How to reach the next generation

Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is bringing music education back to the classroom, and engaging the next generation of music lovers. Director Simon Reinink explains how

We’re currently working on a digital learning initiative for kids in Dutch primary schools, and this week we launched a huge new plan to bring music education back into the classrooms. Over the last couple of decades, kids have been receiving very little music education in schools. It’s due largely to increased demands on teachers to spend more time on other subjects, meaning fewer of them have the necessary resources to give good music lessons.

We looked at the kinds of learning tools used in other subjects, like the digital aids commonly used in teaching languages or history, and we quickly realised that music was perfectly suited to that sort of teaching. From that point on, we tried to work out what the main barriers would be for getting those sorts of digital learning tools designed and built for music. Partly it’s a case of finding someone to take up the initiative, and partly it has to do with money. Getting this stuff created is expensive. So we went out and raised over €1.5m to put towards the project. The tools are now just beginning to be built, and they’ll be launched in schools in January 2016.

In the longer term we’d like for this to be more than an initiative taken up only between the Concertgebouw and our education partnerships. We’re hoping that we can involve as many orchestras and musicians as possible in helping to endorse the initiative, and of course to get it out to as many kids as we possibly can. The initial target is to reach 300,000 children in the first few years, so it’s going to take some work.

Undoubtedly, working and engaging with younger audiences is one of the cornerstones of our whole mission. It’s extremely important to us, and we’ve found that the sooner you can get them acquainted with this wonderful music, the more they’ll enjoy it later in life.

It’s not necessarily that we want to have them as our future customers: we want the kids to be able to make their own choices about music as they grow, and in order to be able to make informed choices, they have to have a strong grasp of what’s going on.

The most gratifying thing you find with younger children is that they’re so open to hearing new things. They have no benchmark in place yet, and so they’ll happily give anything a go – even challenging contemporary music, which of course they don’t even know is challenging and contemporary. Really they just listen to what’s going on, undisturbed by the knowledge or prejudice we grown-ups might have. Which, in fact, is the right and only way to listen.

In terms of broader engagement, we’re incredibly privileged at the Concertgebouw in that we have a very diverse programme. It’s important to stress that while 50 per cent of the programmes we present are organised by ourselves in-house, the other half is achieved through a series of rentals. For example the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Master Pianists series, the famous Saturday Matinee and the Netherlands Philharmonic – they all have their own series here, so it’s already a very diverse programme. We want to maintain that, and to reach out to as many people as possible. That requires a very broad profile, which we must balance with our ongoing remit as one of the top-notch institutions on the European landscape to consistently present the best of the best.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about the future of classical music, trying to foresee what its relevance could and should be over the next five to 10 years. I’m interested in this question because I do see a certain difference between the ‘classical’ audiences and the newer target groups – but it’s not necessarily in the way you might expect.

On the one hand, it’s the newer groups that can be quite conservative, because what they often want is to hear something very classic – say, Mozart’s 40th or the Moonlight Sonata – but in a slightly different atmosphere. While a strong feeling remains that says the music itself is wonderful, something we must cherish and preserve, the presentation of it is much more open to question these days. Must a concert be two and a half hours long, or is it fine to present just an hour’s worth of music? Should there be an intermission or not? What kind of hospitality do we want to offer?

All of these questions are very relevant to us, but they’re tricky to answer, and we’ve adopted several initiatives in trying to address them. Most directly and importantly, we speak often with our customers through a series of panel discussions and feedback sessions. We also experiment regularly with start times and concert lengths, evaluating results and seeing what works or doesn’t work. You must be flexible at all times: you can study this business for years and years, but theory pales into insignificance alongside experience of the real thing.

Five years ago we launched Tracks, a concert format where performances started at 9pm and lasted just an hour, with no intermission. They usually feature multimedia, lighting and projection, and the musicians present the programme themselves. They’ll talk about their choices to the audience and try to connect with them in a contemporary way, rather than the old-school conductor method of appearing in silence, turning their back to the audience and just beginning.

Our Classics strand takes an entirely different approach to achieving the same sort of thing. It’s a dinner-based, literal red carpet affair with a very festive atmosphere, presenting a concert of ‘highlights’, as it were, from various operas and symphonies. Again, the idea is to connect with people and give them a sort of taster course, in the hope of helping them to discover what they really like and learn more about the artform as a whole.

The crucial importance of being connected with your audience is especially evident via the internet and social media: if you’re not online, you don’t exist. When I started in my job here in 2006, we only sold about eight per cent of our tickets online, and it’s now more like 60 per cent. It’s not a surprise, it’s just the reality of it. And so the tone of voice and the aesthetic we use in our online communications – especially the images, which play such a huge role now – is very carefully considered at all times.

Have audiences changed as drastically as the rest of the infrastructure catering to them? I would say yes and no: the more ‘classical’ audiences are definitely still a strong group, and of course they have particular expectations when it comes to the way a concert should be presented, but some of them are a lot more innovative and less conservative than you might expect. And younger, newer groups often want that classical live experience, and to hear the compositions they’d imagined. Again, it’s the format of the concerts that they’re more keen to see changing – the settings, the tone and the atmosphere.

On top of the educational outreach initiatives, all of these questions are keeping us very busy going forward. Either way, the music itself is always the one thing that, thankfully, nobody seems to want to mess around with very much at all.