Rethinking the Classical Recital

Several years ago, I attended my very first rock concert show featuring Coldplay. As a classical pianist, I’m used to certain audience conventions that have been standard practice at classical recitals:

  • At the entrance to the recital hall, you’re given a paper program listing the names of the songs being performed, their performance order, and perhaps biographical information about the featured artists.
  • When the artists come on stage, you applaud. When they finish playing the entire song, you applaud. You do not applaud in the middle of a multi-part song (aka in between the first and second movements of a sonata). And you certainly do not applaud in the middle of a song.
  • You remain respectfully silent throughout the performance (with the exception of the appropriate applause). In fact, many times there will be specific mention for the audience to shut off their phones or put them on silent/vibrate mode. Some venues will even provide free cough drops to help keep distracting coughs to a minimum.
  • Cell phone photography/recording (or with any audience carried device) is usually strictly forbidden.
  • You remain seated throughout the performance.

As I entered the ginormous 20,000 seat stadium, I wasn’t given a program. I noticed that there were counters where you could get flashy full color booklets that looked like programs, but those were obviously for sale (and they probably weren’t programs like we’re used to in the classical world).

When Coldplay finally made it on stage, everyone leapt to their feet screaming and cheering and clapping. I stood up too, and thought that once they started playing that everyone would settle down to listen to the music.


Everyone stayed on their feet. For the entire two hour show. Singing along with the band, cheering in the middle of the performance, snapping cell phone pictures without abandon. It was the most visceral musical experience I had felt up to that point, and it got me thinking:

“Why can’t classical concerts get this level of excitement and passion from audiences?” Much less fill a 20,000 seat stadium for a show!

More and more, classical music institutions (conservatories, music schools, orchestras, etc.) have been encouraging their members to engage in “outreach” programs to expose more people to classical music with the hope of getting them excited about our art.  These outreach shows take place at community centers, schools, retirement homes, and sometimes at other non-traditional venues like bars and clubs. One of the biggest elements of these programs is getting the artists to learn to talk to their audiences and get over their fears of public speaking. Unfortunately, most of the training for classical artist talks involve turning them talking about the music and the composer in a format that turns into a mini history or musicology lecture.

This public speaking format comes straight out of programs and playbills from orchestras. I love how Greg Sandow puts it in one of his recent criticisms about a press release from the Boston Symphony:

…the limp way they talked about the music:

The Symphony No. 39 is the first of a set of three (his last symphonies) that Mozart composed in rapid succession during the summer of 1788.

Wow, a set of three symphonies. Composed in quick succession. Back in 1788.

Nothing there to make the heart beat faster. Or to awaken even a slight spike of interest in these symphonies, one of them endearing, the second anxious, and the third grand and powerful.

Why not try something like:

One long-ago summer, in a burst of inspiration, Mozart wrote his three last symphonies. One is intense, another one is grand. And this is the endearing one, warm, enriching music for a summer night today.

So when I was asked (at the last minute) to come up with a solo piano program for the opening of a two week summer music camp/festival, I decided to ditch the old classical warhorses and recital traditions and try to experiment with ways that I think classical music recitals need to change to reach new audiences. Here’s what I did:

  • I believe classical musicians need to get back to playing their own music instead of exclusively playing the music of other (long-dead) people. So the program contained several arrangements I’ve made of movie and pop tunes, including this rendition I wrote from “Man of Steel” (a recent Superman movie) by Hans Zimmer:
  • Other pieces on the program included some really cool (and difficult) arrangements of Michael Jackson tunes by Peter Bence, such as his rendition of “Bad/Smooth Criminal” At the start of the show, the camp director started directing the kids to put their lanyard keys away to keep distracting noises to a minimum, but I stopped her and encouraged them to keep their keys ready (that got the kids really excited!) During the Michael Jackson set, I had everyone in the audience participate in laying down a beat with shaking keys, foot stamps, claps, snaps, and even mouth sounds. Best human metronomes evah! Sooo much fun for everyone!!
  • Knowing that the performance would be taking place in a venue that looks like the interior of a gothic cathedral, I included a fiendishly difficult arrangement of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” from “Harry Potter” by Jarrod Radnich. Needless to say, I didn’t have to introduce the piece – the “oohs” and “aahhs” from the opening line were priceless!
  • For the special delegation of students from mainland China, I wanted to play something that would be more familiar to them. After an extensive bit of research, I came up with one of the theme songs from the #1 soap opera, “Descendants of the Sun” (which happens to be produced in South Korea). The show, by the way, has been viewed over a billion times. I finished writing the arrangement the morning of the show, but it was well worth the effort to hear how excited the Chinese students got when they heard it.
  • I snuck in two classical works – Brahms’ Ballade Op. 10 No. 1 in D minor (“Edward”), and Chopin’s Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33 No. 4 – as examples of classical composers using popular tunes and dances in their own works. In my talk with the kids, Brahms was introduced as “John, with the German name Johannes”, and Chopin was introduced as “Fred”.
  • Speaking of talking, I really wanted to create an experience for the audience that was fun and tailored to them, with the assumption that there would be many that had little to no experience with classical music. Instead of talking about musical structures or boring catalog names in the title (who really cares about opus numbers unless you’re putting together a card catalog?), I would ask questions like, “Who is your favorite superhero?” to introduce my “Man of Steel” arrangement, and talk about how Johnny Brahms’ Ballade could sound like something from a movie soundtrack.
  • No paper programs. The names of the songs were projected onto the piano lid (tip: I discovered that black piano lids do not reflect projector light well. Using a sheer piece of black wrapping paper draped from the lid turned out to be a workable solution. Next time I’ll experiment with black lycra or some other projector-friendly fabric that can stretch for a smoother surface.)
Ditching the traditional classical music paper program and coming up with a new way to show audiences what's next on the show.

Ditching the traditional classical music paper program and coming up with a new way to show audiences what’s next on the show.

Too many of our classical concerts are about the “prestigious” artists and their sophisticated musical selections with little to no regard about creating an experience focused on the people who actually bother to come to our shows. Our audience engagement need to be far more personal than a history lecture. If we have to explain what the composer intends for them to feel while we play, we’ve already lost the battle. We need to program more music that audiences can really relate to, and if we can’t find those pieces, we need to be ready to make our own.

What will you do to get classical music out of a card catalog listing and turn it into a visceral experience for your audiences that keeps them on their feet?


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I did a similar thing at my CD release concert. I didn’t give out programs but still had a “setlist” that we followed. I thin annnounced pieces, talked to the audience while the others were “vamping” to explain what was going on, and even segued between some for a very interesting effect. The pieces were improvisational in nature so this worked well. Two days ago I saw Radiohead in Montreal with over 50 thousand other people. I was right in front of the stage and I know exactly what you mean about the energy of these concerts. The previous band… Read more »