Institute for Advanced Study

Here’s an idea, which I owe to someone who runs an important classical music institution in the US. He’s not going to act on it himself, so I feel free to present it. And, without meaning to be coy, I don’t feel comfortable naming him, because he hasn’t come out in public as someone hungry for change in classical music. Which means, just in passing, that he illustrates something I’ve said from time to time, here and elsewhere — that it’s hard, at least in the US, to find someone who runs a major classical music institution and doesn’t think that the classical music crisis is very serious, and that the field needs major change.

institute blogHere’s the idea. It’s that there should be an Institute for Advanced Study in classical music, which would address changes the field needs. I’d thought of something like this myself in the past, that someone — or perhaps some university or conservatory — should create a classical music institute, to study the field and foster change. Research could be a big component. An institute like that could study conditions around the world, for instance, and compile the best available information, statistical and otherwise, about how the crisis has hit every country where classical music has flourished.

Or it could study the existing classical music audience, which in some ways we know very little about. How many people in this audience really know classical music well, can follow sonata form, or (to set the bar lower) identify by ear all the instruments of the orchestra? How many listen actively during performances, following each evolving detail of the music, and how many listen passively, letting the music wash over them, and perhaps tuning out from time to time?

We don’t know those things. I suspect, from focus groups I’ve observed, and from other contacts with people in our audience, that the level of understanding might be lower than we’d think. And lower, certainly, than many concert program notes assume. I don’t say this, I should add, in any critical way. These are people who love our music, and we should embrace them, without caring how deep their understanding is. That’s the only decent thing to do simply on a human level, and it’s the best thing, too, from a business point of view. Would we want the people we most depend on to feel excluded, because we tell them  — implicitly or explicity — that they ought to know more?

It would also be good to study aor potential audience. Or audiences. Who are they, what do they think, what’s their culture like? I know a consultant who ponders this, and wants to do extensive studies to inform himself and his clients. But I’d think the people we want to reach have already been extensively studied, not least by marketers for the things they already care about. So can’t we piggyback on these studies, develop a picture of our potential audience(s), and see how what they look for in anything they like matches up with what we’re offering?

But back to the Institute for Advanced Study. The person who sketched his idea for me had more in mind than a research institute. He was inspired by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ (not affiliated with Princeton University), where scholars, artists, and scientists are invited to be in residence, or else to visit, with the idea that they’ll do some of their work at the Institute, and share ideas with others.

So why not do this for people looking for change in classical music?

What marvelous idea, I immediately thought, and of course said. So many people working to change classical music are doing it more or less on their own, doing their own projects, often enough with great success, but without much contact with others who may be doing similar things. Or who might be doing very different things, from which, even so, others can learn from.

An institute like this could begin to develop a list of best practices, things that really work. And maybe even could work toward evolving some sustainable models for classical music change, ways to go from — for instance — small club performances to something bigger, though in the same non-concert hall ambience, something that now could let musicians make something like the kind of income that now can make from playing in orchestras.

I immediately thought of three people I’d immediately invite, thinking that they’d benefit a lot from discussions at the Institute, and also that they could be a great help to others. One of them runs a large orchestra in the US. He and I have talked over the years about the need for change, and I know that in his present position, where he’s doing wonderful things largely in the normal mold, he’d like to make some striking changes.

But he’s hampered by many institutional factors, not least the unfortunate fact that orchestras (at least in the US) are already maxed out — in money, staff time, energy, any resource you can name — just keeping their day to day work on track. It’s hard even to find time to strategize, to step back and brainstorm about what you’d like to do, and how you’d measure its success if you did it.

This person, I believe, doesn’t talk with many people about the things he’d love to do. Or about the obstacles to doing them. Enter the Institute! Bring him there, with others like himself, and also people doing entirely different things, and see what sparks begin to fly. What ways can be devised around obstacles that once seemed serious, what inspiration there might be for taking leaps into the unknown. Or, better, into things that would have seemed unknown until you learned that others have been doing them.

The second person on my list: Julia Villagra, who guest-posted here about her Tertulia concert series, in which she partners with restaurants in New York City to create evenings in which chamber music is played between courses of a meal. Attracting a young audience for whom eating out is natural, but who don’t normally go to hear classical music.

Julia’s post — in two parts — is here and here. When I told the orchestra CEO I’ve just discussed about Julia and Tertulia, he was immediately excited, saying how something like Tertulia could easily work in his own city. So here are two people who could very productively talk.

My third invitation might go to Michael Draboski, who runs the Burlington Ensemble in Vermont. Which is — are you sitting down? — a for-profit classical music group, that seems to work, earning not only enough money to support itself (and pay its musicians), but to donate some of its ticket income to charity. A 180 degree turn from the usual model, which is to ask people to pay for tickets, and then, down the road, to hit them up for donations. Nothing wrong with that, but Michael’s turned that on its head.

So here’s a new model, not well enough known. (Which is partly my fault. I should have blogged about it long ago.) And maybe something others could imitate. Could it be scaled upwards, to finance not just a chamber group, but an opera company, or an orchestra? I don’t claim to know the answer, but what a fascinating discussion that might be! And certainly there might be parts of what Michael does that anyone could imitate.

And that’s just three people. Imagine how many more could take part in these discussions, including some who’d come very quietly, because they haven’t taken public stands for major change, though privately they long for it.

I know that many people — certainly my friend the orchestra CEO, and Michael and Julia, too, because they work fulltime — couldn’t be in residence at an institute like this for long periods. Or at least not at first. Once the institute had proved itself, people might make time for it.

But at the start, at least, I think we’d need a virtual component, so that people could be part of it online, without physically being there. How that would work would have to be developed, but we all know it could be.

So there’s an idea. A good one, I think. Even a necessary one. Who’d like to help create it? Who’d like to host it? I’d be thrilled to devote a major amount of my own time to this project, if my participation could be possible.

Who’s interested?

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  1. says

    This is a great idea – sounds like a think tank / R&D for the orchestra industry. At the beginning, an online community could work (you have the makings of one here already). There are a few tools out there that could facilitate: Yammer, Socialcast, etc. I must ask though, is this work that the league of American Orchestras already does?

    • says

      Glad you like the idea, Michael. The League does many helpful things, but they don’t, to my knowledge, do anything like this. And in any case, what they do involves only their own constituency, which is people working with orchestras. So they wouldn’t be able to bring orchestra people together with those doing very different things in classical music.

  2. says

    Dear Greg, I’m interetsed. I think its a brilliant idea. I would be an online individual, as I live in Australia. The digital world decentralizes knowledge containments and so I see no barriers to spreading this idea, establishing the institute and growing it. Its a big idea and one that needs a long term, project based underpinning. there may not even be much output for a couple of years.
    My PhD project is about the denouement(involuntary and voluntary) of the careers of opera Singers. I’m immersed in the writings of Gary Curruthers (Canada), Dawn Bennett(Australia) Angela Beeching (New England Con Boston) Janis Weller(Minnestota), Rosie Perkins (UK), to name but a few in this area and who may be interetsed in the idea. Julia’s(last weeks post) work is based on strong business principles and so it seems more of that knowledge would enhance such an institute and its beginnings and diseminations. The commercial world of music has long accepted business principles on which to operate. I dont understand why classical training and markets seem resistant to using and learning from the commercial world of music.

    • says

      Thanks, Kathleen. Sounds like you’d be a perfect person to be part of this Institute, if we get it going. You and I should talk privately. And now I’m going to have to look up the people you mentioned. Apart from Angela (who’s now at the Manhattan School of Music) I don’t know of any of them.

  3. says

    Wonderful vision, Greg, and I love the analogy to the Institute for Advanced Study (where Einstein spent the last years of his career and made a habit of walking home with the equally brilliant logician Kurt Godel). It’s something like what the Center for the Future of Museums is designed to do at the American Alliance of Museums (to Michael’s question about the League). I’d love to help make this happen in some form.

  4. ariel says

    Oh no ! not another 2rd. rate institute of
    advanced studies think tank… that the answer to what
    Mr. Sandow claims to be a classical music
    “crisis ” stares him and his adherents in the
    face is totally ignored . forget about putting brains into gear ” let’s start an institution
    and once again reinvent the wheel ….. ….it
    is an example of people who have not
    the slightest comprehension of the history
    of music as a social evolution and an
    art form but are most passionate to “save” it , for what ? they
    haven’t the slightest idea . Much like dogs
    chasing their tails .

  5. Mike Kerr says

    Hi Greg, we (Pacific Symphony) are actively trying to figure out how to include R&D into our regular business activity. We’re fighting budgets, staff time and inertia, but we’re making progress. Please include us in the on-line discussions. Also note that Lowell Noteboom has been convening occasional meetings of Board Chairs from around the country to discuss innovation and best practices. He would be a nice addition to the discussion.

    • says

      Hi, Mike,

      I’d expect the Pacific Symphony to be part of any active discussions of the future. I know there’s a lot of impetus there. And that fabulous Frite of Spring video!

      Lowell and I go way back. I’d hope he’d be involved. Assuming, in all of this, of course, that the project gets off the ground.

  6. FCM-NZM says

    In all my time in the music academy, I longed for what you are talking about. Universities are SUPPOSED to do research which the field can’t or won’t do! The strange thing is, while we produce copious amounts of research into our fixed canonical (and peripheral) texts, the classical world has turned its nose up at the audience as a subject of study. Anthropology, Ethnography, and Sociology study cultural relations, but classical musicians are generally not encouraged to. It blows my mind.

    Perhaps most disappointing was learning how unspoken, deeply entrenched values were at the heart orientation. As another commentator put it: Adorno.

    When most of the administrators of music schools are either composers or positivist historians, it’s actually not hard to see how generations of musicians have been produced who have not even begun to take the first step up the mountain of dealing with our modern day culture.

  7. says

    Dear Greg,

    great idea, I’ve been worried about the schism between those who use technology and classical music performance. I think its a significant part of the problem. I’ve often wanted to do something similar in relation to electronic and computer art music. I was doing a grant application here in Australia and needed statistics on how many people use technology in music, what they use it for and how does it influence the music that they make. There is almost no information available other then net figures of technology sales (information that is paywalled). There are so many areas in music where we need better information and I can see a venture like what you are proposing really useful. I was an academic in an Australian Conservatorium until the ongoing funding cuts. Music education in Australia is in a dire state – it seems Australians just don’t care about cultural education any more. Support for institutions has crashed alarmingly over the last decade and I see formally good music institutions turning into band rehearsal clubs. Its a terrible waste of the scarce dollars that are given to education and I would love to find a way to shed light on this trend. Anyway I would love to be involved.

    • says

      Thanks, Peter. I’ll file your name for the future, when this Institute gets going. I can easily see it having an Australian branch. I’ve been to Australia, and have quite a few friends and contacts there.

      If I were counting people who use technology in music I might start with just about every classical composer, since we’re all using Finale and Sibelius. Which goes beyond convenience in notation! These programs can play our music back as we write it, which in my case, at least, has led to quite a few changes in the kind of music I write. And then, of course, every pop music producer. And the millions of people in bands (including, at least in the US, lots of kids in high school) who use various software programs to produce their own records. I’d guess that technology use is just about everywhere, except perhaps in the practice rooms of conservatories. (As we’d call them in the US.) And even there, students are recording themselves, and putting videos on YouTube, and much else.