When Stephen Sondheim died last November, it was revealed that throughout his career the great songwriter had written copious responses to his fans’ letters. Twitter was briefly awash with heart-warming examples of his gracious thanks and detailed answers – there’s even an Instagram account dedicated to them.


But what sort of wide-eyed geek actually writes to a famous musician? Well, me, for starters – the 17-year-old version at least, on a high from being released from school into the cultural wonderland of London. A visit to Wigmore Hall to see cellist Steven Isserlis left me reeling and pre-internet I must have had to go to the local library to find the British & International Music Yearbook to hunt down his agent’s address. I don’t remember what I wrote – no doubt it was fervent and profoundly uncynical – but there came an answer of several generous pages (now lost in the muddle of my storage).

I’m not the only one to have experienced this. Colin Dunn, now a hire librarian at Boosey & Hawkes, has written several such letters. He remembers writing to John Cage: ‘I wrote a fan letter to his address, which I gleaned from an International Who’s Who in Music. I’d met him briefly in Glasgow at a new music festival. My letter was rather snivelling: “Thank you for being an inventor of genius.” A reply arrived within a couple of weeks: “Dear Mr Dunn,” he began, and then his words became illegible, but he seemed to want to enter into a correspondence. He was using special carbon copy paper and I would have had to scribble my reply on his original. I spent too long thinking about what to do, as I wanted to keep his original handwriting, but sadly he died, so I never replied.’

As an aspiring teenage conductor, David Pievsky, now a barrister and amateur violinist, wrote to Mark Wigglesworth, having watched him conduct Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 from the front row: ‘I still remember the exact moment in the last movement that he did something that greatly affected me. There was something about that time – I was starting to understand the effect of the conductor on the music. There was a young naivety in writing to him – I just thought I needed to ask someone how to become a conductor.

‘The letter I received back was handwritten, courteous, thoughtful and full of realism: that at my age I should bury myself in music and enjoy myself and see what happens. I should go for it, but only if I felt a compulsion and could not imagine doing anything else. He even offered for me to come and meet him and watch a rehearsal, but at that point my shyness kicked in. But I was touched and impressed that he had found the time to write to a random boy who had sat in the front row of his concert and who had questions.’

By comparison, a teenager discovering classical music today has it easy, with an array of social media platforms through which to discover photos, videos, musical opinions and even practice advice from their heroes. They might receive a ‘like’ on their interaction and even a response. Back in 2008, violinist Hilary Hahn was one of the first players to use social media, initially running a quirky Twitter account expressing the personal views of her violin case. She quickly learnt the power of communicating with fans as herself, posting across the range of social media channels (her Instagram account now has nearly 400k followers), offering videos of her playing, playlists, photos and her very frank #100daysofpractice challenge.

Hahn remembers being a starstruck student herself, going backstage to see performers, and from early on in her career was used to signing records and meeting fans after concerts: ‘For me, social media is an extension of signings, meeting fans and getting to know who they are. I see the interactions and comments, especially on Instagram, which give me a feel for them that I didn’t have from signings alone. I enjoy communicating with everyone and doing things that the fans will like. It’s like giving a present to a friend.’

One reason for Hahn’s success is that she genuinely wants to connect with fans, rather than treating social media as a marketing tool: ‘I’m not as aggressive about it as some people who use it as a career-building tool might be. I arrived at it when my career was already on track. For people ten or 15 years younger, they are inextricably connected, which is fine, too – that’s their reality. My reality is that I came of age in my career at a time when social media was a way to keep people informed, but it wasn’t a career-building tool.’

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Generally, though, the classical music world is streets behind pop, which since the teenybopper era has encouraged its fans – and leveraged their pocket money – through clubs and merchandise. Today’s pop fans may spend more time online than they do waiting outside studios as the old Beatles ‘Apple scruffs’ did, but they are even more of a commercial force to be reckoned with. In the world of Korean pop music (K-pop), fandom is practically a competitive sport, with fans even using their force of numbers to game the charts system to get their favourite artists to the top. They join ‘fancafes’ and download special apps that provide exclusive content and offer them direct and ‘authentic’ personal communication with their idols.

Perhaps the closest classical music gets to this level of interaction is TwoSet Violin, Australian violinists Brett Yang and Eddy Chen, who since 2013 have posted videos on YouTube that range from hilariously silly to profoundly geeky, always with a deep affection and knowledge of the classical music world. Originally started as a hobby, with the two of them editing videos on trains between concerts, their YouTube channel now has 3.78 million subscribers, with over a billion views. They sell their own apparel, have devised a virtual ‘escape room’ for fans, crowdfunded their 2017 sell-out world tour, and have worked with violinists such as Hilary Hahn, Maxim Vengerov and Ray Chen.

As with Hahn, their relationship with their fans has never been about statistics. Yang explains: ‘When you study marketing or PR, it’s always about the view count, how many subscribers you get. We’ve always worked backwards and asked what type of content is meaningful for our fans? How do we move them in a way that’s of value? Could it be to practise more, or to introduce them to learning more about classical music and the values we share? Our approach is, views should come naturally rather than going for what gets views first.’

At the average TwoSet concert they spend more time signing photographs afterwards than playing during it, and their real-world interactions are often very powerful: ‘The real feedback for us is when we’re having lunch and people come up and say, “I’m starting to love my instrument again”, “I’m a banker and I’ve started having lessons”, or “I’ve started to go to classical music concerts because of your video content.” It’s not measurable, but we get these comments wherever we go and that’s really motivating.’

Their care for their fans benefits the entire classical world, says Yang: ‘Everyone’s scrambling for what’s there but what we did, unintentionally at the beginning, is to increase that pie so that more people come into the world of classical music and there’s more for everyone. We consistently try to fulfil that purpose, to bring classical music to everyone and try to make it more relevant, not just to our generation, but to the next. That gives us a sense of purpose and when we have that in mind, we get more creative and entrepreneurial.’

Steven Isserlis is now active on both Twitter and Facebook, often using the latter to post full-length articles on musical subjects. Yet he prefers the personal touch over impersonal ‘likes’ and clicks, and still answers his fan mail: ‘If they’re enthusiastic about you it’s only gracious to thank them, although you can’t thank everybody for everything they say.’

And maybe there is something to be said about the special buzz to the old ways, as Dunn suggests: ‘There is a thrill in writing to someone far greater than oneself and receiving a reply. In the old, analogue world I would leave the reply on the letter tray, waiting for the right moment to read it. It brought an excitement that is now lost. The trick of slitting the envelope open with a letter knife and not cutting the letter in two has probably gone, also.’

I rather suspect the 17-year-old me these days might spend a lot of time on YouTube and be more likely to click a follow or like button, maybe escalating to an email when deeply moved. But maybe what really matters is that teenagers still care about classical musicians and their music.


Photo: Getty