Classical concerts are also for you, student!

By Michal Grycko

Classical concerts last too long and you need knowledge to enjoy them. That is what many young people believe. Merel Vercammen, violinist and alumna Cultural Economics & Entrepreneurship at EUR, thinks that orchestras can do a whole lot to convince them otherwise. She wrote wrote her master thesis about how to engage younger people in visiting classical music concerts, and this is what she found out. 


Where does your love for classical music come from?
‘My parents have taken me to classical concerts since I was about three years old. People around us were always surprised by how quiet I had been during the concert. From the very beginning I was fascinated by the violin. So I started to ask my parents for a violin – not to their immediate liking I imagine, because children starting to play the violin usually don’t sound great immediately. But I just love the emotional effect of the way in which it can become louder or softer within a single note. A violin can express so many different emotions so clearly. And I think I just liked how elegant it looks.’

I started lessons when I was five and I’ve been playing now for 23 years. I’ve studied at the Royal College of Music in London and the Scuola di Perfezionamento Musicale in Italy. Currently I play as a soloist and in chamber music ensembles. I’ve also created my own show about music and the brain, which uses a specially developed app. And in May I premiered a new violin concerto that was dedicated to me. That was a truly special experience.’

Why did you decide to combine your studies with your love for music?
‘Coming from the world of classical music, I felt I needed to save it - sort of. I noticed that many of my friends don’t go to classical concerts, even if they like the music. Since I very much believe in the power of that music, I wanted to contribute to attracting younger audiences to classical concerts. As a musician I try to do that, but I also wanted to approach it on the level of policy. That’s why I decided to write my master’s thesis on how orchestras can attract younger audiences. It’s the first time data from all Dutch subsidized orchestras have been compared.’

And, what did you discover?
‘In the Netherlands, eighty percent of the people that visit classical concerts are over 45 years old. I’ve asked younger people why they don’t come, and they mentioned two main reasons. For one they think the concert would last too long, and secondly they believe they don’t have enough knowledge to understand the piece that’s being played. I’ve also talked to young people who do visit classical concerts. They are most likely to visit the ones that are recommended to them by peers, so not necessarily the ones that get attention in the media.’

What would you advise orchestras, based on your findings?
‘There are some very simple things they could do. Mention on the website for example how long the concert lasts. Or pay more attention to education, even though I do believe you can enjoy classical music without knowing much about it. If you visit Rembrandt’s Night Watch without knowing anything about art or art history, it is still really impressive.

'Peer-based marketing is another thing orchestras might want to engage in. Maybe they can take on young ambassadors that advice people their age on which concerts to go to. Another thing that works well for young people is an informal setting, because that makes them feel more at home. Think about open-air concerts, or informal, spontaneous presentations. The more informal, the more young people will feel at home.’

Why is it important that young people visit classical concerts?
‘I really believe it can bring you something. There’s so much classical music that gives you energy, makes you experience big emotions, calm you down, or inspire you to reflect upon things. Besides, when we go to foreign countries we love to visit concerts and museums, since it shows us something about the culture and country. Why ignore our own roots?’

‘Of course I do play for younger audiences every now and then. A couple of years ago I played at Into the Great Wide Open, a festival. I played Bach on a boat made out of papier-mâché, and people my age came to listen and loved it. Another time I got a request to play something on the night train from Amsterdam to Utrecht after a concert. People sat on the floor listening to me playing Après un Rêve by Fauré, one of my favorite pieces. A gangster-like guy came down from the next compartment to film it.

'That’s when I realize the importance of setting. A concert hall can feel somewhat stiff and formal. You don’t know when to applaud, you don’t know the rules. That would put me off too. Current audiences don’t always realise that those rules about applauding are actually quite recent, they only exist since the beginning of the 20th century. In Beethoven’s time things were quite different! So why not change it back to an atmosphere in which audiences can openly express their emotions, I wonder.’

What will you do with the results of your research?
‘For a large part I’m already practicing what I preach at my own concerts. I try to create a setting that is less formal, and I like to give an introduction, such as a nice anecdote about the music or what it does to me. Just to break the ice somewhat. I’m also creating new formats that have a totally different format from a regular concert. Aside from that, I work as a policy advisor at the Dutch Council for Culture. We are addressing our system of subsidies: do we reach who we want to reach, and how can we get more people to enjoy those great concerts?’

Do you have any recommendations for students who want to start listening to classical music?
‘I would suggest the Core Classics series by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. You get to hear a masterpiece that only lasts an hour. There’s a presenter, nice lighting, some other young people and an informal setting. You can wear your jeans if you want to. That is true for all classical concerts nowadays by the way, although it can be fun to wear something fancy, too.’

If you could organize something on campus, what would it be?
‘I would organize a night concert, maybe a mix with other musicians and other genres. Everyone can bring their sleeping bag, so you can sleep if you want to. Just a completely relaxed setting.’

More information

Want to know more about Merel Vercammen? Visit her website!

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