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Opinion | Planting classical music to grow new audiences

The Blue Saxophone Quartet poses with their saxophones outside Dollar General.
The Blue Saxophone Quartet poses with their saxophones outside Dollar General.

IPR's Sound Garden Project musicians approached people at gas stations, golf courses, laundromats and grocery stores, playing music for them and asking for their opinions.

Interlochen Public Radio has been cultivating an innovative project in recent summers. It’s called the Sound Garden Project.

The initiative invites early-career musicians (in college or graduate school) to serve as IPR’s ensembles-in-residence for a summer. This last summer, we hosted two saxophone quartets and one reed quintet.

These ensembles give concerts around the region during their residencies.

This past summer, our Sound Garden groups performed Thursday evening concerts everywhere from Glen Arbor to Traverse City to Charlevoix.

But that’s not the innovative part of this project.

All summer long, these musicians also popped up in places where you might not expect to find classical music. (Hence the name Sound Garden Project - they were planting music in unexpected places)

They approached people at gas stations, golf courses, laundromats and grocery stores, playing short pieces of music for them and asking for their thoughts and opinions.

They asked patrons of a hardware store which color paint swatch best corresponded to the music they played.

They asked shoppers at American Spoon which flavors of their samples best suited the music they were playing.

They popped up in automotive repair shops, laser tag games, dollar stores and rest areas.

One ensemble spent two weeks in residence in Glen Arbor, playing everywhere from playgrounds to rooftops to stores to beaches and fully embedding themselves in the community.

 A saxophonist performs for customers in a shop.

It’s surprising and kind of unusual, right?

It’s also probably not a way that anyone has ever experienced classical music before, which is the whole point. Nobody was sitting still and silent in a chair in front of a stage, afraid they might clap at the wrong time.

There’s always the question of how to get more people exposed to classical music - of course, that’s just the first step. After that, how do we get them to continue to engage with it and, hopefully, develop a lifelong love for it?

The Sound Garden Project is just one of IPR’s approaches to grow audiences for classical music.

We have children and family radio programming in our Kids Commute radio show (season 7 debuts September 5!) and Classical Sprouts podcast, and our program GAMEPLAY is the only radio show in the country dedicated to the music of video games.

But those programs require people to already be listening to IPR, or at least be listening to classical music.

The Sound Garden Project is a way to reach people who had no idea they might be encountering a classical musician that day.

 Fivemind Reeds performs at Oryana

I think it’s pretty obvious that the Sound Garden Project exposes new audiences to classical music.

But does it help with that next step of getting people to continue to engage with classical music after that initial exposure?

We’d love to hear your opinions about IPR’s Sound Garden Project.

Did you encounter any of the musicians in your community this summer? What do you think about this project’s mission and approach? What unexpected places should we consider taking these ensembles in the future?

Email me at amanda.sewell@interlochen.org with your thoughts.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.