This might as well be placed out there since we have Andy Doe’s recent post calling us to challenge the Classical Music Crisis folks.
As I said in a previous post, we are generally terrible at reasoning with numbers–especially big numbers. This post deals more with the collection of the numbers inflects the Classical Music Crisis discussion. All this talk about the decline, dying, or death of Classical Music is mostly fueled by Sampling Bias. While I generally don’t like using Wikipedia as a source for quotes, its description of Sampling Bias is perfectly serviceable and pretty much textbook:
In statistics, sampling bias is a bias in which a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others. It results in a biased sample, a non-random sample of a population (or non-human factors) in which all individuals, or instances, were not equally likely to have been selected. If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.
As I mentioned in my Choral Organizations and the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” posts these discussions are shaped more often by the organizations which are prominent in media (usually due to Negativity Bias) rather than the organizations that actually exist. While, as I mentioned, I doubt the number of Choral organizations is nearly as high as Chorus America claims, and I doubt each and every one of those organizations are actively performing solely Classical Music, even if a tenth of those numbers are correct then Choral Organizations would outnumber the 1800 US Orchestras (as given by the League of Symphony Orchestras) by 15 times. Adding in the 125 or so US Opera organizations or the 150 or so Ballet Organizations won’t help much to offset the size of Choral Organizations.
I actually went back through the Pierre Keys Music Yearbooks I have and simply did a count (Ballet Organizations aren’t included in these) and found that even during the years of 1927 and 1938, Choral Groups significantly outnumbered Symphony and Opera organizations combined thought the proportion isn’t nearly as dramatic. I think it’s obvious that with the lowest overhead and operational costs, Choirs are the cheapest organizations to fund so the number of groups shouldn’t be particularly surprising.
The thing is, we have no idea what impact this has economically to “Classical Music in the US” because these organizations aren’t often discussed. It seems strange that a group of Classical ensembles, which vastly outnumber the ones usually under discussion, have no part in the discussion about the health of the Classical Music industry.
Granted, if how we’re defining US “Classical Music” only means the typical SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) that would be perfectly acceptable, it just wouldn’t show how much actual interest or impact what we normally call Classical Music has on American Culture. SOBs are not a randomized sample of the Classical Music field and shouldn’t be treated as such. In other words, as the Sampling Bias definition above states, “If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.”
The other question is, what is Classical Music? While the NAI and NEA SPPA audience data tracks, say, Symphony attendance–does this include attendance to your kids High School Orchestra or Youth Symphony performing symphonic works or at State Contests? Does this include attendance at University Orchestra events? Should we include these kinds of attendance? If not, then why aren’t we? Is it because these are professional groups (I’ve heard some high school orchestras at the State contest level which play much better than some community and semi-professional orchestras which are surely listed amongst the 1800 League groups and included in the data for attendance).
Again, this is a form of Sampling Bias (or more precisely, Selection Bias), though a bias that might be reflected more in the survey methods since they might not specify whether or not these types of performances should be included.
I think there’s a real need to really understand what is being said, and how the numbers can be interpreted as well as the types of biases we have in the collection of the numbers and reporting of them. For more about Biases, Fallacies, and Statistics as it applies to the Classical Music Debate, please check out this post: Preamble to Orchestra Audience Age: notes about numbers, statistics, and bias and this recent response on Facebook regarding this issue.