Some “Adults Only” Virtual Learning

You have to love the internet. It is always insightful to see what and how the current generations of college students are thinking. To that end, the ever-resourceful Ron Spigelman encouraged his current class of students enrolled in Drury University’s MUSC 284: Audience Connection to respond to an article written by Holly Mulcahy on the topic of adult education entitled Adults Only. In addition to teaching this class Ron is also the Music Director for the Springfield (MO) Symphony

You can learn a little more about the course in a great article published at Butts In Seats from 3/20/2006, but according to the course description students are expected to learn how to "…connect to an audience, in order to make music accessible, visceral and relevant [and] involve coaching on how to present music to adults and children…" Since Ron regularly incorporates material from popular online classical music blogs and columns, it seems the topic of Adults Only fits right into what the students are working on.

Ron posted the following student responses as a comment to Holly’s article as well as the 10/1/2007 blog here at Adaptistration, pointing to the original article. I found the student’s responses expanded the discussion in enough healthy directions that I would post them here as a separate article and invited Holly Mulcahy to offer her thoughts on their responses. Additionally, I thought I’d throw a few observations of my own in as well at the very end.

From The Drury University Students

Dan: Children’s musical education should not just be developing future patrons. I believe that there should be equal opportunity for adults and children to become educated musically. I agree to some extent that children learn from emulating their parents, however, certain things do not translate. If a child does not like classical music, even if their parents do, they may not like classical music. And that is ok. Not everyone enjoys the same things. Some people would prefer to go sailing, some would prefer a trip to the movies, some would prefer hearing Rachmaninoff on stage. No amount of education can force someone to enjoy something they do not like. People can appreciate the talent, skill and fortitude needed to perform music professionally (or sail for that matter), but that does not mean that they have to love every second of it. I also agree that adult music education could be beneficial. I believe many adults would be willing to pay to learn. But more importantly that adding an extra source of revenue, adult education could bring about appreciation of music, and in turn, cultivate a love for it. However, this is subjective to the person. Education in any form should not have the primary goal to make money, build audiences, or develop patrons. Education should be to educate those who do not know. What happens after that is up to the individual.

Katie: Interesting idea, Holly. However, I feel presenting an "educational" program for parents is even more berating and elitist than doing a show for children. It seems to say, "Since you don’t know jack about music and good parents do know about music, we’ll teach you something at our just-for-parents day." Boo! I would be insulted if my child came home with a note in her backpack telling me to attend this.

I do think you make a good point that education should involve all ages. Keeping with your idea of children and parents, I feel a better idea would be to offer such a free concert to entire families. In my family, the arts were always a way to connect – a common vocabulary to use. Some families have nothing to bind the ties. We can change that. In a society where the idea of spending quality time together is foreign, let us use art to create a consuming learning experience as well as something with which a family can engage and interact.

Maybe patrons will come of these free concerts, and maybe they won’t. But who really cares? Sure, we all want to touch a life – and hopefully one day that life will come back and buy a ticket. But in the end, I think that is a shallow goal for any group that cashes in on "educating" or "enriching" the community.

Amy: I remember those educational activities and field trips, and often times I would have preferred a magic show, too! However, I think the "precious few" who enjoy the concerts are the key. I can specifically remember being fascinated by a gospel choir that visited my elementary school. Then in middle school, a trip to a local art museum stands out in my mind as the first time I recognized the wide variety of artistic creations. Vocal music and fine arts are now two things that I study. I agree that many children will not find value in such events, but they give children the opportunity to observe the arts. These observations could allow kids to appreciate something new, and maybe even influence their future.

Ellie: While I might agree that the arts have created a "very tired educational theme", I don’t think it is an irrelevant theme. I think it simply needs to be woken up, expanded on, and explored more in depth… that is, we need to find out what would make a kid as excited about a symphony performance as they might be about a magician. I.e. make the performance interactive or add visual elements to the performance rather than just the usual audio… Or -go crazy- get the kids to play the come participate in the performance- maybe play an instrument???? I’m sure there are many more creative ideas to be acted upon than the previously listed, but the point I’m getting to is that gearing the arts towards students is not a lost cause. I can tell you, as a child who grew up in a home with parents in the medical profession whose passions were science and history, camping, and football, that the argument that a child will grow to enjoy only the things their parents enjoy is simply untrue. While I do enjoy similar things as my parents I also can still remember my first school trip to see a ballet at a local theater and how inspired I was at the age of 6… Ever since then, my love of art has only grown. Now, while pursuing my undergraduate degree in arts administration and design arts, I also teach and choreograph ballet for the local ballet company, working closely with the town’s arts council…I would say I’m a patron for the arts. On that note- it is my opinion that it is absurd for the arts’ goal in these educational themes to simply be creating future patrons. Future patrons WILL be created if the focus of the arts is, instead of finding patrons, touching people’s lives and inspiring them the way I was inspired the first time I saw Swan Lake or heard the Clair de Lune performed live or when I watch Michelle Kwan ice skate on t.v. While I don’t think targeting adults more as an audience is an unwise decision for any arts group, I do think that children can be inspired just as easily if not more so. Even if they are not captivated in the way I was as I watched my first ballet, there is at least a seed planted that can continue to be grown, whether by their parents or other arts groups, teachers, friends, etc.

From The Author

Holly Mulcahy:First of all, thanks to the students for commenting on my article and thanks to their teacher for bringing this topic into his class. I think there is a lack of conversation on the topic of educating future music lovers and it’s great to hear everyone’s ideas. Reading their responses made me think about how I used to view about these issues during my college years and how I look at them now, as an experienced professional that has dealt with the reality of the business head-on, and my conclusions are that significant changes are desperately needed.

Educational programs don’t have to be stupid for parents. In fact, there’s an entire field of mission-based communication called Interpretation that is fast becoming a primary tool for groups such as environmental and wildlife organizations to train adults who specialize in teaching a wide variety of target audiences – including parents.

The concept of Interpretation works for on-on-one communication as well as group-to-group communication. You can call this communication education, outreach, or whatever else you feel like but in the end it’s a way to help people learn more about something, become interested in knowing more, and supporting a cause.

For example, one method of mission-based communication is to approach an in-depth topic by introducing a single point. You can apply this to orchestras by creating a program called "the rest of the music" that would feature an orchestra playing movements where the rests are in intricate part of that piece, allowing the introduction of what a grand pauses are and how they are used. The parents walk away with an appreciation for one of the more dramatic components of music and an increased level of self confidence without berating anyone.

Sure, the art is the most important element of what musicians do on stage and we should be noble with our education efforts toward adults. After all, I want those same adults to become future ticket buyers and future donors. But more importantly, I want those adults to become what is most important to me: a sincerely knowledgeable audience member.

Additional Thoughts

Drew McManus: I was struck by how most of the students seemed adverse to the concept that outreach/educational activities and selling tickets are related activities. For example, a few of the students expressed concern that educational activities might be designed as a way to increase revenue. I’m curious to know why some of them see educational opportunities and potential ticket sales as separate activities when in my mind, they are inextricably combined.

It would be interesting to learn more about what the students perceive as "cashing in" since that basic concept is fairly flexible. Granted, it isn’t difficult to understand that perspective when you look at ticket prices (it would cost a family of four well over $100 to attend an average masterworks performance) or any number of current outreach activities that amount to nothing more than educational pabulum.

Regardless, all performing arts organizations have to generate revenue and sell tickets in order to fulfill their organizational and/or program mission goals. After all, that’s the primary function for an orchestra’s administrative arm: manage day-to-day operations (control cash flow), develop funds (generate unearned income), and sell tickets (generate earned income).

I’m all for lowering the average cost of tickets but let’s assume for a moment that event has come to pass and it now costs closer to $50 for a family of four to attend an average masterworks concert. Would the students have the same point of view? If so, why?

I was also struck by how some of the students thought it was elitist to assume that some parents would want to have some educational opportunities to learn more about classical music and live orchestral performances in particular. I’m curious to know how the students feel about outreach efforts which include increased interaction among musicians and patrons. What do they think these groups talk about during such functions?

I hope that some of the students have time to think about these ideas from a dynamic perspective. I also hope there’s time in the near future to explore some of these other issues in greater detail.

You have to love the internet. What are your thoughts on all of this? I think it would be terrific to hear from Adaptistration’s regular group of manager/musician/patron readers as well as some more college students. Take a moment out of your day and weigh in with your thoughts and observations.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “Some “Adults Only” Virtual Learning”

  1. No generalization is true, including this one, but I tend to think that kids have a tendency to follow their grandparents rather than their parents. So, if the grandparents love concert music, the kids are likely to; if the parents love music, the kids are going to hate it.

    May or may not be true, but it’s worth thinking about.

    What I think has a higher probability of being true is that the key to creating music lovers is not education, it’s exposure. The love of music will come first; then will come the education.

    And, there are those of us who love, and are addicted to, music but can’t read music, can’t play an instrument,and can’t tell a cantata from an oratorio or an andante from an allegretto.

    I find it interesting that the students seemed to be more comfortable arguing against something than arguing for it. I would have welcomed some concrete suggestions.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: My mother disapproved of my love of classical music and of the time spent listening to it — via recording or at concerts. She took active measures to dissuade me.


  2. Holly, Drew, good ideas. I read your article on The Partial Observer, but I made a new mental connection today when I saw the expanded discussion.

    Rice has published two free music appreciation courses on its Connexions site. One appears to be based on the other; I’m not sure which is better. See for “Michael’s Sound Reasoning” and for “Sound Reasoning”. While I haven’t taken the courses yet, I have read a write-up on them that sounded like it might suit the purposes of this discussion.

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