What's Wrong With Classical Music?

August 14, 2012 at 02:44 AM · There’s a serious problem with classical music, and it’s not that nobody pays attention to it.

Here’s the problem: Every ounce of individuality and deviation from the norm is pummeled out of you. You learn the music they tell you to learn. You play it the way they tell you to play it. You run yourself into the ground until they like your playing. They turn you into a machine. Eventually, all you know and care about is your instrument. You spend more time with the damn thing than you spend with your own family.

The world demands perfection from you, and you try your hardest to please it. If you are not “perfect” in your execution of the music, you will never get a job that pays. It’s the same pressure on adolescents who want to get into a good music school. They spend hours on end trying to satisfy the status quo, and if they can’t do it, they get turned down from every notable music school in the country, and, in turn, a job that pays.

So, trying to salvage the abilities and knowledge you worked so hard to get, you turn to teaching. You get your certification to teach in public schools, or you go get your doctorate so you can teach at a place of higher education. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get a handsome salary with tenure to boot. But this will likely never happen if you teach in public schools, and public music programs are on their way out anyway. Perhaps if you’re brave enough, you start your own teaching studio, and maybe get a couple of dedicated and capable friends in on the deal.

What ever happened to performing? Well, now that you’re a teacher, you play at student recitals and you land the occasional wedding gig. If you have good contacts, you might be asked to play as a substitute for a regular symphony musician, or you might get a gig as a studio musician.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of career. You teach to earn income, and you play here and there to supplement. But think back to when you first became passionate about playing. What was it that you wanted? What made you pine for your instrument? I doubt it was teaching or playing music as a substitute or temp. More than likely, you dreamed about soloing. You dreamt about playing music for huge audiences, making them swoon over the sounds you produced from your instrument. I know I had this dream. You would travel the world until you were too old to do so any more, then you would return home to teach as a legendary pedagogue until the end of your days.

Everyone (here, at least) has wanted to be the next Heifetz or Menuhin or Gingold at some point in their musical career. So where did that dream go?

It disappeared when you lost your individuality as a student. It disappeared when they said “You must be perfect.”

“Perfect at what?” I ask. Perfect at playing every note on the page as written? Perfect at executing every crescendo and decrescendo, at executing every minute detail of every piece you play?

My point, ladies and gentleman, is that there’s no creation. No innovation. Classical music is frozen in time, while the rest of the world continues to re-invent itself. Those who are considered masters of the traditional ways are put upon a pedestal, while everyone else must satisfy themselves with the system of “orchestra or bust.”

There are classical musicians out there who are earnestly trying to re-invent themselves and progress classical music beyond what is “perfect.” David Garrett is one of them. Say what you might about him, but you cannot deny that he is doing more to advance our world than any “legitimate” classical violinist out there today.

Music is more than just tradition and perfection (although, yes, these are good fundamental things to have in music). It’s about finding your own voice and doing what you really want to do. If you want to be a performer and make good money at it, there is literally nothing stopping you. Abandon the tradition and re-invent the music.

Replies

August 14, 2012 at 09:37 AM · I agree that David Garrett is expanding classical music and that that is wonderful. I may not always agree with his approach but the main thing is that he is one of the few that is really pushing the borders. And to great affect.

But my favorite "genre expanding violinist" is Gilles Apap. I say this somewhat sheepishly because I've previously make comments about his playing that were less than entirely complimentary. But I've come around to really appreciating all that he is doing. At the very least, he makes you think. At most, he is an interesting, creative player.

I've come around to consider Gilles Apap one of my favorite violinists alive today.

August 14, 2012 at 10:30 AM · there used to be improvisation...bach, mozart, beethoven used to improvise. in Baroque music you do have "ornamentation". I suspect improvising in an orchestra would be difficult, but a small ensemble should be able to support some improvisation. So how did improvisation get pushed out of classical music performances?

August 14, 2012 at 11:45 AM · I both agree and disagree. Here are a few points in no particular order:

There is a "standardization of interpretation" of many of the more celebrated works in the repertoire. Take the Mendelssohn Concerto for example. It's been recorded so many times that if someone comes along and plays it quite differently, criticism will surely outweigh praise by a wide margin.

A counterargument might be that the variations among the interpretations are necessarily subtle because the composer probably did have one specific conception of how the piece should be played, so it's up to the listener to be educated about those subtleties and to have the ear skills to detect them.

The question often arises whether students today learn "too much technique" to the exclusion of individual expressiveness. But how can one express what is in one's mind's ear without a great deal of technique? I'm reminded of the huge number of photographically representative drawings that Picasso made, ostensibly to prove to himself that he could transfer the contents of his mind's eye to canvas accurately.

One doesn't always have to listen to the same 20 violinists all the time. If you go to recitals you can hear "lesser professionals" who play quite beautifully and who often present the literature differently -- because they aren't beholden to critics. There are quite a lot of such violinists (and quartets).

@Arnie, improvisation got pushed out when critics started counting mistakes.

August 14, 2012 at 11:46 AM · Too many teacher's are molding musicality instead of unfolding creativity.

"Do it like this, not like that", or listen to a recording, are examples of molding musicality.

Getting a student to play an accent, or any articulation, on the first note of a grouping of 4 notes, and then the second note of the group etc... then play an accent in random. This would be an example of unfolding creativity.

The over use of molding musicality will stifle a musician's creative sense.

August 14, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Long incoming post...

"Every ounce of individuality and deviation from the norm is pummeled out of you."

I personally have never found this to be true. If anything, others encourage me to be even more individual than I'm initially willing to be. We hear about this problem a lot, and I'm curious how often it actually happens, and where, and why.

"You learn the music they tell you to learn."

No, actually the majority of the music I learn is stuff I want to learn because I love it. The other stuff is collateral and comes with being a professional string player. That's why we're getting paid, to play stuff we normally wouldn't want to.

"You play it the way they tell you to play it."

In the case of orchestra playing, yes, but...that's the whole point of orchestra playing. It's not a democratic art. People who don't realize this before the first rehearsal need a huge reality check.

In the case of solo playing, I've never heard anyone tell me I *must* play a certain passage in this way or else. (Or else...what? What are they going to do, cut off my fingers?) I've had people suggest phrasings or fingerings or bowings, but then they explain why, and more often than not their suggestions make sense. I'm happy to listen to their advice, because that's what I'm here for, to learn from better, more experienced players.

"You run yourself into the ground until they like your playing."

No, I run myself into the ground until I like my playing. My friends and family and teachers and co-workers keep me motivated, but I'm the one who is ultimately in control of how much work I want to put in.

"They turn you into a machine."

So much classical music is so complex that it often requires a machine-like discipline and approach just to be able to play the notes on the page. And you can have the best of both worlds: you can be a machine with a heart. Technical prowess and heart are not mutually exclusive.

"Eventually, all you know and care about is your instrument."

No. It may be the primary passion in my life, but it's sure not all I care about. I care about politics and my pets and photography and history and architecture and art and philosophy and literature and writing and sexuality and gender studies and Tumblr, among other things. Most of my music friends have equally diverse interests. In my circle, the few musicians who are obsessed with their instrument to the exclusion of everything else are viewed as strange oddities who no one really wants to be around. Thankfully the vast majority of professional and semi-professional players I know do not fall under that banner.

"You spend more time with the damn thing than you spend with your own family."

But everyone spends more time at work than with their families. What's the difference between a cubicle and a practice room?

"The world demands perfection from you, and you try your hardest to please it."

No, the world doesn't demand perfection; you demand it of yourself, because you've seen what other people can do, and you want to reach their level. Or, if you're in the market for a full-time orchestral job, technical perfection is a job requirement, and it should be demanded of you. Because that's the level of playing out there right now. Good news for listeners, more work for players. Would we complain if a surgeon was turned down for a job because they weren't perfect? That's the level we're at right now. If you can't stand the heat, you have to leave the kitchen.

"If you are not 'perfect' in your execution of the music, you will never get a job that pays."

True, but we all get into the field knowing this. It doesn't seem fair to complain about it. It's like someone getting ice cream and then complaining that it's cold. We know the stakes from the moment we make the decision to enter the field. It's supply and demand. If we don't, we're naive, and we'll find the truth out soon enough. A lot of people are great musicians; there aren't enough jobs; therefore the quality of the musicians who do have jobs has to be very, very high.

And in smaller regional part-time markets, perfection is *much* less an issue than you'd think...at least in my experience.

"It’s the same pressure on adolescents who want to get into a good music school. They spend hours on end trying to satisfy the status quo, and if they can’t do it, they get turned down from every notable music school in the country, and, in turn, a job that pays."

And then they are saved from a career of chronic disappointment, which is ultimately a good thing. Because if they don't have the talent and discipline and ability at 17, they likely won't have it at 20, or 25, or 30. And they will only spend their careers taking fruitless audition after fruitless audition, never understanding they just aren't at the level they need to be. This is why first-rate training from the age of five and up is so important. It's sad to hear, but it's the truth.

Once again, this is true because of the supply-demand issue, and the resulting technical prowess of the average full-time orchestral musician.

"So, trying to salvage the abilities and knowledge you worked so hard to get, you turn to teaching."

Maybe, but none of the people I know who teach do it for the money. They do it because they love it. If you didn't love teaching, it would be easier to just get a minimum-wage job somewhere than to deal with the hassles of building up and keeping a studio.

"What was it that you wanted? What made you pine for your instrument? I doubt it was teaching or playing music as a substitute or temp."

It was the violin itself. It was the look and the feel and the smell and the feeling of accomplishment it gave me. Teaching and temp playing were actually my ultimate goals (I kid you not; I have a sheet of paper of life goals from my early teens that included "sub with the Minnesota Orchestra"; even as a young girl I knew I'd missed the boat to get a full-time job with them). There are lots of people like me. I think you might underestimate the appeal of orchestral playing to a certain kind of person...that feeling of being a part of a whole.

"More than likely, you dreamed about soloing. You dreamt about playing music for huge audiences, making them swoon over the sounds you produced from your instrument. I know I had this dream. You would travel the world until you were too old to do so any more, then you would return home to teach as a legendary pedagogue until the end of your days."

Of course I dreamt about it. Briefly. But then I actually met some soloists, and I heard stories about the language barriers and jet lag and lonely nights and hostile press and fifty-hour days of travel. I saw one of the greatest violinists of the day bring down the house in a 2500 seat auditorium, then heard how he was backstage that same day practicing an entirely different concerto for the next gig the next week. People who think being a soloist is a glamorous profession need a serious serious serious reality check. It has its moments of glamour, for sure, and its own special rewards, but in general, it's the hardest, highest pressure work imaginable, and there are only a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people in the world who can do it without cracking. Being a soloist is not the be-all, end-all of string playing. That's like the people who get into politics because they want to be president; that's fine and dandy, I guess, but there's a lot of political work to be done in the world that is non-president-related. If you got into string-playing *just* because you wanted to be a soloist, well, I understand the initial attraction, but once you learn what it honestly entails, I'd be shocked if the option still holds its appeal. Most of us mortals would crumple in a few weeks. If I had to choose, I'd choose the career I have now - playing maybe an orchestra concert a month - over being a famous soloist. I'd choose it any day of the week. The stress and the pressure and the travel... It's so much. The job doesn't stop when the applause does. I know I'm not alone in thinking this.

“Perfect at what?” I ask. Perfect at playing every note on the page as written? Perfect at executing every crescendo and decrescendo, at executing every minute detail of every piece you play?"

That would be a great start! It is possible. Exhibit A: just about everybody in the Minnesota Orchestra. They know dynamics like nobody else in America right now. And it shows in their performances.

"My point, ladies and gentleman, is that there’s no creation."

And there I totally lost you. Classical music is full of creation. Every single time we perform something, in whatever venue, under whatever circumstance, we're creating it anew. If you're talking about creation of new compositions, there are fantastic composers out there writing for orchestra and chamber groups. They just don't get the time of day, for a variety of reasons.

"No innovation."

I disagree. I heard Erin Keefe last month playing the chestnut to end all chestnuts, the Beethoven concerto. Like all violinists I've been familiar with the piece since my early teens. But her performance made it new again. I heard things in it I'd never heard before. It was so exciting and inspiring. If that's not innovation, what is? She didn't need to come onstage rocking a bikini or playing an electric violin. Her innovation was in her playing itself.

"Classical music is frozen in time, while the rest of the world continues to re-invent itself."

Mayyyyybe. At times. But that's an occupational hazard when you're consistently working with stuff created two, three hundred years ago. So what are we supposed to do about it? Ditch Beethoven because he's frozen in time? Of course not; instead, we aim to give great performances of Beethoven, and prove his continued relevance to a modern audience (because he is still relevant...when played well). It's a mistake to flock to something just because it's old. It's just as much a mistake to ignore something because it's old.

Which isn't to say we shouldn't be exploring new ways to communicate about classical music.

"It’s about finding your own voice and doing what you really want to do. If you want to be a performer and make good money at it, there is literally nothing stopping you. Abandon the tradition and re-invent the music."

And despite all the disagreement above, I agree with your final premise (minus the make good money part; I don't think people wanting to make money necessarily means they will). But what exactly is re-invention? Getting an orchestra gig and then embracing your individuality and not following the conductor? Playing chamber music for money and not aiming for perfection and making a ton of mistakes? Or is it making poppy arrangements of classical tunes? Breaking a world record playing Flight of the Bumblebee? Ditching the tuxes on Saturday night? What is your idea of re-invention?

Not to be rude, but the things you suggest seem impractical: they make sense and sound good in an abstract way, but then when you try to apply your ideas to the real world, I get confused as to how they'd actually work. What can we do to re-invent ourselves? What should we do to re-invent ourselves? What will we do to re-invent ourselves?

Classical music is a hard field. It takes an ungodly amount of hard work, dedication, and obsession. But....so do a lot of other fields, especially the competitive ones. Do people write things like this about the world of ballet? Or the world of professional sports? Or the world of high-level medicine? If so, I never hear about it. Classical musicians love to talk about what's wrong with them and their field, and I'm not sure why.

No ill will meant. Just playing some devil's advocate.

August 14, 2012 at 03:01 PM · The idea of "perfection" is the enemy. It sucks students at all levels into mindless repetition, instead of repetition to build a wide range of useful techniques.

A teacher once told me, "The only thing that counts is whether the audience is eager to hear your next song." Audiences don't want "perfection" - they want to be moved. Its the best musical advice I've ever heard.

August 14, 2012 at 03:55 PM · But Mike, I've also heard it said; that "if you play out of tune, no-one wants to listen", and it's hard to argue against that.

August 14, 2012 at 05:50 PM · Emily I must say that I agree with everything you say a hundred percent. If that wasn't a reality check I don't know what is.

I agree that it seems that in a way, classical music is "frozen." but really its not. Classical music is like a child. It goes through ts major growth spurts and then those same growth spurts go dormant for a while and you just grow slowly. Maybe a few years later (or decades in this case) you hit another huge growth spurt. In order to re-invent classical music and ourselfs as musicians, we must look at the traditional.

Dance and music are very intertwined and in a way, dance is "frozen" also. Modern dance had a base of ballet. A lot of its movement is ballet like, but without the strictness of perfect control of lines and killing your feet with shoes. There is more a of a freeness. Modern dance came as a growth spurt and now is slowly growing into something else. Modern music is the same way.

Many musicians and listeners love the older music as well as new music. New music is slowly growing into something else and musicians are slowly doing new things and creating new technique for playing. It good to see changes in classical music, but sometimes people just like to savor things, which is what we ate doing now; savoring the old while trying to create something new. We are bound for another "growth spurt" in music, you just have to wait until everyone or someone is ready to make that change, don't force it upon us.

August 14, 2012 at 07:20 PM · I would have to agree with John. Emily's post is probably the most interesting and intelligent reply I have ever read on this site.

August 14, 2012 at 08:07 PM · so creativity exists, but in the form of dynamics, timing, phrasing, etc. the notes stay the same. Still i have to wonder why that is when the composers of that music improvised all the time.

August 14, 2012 at 11:10 PM · In reply to Emily Hogstad,

I’m happy someone brought up these points. You nailed a lot of important things that I want to go over. I’m not going to tackle these in any particular order. Just whatever comes to mind first.

First off, my definition of ‘reinvention’ is making music that gets people interested. They aren’t forcing themselves to sit through a concert because they think it’s ‘good culture.’ They are legitimately intrigued by what they are hearing/seeing.

“And there I totally lost you. Classical music is full of creation. Every single time we perform something, in whatever venue, under whatever circumstance, we're creating it anew. If you're talking about creation of new compositions, there are fantastic composers out there writing for orchestra and chamber groups. They just don't get the time of day, for a variety of reasons.”

Fantastic composers? If by ‘fantastic’ you mean composers who churn out roiling atonal music, then yes there’s plenty of that. There are very few modern composers whom I would even consider truly innovative. Those include Arvo Part, Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, etc. In fact, Steve Reich does numerous excellent interviews about this very subject. About the ‘reinvention’ of classical music, and how it isn’t necessary to drop the tonal system.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6i9-2kfK20

These composers take what’s ‘old’ and make it ‘new.’ The only other composers who do this are movie and video game composers. That’s not to say all of them are innovators, but think about John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Giachinno, etc. These are people who know how to reinvent and get people interested in the music. And yet, classical purists reject this music and stick to their atonal guns (I’ve literally seen modern tonal music get booed off stage).

“It was the violin itself. It was the look and the feel and the smell and the feeling of accomplishment it gave me.”

“Being a soloist is not the be-all, end-all of string playing.”

I agree with you. And I think my comment about being a soloist came off the wrong way. Of course not everyone is going to have the chops for that, but everyone should be entitled to self-expression. And personally, I don’t see much room for that in the traditional industry.

Think of it this way: You’re playing a Mozart concerto for an important audition. Think of how you would execute the piece in front of a panel of judges. Now you’re playing the same piece for an audience of regular people (perhaps you’re busking). Would you consciously play any differently? What would you change?

I would play the Mozart in a more improvisatory manner. Make the people guess what’s coming next. That, of course, would never be accepted in front of a panel. God forbid you improvise in an orchestra. Not that you should improvise in orchestra, but that kind of environment is simply not conducive to pure self-expression.

“There are lots of people like me. I think you might underestimate the appeal of orchestral playing to a certain kind of person...that feeling of being a part of a whole.”

Is being part of a whole so great when you are playing masturbatory chord lines in a Mozart opera for 3 hours straight? Not only is there little to no self-expression, but you’re predisposing yourself to some serious tendon damage. Does the ‘whole’ account for that?

“Not to be rude, but the things you suggest seem impractical: they make sense and sound good in an abstract way, but then when you try to apply your ideas to the real world, I get confused as to how they'd actually work. What can we do to re-invent ourselves? What should we do to re-invent ourselves? What will we do to re-invent ourselves?”

Forgive me if I was a little scant on my explanation of reinvention. But the truth is that there is no real definition because it’s very much a new and often taboo concept. I think it would be better if I showed you some examples of what I believe to be great reinvention and innovation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5n0qXSO7Z-Q&feature=related

Maxim Vengerov. One of my favorite violinists precisely because he invents. You can see it throughout his entire body. Not to mention the incredible arrangement (reinvention) done on this piece.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FpA77S7r7c&feature=relmfu

Andrew Bird. An experimental musician who plays violin and also sings and whistles. He is known to combine all of these talents in his concerts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOQaK7NHY-4

Igudesman & Joo. A comedy duo who derive their material from classical music. Both are incredibly proficient at their instruments (violin and piano).

This is what I’m talking about. I think more of this needs to happen. And while yes, it is necessary to have orchestras to keep alive the greats, we need innovators. Schools would be much better off producing musicians like the ones above rather than perfect machines who are all trying to fit into the same cramped job slot.

August 15, 2012 at 08:20 AM · I respond to the OP, because somehow I cannot read any further. First I am an violin teacher who supplement his income with gigs and second I don't agree with all this romanticism.

When I was young of course I wanted to be a soloist, that was, because everybody told me I was good. Trusting them was the first fault in my carreer to being a soloist. But I can't blame them or "my younger self" for that, because young people are able to go everywhere and people just wanted to courage me.

But what is totally forgotten in this romantic approach we have here is the social background and the work involved. Name me only ONE major soloist who was not build up into music before he even could say yes or no. We can easily start with David Garrett here, who for me is more an Marketing/performing genius than an outstanding musician. He had learnt it all: all the violin literature and some composing too. So do you really think he could be where he is today without the background as a growing Wunderkind and an Student of Composition and Violin at the Julliard?! I think the answer is a clear NO.

So, to make it short but personal: When I grew up I realized that to break through and get in good positions in orchestras or even to play solo, talent is not enough. What is much more important is that you are trained like a racing-horse and that you keep your intonation and articulation accurate as good as possible at any gig. From there on you build an network of people who know that you are reliable (a teacher who gives his word and has good contacts will help too).

No "prodigy" comes from out of the blue. Parents with influence can help also.

So... if you are talking about music geniuses who build all on their own, don't look into classical music and the big stages, there are the racing horses and the well trained "good boys" and "good girls". I have no problem with that classical music business, but they are "just" interprets, wich is a different story to way back, when the music they play was written. All the work is already done by the COMPOSERS!

Today there are some people with good drive who really create new music that in the same time finds an audience. But not in classical music.

Classical musicians are mostly interprets of an old art (on old instruments).

So you think, we need more people like david garret? Well then train the little children until they are recognized as Wunderkinder (chance about 0,00001 %)and after that hope, that they will find a way to release the pressure and make money with it.

For me that is close to playing russian roulette with the child.

If you want your children to be happy, let them play out in the woods.

Or give them violin lessons and hope that they will be good and happy teachers.

cheers

I also have good advice, but not in this topic....

August 15, 2012 at 08:54 AM · There is an interview with Nigel Kennedy (now 55) in the August 14, 2012 edition of the free Metro newspaper in the UK. He comments on questions such as "Did being marketed as a 'classical pop' act at the start of your career have a negative impact on how you were seen in the classical music community', and "Is there more pressure on classical musicians to be commercially successful today?"

For copyright reasons I cannot quote the article verbatim, but it is on page 16 of this link:

http://e-edition.metro.co.uk/2012/08/14/?p=System.Int32[]&keywords=nigel%20kennedy&sh=true

You may be required to type in your email address in order to read it.

August 15, 2012 at 10:49 AM · Love Emily's post. Understand Thomas's and think there's some truth there too. But it strikes me that we may be talking different worlds. I think there is a line of thinking and training out there that is pretty resemblant of Thomas's complaint. I don't really think it applies to "the best"--they are the best because they are able to bring that depth and fresh sparkle both to old compositions and new. But I think it is out there and probably a lot of the second-bests or the frustrateds have been victim. Thomas seems like he's speaking from experience so maybe that's the system of training he comes from. However, I would like to submit that such an approach is *not* reflective of music training as a whole today and I would love to know you all's thoughts.

I've worked in school string programs for the last 6 years and private instruction for the last 10. At this grassroots level, the attitude is about both understanding/apprecitation and creativity, and it brings about love! We bring in folk influences, world influences; we get creative about how to express what's written and we write our own. We learn how to improvise on Baroque. We learn how to discover what different composers bring to the table and how to say it in our own voice. We learn that everyone can compose and everyone can play and that it's not always sacrilege to change something--although sometimes it is ;) and you know, most of the kids I teach are not going to be the next solo artists, but they are going to be the groundroots of our next generation's music: teaching, gigging, composing, listening, creating.

I think Thomas has a point, but it's not nearly the catch-all umbrella he is afraid it is, and I am thankful! And I think that the changes at the roots of our music are already affecting the folks at the top. Or maybe it worked both ways!! Look at your Perlman and his film work-that prodigious gift was part of creating something new that is now a part of the fabric and emotion of millions of lives. Our next generation takes that with them. Look at Hahn, who got who-knows-how many people composing for her encore contest and then turns out this quirky but awesome improv disk. How many budding violinist-composers will that inspire? How many teachers will be able to use that as a jumping-off point? Even Bell, whether you like him or not, gotta acknowledge that he brings such a fresh, heartfelt voice and his arranging and willingness to carve new territory is what we're looking for.

So Thomas, I think your diagnosis is pretty good-but I think we've already begun the cure. The face may look completely different than we are used to, but future of classical music has only begun.

August 15, 2012 at 02:53 PM · Nigel Keay,

Read my post again, and think about it. I talk about building a range of strong technique. Intonation is one of the earliest "technique suites" that a beginning and intermediate student works on.

August 15, 2012 at 03:24 PM · In reply to Simon Streuff

Its a shame you didn't read through my second post, which goes into more explanation on this topic.

Please, please understand that I'm not talking about everyone becoming a soloist wunderkind. It's possible for 'average' musicians to be just as creative and interesting as David Garrett. He is just one of the best examples I can think of.

The point of talking about soloists was to stress the presence of creativity and invention in one's career. Not that everyone should become a soloist. I should have made that more clear in my first post.

"All the work is already done by the COMPOSERS!"

Not true. By assuming "all the work is already done" you are closing the door to people who truly reinvent classical music (several examples are given in my second post above).

You don't have to be a wunderkind to reinvent and capture peoples' interest. There are plenty of people who aren't famous who do a fantastic job of this, composers and performers alike. I can give you a very long list of people who do this for a living. And they aren't wunderkinds. They are just good musicians who figured out how to be creative.

August 15, 2012 at 04:29 PM · I SO don't agree with this.

I am a classical musician, and have been for 30 years. I'm constantly astounded by the creativity of my colleagues in the realms of performing, teaching, composing, and even in carving out lives that accommodate the integrity of their art.

As in anything, you have to seek out those who will nurture your creativity and mentor you in a helpful way.

Also, I think there is a misunderstanding about disciplined instruction. You need a little bit of it! Your teacher can (and should) encourage creativity, but if that's ALL your teacher does, and your teacher leaves you to find everything else on your own, in most cases, the result will be a technical mess.

The art of good teaching involves communicate some very specific good advice about how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow, how to produce a good staccato stroke, or spiccato, how to find balance, how to produce tone, and the list is a mile long.

Considering how much technique is required for playing the violin, the teaching can get, well, pretty technical! But if you get that technique down, you are free.

August 15, 2012 at 06:04 PM · I am sorry that I again reply only to this : "You don't have to be a wunderkind to reinvent and capture peoples' interest. There are plenty of people who aren't famous who do a fantastic job of this, composers and performers alike. I can give you a very long list of people who do this for a living. And they aren't wunderkinds. They are just good musicians who figured out how to be creative."

Are you sure? I really wonder if there is some world class or lets say well known musician who hasn't started as somehow a "good boy". I listen to a lot of alternative music, where there is much more autodidacts... but they are inventers, like art in the sence of creating something new, not in the sence of doing something necessarily good.

I know that your aims are good, so I think I simply should read the second post, wich I will do, when I got time.

I still think if you are talking about the "best" or most well known musicians, the wunderkind startup applies. Not that I like it and thats really the point. I hate classical music business, because it is like Nigel Kennedy sais "incestuous". It's one big family and if you are not in it you don't have the posibilities to get some important support and experience. And still you can be a good musician who works all day and thinks about changing profession do earn some money. Or... you need to get creative as one sais. But that usually only works if you don't TRY too hard. To be creative you also need some personal conviction, wich is indeed tried to be taken away from you in the so called "educational process". Thats why the most poverful musicians are outsiders at first. Just imagine how many of those outsiders get a actual break through and how many despair.

Of course you can just go for it and be creative. But to bring your flashy Michael Jackson interpretation to an big audience you will need a certain background, relationships and some references, just like Mr. revolutionary Wunderkind Garrett. Its not, that he invented the pop violin playing, he just was the first with a good marketing and the ability to bring good people together, wich has to do with money and contracts.

Before I write more, I probably should read all the posts before me. I am sorry for interfering.

August 15, 2012 at 06:34 PM · okokok so now I read a little more, still not all. One thing I want to share my opinion on:

A classical composition for me is like arcitecture, we have the designplan, wich is the score. If you are working in an orchestra of course you are a servant to those plans and the idea behind it. All the composers have different structures, so the building can bebuild on solid foundation (2. violin repeating harmony notes in Mozart) or it can also be build on air, because we don't have gravity.

So far for that.

Some reality: Some compositons, also from mozart are composed to make money and to cheer the public. Not everything is great music and not everything you must like. So if you serve in an orchestra you have to get along with some really boring music, like some of mozarts operas are to me, and sometimes you will play the most beautiful arranged compositons wich just speak for themself.

August 15, 2012 at 07:41 PM · Hm. This is interesting.

What I think this really all boils down to is a matter of taste. Music teachers cultivate discipline, technique, and usually have a pretty good bead on what audiences like. Passing on those things is not squelching creativity. If someone doesn't like discipline, they might confuse it with lack of creativity.

There are some who think things like hanging a dead cat from your scroll and wearing a hollowed-out watermelon on your head is creative. Maybe. But don't be surprised if music lovers don't give a standing ovation for that sort of thing. They usually like creativity to come forth in a fine performance.

I think it's not realistic to say that classical musicians and teachers are not creative. That kind of smacks of what kids said in the 60's: "You guys are square. I want to be a nonconformist like everyone else!" It also goes against my personal experience.

Want to be creative? Stick with Gypsy music. You can do just about anything there, and still have it accepted. Except, of course, the way I play Ziguenerweisen. If you don't like the way I play it, it's a sign of good taste. :-)

August 15, 2012 at 07:51 PM · GREAT stuff in all of these posts!

My sincere congrats to Thomas to have the courage to point out, post and intelligently discuss what many classical musicians have probably only mused over.

I vote to expand into a "post" classical era with new developments, bending of genres, incorporating new ideas and combining it with the disciplined structure of the classic, (pun) classical musician. With the technology of today - there are SO many possibilities. (And I do not mean play over top of Hip Hop, Techno or Rock & Roll beats).

Are we all really still wearing tuxedos and long skirts? There is something slightly bizarre about not wanting to merge with the times - especially in the current climate where many orchestras are facing extinction due to the lack of a younger audience.

And PLEASE . . . writing modern classical music does NOT have to sound "modernly" dissonant. (Schoenberg/Prokofiev etc.)

Trouble is sometimes it takes a lifetime just to master our instruments! ;)

Thank you Thomas for the post!

Peace!

August 15, 2012 at 10:24 PM · tuxedos, concert halls and all the rituals are connected with the constant success of classical music and its image.

The clothes stand for equality and the serving for a greater goal. The only thing wich is obsolete in my opinion is the conductor. But people tend to miss the one person, the "leader" (if I would say that in german, the alarm bell would go on...) who holds everything together. As most classical music was written it was conducted by the composer. You can see Richard Strauß conducting on youtube. You can notice that he hardly does anything but counting the beat... serving the greater goal...listening... Not putting on faces or fancy clothes.

Its all a ritual to lift the music to something holy, wich the music absolutely deserves.

I sometimes took some people to concerts who were in no contact to classical music. They all really! liked it and it leaves an impression. Its a part of our culture and its one of the few good parts still alive. I just hope there will be great concert halls built in future and concerts with sinfonies by tchaikovski, Brahms and others will be played.

It is a privilege and its worth our money and effort. Of course there is room for new music too, but new music has always had a difficult stand. Popular music of course is a different story.

August 15, 2012 at 10:53 PM · "There is an interview with Nigel Kennedy (now 55) in the August 14, 2012 edition of the free Metro newspaper in the UK."

Thank you for posting this, Trevor. I really like some of the things Nigel talked about in that interview. Especially about the dogma of the classical world and the record companies. Mr. Kennedy would be another ideal example of someone who invents.

"I sometimes took some people to concerts who were in no contact to classical music. They all really! liked it and it leaves an impression. Its a part of our culture and its one of the few good parts still alive. I just hope there will be great concert halls built in future and concerts with sinfonies by tchaikovski, Brahms and others will be played."

I definitely agree with this. Orchestra is an important part of our culture. However, using it as the main job dispensing, go-to goal for every classical musician is not right.

From the moment you become serious about playing, people ask you "What are you going to do with that?" And your only legitimate answers are going to be "Play in an orchestra" or "teach." There needs to be (and there can be!) much more than that.

August 16, 2012 at 01:09 AM · I've been to at least 100 classical concerts, orchestral, ensembles, solo, and at least as many rock, jazz performances. Every rock, jazz performance has some amount of improvisation. Not one classical performance that i have been to has had any improvisation. I have to agree with the original OP. The creativity is there, but it is more limited than rock and jazz music.

August 16, 2012 at 08:08 AM · hey, Jazz to me is not necessarily more inventive than classical music. Sure they have improvised parts and some can really do it. But in some jazz styles you are so much glued to the harmonic and rhythmic structure, that the inventive part becomes very small. Playing scales up or dwnwards isn't so much inventive to me.

Improvisation in general is something important. But often the so called improvisation is a cue of learned pattern.

Ok, now we have the next "good example" for an "creative musician" mentioning nigel kennedy.

I really respect him and his attitude, as much as I respectevery musician who is better than me, but on the other hand what did he really invent? He did some crossover, wich is good and maybe he wrote some cadenzas. But after all he has the same problem as Garrett, being forced to the violin and trying to do something "manly" with it, wich is out of the routines!? I try to be provocative, but its really my opinion, that all he did was to wake up some old-fashioned people, who he impressed at the same time with his technical abilities so they can't say anything. This abilities come from his good education and much practice (and of course a little talent). The other thing he did, he took some "cool" music, changed his style and tried to live in both world successfully..

Don't get me wrong, he is one of the heroes of my youth and one of the reasons I got back to the violin after 2 years break. But knowing about Menuhin, Milstein, Oistrakh and others, his image becomes small.

Still I love his classical recordings, from wich I know the Beethoven and the Sibelius. He can do what he wants and still be an hero for music. But on the other hand I don't think he would have been able to do anything of it without being pushed in his youth slightly against his will.

August 20, 2012 at 05:02 AM · I agree with everything Emily Hogstad wrote--except I don't think she made the point strongly enough that not everyone starts playing the violin with the dream of being a soloist. Perhaps I write too much from personal experience here, but when I started playing the violin, I *hated* solo playing. In adulthood I've finally started to be able to enjoy it a little bit, and have branched out to do more solo playing, but it was never a dream of mine. I was an introvert who liked to play mostly for myself and a few close friends (and dolls and pets).

I also have to agree wholeheartedly with what she said about teaching. If that's the way you feel about it--that teaching is some kind of second-best consolation prize career for people who can't make it as soloists--then you should get out of the teaching profession immediately. You aren't helping anybody with that attitude, least of all your students.

Maybe "what's wrong with classical music" is the way it's introduced to audiences: this whole emphasis on hyperbole and stars and prodigies and virtuosi just sets the vast majority up for disappointment and bitterness, if they buy into that sort of shiny, empty packaging. One could, though, just refuse to buy that in the first place.

Upon reading later posts, it sounds like that in fact might be what you're saying, Thomas: leave all that behind and try to create something new. If so, great. But then, what's stopping you from doing that? Why bother to spend so much time criticizing a system that you don't want to be a part of anyway?

August 20, 2012 at 11:49 AM · I don't expect my children to become professional soloists. In fact I hope they don't. I do hope they can learn to play their instruments properly and well so that they can have this to enjoy for the rest of their lives. And I think there is a lot of mental work in playing the violin or cello that is good for kids in a lot of ways. It teaches discipline and accountability. In other words it's part of a thorough and wholesome education -- kind of like learning French or chess -- only much different too.

August 20, 2012 at 01:45 PM · It's an interesting topic - I'm not in a music industry or whatsoever, I just love any kind of music that moves me. So just tiny 3 cents from an audience.

I like the analogy of building that Simon mentioned. Are orchestra players playing musics written hundreds years ago, following the lead of a conductor any different from constructors, plumbers, electricians, engineers etc working according to an architects' plan under management of a director? When people talking about creativity of Gaudi's works, are they talking about each individual worker's improvisational way of how to stuck and curve stones?

I never get through competitions, so I'm solely writing from my imagination - so I appreciate any enlightenment. I'd imagine classic music competitions are parallel to the "compulsory" or "short program" in the competition of figure skating. To be competitive and successful, they need to show a required set of skills in a very obvious way so that any judge wouldn't miss it. In a "free" program they have a little more freedom, and in exhibitions or ice-shows, they show off their creativity based on the solid skills they've already proven in the earlier competitions. They have time and place that they can be more creative. Maybe that kind of different opportunities are what some people feel is missing from conventional classic music? Maybe classic community needs some sort of "fan vote" just like MTV teenage choice awards, or audience awards in some film festivals?

I like many different kind of music and not really discriminate classical ones to the others. But I feel in a way, the cursing of classical music is also a blessing - there are so many beautiful and strong compositions that people cannot help but want to recreate again and again, and also audience love to hear those variation...

August 20, 2012 at 04:34 PM · I read this thread last night at 3 am when I couldn't sleep after getting back from the West Coast, and I was kind of out of it, and too hasty and inconsiderate in my response. Sorry about that.

There was so much to like in Emily's long response, but after reading it again, I actually agree more with Thomas on a couple of points, particularly about "perfection."

The majority opinion that I've seen on this site seems to be that *striving* for perfection is okay, even good, as long as you keep in mind that you'll never actually achieve it. Striving for perfection is said to be some kind of hedge against total disaster, or perhaps a way of saying that you have high standards. Even Emily phrased it this way: [what are you suggesting?] "Playing chamber music for money and not aiming for perfection and making a ton of mistakes?"

As if those were the only two choices: perfection or "a ton" of mistakes.

I am going to come out and disagree with this. Those aren't the only choices.

I also am always nonplussed when people compare music to medicine in this way:

"Would we complain if a surgeon was turned down for a job because they weren't perfect?"

This is a false equivalence. The reason that surgeons have to be as perfect as they can be is that a surgeon's mistakes can be deadly. Surgery is, often, a matter of life and death in the moment. This is true for only a handful of professions: surgeons, other emergency health professionals, pilots, police officers, Navy Seals and other military and intelligence personnel in certain situations. There may be others that I haven't thought of, but the list is not that long and it does not include violinists.

What's more, the top of these professions is not known for its balance, quality of life, or ability to produce well-rounded, nurturing, or even necessarily decent human beings. These professions burn people out and give them PTSD. There's a cost to these professions: it's high, but worth it, because they also save lives. Whereas nobody ever died from an out of tune note or a poorly played concerto. There's a good reason why people would--and should--complain more about, and be less tolerant of, an imperfect surgeon than an imperfect violinist.

I'm okay with having a minority opinion on the topic of perfection--that even striving for it is bad--but I'm not sure I do, at least if one looks at other areas of endeavor.

One area where the idea that being "good enough" (instead of perfect) is in and of itself a worthy goal, is gaining some traction is parenting. Google "good enough mother" and the work of many psychologists, parents, and authors will show up. Good enough parents provide a nurturing, but not perfect, environment for their children. A good enough parent accepts mistakes and limitations as part of life, and as a way to help children learn, grow, and accept their own humanness. Judith Warner, in *Perfect Madness,* took the point even further, saying that trying to be perfect damaged not only mothers' mental health, but their kids' as well, leaving them stressed, anxious, and lacking in resilience and basic coping skills.

The same debate is there, though. Invariably there will be comments that these mothers who "just" want to be "good enough" are slackers who don't really care about their children. It's the same old tired story: either you aim for perfection or you're the slacker mom, making a "ton of mistakes." This was the main thrust of the Amy Chua/Tiger Mom debate, too, that making your children aim for perfection prevented them from becoming soft, permissive Westerners and getting left behind. It's almost Calvinist in its framing: perfection or nothing, heaven or hell. No middle ground here on earth.

So I guess I do have some suggestions for "reinventing ourselves," that may not be seen as particularly practical either, but that work for me.

The first is that, as an audience member, you do have some say in all this. You don't have to expect perfection. Go support local musicians: in bars, churches, farmers' markets, and festivals. Go to concerts given by regional orchestras and community groups. (It'll be easy on the wallet, and there will be parking.) Take claims about the latest virtuoso with a grain of salt. Respect your child's (or your) music teacher and work to keep him or her employed in the schools. I hadn't read Kathryn Woodby's reply last night, but I think she's right on. The creativity is there: you just have to look for it.

The music/medicine equivalence may actually have meaning, but in a different way than just saying gee both are really, really hard and both require a lot of training and dedication and therefore both deserve respect. No. I think music heals. I think music saves lives. But it does it differently than medicine does. Music heals because it's open to everyone. Music heals because it doesn't have to cause stress, anxiety, and PTSD to be good enough. Even imperfect, good enough musicians, like good enough parents, can touch hearts and open minds.

August 20, 2012 at 08:56 PM · Really? That's interesting, in the very limited circles in which I generally travel (circles that don't often include rich donors, unfortunately), I tend to see the opposite, that it's not the general audience that's driving the expectation of perfection, but the musical insiders. Most of my non-musician friends can't really tell the difference between, say, the Lexington Symphony (an excellent regional professional orchestra) and the BSO. (Truth be told, *I* can barely tell the difference between those.)

I play in a volunteer community orchestra, and our audiences are of respectable size and hearteningly loyal. They tend to be weighted towards seniors on fixed incomes, families with young children who don't sit quietly, and/or other populations who aren't likely to get to the BSO, or to the Lexington Symphony for that matter--a van from a local center for at-risk youth came to the last family concert. But I think that audience is just as important, if not more so, than the rich donors.

August 20, 2012 at 09:13 PM · Interesting thoughts, Karen. I didn't mean to insinuate that I think one either plays perfectly or makes a ton of mistakes, although I understand how it could have come across that way. In that particular sentence I was employing a bit of exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

And point taken about the music-medicine comparison. I did hesitate to include it because there are (obviously) very important differences between the two professions. However, despite the very possibly flawed comparison, within the context of performance we pay money to hear, where the technical standard has become so jaw-droppingly high...we do expect a baseline level of competence, or brilliance, or (hesitate to use the word) perfection, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe a better comparison would be...why would we go to a baker who makes bread that is not reliably good, when there are dozens of bakers who make amazing well-crafted bread? Eh, that metaphor is a little clunky. More work is required.

Perhaps we are thinking about different contexts, too. Someone who works in a "Big Five" orchestra is going to have a very different idea of what is "perfect" or "good enough" compared to someone like me who scrapes away in a community orchestra. My response was approaching the question from a place closer to the first scenario than the second, because I think that's the scene that's accused of homogenization the most. Coming to the question from a community orchestra perspective will yield some different attitudes and answers to the OP's original topic. My perspective is almost certainly a little garbled in that way, because while I personally am an amateur or semi-pro at best...for a variety of reasons, the majority of people I discuss music and musical culture with have big careers, have the ability to be in a Big Five. Sooo there is probably a disconnect there.

"Even imperfect, good enough musicians, like good enough parents, can touch hearts and open minds."

Mmm yes. No argument here about that beautifully worded sentiment!

August 20, 2012 at 09:50 PM · Thomas, you said:

Fantastic composers? If by ‘fantastic’ you mean composers who churn out roiling atonal music, then yes there’s plenty of that. There are very few modern composers whom I would even consider truly innovative. Those include Arvo Part, Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, etc. . . .

These composers take what’s ‘old’ and make it ‘new.’ The only other composers who do this are movie and video game composers.

I think it goes way beyond this. Osvaldo Golijov's chamber music is breathtakingly beautiful, and I've seen it leave audiences shattered. Listen to his "Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." The juxtaposition of klezmer, Eastern European, and Latin American motifs and rhythms would qualify as innovative to me. The late Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" written for and recorded by his late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is gorgeous. Kaija Saariaho has written some works including electronics. Her opera "L'Amour de Loin" is one of the best productions I've seen in many years. How about Mark O'Connor's attempts to marry folk and classical?

None of this is atonal, nor does it roil. The "two cats fighting in a garbage can" school of composition does exist, but there's plenty of other new work out there too.

August 20, 2012 at 11:02 PM · Emily, thanks for your response (both of them!) I think you must be right about the different contexts, as I am definitely coming from the community orchestra perspective and not the "Big Five."

I only recently learned (here on violinist.com) that the orchestra I grew up listening to, that my teacher was a member of, and where Michael Tilson Thomas got his start--The Buffalo Philharmonic--isn't considered a "major orchestra." Something about the number of concerts per year that it gives--I don't really remember, but it seems to me to be a truly picky and snotty distinction, of little interest, relevance, or benefit to the audience.

Except for the fact that the Buffalo Phil hired a female music director--JoAnn Falletta--several years before Marin Alsop became the "first female music director of a major orchestra." No disrespect intended to Ms. Alsop, of whom I'm a fan, but this seems emblematic of what I'm talking about. The smaller, "non-major" regional orchestra was out on the forefront of innovation there too--they were the ones who were first willing to take the risk of hiring a female conductor. It bugs me that Ms. Falletta and the Buffalo Phil don't get the credit for being first, because of this silly definition of what constitutes a "major orchestra". Why are some musicians so hung up on that kind of thing? The average concertgoer isn't.

August 21, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Improvisation is overrated.

August 21, 2012 at 02:21 PM · "Why are some musicians so hung up on that kind of thing?"

I think the distinction is primarily economic. The big orchestras pay 2-3x more and (generally) provide much more professional stability than the so-called "regional" orchestras. Not to mention there's a real prestige to being in such a group, which allows you other specific opportunities (playing chamber music, teaching, etc) that you wouldn't get otherwise. I don't think it's necessarily a pejorative term.

However, I'd imagine the purchasing power of the bigger salary would be decreased by higher living expenses in the bigger cities, so maybe the increased salary doesn't really affect standard of living. That would be an interesting question for the professional musicians on the board: if you had the ability to win auditions for, say, both the Buffalo and New York Philharmonic, which group would you choose, and why? Because I'd guess a sizable majority would take the New York job. But why exactly? Salary, location, security, prestige?

In general I think the Big Five's importance is overrated. There are a lot of great non-Big Five orchestras who are doing very cool, very important work. People who dismiss the work of "non-Big-Five" are silly and probably snobby, or else just caught up in a very narrow, old-fashioned way of looking at the American orchestral world.

This whole "big orchestra"/"regional orchestra"/"community orchestra" divide strikes rather deeply at the heart of the ideas the OP was discussing. Because the scenes surrounding each result in very different circumstances, and will need to be kept in mind as potential reforms or changes are pondered... Something that works great in a big orchestra won't necessarily work great in a community orchestra setting, and vice versa.

August 22, 2012 at 12:51 AM · Regarding the perfection issue, I know a lot of musical people and devotees of music who would rather hear an imperfect performance that was gripping in some significant way. But as soon as a mere mortal puts his playing on YouTube, what you get are things like "At 3:57 the F was flat." When I say "mere mortal" I mean people competing in the Queen Elizabeth Competition -- so we're talking about really well trained violinists.

August 22, 2012 at 01:31 AM · Paul, that's not classical music per se, that's just the internet. Read almost any comments section, to any article, that isn't moderated and it invariably degenerates into political name calling and people throwing words around--like "socialism"--of whose meaning they appear to be totally ignorant. In that context, someone merely complaining about an out-of-tune F on YouTube starts to sound downright refreshing. And there's also the option of turning the comments off . . .

August 22, 2012 at 01:11 PM · "My point, ladies and gentleman, is that there’s no creation. No innovation. Classical music is frozen in time, while the rest of the world continues to re-invent itself. Those who are considered masters of the traditional ways are put upon a pedestal, while everyone else must satisfy themselves with the system of “orchestra or bust.” "

I agree, it´s time to move on. There are so many amazing new composers that are unknown even to most people in the classical community.

August 22, 2012 at 08:13 PM · Subsidization may stunt the growth of new music. If it wasn't subsidized would it be stronger?

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