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Daniel Broniatowski

Is Classical Music Dead?

January 3, 2012 at 4:03 AM

After reading Mr. Daniel Wakin’s article in the New York Times entitled High Notes and Low Points for Classical Music (12/22/2011), I felt it necessary to comment on this state of affairs. In his editorial, the writer lists the top news stories from the Classical music world. Unfortunately, one cannot miss the terrible financial distresses in which many orchestras find themselves today. Mr. Wakin particularly mentions the disasters that befell the Syracuse, New Mexico, Louisville, Utica, and even the Philadelphia orchestras. Then, there is also the Detroit Symphony, which only recently has been struggling to regain its footing.

For years, naysayers have been predicting the death of classical music. Many cite graying audiences, “expensive” tickets (never mind that pop concerts and sports games can cost much more), and a general lack of interest among the public in quality music.

It is also certainly easy and comfortable for us to put up our hands, shrug, and blame the difficult economy for the woes of the above orchestras. Yet, I find it necessary to dig deeper as we examine why this has happened.

Let me first state that I am not a pessimist by nature. Nor do I believe that classical music is dead. In fact, I would not have pursued my dream of becoming a violinist had this been the case.

As musicians, it is my belief that we have voluntarily placed ourselves out of touch with the mainstream society. There are many reasons for this and my conclusions might not agree with my colleagues’. Yet, I believe that our fixation on perfection and purity at the expense of substance has done us a great disservice. Before I can examine this problem, I need to explain the atmosphere in which we musicians find ourselves. This will give you an idea as to why this has happened.

Most musicians go through years and years of education, accumulate massive student loan bills, and then take whatever job comes their way. Many “struggling musicians” in expensive cities will then work horribly long hours for little pay in seasonal orchestras and music schools. Many are content with this lifestyle but others, who want a family realize that the money isn’t there. Then there are those who were always ok with this fact, as music is their passion, and money was never meant to be in the cards. Some quit and pursue other goals. For those who try to climb the musical ladder, after taking grueling auditions for top orchestras two handfuls of very lucky people will be accepted every year for a job that pays a semi-decent (but too often not comfortable) wage. One handful will make it into orchestras that pay really well (but are most likely in cities with high costs of living).

As you can see, competition is fierce. It is not uncommon for 300 musicians to audition for 1 seat which was given up when someone passed away in the orchestra.

Against this backdrop, the music schools cannot but help stress that perfection in playing is the only way to “make it” in music. Coupled with an audience of CD-buyers who expect note-perfect CD’s due to modern editing techniques, musicians who fall short of an extremely high level of musicianship simply will not make the cut.

It is my belief that as musicians, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Due to no fault of our own, we have tried so hard to become perfect (ie: god-like) that society has left us behind. As we have attempted to play the same repertoire over and over again in order to emulate the great master conductors and performers, we have not brought anything new or of value to the majority of society. It is for THIS reason, that we have been accused of being “elitist”. After all, one must be quite dedicated or even infatuated with music in order to buy contrasting recordings out of a passion for varying interpretations of a piece that has been recorded 20 times.

One might ask the following question: “How come great violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein could become world class soloists AND fixate on perfection?” Obvious talent and very hard work aside, it is my observation that they were products of a different time. Rather than lamenting a change in societal attitude toward classical music, what I mean to say is that these greats were providing something of VALUE to the general public. If we put ourselves in their shoes, we come to realize that audio technology was still developing. New interpretations of a violin concerto were being disseminated (often for the first time) to the general public en masse via a new medium – the LP record. Today, due to the immense success of the recording industry, we take it for granted that music can be recorded. In other words, great musicians have “been there and done that” when it comes to recording phenomenal masterworks.

What can we learn from this? Today, as musicians, we must think outside the box. A performer is not just a parrot, perfectly repeating sounds from a page of music as we might believe the composer intended.

What I am proposing is a radical shift in music education that focuses on the individual and his or her relationship with the audience. Every musician has a story to tell. Whether old or new, there is special meaningful music for every performer. There are also unique listeners out there for every musician. We simply have to find the message and the medium. Why shouldn’t conservatories be able to teach in this way while still maintaining technical excellence?

New England Conservatory has recently awakened to the call with their focus on “Entrepreneurial Musicianship”. Schools all around the country should be encouraging students to find their own voice. Rather than subjugating individual expression, as is often done, empowering the uniqueness of the student will ultimately result in a stronger, self-supporting musician. It’s a scary prospect for a school, but the alternative of “business as usual” is a dead cause.

From Albert Wrigglesworth
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 5:05 AM
Since I was 10yrs of age (now 60) I have always thought of the perfection angle in music to be redundant then in the '60s. The wartime generation was into the dance hall/movie theme genre. In the '50s it was rock and roll. In the '60s still rock & roll and now folk. The '70s was kind of a mixture, no one seemed to know where they were going. The '80s produced hard rock, and '90s produced rap. With all this going on no wonder Classical music got lost in the shuffle. It seemed to be reserved for the musically educated and grey hairs (of which I am a part of now). Our orchestra in Thunder Bay has seen this and have gone the extra mile by going out to schools, involving the youth and such, not only in classical, but also pop. They have even hired 20 electric guitarists for a Rock & Roll show in January. But alas, the CD quality of music has given the public a false sound for how music truly sounds. Yes there are the "folk" sessions at homes and community centres for the "home spun" musician. This is what we need again, music in the home, and then will it truly again be appreciated for what it is.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 11:16 AM
I couldn't agree more with your points about perfection and purity. I think community music--neither perfect nor pure--is doing okay, and is far from dead. My experience in an amateur orchestra is that the audience is there for classical music if it's affordable, if there is parking and/or public transportation access at the concert, if you are allowed to take your kids to the concert and they are allowed to be kids while there, if the market isn't over-saturated with too many concerts, if the music isn't inaccessible, boring, or unnecessarily difficult to listen to, and if there is community engagement on the part of the conductor, the musicians, or both.

From Michael Crawford
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 3:02 PM
Very good ideas, and I couldn't agree more. It seems that most people have never attended a classical concert, hearing classical music only through recordings. Even after being a classical music listener for all my life, when I went to my first concert when I was fifteen, I was immensely surprised how good it could sound--many times better than hearing the same pieces on a recording. I would attend performances more often, if it were not for the cost. As you said, I think that performers need to reach out and communicate with their audience, and potential audience, in order to succeed.

One aspect of these performances, which I don't necessarily believe to be negative, is that there is no verbal communication between the performers and the audience during the concert. Though people who are involved in classical music and regularly attend performances may not mind, it may be beneficial to take a moment to simply thank the audience for coming and perhaps introduce the pieces briefly. That may provide a missing link between the audience and the performers.

Another idea that struck me was that soloists or orchestra members rarely, if ever, play encore pieces. Why not play an exciting solo piece like a Paganini caprice after a stunning performance of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto? I really think that would make a difference.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 5:12 PM
What Karen said sums up my experience quite well. There is definitely a market for it, but probably not the traditional one based on highly professional orchestras charging great amounts of money so that you can listen to some piece of modern music that is almost inaccessible. Most of the professional orchs in the DC/Baltimore area are making quite an effort to reach out to the community in different ways, and the community orch scene here is quite lively.
From Evan Garey
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 6:21 PM
Musicians have always been a struggling lot, shabby clothes and limited resources for most of us. This has not changed. The very best orchestras and musicians were once funded by European kings and princes, churches and the wealthy. All others had to survive as street performers or live off occassional gigs, usually in poverty.

In good finaicial times, the arts were supported at the federal and state level, as well as private patrons. You need economic strength for this. Without it, we are left in the cold. A strong economy allows a fair number of talented musicians to earn a living or supplement their income. Orchestras flourish and small ensembles play everywhere. 20 years ago, there were some very talented street musicians in Boston. Open your case, start playing, and soon you could buy lunch, or a new pair of shoes. If you wanted a gig, if you could play, you would get paid.

In my opinion, it's not the genre thats dying, its the high cost of education, food prices, gas, lack of jobs. A $20 concert ticket is out of reach for someone with an $800 monthly heating bill and an underwater mortgage. There are much fewer paying gigs now, fewer top-level artists, but an overabundance of free, all-you-can-watch youtube videos of average talent.
These are lean times for nearly all of us, and until the disciplined arts are supported and cultivated, classical musicians will not have an easy time.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 6:11 PM
Karen and Tom have it down. From some reading I have done it seems that the idea of an orchestra job being full time only dates back 45 to 50 years for the larger orchestras. The community orchestra, where people have day jobs as doctors, teachers, and gardeners, was far more the norm.

I would love to see the statisitcs on the number of kids getting conservatory degrees now versus, let's say, 1960 and 1940. I have a hunch that we are churning out a huge number of beautifully trained musicians who are all dressed up with no place to go. When you add in the number of people with degrees in arts administration, that's a whole lot of people looking to make a living from the local symphony. Combine that with the decrease in philanthropy, the lack of music education for the would-be audience, the availability of recorded music to listen to 24/7, and ticket prices in a bad economy, you have a recipe for disaster.

A community orchestra, working with a much smaller budget, has less pressure to sell tickets and is made up of people who have friends, families, and co-workers in the community to come to their concerts. Not that the pros don't have friends and families, but they are less able to pull in audience members who might not otherwise attend.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 9:35 PM
Lisa's points are good. A lot of what will keep classical music going in the future will be much less formal. Her string quartet and community orch, and Karen's playing at the Belmont market and community orch are likely to be what holds classical music together in the near future. In addition, although I loathe the Nazis, they correctly emphasized the Hausmusik movement, i.e., playing music within the family or a small social group. That, too, may make a difference.
From Timothy Judd
Posted on January 4, 2012 at 1:58 AM
The vast majority of American orchestras are doing fine. Some, including Nashville, LA and Oregon are thriving. Kansas City just opened a magnificent new concert hall that is an icon for that city and similar halls have opened within the last five to ten years in cities like Dayton and Omaha.

These are not pick up or volunteer orchestras, but highly polished professional orchestras that contribute greatly to the economic and cultural life of their communities. They are assets that are worthy of the community's investment. Over the years, American orchestra musicians have struggled and sacrificed to gain dignity and respect on the job. This struggle has, in turn strengthened and elevated these organizations. To suggest that amateur or occasional musicians could be substituted for today's professionals is insulting.

In considering the recent orchestra bankruptcies listed above, it is dangerous to jump to the conclusion that musicians (or the job description of the orchestra musician) is the problem. We often hear that "the current model is not sustainable" but there is little evidence to back up this statement. This is also not a new message. We were hearing similar things in the 1960's.

It might be helpful to look at how these orchestras have been managed and consider motives surrounding issues like pensions.

On a positive note, new organizations are forming in Syracuse and New Mexico to replace the old.

From Scott Cole
Posted on January 4, 2012 at 4:12 AM
"As we have attempted to play the same repertoire over and over again in order to emulate the great master conductors and performers, we have not brought anything new or of value to the majority of society. It is for THIS reason, that we have been accused of being “elitist”."

Sorry, but I don't follow the logic here. Classical music is perceived as "elitist" because it has, by and large, been the music of elites for hundreds of years. It is the elite who make up the audience and subsidize the performers. It looks elitist because we wear tuxedos, and because the audience members wear ties and dresses. It has nothing to do with our striving to be perfect. No musicians wish to be less than perfect, and nor should they.
When asked what he believed in, Michael Jackson responded "I believe in perfection." So should we. Every time a performer gives a heartfelt and technically excellent presentation of a classical work, they do bring something of value to the audience. Our repertoire is vast, and has more variety than any type of popular music. I don't think asking less of ourselves (i.e. lowering our standards) is the answer to anything.

Classical music is, like many other things in society, local. Our orchestra has been selling out in three cities. Our chamber music and youth orchestra scenes are healthy. It isn't realistic to expect the fortunes of classical in general, though, to not be tied to the economy as a whole.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 4, 2012 at 5:59 PM
Maybe there's some confusion here resulting from different definitions of "perfection." From where I'm coming from, there is a vast difference between a heartfelt and technically excellent performance, and perfection. From what I've observed, perfectionism does a great deal of harm in many areas of endeavor, not just music. Perfectionism is punitive, negative, and exclusive. It makes people afraid to make mistakes and to take risks.

I really like what Daniel wrote here about encouraging musicians to find their unique voice. I was thinking about this blog last night in the context of two different local, professional, conservatory-associated performances that I've seen or heard about recently. To one of them, a free classical concert supposedly open to the community, two of my friends took their toddlers, and were asked to leave. The toddlers were acting like toddlers, that is, they weren't sitting still and quietly all the time. But they also weren't yelling or screaming. They still got kicked out.

In contrast, at the second concert, which was also provided free at noon and open to the community, people could eat their lunches if they wanted and were treated to an interactive performance by two musicians who told stories about and explained the history of the pieces they were playing, played one of their own compositions, fiddled, danced, and encouraged the audience to join in if they were comfortable doing so. At the end of the concert they made CDs available (and sold quite a few) and explained a new program that the fiddler was chairing at a local conservatory about Klezmer and improv.

I'm not qualified to judge which musicians were closer to being perfect. They were all technically excellent to my ear. It's possible, even likely, there were a few missed notes or mistakes or other imperfections, but that was really not the point, and I was too engaged in other ways to bother noticing. The point was the unique voice that they brought and the way they communicated with the audience, in that case. I think there can and should be more concerts like the second and fewer (if any at all) like the first.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 5, 2012 at 4:04 AM
Classical music may be dying because it is no longer aspirational. Once elites had a duty to society to set standards and establish taste and culture. Now elites are either busy bureaucrats telling us how to live our lives or aimless pop-tarts, determined to titillate the lowest and meanest of us. It isn't only the classical music communities' fault. We have ample blame to offer all around for the failure of high culture.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on January 6, 2012 at 4:25 PM
I've been mulling over this blog ever since it went up earlier this week. Classical music definitely is not dead, and there are plenty who will back me up on this. But the traditional delivery methods -- e.g., concert hall and recital room -- although they haven't died out -- no longer have anything like the near-monopoly they once held.

I found out at a very early age how enjoyable classical music can be -- without having it rammed down my throat. My parents listened to it a lot. I listened. I got hooked. Nothing stuffy or elitist about it -- not to me.

Scott said, "It looks elitist because we wear tuxedos, and because the audience members wear ties and dresses." I've harped plenty on my aversion to tuxes and jackets -- here, for instance -- not just because they reinforce the air of stuffy snobbery at so many symphony halls but even more for practicality's sake. I can't speak for the rest of you; but I simply cannot play my instrument and, at the same time, wear a jacket and tie.

My city has an excellent symphony orchestra, which now has a casual classics series -- read the description here. This is just part of what needs to happen if this music is to thrive. Musicians are going to have to get out of the traditional concert hall -- some of the time anyway -- and go where the audiences are. It works.

From Cristian Gruber
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 2:19 AM
I very much agree with Lisa, although I think that the future of classical music as a genre rests in education. It is unbelievable how much of a difference elementary, middle and high school music programs make to the publics overall understanding, acceptance, and participation in classical music. Not only do thes programs provide an opportunity for kids to express themselves, and to find lifelong passions which will define and strengthen them, but they open their minds to other possibilities of musical expression besides Lady Gaga and System of a Down. It is safe to say that in the 21st century, classical music has become an alternative form of musical expression, but in my opinion, it is a staple of Western culture, history and civilization, and the only way it is going to perpetuate itself is if people are educated about it. Part of the reason for this is that classical music is an hard type of music to understand and grasp. In short, it is an aquired taste which requires some exposure to become significant to someone. Now this is easy if you hear it at home, or if your parents play an instrument, but if you come from a family where music is defined as a man singing badly to a couple of chords (no offense to lovers of Country music), there is a slim chance that classical music is going to grow on you. I don't mean to be a snob, but I do mean to point out that this type of music that we play is hard to grasp for someone who is not used to hearing it. On the flip side, imagine if someone made you listen to Indian classical music. Whould you understand it right away? Or appreciate it? Probably not.
The biggest threat that classical music faces is not the dwindling number of pro orchestras throughout the country, but the declining quality and quantity of music education programs everywhere. It's scary to see how many music teachers are going out of work, and how many kids are going to grow up thinking that classical music is that pompous, unreachable, higlhly intellectual noise which is created by men (and women) in formal weare lead by a man on a podium waving his hands like a crazy bum in the middle of traffic. Scary, isnt it?

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