Sunday, April 12, 2015

Robert Freeman's The Crisis of Classical Music in America: a minority opinion

I'm surprised to find almost nothing but praise on the Internet for Robert Freeman's 2014 The Crisis of Classical Music in America

Robert Freeman was educated at the Milton Academy, Harvard, and Princeton, taught at Princeton and MIT, and served as an administrator at Princeton, Eastman, New England Conservatory, and the University of Texas. Part memoir and part handbook, the book has chapters aimed towards specific audiences: parents of young musicians, current college students, college faculty, deans, provosts and presidents, and foundation directors. There is some excellent advice about ways of making orchestral concerts more accessible to audiences, and some of Freeman's examples could serve as inspiration for organizations that are suffering economically; but he does not address what seems to be the largest crisis facing institutions of higher learning in America: the treatment of adjunct faculty.

Musicians have been working as academic adjuncts for a long time, but now that other fields of study rely on more and more adjunct faculty members to teach courses, the problem is no longer one that only concerns the state of music in colleges and universities. Freeman's paragraph about what he calls "junior faculty" makes his vantage point clear:
A special faculty problem, I think, is the difference between institutions like Harvard and Princeton, which most often choose senior faculty from the outside, as a means of ensuring quality, and institutions like Texas and Michigan, where the promotion rate for assistant professors approximates two thirds. In the latter universities, senior faculty treat junior faculty as a human resource to be developed and nurtured, in the former as a temporary resource to be exploited. It makes no sense to turn a promising young colleague into a personal friend if he is about to be exiled to what one thinks of too easily as the minor leagues.
To this I utter a resounding "Huh?" If Texas and Michigan are the "minor leagues," and the people teaching in those schools are in "exile," I hate to think about how he would regard the smaller state schools in America where the state of music really is in crisis.

I live in a college town where music majors are no longer required to take courses in musical analysis (such a course is no longer offered). Most of the members of the music faculty do not have tenure-track positions, and all the required music history courses for music majors are shouldered by a single underpaid instructor who is grateful to have the position. All of the music appreciation classes are taught by applied faculty, and the applied faculty members who teach those courses are more accomplished instrumentalists and better teachers, for the most part, than the people who had tenure-track jobs teaching their instruments a dozen years ago.

I share Freeman's belief that music students should study humanities, but I find his statement about hiring people to teach courses outside of music suspect:
The continuing national oversupply of very gifted PhDs in the humanities made it relatively easy to hire very good people in this area, one that I thought should be strong enough to persuade Eastman students that the abilities to read with nuance and to write and speak with power were important skills for a modern musician.
Does "relatively easy" mean inexpensive and without commitment?

Robert Freeman's father was a member of the Boston Symphony, and Robert enjoyed a childhood filled with music making at the highest level. I also grew up as a child of the Boston Symphony member (one generation later), and I attended an elite musical institution (Juilliard), but my adult view of the world of music is informed from what I see and hear around me in 21st-century America, where I live and work as a musician. Freeman's elevated vantage point makes me feel uneasy.

Perhaps Freeman is able to speak to some the problems facing some of the elite musical institutions in America, but I can't seem to find much in this book that resonates with my experience. Perhaps a truer title for the book would have been "The Problems Elite Musical Institutions Face in America," but then it probably wouldn't sell.


Anonymous said...

Something about Freeman makes me think he is a thoughtful and thought-provoking pompous ass. But as the book notes, 30,000 collegiate music degrees a year says 300,000 over a decade and, since the 60s which he mentions, this that means over a million degrees for precious few well-paying jobs, like the ones he held as an academic now peddling his book crying "Crisis!" Maybe there are too many college music courses? My own graduate professor in theory said so often.

"Classical music isn't dead! It's just too expensive." So said Slipped Disc in January of this year. In 2014 Slate published, " Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course." The New Yorker tried to answer Slate a week later, arguing the opposite in "The Fat Lady Is Still Singing." Huffington Post published the question, "Is Opera Dead?" In it, Alan Fletcher wrote, "I think, in an age of sound bites, tweets, ill-informed criticism, multi-tasking, and ever-decreasing attention spans, that an art form that stands instead for deep listening, repeated engagement, willingness to risk the experimental, recognition that to be prepared and thoughtful is a precious and rewarding thing -- that art form may prove, as it has for many centuries, very lively and hardy. And enduring." Matthew Kessel began his Observer article as, "The stale idea that classical music is dead has been repeated so many times that it’s not really worth being bothered by anymore."

I think Kessel trumps Freeman, hands down. In a couple hundred years, I wager Bach will be around and still amazing audiences. So many musicologists' books will have been discarded from college libraries for remaining too frequently unread. Nope, there is no crisis in classical music in America. There are many crises, but none of them can be traced back to -- an advertisement for your blog -- "musical assumptions." They will be traced to presidents, chancellors, deans and provosts, and a host of university level administrators and then down into the same sort running the K-12 systems. The crisis in collapsing symphonies and bankrupt opera companies is one of financial mismanagement and those once-clever deficits which crush. Classical music will survive, because it survived Sousa's "The Menace of Mechanical Music," as it is surviving YouTube and Petrucci and other new methods of delivering music to us, the unwashed masses.

Somehow, I refused to be worried because my and I hope your musical assumptions are that classical music has merit which is deep and enduring in a time when "hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go" has done nothing to advance our culture.

This blog has advanced something of classical music via the dreaded YouTube videos, as via PDF-rich Petrucci, not to mention cloud data availability.

"The stale idea that classical music is dead has been repeated so many times that it’s not really worth being bothered by anymore."

Anonymous said...

The purpose of my book is to provoke a national discussion on how we teach music. Alan Fletcher's comment is very well taken. He writes, "In an age of sound bites, tweets, ill-informed criticism, multi-tasking, and ever-decreeing attention spans, an art form that stands instead for deep listening, repeated engagement, willingness to risk the experimental, recognition that to be prepared and thoughtful is a precious and rewarding thing, may prove very lively and hardy." But then we need to see to it that our teaching of music reflects these values as a central part of daily regimen.
Elaine Fine is right, too, when she complains that our over-production of PhDs in the social sciences and humanities undermines the employability of too many able young people who serve as underpaid adjuncts, in order not to bankrupt our students. Too many music schools, with vastly differing resources, are trying to emulate Juilliard, while too many universities are trying to be Harvard. Too many orchestras are being obliged to cut the number of their players, while too many not-for-profits are spending more than 5% of the market values of their endowments, all warnings of a bleak future for the music we all love unless we can decrease supply of performers and increase demand for music.
Robert Freeman