Classical Music, Aging Audiences, and the Emerging Demographic Racial Gap

The San José based Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra is one of several Chinese Youth Symphonies in the US

I had come across an old (May 17, 2007) New York Times piece by Sam Roberts yesterday while doing some searches for the Aging Audience of Classical Music issue. The piece, titled “New Demographic Racial Gap” is outlining the age gap between the dominant majority in the US and the [still growing] ethnic minorities. To put it in a nutshell the white population in the US is aging faster than the ethnic minority populations which has some implications that the article opens with

That development may portend a nation split between an older, whiter electorate and a younger overall population that is more Hispanic, black and Asian and that presses sometimes competing agendas and priorities.

“The new demographic divide has broader implications for social programs and education spending for youth,” said Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs for the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research group.

“There’s a fairly large homogenous population 60 and older that may not be sympathetic to the needs of a diverse youthful population,” Dr. Mather said.

but has other implications with regards to the Aging Audience in Classical Music debate. See all the current data, especially that compiled by the recent NEA survey as well as other sources is pointing to an audience for Classical Music (as well as other arts institutions) that is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. And the above piece is claiming that the white population of the US is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. Think about those last two statements for a bit.

If the implications aren’t entirely apparent for you folks let me state it a bit more bluntly: If the white population in the US is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole and the Classical Music audience is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole I’m wondering if the rate of the aging white population is at all correlated to the rate of Classical music audiences.

One of the other things the data states is that ethnic minorities are far less likely than the [white] ethnic majority to attend arts events which lends some more weight to the idea of Classical Music audiences (in the US) being more of a Caucasian Euro-American cultural artifact. Part of the issue is the relative lack of ethnic minorities in Orchestras (roughly 13%) across the country, well below national average (roughly 33%) of ethnic minorities in the US. It’s difficult to show you’re a part of the local community if your musicians don’t reflect the folks in the community. Some organizations and Orchestras are actively trying to bring more blacks and Latinos into the field as I discussed a bit in a previous post, but by far the more interesting thing is the rising number of non-Western Orchestras in the US.

What I’ve been doing lately is looking at how the high density ethnic minority regions in the US also correspond with a relatively high number of non-Western Orchestras and ensembles. For example, I’ve found that the Bay Area, with a Chinese-American population close to half a million, sports nearly 2 dozen active traditional Chinese Orchestras. Same can be found in regions that have a high density of ethnic groups throughout the states. There’s still a demand for “High Art Music” –it’s just that ethnic populations are demanding their High Art Music rather than European High Art Music. Question is, can Western Classical music institutions in this country adapt enough to account for that change in taste or will they continue to appeal to a primarily more rapidly aging white audience? And what happens when that ethnic majority demographic becomes a minority as folks are projecting will happen by 2050?

In the end, there’s far more demand for Orchestras than data focusing on Western styled-orchestras would indicate. It’s just that this demand is going to be filled by Orchestras that play music the growing ethnic minorities in this country want to hear.

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Related link:

Portions of this post were adapted from a conversation I’ve been having with Greg Sandow on my facebook page. The full discussion may be found here: http://www.facebook.com/silpayamanant/posts/226938043986077

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Chinese Cellos

Chinese gehu
Chinese géhú (革胡)

In China, there have been many attempts at creating variations on the cello (and bass) to fill out the string section of traditional Chinese Orchestras.  The èrhú (二胡), an ancient instrument that likely originated in Central Asia nearly a millenea ago, probably has the quintessential “Chinese sound” that Westerners imagine when they think of Chinese music though I’m sure a close tie would be the sound of the gǔzhēng (古箏).

The instrument in the photo to the left is a géhú (革胡).  As Brandon Voo states:

The Gehu comes in two sizes, the Da-Gehu (large) and the Diyin Gehu (bass). In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra. The four strings of both sizes are tuned exactly like the cello and double bass and are attached to a machine head with gears.

The wikipedia article for the géhú states that it was “developed in the 20th century by the Chinese musician Yang Yusen (, 1926-1980)” which I’ll have to confirm once I do some research but given the time frame referenced by Brandon Voo in his article regarding the changes undergoing Chinese Orchestras during the 1950s, Yang Yusen’s dates would fit in fine.

Here’s what the géhú sounds like:

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Chinese Cellos”