Young musicians compose their dreams amid changing classical music scene

By Siyuan Du

After practicing with his cello for almost six hours alone in the small rehearsal room, Michael van der Sloot picked up the bow to play music he composed himself. No matter what happens, he disciplines himself to spend at least four hours every day with his cello.

“I mean it really is my life,” said van der Sloot, a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. “I met my girlfriend through music. My entire family is musical and it’s want I want to do for a career.”

The audience for live classical music is shrinking – and aging. Yet a community of talented young performers who value classical music is growing and they want to make performance an irreplaceable part of their life. The contrary trends are making young musicians’ dreams and lives more challenging.

The classical music industry, just like all industries in the music world, is facing increasing pressure to market, attract larger audience and broaden financial channels that could accommodate more talented musicians. Chicago, a city gifted with a long history and rich resources of classical music, is also struggling to keep the concerts tradition survive and thrive.

The Music Institute of Chicago, one of the three largest and most respected community music schools in the country, is passionate about the value of music for all people. The Academy, a nationally recognized program affiliated with the institution, held a student showcase concert at Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia Festival recently. Sixteen student performers as young as 13 took part in the concert.  Many Academy students are in high school.

“There has never been so large a number of spectacularly talented performers – young, middle age, old – than there are today throughout the spectrum in the whole world,” said Jim Setapen, director of the Academy. “To connect classical music more with a larger audience, we should break down the stereotypes that many people have about it being either boring or intimidating or too long. ”

Carren Chen, a stay-at-home mom, makes the long commute for her 16-year-old son, Zach Vrandon, to study violin at the Academy even though they live in Michigan . “I hope music can enrich his life,” Chen said. “If he feels sad or happy, he can express more than just words.” But when it comes to her son’s future career, she is a little worried.

Vrandon, a high school sophomore, finds it more difficult to balance practicing violin and his coursework. But he values music as the most important thing in his life and dreams of being a violinist.

“Of course I’ll support where ever his heart takes him,” Chen said. “But as a mom, of course you are kind of worried about how he is going to make a living, because now the classical music industry is not doing well.”

“The classical music in not in the common culture of the entire country,” said Joseph LoSchiavo, CEO of Soli Deo Gloria Inc., a Chicago suburban company that promotes music events. There also isn’t as much even on public television as it used to be. ”

Although different parts of the music world are facing some common challenges, the classical music industry is going through an extremely difficult time to keep up with the pace of the contemporary society.  While the audience for classical music is shrinking and aging, music institutions are looking for creative marketing strategies to attract more young people into the concert hall. And young musicians abound.

World-famous orchestras, like the Chicago Symphony, attract large audiences and work hard to revive a more widespread culture of classical music. But local organizations and the younger generation majoring in classical music should take action, according to Setapen.

Photo at top: Students with the Academy of the Music Institute of Chicago performing at Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia Festival this month. (Siyuan Du/Medill)