The poor dead horse

To wrap up what I’ve been doing in this post, this one, and this one (dispelling some optimistic silliness about classical music’s present state and its future)…

I’d been enumerating the reasons given, if you follow the link, for classical music being not just healthy, but in a golden age. Those I’ve listed so far are: Performances are better (more technically accomplished) than they’ve ever been. Performances are more faithful to the composer’s intentions. The early music movement has brought new energy to classical music. Classical recordings are booming.

As both I and some commenters have said, a lot of this amounts to no more than saying, “Wow, there’s a lot going on.” Without looking deeper to find out how much of it is sustainable.

So, moving onward:

5. A lot of students are studying to be classical musicians.

This genuinely is a mystery. Music schools are full of students, even though other people the students’ age don’t care about classical music. How can that be?

Probably the riddle could be solved, if there were studies showing who the music students are, demographically, and how they came to classical music. One guess I’ve made is that music lessons — in classical music — are part of the portfolio, so to speak, of kids from upscale families. And some of the kids really take to classical music, which would make sense, because the music is, after all, quite wonderful.

And as long as jobs in the field still exist — in orchestras, for instance — a professional career seems reasonable.

But that’s just a guess. The downside of the situation — which speaks strongly about the clouds that really do sit over the classical music world these days — would be this. First, the students acutely feel that other people their age aren’t interested in what they do, and many of them don’t like that. Many more might not like it — or might much more strongly say that they don’t — if discussion of this were encouraged at their schools.

Second, the schools themselves acutely feel that there might not be jobs for the present and future generations of their students. That’s why entrepreneurship is such a buzzword at music schools these days — if there won’t be orchestra jobs (for instance), then students will have to learn how to make careers on their own. The students, too, are aware of this.

I’ll admit that — at Juilliard, for instance, where I teach about the future of classical music — the students in my classes might be more likely to think these things than their colleagues would. But maybe not. At the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, where I’ve spoken to students for the past couple of year, or at Yale, where I spent two days talking to students (among other things I did there), I found  these sentiments to be quite strong. Classical music students don’t feel rosy about their futures.

6. Classical music is booming in Asia.

We hear this a lot, with thoughts of China shining in the air. So many piano students there, so many violin students! And so many new opera houses, with no opera performed in them. So few orchestras, and those that exist giving very few performances. Such small audiences, sometimes, for touring performers from the west. So many Chinese and Korean students taking my Juilliard course, saying that there really isn’t strong support for classical music in their countries, hoping to go home and develop that support.

And, in China, so much passion for western popular culture. I remember reading once of a China tour by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band with wide indie support, but no pop chart success. They were one of the first western bands to tour China, and found, according to one member of the group, 10,000 fans at their shows, all mouthing or singing the lyrics of their songs. Chalk some of that down to exaggeration. It’s still stronger support — stronger fandom — than western classical musicians might find.

For a none too rosy look at classical music in China, go here. (The link is to one of the documents prepared for the Australian classical music summit I’ve blogged and blogged about.)

My guess is that support for classical music in Asia, or at least in China and Korean, is to some extent aspirational. That is, classical music is an attainment that newly well-off Chinese and Korean families want their kids to have. But again, that’s a guess. I’d love more data. But I do think to blindly say things are booming isn’t quite right.

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  1. Karstein D says

    Interesting points.

    I have an idea about the “mystery” of no. 5. It has something to do about a general tendency among young people to want to work in creative professions. Maybe more people now take the chance to become artists and musicians, because we (in the west) are more financially secure than a few decades ago.

    But why would people looking for a creative profession go into classical music? If you’re young, and none of your friends listen to it, what draws you into it enough so you want to make it your career? That’s the mystery. Especially when other kinds of music might seem more creative — you write your own songs, or you improvise, rather than follow preestablished tracks.

  2. says

    I would just like to make the point that there are a number of us who studied classical music, listen to it, and spend money on it whenever we can. Our peers’ lukewarm interest presents a challenge, because you can’t go to a concert by yourself, but whenever I invite a friend as a guest, they always jump at the chance.

  3. Karstein D says


    >But why would people looking for a creative profession go into classical music?

    Maybe because there exists a ready education-system for classical music to take care of you, whereas there are less possibilities of studying pop/rock (but it is coming I think). It feels safer to do a four year music-education than it does to spend four years playing in a band and doing nothing else.

    But even if many people go into classical music, I think still more young people play in pop/rock bands.

  4. says

    I don’t know if students packing the conservatories is any more of a mystery than the legions of grad students in philosophy/literature/postcolonial studies/etc/etc who ought to know by now how their story is going to end. Just like with classical music, there’s increasing attention in those fields to how pursuing a similar sort of impractical passion with one’s education could be adapted to something productive in the real world. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of accusations flying that universities, which get a lot of money and cheap labor from their eternal grad students, might be wrongly encouraging them for reasons that are not in the students’ interest.

    Good thought. For what it’s worth, Chinese music schools (or so I’ve heard) also teach pop music.

    And I also think there’s what I called the aspirational element — classical music as a sign of social advancement/status/being cultured. One piece of evidence for that: One reason (or, again, so I’ve heard) is that music schools in the US like having many Asian students, because many of the parents can pay the tuition without financial aid. Would need to check this, though.

    As for the Asian attention to classical music, I wonder if the following idea might be true. Given there’s a great reverence for education, and a constant interest in educational innovation, in many Asian cultures, Western classical music training has been embraced as an educational tool. Conservatories explode to service this educational demand (and to enroll the increased supply). However the conservatories are really functioning more as vocational schools for the exploding interest in classical music in education rather than as cultural fountainheads. This is mistaken by classical music’s old school cheerleaders as some sort of waxing cultural impact. This seems congruent with the paper you linked to on China.

  5. Jon says

    As a graduate of a conservatory with a high Asian population, it is my strong impression (and I don’t mean to over-generalize here) that Western conservatories frequently serve as sort of “finishing schools” for girls from wealthy Asian families. Many of these girls seem to pursue conservatory studies not because they have aspirations toward a career in music, but because having strong piano skills and a conservatory degree give them greater status as a potential wife. Not so different from the 19th century when women were effectively banned from professional music careers, but being able to play the piano was nonetheless considered a highly desirable trait for a cultivated wife. Again, I don’t want to over-generalize and I don’t mean to devalue the many Asian students who do indeed hope to make a career in classical music and often do so quite successfully.

    Regarding why so many young people go into classical music, one big reason I think is the infrastructure of private lessons, music camps, preparatory programs, summer festivals, and music schools, which provides a comfortable and easy-to-navigate framework not only for kids and teenagers but for their parents as well. If you’re trying to be a rock or jazz musician, you have to form your own groups and book your own gigs from the get-go and there’s no clear institutional framework or path to follow (although this is starting to change, as the occasional rock or jazz camp springs up, and jazz at least makes inroads at conservatories). But in classical music, all you have to do is audition, and institutions take care of it all from there – possibly for your entire life, if you go from preparatory programs and summer music camps to conservatory to DMA to an orchestra job or faculty position. It seems like a very fun, comfortable life, and there’s a way in which all these camps (my non-musician girfriend was shocked that at age 30, I was still paying money to attend a composition summer program last summer, which is in fact quite common for composers my age) perpetuate a kind of perpetual adolescence among many classical musicians. That is, until they’re finally done with school and find that there’s no orchestra job or teaching position waiting for them….

    Thanks, Jon. Good points.

  6. Brian says

    She never said classical music is booming in Asia. She speaks about the growing popularity of musical training, which is increasing the global talent pool. Also, she notes that as musicianship correlates with attendance, this development is promising for *future* demand in Asia.

    This “dead horse” thing is an obsession for you, clearly, but you are attacking straw men at this point.

  7. says

    Really an insightful series of posts. Thanks especially for this last one — the personal experience is a useful and powerful response to the optimist’s position. While I wasn’t entirely persuaded by your position on the numbers in your first post, most of the rest of what you have to say is interesting and compelling.

  8. dahnbi says

    I really love it when non-Asians attempt to speak for all the Asians who are studying classical music. Yeah, the main reason my parents encouraged me to play the cello was because I could catch a great husband in the future. My hard-earned conservatory training was my “finishing school”. Wow, you people really have us Orientals figured out!

  9. says

    I’ve just got to say I find it very amusing that NONE of the comments above (from Greg or others) seem to consider the possibility that these students (American, Asian, Venezuelan, etc.) might be passionately in love with the music, the experience of performing it, getting better at their instruments, etc. Of course there are other reasons that people study in the classical tradition, including all the ones listed above. Yes, the systems in place have something to do with facilitating participation. That’s how culture works.

    But, please, there is SOMETHING there in the actual music. I’m sure of it – a remarkable depth and richness that gives back to those who participate. In fact, I think it explains a lot of the impracticality of the whole enterprise – people are engaged in this world not because it’s practical or reasonable or profitable, but because they love it.

    I’ve been somewhat involved in operamission’s ongoing “Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required,” which is a crazy project on some levels. Many highly trained professional singers and instrumentalists are participating voluntarily (i.e. not being paid) to be part of this experience which is all about celebrating the joy of putting music together. Many have traveled at their own expense to be a part of it. It certainly doesn’t present a workable business model for making money, but it just as certainly is evidence that people love the music and the experience of making music for its own sake.

    It’s also striking to see how easily the comments here move into implied judgments about “wrong” reasons for studying. Why shouldn’t someone aspire to be skilled in an area that a culture values? And even if a student does have social aspirational goals in mind, that surely doesn’t discount the possibility of also finding deep, personal meaning and enrichment through the aesthetic experience.

    C’mon, Michael, of course I know that music students are inspired by the music, because I’ve been teaching them since 1997, and working with them in other ways at a variety of music schools. Are you somehow imagining that the wonders of classical music — not to mention my students’ love of it, not to mention my own — never come up in my classes?

    I was talking about something different — how these students develop their love in the first place, when others their own age don’t have it (and often their parents don’t, either). Surely that’s a reasonable question to ask. And if there’s something aspirational in a parent’s decision to give a child (classical) music lessons, that in no way precludes the kid honestly loving the music — exactly because, as you point out, the music is wonderful. I don’t think there’s even a remote contradiction between what we’re each saying.

  10. says

    How many young people do you know like to spend their free time going to art exhibitions, museums or purchase art pieces. The way you talk about classical music is like saying that art is dying because people watch tv or netflix instead of spending time enjoying art. Classical arts, unlike popular culture, is not meant for mass profit and will never bring in mass audiences on a regular basis, but they are nonetheless essential to a healthy and vibrant society.