By Bristol Choral Society

I'm sure we've all looked around at the audience at a classical concert and found it, in general, depressingly grey. This seems a perpetual question of concert promoters: How do we attract more young people to concerts, and how do we encourage that love of listening to music? One way must be to make concert-going something that is just normal to children as they grow up - to make it part of what they do, rather than what 'the elite' do, or something that is for 'other people'.

Of course, lots of children get exposed to music at school through performing, but we will still need audiences in the years ahead, not just performers, and let's be honest here, if a child's only experience of hearing music performed live is at an early-years school concert, they probably won't end up thinking that is something they want to pay to do in their spare time later in life! There are, of course, several works written specifically for children (most based around a story), but to me they seem very much to be an adult's 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 excited by the music itself.

Many orchestras do very good work in the area of music education too, offering workshops and family concerts, but these are often 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 at Bristol Choral Society 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.

We hit upon our idea for a Mini Messiah family concert during our December 2009 concert – our Society usually performs Messiah at the Colston Hall in Bristol on the Saturday before Christmas and has done so every year since 1892. 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!

The legacy? Who knows….it’s too early to tell, but we hope to stage our Mini Messiah family concert every year on the afternoon before our complete evening performance which makes it an inexpensive add-on to our evening concert. 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!

Our Mini Messiah family concert this year will take place on Saturday 26 November 2011 at 4:30pm at the Colston Hall, Bristol. As last year, ticket prices will be £5 for adults with accompanied children (under 18) FREE. 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!

You can find a 'how to' guide on staging your own similar event, including what to perform, how much it might cost, and, most importantly, how to get the publicity right at Bristol Choral Society's blog here.