How to pique teens' interest in classical music? Other teens, say young music stars

How can classical music pull in young audiences and combat the stereotype of being antiquated? Talented teen ambassadors could do the trick.

Teens composing, teaching hope to inspire young audiences to share love of classical music

British composer and child music prodigy Alma Deutscher, 13, believes that young people might become interested in classical music if they know others their age are creating it. (CBC)

How can classical music pull in young audiences and combat the stereotype of being antiquated? Talented teen ambassadors could do the trick.

"Some children think classical music is boring and old and it's for old people," declared British composer and child prodigy Alma Deutscher. 

"But if they find out it's not only written by old dead men with beards, it's actually also written by a 13-year-old girl, then they might want to listen to it and find it's very interesting, with beautiful melodies."

For years, classical organizations have chased the under-30 demographic and battled declining young audiences through initiatives like discounted tickets, modernized interpretations and pop-up concerts in unusual venues. There's also been a boom in orchestral performances of movie and video game soundtracks. 

A fresh take on Cinderella

Deutscher, who made her Canadian performance debut Friday as part of the Glenn Gould Prize celebrations, puts forth another idea: young artists writing their own compositions and hopefully piquing the interest of listeners their age. 

I didn't want Cinderella to be another pretty girl who cleans floors and keeps quiet... I wanted her to be clever and talented and triumph in the end because of her own talent and her own will.- Alma Deutscher

"I really want people, when they listen to my music, to like classical music more," said the teenage virtuoso violinist and pianist.

Deutscher composed her first piano concerto as a six-year-old and followed it up with her first full-length opera — a contemporary-minded take on Cinderella — at age 10.  

"It's quite a different story because Cinderella is a composer and the prince is a poet. And it takes place in an opera company, which is run by the step-mother and the two step-sisters want to be diva singers. The prince doesn't find Cinderella with a shoe, he actually finds her with a melody," Deutscher told CBC News this week, as she rehearsed and directed two opera singers who would perform her work.

"I didn't want Cinderella to be another pretty girl who cleans floors and keeps quiet and that's all. I wanted her to be clever and talented and triumph in the end because of her own talent and her own will."

Deutscher, at left, looks on as Canadian soprano Adanya Dunn, 27, does a second take during a rehearsal of the 13-year-old's opera Cinderella in Toronto on Thursday. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

And though she may be young, Deutscher's talent, passion for music and experience is evident immediately, said 32-year-old Canadian tenor Andrew Haji.

"If you think about it, I've been singing longer than she's been alive. But the advice and the coaching that she gives us is actually so smart — it fits the music so well... It's scary that she's at this point professionally at age 13. It's crazy to think where she's going to be when she's 20, when she's 30."

Access, exposure can spark interest

A love of classical music takes access and exposure to it in the first place, according to Canadian musician Ireh Kim, a 15-year-old percussionist and pianist who won first prize in the junior category of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music's Future of Excellence Competition in 2017.

"I feel like [young people] don't have the opportunity to get exposed to classical music as much as adults do," she told CBC News on Friday.

Award-winning pianist and percussionist Ireh Kim, 15, says she thinks most young people aren't classical music fans because they aren't exposed to it. (Music Without Borders Society)

"There's so many influences around [teens], like their friends and the media, especially. They hear more modern music, pop, rap — other genres than classical. I don't think that they find the beauty in classical music because they don't get exposed."

Tapping into existing young classical musicians and fans is key because younger people are more influenced by and interact more often with their peers than adults, she added. 

Kim, whose personal playlist spans K-pop and jazz to 20th-century composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Igor Stravinsky, credits her piano-playing mother as her first music teacher. 

As she continues her music studies, Kim has also jumped into that mentoring role, volunteering as a piano teacher to children under the age of 10. 

"It's kind of like watching myself back in my childhood days," she said.

"It's amazing to see that the kids learn so quickly and they understand what I mean... and they respect all the things I teach them."

With files from Salimah Shivji and Nigel Hunt.