Rhinegold Piano Cleveland president Yaron Kohlberg gives an outreach talk for school-aged children


Tuning in to audiences at Piano Cleveland

5:00, 10th February 2020

How can classical music engage new audiences and keep them coming back? Piano Cleveland president Yaron Kohlberg considers some solutions

In 2015, I was in the midst of a 10-city concert tour in China, a country to which I had recently relocated. I was performing a traditional classical programme for audiences who were welcoming, yet seemed to become impatient and restless during the longer pieces. You could hear the low rustling of people shifting in their seats, thumbing through the programme, or whispering conversation – all signs that their attention was wandering. This phenomenon was something I noticed even with a few of my own friends in private settings.

Yaron Kohlberg: ‘Introducing classical music to new audiences does not have to be difficult, but it does require a strategic approach’
Yaron Kohlberg: ‘Introducing classical music to new audiences does not have to be difficult, but it does require a strategic approach’

Friends without a background in classical music would tell me later that some pieces seemed ‘a bit long’ or hard to understand. I realised I was trying to push a classical-only programme on audiences who may not have had any prior exposure to it.

Introducing new audiences to classical music is not a new problem. Think of Leonard Bernstein’s informative but low-key Norton Lectures or the flamboyance of a Liberace – every artist and arts organisation has worked to find a way of capturing and keeping the attention of new audiences. In a fast-moving, increasingly impatient world, the quest to demonstrate classical music’s relevancy has become even more important.

Having a parent who is a musician – in my case, a mother who is a violinist and a father who is an amateur pianist – normalises exposure to classical music. Growing up in such a world is a wonderful gift, but it can also give us a blind spot when it comes to introducing others to classical music.

As musicians, we have literally grown up with the music we play professionally. Our audience may not. They may have encountered classical music in a school outreach programme, or when a parent or friend took (or dragged) them to a concert. Some in the audience have only encountered classical music in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or not at all.

There are a number of challenges to introducing classical music to new audiences. There’s a perception that it’s ‘boring’ or ‘too long’, without enough variety to keep everyone engaged (a classical piece can easily last 30 minutes, in sharp contrast with three-minute popular songs). The music can be complex and hard to understand for someone with no background (and sometimes even for those with!), and the atmosphere in a traditional concert hall can feel sterile and intimidating. Popular music is seen as more fun, immediate and engaging.

Successfully introducing classical music to new audiences does not have to be difficult, but it does require a strategic approach to programming and repertoire.

Tailor the programme to the audience or individual’s understanding and background
Just as in public speaking, you need to know your audience. Are you performing for subscribers to a regular concert series, or for high school students who may never have heard of Mozart?

Before contestants arrive in Cleveland, we offer a free public listening series called ‘Prelude to Piano’, geared toward people who are interested in classical music but aren’t sure where to start. Each session runs three times in different Cleveland neighbourhoods, comprising a one-hour demonstration/presentation and Q&A, followed by an informal reception. We’re billing the series as a ‘crash course in music appreciation’. The audience is relatively self-selecting, making it easier for us to tailor the programme to their needs.

Start with easy listening pieces that aren’t too long
You don’t run a marathon without training. By the same token, you probably wouldn’t take someone who’s never seen an opera before to the full Ring cycle. The mastery and appreciation of the short and simple form the basis of the appreciation and love of any art form.

Add an explanation or story
Everyone loves a good story. I’ve found that connecting a piece of music to a personal story provides context, resulting in greater audience attention and receptivity. Suggesting clues to listen for also helps keep the audience engaged. This is one of the reasons we have deliberately designed our listening series to be conversational and informal, allowing presenters to share personal stories as they decode musical structures and history.

Use crossover pieces and transcriptions
I’ve moved away from classical-only programmes to include world music and transcriptions of popular melodies or songs that the audience has likely heard. Hearing a familiar tune makes the audience more receptive to new pieces, especially if I can show the connection between the familiar and the new.

We’re incorporating something similar in Cleveland this year with the inclusion of five technically demanding transcriptions commissioned specifically for our Competition. Alongside the classical repertoire, contestants will choose one of these transcriptions to perform in the semifinal (should they make it that far). This offers new classical music audiences some familiar melodies in addition to giving contestants a unique challenge not found in any other piano competition.

Venue and atmosphere matter
Walking into a 2,000-seat concert hall where musicians (and often patrons) are dressed in black tie can be intimidating for first-time attendees. If you’re nervous or feeling out of place and worried about applauding at the wrong time, your attention will be everywhere but on the music. Since joining Piano Cleveland as president, I’ve played at a number of house parties and small gatherings, where the audience is only a few feet away. In a fun, intimate atmosphere, your audience is more likely to pay attention and potentially ask questions afterwards.

Each time I sit down at a piano to perform, I try to remember that someone in my audience is attending her or his first classical concert, and I ask myself ‘How can I best introduce the music I love to that listener?’

Yaron Kohlberg is the president of Piano Cleveland, which hosts the Cleveland International Piano Competition, and was a silver medal winner of the competition in 2007. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Israel, he has performed in more than 45 countries in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. Major career performances include New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Kremlin in Moscow, United Nations Hall in Geneva and Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Kohlberg speaks six languages, including Mandarin Chinese, and is a devout football fan.

The 2020 Cleveland International Piano Competition will take place in Cleveland, Ohio between 26 July and 9 August 2020. clevelandpiano.org

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