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April 3, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 4: What should we do?

Previously, in episodes one through three:

[This is the start of the book’s introduction.]

This is a book about the future of classical music. It’s a necessary book, because classical music is in crisis, and people have burning questions. Is the classical music audience growing older? Will classical music disappear?

Many people can get caught up in these questions —classical music professionals, people in the classical music audience (who often love classical music even more than the professionals do), people who like classical music but don’t go to classical concerts (and might wonder why), and of course people who care about the current state of culture. I’m writing this book for all these people, including those who don’t know much about classical music.

But now I’d better state my own beliefs. I think the game is mostly over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will disappear, but that the classical music world will change, maybe drastically, and that classical music institutions — even big, brand-name orchestras and opera companies — that don’t change fast enough might collapse.

Change is needed because the old ways aren’t working. The audience, as data from the National Endowment for the Arts pretty clearly shows, is in fact getting older. Younger people, even people in their fifties, aren’t starting to go to classical concerts in the numbers we saw in past generations. Fundraising has become more difficult. In the orchestra world, there’s a long-term pattern of expenses rising faster than income, which — especially when combined with falling ticket sales and falling donations — means a serious financial squeeze, which if things down change, will only get worse in the future, leading to notably dire private projections about where things are going. The trend is downward, and concerts that don’t sell well are starting to look very empty.

But lying behind everything I’ve talked about are two much more basic problems, a drift away from classical music in the culture all around us, and, within the classical music world, something very like stagnation, a failure to engage with contemporary life. These trends Obviously these two trends are tied to each other. If people lose interest in classical music, and the classical music world refuses to engage with them, then of course they lose interest even more, and the classical music world finds them even harder to engage. And of course as classical music (and high art in general) recedes in our culture, popular culture rises up to replace it. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Popular culture can be many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. For classical music to ignore it would be suicide. How can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like? How can you be a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

Popular culture is many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. It’s also gotten smarter over the years (an insight nailed in Stephen Johnson’s ironically titled book, Everything Bad is Good for You) and for classical music to ignore it would be suicide—financial suicide, because how can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like, and even artistic suicide, because how can you become a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

Which is exactly what classical music has done, most obviously by maintaining its formality. But what’s worse is what I’ve elsewhere called “an odd blankness,” or in other words a massive failure to communicate. Even facing their own constituency, their own loyal (if shrinking) audience, classical music professionals won’t even explain very basic things about what’s going on—why, for instance, when an orchestra plays a Tchaikovsky symphony, there might be five horns on stage, when the program book says Tchaikovsky wrote the piece for four.

The enterprise of classical music operates from the top down. Students are taught in music school to obey the rules, to learn the officially sanctioned ways to play the music, and keep their creativity in check. Professional musicians say their job is only to realize the composer’s intentions, thus reducing themselves to a servant’s role. Scholars tell the world that the meaning of a classical piece lies in its abstract structure, thus muting the force of everything we hear in the music.

So classical music is robbed of its force, and ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world—which then explains why we can’t find a new audience. People in the new audience would have to be socialized into the classical music world; they‘d have to accept its odd blankness, with all its contradictions, and all its secrets that are never explained.

You can still read the full texts of episodes one, two and three. And I encourage you to do it! (As the book unfolds, I’ll always keep the most recent episodes online, even if older ones eventually will disappear.)

Prelude to episode four: something I might have said in episode three, but didn’t. The classical music world doesn’t give its audience—existing or new—one really crucial piece of information. What’s going on in the music? What’s the goal of the performance we’re hearing right now? What are the musicians thinking about? What are they trying to accomplish? What’s easy about this piece, and what’s difficult? Why is this performance different from other performances?

In sports, as I’ve often observed, fans know what’s going on. They can see that the pitcher’s getting tired. Should the manager take him out? We can see what the manager does, and decide (especially when we see the results) whether we agree. Now of course there are many reasons why classical music isn’t as transparent as baseball. It’s less tangible, for one thing, and much further removed from most peoples’ everyday experience.

But still there’s a lot that could be explained. In fact, one of the reasons classical music seems so remote—or seems, for many people, to need an audience that’s been specially educated in all the music’s complexities—is that most things aren’t ever explained. If a conductor got up before a performance and said, “OK, here’s the hardest thing about playing this piece—this transition, right here.” And then the orchestra demonstrates that moment, that transition from (let’s say) very slow music to something very quick, and the conductor makes sure we understand exactly what the difficulty is. Or else the conductor talks about his or her approach to the piece. “I think Tchaikovsky is made to sound too sentimental. So I’m going to understate everything.” (The musicians in the orchestra can talk, too, of course.)

At this point, someone’s sure to say that now we’re lecturing the audience, or turning the concert into a lesson, and also that nothing like this happens in a baseball game. And that last part is true. When you go to the ballpark, no one steps out to the pitcher’s mound with a microphone to tell you what’s going on. But this does happen when you watch a game on TV, or listen on the radio, so anyone with any interest in baseball really has heard moment by moment discussions of game after game.

And I’m just about certain that what I’m suggesting won’t come across as any kind of lecture. The classical music audience, in my experience, is starved for information. Or at least a large part of it is. And, beyond that, much of the audience is also starved for any kind of connection to the people playing the music. The audience wants to be acknowledged. It wants to be included. It wants to know what’s going on—and (as I’ve also said many times) has been made passive because nobody bothers to talk to it.


But now how can we fix all these problems? This will be the final—and surely the most important—section of my book. I’d start by stating some general principles. First, classical music needs to become a contemporary art. It needs to be part of the mainstream of present-day life, maybe an elite part, maybe an extra-smart, very artistic part, not for a mass audience, but still part of contemporary culture, just as the visual art world is, or world music, or smart alternative rock bands, or art-house films

To do that, classical music has to look and feel contemporary. So we have to get rid of formal dress. That doesn’t mean classical musicians can’t look elegant on stage, or that the members of an orchestra shouldn’t coordinate their look. Of course they should; they’re giving a performance. But the look should be contemporary. The look (and content) of everything involved in a classical performance ought to be contemporary—advertising, brochures, everything printed in the program books given out at concerts, the way the musicians dress and act onstage, the way the music gets talked about. And “contemporary” doesn’t mean full of empty glitz, like a dumb TV show. It means alert, lively, intelligent, and also, whenever anything’s visual, smartly designed.

And then there’s the music. That needs to be contemporary, too. Literally contemporary; there has to be far more new music, music by living composers, at classical concerts. Half the pieces played, maybe more, should be recent or new. I can’t imagine a healthy classical music world in which that didn’t happen. Where does the classical music world focus our attention now? On the past, often the distant past. When we ask what the significance of a Beethoven symphony might be, we’re told about things that happened in Beethoven’s time. “This revolutionary symphony broke with everything that had been written previously.” Well, that’s fascinating, but why are we listening to it now? What does it tell us about ourselves, or the world we live in? Not, by the way, that I’m saying a Beethoven symphony can’t teach us anything about our lives today, but what would that be? This is one more thing the classical music world never quite gets around to telling us.

It’s very different with new pieces. Almost by their very nature, they put us somewhere in the modern age. And, sure, within the classical music world there’s a huge commotion over whether new classical music is good enough, whether it can stand up to Beethoven, whether the audience will like it, whether composers even ought to write for an audience. Wouldn’t that cheapen them? Lower their standards? And here—as, to be honest, so often in all these discussions about classical music’s future—I just want to roll my eyes, and say that if this is how we’re going to talk, we might as well give up. We need to tear down the walls, and let classical music breathe the same air that the rest of the world breathes. In any other walk of life, any other branch of art or entertainment—poetry, painting, pop music, jazz, movies, fashion, comic books (or rather graphic novels)—there are some things that are popular (however “popular” might be defined in each area; a popular poet of course has a smaller audience than a popular R&B star) and some things that aren’t. Some artists work in styles that lots of people like, and some artists don’t.

This ought to be obvious. It was obvious in classical music’s past: Handel was popular, Bach wasn’t, Haydn was popular, Mozart at best was semi-popular (to borrow a very useful phrase from rock critic Robert Christgau). Brahms was popular when he wrote piano waltzes, and much less so when he wrote symphonies. Anyone who thinks that classical composers today don’t need an audience, or more precisely that they shouldn’t be concerned about one, is condemning these composers to massive and completely deserved unpopularity. If you’re a composer, and you don’t care who listens to you, listeners will very likely pick up the cue, and reject you, just as you’re rejecting them.

In a healthy classical music world, that wouldn’t matter. Any composer who wanted to write in a style that many people didn’t like would be welcome to, with the understanding (which anyone doing this in pop music takes for granted) that he or she won’t have a massive audience. Nobody would whine, no one would complain, and above all—which would be a gigantic change from the way classical music currently works—nobody would force anyone to listen to this music. It wouldn’t, in other words, be programmed (as difficult new music often is today) on mainstream concerts, where it’s banged on the heads of people who’d rather not hear it. Instead, it would find whatever niche was natural to it, in which people who liked it would eagerly support it.

That’s how new classical music ought to work, with the understanding that if much more of it was heard, much more of it would have a chance to find its niche. And sometimes, of course, the place a new piece made for itself would be much larger than a niche, something that rarely happens now because, no matter how appealing a piece might be, it can’t get popular because most people—even loyal classical music listeners—never get a chance to hear it.

For this to work of course, new classical music has to sound (or at least some of it does) like the music in the outside world. It can be deeper, more complex, more tightly organized, more disciplined, whatever qualities anybody thinks might set classical music apart—but it has to live in the same world that other music lives in. Or, more pointedly, it has to sound like it lives in that world. And while it’s true that other musical genres (hiphop, country, jazz, Latin music of various sorts, dance music, cheesy mainstream pop, African music of many kinds) each have sonic profiles of their own, they also interpenetrate and influence each other. Why should classical music stand apart?

And once half of the music at classical concerts is more or less new, then the older music easily should find its meaning and its place. If we’re deeply engrossed in playing John Adams and Steve Reich (along with composers we barely can imagine now), and we know why we’re doing it, then when we turn from them to play Bach or Mozart, we’ll know why we’re doing that, too.

In episode five, coming on April 17: how we get to the magical place I’ve just described. And to conclude in this introduction to the book (maybe in episode five, or maybe in episode six), some thanks to others who are doing work that parallels mine, not just theorists and scholars, but also classical music professionals of every stripe, who are working for change within the field; and, finally, something more personal, about what all these changes mean to me.

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Posted by gsandow on April 3, 2006 1:44 AM


What you’re saying then, is that the audience does
need to be educated to appreciate the music. I’d certainly agree with that – (though formal education is not necessary) but I don’t believe the concert platform is the place or the time to begin the process. It’s going to appear dull, unnecessary, and most likely patronising to anyone who already understands what’s going on. As you explain, you don’t go to a baseball game to learn the rules – that happens at home and at school! So it should be with music too.

Maybe I need to revise what I wrote. Seems like it might not have been clear. I really don't think that audiences need to be educated to appreciate the music. I think they like it just fine -- including, I should strongly add, the people who don't come to concerts. Many of them (I know this first-hand from many people, and there are studies, as well) like classical music without any help from anybody.

But the audience wants to feel included. They want to know more, yes -- but above all they want to see that the musicians care about them. Besides, where are they going to learn all the things I said they should be told about. Not at home. Not from reading. For the most part, the things I mentioned aren't shared in any form. So the concert platform is one good place to start to do it

And audiences do like it. Not everybody -- there will be some who don't. But the positive reaction can be almost overwhelming. In Milwaukee, when I suggested at a pre-concert lecture that the orchestra should share its musical intentions, one woman (in her 60s, I'd guess) came up to me later and insisted that I tell the orchestra management how strongly she agreed. In Cleveland, after I'd talked onstage with the Cleveland Orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Most, about his intentions in conducting Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, one woman came up to me afterward with great excitement, and just about shouted, "You broke down the barrier between them and us!"

Anecdotal evidence, yes. But not at all atypical.

Posted by: Guthry Trojan at April 3, 2006 7:46 AM

As someone who occasionally attends classical music concerts (in my case, mostly Renaissance/Baroque or new music, plus a limited number of vocal star turns and opera productions), I'd like to bring up another issue: audience behavior. I'd rather listen to a CD in the distraction-free comfort of my living room than have to sit with people who are talking, eating, canoodling, snoring, sighing restlessly, fidgeting, nodding to the music or idly flipping the pages of the program. I sometimes feel that American marketing campaigns that stress extra-musical aspects of a concert ("enjoy a romantic evening!") bring out people who treat the concert as background music for their private lives. Conversely, it is a thrill to attend an outstanding concert as a member of an audience actively immersed in the music. Something transformative happens; the exquisite attentiveness of a roomful of strangers elevates the experience created by the music and the performers. But this happens only when the audience is there for the right reasons.

Good points. Those marketing campaigns, for better or worse, are responding to surveys that show why people go to the concerts. Though from what I've seen from both the surveys and in conversations with actual audience members, it's more a sense of spiritual excitement than any kind of romance (for the bulk of the audience, at least).

That said, it would be wonderful if the audience was more visibly engaged. And, for that matter, if the musicians were! And, in the case of the players, more audibly engaged. Performances these days aren't bad at all, on the average, but they rarely have any hair-trigger excitement, or even the casual but unmistakble personal feeling I noticed in my rock critic days, almost every time I went to a club or a concert. The whole thing has gotten distant and impersonal, so it's no surprise that many people would rather stay home and listen to a CD.

Posted by: Cathy Curtis at April 3, 2006 1:37 PM

I think that you are right in your identification of passivity as the problem to be overcome. Not just the obvious passivity of the audience, but the equally striking passivity of the orchestra, the conductor, the programming, etc. I recently attended a performance of Mahler's 2nd in Cincinnati and was very disturbed by the overall lifelessness, and absolute stillness, of the proceedings. Though I'm sure it isn't true, the musicians seemed bored out of their minds when they weren't playing. And of course not a word was uttered from the stage (any sign of an intent to communicate would be welcome!). Also, the front half of Music Hall was almost empty. Perhaps the third balcony could have been invited down to fill that space. In any case, the music was sublime-- but it played into a void punctuated only by coughs, cell phones playing baroque ditties, and a medical alarm that, somewhat comically, became louder as its poor owner tried to silence it.
My worry in connection with all of this is that much classical music is (or was) composed and performed with the expectation of passivity built in. Isn't this precisely the feature of classical music performance that led John Cage to invite the world and all of its sounds into the proceedings? In spite of Cage's undeniable influence on composition and on art in general, however, I suspect many (or most) classical performances are presented as if he never happened. Which suggests an inherent conservatism in the institutions (universities, orchestras, etc) that support the music. A conservatism that will be hard to overcome without a fundamental and lasting change in the way classical music is composed, played, performed, and listened to. Which, of course, is what you are trying to encourage. Thanks much for your efforts.

Jerome, thanks so much for this. Fascinating to bring up Cage in this context -- I agree with you. He empowers everybody. Once you take his music seriously, you can't be passive. You have to make choices at every moment, whether you're a musician or a listener. Cage had a notable effect on other composers -- he didn't necessariliy get them writing the way he did, but he got them to go deep into themselves. I'm told that after he visited Japan, Japanese composers started using traditional Japanese instruments. Of course the monstrous conservatism of the classical music enterprise makes Cage either ignored, or someone to giggle at. But a dose of his music, his thinking, and above all his joy -- something apparent, I'd think, to anyone who ever knew him personally, or saw him speak -- would be really good for all of us.

Posted by: Jerome Langguth at April 5, 2006 6:34 AM

One of the problems is with the obsession with perfection in performance, which leads to large numbers of orchestral musicians taking things like beta-blockers to control their nerves. This leads to a lower energy level and reduced involvement from the musicians. It's OK to produce an uninspired performance, as long as there are no obvious mistakes. I think that taking some of your suggestions would help loosen things up a bit but there needs to be a cultural shift away from perfection to creating exciting and involving performances.

Cathy, I agree, and even before your comment arrived I wrote a note to myself about this question -- something I should have mentioned in episode four. Performances really aren't good enough. And if they were, if they were personal, to say nothing of exciting, I can't imagine there would be so much talk about needing to educate the audience.

Posted by: Cathy Campbell at April 5, 2006 12:06 PM

Speaking of comparing a symphony concert to a baseball game, Leon Botstein has written,

The orchestra has not benefited from the ongoing decline in amateur music making. Attending concerts ought to be more like watching professional sports events. One would then go in admiration (and in search of self-improvement) to see and hear how the pros do it. One might play in the local ensemble. Hearing a major orchestra would be a source of inspiration if not pleasure because one appreciates what it takes to do all of this so well. (“The Future of the Orchestra,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 80 No. 2),

I think we can agree, can’t we, that while the classical music profession and industry cannot just sit around and wait for a return of more and better music education in our schools, that promoting both music education and non-professional music making is an important thing for everyone interested in the health of classical music?

As far as new music goes, I’m totally with you. I’m coming for a long weekend in NY this weekend. I’m passing up a comp ticket to the NY Phil and spending my own money to hear Kronos Friday night. (It is very difficult for many of us who are professional classical performers to break down and spend money on a ticket when so often we a friend can get us a free ticket to something.) The kind of creative, challenging, yet accessible stuff Kronos does, complete with taking advantage of lighting and staging, and incorporating non-Western influences, seems to me to be just the sort of thing you advocate. (I’d go to Kronos on Saturday, too, but am yielding to the desires of a friend who as an Indian-music phobia, so we’re going to Bargemusic.)

And part of this is going to be getting classical performers to think of themselves as creative artists and partners with composers in the creative process. The “great classics” were written by performer/composers and composers working closely with performers, after all. Encouraging and developing this kind of creativity is a passion of mine, and the subject of my own book-by-blogging, the format of which was inspired by your project here (for which I’m eternally grateful).

Back to the amateur music-making thing for a second. You are writing about the "future of classical music" so far as if the producer/consumer paradigm was the only way to look at it. I think that this paradigm is a big part of the problem, not just for the profession/industry, but for the entire society. And it is the same thing with sports, dance, etc. We are more and more a nation of obese spectators of life and the arts than participants.

Making music is better than only watching someone else do it, just as making love beats the heck out of only watching, ahem, adult entertainment. And maybe if we got more people making music, young women making a career in classical music wouldn't have to pose for publicity pictures that make them look more like members of an even older profession.

Thanks, Eric. And let me return the compliment by recommending that everybody read Eric's book, which is full of really good stuff. It looks like an important contribution to classical music's future.

I agree -- who wouldn't? -- that it would be wonderful if we had a classical music audience that participated in music itself. But we also need a plan B, I'd think -- an idea of what we're going to do if we don't get that, or don't get it any time in the near future. That shouldn't be damaging. After all, people go to the movies without making movies themselves. So what can we do to make classical concerts really interesting, from the moment an audience walks into the hall? Or even before that -- from the moment any potential audience member even hears about the event?

We also should remember that many people do participate in making other kinds of music. So how can we connect that experience with what happens in the classical concert hall?

Posted by: Eric Edberg at April 5, 2006 5:01 PM

After the previous chapter I was going to object to your complaints about program notes. And the 5 horns example is pretty trivial stuff. (I once saw a video of Karajan conducting Beethoven Fifth with 8 horns, i.e. 6 extras not just 1. But artistic license doesn't require an explanation.)

I didn't write all that before because I basically agree with your thesis.

In this chapter I'd object to your televised baseball game analogy, because obviously that evolved out of a radio era where the announcer was all listeners had to tell them what was going on. Today announcers mostly just fill airtime with chatter. But I still basically agree with your thesis.

But now folks (not just here) are commenting on how musicians seem bored whenever they're not playing. Of course there's no excuse for lifeless playing. But I wish somewhere in your book you would tell folks what orchestral musicians do when they're not playing. Odds are they are counting rests. Pretty boring stuff, yeah, that has to be done. I suspect audiences think good entrances are all part of the conductor's magic. They're not. You're supposed to BE ready when the conductor looks at you, not wait for a cue to get ready.

Anyway, I like v2.0 better and am looking forward to more!

Tom, I'm always glad to host disgreements here, even on small details from people who agree with me overall. My example about the five horns wasn't meant to reveal something that in itself is horrible. Instead I meant that to symbolize the very many things that audiences aren't told. There's so much interesting stuff behind the scenes at any classical performance (and maybe orchestras most of all, since the behind the scenes stuff is hard to guess at if you're not an insider). It's also a pretty much brain-dead situation when the program book says one thing, and the reality on stage is something else.

Audiences, in any case, would be fascinated to know why some conductors use more instruments than the composer specifies. The larger question about having extra brass on stage -- that you get a richer, fuller, and even softer sound (because players don't have to blast out many passages at close to full throttle) -- would be fascinating to anyone with any curiosity. Recently I explained all this from the stage at a Cleveland Orchestra concert, and the audience seemed to love it. As did the musicians!

As for how orchestras look -- yes, the musicians are usually very busy, even when they don't appear to be doing anything. (Though surely that doesn't apply to, let's say, the timpanist in the Pastoral Symphony, who only plays in the storm movement, or the fourth oboe in Mahler 2, who only plays at the end.) But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't look involved. Many classical musicians don't seem to realize that they're playing for an audience. Or, rather, that they should show, in any way, that they know they're doing this. Somehow the communication is assumed to involve only the music, with the performance only the means by which the music is transmitted.

But that's not how the audience understands it. They take in the entire event, and value the performance as more or less inseparable from the music. One survey I've heard about, in which younger people were asked about going to orchestra concerts, revealed that younger people don't go in part because they feel that the performance has nothing to do with the audience, that it wouldn't change no matter who was there, how many people, how they reacted. A survey of the audience I've seen found a notable percentage of orchestra subscribers saying rather strongly that they felt the institution didn't care about them. Both these problems could be at least partly fixed if the musicians looked as if they cared.

Posted by: Tom Chambers at April 6, 2006 10:59 AM

In my view, Cathy's comment, "One of the problems is with the obsession with perfection in performance...." strikes at the heart of this problem. Performances and especially recordings are often extremely un-engaging, but many people simply don't have sufficient confidence in their own opinions - particularly those who haven't had the dubious benefit of a formal musical education. It is very easy to assume that the fault lies in one's own ignorance, especially when the ensemble is renowned and the performance is technically perfect.

It's very true that people in the audience don't have confidence in their opinions. Case in point: I was leading discussions with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony audience, after a concert. On the program had been a couple of Bach pieces, the Sixth Brandenburg and the violin and oboe concerto. We'd broken the 50 or so people from the audience into small groups. I asked the group I was with what they'd thought of the performance. Nobody said much of anything. Finally one of them said she thought the performance hadn't been too good, that it had sounded like a sewing machine. (She was talking about the rhythmic flow.) My rule in these conversations was generally not to offer my own opinions, until people in the audience had paved the way. So now that someone had ventured a criticism, I offered one of my own. There had been a harpsichord on stage, playing the continuo part; I said I couldn't hear it. Upon which every single person in the group chimed in with vociferous agreement. "Yes! We couldn't hear it either! Why was it there if we couldn't hear it?" Up to then, they'd probably figured this was some mystery beyond their understanding. If I were doing the discussion again, I'd ask them why they hadn't mentioned this on their own.

Posted by: guthrytrojan at April 6, 2006 5:12 PM

Dull music-making is indeed a big issue. And the ironic thing is that conservatory training, the orchestral audition process, and most music competitions emphasize technical perfection, discourage genuinely individualistic performance, and are much of the problem.

The more charismatic an established performer, the more likely (s)he is to be ridiculed by teachers and by other players of that instrument. The more impassioned and original a young artist, the more likely a member of a competition jury is to be offended by the interpretation or stage presence and give a low score. (That's why I'm in favor of having competition juries made up of fine musicians who play a different instrument than that which is the focus of the competition.)

And the same sort of thing happens with the orchestral audition process, in which a committee has, usually, total say over who gets into the final round heard by the music director. The usual advice for people taking orchestra auditions is to be able to play everything with technical perfection, good musicianship, but little "personality." And again, the less bland the playing the higher the liklihood of offendig a committee member.

When I was a teenager at the North Carolina SChool of the Arts in the 1970s, I had a cello teacher who encouraged me to play with emotional and physical abandon. I was overtly emotional and moved around a lot. Audiences and singer friends loved it. Other instrumentalists? Once I got into playing like this, some wouldn't even speak to me. I was (sniff) "acting." How very, very distasteful!

I recently attended a master class by a very famous cellist, now retired from performing, who was known for his rather reserved stage presence. As he does quite often, he devoted part of the class to making fun of players who show the spirit of the music in their faces and bodies. He did this by, rather comically, mocking this behavior while playing. I thought he actually sounded better. Whether he did or not, his students, and their students, are being taught that to be physically demonstrative is to be deserving of scorn and ridicule.

There are even lots of cellists still denouncing Jackie DuPre, who's been dead for nearly 20 years! And I never heard so many second-rate conducting teachers put down anyone more than Leonard Bernstein, not realizing that his "showmanship" sprang from genuine passion and knowing his scores inside and out, as well as a natural theatricality. Think of all Bernstein did for classical music! And to hear some people talk, back when I was a student, you'd think he was some sort of evil force.

So the bad news is in much of classical-music land, we are teaching our students to have a boring stage presence and exert social pressure on each other to do the same.

Posted by: Eric Edberg at April 10, 2006 9:51 AM

One useful buzzphrase: when I took a performance workshop led by Deborah Hay in Austin, one thing that she insisted on for all performers was that they "Invite being seen." Performers have to be conscious that they don't become invisible once they stop sounding, and that, unless they are playing in the dark or physically obscured from the audience, they will been, and what the audience sees as their state affects how things are heard.

A while back, I saw a performance by a good Bay Area rock band, invited by one player of the moment (who has since moved on to another town). When she asked for my reaction, I said that she played the music well, but was a problem when not playing -- she would twiddle noiselessly with her instrument, stare off into space, or look blankly in a random direction. I suggested that she use that time to visually channel the audience's attention toward the other members of the band as appropriate: either the lead singer, or another performer who either was taking a solo or playing a significant other part. (This was especially true since she was strikingly attractive, and a lot of the audience was watching her anyway, thus increasing her resposibility to channel their attention.) This appeared to work, and a later performance seemed my tighter, even though the sound of it was identical, through her attention to the audience's attention.

Posted by: Joseph Zitt at April 14, 2006 10:24 PM


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