Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rebuilding the Audience for Classical Music

The musical world as we see it today is a mass of contradictions. The level of technical musicianship among young people today is extraordinarily high because we have so many well-trained teachers. Thirty years ago students of popular instruments considering serious music study had between ten and twenty fine teachers to choose from who where teaching in prestigious colleges and conservatories (less popular instruments like the oboe, for example, had fewer teachers). Now students have hundreds of competent (and often excellent) teachers to choose from teaching at all kinds of colleges (including affordable state universities) who take extraordinary pride in their teaching, knowing that their own opportunities as soloists are severely limited by the lack of demand for soloists and orchestral musicians in the music market.

Many of these students, especially the string players, had the benefit of Suzuki training, which, when taught properly, can lead the way to the development of a fine technique at an early age. Music has enriched the lives of many of these students, and many choose to pursue music as a career because it is what they love most. Many believe that music provides a valid contribution to society. They are supported by their parents, their teachers, and their school community, but when they find themselves in the “real world” it becomes clear that during the years that they were developing as musicians their peers were becoming increasingly unaware of the value of music, especially live music.

The formal study of music education as a discipline is alive and well within colleges and universities. There are whole courses of study devoted to pedagogy—how to teach, and the school systems that still value instrumental and choral music programs as vital components of their plan for education benefit from band directors and choir directors with training far superior to band directors from previous generations.

For the informed music listener we live in a time of virtual paradise. Recordings are available of just about every piece by the composers we consider “major” composers, and recordings are available of the complete works of composers we might consider “minor” composers. Recordings are available by composers we have only read about in history books, and recordings are available by composers who only appear in footnotes in history books. If a recording is not available of a piece, it is quite easy to make a recording of exceptional quality, duplicate it professionally, and make it available to the whole world by way of the internet.

Many musicians who saw the difficulty of pursuing a performing career as the gates of musical opportunity were beginning to close in the 1970s and 1980s, devoted their passion for music to the study of musicology. These scholars have made extraordinary discoveries concerning performance practice of early music and connections between music and society. There are very few subjects concerning musicology that extremely smart scholars haven’t written something about, though the current musicological journals are far more limited in their scope these days because the agendas of academic musical scholarship have moved away (temporarily, I hope) from the substance of music itself. Virtually all published musical scholarship is available to anyone with a library card through the interlibrary loan system.

Other musicians found their true calling in instrument making. We now have exponentially more fine instrument makers than we had 30 years ago. It is now possible to special order an instrument made to exact specifications: a duplicate of a historical instrument, an instrument with a specific ergonomic shape to help ease stress on the body, an instrument made out of a specific material or made to play at a specific pitch. There are student string instruments being made that are extremely affordable, and bows made of synthetic material that play as well as bows made of rare rainforest woods. Many of the makers of these instruments are able to make a living because they can advertise their trade in widely-read music publications and on the internet. They are accessible from anywhere in the world so they can have their workshops in places that allow more space and require lower rents than they would have in major cities.

Music has made its way into the smaller cities of America. There are excellent community orchestras in smaller cities all over the country, and there are ample opportunities to hear concerts in places where parking is not a problem. Now children living more than 100 miles from a major city can get the same quality of musical training as children living in major cities. Many parents who have fled the city to raise their children in a more peaceful and less stressful environment support the teaching studios of thousands of private teachers living in smaller cities and towns because they believe that the study of music is beneficial for the overall development of their children.

What is wrong with this picture? In a way these developments represent an ideal situation for music to continue to grow and thrive in this country, but one major component of the musical ecosystem is missing. Somehow while we were teaching our musicians to play better, teach better, and think about music in new ways, we have lost our audience.

The thriving audience for music in America during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century didn’t just happen. It had to be built. A young America built squarely on industrialism had a generation of wealthy children who wanted to bring attributes of European culture to America. They imported musicians from France and Germany, built concert halls, and provided the necessary funding for professional symphony orchestras to begin giving concerts. When America started to “grow” its own soloists (like the violinists Albert Spaulding and Maud Powell) and its own composers (like George Gershwin) it was a major cultural accomplishment for the entire population, even those people who did not live in major cities. After the Homestead Act, high schools in the West made sure to include music in their courses of study. Appreciation of the arts went hand in glove with a well-rounded education when America was creating itself.

The piano industry also found its strongest market in America. Pianos could be delivered by train to any city with a train station. People played piano for recreation and entertainment, and people had an increased interest in hearing the instrument played well.
As political situations became more difficult for European musicians during the years of the two World Wars, more and more musicians from Europe immigrated to America, and America enjoyed its greatest musical times. Along with this gift of talent from Europe came the need to understand it, so many people put themselves to the task of educating the public through publications, lectures, concerts, and recordings. Maud Powell’s recordings were originally intended to introduce people in the remote American cities where she toured to the music that she was planning to play during her visits. Early recordings were never intended to replace live performances, but rather to remind and inform people about music.

Radio became a vibrant stage for music. Radio stations had their own orchestras, and a large body of first-rate musicians made their living playing on the radio. Many first performances of important musical works happened in live radio broadcasts. Radio brought music into every home in America. Because of the quality of the broadcasts and the importance of music to the people who ran the programs, the radio became vitally important in the musical education of America.

Early television was booming with musical talent. The original talk show host Jack Paar regularly had the pianist Oscar Levant as a guest on his show. Harpo Marx was seriously interested in music (though he never learned to read and played the harp backwards). Fred Rogers was a composer before he began his work on children’s television, and wrote many operas for children using the puppets in his neighborhood. The musical climate of Southern California was so lively that the violinist Jascha Heifetz chose to live there until the end of his life.

Early television put a great deal of effort into music education, and Leonard Bernstein’s educational television programs introduced thousands and thousands of people to music. His Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic became a model for many orchestras to follow. Bernstein, who received his musical education later in life than many professional musicians, understood the importance of early exposure and to music and also the importance of speaking to the intelligence of young people instead of pandering to their need for entertainment. His audience became the audience of music lovers that supported American orchestras and chamber music ensembles into the 1970s.

Suddenly the bottom dropped out of the education system, and by the end of the 1970s every state in American made drastic cuts to their music programs. It is possible that people assumed that the audience for live classical music would remain strong, or it is possible that at that time American society was so twisted and confused that these cuts were made without any thought at all about the cultural cost that the country would pay for reducing music programs.

It is sort of like exposing only the students who have a genuine interest in writing fiction to reading. Our music education programs have failed in educating a whole generation of people who have put what could have developed into a love for the music played by their peers into other things. Now this generation of people in their thirties and forties who have never been taught to listen to music with any depth fail to see the importance of music in our society, and these people are making financial decisions that end up destroying musical institutions simply because they don’t know what they are doing.

If we want to continue to have live art music (the word “classical” implies music from a limited range of styles) alive in our society we need to change the way it is presented to students in schools. We need to teach students to love listening to music as an activity in itself. We need to involve them in the ritual of concert-going and teach them the beauty of allowing the emotional “meaning” of the music that they hear touch them. They need to hear people play in concerts and they need to learn that their participation in a musical experience as a member of an audience is as vital as the participation of the people playing.

We need to sensitize young people to the emotional range of music making, and teach them to appreciate the fact that one musician’s interpretation of a composer’s work can be wildly different from another musician’s interpretation and still have validity and meaning. We need to teach all of our audiences to listen carefully to the musicians who live in their cities and towns and support the work they do. The quality of a musical performance has no relation to the price of a ticket, but it does depend on an intelligent audience.

The financial burden of supporting musical organizations has been carried by relatively few members of our society. If we succeed in developing a large and vital audience for music to balance our large and vital population of performing musicians, and those people each contribute a small share to the economy that supports live music we might find ourselves living in the best of all musical worlds.

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