It’s one of the perennial questions asked by those involved in promoting classical concerts: how do we get more young people (and indeed children) coming to hear how wonderful classical music is live, and to instil in them a real love for concerts and music in general?
There are, of course, several works written specifically for children (most based around a story), but to this writer, they seem very much to be an adults idea of what they think children want to hear, and after a performance, most children can be heard referring to part of the story as their ‘favourite bit’, rather than being that excited by the music itself.
Many orchestras do sterling work in the area of music education too, offering workshops and family concerts, but these either seem to be quite substantially funded, or have very high admission prices (meaning, effectively, they probably mainly attract families of those who already attend concerts anyway).
Many also seem to heavily feature music ‘off the telly’ such as theme tunes, Harry Potter and the like, which is fine, but very different from type of music that classical music lovers really develop a love and passion for.
We thought there must be a way to introduce families to classical music in a way that is only less in terms of quantity and not lesser in quality, without being at all condescending, or having any kind of gimmicks – letting the music speak for itself and letting the music become what the children go away remembering.
Mini Messiah family concert, Saturday 21 December 2013, Colston Hall, Bristol
We hit upon our idea for a ‘Mini Messiah’ family concert during our December 2009 concert – Bristol Choral Society usually performs Messiah on the Saturday before Christmas at the Colston Hall in Bristol every year (since 1892 in fact).
These annual evening performances always draw a good crowd, but in common with most other concerts, the majority of the audience are toward the upper end of the age spectrum. Many of this audience were probably introduced to Messiah by being taken along to performances by their parents when they were children, but it seems this is a tradition that doesn’t seem to happen any more (in fact, it seems to have stopped a generation ago).
On that night in 2009, there was one 8-9 old girl who was sitting near the front of the audience – on watching her, it was apparent she was almost comatose by the end of the first half, and did not return for the second, which is a shame: It is great music, but it is too long for most children to take in one sitting, and (to this writer) most of the more exciting music happens in parts II & III, but if they don’t make it past part I, they will never know that!
So the idea of Mini Messiah came to us – how about picking out 10-12 varied numbers and squeezing them into an afternoon concert lasting under an hour, to make a family-friendly introduction to Messiah capable of exciting and holding the attention of all?
On Saturday 18 December 2010 at 4:30pm, our Mini Messiah was born: Would anyone be there to hear it? Would they stay past the first 10 minutes? Would anyone be able to hear anything over the protestations of bored and restless children?
Well, we are pleased to report nearly a thousand people turned up, including hundreds of children, and despite a few bathroom visits during proceedings, all stayed until the end. Even more surprising was the level of quiet in the auditorium once the music started (it wasn’t quite library hush, but the atmosphere was very much that of enthralment and wonder – I have to say, unlike performances of, say, Babar the Elephant that I have attended where a lot of the children were bored, restless, and noisy). The biggest source of gratification, however, was the obvious joy that it brought to this almost entirely new audience – this was evident in the genuine warmth of reception that the performance received, and seeing the pleasure of the children expressed in such ways as dancing on their seats throughout!
So, some practicalities if you might be thinking of staging a similar event for children with your group:
What to perform: Messiah is ideal as you can pick and choose some of the 50-odd short numbers to make your varied programme, nothing is too long and the music is easily enjoyable on a first listen. The idea could work just as well for other pieces too, just remember the basic idea is to cut down on quantity and not the quality. The idea is to engage people and bring them back again and again, not to put them off for life! If speaking to your audience, little and often is probably best.
Costs: As we were already staging an evening performance, the additional cost of the family concert was very low: orchestra and soloists were already booked, and kindly agreed to this extra concert during what would ordinarily be rehearsal time for little extra fee. During the afternoon rehearsal, we don’t ‘rehearse’ as such – just top and tail some choruses as we know Messiah so well – we perform it all from memory in fact! We also insist that our soloists do the same, so this was actually a great opportunity for choir and soloists alike to have a nerve-settling run in a more informal situation. A comprehensive publicity campaign was run on a very small budget (more below).
Price: Because of the low costs, we were able to offer very reasonable ticket prices. This is important not just because family budgets are tight, but also one of the main aims should be to make your concert attractive to people who would never normally go to concerts, but are looking for inexpensive entertainment and activities for them and their children.
We settled on a price of £5 for adults with accompanied children (under 18) FREE, and it succeeded in attracting a very large audience, with the children being principally of primary school age.
Note that just having free child tickets does not mean you will have families flocking to a concert – many ‘regular’ classical concerts have free or very cheap (£1) child tickets, but none of them have hundreds of children in the audience – appealing and targeting the family market VERY CLEARLY is a MUST if you want to attract the right crowd:
Publicity: Don’t just do what you usually do for a concert – that may be fine for reaching your typical classical audience, but the whole point of doing a family concert is that it appeals to just about exactly the people who don’t usually go to classical concerts. Do what you usually do, plus make sure you go and find, and appeal to, your target audience – in this case in anyone with children! Here are some things we did for a minimal sum:
* design an appealing flyer (no fuddy-duddy-ness!) and make it sound like something parents will think they and their children will enjoy
* if you have free child admission, make it a selling point – ‘Family concert kids go FREE!’ is a simple and effective way to get that message across
* make sure your flyers get on display at family attractions etc
* get listed in the family magazines in your area – such as Primary Times (early deadlines!)
* when doing internet listings, put it in the ‘family/kids’ category, not ‘classical concerts’
* likewise, at libraries, put flyers in the children’s section if they have one
* make sure you get flyers into schools (and in their newsletters) – parents in your group should be able to do many and your local music service may be able to help too
* if you have flyers left, get down to any supermarket or shopping centre on a Saturday morning – don’t forget, anyone with children is your target audience!
The legacy? Who knows….it’s too early to tell, but we would like to stage our Mini Messiah family concert every year on the afternoon before our complete evening performance. Over those coming years, we hope families will come back year after year.
We would like nothing more than to inspire a generation of Bristol children about Messiah, music and concerts in general. It would be great to think that in 10-20 years, some of that audience is there because they came to love Messiah at our family concerts. Even sooner than that, it may well be that in just a few years’ time, when the little one isn’t so little any more and ‘down the mall’ on a Saturday afternoon instead, that their parents will think ‘I quite miss going to that Messiah – shall we go to the whole thing this year?’.
As the saying goes, ‘children are the future’, and if the (10-20 year +) future of your group looks grey, now is the time to do something about it!
Even if there are no future benefits to be gained, we have found this to be an enormously uplifting and worthwhile experience anyway – so much so that we staged a ‘stand-alone’ Mini Messiah again on 26 November 2011, even though, for one of the few occasions since 1892, we did not perform a complete Messiah that December (we performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Mark Padmore instead). Despite the fact it was just an ‘ordinary’ weekend, not in the Christmas holidays that year, more than one thousand people turned up, so it seems they wanted to come back for more and brought their friends!
Mini Messiah family concert, Saturday 21 December 2013, Colston Hall, Bristol – click to view flyer
In 2013, our Mini Messiah family concert will once again precede our complete evening performance (our 120th Messiah anniversary!) on Saturday 21 December 2013 at 4:30pm at the Colston Hall, Bristol. As before, ticket prices for Mini Messiah will be £5 for adults with accompanied children (under 18) FREE – see the flyer above and book your tickets online here *
It seems to have really become established in 2012, attracting a record audience. One 6-year old came up to us at the end and said he was coming to the whole evening concert next year – wonder if he’s got his ticket yet?
The same can be said for 2013 too – seeming to be more popular than ever, so make sure to book now!
If you have children, bring them along! If you don’t, please tell someone who does, and if you’re in another part of the country thinking ‘we could do that’, then go ahead and do it. We’re pretty sure you will be glad that you did!
This is an updated version of a blog first posted Oct 30 2011.
* BCS online booking fee of £2.50 per order (no matter how many tickets bought). Card fees also apply at Colston Hall. No booking fees if paying by cash/cheque at Colston Hall