Thursday, June 11, 2009

A View from the Boondocks

Boy! If you type "boondocks" into Google, you come up with countless references to the comic strip. Thank goodness there's still an entry for the word "boondocks" in the Historical Dictionary of American slang:
The word boondocks is a relic of American colonialism. British English imported lots of words from its far-flung colonial possessions, but American colonial aspirations mainly produced words derived from Spanish and adopted with the settling of the West. This one, however, is an exception.

It derives from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning mountain. It was adopted into the language by occupying American soldiers in the Philippines as a word meaning any remote and wild place. By 1909, only some ten years after the American conquest of the islands, the word had caught on enough to rate an entry in that year’s Webster’s New International Dictionary. Despite this, however, it remained primarily a military slang term, especially among Marines, until the 1960s, when, probably because of the Vietnam War, it gained wider, civilian usage.
To my friends and family on the American East Coast, I was headed with my husband off to the boondocks in 1985. All I knew of Illinois was Chicago, which is a good four hour drive from here, particularly taking traffic into account. I much prefer to get there by train. There is a train that leaves from here to Chicago almost every day, and there is even one that brings you back.

My previous small town experience was in Austria, in a town of 4,000 people, equally as far from Vienna as my present town is from Chicago, that had both a brewery and several excellent bakeries. I didn't even need to have an oven in Austria, though I did have a chance to learn something about Austrian baking from one of my colleagues.

One of the first things I learned to do when we got to our small Illinois town was learn to make clothes and bread. I kid you not. Good bread was nowhere to be found, but fabric stores were plentiful. I also wrote a very useful book for teaching flute, and found a good number of students to teach. The flute teacher on the faculty of the local university spent more time and energy on his rather successful "side business" than he spent on his students. Anyway, he left town a few months after I arrived, and I soon found myself with a healthy handful of university students who had been suffering from serious flutistic neglect, as well as a few beginners, and some high school students.

It amazed me that my flute-playing high school students were considered "cool" by their peers. They were also well respected by adults in the community. When I went to high school in the Boston suburbs, being a musician was anything but cool. But here it was. And band was a really big deal.

I was also welcomed by the local alumni branch of Sigma Alpha Iota, a group of dozens and dozens of women who had a pot luck dinner in my honor (I only realized this in retrospect--I thought they did this all the time). This group of women held monthly concerts in various locations in town. I was encouraged to join this fraternity (I had never heard of it before), and had to take a test and go through an initiation. I felt rather foolish, but these people were so nice to me. It was the least I could do to join their organization.

I was very impressed with the local string culture: there were a lot of university faculty people and spouses of university faculty people who played in the university orchestra, and, because none of the university students were capable of playing the flute in the orchestra (yes, their situation was pretty dire), I played in the orchestra for a while. Within a few months my inherited students could play well enough to keep up with their peers, and I devoted most of my attention on trying to find places to play my baroque flute, especially when I realized that my bachelor's degree from Juilliard was not sufficient to get me a job at the university. I also started working at the university radio station, which had just started a classical music program.

There was a great organist on the university faculty who bought a harpsichord with a keyboard that could convert to A=415, and one faculty spouse who happened (can you believe it?) to play baroque violin, and another who was happy to tune her cello down a half step and use a baroque bow.

We had a few good years and played a lot of good concerts. We had a great deal of community support, and our concerts always had good-sized audiences. Our ensemble ran its course: some members retired and moved away, and I, needing a ladder of escape from the 18th century, started playing the violin. A few years later I started playing in a string quartet, and we were artists in residence at the community college where I now teach music appreciation. We had a pretty successful chamber music series, until the person on the community college board who was most interested in having the concert series retired, and its biggest benefactor died.

Like the faculty members of many small university towns, concert-going faculty members retire and move out of the "boondocks." Audience members also die. In the musical community of a small town like this one, every death is a lasting and major loss. A significant part of the audience for classical music in a university town consists of university students. Their absence from the audience when they graduate is certainly felt, but it is not mourned. It is also usually renewed with another self-selecting group of young people who care about music.

Aside from occasional musicians for weddings and funerals, the only people who make money from music around here are the people who teach: university professors (and adjunct faculty) and private teachers. The university started charging money for concerts a few years ago, but it hasn't improved the quality of the concerts. The idea of selling tickets has, it seems, grown the audience for orchestral concerts. Perhaps the ticket-buying public believes that something that costs money must be worth more than something you can get for free. Thank goodness there are still people from the "old days" who know this isn't true.

The suggested ways of increasing the audience for classical music discussed around the musical blogosphere seem to be centered around cities where musical success is measured in dollars and cents; where there is competition for a piece of the musical pie. It seems to see the "audience" as "customers" who could just as easily spend their money on some other form of entertainment.

My small town experience (and the parabolic curve works the same way in small towns as it does in big cities) tells me that the people who want to listen to classical music will seek it out. You can expose every grade-school child in town to classical music, but only a small number of children will find meaning in the experience. And perhaps some people in that handful of students will grow up loving music. Music lovers are a small and self-selecting group, and they live everywhere--even in the boondocks.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Nice - though I think a lot of kids never hear any classical music, and thus have little chance of loving it and becoming part of the audience.

Google hint of the day: To get a definition, type

define wordyouwantdefined

into the search box.

mike said...

Great post!
Music (and especially classical) can be so enriching, in so many ways. This is especially true w/ young and hungry minds!

Blake sent us his story a while back, telling of his "aha moment" when he realized he could pass his love of classical music on to kids. Check it out here:

mike@ahamoment,com/ mutual of omaha

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for the link to Blake's aha moment, Mike!