Excitement for the future

As I’ve been saying on Facebook and Twitter, I spoke Saturday and Monday to students at the NOI, the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland. I did that last year as well — this is a one-month program every June for music students who play orchestral instruments — but this year I was invited with something very specific in mind. Jim Ross,who conducts the student orchestra at the university and runs the NOI, wanted me to help the students come up with ideas for new ways of giving concerts — ideas that he’s ready to implement.

I’ve now got the complete collection, of all the ideas the students thought of at my second session, and wrote down at Jim’s request. I’ll share some of them in my next post. But first I want to describe what happened. It truly was exciting. Music students, I think I learned, are far ahead on the curve that leads to the future.

I spoke twice. First I talked about classical music in the past, saying more or less what I say in my Juilliard and Eastman courses about the future of classical music. If you follow the link, you’ll find the curriculum for the Juilliard course, with links to all the reading, including things about classical music’s past.

My reason for talking about this: classical music was quite a bit looser in generations and centuries past. Musicians improvised, the audience applauded the moment it heard anything it liked, and (more recently; improvisation and immediate applause were 18th and early 19th century traits, for the most part) were much more individual in their performances. I played recordings for the students, and showed some videos. One video was a colossal performance of the Toreador Song from Carmen by the Italian baritone Gino Bechi, filmed in 1950 for a movie (and watchable on YouTube). The man is an animal, vocally and physically. He might as well be Elvis. There’s no one like him in opera today.

But that was just the prelude to the second session, which was the exciting one. I primed the pump by talking about classical music’s future, and especially by describing some of the many things that classical musicians and classical music institutions have done, to make classical music more lively, more accessible, smarter, more current. (I made a list of some of these, for my Juilliard and Eastman students.)

And then I asked the students for ideas of their own. They were hesitant at first. That’s only natural. And then the floodgates burst, and the ideas started coming out. Hands went up everywhere. Make concerts more informal. Talk to the audience. Tell the audience who were are — not just our potted bios in the program book, not just the cute Q and A’s we’ve lately seen, describing members of the orchestra (and telling what kind of pets they have), but let people get to know us as people. Mix pop music into the programming. Take the music into bars and clubs.

It’s not that these ideas are all completely new.  But the students were just about unanimous. They all (or so it seemed) wanted changes like the ones I’ve listed. They were ready! They may not have talked about these things at their music schools, but once someone asked them for ideas, they were ready to move.

One guy, a trumpet player, gave us an idea he was implementing on his own. It started with a role reversal. A hiphop musician he knew wanted some career help. (The hiphop guy asking the classical geek for career enhancement. I love it.) So they came up with a plan. The trumpet player would organize a performance of the second Brandenburg Concerto, and the hiphop musician would bring his band and improvise along with that.

I talked to the trumpet player after the session. He’d gone to Juilliard, he told me. And for his graduation recital, he’d played standard trumpet repertoire, and then, after intermission, Radiohead arrangements. The moral of this story? It’s not just Chris O’Reilly. It’s not just people I talk about in this blog. And God knows, it’s not just people whom I somehow provoke. Music students are thinking about the things I talk about — and better, doing them — whether they’ve heard of me or not. This is becoming a gigantic movement. It’s bigger than I thought it was.

And I think it’s ready to break loose, as soon as the people who are students move out into professional life, and, in decades to come, start to run the business. This is wonderfully exciting (and thanks to Jim Ross, for so enthusiastically midwifing the NOI’s role in the evolution).

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  1. Roma says

    Hi Greg and thank you for sharing those experiences. Very interesting reading. It seems to me that the mindset on your side of the Atlantic is more open towards the market and promoting the art as such than it is here. Possibly the young musicians/students here are much more influenced by the traditionalism upheld and still forwarded to them by many teachers from the former Eastern European countires, especially Russia. Also the way Artist Management companies in general are operating seems out of date. Naturally there are some exceptions to the rule here and there but in general the old fashion set of values is still in high seat in Europe, which doesn’t help to close the gap between the art of classical music, performers and market’s perception of that particular sector.

  2. says

    Similar to my comment at Norman Lebrecht’s posting regarding Andras Schiff’s recital with speech in London, I believe very strongly that with the networking capabilities of the internet, we will find more musicians reaching out to perform and create new ways to bring music to the audiences. I love the ideas described in your blog. We need much more of this. Someone wrote to me on my Facebook profile that they noticed my new Naxos cd of Vivaldi solo piano arrangements. The reader suggested I take the Vivaldi and do a ‘Keith Emerson’ version with synthesizers, etc. Never thought of the idea–perhaps it would make for an interesting aural experience–who knows. But it is these kind of ideas which can be interesting, and the young musicians of today are very much ‘in tune’ with modern technology and yearn to keep ‘classical’ music alive, both purely and in new ways.

  3. says

    The whole thing about any kind of popular music, Rock, whatever, involved with Classical music is not really so new. The difference might be the presence of pop musicians at a

    live “Classical” event such as the Wordless Music series (http://wordlessmusic.org).

    Especially people like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein in U.S. and some of the Europeans like Bartok were incorporating idioms from Jazz into their composition. Read about McCoy Tyner and Paul Hindimuth and “fourths” in Wikipedia.

    Just listen to the Bernstein orchestral suites.

    Dave Brubeck was writing fugues during and after “…attending Mills College and studying under Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to study fugue and orchestration but not classical piano….”(Wikipedia).

    So, what is really new is just the presence of musicians.


  4. says

    Hi Greg,

    It really is exciting that young musicians are so excited about classical & . . . This was really a nice post — I followed the links to your list of ideas for your students and then to the nonclassical label, who’s free CD I’m downloading now.

    Thanks, Doug. I’d be curious to know what you think of the Nonclassical stuff.

  5. says

    This is all awesome; and exactly what I hope happens. Will you ever do one of these presentations in the middle(ish) of the country? I’m a composer in nashville, and I’d love to be there. (btw, the session musicians here are way more into new music than the classical ones! go figure…)

    Thanks! I was supposed to be in Nashville last fall, but the gig fell through. I’d love to do something there (and in many other places). If you can get someone to bring me down, I’ll be there!