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June 20, 2007

Courage, Risk, and Reward

by Laura Jackson

This discussion has been great for me. I have found it threatening at times and at others, tremendously inspiring. Enormous thanks to everyone for so many thoughtful and sincere ideas and comments.

Overall, I am struck by the responsibility we face as music lovers, performers, and thinkers in this day and age. Change is happening in every facet of our lives and the realm of classical music is just one of these areas of mutation, disorientation, and dynamism. As we search for and experiment with new ways of adapting an ever changing technology with our experience of classical music - one steeped in and energized by tradition and history, I think we should keep a few things in mind.

Take risks and have the courage to try new things. Even if they seem ridiculous to some of us or scandalously irreverent, we can only learn from trying. More importantly, we need to allow others in the field to do the same without an instantaneous negative judgment that shuts off opportunity. I admit that I will need to remind myself of this more often than most; more than once, I found myself cringing while reading the suggestions bloggers put forth for changes in the listening experience.

Trying new things also means giving them a chance to thrive with the full support of our institutions, from marketing to artistic, education to development. We must commit whole-heartedly and go for it. If a new idea is not an instant hit, we shouldn't automatically discard it either. Some of our confusion about the success of something may come from doing without the nurturing process of evaluation and improvement. Rather than just trying another experiment if instant success is not ours, we must learn from our attempts and try to refine our experiments to reach success.

We need traditional live performance, today more than ever. We need to preserve the living experience of music, live music, in quiet places because it offers a meaningful opportunity for reflection, the chance to cultivate the practice of actively listening to each other, and an awareness of those around us. We learn from that; it's special. It draws out some of our best as human beings.

Developing a rich, vibrant listening life is a multidimensional task, one that combines varied modes of engagement with sound and with each other. I am in favor of offering new ways to listen to music, in addition to the traditional experience, that expand our ears and minds. Should we experiment, as Robert Levine suggests, with the listening culture of the 18th century where people are up moving around and talking, commenting on what they hear? Probably, but while we are making concerts into a cocktail, music-as-background experience, can we also consider ways of enhancing and encouraging focused listening as well? What if listeners could sit in a concert hall hearing an acoustical performance and at the same time, move around virtually with a screen on the back of the seat in front of them? They could sit in the violin section one moment and with the timpanist the next. What if they could draw pictures of what they hear while the music is sounding and see the images created by their seatmates at intermission?

Lets increase the interactive and community-building experiences surrounding arts events: On-line chats, social receptions with peer groups, educational talks, opportunities to discuss reactions and ask questions of performers....Perhaps a concertgoer can connect to Mahler's life and personality by taking a virtual tour through his home before hearing a performance of his third symphony. How about a simulated exploration of the caves off the coast of Scotland that inspired the writing of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture in the lobby? Those of us who love the arts enough to dedicate our lives to them need to think hard about what we value from the experience, what deepened our relationship to music, and find ways to share these pathways to enrichment through music.

Education: Our most crucial mission needs to be in the education of our youth - not just to pump up some grant proposal for our own needs, but to galvanize local support into active efforts to reinstitute music curriculums back into school. Our future relationships with listeners depend on those we forge now. We also need to continue searching for the most effective means of educating adults, whether using short concerts that offer in-depth discussion and aural examples of a single piece or something else entirely. Culture satisfies a love of learning and this love can and should be a lifelong engagement.

Reflection & Fears: Can we agree to organize forums in which we have open, cordial, honest, and truly cooperative discussions about our experiments? Our blog is one positive example, certainly, but I hope it is only the beginning. There is no question in my mind that our efforts need to relate to the needs, desires, and personalities of our communities. What works in one will not work the same way in any another. However, I am sure there are ways we can benefit from each other's experience and that we will grow far more quickly by sharing honestly about our failures as well as our successes.

A final note of caution that concerns me: As we attempt to revitalize the presentation of classical music to capture the ears, eyes, and interests of modern listeners, it is fine and even necessary to make our presentations more entertaining. We should not, however, go so far as to treat performing arts as only entertainment. Art must remain a means of pulling us outside of our comfort zones and providing a mirror to make commentary about the full range of human experience visible, even if it reflects our fear and pain as well as beauty, excitement, and pure joy.

Posted by ljackson at June 20, 2007 9:56 PM


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