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Making Music Relevent (as theatre is)

The guest speaker in my class (Management Techniques) this week, Amy Murphy, Managing Director of the Arden Theatre ( in Philadelphia took me deep in thought about music’s challenge to be relevant in today’s world. The Arden is an extraordinary arts organization, in that its mission focuses on telling stories that provoke conversation. Clearly one only provokes conversation by presenting works that hit home, that mean something in everyday life, in one’s family. My wife and I subscribe to the Arden, as do many of our friends, and yes, we discuss the plays we see, and in the process of conversing, grow as human beings.

The Arden scores big time. They are relevant, focused and effective. They can take pride in contributing to advancing the values of their community.

In the process of listening to Amy’s presentation I became obsessed with the question of how music could be as effective as theatre in advancing the values of its communities. My thinking was fed in part by a talk I had just given at Ithaca College on the language of music, a talk that laid out intrinsic or essential qualities of musical engagement, as well as instrumental or applied qualities of musical engagement.

Music, being so much more abstract than theatre, has a substantial challenge on its hand, especially now that in-depth music education is less present in our schools and homes than in previous times. In addition, the classical music world is so dominated by orchestras, a construct to deliver music, not music itself, that matters become complicated even further.

Because musical experience has been so limited, much of the public’s reaction to musical expression is visceral: louder, faster, more “in your face.” Need I elaborate on this? I don’t think so.

Furthermore, we humans react positively to the familiar, so nostalgia programming is rampant throughout both classical and popular music presentations.

How do we get to relevant, like the Arden Theatre?

This is the question that music entrepreneurs who care about the true impact of music and the arts will need to answer.

A first step must be to understand the intrinsic and instrumental values of music itself.

A second step should be to understand one’s own community: what issues, concerns, challenges are on the table; what concerns do people have, what makes them happy, satisfied, what drives them?

A third step must be to know and understand how music is present in people’s lives now: how they engage with music everyday, as well as on an occasional basis. Research conducted by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance tells us that music is central to the lives of diverse populations in Philadelphia. I suspect this is true throughout the United States.

Fourth, know the literature; know contemporary composers and their work. The italic emphasis here implies that currently most music school graduates are not only ignorant of 90+% of music repertoire and contemporary compositions, they are also unaware of the contexts within these works were and are composed.

Fifth, marry community issues and the manner in which people experience music in their everyday lives with carefully chosen and superbly performed music. Perform in multiple venues that provide equal access. Explain (in words) your thinking about how the music you have chosen addresses what you perceive as important community issues.

And sixth, initiate and continue a dialogue with your audiences (Arden again). Through this dialogue is where real change will take place, where new ideas will emerge and revitalization of mission will occur.

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