Posted May 8, 2009

The Art of Listening

In the world of classical music and jazz, they call it "the audience crisis." Experts say fewer Americans are attending performances and the average age of ticket buyers may be rising faster than the age of the general population.

If that's true, then Temple's Steven Kreinberg is a foot soldier in the battle to win younger audiences, and the class he teaches every semester, "The Art of Listening," is his latest weapon.


Kreinberg, an associate professor of music history in Temple's Boyer College of Music and Dance, has been teaching music appreciation classes to non-majors for more than three decades. But "Art of Listening" is different. Like about half of the courses in Temple's new General Education program (or GenEd), Kreinberg's course has a Philadelphia Experience theme — it's loaded with out-of-the-classroom, experiential learning opportunities.

Built into the syllabus are field trips to eight orchestral, chamber music, jazz, opera, choir and pop vocal performances at Philadelphia's flagship arts venues. The range of concerts is breathtaking, from a recital by classical pianist Jonathan Biss at the Independence Seaport Museum to an evening with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.

Students are required to write up four concert reports of at least five pages, incorporating research from Boyer's music library. Many also blog about their off-campus experiences. At performances, students are urged to introduce themselves to the people sitting next to them and to ask them why they're there and what got them interested in music.

Each field trip is paired with in-class listening experiences, often featuring intimate live music that teaches students the nuances of composition and performance. To prepare for a Temple University Opera Theatre production of The Marriage of Figaro and a Kimmel Center concert by jazz vocalist Diane Schuur, Kreinberg brought Christine Anderson, a Boyer voice and opera faculty member, and Angela Devine, a voice student, to his class for a demonstration. While Anderson explained spine and rib cage position, foreign language pronunciation and head singing versus chest singing, Devine shifted between a Handel aria and an Etta James blues standard.

"My underlying goal is to build their ears," said Kreinberg. "But the thing that's different about 'The Art of Listening' is the idea of getting off campus … Philadelphia is a mecca of the arts and culture, so not to take advantage of this city would be a tragedy. This is an opportunity to take these students out to enjoy something that will change their lives."

To do that, Kreinberg faces bigger challenges than bringing out students' latent love of music. What keeps many young people away from concert halls, he says, is not knowing how to behave. So Kreinberg spends almost as much time teaching etiquette as he does teaching music. He teaches them how to buy tickets, how to dress and when to clap. Avoid jeans, he advises, but don't wear sneakers — and never, ever, send text messages ("performers can see the light — it's distracting").

Although some "Art of Listening" students grouse that the older concertgoers sitting next to them violate every rule in the book, they all agree on one thing: The combination of Kreinberg's devotion to music and the excitement of witnessing live performances in the city has opened their minds.

"After taking the course I understand what goes on behind the scenes and what it takes to compose the pieces that were presented to me," said Corrine L. Williams, a freshman biology major from Delaware, who admitted that she once struggled to understand why people like classical music. "Dr. Kreinberg being so enthusiastic about the music himself ignited something in me to enjoy the music more than I did before. I would definitely buy a ticket and invite my friends to spend a night at the Kimmel Center and listen to some good music."

That sentiment is music to the ears of people in the arts establishment, many of whom are desperate to get young people in the doors and hooked on their product.

"We have a gray-haired audience," admits Sonya Garfinkle, director of education at the Chamber Music Society of Philadelphia. "What Steven is doing matters so much because he's not preaching to the choir. Some of his students have never attended a concert. It's especially important with the limited amount of music that's taught in schools today."

Kreinberg insists that some of the heavy lifting is done by the music itself. Every student who opens up enough to emotionally engage a Beethoven symphony will be bowled over, he says.

"You just need to bring them to Beethoven, and Beethoven will do the magic," Kreinberg says. "But you also have to engage the intellect, and that takes a little more sweat because the student has to think about music in a way they never thought about before. When you combine emotion with intellect, you have made a concertgoer forever."