A bridge to the future

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?
That’s one key part of what I said in my talk to graduating NEC students. It’s the crux of it, I think. The most inspiring message I know how to give. 

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. 

               What I said:

  • 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.

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  1. Tom says


    It is always commendable when a person, who cares deeply about classical music as you obviously do, shares his/her passion for the art with young musicians who are about to embark on their careers.

    Inevitably – and understandably – such keynote speeches are supposed to exhort to greater efforts in the listeners’ futures and provide an encomium about the chosen career path to inspire continued dedication.

    However, it makes me wonder if that is actually doing the graduates a disservice. In reality, 99% (more or less) of those graduate students you spoke to are not going to be able to do what you encourage.

    Bridging the culture gap is an awfully heavy burden to place on their shoulders, when – frankly – the arrogance of the classical music field professionals over the last 60+ years has built a wall between a musically less educated audience and performance professionals.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done, but unless you’re in the early music field (or jazz, which is probably why you got such positive feedback from a jazz student, for those two fields are similar), there is not much you can do. Early music performers have “reinvented” the art of improvisation and ornamentation, and combined it with great performances of often sketchy scores to create great and moving performances that communicate. They have, in fact become so comfortable with their art, that they can do a jazz-inspired performance of Monteverdi’s “Ohime ch’io cado” (Jaroussky, L’Arpeggiata on YouTube), which will bring down a house full of otherwise stuffy older music audiences.

    But how do you do something like that with a Brahms piano trio or a Mozart quartet? You can’t very well go off in a riff in those. Sadly, the best examples we have where the “gap” is bridged are Andre Rieux, Andrea Bocelli, Vanessa Mae or the Three Tenors circus shows. The response they get shows that most classical music audiences have no clue about the art, and that dumbing down, a sob background story or snob appeal will get you much further in the classical music field than hard work and ability.

    Ultimately, the only way to bridge the gap for serious classical musicians in the greater part of the classical music repertoire is to deliver great performances that move the audience through superior artistry and stage presence. I think you’ll agree, than such gifts are bestowed upon only a few of the luckiest and/or most hardworking musicians. There is simply not that much you can do to change the format of a concert, except going back to the pot-pourri programs of the 18th and 19th century. Even then, I’m skeptical MTV-era people will respond that much better to just playing one “song” from a four movement symphony.

    I’ve been involved with classical music pretty much all of my life. I’ll grant you that while I’m highly knowledgeable about classical music performance, I’m also a bit jaded by what I’ve seen and heard. In spite of that, I try to suppress the jaded part of me as much as possible. That said, the number of live classical music performances that I hear each year that move people on a visceral level (speaking not just about my own impression, but the honest reaction of the audience, as opposed to the faux enthusiasm of an audience that just paid $150 per ticket to hear some “name” give a ho-hum performance) can probably be counted on 3 fingers. Personally speaking, I would argue that I’ve been wowed many more times each year on average by CD recordings or YouTube videos of classical music performance.

    Does this mean that the passion for classical music among the rest of the performers I hear each year isn’t there? In all too many cases, I would say that, unfortunately, it isn’t. This can be due to numerous factors, such as a great orchestra playing with a mediocre conductor (who might even be “famous”), or a “famous” soloist playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto for the 40th time that year on hop-scotch world tours lasting way beyond the performer’s mental endurance.

    Therefore regarding your challenges: Yes, outreach is a useless word for anything other than grant applications. But let’s face it – Whereas the visual arts and literature don’t necessarily presuppose education in order for understanding to take place, the enjoyment of classical music (perhaps with the exception of opera) can arguably be said to increase proportionally with knowledge. I’m not talking about being a listener of the type advocated by Hanslick, but just one that understands context and can tell a quality performance from one less so. Going to a symphonic concert here in the U.S., I’m appalled at how often audiences will give a rousing, standing applause to a mediocre or even bad performance by the soloist and/or orchestra. This happens across the board, from smaller regional orchestras to the big six.

    The fact of the matter is that people like us, who are involved in the classical music field, normally associate with people in the field, or well-educated people, who are more likely to be influenced by our passion out of inherent intellectual curiosity. I have tried to get people who had no exposure to classical music and weren’t necessarily college educated (though most of them were) interested in classical music. I think I can honestly say I did not try to demonstrate my cultural superiority to them, but rather presented the music on its own terms. Of all those I tried this with, only one became enthusiastic enough to take up playing the piano. The rest were polite enough about going to a concert or listening to a recording, but I can’t honestly say I felt anything clicking inside them.

    Try to turn the tables: Do you think either of us could be swayed by, say, country, hip hop or heavy metal diehards to embrace their favorite music if they shared their passion with us? Maybe on some abstract level, but I doubt we’d be queuing up overnight to get tickets to a live Metallica concert. I’ve found that musical tastes, once formed, are only shifted with the greatest difficulty. Even in our field, there are those who love one composer, and can’t abide another. No amount of arguing the greatness of the 12 tone system and Schoenberg will convince them that it’s a pleasure to listen to his works, nor others that Schoenberg is as great a composer as Mozart. Proposing that we’re NOT classical music geeks belies the reality that only 4% of the general population are truly pasionate about the art form. There are more computer techs among the general population than that! I find that these words, as kindly meant as they are, blow smoke in the eyes of music grads.

    On the other hand, the above makes me agree wholeheartedly with your second challenge. I have also been involved in the music education field at the bachelors and masters levels. The surprising thing about instrumental students at this level is how little time they in fact dedicate to understanding scores and music history, at a time when the amount of materials available to do so is greater than ever. True, they have become better instrumentalists technically over the latter decades, but intellectual scholarship and knowledge has taken a back seat to practicing in the effort to become more proficient on their instruments. In a way, the musicians of a couple of generations ago were more intelligent about music on average than are musicians today, though they may be better instrumentalists. Again, I’m talking about your “modern” era performers, not the period performance people. That is the field where musical intelligence and excitement thrives today. Nevertheless, it’s hard to blame students for this, when top-level orchestras typically receive some 500 applications for a vacancy.

    Your four suggestions are certainly very good ones. There are, however, two ingredients missing, in my opinion, for them to become a reality in concert performances of post-baroque music. And perhaps these belong in a speech delivered to instrumental students on the first day they begin their advanced studies at a college conservatory. Mentioning these things at their graduation would be a bit late.

    1. Learn to use your brain as well as your fingers and arms. There are aspects of modern conservatory education which, frankly are a waste of time. Palestrina counterpoint, Bach chorale harmonization, ear training, and to some extent piano lessons for non-pianists are a waste of time. Conservatory curriculums need an update in this area, as much as theory teachers will scream bloody murder at my heretical statement. Ultimately, students would do much better if being taught more practically applied score analysis, for one thing. It is surprising how few (predominantly non-pianist) students take the time to formally analyze the sonata, quartet or concerto they are studying, and understanding the genius underlying the composition. Too many just read the tempo and dynamic indications, and resort to “feeling” the piece. This often leads to entertaining performances, but very seldom to moving ones.

    Beyond that, students need to be exposed more to studying the aesthetics of various periods. You can’t really understand Bach, Mozart or Brahms until you understand the zeitgeist in which they were composing. This includes styles of fasion, painting, dance, literature, philosophy and other composers of the period. The latter invariably include listening more to composers less well-known today, as well as composers who wrote for other instruments than one plays oneself (e.g., listening to the S.L. Weiss’ lute suites would be highly instructive for violinists, violists and cellists playing the Bach suites, sonatas and partitas).

    2. Communication with the audience goes both ways. Listening to audiences stand and cheer a mediocre performance is frankly disheartening for me, even as an audience member. Just imagine the effects on performers, who know they didn’t deliver anything special in their performance that particular night, yet they are getting standing ovations! Audiences should instead be encouraged to boo loudly a below-par performance, or keep their applause proportional to the quality of performance by soloist, conductor and the various instrumental groups in the orchestra. This, more than anything, I think, would have an electrifying effect on the field. If audiences expressed appreciation proportional to the level of performance, no doubt performers would be spurred on to do better, because they would feel that their performances were more relevant and understood by audiences. Alas, this presupposes that audiences become much better informed about the music they are listening to and more able to determine the quality musicians’ performances.

    But maybe all it would take is for orchestras and individual musicians to encourage their audiences to be honest instead of polite. There would always be some audience members who were musically sophisticated enough to shout boo in response to a bad performance against the vapid applause of politesse after a piece is finished. These audience members, then, would perhaps be the best of educators for the rest of the audience. Hopefully, other audience members would ask persons who boo a performance why they did so, and receive an intelligent, comprehensible and reasoned answer in return. As I age, I am working up my courage to shout boo when I hear a lousy piece of contemporary music or a bad performance of a classic. Perhaps I’ll get old enough some day not to care how loudly I shout boo and causing stares.

    It must have been more fun going to performances 200 years ago and jeering or not applauding new pieces of music which one didn’t like. Or shouting and clapping for an encore of the piece you just heard for the first time and loved. Somehow I imagine, it must have made the music much more relevant for everyone, though it may have caused some pain for performers and composers alike when reactions were negative. Now that was bridge building, even if the audiences sometimes got things wrong about certain composers or compositions. Yet that, in turn, made later rediscovery of composers, and thereby their music, so much more relevant for another generation of audiences and musicians.

    Without relevance, you can’t have enthusiasm. which in turn has the potential to encourage self-education and more listening to – amd implicitly better performances of – what you have become enthusiastic about. This is why the period performance field is doing so well, and why the mainstream classical field is not.

  2. says

    This post and Tom’s comment have so much I agree with, as well as so much I don’t, that it would take me all day to write. (I especially agree with Tom about the need for more score analysis training, but I think that ear-training and keyboard skills are crucial to developing whole musicians. On the other hand, they are usually taught in such a fragmented, compartmentalized way that they often have little impact.)

    Meanwhile, Greg, I get your point that “education,” “the arts,” and “outreach” are each loaded words, heavy with what I’d call a certain snobbishness. Perhaps what we can all agree on is that this huge variety of music we lump together under the term “classical” needs to be more effectively promoted as well as more effectively performed.

    I’m a little touchy on this “education” point, though. As someone who’s spent chunks of his life promoting classical music to college students, in the framework of music appreciation classes, I know first-hand that effective (key word) educational experiences can have a big impact. My experience is that developing enough familiarity with a particular piece that one can recognize (not just intellectually but with an emotional openess) thematic material has a huge impact on new listeners.

    Just as classical music needs to be performed with engagement and passion and imagination, it needs to be listened to with the same qualities. Large scale works are written to reward those who can follow what’s happening intellectually (what Copland called the “purely musical level,” if I remember correctly) as well as have an intuitive response to both the moment-by-moment musical events and the energy and emotional projection of the performers.

    I’ve led classes of students in repeated listening of recordings of large works they were to hear performed live, doing activities such as making timelines of musical events described in their own vocabulary, all without using scores. And then have those students–most of whom never listened to classical music before the class they took to fulfill an arts requirement–argue in class over whether a conductor had made the phrasing in a Beethoven 5th performance too choppy, or if hearing “Suor Angelica” in English detracted from the performance because it sounds so much better in Italian.

    So I’m not so sure “education” is such a dirty word. I was at a talk by Adrian Ellis, the executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (which is doing quite well it seems). He’s passionate about the importance of education, especially in early years, and said that JALC is “basically an education machine with programming.”

  3. Paul Lindemeyer says

    I agree with Tom that the jazz community could learn a lot from following the discourse now opening up in the classical community. Both musics are facing aging-out audiences and fighting for about the same size crust of a recording sales pie that’s shriveling globally.

    But will jazz people listen? I personally see little common cause between jazz and classical players, except one-on-one and now-and-then. There probably won’t be any spontaneous coalition. For one thing, the American jazz community agrees on little musically. For another, that part that is organized and aware is more broadly devoted to issues in the African-American community than to music per se.

  4. Paul Lindemeyer says

    I was hasty in composing that last bit…

    To be fairer to “that part” of the jazz community, I’ll say instead that they’re more devoted to jazz as a cultural manifestation of the African-American community than to jazz per se.

    I’ll digress no further on jazz here. But I can pontificate like crazy on the state of the saxophone in concert music, if anybody gives a wet slap.