Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rambling on about the Future of Music, Again

Nobody can predict the future. We can, however, look around at our present and read about our past, and we can think about what we can do in order to preserve the good things we have living our lives in music.

Here are a few facts:
It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to instantly access music they want to listen to (thanks to recordings and computers).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to acquire musical skills (thanks to instructional videos and a large number of well-taught teachers who live outside of major cities).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to acquire sheet music (thanks to the IMSLP and interlibrary loan).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to learn about composers who could have been forgotten (thanks to the blogosphere and Wikipedia).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people anywhere to buy high-quality instruments (and some made by living makers are affordable).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to buy good quality instruments for students of all ages and sizes.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to evaluate themselves and their playing (thanks to recording technology).

It has never in the history of the world for people to present themselves in a way that makes them seem musically more competent than they are (thanks to free computer editing programs and auto-tune).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to find like-minded musicians and communicate with them.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for composers to hear a good approximation of what their notated music sounds like (thanks to Finale and Sibelius).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to listen to traditional music from every corner of the world.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to acquire affordable replicas of instruments from previous centuries and to learn how to play them from people who are expert players.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to distribute music (thanks to PDF files and computers).
But there are things that aren't easy these days for professional musicians, and because of the very things that make our musical lives easier, I fear that the profession of music (at least the classical kind) will continue to atrophy from its 150-year heyday that lasted from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. But because of these technologies there is a great deal of room for amateur music making (and amateur music making at its highest level) to grow and continue to enhance our lives. It's just that because of technology it is becoming increasing difficult to make the kind of living where a person can own a house, raise children, own a car, and retire in old age by depending on music making as his or her livelihood.

When I was growing up I thought of paying money to study with someone as an investment in gaining enough technique and musical insight to do well in the profession of music. Now it seems that the money exchanged between student and teacher in a lesson has more to do with gaining inspiration, gaining a sense of confidence on an instrument, finding a sense of purpose in life, and acquiring the ability to express emotion through music than making an investment in succeeding in the profession.

I believe that the profession of teaching music will continue, and even thrive in some cases and in some communities. But people fortunate enough to be tenure-track members of a university faculty are finding that more and more people using their college "dollar" to pursue professions other than musical ones. This eventually causes music departments to shrink substantially or be eliminated altogether.

Perhaps we are entering a new age concerning the profession of music. At first professional musicians were supported mainly through the church, and then by various monarchs (who also subsidized church musicians). Publishing music was also a big business from the 16th century through the 20th century.

And there were concerts. Some people went to concerts because they were an enjoyable form of entertainment. Some people went to concerts because they wanted to hear music (much like the way people go to art museums because they want to enjoy looking at art). Local businesses advertised in concert programs, and wealthy people in communities gave money to keep orchestras going (much like the way wealthy people give money to art museums).

Around the middle of the 20th century, particularly in America, universities were the places to find music. Colleges and universities, often funded by industrial moguls like Eastman, started having faculty string quartets, concert series, artists in residence, and composers in residence (some well-endowed schools still do). Serious portable automation along with cultural shifts have caused the general college-age population (with the exception of students who were either exposed to classical music during childhood or participate in musical activities themselves) have changed the entertainment priorities of many campuses. A lot of non-musical faculty members in their 30s and 40s don't take advantage of musical activities on college campuses. From where I sit it seems that most of the people who attend university concerts are either retired (or older) faculty members, young people who are taking music appreciation classes, or friends of the people performing.

Wouldn't it be nice if our next musical age could involve communities themselves as centers of musical activity rather than evangelical institutions or institutions of higher learning? Wouldn't it be nice if wealthy people could consider giving money to musical organizations that continue to promote community music and if there could be music-related jobs created so that musicians could subsidize their musical "habits" by getting paid to work for the cause of community music? Wouldn't it be nice if people from all walks of life understood (from experience) about the life-enhancing value of listening to music played by human beings rather than by mechanical reproduction? Wouldn't it be nice if people in positions of influence in city governments could place well-deserved value on what a community has to offer musically to its members and do its best (through all the media) to get the message out that classical musicians are an asset to a community?

5 comments:

jonathanbrodie said...

Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking essay. Not only was it provocative, but it was astute and rang true.

This especially caught my eye:

"But because of these technologies there is a great deal of room for amateur music making (and amateur music making at its highest level) to grow and continue to enhance our lives.”

True ....and thus cause to be optimistic about the future of western “art music” or "classical music” (interesting that after living with it, day in, day out for a good part of my life, I’m now less and less sure of what to call it.)

I’m optimistic because I think that the amateur part of music making is the best part. In my own experience, many memorable moments have come from the professional …but the life-changing and sublime memories have come from the amateur times: the collegiums, the gamba consorts, the evenings of 18th and 19th century recreational chamber music.

In a few days it will be one of the Brahms sextets…I can’t wait! Would I feel this way about a a professional job? I doubt it.

To my students, I am starting to communicate more and more the idea that being a competent and cultivated amateur musician is a worthy goal. They too have changed over the years. My first students treated the weekly lesson much like I did when i was a kid and went to Mr. Bodendorfer.. It was the centerpiece of the week. I never missed and I had the time to be prepared. How things have changed! The music lesson is now only one of many pedagogical and sport occasions of the week.

I save my frustration now only for when the busy schedules prevent a young person from taking lessons. But as long they do make time for a viola lesson (somehow squeezed in-between soccer, swim team, chess club, lacross, Cross Country) I see reason for optimism.

in short: Where there’s viola lessons…there’s hope!

David Wolfson said...

It may simply be that the era of the professional musician is coming to a close. But there was music long before there were professional musicians, and there will be music as long as there are human beings. As you say, being involved in music-making at a fairly high level is easier than ever before, and for more people. I'm not sure I hold out as much hope for community music-making as you do, since communities of various sorts are as much endangered species as orchestras; but music itself can be a raison d'etre for a community.

One other thought: while the percentage of the population that is interested in "classical" music has decreased, I bet the total numbers are up, simply because the population has increased so much. Next time a piece of mine is played on a concert with an audience of twenty or fewer, I'll think to myself,"I bet this is more people than first heard such-and-such a Haydn quartet."

Anonymous said...

You write, "When I was growing up I thought of paying money to study with someone as an investment in gaining enough technique and musical insight to do well in the profession of music."

An anecdote: While adjudicating a competition, I wanted to suggest to a few in the first round to take up another field rather than pursue music as a profession for the most obvious reasons, and the academics on the panel were outraged, upset that I should suggest such a heresy. The simple fact is that professional slots for musicians are more today than in decades past, in spite of ecnomic downturns, but the competition is ever greater and skill levels ever higher. Thus, to suggest the constituency of some music faculty is made up of never-to-be working musicians is simply a threat to them and their positions. But what of the all-too-many students who will never earn a living wage in the field their teachers encouraged them to follow? To that particular panel and competition, I was not invited back, as you might imagine. Out od curiosity, I looked over the last couple of seasons of contest winners to find most seeking employment as teachers, not performers.

You wirte, "Wouldn't it be nice if wealthy people could consider giving money to musical organizations that continue to promote community music and if there could be music-related jobs created so that musicians could subsidize their musical "habits" by getting paid to work for the cause of community music?"

Most assuredly. The question is where are these wealthy people, and why should so many give to promote music when they are under attack anyway for their wealth, even when largely philanthropic. It seems that populist politics mixes well with the notion of "community music," but rich patrons generally do not. Given the hundreds of thousands of dollars going to stage hands at Carnegie Hall and the Met, as one example, why donate to the sustenance of other rich folks? When a stage carpenter can be "rich," who will "give" to Carnegie Hall except to place a name in a prominent place? And Carengie is no "community music" outlet, but a privileged and definitely upper crust operation. I'd say the modern poltical struggle against "the rich" bodes poorly for "the rich" being significantly concerned with "community music." Given the draw and demands for social justice of various flavors and sales pitches today, how does community music stack up? Perhaps a temporary loser?

But the crux of the matter is that classical music will survive, because it has, and those wonderful musical assumptions, freed from today's temporary worries, seem to skip like a flat stone across the ripples of time. Or so it seems to me.

Keep on composing, practicing, playing and writing. Against all seeming odds, it's a fabulous strategy. And certainly better than wringing hands which should be holding bow and fiddle.

Elaine Fine said...

Oh how I love these wonderful additions to the discussion! I share your consort and Brahms sentiments intimately (and I am deeply envious of your--probably current--Brahms Sextet feast), Jonathan. I "hear" your positive feelings about writing music that is played for small audiences, David, and I treasure all of your contributions, Anonymous.

jonathanbrodie said...

“Keep on composing, practicing, playing and writing. Against all seeming odds, it's a fabulous strategy. And certainly better than wringing hands which should be holding bow and fiddle.”

Rousing words…and sensible advice as well.

A similar strategy has been used successfully by a long-time friend of mine. I used to think of him merely as a musical dilettante, but over the years, have come to realize that his dilettantism may very well be, to use your words, a “fabulous strategy.”

Let us call him Cyrus.

Cyrus was (and, St. Cecilia be praised) still is, an unrepentant musical "jack-of-all-trades” He carries around with enthusiasm all the wonderful “baggage” that comes with music. No matter how scattered, he usually manages, by hook or by clef, to get that musical suitcase from one room to another.

What is this “baggage”?

He teaches music in a school, (that is his financial anchor…he always says that if you are going to be a dilettante, it helps not to be poor) he plays free-lance gigs, he can’t settle down to specialize in one musical genre because he says he loves them all. He has a rich musical social chamber music life. He dabbles in musical journalism, he listens obsessively to Monteverdi and Captain Beefheart (and everything in-between.) A good portion of his library is given over to books about music.

He would be the first to admit that he has paid a steep price for such a musical life-style. The main cost is that he certainly is no virtuoso. He is instead a competent player. I could, for example call on Cyrus to sub for me next Tuesday night and he would get through the Brahms Sextet just fine.

He always laments his lack of virtuosity; but he also ruminates that if he had pursued only that goal he might have ended up like one of those unfortunate souls being devoured by a musical instrument in H. Bosch’s "Garden of Earthly Delights”.

Take a look at the painting …it doesn’t look like much fun.

One of his favorite lines:

"Who wants to end up like that? I’d rather sit in the back of the viola section."

After many years I have come to believe that Cyrus's path is worth emulating. Every day, I feel I am getting closer to the summit, not of Mount Parnassus, but perhaps to a place perhaps not as dramatic, but in some ways, just as pleasant:

Mount Cyrus.

There are worse places.