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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five Things: A Challenge

There was a challenge traveling around the education part of Twitter recently with the hashtag #makeschooldifferent. The challenge, begun by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant)  was to post a list of five things that all start with the statement "When it comes to education we have to stop pretending..." I was inspired by the many lists I read, and I wrote my own.

Then I began thinking about whether I could do the same for classical music - write a list of five things that we need to stop pretending about. We have all known for several decades that classical music has some serious challenges in today's world. Declining ticket sales, aging audiences, lack of music education in the younger public because of cuts in school music programs, perceived lack of relevance, and a limited repertoire are problems faced by American orchestras today. All these issues are acknowledged by the people who run orchestras. Many different ideas have been tried to bring new audiences in, to go out to the public, and to vary the types of programs that orchestras present. I don't see a lot of pretending going on. Orchestras know what the problem is, but haven't hit upon a surefire solution.

On the other hand, young musicians training for a career in classical music also face problems that previous generations did not have. There are so many music majors graduating every year that there is no possibility that even most of them will be able to get jobs in orchestras or related classical music areas. Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music has written a book, The Crisis of Classical Music in America sharing his views on this problem. In a recent interview Freeman stated that 30,000 music majors graduate from American colleges each year. Not all of these will be instrumentalists seeking positions in orchestras, but it's still way too many instrumentalists for the number of orchestral openings each year. This means, Freeman says, "When you're in school, you're hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified." When I was an undergraduate, my teacher, Milan Yancich, told me that he used to get calls from NYC asking him to "send down a few boys to audition" (yes, boys). Music organizations actually had to solicit to get players to come audition. It was no longer like that when I was in music school, but it's much, much worse now.

So here is my list of five things. I'm writing as an audience member, music lover, and the parent of a young aspiring musician.

We need to stop pretending:

  • that technical perfect playing equals a musical performance. With so many well-qualified musicians auditioning, orchestras seem to be focusing much more on technical perfection. Quite a few great players of the past would have a difficult time winning an audition today because while the examples I am thinking of were outstanding musicians, they missed some notes.
  • that even a fraction of the music students now in school will be able to support themselves with traditional playing jobs. 
  • that the traditional classical music concert is not intimidating and confusing to newbies. I was struck by a friend's first experience at the symphony. She didn't know how to find information in the program and so had no idea who was performing or what they were playing. And yes, this was an intelligent woman.
  • that the event of recordings, followed now by a tsunami of ways to listen to performances hasn't caused all interpretations to move to the middle. The eccentric, and often interesting, interpretations of the past are now a rarity. It can also be an incentive to stay home and listen rather than dress up and travel to hear a live concert.
  • that change isn't necessary. Change might be just the thing classical music needs. There are already signs that this could be true. Classical musicians are giving concerts in unusual locations, like bars. Musicians are talking to the audience at concerts. 
I go to a lot of concerts. I love classical music and the standard repertoire. I sincerely hope that classical music will continue to be important - it communicates with us in a way that no other art form does, and connects us to the past. It is a lively world with great ideas and wonderful people. May it evolve and thrive! 

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