Classical music in an age of pop

juilliard blogThat’s my spring semester Juilliard course, launched last week. The link takes  you to the week by week class schedule and assignments. For a quick overview of the course, go here.

And note that I’m happy to teach a version of this course online. Which means that you yourself can take it. Four  90-minute sessions, $300. (Can’t do it in three sessions, as I do with my branding workshops, and did last semester with my Juilliard course on how to speak and write about music. There’s too much to cover.) Read the rest of the post for more info. 

You’ll see that the course falls roughly in two parts. The first part is about the classical music crisis. We look at snapshots from the days when classical music wasn’t in any danger, when it was popular, and a admired, central part of our culture. For instance, I ask students to read one of my blog posts, in which I quote (in full) a New York Times story from 1923, about Geraldine Farrar’s farewell performance at the Met. Her teenage fans — yes, she had teenage fans — strung a banner from one side of the Met’s balcony to the other. That’s not the world we live in today.

Then we look at some writing of mine, about how bad the crisis is. We ask what classical music is, what it’s good for, why it should survive. We ask what its role is in our present culture. Or, more precisely, we look at aspects of our present culture, and see how badly the mainstream practice of classical music fits in.

Then we look at two alternatives to current classical music practice. One is classical music, as it existed in the past, with a vibrant, excited audience, and performances (which can be heard on recordings) more free, more flexible, more individual, and often more expressive than what we hear today.

The second alternative is pop music, classical music’s Other in our current world. That’s a huge topic, and I limit myself to one provocative way of looking at it. I ask students to listen to seven pop songs, ranging from Frank Sinatra to hiphop, and to ask themselves two questions:

  • What, in each case, tells us that these songs aren’t classical music? What do they do, that classical music doesn’t or wouldn’t do? (Not as simple a question as it seems.)
  • Could these songs be considered art? If so, why? And if not, why not?

That’s the first half of the course. The second half is about fixing the crisis. We look at the many changes sweeping through classical music. We look at entrepreneurship — a new classical music world in which musicians make careers their own way.

And then we take two small steps toward creating a different kind of classical music world. First, I ask students to make a short presentation about a classical piece they love, typically something they themselves play (or sing, or have composed). I ask them not to talk about the history or structure of the piece, as classical program notes so typically do. Instead, I ask them to speak from the heart about why they love the piece — what it means to them, what they feel about it, whatever matters most to them to say. The results, year after year, have been extraordinary. Often we get goose bumps. What students have said is so powerful, so personal, so convincing. If talk like this was widespread in the classical music world, we’d get much more love, much more interest, much more excitement and admiration.

Finally, I ask the students to take steps toward branding themselves, to find words and images that start to convey what makes them unique as musicians. Words and images, in other words, that show why someone else — a prospective audience — might want to hear them. This, too, has proved very powerful, and again has been touching, even inspirational. And again provides a lesson on how we might communicate why classical music matters, once we pull ourselves out of the classical music bubble.

The branding is sessions in my course last year gave rise to the branding workshops I’ve been teaching online.  Contact me for more information, or if you’d be interested in joining a workshop.

But here’s a new idea. I could teach a condensed version of this course online, for anyone who might want to take it. Just as I did with my fall semester course on how to speak and write about music. Those sessions were a great success.

This spring semester course — Classical Music in an Age of Pop — will be harder to compress. In the past, my online courses have had three 90-minute sessions, and cost $200 for each participant. I think this course will need four sessions, and I’d charge $300. If you’re interested, contact me! Look through the syllabus. I think it’s fascinating stuff. I’d be happy to lead you through it, and explore the future of classical music.

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  1. says

    It’s interesting observing classical music videos on YouTube. Most of these involve audio with a still image of the cd cover. You can also find a lot of very poor quality video of live performances- a wide shot of a string quartet recorded by a single motionless camcorder or jerky cell phone. Of course there are also very professional, multi-camera examples too, but compare these to the diversity of popular music videos, both live and not. The one is living in the present, the other strolling through a museum.

    Some performers trying to stay “relevant” have videos with over-the-top, insincere facial expressions and gestures, but even here the actual video is often the traditional 3 cameras from conservative angles.

    However, the classical music videos that seem to get a lot of attention are the “visualizations”, where people have colored bars that scroll by with the music (sometimes only poor midi recordings).

    I like the concept of these visualizations, and some of them are quite well done, so I’ve been experimenting with making “music videos” of my own “modern classical” (oxymoron?) music. Here are two examples-


    • says

      Hi, Nathan,

      I was surprised, like you, by the videoless classical videos, the ones with just a single static image. But then I came to understand what they’re about. They’re not an attempt to create videos, but rather a way of uploading audio to YouTube. YouTube has become a strikingly good archive of classical music performances from the past, most notably (from what I’ve seen) recordings by opera singers of past generations. These, again from what I’ve heard, have become treasured by young singers, who before this upsurge of old recordings on YouTube, were strikingly unfamiliar with singers from past eras.

      So these non-video videos are very valuable. Just not as videos.

      Of course you’re right in general about classical music visuals. The worst videos are the telecasts and films of orchestra performances. The oboes play, the camera zooms in on the oboes. Duh. Jonathan Demme’s film of a Neil Young concert, Heart of Gold, shows much better ways to do it. Don’t film obvious things, but really enter into the performance. Find, for instance, people not playing at a given moment, or not playing anything obviously notable, but who are raptly focused on what they’re doing. Brings the whole thing alive better than any classical video I’ve seen.

      • says

        Sure the videos with a static CD cover and audio-only make sense, the audio is what is important, and classical music isn’t the only genera doing this on YouTube.

        But it is rare to find a classical music video on YouTube that really strikes you (visually). Off the top of my head the only major example that comes to me of videos like this, are some of the non-live videos of Hélène Grimaud. There are older films that were much more interesting visually- quite a few of Glenn Gould, a fantastic (though imperfect) one of Alexis Weissenberg performing Petrushka. What happened to videos like these?

        Here is the first example I attempted to post before-

        • says

          Good question! I’m going to guess that as videos became a more common part of classical music life, they became standardized, in part because in many other ways the classical music world doesn’t know how to present itself.

          Thanks for the citations of good videos. You know more about this than I do, and I’m grateful for your input. If you’d ever care to make list of good classical music videos on YouTube or elsewhere, I’d be grateful once more. You could share the list here, or email it to me privately.

    • says

      Absolutely there’s room for you. I have three likely people so far, counting you. Once four are definite, we’re a go. Can’t be certain when it’ll start, but we’ll work that out. Glad you can do it! Looking forward to getting to know you.