Bringing Classical Music Out of the Background for College Students

By Elliot Kuan

Growing up around classical music, I’ve never had to think twice about listening to Bach or Beethoven, much less venturing into the concert hall to hear great music played live, but that’s not the case for many of my college classmates. This problem was sitting on the top of the Amherst College Music Department’s to-do list during this last school year. Because of this, I was invited by Alisa Pearson, the Manager of Concert Programming, Production and Publicity at Amherst College, to join a student innovation team tasked with building community, sparking curiosity and generating excitement for the Music@Amherst concert series.

Throughout the year, I kept seeing my friends posting on Facebook about wanting to learn more about classical music and even had some of my friends ask me for some suggestions for what to listen to. With streaming options like Spotify and YouTube, it’s easier than ever for anyone to dip their toes into the world of classical music. All it takes is a few clicks to begin listening to a curated playlist of “Classical for Intense Focus” or “Background Bach”. It was clear that college students were interested in listening to classical music, but we wondered if we could turn that enthusiasm and curiosity into students in seats at concerts. At Amherst College, students can show up early and put their name on a “student-rush” list so that they can get any remaining tickets for the show completely free. This system should remove any barriers to student attendance, but at the beginning of the year, we weren’t seeing many students taking advantage of this luxury.

One of the goals presented to our student group at the beginning of the year was to demonstrate the relevancy of live music performance. This seems like an issue when you can so easily listen to the mastery of Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma from the comfort of your own room. Fortunately for us, two of the artists that visited our campus were Wu Han and David Finckel. They graciously agreed to hold a question and answer session with us about how they run the Chamber Music Society and how they increased its appeal and relevance among young adults. Of all the useful information that Wu Han gave us that day, the most important piece of advice was to let the quality of the music be the main draw. This gave us renewed confidence in being able to sustain student interest. Once we could get a large number of students into the concert hall, we had a greater chance of them coming back for another concert.

Looking to connect the larger campus community with the activity in the music building, we decided to look into increasing awareness through the location with the most student activity, our dining hall. At Amherst College, we only have a single dining hall for our 1,800 students, so Valentine Hall is guaranteed to be the busiest spot on campus at any given moment. To capture the attention of the school, we decided to enlist the help of our dining hall staff to create themed meals corresponding with our concert series. For example, we had a dinner with all Russian food to celebrate the David Finckel and Wu Han’s “Russian Reflections” concert that same night. This made for a very unique experience because it created an immersive experience for those planning to attend the concert and it raised awareness for the concert because it caused people to wonder why the normal dining hall food was replaced with traditional Russian dishes. For another one of our concerts, we brought the concert to Valentine by inviting our artist, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, to hold an Irish Improv Session during lunch time. This was exciting because it allowed students to have the opportunity to play with a visiting artist and it provided a preview of the concert that night. In addition, students felt more comfortable and interested in a performance if they had some sort of prior connection with the artists.

It was based on this connection aspect that we decided to undertake our largest project with a visiting artist. In order to create a connection with the Amherst Student body, the Parker Quartet graciously agreed to partner with two Amherst College student quartets in presenting an informal performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet. Students came to see their friends and classmates performing with a Grammy Award winning quartet and left in awe of the musicianship of the Parker Quartet. We designed the event to be very intimate and non-intimidating by moving out of our normal concert hall and into a room that resembled a living room. By removing more of the formalities of the concert hall, we were able to reach an audience that might be uneasy about entering the music building.

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By promoting an experience, we found that students were more likely to be excited about concerts and were therefore more likely to invite their friends as well. This impact was easily visible from my job as a music department usher because at the end of the year, we had a student rush line that went out the door! Although my experience of promoting classical music at Amherst College plays off of the specific intricacies of my school, it definitely shows that young people not already involved with classical music are receptive and interested in learning more. This gives me renewed hope in bringing classical to the forefront of the music world in the 21st century!

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