What Classical Musicians Lack, Part 2

What Classical Music Lacks

Last week I started a discussion on what classical musicians are lacking today as they enter the professional field. As expected, this topic continues to drive the passionate thoughts and ideas of many: I was very pleased to see some of the discussion that we generated. In this second article, we will explore the idea of reinventing classical music… and whether or not that is something that is necessary, or if it is a “manufactured” idea.

Before that, however, I wanted to address some points that were raised in the comments section of the first article. In particular, one was on how today’s musicians are much more qualified than their previous generation counterparts. This is something we’ve discussed before as changing times have forced musicians to adapt and acquire higher-level degrees, become more versatile in the types of music and gigs they can perform, and quite simply increase what they are capable of doing practically. I agree with all of this. Raising the points of a need for business / marketing skills in the first article was not meant as an attack on graduates themselves, but rather simply a presentation of one aspect of the conversation that is dominating many classical music forums online and discussions offline.

Without a doubt, music business programs have improved a great deal since a decade ago when the music entrepreneurship movement was still budding. Yet, there still remains a large gap to bridge between the implementation of such programs and where we need our students to be upon completion of their programs. Some of the top conservatories have developed extensive curriculums aimed at cultivating business, marketing, and entrepreneurship skills. These are not just limited to conservatories: consider Project Jumpstart at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Even the small liberal arts college I attended had a music business degree.

Entrepreneurship in Formal Music Education

The question is how well do these programs actually prepare people for the real world, and what types of career possibilities do they encourage and promote? I do not question whether or not the top-tier programs have produced excellent entrepreneurs, as I personally know some. But for every 1 or 2 professional musician I have considered “well-equipped” for the real world, I know roughly 4-5 who were not able to attain the necessary skills. Part of this can be chalked up to the individuals… but it is not wholly on them.

As music entrepreneurship programs are still young, it is not surprising that they have not yet become ubiquitous, or that all programs that exist are not of the highest caliber. Some music schools encounter difficulty implementing their own dedicated business program in larger universities if there are bureaucratic issues that must be dealt with, if they have no faculty with the expertise to properly build such programs, if they do not consider the ROI to be enough to invest, and many other reasons etc etc. One of the problems with my school was that, although we had a music business program, it was mostly isolated from the actual business school, not drawing upon the resources and knowledge that could be found through inter-departmental collaboration. Sure, music business majors were required to take business courses, but the collaboration could have been much stronger to allow for more tailored and relevant content. When I inquired about this, I was given reasons of logistics and red tape that could throw the most seasoned of puzzle experts for a loop.

In some schools these problems may not exist. But in others, with otherwise excellent music programs, they do. I’ve known musicians who have come out from fantastic music programs at Berkeley, University of San Francisco, University of Houston, University of Michigan, etc who… although receiving an “excellent” music education… still lacked skills that have become essential in today’s world. To some degree this will always be a challenge, as many aspects of entrepreneurship and business must be learned through doing and taking action… through trial and error.

The reinvention of classical music is another major issue that has been raised repeatedly over recent years. If we assume that music schools equip classical musicians adequately to brave today’s professional field, where else can we find something lacking? Many point to the sterility of classical music as the culprit. But is it true?

Reinventing classical music or classical audiences?

When this question emerged on the recent LinkedIn thread, it sparked a “heated debate” among several participants. While not discounting the value of business and marketing skills, some were skeptical that these fantastic practical abilities would do any good if there were only say 100 jobs for 10,000 graduates. The other end of the problem is looking at the state of the concert audience.

That other end is well-known: few jobs exist because orchestra attendance is in worldwide decline. So the question we might better ask is why? Some months ago, there was a very long and fascinating discussion on LinkedIn about this. Many people with significant roles in the “classical” industry offered prescriptions: train children at a young to enjoy “classical” music, it’s a government responsibility to fund orchestras for the betterment of mankind, etc. All arguments I’m sure you’ve all heard before.

I suggested a different solution: repertoire that would draw larger and hopefully younger audiences and efforts by philharmonic organizations, agents, and others to better promote fresh voices in composition and performance.

This comes back to the idea that if customers aren’t interested in a product… the fault is with the product not the customers. This question has spawned almost innumerable answers: innovative programming, pop-concert-like experiences, alternative venues (ala Classical Revolution or Opera on Tap style), etc.

Orchestral music needs to be revitalized. We need to find music, performers, and event promoters that can appeal to larger audiences. Rock and Roll, House, and Dance fill stadiums with 60,000 people. If we want orchestras to live on rather than become the museums they have become, we must find orchestral music that interests larger audiences.

It’s not that the “classics” never sell out, but it no longer seems as if they are enough.

Yet, not everyone agrees with this:

The problem I see with your suggestion is that much of the repertoire you cite — rock-and-roll, “house,” and dance — are not experienced the same way as is traditional orchestral repertoire… Rock concerts are, first and foremost, audience participation events, using the group or artist as a catalyst for getting into the “crowd spirit.” People clap and sing along and shimmy more than they necessarily *listen*. (Notice I specify “rock,” not “pop.” You’d not expect, or want, a mosh pit or a sing-along at a Streisand concert, especially given their rarity.) And dance music, “house” or otherwise, is primarily about — well, dancing!

I can’t imagine that people who study orchestral instruments do so with the intent of just being secondary backup to another *sort* of event. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of thing, if you like it. But I can’t imagine that orchestral players would really be happy doing that sort of thing.

I found this portion of the discussion quite exciting with a rather fresh perspective. In our rush to capitalize upon the mainstream success of other forms of music, we might prematurely “bastardize” classical music. In this perspective, the classical music experience has not become sterile, but rather it is audiences whose ears are closed to the music and, as a result, become very susceptible to the reigning prejudices of classical music. I would assume this to be most applicable to the youth, as the challenge with classical music has been to make it as appealing to the youth as are hip hop, pop, rock, and other forms of “popular” music.

The issue I have with this viewpoint is two-fold. First, the issue of incorporating some of the success story lessons of other forms of music is not about mimicking them (i.e. bringing in mosh pits and sing alongs at classical concerts), but rather continually finding new ways to create an emotional response between the listeners and the music. For many younger listeners, the “ritual” aspect of classical music – the emphasis on silence, the lack of interaction between audience and performers, the restrained (some might say “stiff) atmosphere – can make it difficult for people to have that emotional and relational connection. I think this has become increasingly problematic in the last ten years or so, with the emergence of social networks and the need for much of the current youth generation to seek constant connection, affirmation, and validation via various forms of media consumption. It also explains why we having started seeing many more debates in recent years on issues such as clapping, noise, and other things which challenge “traditional concert etiquette.”

Second, in most other forms of music, new music is as highly celebrated as the “classics” (and sometimes more so). Despite all of the push to promote new music and their composers in the “classical” realm, I would hazard to guess that most people still view it as a fringe element. “New Music Societies” in universities and the community promote “special” concerts and performances that exist in addition to the majority of the performances which present the classics by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The question of “What’s next?” often seems to get lost.

It seems to me this inarguably makes orchestras into museums and not vital and meaningful to contemporary audiences other than as repositories of history—like museums… I emphasize I am not suggesting orchestras turn themselves into pop music machines. I am suggesting that to solve their problems and stay vital, they must program and promote new composers.

It’s not that new composers are THE solution to improving the vitality of orchestras, and thus prospects for incoming job-seekers. There is much else that goes in tandem with this – innovative marketing for orchestras, performers, and composers; creative cross-genre programming; diversified funding sources. But if we agree that concerts are still fundamentally about the music and the relationships it can create, then new composers and new music will always remain at the heart of the issue. To this end, organizations from the famed eighth blackbird to the less-known Brave New Works are playing an invaluable role.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe that classical music needs to be reinvented? Or do you think audience perspectives need to be reshaped? Or do you believe that fundamental issues lie elsewhere? Whose responsibility is it to achieve the changes necessary to attract fresh new audiences?

At the end of March we’ll conclude this series by looking at a couple remaining and less discussed issues.

7 Responses to What Classical Musicians Lack, Part 2

  1. Bill D March 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    A thoughtful post, and one I agree a lot with. The answer to many of the questions is all of the above…

    1)The 19th century, victorian standards in classical music are ridiculous (no clapping between movements, expressing appreciation), it is like visiting the nasty grandmother whose idea of children is to be seen and not heard.

    Grab some videos of Simon Bolivar Orchestra playing in Venezuela. What is ironic is in its ‘golden age’ there wasn’t this incredible restrictions, people clapped when moved, it was very different. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the no clapping between movements came about with Furtwangler…..

    2)The idea that ‘new music’ might help draw audiences can be valid, but what kind of new music? Unfortunately, new music is almost universally the atonal or 12 tone music of schonberg, and sorry, those are experiments in academic conducting, not music that is going to draw audiences. Babbit and idiots like that might have thought audiences don’t matter, but they do. On the other hand, I saw a brilliant performance of John Adam’s “Son of Symphony” that is a new piece, but it was listenable. As long as composition programs turn out there people producing stuff to please themselves, it isn’t going to be the answer (anyone notice that when they program ‘new’ music, it always is in the first half…ever wonder why?).

    3)We don’t have to bowdlerize classical music to learn from pop and other places. Making concert halls inviting doesn’t have to be about playing orchestrations of lady ga ga shows, it is about making the audience part of things. For example, how about making orchestras more human? Have the conductors talk from the stage, instead of coming off as being these elite musicians deeming to play music for the hoi polloi sitting in the audience. All you have to do is look at a concert of Maazel conducting the NY philharmonic to see what happens.

    The LA Phil is doing that, I went to a concert out there recently and I was blown away, for the first ti me in a long time, I was actually one of the more elder people there. There were young people on dates there, in their 20’s, and a lot of that I think is because they have generated excitement with Dudamel conducting. The man is a fantastic conductor,one of the best out there, yet he is interesting, whereas many classical conductors are like watching the grass grow, they are stiff, and a lot of them are 80 years old. Dudamel is not afraid to show his joy, and it is reflected in the orchestra as well. They are doing something right, and I think it is because they are making themselves relevant. Meanwhile, the NY Philharmonic is basically “we are the NY Phil, you should be so grateful we are here to play for you”..very different attitude.

    Not to mention the concert halls themselves. Carnegie Hall is a beautiful gem of a concert hall, but quite frankly, the people who work there dim that luster. From the stage managers, to the ushers who work there, you couldn’t find a group of more nasty, self centered people. When I went to Disney Hall, the people working there were considerate, they were nice, and it made the concert experience that much better. If the staff working the halls treats the customers like dirt, what do you think that tells audiences?

    • Colin Cronin March 6, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      Thanks for your comments Bill, and glad you enjoyed the article.

      I definitely agree with you on points 1 and 3. I’ve been involved with some productions in the past which have integrated certain aspects of other genres to great success. You’re absolutely right about the importance of “humanizing” classical concerts and creating relationships within the experience.

      However, I have to address point 2 that you make a little in terms of “new music.” I would disagree that new music is “almost universally” atonal / 12 tone and experiments in academic conducting. I actually believe that this is a myth that needs to be debunked to help promote widespread acceptance of new music. Although I see nothing wrong with atonality, and I very much enjoying both listening and studying music that some don’t consider music, I would agree that it is not the best form to draw in audiences – at least not in isolation.

      That said, I think part of the reason that people believe new music = atonal music is because of the “bad experiences” that people had with such atonal composers as Schoenberg and experimental artists such as Babbit (who in my opinion went far beyond simply atonality by incorporating lots of “bleeps and blips” in his music). But the fact is that lots of composers of the 20th century are very much “tonal” or blended atonality and tonality to create unique styles: examples include Igor Stravinsky, William Bolcom, Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Philip Glass, etc. You even cited an Adams example. Examples from even more modern composers are available as well – Timo Andres, Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly, and Andy Akiho. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be very inclined to seek this music out on their own, probably owing to their “fear” or “apprehension” in approaching modern music. This is why the efforts to promote new music are so vital.

      And at the same time, I also don’t believe that atonality cannot appeal to the masses, as long as it’s packages appropriately. It’s not just classical music that has used atonal music. It can be found in pop, rock, hip hop, and other styles: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Jay-Z have all incorporated atonality in their music when it suited their purposes. The challenge for new music continues to be how to stay true to the pursuit of artistic and substantial music (to avoid creating “sell-out”, simple, and cliche music), while making it accessible to classical music audiences old and new.

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  3. Colin Cronin March 26, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Sorry it is coming a little later than I would have liked but the final article has been posted – http://stringvisions.ovationpress.com/2013/03/what-classical-musicians-lack-part-3/

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