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But I Don't Like Classical Music!

Occasionally I hear pupils quote the age-old excuse “but I don’t like classical music”, whether it is in response to an invitation to a concert, the opportunity to learn an instrument or the offer to join a musical ensemble. I must be honest at this point and say that I may well have used this line myself in my youth. So why don’t young people like classical music? 

When asked if they can elaborate on their dislike for classical music, one often hears it stated assertively that classical music is ‘slow’ or ‘boring’. Again, full disclosure, I understand where they are coming from, and I must admit I find some classical music to be both slow and boring, but there is a whole world of classical music in which I am certain there is something for everyone. One young man recently told me that he didn’t understand classical music, and I wonder if this brings us closer to the truth of the matter. As they say, people fear what they don’t understand. 

One of my favourite works of art is the 2005 Turner Prize winner ‘Shedboatshed’, by Simon Starling. To create this work, the artist took his shed, turned it into a boat, sailed it down the river to the gallery, where he turned it back into a shed. Were you to go and see ‘Shedboatshed’, all you would see is a shed. As with any form of art, understanding the meaning or the story behind a work, opens the door to an appreciation for, or at least the chance to form an educated opinion about it. This is certainly the case for classical music, and perhaps this is the problem, that without a prior understanding of a piece of music it will remain a mysterious series of instrumental sounds that we don’t understand, and are therefore intimidated by. 

However, hope is not lost. With some initial guidance and brief explanation, classical music starts to make sense, in the way a painting or a conceptual piece about a shed does. Eventually, we start to learn the language of classical music. I don’t mean the specific notes and rhythms, but instead what it means when the brass section turn it up to eleven for example, or when a solo flute plays a mournful lament, or when the strings (notorious for being pack animals) start galloping. We quickly build up a library of stories and meanings that we assign to music without realising it. We just need to be pointed in the right direction. 

At Warwick School our pupils have the opportunity to learn the surprisingly simple language of classical music through guided listening and discussions as part of our Year 7 Music Scheme, class music and extra-curricular ensembles. For other members of the school community, namely parents and staff, I highly recommend the excellently curated, weekly Recommended Listening which can be found in the school newsletter. I forget the name of the chap who writes it… 

So, classical music is there for those willing to give it a chance. But what can be done by those on the ‘inside’ of classical music – orchestras, ensembles, soloists, concert promoters and educational institutions, to make the art form more accessible, better understood and less intimidating to the as yet uninitiated? 

I’ve often wondered why orchestras take to the stage in clothes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Titanic. In Mozart’s day orchestras wore tights and powdered wigs, so orchestras must have moved with the fashion up to a point, but progress seemed to stop in the 1800s. I am relieved to say that there currently seems to be a movement in the modern orchestral world for a more up-to-date dress code. Our good friends Orchestra of the Swan, as well as programming some truly innovative music, and pioneering interesting collaborations with guest artists, have a refreshing approach to their attire. While they don traditional dress for some performances, often, they appear on stage dressed in Jeans and T-shirts when the music calls for it. 

I hope more orchestras follow suit. I am certainly keen to play down the formality with which classical music is perceived in our own concerts and performances at Warwick School, especially if it means our young musicians and our audiences can better connect with the music, or are more willing to dip a toe in the murky waters of western art music. 

Give the recommended listening a go in the Warwick Newsletter, come to a school concert, or go and hear our professional partners Orchestra of the Swan, and you will see there is nothing to fear here. 

Mr Robertson | Director of Music