Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Politics and Music

I learned early in my musical life that the popularity hierarchies that happen among children in grade school are not very different from the ones that happen in junior high school, and that those are not very different from the popularity hierarchies that happen in adulthood, except that children are relatively powerless, and adults have access to as much power as they are capable of seeking (and by whatever means).

When my father was thinking about leaving his position in the Boston Symphony for a position in academia, he made a remark about trading orchestra politics for university politics. He decided to remain in Boston. University politics involve a greater number of people and a greater number of players, and in university faculty life people do not (usually) come together with a common goal several times per week. University life is often fragmented (or factionalized), while musical life has constant benefits that keep its participants believing in the greater common goal of the organization. Both environments can be fiercely competitive and can involve tremendous egos and tremendous sense of privilege, and both environments are highly selective. Both environments do beneficial things for people who participate in their "product" (audiences and students), but teeming under the surface of both kinds of institutions is a layer of very thick politics.

People talked about how Juilliard was "so political" while I was a student there. I didn't see it at the time, but I was young and naïve. I was also the daughter of an important musician, so people were often nice to me because of that fact.

There were people who hung out in the orchestra manager's office, and I noticed that those were the people who got the better orchestral placements. I wondered if I should hang out in his office too, but I didn't like the orchestra manager, and I didn't particularly like the people who hovered around him. I didn't get the best orchestral placements. I actually got the worst ones. I thought it had something to do with my playing, so I tried practicing more. That didn't seem to do anything.

One thing I learned at Juilliard was that if you wanted something you had to go after it, as though it was your right to have it. My time at Juilliard coincided with a time in my life where I was trying to explore much larger issues like truth, beauty, and the "why" of music in addition to the "how." I am grateful for the library and am grateful for my college-educated friends who introduced me to poems, plays, and novels that were appropriate in my quest.

Just like a child wants to find people to play with (and when I was a child I wanted to find people to pretend with), musicians in conservatories want to find people to play music with. They want to have a "group" that serves as a kind of an island of "we" amid a sea of "I"s. String players could break out in groups of four and be completely happy. Wind players, not so much.

Don't get me wrong: I did find some wonderful people to play with at Juilliard, and I did have a few excellent musical experiences, but for whatever reason (in retrospect perhaps a mixture of lack of awareness and disgust), I didn't fit into the political hierarchy.

Now, at a distance of 40 years, I see that many of the people I knew who had the ability to play the political games necessary to find themselves in positions of power and influence in music are in positions of power and influence (I'm not naming names). A few made it there by virtue of excellent playing and teaching, and others made it there by other means.

I find myself wondering about my voice in relation to the political part of the musical world and how little input I have in it. And then I wonder about my voice in relation to the politics of the university in my small town, and I realize that I can certainly say what is on my mind, but I ultimately have no bearing on what happens. I have one vote which I have every reason to believe is counted accurately in my city (I know the people who work at the polling places, and I have every reason to trust them). Having a minority opinion in a rather conservative congressional district gives me the satisfaction of having my voice heard, but it doesn't do anything, at this point, to change anything.

I find myself questioning why national politics should be any different from the Juilliard-level politics I witnessed around the orchestra manager's office. The stakes are different, but the attitude towards using favors to pool power is the same. In the political world people are rewarded for going after what they feel they deserve, even if they are despicable people. Consider most of the high-profile sex scandals that people have gotten away with in political life.

(People have gotten away with similar behavior in high-profile musical life as well, but it doesn't make headlines. Notice that this only appears a parenthetical statement at the end of a post on a blog devoted to music. I'm not naming names, but I could.)

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