That’s what I said — in my talk at New England Conservatory — that the graduating students are. It’s their generation who’ll build that bridge. And, so importantly, can also build a bridge to the world outside classical music.They can do that because they live in that world. In so many ways, they’re just like others their age who don’t play classical music, or listen to it. They share the same culture. So if they can’t build a bridge to the outside world — and specifically to people their own age — who can?
I spoke at a small luncheon, with room for maybe 60 people. I’m told that more wanted to come. The small space, I think, is left over from past years, when the event was (from what I’ve been told) somewhat sleepy. But Rachel Roberts, head of NEC’s new Entrepreneurial Musicianship program (see my last post), woke it up.
As part of her plan, she asked me to speak. I took that very seriously, and told the students that I thought it was both a privilege to speak to them, and a great responsibility. I think that might be what i’m supposed to say, but I meant every word. These people are going out into the world to make their careers, and if I’m entrusted (as I said in my talk) with even a small part of that, I’m going to try to make a difference, however small.
You can hear me speaking here. Complete with an apology for not recording all of Rachel’s warm, engaging introduction, and (very silly of me) the first few moments of my talk. The talk lasts about 30 minutes.
- It’s a privilege to speak to them.
- They’re graduating at an interesting time, to say the least. I don’t have to say more than “Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy.”
- But I did dwell on the cultural gap that’s developed over two generations, between classical music and the rest of our culture. That’s when I said that they — the students right before me — could bridge that gap.
- I told the story from my Juilliard class, the one I blogged about, about the student who felt discouraged. I told him that this was the time to be inspired, to rededicate ourselves, to reignite our passion for classical music, so we can share it with the world.
- And then I offered the NEC students a cheerful challenge — or rather two challenges.
- First challenge: to consider banning, from our classical music vocabulary, three common concepts: outreach, education, and the arts.
- Why? (I know that this will be controversial.) Because all three concepts place us above the people we’re trying to reach. We have something they don’t. Something they can’t understand without education. And that without us — without, that is, the arts — no kind of artistic expression can enter their lives. In my view, none of these things are true.
- And beneath this faint sense of superiority that all too often underlies our talk of outreach, education, and the arts, there lies (I’m quite convinced) a sense of inferiority. We’re the classical music geeks. We like music no one else likes. Nobody can understand us.
- In place of this dual (and quite unfortunate) mindset, I offered an alternative. Why don’t we approach other people as our equals? Why don’t we bring them classical music in the same spirit that an entrepreneur would have, bringing the world a new, exciting product? Something she’s convinced will change their lives.
- I suggested, once again that we start with our own excitement, our passion, our commitment. And build outwards from those things, to craft a way to reach the outside world.
- And then I came to my second challenge: That we should play better. “We” meaning all of us in the classical music world. I said I knew that they played well, and that the Boston Symphony did, and that musical standards are very likely higher now than they’ve ever been.
- But what’s missing, I suggested, is excitement. Heart. Communication.
- And so I suggested four things to do.
- First: make sure we bring alive what’s in the score. If the score (as happens constantly in classical-period orchestral works) tells us to play loudly, and then softly, let’s make sure the loud passages wake everybody up, and the soft ones have everyone on the edge of their seats.
- Second: we should make sure that classical pieces from different eras — different worlds — sound truly different from each other. If, on a recital, a violinist plays sonatas by Beethoven and then Shostakovich, we should feel that we’ve been on two very different planets. How often do we feel that?
- Third: the students should play (or sing, or compose) in their own way. We all should. We should give performances that — even in a modest way — nobody else could have given.
- Fourth: We should play with the audience in mind. I don’t mean pander to them — although (very fascinating!) Brahms advised people to play his music differently when pieces were new, and both musicians and audience didn’t know them. He wanted more contrast, to bring out the shape and flow of the piece more unmistakably. (Subject for a later blog post!) What I meant, though, is simply that we should be aware that there’s communication, that we’re not delivering an unchangeable, top-down message, and that we ourselves may be changed by what the audience gives back to us.
- And if we do these things…then we’ll build our bridge to the rest of the world, and to the future.
As I said, you can hear me say all this here. With any luck, I’ll make a written version of the talk, and post a link to it.
ADDED LATER: Forgot to say the most rewarding thing that happened — long conversations with students after I spoke. I’m told I spent about an hour and a half talking with individual students. I wouldn’t have known that. The time flew by.
And one thing really gratified me. If you listen to my talk, you’ll see that I apologize for talking exclusively about classical music, when jazz students were also in the group. One of them came up to me afterward to say that everything I said made sense for jazz, too. What a great compliment to get!
A wonderful friend has volunteered to transcribe my talk, so it soon — or “with all deliberate speed,” in the famous words of the Supreme Court — should be posted here.