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Mara Gerety

Random thoughts while waiting for a practice room

February 5, 2008 at 2:02 AM

"Welcome back to Oberlin Conservatory! We hope you had a good vacation, those of you who actually got a vacation. However, we regret to inform you that there is not a single practice room available in the entire blasted building tonight. This situation will likely continue for the next two weeks until people start slacking off en masse again. Have a nice semester."

So, while I'm waiting for a practice room (and contemplating taking over an unused third-floor classroom for the evening), a few random musings on the much-heralded End of Classical Music. Why this topic? I dunno. Maybe I'm just feeling a little morbid as I contemplate the imminent end of my violin career due to lack of practice space.

I'm always a bit skeptical of the doomsayers who say classical music is on its last legs (haven't they been saying that for the last 100 years or so?) but it really irritates me when people start talking about the need to make classical music more "Accessible" for it to regain its popularity. Things like half-jazz half-classical concerts, concerts entirely of movie music, multimedia presentations etc...and I often end up wondering if maybe that isn't part of the problem.

Isn't it possible that, in their earnest efforts to reach out to a wider audience, producers and managers and music directors have not only inadvertantly alienated classical music's historically loyal followers, but also diminished its appeal to "newcomers"?

One of the most obvious symbols (though by no means the only one) I see of this push for "accessibility" is the ubiquitous "World's Most Beautiful Adagios" or "Romantic Classical Piano Favorites" CDs that are always gumming up the classical section at Borders. They're supposed to be appealing to a wide audience, to "bring classical music to the masses" and all. But in that quest for accessibility, the producers of such albums have instead achieved insipidity and bland sameness. The inevitable result is a society full of people who think classical music is something quiet and soothing to have playing in the background during a fancy reception or romantic dinner. "Oh, well, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is just lovely," goes the familiar refrain, "But honestly, for the most part I find classical music just a bit...boring." Well, no wonder.

As I see it, the push for accessibility, however well-intentioned it may be, is fundamentally flawed. Great classical art music is not supposed to be relaxing, soothing, a bubble bath for the senses (although sometimes Debussy has that effect on me anyway), or even accessible upon first hearing.

Classical music, in short, is not a form of passive entertainment. It requires thought, concentration, intellect and at least a rudimentary literacy in the language of music to be able to fully appreciate the greatness of a Brahms symphony, Haydn string quartet, Beethoven piano sonata etc.

The criticism so often leveled at such an attitude is that it is "elitist." To which I say...well, YES! Classical art music IS elitist by nature and always has been. I can already see many of you Gentle Readers instinctively recoiling at such an archaic, aristocratic and anti-democratic notion, but to my way of thinking "elitist" is no insult. Rather, it is a philosophy of life that values excellence and genius (rather than conformity to some lowest common denominator in the name of some twisted version of egalitarianism.)

The difference between this sort of elitism and the oppressively aristocratic system many people think of when they hear talk of "Elites" is that this rank of elites is not closed to anyone. Anybody with a brain can become musically literate, it just takes some time and effort and energy. The Accessible Classical Music Movement attempts to bypass that unavoidable need and offer up a version of classical music that requires no effort on the part of the listener. But since that goes against the very NATURE of classical art music, the result is only a pale, watered-down simulacrum.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and all the other Great Masters are not pushovers. They demand thought, intellect, contemplation and concentration. Fans of instant gratification will yell that it's unfair. But that's simply how it is. And for those who are willing to take on the challenge of great music...the rewards are unfathomably transcendant.

OK. That's enough of my blather. That empty classroom is calling...

From Lawrence Price
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 3:31 AM
Well stated and exactly correct. We live in a time that celebrates stupidity but fortunately there are still some who treasure great music. We don't need everyone, just those who care and are willing to help make it happen. That is true for audiences as well as performers. A brilliant essay!
From Nick W.
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 4:04 AM
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 7:07 AM
This is brilliantly written, thank you for sharing.

There are, however, many artists who do "take classical music to the masses", one such being Joshua Roman of the Seattle Symphony and violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who has attracted much attention for his versatility.

Perhaps it is through the exploration of "other types" of music done by "classical musicians" that audiences, after their initial enthrallment with the messenger, will find their way to appreciating the messages.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 11:40 AM
I think there's got to be a middle ground here. Making music more accessible to the intelligent layperson doesn't necessarily have to mean foisting insipid watered-down CD's on listeners.

If nothing else, there still needs to be a forum for introducing new, contemporary composers to the listening public. We won't know now, or maybe even within our lifetimes, what of the music written today will stand the test of time and be added to the "core repertoire"--but it still seems to me that we have to get the process started. Otherwise the orchestra becomes a museum. I'm not saying this to denigrate museums--they're important and valuable. But the creative process gives a field its energy.

Scientists deal with a related issue in trying to make their fields accessible to the general public. The "dumbing down" of science is a much-deplored outcome of some ill-conceived accessibility efforts. But I say ill-conceived for a reason, because this isn't true of all accessibility efforts. Science, like the arts, can't survive in its current form without public support and public funding. And I think its reasonable in both cases that the recipients of public support give something back. Not watered-down CD compliations or half-baked crossover efforts necessarily, but I think the concert led by Marin Alsop described in the article Samuel Thompson posted, below, is a good example. I don't think there was anything intellectually lazy about the way she presented Kernis' new music.

From Oliver Bedford
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 12:27 PM
Well said Karen!
From Sue Bechler
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 2:51 PM
Interesting point. I actually don't mind those collection-style CD's, though. I like a relative non-brainer playing while I do house chores or when driving. Something that requires serious concentration mostly keeps me from keeping my mind on the job or the road. We can't live all of life at its highest, most serious peaks all the time. Exhausting. Including listening. College students live in a rarefied atmosphere, especially if housed in an on-campus cocoon where somebody hands you your food. Wonderful while it lasts, but not "real life." From the title, I thought you might be questioning classical music/lessons/training for people with limiting physical or mental conditions. Just as happy it is not. Sue
From Mara Gerety
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 3:07 PM
"Random thoughts while waiting for a practice room"?
From Mitchell Pressman
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 3:45 PM
Mara, I don't think it's a question of "instant gratification." Maybe it's more a question of the lack of a perceived need. Take someone who's not into classical but enjoys pop, jazz or another kind of music. Or it could be someone (like me) who enjoys a lot of classical but doesn't enjoy opera. How do you convince the person that making the effort to learn to enjoy a different music form is worth it? Yes, you feel classical is sublime, but they don't, and you're asking them to go through a heck of a lot of effort just on your say-so.

It's actually a fairly rational response to stick with what you know you enjoy and not worry about what you know nothing about. And believe me, for a person without any musical training it can be hard work to get familiar enough with a classical piece to the point where you enjoy it.

So it's difficult for adults to acquire a taste for classical music. I think it comes down to early music education. Rather than cutting music education budgets in the schools we should be increasing them. We need to look at what they're doing in Venezuela to get kids interested at an early age. If kids get used to the sounds of classical it won't be so difficult and foreign to them when they get older. And that goes for other forms like jazz too.

From Steven Snodgrass
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 4:07 PM
From al ku
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 3:56 PM
maura's writing is sublime, but i stand with karen on her view regarding the relationship between classical music and the current generation. there are many more shades out there.

the issue of classical music's survival may be unique, but in the history of classical music, at any particular era, there have been always opposing voices... if you were more technically flashy, you might be labelled as tone-deficient, etc. so, i am not surprised when serious musicians of nowadays have issues with musicians who have branched out after traditonal training.

maura is correct that those who have failed to recognize classical music have probably made judgement without going through the necessary due diligence. the challenge i see for the influential musicians is one of higher calling...what can you do to stimulate the uninitiated (since apparently they have not done on their own)?

the way i look at it is that we each exert influence in our own ways. the role we play is best judged in time. empathy is far more interesting than apathy.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 6:09 PM
Al - incredibly well said...empathy vs. apathy.
From al ku
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 7:19 PM
nah, i was just talking about it,,,you should read about the guy who examplified empathy vs apathy,,,with his violin,,,, in the astrodome during katrina :)

that cat can scratch!

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 7:42 PM
Thanks, Al... ?
From al ku
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 7:46 PM
that was awe-some, samuel! "us" and "them" is one and the same.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 11:35 PM
Mara - your blather is good. Keep it up. Sorry about your wait for a room. However, I would think as concertmaster you would have some priority re practice rooms.
From Mara Gerety
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 3:03 AM
Nah, practice rooms are on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. Also, I'm principal second this semester. :)
From Tim Chi
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 6:46 AM

Great writing.

There is a book called "In Defense of Elitism" by William Henry III. He outlines some of your key points in the book.



From Tim Chi
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 6:49 AM
By the way, not all classical music requires intense concentration and great intellect, I am sure you would agree.

That would be too tiring even for the intellectual heavy weights. There are lots of "light moment" music in serious works that are very enjoyable that do not require a college degree or high IQs.

In fact, we listen to music in many different levels, sometimes intensely intellectual, sometimes very leisurely, sometimes it inspires us to imagine- so much so their our minds wander off to other things.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 9:06 AM
True, Tim, most especially in the violin repertory. There's much overlap in "values." I don't know why so many classical fans insist "classical is best", requires more intellect, more awareness, and so on, especially when they know little about other kinds of music. The reasons are psychological, not musical :)
From Mara Gerety
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 1:08 PM
Tim, I said nothing about requiring college degrees. And Jim, kindly don't assume how much or little I know about other genres of music.
From Tim Chi
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 5:03 PM

That's why I said, "I am sure you would agree."

And I didn't quote you on anything about college degree. Just to clarify. It was simply my observation.

Classical music may or may not be elitist, but lots of elitists (particularly babyboomers) prefer rock, because that's what grew up with.

Again, just an observation.

All I am saying is that musical preference is complicated. And classical music itself has multi-dimensions.


More random rambling from me:

For example, lots of studies assume people attending classical concerts are interested in classical music, when in fact, some of them (not saying majority, but some) are there because they are on a date. Or they are "forced" to be there because of their partners.

Have you gone to any concerts that people fell asleep and started snoring? I have... and it was Mahler 9th by Boston Symphony with James Levine!

Sometimes people also say one thing but do something entirely different. That is always a problem for statistics.


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 6, 2008 at 5:46 PM
Mara, I didn't mean to assume that. In fact I think I've read things you wrote about Hungarian non-classical music that made my head spin. I don't know anything about that. But I'll assume again and say it shares elements with a lot of other non-classical music. You have to consider the context, the purpose, the special things it requres, the words if any. It can be interesting, satisfying stuff too. Through Hungarian music you have your own personal knowledge that it isn't simply classical on one hand or Britney Spears (bless her soul, hope she makes it) on the other. I like classical and respect what you do. I wouldn't want to change anything really.
From John Chew
Posted on February 8, 2008 at 2:09 AM
beautifully written and very thoughtful. it sounds like you are practicing but also reading and learning a lot at Oberlin! thanks.
From howard vandersluis
Posted on February 8, 2008 at 1:31 PM
So, we live in "a time that celebrates stupidity" eh? Yes, that's why we have been able to put people on the moon, visit planets billions of miles away, sequence the human genome, create elegant computer programs that make a beethoven symphony look like the feeble scratchings of cave men, not to mention cure diseases that have plagued mankind for all of history and create entirely NEW art forms never before seen. No, our time doesn't celebrate stupidity at all. It 's just that nobody cares to listen to YET ANOTHER recording of the Beethoven concerto with (GASP!) a BRAND NEW FINGERING in the 256th measure!! So it's not that everybody has chosen to be stupid, play to the lowest common denominator etc, it's just that they've got other things to do. Some civilizations build cathederals, some write symphonies. We've chosen to conquer the secrets of the universe instead. Go ahead and have your stupid symphonies. I'll take my superconducting supercollider any day of the week.
From Mara Gerety
Posted on February 8, 2008 at 5:13 PM
Mr. Van der Sluis:

First of all, I was not the one that stated we live in "a time that celebrates stupidity". Second of all, how can you even compare a computer program to a Beethoven symphony? It's not even apples and oranges (at least those are both fruits). There is no common ground by which to compare them. "Feeble scratchings of cavemen," indeed!

From howard vandersluis
Posted on February 8, 2008 at 10:13 PM
Hey Mara,

I see now that I may have missed you point a little. However, the email you sent me betrays your real feeling about this and you should have posted that instead of the more benign version of a reply to me you have here.

The main problem with classical music now is its continuing lack of relevance, and the inability of its practitioners to accept any new ideas in the practice of their "art". As one poster put it here, we have produced in our conservatories legions of artisans and not artists. Really, much of the vibrancy and life of our art is missing- crushed by the heavy weight of tradition and stifled by an unwillingness to change and adapt to really new ideas and ways of living. Too bad for it, and too bad for us.

I think that the argument we hear so much, that classical music is an "elitist" undertaking, is really just the culture's way of trying to articulate its growing unease with the remoteness of the lifestyle and sensibilities of the people who created this music generations ago, before the 'age of miracles'. You can hardly blame us for wanting more out of our music than that it should be a museum piece. We've earned the right to something better through our struggles and our unparallelled achievements, don't you think?

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