energy."

It’s a move our Chopin-bopping student, Andre-Ducette says is needed.

“You know there's a huge barrier. It's weird because it's all in open space yet there feels like there's a wall between you and the actual musicians. In classical, they're not really trained to have that, you know, those moments of expression to be immersed, not only within their own music, but within the audience. ”

Sound Exchange performs by invitation at different Rochester venues such as galleries and college campuses. The ensemble is experimenting with creative programing, much like many other symphony orchestras, by collaborating with professional dance troupes and incorporating multi-media into their performances. Wozniak says she’s hopeful this will draw a younger audience.

“I think, at least, for our generation we are very visual generation. We’re used to computers and phones and all this stimulation all the time.  So to expect people our age to come to a symphony concert and sit there for almost 3 hours in one seat and focus on an experience that's happening not even close to them, very far way, it’s not exactly realistic.”

While Sound Exchange focuses on building a younger audience, this ensemble will still face the same financial duress many other symphonies are dealing with.

“I just think if we make some little adjustments, more people will be able to enjoy the music and hopeful orchestras can get to the point where they can thrive instead of struggle," Wozniak says.

For now, the optimistic Eastman hornist says the orchestra is steadily working to capture and engage young adults by seating them amongst the orchestra. That way Wozniak says they, too, can  "bop" to the sweeping melodies of Chopin, along with many others classical composers, and fill concert hall seats.