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

Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

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