Why I Don't Want to Expose Audiences to Classical Music

Have you ever suddenly become hyper-aware of a word then hear it everywhere? With me, it’s usually the word “like” (which I use far too much as an obnoxious substitute for “um"), but recently the word “exposed” has been hot on my radar.

As presenters in the classical music world, we’ve all said it - we're going to expose someone to classical music. It’s a very convenient way to describe the process of discovery we hope all of our audiences will have.

The thing is, most uses for the word “expose” are negative. It connotes nakedness, uncomfortable vulnerability, unfamiliarity, and bad behavior.

…exposed to the elements…
…exposing a terrible truth…

I know we’re all using “exposed" positively when we talk about music, and it’s true, exposing someone to some kind of knowledge is a completely valid and recognized use of the word. But when we look at the definitions of "expose," its positive meaning is buried among "unprotected," "indecently," or "objectionable."

I think it’s safe to say most musicians don't want their audiences exposed in these ways. But unfortunately, the word is loaded with negative connotations and evokes justifiable feelings of resistance.

Even in the best scenarios, the word feels like a chore or an obligation. Do you imagine being exposed to something to be delightful or just somehow necessary? The "eat your vegetables" mentality is partially caused because "exposure" indicates a total separateness between a person and the thing to which they are being exposed. Rather than uniting someone with their cultural birthright, exposing someone to music sounds foreign and uncomfortable.

Another curious result of using the word “expose” when describing musical experiences is that it negates the active role of listeners. While it can sometimes seem passive, listening to music is an action - absorbing, synthesising, and attempting to understand. The best audience members are anything but passive! Being exposed to something is a passive act during which something is shown to you. Exposure is done to you, not with you.

I propose our role is to share, to facilitate discovery, to reveal.

So much more than near-synonyms, these are words that actually reflect the act of musicking that occurs between a performer and audience member.

As musicians, we spend most of our time working in the realm where words end. But, when we're not performing, words matter. They shape so many of the ways we interact with and, as a result, interpret the world around us.

We have a responsibility to choose our words with care.

So how about it? Let’s all take a look at our mission statements, grant applications, and concert proposals. Let’s check on the words we use when discussing audience development, outreach, program notes, and when speaking to audiences.

There’s no need to expose classical music to that word any more.

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