It’s time to be more welcoming to young people

Now that the excitement of opening night has died down, I’m thinking about one of the biggest challenges facing the Jacksonville Symphony: How can we attract more young people to our concerts?

I’m not alone. This is a question that every orchestra — indeed every arts organization — struggles with. It’s not a new question either. Although studies have shown that people tend to move toward classical music later in life, I’m always puzzled that many people my age [30] wouldn’t dream of missing the latest exhibition at a major gallery, but never even consider coming to a concert. Or the music is bypassed by others who like classical music but prefer to listen at home. It doesn’t seem that young people are averse to engaging with serious art, so what is it about a concert that is so off-putting?

I don’t remember the first orchestral concert I attended, but I do remember several in my childhood that not only turned me on to classical music, but convinced me I needed to spend my life understanding it. The white heat excitement of an orchestra recreating a masterpiece just feet away from your seat is one the most exhilarating experiences live performances can offer. When I think about those concerts, all I remember is the music. I don’t think about the other members of the audience, or the etiquette of when to clap, or what I was wearing, or what else I could have been doing on a Friday night.

But for many young people, those things do get in the way. The music isn’t the problem, it’s the concert experience. We haven’t really changed the way we present classical music in the last 150 years. We expect newcomers to sit through 90 minutes of music with no explanation of what’s going on, and just figure it out. We assume everyone can come to hear us at the same time every week and, worst of all, we see the lack of young people as a problem rather than an opportunity. Of course, most people come to a concert to hear great music, but seeing friends, meeting new people and having fun is just as important.

At the Jacksonville Symphony, we are dreaming up ways of making our concerts the place to be for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We’re starting a young professionals group. We will be collaborating with downtown bars and restaurants. Next season, we will launch a new concert series that presents masterpieces in a shorter, more informal format with audio and visual presentations, earlier in the evening so people who work downtown can hear us before they go home.

I’m convinced that once we diversify the range of experiences we offer, more and more young people will realize that the symphony is their key to great classical music, and with that, to an infinite world of inspiration.

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