Friday post — real change, claims of change

Questions faculty members at a music school asked me, in a discussion of new ways to train musicians for classical music’s future:

“What about artistic quality? Do we now focus less on this, and more on business skills and finding a new audience?”

My answer: No. Of course we all — all of us in classical music — have to put artistic quality first, as I hope we always have. Or else what’s the point? Especially if you want to reach a new audience. You’d better be at the top of your artistic game, because if you offer routine performances, your new audience will walk away.

So if you’re creating a new curriculum at a school, with a new focus on the future, put artistic quality first. Make that a founding principle, something you’ll never compromise.

“What if I’m not a new-style musician? How can I teach students who want to be that?”

My answer: You need to be open to what they do. Ask them to tell you their interests, their dreams, their ideas for reaching new places. Talk about all that with them. Ask if they’re getting the help they need to reach their goals, and think about who can help them, if you can’t.

And be open even if their ideas at first seem crazy. Once a student of mine, a pianist, wanted to play the movements of the Brahms F minor sonata in reverse order. Her teacher more or less suggested the death penalty for that. So in our dawning new world, be open to the thought. Say it disturbs you, if it does, but put it on the table. Maybe ask the student to play the piece for you this way. See how it sounds. Maybe the idea isn’t so crazy. Maybe it’s something that works for the student, and you can agree to disagree.

Or maybe it’s truly a bad idea. Merely putting the idea on the table doesn’t mean it has to be carried out. And remember: Even if the student does something that you might think is wrong, it doesn’t damage the piece. All our masterworks remain with us, pure and untouched, and most performances, in any future I can foresee, will be pretty much in standard form.

And I offered one more thought. Is there any dream this teacher had, something she’d longed to do, but hadn’t thought possible? Maybe she, too, in some small way, could be a musician of the 21st century.


2001 blogNice start to the New York Philharmonic’s season, last week, before their official opening gala (which happened on Wednesday). They focused on film music. They had a panel discussion, which looked like it went fairly deep (with Coen brothers on the panel, along with a neuroscientist), asking how music and moving images work together.

They also had an exhibit, collaborating with the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in which they showed documents and photos about the music in 2001 and in several Hitchcock films, including score facsimiles and correspondence between composers and directors.

And then two concerts: one of music from Hitchcock films, the other a screening of 2001, with the Philharmonic playing the score live. The entire score — as I hadn’t realized — is classical music, including (as most of us know) the Strauss Zarathustra  fanfare, Ligeti, and the Blue Danube Waltz. But there’s nothing else. No score written for the film.

I can imagine that the Philharmonic — or any great orchestra — playing live to the film would sound glorious. Nor is it easy to do. Coordinating live music with the precise timing of a film is always tricky.

I like all this. I’m not saying other orchestras haven’t done similar things, but the Philharmonic offered quite a full package. And, whenever anyone does something like this, it’s a way to extend what classical music institutions do, reaching out to the world around us.


Something less happy, at least for me, though one person I told about it said it didn’t matter much, because (or so she said) press releases always exaggerate. (Apologies to all my publicist friends. I guess some people really see you that way.)

But I wasn’t happy to read a release about Ensemble HD — a group of Cleveland Orchestra musicians who play in clubs — that called what they do “groundbreaking,” as if no classical musician had ever played in a club before.

And in fact the release made no mention of any other classical musician ever before doing any such thing. I don’t at all mean to say that Ensemble HD and everything they do might not be wonderful, might not reach a large new audience (as the release said they did), might not be a big step for the Cleveland Orchestra to take, giving enthusiastic support for the group.

But position the story that way. Say that this represents a new stage in the evolution of classical music played in clubs, the participation of large institutions. And don’t imply that no such performance ever happened before, that the mere fact of playing in clubs means that new ground has been broken.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg, this is Ryan Tanaka, don’t know if you remember but I’ve been a regular reader and contributor for a while now.

    A lot has happened since I last posted here…I was earning a Ph.D in musicology at a west coast school, took an arts entrepreneurship course, started a new classical improvisation ensemble (Tangerine Music Labs), got kicked out of school, got to meet Yo-Yo-Ma (who’s also a very good improvisor), built a new website, got a new job and a place, and are just now starting to do our first regular gigs.

    I agree completely about the need to maintain artistic quality — it’s very difficult to balance this with management and business responsibilities but without the prospect of doing something unique and high-quality, I’m afraid that the motivation to continue will be very difficult to muster. All music groups need an identity or story of some sort that people can rally behind to give them support…and that takes a while to get good at so it’s not something to be ignored, I think.

    One thing that our group is struggling right now is the prospect of raising money — we’re all doing this part time for free, but we realized that if we want to do this for a living we’re going to learn how to fundraise. (And we will probably need something akin to an angel investor because we need a number of full time staff.) Have you considered writing anything about this or have you done so already?

  2. says

    Greg, you might be interested in the 21st Century Orchestra and Chorus (if you don’t already know about them). They’re a full orchestra/choir that regularly performs live concerts of scores during films. From what I understand, they sell out most (if not all) their events and have featured the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies and a number of the Pixar films.

    I discovered them recently before the premiere of the second Star Trek movie when they were doing runs of the first.

    Seems like live music to films/video is making something of a comeback these days, which is ironic given the history of talkies putting out so many musicians out of work in the 20s. There was a local film series happening here (by the Louisville Film Society) in Louisville with showings of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films back-to-back but with a different ensemble for each performance. A local big band did the first performance (I believe) and the Baroque Orchestra I often play with did the second and a Hip-Hop artist did the third (don’t recall who did the last three).

    Of course we all know Glass did the “La Belle et la Bete” was one of the first to bring back that full live scoring for films, but now I’m wondering how many other folks are doing this.

  3. says

    Alex North was hired to write a score for 2001. It was recorded for the film, and it was only when Alex North attended the premiere that he discovered that his score was not being used.

    Jerry Goldsmith later recorded North’s score, and a mono version of the original sessions was released still later.

    Wikipedia has the story.

  4. John Porter says

    Artistic quality! I am so sick of the preemptive questions about artistic quality. Whenever anything new is proposed that might not appear to 100 percent smack in the bullseye of what is considered to be art for art’s sake, then you have some elitist say blah, blah, blah, what about artistic quality? And, of course the person who brought it up to begin with has to reply: yes, of course, artistic quality comes first. Classical music has been nearly put to extinction by those who worship at the temple of art for art’s sake. I would rather hear a group of high school students play their asses off than a top level orchestra on a day they don’t feel like playing for a particular conductor. They may play better, but that doesn’t always count. We have plenty of quality and an industry full of people that play at a high quality level. Maybe artistic quality is over rated, over stated, and misunderstood.

  5. David Snead says

    When we speak of “artistic quality” I think it’s important to define the term, and to especially understand the customer’s definition of quality. We may define it as technical perfection, creative programming or clever presentation, but our customers often define it as “an experience that moved me head, heart and soul.” If we play all the right notes at the right time perfectly in tune, the customer won’t consider it ‘quality’ unless we’ve connected with them and changed their lives, even for an evening.

  6. says

    I think David Snead has a good answer for quality, but it’s important to remember what makes an experience memorable is the technical skill, creative programming, clever presentation, originality of the idea, etc.

    But it’s also important to note how many performances of “interesting ideas” have fallen down when there were too many missed notes. As Greg said, quality must come first. And that means technical, ideological, conceptual, and artistic quality, because it’s amazing how quickly an audience can pick up if something is terribly wrong.

    An important thing to remember is creative people will always have fantastic, creative ideas. A program should be about teaching the skills to make it happen. DePauw taught me many of the skills I needed to go down my career path, and the classes they’re talking about adding are the skills I developed later. Excited for the program, and, hopefully, they bring in people from all levels of development. Meeting Yo Yo Ma is awesome, but meeting someone a few years older than you still beating the streets as he’s gigging and founding groups is also important. I learned as much, or more, from local groups than I did meeting famous groups–having coffee with members of eighth blackbird is awesome, but meeting Kevin James (before [kāj] ensemble) was possibly even more meaningful. He wasn’t world famous, but I learned a lot from discussing his day to day grind.