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June 17, 2007

"You've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!"

by Vanessa Bertozzi

As I try to write this, I'm babysitting my 6 year old niece in Queens, NY. She's chosen to put on a DVD before bedtime, and, much to my initial chagrin, her choice is a computer-animated version of The Nutcracker performed by... Barbie. At first, I was disappointed she didn't want to watch my choice (Pee-wee), but at least she's too old for Barney. Anyhow, I'm reading through all your amazing blog posts, glancing up once in a while at the tv (during their duel, the Mouse King corners the Nutcracker "You've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!"). My little niece, peeved, tells me to put away my laptop so I can concentrate on the movie and the CGI ballet with her. Well, so much for this multi-tasking next generation! ...

Wow, I put down the laptop and watched Barbie dance. "Beautiful and amazing" is how Sabina described it. When I asked her if she'd like to learn how to dance ballet someday, she told me "I sometimes dance along with Barbie's steps."

William Osborne's comments to Molly's post raises a very valid point about the systemic lack of funding of the arts. Perhaps if there were more concerts--more less-expensive concerts--as well as more arts and enrichment education in public schools--perhaps then Americans would go to classical music concerts more often. But somehow I don't think this would completely solve the problems described in this college student's account of concert-going.

Eng mentions the expensive business of funding the arts: "IRS tax code regulations and established philanthropic practices have long focused the bulk of foundation support to the creators, producers and presenters of art via nonprofit arts organizations."
And asks: "So...I'm asking you, Vanessa, what roles could arts supporters play in the immediate and longer term future to support the arts? What strategies should we be thinking about or implementing in the very near future?"

In other words, how do we continue to get people to keep on dancing along with the performance like my 6 year old niece (and not just sit their butts in the seats)? (Please pardon my comments if they seem naïve, but my research does focus on youth, culture and learning!)

A number of interesting ideas have come up in discussions here, for example: using screens to provide close-ups of facial expressions of musicians and conductors at large concert halls. Or a comment to one of my posts: "I'm also a huge fan of forcing classical music down peoples throats in strange places" such as parking garages. I do think there's an opportunity here in the not too distant future to engage with the types of young people Henry and I wrote about. Not to stop playing the classics--but to make a radical statement: we the symphony-orchestra have decided to bring music to the people who haven't been coming. Does that mean we should get the musicians to dress up like Barbie? Not necessarily. But you could have your musicians put on a concert in the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game Second Life. Robert Levine asks: "Should we be emphasizing how historic we are, rather than how cutting-edge? If so, how do we do that? Candles on the music stands? Unwashed musicians?"
Yes, that too! One of the most memorable experiences I had at a non-rock concert was a silent movie projected with live orchestra accompaniment. How more "old school" can you get? Steampunk folk and Japanese manga fans are not the competition! Tap into their networks when you program music from their eras and countries of interest. They will arrive at the concert halls dressed to the nines and make it an evening no one will forget. Offer optional "VH1 pop-up video" style trivia on the subtitle screens on the seatbacks. You could ask local filmmakers to create short videos scored with classical pieces and then perform them live, in a free concert. You could have a concert where no one over 30 is allowed.

Publicly acknowledge the fact that the classical concert-going experience has become stale and then be bold, do something different. Even if it's once a quarter or once a year...I can feel eyeballs rolling, but I do think such "marketing stunts" would generate buzz and goodwill, and if you could get the musicians and arts professionals on board, it would be fun. And if right now you're saying to yourself, "Classical music isn't supposed to be 'fun,'" maybe you'll soon realize that you've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!

I must say, I agree with Lynne's post: "the most significant opportunities for engagement come before and after the arts event, when audiences are invited to formulate and express an opinion in a public context. I believe today's potential arts audiences don't want the Arts; they want the arts experience."
I think we have to admit that there's a vacuum of meaning when it comes to most Americans' attitudes towards classical music. Most Americans have not grown up in a family that discusses it; they can't afford to buy season subscriptions; they believe their ethnic and cultural backgrounds have nothing to do with classical music (as it's been presented to them). But this void can also be seen as a tabula rasa: it's an opportunity for arts funders and professionals to help the public create fresh and new meanings from the work. Perhaps this could be an event where folks are invited to try to learn some steps with the ballerinas before the show (note: not everyone can be a professional ballerina, but this sort of engagement would foster much greater respect for and a connection to the work and artistry of a ballerina. Maybe one of the kids in the group would go on to take dance lessons or get interested in choreography). And not all of this has to be "fun." Or maybe watching mini-documentary clips of the musicians on the web after a performance. I've often sat in Symphony Hall wondering how the tall guy who plays the triangle came to choose that particular instrument. How about those walls of nameplates of people who've funded the hall or the orchestra? What are their stories? New media allows us many more entry points into the performance, as Lynne emphasized, both before and after, and I would add, on-site during intermission. Here's an idea: what about funding enrichment not just for school children but also their entire families. Documentary storytellers (another sadly under-funded art form!) could work with schools and families to do oral history projects about issues their communities face and to draw in comparisons with say, Carmen's political innuendos or Mahler's tragic life story. Post these online and then offer a concert in the town's square. Do a series like this with other towns and then hold an online conference to share the differences and similarities, ideas for social change. The intersection between online networks and real life is where it's at the future, in my opinion.

The almost spiritual experience of hearing live music comes from the individuals connecting their lives--both personally and collectively, intellectually and emotionally--with the performance. It's an amazing thing. What arts funders and professionals can do is facilitate more connections, reveal more "handles" for audience members to grasp and engage with the material. The creative process of making music and art is fascinating. Let's take advantage of that and use funding alternative programming, new media and our public education system to integrate classical music back into future generations' everyday lives.

One last word from my niece. I asked her if she wanted to learn a musical instrument and if so which one:
"I think it's going to be the voice for me. Because you can always bring it along with you."

Posted by vbertozzi at June 17, 2007 8:40 PM


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