Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Musing on "Millennial" Musicians

I watched a segment of 60 minutes on Sunday that concerned the generation of people born during the 1980s and 1990s called the Millennial Generation or Generation Y. Yes, Michael and I fit into the demographic of "echo boomer" parents: we were born at the tail end of the "Baby Boom," our children (who are in college) use the appropriate technology, and grew up watching and believing Mister Rogers when he told them that "people can like you just the way you are." When I was growing up as a baby boomer, I watched Mister Rogers once in a while, but I didn't watch him every day, or even in color. I actually didn't like the show because I resented the character of Lady Elaine. Miss Jane on Romper Room never said my name, and none of my peers were named Elaine, but Mister Rogers gave my name to a character that was ugly and mean. I took it as a personal offense. It took years to desensitize me.

Anyway, back to the point of this post, millennial musicians. I, as a late string bloomer, have enjoyed the opportunity to play with young people as colleagues. My technique on the violin when I was in my 30s didn't hold a candle to the technical abilities of the teenage stand partners I would sit with in my community orchestra. I had utmost respect for children who could play in tune and with a good sound. I still do. When I play chamber music with people old enough to be my own children, I think of them as musical equals. I really enjoy it when people who are old enough to be my parents think of me as a musical equal when we are playing together. Music, unlike most things in life, has a way of eliminating generational differences.

This "millennial" generation of musicians seems to have pretty much the same kinds of concerns as the musicians of the "boomer" generation I grew up with. We are all faced with the same kinds of phrasing questions rhythmic problems, and physical concerns. There are differences, though, and I think of the differences as benefits.

Growing up in a system that boosts self-esteem helps prepare musicians for the kind of constant competition (and constant failure) that is the "currency" of finding a place in the musical world. Nobody can stand up and play for a group of people without a strong sense of self, even if it is a sense of self that is in constant need of reinforcement. When I was approaching adulthood, I knew a great many excellent musicians who were fine and well-respected teachers. Very few of them were "nurturing." Many of them, the ones who cared about their students at all, were downright intimidating, and as young people we had to be prepared to face them week after week. We lived in a kind of fear that we wouldn't ever be good enough to please our teachers. The generation of teachers teaching the now "millennial" musicians is a nurturing generation. Perhaps they don't want to repeat the cycle of intimidation that they experienced from their teachers, or, perhaps the older ones have softened over time. Students now confide in their teachers, and as a result, they develop a kind of musical support system that will help them through the struggles of trying to make a living as a musician. Students who are in colleges and conservatories now expect their private teachers to act as counselors and advisers, and those teachers are usually very willing to do everything they can for their students.

I contrast this with the behavior of one of my teachers who told me that I needed to make my own way in music. When I asked this teacher if s/he thought I had any talent, that teacher's response was that I should see a psychiatrist. Being a good student, I took that advice to heart, and spent most my sessions questioning why this teacher would either not show up for lessons, or run out of time when it was my turn to play.

People do have to create their own musical opportunities now. Getting into a symphony orchestra is only one possible (or nearly-impossible) career path for a young musician. Young people know that the marketing skills they must develop in order to survive (particularly using technology to their advantage) as musicians can easily be translated into other fields of work that can supplement their musical habits. Young musicians are aware of how difficult it is to have a career as a soloist or a chamber musician, but many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to have one.

The "playing field" is different. It is no longer male dominated, and it is no longer geographically limited. There are always new areas of specialization that people can carve out for themselves, and the quality of playing around the world has made its way into cities that used to be considered musical backwaters. There are image-making and enhancing tools that anyone can use, and the publicity tools that were once reserved for managers can be at the fingertips of anyone with the knowledge and desire to use them. It is easer to get in touch with people (which is one of the most difficult problems for musicians). Cell phones, the web, and e-mail have revolutionized communication in the business of music as well as the business of everything else.

I notice that a great many "millennial" musicians are excited about playing new music, which makes me particularly happy since I am a composer. I also notice that they accept a wide range of musical "styles" as acceptable and desirable to play. When I was in my 20s there were a relative handful of "new music" people and "old music" people. There were also people who, for a time, only played music that was very old or music that was very new, but these were considered "fringe" groups. I now notice, among the 20-something musicians I encounter, that all music is treated as equal music, to be evaluated on its playability and its own merits. Beethoven is still Beethoven, Mozart is still Mozart, and Bach is still Bach, but I notice that this generation has less of a preoccupation with the desire to label something as great or revolutionary, and more of a preoccupation with trying to simply play well.

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