Future Shock: Vocal Futures in Classical Music Magazine

October 22nd, 2011

Andrew Stewart reports in Classical Music Magazine:

Western classical music, so we?re told, becomes more attractive as people grow older. Don?t worry about the young: they?ve always hated Bach and Beethoven. It?s just a matter of time before they tune in to the classics. But what happens if the wisdom of convention fails? Can classical music influence the shape of its future audience? Will today?s urban teens develop the classical concert-going habit 30 years from now? Suzi Digby is on a mission to solve classical music?s audience problems. Time, she tells me when we share a transatlantic phone call, is not on the genre?s side. Neither it would appear are countless youngsters.

Digby?s latest venture, Vocal Futures, aims to connect classical music with those least likely to cross the concert hall threshold. Its target audience comprises urban youth aged 16 to 22, including gifted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and those deemed ?hard to reach? by educationalists and social agencies. The project?s London launch involves 300 self-styled young ambassadors; a collection of outstanding performers, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Willard White, Robin Blaze and Stephan Loges among them, and a supporting team of seasoned musicologists, pedagogues and music animateurs.

Los Angeles, Cologne, Shanghai and Johannesburg are also in line to receive the Vocal Futures treatment over the next two years. Suzi Digby, chiefly recognised for her work to revive singing in England?s primary schools, expects to recruit 1,500 young ambassadors worldwide. Vocal Futures, she explains, will support their efforts to build an online community and spread the word about classical music via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. ?If we can market the unmarketable, we?ll really have done something!?

Vocal Futures plans to hit the ground running on 28 November with the first of three consecutive staged performances of Bach?s St Matthew Passion, a ten-week immersive ?induction? scheme for its inaugural ambassadorial cohort, and related evaluation and research programmes designed to gather and assess empirical evidence about introducing people aged 16-22 to classical music.

Digby suggests that attitudes to the genre have shifted among the demographic?s majority, from the disinterest commonly displayed two decades ago to today?s outright alienation and dislike. She accepts that young people often react positively to live performances of classical works. ?But there?s a lot of bad classical music played badly. Those who hear great works played well like the experience. My detractors will say that kids can?t tell the difference between a good and a bad orchestra. That?s absolute rubbish ? they can! They?ll also recall how they didn?t come to classical music until they were 40 and are now devoted to it. People will come to it when they?re ready, so leave the kids alone. I couldn?t disagree more. For most people between 16 and 22, nothing challenges them intellectually and emotionally as they crave to be challenged. Great art poses those challenges.?

Great art, the St Matthew Passion, cultural value judgments ? whatever next? Digby makes no apology for pitching Bach to the socially disadvantaged. ?The Matthew Passion blew my world apart when I was 17,? she recalls. ?The piece has grown inside me ever since, pushing my horizons of what art can say about human expression. The greatest works of art have that power.? When she conducts Bach?s mighty score in November, each of her young ambassadors will be ready for the listening experience. Digby has worked in partnership with Sean Gregory and Sarah Taylor from the Barbican Centre?s Creative Learning team to fashion an induction programme, with artist-led workshops and study sessions as part of the project?s rich educational mix.

?I?m homing in on the chosen demographic not to discriminate against middle-class, white people of privilege but because this is the group most alienated from the art form,? she observes. ?The alienation is no mystery, given the shift from our old top-down society to one that?s bottom down, as it were. Older people have become disconnected from the young and the young play up to that. If you don?t love kids and believe that music can improve their lives, get out of the music education business!?

Mention of improving lives through classical music is bound to tweak the tails of those who favour root-and-branch approaches to social transformation. The world viewed from a sink estate in London?s East End will still look as bleak once Vocal Futures has done its work, even if the project enriches its participants and boosts their self-esteem. Suzi Digby is adamant that outstanding works of classical music can transfigure the way young people think about their place in society. Vocal Futures, she insists, has the power to demolish peer group resistance to high art and offset corrosive prejudices against classical music.

?We can?t save the world and don?t claim that we can,? she asserts. ?But I hope we can have a major impact on the young people involved and, through the project?s peer-to-peer social networking, spread the word about classical music?s transfigurative power.? Vocal Futures is also dedicated to what its founder describes as shocking arts organisations and artists out of their complacency. ?I want them to realise that if we don?t address fundamental problems of how our art form is perceived, we won?t have an audience for classical concerts. We don?t know what Vocal Futures will teach us. But I think the secret, the golden nugget, will come from the kids themselves. They?re going to keep it going.?

Vocal Futures and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have commissioned Professor John Sloboda to undertake a posteriori research into young participants? perceptions of classical music as the project unfolds. Music psychologist Sloboda?s enthusiasm for Vocal Futures is boldly marked in a quote from its promotional brochure: ?I?ve been conducting research among listeners and performers for over 20 years,? he declares, ?and I?ve not come across many projects which excite me so much.? Audiences London will also contribute to the long tail of information created by Vocal Futures, specifically analysing the demographics of classical music attendance in the capital.

According to Suzi Digby, anecdote and wishful thinking have served as trusty measures of the UK?s classical music audience. More accurate surveys, however, suggest audience development schemes rarely deliver long-term converts to the classics. In short, she believes that many musicians and promoters are content to cover underlying audience problems with the ?smokescreen? supplied by the BBC Proms and other events demonstrably attractive to young people.

?I think these exceptions hide the real problem. Proms audiences are predominantly over 25. Even the conservatoires report that music students no longer attend classical concerts as they once did. We must avoid the common trend of being terrified of subjecting our young people to anything that we think they might find boring. I don?t recognise boredom as a problem. It is a problem, though, when young people are led to a stuffy concert hall and find they?re part of a much older audience who define their elitism through their choice of classical music. Once those barriers have been broken, young people will happily listen to beautiful music in formal concert halls. But you?re not going to get them there straight off.?

Digby has chosen to conduct her Matthew Passion project in Ambika P3, the University of Westminster?s starkly functional laboratory buried beneath Marylebone Road. The vast venue was built to test concrete for Spaghetti Junction. It now serves as a proving ground for ?innovation, experimentation and learning?, ideal for what Suzi Digby has in mind. She freely admits that Vocal Futures is a social experiment, one established with a high public profile and the backing of equally high-profile supporters. During her recent stint as visiting professor at the University of Southern California, Digby networked like a Beverly Hills native to give the likes of Clint Eastwood and Gustavo Dudamel the Vocal Futures lowdown. Back in the UK, Richard Morrison has already earmarked a quartet of Times features to chart the project?s progress, while ardent Vocal Futures? advocate Stephen Fry will doubtless tweet incessantly about its merits. Above all, Suzi Digby promises ?to make a hell of a lot of noise? and to share what her experiment reveals with other arts organisations.

In return for her tireless tub-thumping and heroic fundraising efforts, Digby gets to conduct the St Matthew Passion and connect with its special audience. Will it be worth the effort? The critical question, she says, is can we afford not to make Vocal Futures work. ?I?ve utterly killed myself doing this, living for months with the finger of fear above me!? She pays tribute to the support of her husband, Labour peer Lord Eatwell. ?I couldn?t have done this without a supportive husband and an incredible team of devoted people working for much too little money. Thank god, I was able to raise the money and show people that it can be done even in difficult economic times.?

Comments are closed.