Yesterday, in class, one of my Juilliard students said he felt discouraged. We’d been talking about the Philadelphia bankruptcy, and what a turning point this is for classical music. 

So the student said that he found all the bad news depressing. Even though the reading for class yesterday was about some positive steps. (Follow the “class” link above to see what the reading was, and to do it yourself, if you’re so inclined.) Why, this student wondered, should he go into a practice room, and keep on working?

He wasn’t seriously depressed. And certainly not ready to give up. But still he asked — why keep going?

The inspirational answer

I told my student — and of course the whole class — that I was glad he’d asked the question. And that I thought that this was a time to renew our dedication. To pursue classical music, in whatever form we do it, with more passion than ever. 

There are many reasons for that. One of my students, for instance, said that he can’t do anything else. Playing his instrument is all he knows how to do. And, I’d think, all that he wants to do. 

So we have to respect that. We have to trust and respect our love for classical music. Which, let’s note, isn’t a passing fad, or a cultural meme (like, say, playing bridge) that has its moment, and then fades away. It’s a central part of western culture, which — even as it blends with cultures not from the west — isn’t about to disappear. The anomaly is that classical music has faded from current view, while painting and poetry and novels and theater from the past haven’t faded. But that’s because of how we’ve been treating it — how we present it, talk about it, think about it. And these things can change.

And what’s crucial to changing them is our passion. One our problems is that classical music has gotten impersonal, lost behind its increasingly empty facade of supreme artistic importance. We worship the great dead composers, and put ourselves — especially if we’re performing musicians — in second place. If not tenth. 

We have to change that. We’re the representatives of classical music in the world today, and we have to show why we love it — with passion, dedication, and, as part our love for our art, a deeply personal presentation of why we love it, and how that makes us play and present it. 

That, to me, is the start of the change wea need — the start (to use the title of my ongoing book) of our rebirth. We can invent all kinds of marketing tricks, all kinds of flashy, attractive new ways to make concerts interesting. But what we need most is to find ways to project our love for the music, our excitement, our commitment, and above all the personal meaning it has for us. 

Other people will respond — if what they’re responding to isn’t simply the music, sitting off in isolated glory, but the personal, inimitable, unforgettable way that every one of us presents it. 

Part of my own commitment to classical music’s future is my composing, which I’ve reactivated. I’ll be looking for homes for a long string quartet, and a new opera. And for new pieces I’m writing. More on this in posts to come! 
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  1. says

    The telling facts are: the disappointing results of major orchestras that keep on doing the same old thing; the success of Esa-Pekka Salonen in L.A., followed by Maestro Dudamel; the success of Maestro Alan Gilbert with the NYPhil and all of its fabulous new concepts like the White Lights Festival and Contact!; and of course the incredible success of groups like ICE, yMusic, ACME, B.O.A.C, eighth blackkburg, The JACK Quartet, Ethel, more.

    The new and bright and smart is succeeding.

  2. says

    Amen. That’s all I have to say.

    Well, maybe one more thing. For any classical musicians out there, student, amateur, or professional, know that there is a large number of us that are experiencing a bit of a revolution – we’re tired of not being ourselves, of not enjoying performing, of having audiences that don’t connect with us…The revolution is especially obvious on social networks like twitter, where dialogue about this topic is daily and a community of like-minded musicians are gathering together to support one another and to feed off one another’s ideas.

    I no longer feel discouraged. I feel energized, excited, and eager to continue on. I hope that your students can start to experience the same in their own way.

    Thank you.

  3. says

    Yes I have been reading the challenges for orchestras in the USA and the arts world in the UK.

    And as a former flautist who was forced to abandon a promising career due to hearing challenges want to say it is about looking at reinventing the world of music.

    For me this can be one of the ways out of these challenges. And it is a slow and hard path, as I found when I did this many years ago. The passion and purpose of music had to be channelled into another career, arts management.

    I feel that unless musicians and orchestras start to look at how they can creatively uncover new ways to develop audiences that the path ahead will be challenging. And find ways to appeal to younger audiences with more appealing events connected to performances. What do these people want, how can you excite them to come to a performance, what is there to learn, how can it be put into today’s language etc.

    When I work with younger musicians I always encourage them to “think out of the square” with their work, become innovative and inspirational. I believe that this is the way forward for many arts companies, not just orchestras.

  4. Eileen Brumbaugh says

    I agree and want to add that I think that classical music, like all great art, is emotional communication: artist to museum patron, musician to audience member. It is why live performances can never become irrelevant, no matter how sophisticated our digital technology becomes. Great music is heart to heart and soul to soul. Great orchestras must return to that thinking as have Maestros Dudamel and Gilbert. I have great hope for Yannick and the Philadelphians as I have been in love with the Philadelphia Orchestra since I was a small child. I am now 64.

  5. says

    Yes – passion! Thanks for the silver lining post. Where I live (Louisville, KY) the orchestra just went bankrupt, and as disheartening as it is, I realize I have to accept that the global problem of classical music decline is out of my hands to fix. However, to borrow that phrase of Ghandi’s of being the change we wish to see in the world, I realize there are many ways I can contribute – as a composer and a fan – to do my part in sharing the music I love with my circle of influence. Thanks for sharing this call to a renewal of dedication. (BTW, any course including an analysis of Welcome to the Jungle has my attention – thanks for sharing your syllabus.)

  6. says

    You raise an interesting question. It isn’t just relevant to classical music, but also to jazz. These are cultural forms that still live for many of us, but their appeal is less that which it used to be. The music is personal, and that is a large part of its appeal. Bach, Brahms, Beethoven,Dvorak, Mahler, Part, Reich and Glass each reach me in different ways.

    The problem though is that the music is not social. I sit at my computer and can listen for hours to the same composer, and the richness of the experience elevates the work I’m doing. But, for the most part, it is not social. The only person I talk to about music is the music director at my church.

    I think there are two aspects that both classical and jazz musicians need to address.

    First is that I see the most popular music as a social event. I go with my sons to see rock bands play. It is an immersive experience that explains its popularity to me.

    I live near Asheville, NC, where any night, you can find live music, and not an open mic night, but real professional musicians. Even in the little town of Fletcher, even closer to where I live, every Friday and Saturday night, in an old hardware store, bluegrass bands play to a packed house. There is no cover and no alcohol as it is run by a little church that meets in the same space on Sunday mornings.

    Second,is that the music needs to be connected to something visual. Some of the finest classical music produced today, in my estimation,is being created for film. I listen to a lot of film scores. The visual connection to the music enriches the experience. We are more a visual culture than an aural one now. The visual needs to find a place in classical music.

    I’m only speaking as a person who listens to music, but listens a lot. My suggestion is to take the platform of chamber music and revitalize it as a social / visual experience with the music. I’m not saying make it pop music. Rather, make it an experience that engages more of the person.

  7. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Great points by Ed above. Jazz musicians have much to learn from the discourse in the classical community.

    We tend to be proudly insular – not just inside jazz, but even in our own substyles of jazz. We have much less of a voice, I think, than classical vis à vis the critical establishments.

    And however much respect individual cats have for each other, much of what we do will always be tangled up with issues of color that lie just below the surface. We’re not all looking forward to an open dialogue.

    Ed, I wonder how much of the musical activity in the Asheville area might simply be related to regional heritage. Music has always been more part of daily life in the south than in the midwest, where I come from. We have plenty of talent, but we don’t feel right nurturing it after high school.