Why I’m writing these posts about SHIFT *a festival featuring orchestras from around the U.S., coproduced in Washington by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, with all tickets affordably priced at $25):
Because the festival wasn’t marketed well, wasn’t promoted well. And will come back next year, so a look at its problems could be helpful.
And because the mistakes are instructive. Others can learn from them.
Use common sense.
Think really hard about how your marketing will look to your target audience.
Plan your marketing when you plan your programs. Not because you only want to do popular programs, that will sell tickets easily. But because you need to know where you stand, how many tickets the programs you plan are likely to sell. If you don’t like the answer, you can adjust the programs, adjust their marketing, move performances to a smaller space, or — if you can afford this — accept fewer ticket sales.
But at least you’ll know. And you’ll have a chance, long in advance, to set things up as strongly as possible.
In an earlier post, I asked if SHIFT was a success or a failure.
Looking only at the concerts, and leaving aside an assortment of community events, this is what we saw. Four orchestras played. One nearly sold out the more than 2000 seats in the Kennedy Center concert hall. Two filled about half the seats. And the fourth sold way less than half.
That’s not a success, even if half-full houses seem to be the norm in DC these days. But if one concert nearly sold out — and the audience cheered — then there’s hope!
So call SHIFT a work in progress.
One thing that failed
And this, I fear, is a biggie. There was no advance buzz. As far as I can tell, people in the Washington, DC classical music world weren’t excited. They weren’t talking about SHIFT. If you asked them, they’d say they’d go to the concerts. But there didn’t seem to be much interest.
Worse than that, there was, if anything, a kind of anti-buzz — skepticism about the festival, doubts that it would succeed.
The reason for the anti-buzz was very clear. SHIFT was positioned as a continuation of the Spring for Music festival in New York, which brought orchestras from around the country to Carnegie Hall, with all tickets $25.
And which was perceived as a failure.
So why continue the failure in Washington?
More on that next week. About how it was a promotional blunder to link SHIFT — or let it be linked — to Spring for Music. And how that could have been avoided.
But there was another reason SHIFT didn’t get much buzz
And that’s because — quite apart from any Spring for Music link — it wasn’t conceived clearly, and it wasn’t promoted well. Starting with its name, SHIFT.
What does that even mean?
Contrast Nissan’s famous “Shift” ad campaign. I’d see their commercials, and the meaning of shift was always clear. It was used in many ways. Like “Shift the way you move.” I get that. This was a car commercial. Nissan has changed, the commercial implied. Now it has great new cars. So if we drive one, we’ll shift — drive differently, move through life differently.
And then of course there’s a subliminal reference to something we all do when we drive, shifting gears.
But “SHIFT: A festival of orchestras”? What does “shift” tell us there?
Nothing that’s immediately clear.
Deciphering the word
I think I know what “SHIFT” is trying to say. Orchestras have changed. They’re energized, vital, doing new things. They’re alive in their communities.
Or, in other words, they’ve shifted, and we should shift what we think of them.
But how does SHIFT, as the name of a festival, without any further context, tell us that? There’s a thought process going on, but we don’t know what it is. We have to guess on our own.
So of course the festival didn’t generate buzz. We didn’t know what it meant, what it was supposed to accomplish. Or why we should care.
Which would have been easy to fix! Just tell us what’s going on. In direct, lively words we can all understand.
A modest suggestion
For instance — as I said in my earlier post — they could have called the festival “Orchestras Unleashed.”
Let’s not argue over whether that’s a great name. Or whether it described what the SHIFT producers had in mind.
Just consider its virtues (or the virtues of another name like it).
It’s clear. It promises something. Promises something we might like to see. People in the DC classical music world, I think, could have gotten behind it.
Plus, special bonus — it might have helped WPA and the Kennedy Center plan their festival more sharply. Much easier to build on a clear idea than a vague one.
Next, the buzz killer — linking SHIFT to Spring for Music.
Re the SHIFT idea:
Maybe WPA and the Kennedy Center wanted to do the kind of hip marketing Apple is famous for.
But Apple’s ad campaigns are simple, and hit home very strongly. Take what I think is the most famous one, “Think different.” When it launched in 1997, anybody buying a computer knew what it meant. “Be different — buy a Mac! Everyone else has a PC.”
Not that those words ever had to be used. The message didn’t have to be spelled out. And was reinforced by photos of artists, thinkers, and social figures — people like Maria Callas, Einstein, and Gandhi — who really did think different(ly).
Resuming my blog after a gap…
I’m sorry that I said some provocative things about the SHIFT festival in DC, and then fell silent.
I hadn’t planned that. But life intervened, taking me by surprise, when my schedule got crazy.
My bad. I apologize.
And I also apologize for something off-base I said in my SHIFT post:
Special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.
Yes, the performance by the North Carolina Symphony did sell fewer tickets than the other SHIFT concerts (by quite a lot). And they did play a Mason piece.
But wrong to suggest that Mason’s name didn’t sell tickets! How could I know that? Maybe sales would have been lower still if his name hadn’t been on the program.
Apologies, again, for going off track this way.
But there’s another issue
This is crazy.
Here — from the joint Kennedy Center/Washington Performing Arts web page for SHIFT — is the PR blurb for the North Carolina concert:
The orchestra offers an innovative program, deeply evocative of North Carolina, represented in particular by four composers with ties to the state: Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Mason Bates, and Robert Ward.
Caroline Shaw gets props (as she should) as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Mason gets nothing. He’s just a name on a list.
Even though he’s the Kennedy Center’s own guy! Personally chosen (I’d assume) by K Center president Deborah Rutter, after the success she had with him as composer in residence when she ran the Chicago Symphony.
Don’t they want to give their own guy props?
Don’t they want to be courteous to him, and mention that he’s an important figure at the place where the concert will be given?
Wouldn’t they hope Mason’s name might sell some tickets, if they reminded people in DC that he’s on the home team, a composer whose music they maybe have heard and liked?
And it gets worse
Aren’t those groups collaborating with the Kennedy Center?
The orchestra writes a longish paragraph about Mason, praising him as the second most performed living composer in the US. But doesn’t say he’s composer in residence.
WPA gives a special nod to Caroline Shaw. Pulitzer Prize winner! She’ll make a “special appearance” at the concert! Mason’s name isn’t even mentioned.
(And, for even greater craziness, the email doesn’t say that Caroline’s “special appearance” will be as a violin soloist, playing her own piece. Sorry for the emphasis, but…they didn’t think to publicize Caroline as soloist? Nor did they on the SHIFT webpage, which I quoted above. What word would you use for that?)
How could this happen?
These look like silly mistakes.
But maybe there’s some deeply overthought reason for not mentioning Mason’s DC title.
“Let’s see…if we give him props for his K Center work, we’re putting the K Center ahead of WPA and the orchestra, because he’s not composer in residence for them…”
Which might just possibly make sense at 3 AM, to people with deeply furrowed brows. But then you fall into something else that seems wrong, promoting Caroline more than Mason. And you look bad to any informed observer on the outside.
I fear this is one more example.
Did Mason’s name sell tickets to the North Carolina concert?
I’d think the Kennedy Center would want to know. Would want to know what impact their composer in residence has in their city. Selling tickets isn’t the only way to measure that, but it’s one way.
And, more generally, I hope they and WPA did audience studies for all the SHIFT concerts. What made people choose which one to go to? What made them want to go to SHIFT at all?
Having that data would — to put it mildly — help WPA and Kennedy Center plan the continuation of the festival next year.
I’m late in getting to this, thanks to some traveling. But I’m asking a vital question. Both because the SHIFT festival was a major move for two top DC institutions. And because the marketing lessons here can be helpful to everyone.
What SHIFT is:
A festival of orchestras, coproduced in DC by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts.
Four concerts. Called SHIFT, because (like the festival it’s partly modeled on, Spring For Music in New York) it’s designed to show that orchestras are different now.
Or, to quote the festival’s program book, to show
≥the dynamism of four exceptional American orchestras…[how] through creative engagement and artistic daring they’re distinguishing themselves as leaders…[how they’re] SHIFTING our perceptions of what an orchestra is by doing amazingly innovative things in their communities…
Plus more, scattered through separate sentences floating in a full page of fine print. All, for me, s little gushy. Can’t believe the purpose of the festival couldn’t have been said more strongly in one clear paragraph.
But later for that. The festival wants to shift our perceptions of what American orchestras are.
So in more detail…
SHIFT was four concerts, given at the end of March and beginning of April. All tickets were $25, and the orchestras encouraged to do programming they loved, programming typical of them at their best, programming that would be key to them and their dreams.
The orchestras were the Boulder (CO) Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and The Knights (a Brooklyn collective born from changes in classical music).
And one measure of success…
…is of course the box office.
The Boulder Philharmonic had a triumph, nearly filling the Kennedy Center concert hall (more than 2000 seats), with an audience that roared with delight.
The North Carolina Symphony — doing music by composers with ties to North Carolina — had rows of gaping, empty seats, the house not nearly half full.
And The Atlanta Symphony (doing a full-evening oratorio by Christopher Theofanidis) and The Knights (with a program featuring the very sweet and very capable San Francisco Girls Chorus) fell in the middle. They drew what seems to be emerging as the new normal for orchestra concerts in DC — houses more or less half full.
There were also what the festival called “residencies,” community and outreach events. But later for those. The concerts of course were the main events. So did they fail or succeed?
A little of both, it seems clear. So for future planning — SHIFT will come back next year — it’s important to look at the biggest success and the biggest failure.
Why did Boulder sell so well, and North Carolina so poorly?
I should say, full disclosure, that I’m not the ultimate expert. I couldn’t even go to three of the concerts. Family obligations and my Juilliard teaching kept me away from Boulder, North Carolina, and Atlanta. Though I did go to the Knights, a sweet but oddly disjointed affair, which I’ll talk about in another post.
But I’ve talked to people variously involved. And just by using common sense I can make a guess about Boulder and North Carolina.
To explain my guess, I’ll do an elevator pitch for those concerts.
First Boulder. They played three contemporary pieces, all about nature (about Rocky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the prairie). The composers were Stephen Lias, Jeff Midkiff, Steve Heitzen, not names that I’d guess would be known to many of us in the DC classical world.
But clearly the names didn’t matter, partly because hardly any classical composer has an audience, and partly because of everything else about the concert.
What mattered, I’m guessing, was first the nature theme, which of course resonates wonderfully with Boulder, a city in the Rocky Mountains, whose people famously love the outdoors.
So the elevator pitch is easy to make:
Mountains! Nature! Video! Acrobats!
Cut to North Carolina. They did two works by the dean of North Carolina composers, the late Robert Ward, also not a name to strike any sparks, though he’s known for his early 1960s opera The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play.
Then they did pieces by Mason Bates, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all of whom turn out to have a North Carolina connectionI. Who knew? Of course they’re best known as leading younger composing stars (to whatever extent, without much audience, any classical composer can be called a star).
Certainly they’re bigger names than Robert Ward, or the composers Boulder played.
But look how little that mattered. Composers really don’t have an audience.
(And, special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.)
So back to the elevator pitches. This is what North Carolina’s would have to be:
Music by North Carolina composers.
I don’t know in any detail how these concerts were marketed. But, whatever was done, Boulder gave much more to work with.
Not that the North Carolina music might not have been worthy. In fact, some of the buzz I picked up called this the best concert, musically, of the festival.
But it’s not promotable as North Carolina music. To be brutally honest, no one — or anyway no one outside North Carolina — is likely to care. North Carolina composers! Doesn’t light any sparks.
Looking toward next year
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that we need acrobats to sell tickets to orchestras. If that’s true, we’re dead. There are many other ways to make an orchestra concert seem interesting.
So of course this was an extreme comparison. But sometimes extreme examples are helpful to clarify things at the start of a discussion.
They make the basic point crystal clear. And the basic point here is that people need a reason to come to a concert. A reason that echoes beyond the walled city of classical music.
So since SHIFT returns next year, here’s a suggestion for my friends involved in producing it. Do an elevator pitch for each proposed event. At first do it just for yourselves, not for public consumption.
But take the pitch seriously. And be merciless about the results. If, for any event, the best pitch you come up with — looked at in the cold light of reality — won’t sell tickets, don’t do the concert!
Plan something you can sell. Or at least put the concert with a smaller draw in a smaller hall.
And yes, this isn’t how classical music usually works. I’m suggesting you should avoid the time-honored classical thing, which is to plan the concerts your heart yearns for artistically, and only then think how you’ll market them. What you love may not be what the world loves.
Think of marketing right from the start, so at the very least you won’t be surprised.
(Cautionary example! In a previous post I talked about how smart Zuill Bailey is when he books classical soloists and chamber groups. Always he’s thinking how many tickets each artist or ensemble will sell. He mentioned another chamber music presenter who doesn’t think about that. Someone who books the artists they want, pays the fee the artist normally gets, then accepts whatever the ticket sales are. “Why do you do that?” Zuill asked, explaining his more grounded approach. The other presenter, baffled, said, “Hasn’t it always been done that way?” No wonder classical music is in trouble.)
Wouldn’t help to make the NC elevator pitch “Exciting new music.”
First because all the SHIFT events featured new music. And also because not many people equate new classical music with excitement.
But, above anything else, this pitch won’t work because just saying something is exciting doesn’t make it so.
Think of the orchestras that — haplessly — use exclamation points when they tweet upcoming events. “Tomorrow’s concert — Mozart’s G minor symphony!” Routine announcement. The exclamation point doesn’t make it any less routine. .
If you want people to believe something is exciting, say something — something specific — that’s exciting about it.
Some conceptual problems.
Here — from the cover of the SHIFT program book — is some marketing language. Prominent marketing language. The first thing you see, in big type, when you look at the program book.
SHIFT your expectations.
SHIFT your senses.
SHIFT your spirit.
What does that mean? What’s it even about? If you know the backstory — if you know the festival is all about changes in orchestras — then, fine, you’ll understand what you’re reading.
But if you don’t know that? Look at Nissan’s “shift” advertising, which I believe is the most famous marketing campaign ever to focus on the word “shift.”
You watch their car commercials, and you hear about the car. Only at the end, do they tell you to shift your thinking — after they’ve given you reasons to do it.
That’s how really top marketers work.
And anyway, the whole orchestra SHIFT promotion, starting with the very word SHIFT, and continuing down through those words on the program book cover…it’s all a bit vague, overthought, overhyped.
Why not just one strong, clear sentence, driving home what the festival is? Why couldn’t they call it “Orchestras Unleashed”? (Or something like that.)
To me that’s far more effective. A far better elevator pitch. Far more likely to get people to come.
Two things new to me, in my El Paso trip, when I visited UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso.
First, it was a family trip, They invited both Anne and me (Anne of course being my wife Anne Midgette, classical music critic at the Washington Post).
Often people who invite her places would love me to come, and when I’m invited, I’m often asked if she can be there. We love working together, but it’s not usually possible, above all because we have a five year-old son. No one to take care of him while we’re gone.
But this time — when they invited us jointly — they and we made it work. We brought Rafa along, and people at UTEP (bless them) provided enough childcare to make the visit work. It was good childcare, so we all had fun, Rafa included.
We’re open to other invitations!
And then my talk
The centerpiece of the visit for me was the talk I gave, on the university’s Centennial Lecture series.
So, well, I got a standing ovation, which I don’t think has happened before. I think talks I’ve given have been well received, but not like this.
There’s no recording, but I’m writing out what I said, and will share it here. Of course I talked about the future of classical music, with a focus on how we all — all of us in the classical music field — need to change.
Often I’ve said (those of you who’ve read me for a while have seen this) that classical music hasn’t kept up with the rest of our culture. The culture has changed, classical music hasn’t. That’s why classical music is in trouble.
But this time, instead of just saying that, and giving examples, I thought I’d make the point musically.
So I assembled a soundscape. Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Björk’s “An Echo, A Stain.” The first two being pop songs with a harsh edge, the third a pop song that sounds like contemporary classical music.
Not that all pop music has an edge, but much does. And an edgy sound — dissonant and dark — is something you can’t escape in the soundscape of our wider culture.
Even straightahead rock songs, with simple chords, sound harsher than classical music with the same chords would. That’s because the voices are rougher than classical voices, and because rock instruments — especially electric guitars — produce such a wild tangle of overtones that simple chords aren’t simple anymore.
Thus Bob Dylan, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” can sing notes from a dominant chord over tonic harmony, and tonic-note chords over dominant harmony. And it doesn’t sound wrong at all.
On his early records, he’ll sometimes play harmonica chords that don’t fit the harmony in his guitar. But again it doesn’t sound wrong.
And now for some classical
Having established all this, I played the start of the Brahms Second Symphony, in an embracing performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Compared to the pop songs, it came from another world. A peaceful world, reassuring and rational.
My point was made. No wonder people think classical music is a refuge from modern life.
You may not get the full force of my soundscape if you follow my links. For the pop songs, you get videos, and the visuals might mute the harsh edge of the sound.
And then the Brahms — a live performance — starts with the orchestra warming up, followed by Bernstein’s entrance, of course with applause. So you don’t get the the immediate pure, gentle sound of the symphony, as people did at my talk.
Still, I hope my soundscape comes to life.
What did I learn in El Paso?
At the University of Texas in that town. Or UTEP, as it’s branded itself. During my visit last week.
Of course (as I said in my last post) I learned what a special place the university is, with a mission to educate everyone from the poor and working-class, mostly Latino community in its town.
In the musical part of my visit…
I learned many things. How Zuill Bailey, the cellist — UTEP faculty member, head of the school’s new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship, and Artistic Director of the chamber music festival El Paso Pro Musica — visits, over and over, local schools.
I went with him to a high school and an elementary school. The focus at the high school was kids who play music, and might want to do it professionally.
The focus at the elementary school…well, this was a special place. A special charter school, for kids from families so poor, I was told, that there might be nothing to eat at home.
The kids wore uniforms, were attentive, seemed smart and fun. Such a sense of aspiration in the air.
For the high school kids…
…a special pleasure was Trio Jinx, Peabody graduate students in residence at UTEP. They were also great with the younger kids, easy, fun, approachable, playing irresistible music.
But something special they could give: They’re early in their careers. Which, as Zuill said at the high school, meant they were just a few years ahead of the students. And would be able to relate closely to where the students wanted to go with their music.
Likewise for UTEP students, of course. Very wise to have them there.
And then Zuill
Fascinating to hear him talk, as we drove around with him or hung out, about how he runs four chamber music festivals.
He’s very business-oriented. No question about his musical knowledge, of course, or the gorgeous sound he gets on his cello.
But I was struck by his realism, by his care for his bottom line. How after years of booking artists he knows how many tickets each will likely sell, and offers fees accordingly.
And of course can offer four bookings, not just one, Making gigs with him more attractive.
I’ve settled on the word “unworldly” to label how…well…impractical the classical music world can be. Putting artistry first, at whatever cost, and thinking it’s impure to focus on the money.
But since concerts do cost money, focusing on that makes them better. And easier for everyone. And more likely to survive.
I wonder whether independent festivals could do better if they band together. Which may be happening already. Can anyone enlighten me?
Next: things El Paso brought me personally
I could say many things about my two days last week at UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso. About the music department, about the new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. About Zuill Bailey, the cellist and UTEP faculty member, who’ll run the center. And whose entrepreneurial success in running four concert series makes him an ideal choice. Plus giving anyone else giving classical concerts a lesson in how to do it.
And about Trio Jinx, a flute/bass/violin-viola group from Peabody, who were in residence, and whose playing — of much more than classical music — I loved.
Or about how my wife Anne Midgette was invited there also, how this was the first business trip she and I have taken together in quite a while, how we brought Rafa, our five year-old son, and how much fun we all had.
And of course I could write about the talk I gave, for which I’m humbled to say I got a standing ovation.
But later for all that.
What I most took away…
…was what I learned about the university itself. Certainly one of the most inspiring stories in higher education. Impressive enough to get the long-serving UTEP president, Diana Natalicio, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Though she’s so down to earth I doubt she’d ever mention that she got such an honor. She seems about as straightforward as anyone I’ve ever met.
What’s amazing here is what Natalicio set as the university’s mission. And how successful that mission has been.
It’s so very simple. El Paso — which lies right on the border with Mexico — has a large Latino population, mostly working class, not wealthy.
In past generations, these people mostly didn’t go to college. The prevailing thought at the university was that they were destined for humbler lives, that they should learn trades, or get civil service jobs. That they weren’t college material.
The university’s mission was to change all that. To make it known that brains and ability are found everywhere. That a not wealthy Latino kid from El Paso can do just as well as anyone else, given the chance.
So these students were admitted, and given remedial classes if needed. And then got the same high-quality education as everyone else. With spectacular results, as measured by graduation rates and later achievement.
Which is especially impressive, because during this time the university also shot up academically, becoming a top-rank research institution. So the new students from El Paso were getting a really top-rank education.
When I learned all this I was thrilled. And inspired. Purely on human terms. Look what can be done, if you simply decide you’ll do it! I can only imagine how much work it took, how many minds had to be changed, both in the university and in the community.
Natalicio’s current goal is to develop El Paso economically. Not that it’s economically depressed. But the El Paso students who graduate have to go elsewhere for the jobs their education can get them. Why, Natalcio asks, shouldn’t there be jobs like that for them in their home town?
Of course this blog is supposed to be about music. But some things are more important.
For two days this week I’ll be at UTEP, the University of Texas in El Paso, helping to inaugurate a new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. And giving a talk I’m calling “How We Have to Change,” on Tuesday, April 4, at 4 PM, in the Undergraduate Learning Center. Come say hello if you’re there!
“We,” of course, is those of us who work in classical music. What we have to do differently — how the enterprise of classical music has to change, — if classical music is going to be reborn,.and thrive.
Worth a thousand words
One thing I’m going to try, which I’ve never done before — offer a musical landscape of our current culture. Maybe we don’t realize how bracing, how dissonant, these days, a lot of music outside classical is. Indie rock, EDM, and hiphop songs, movie and TV soundtracks. To go from these to something that by comparison is melodious, and in no complicated way beautiful, like a Chopin Nocturne, or the start of the Brahms Second Symphony — that’s to move from one universe to another.
So what exactly do we offer people, when we hope they’ll be the future classical music audience? On a purely gut level, purely instinctive, what does the sound of classical music convey, heard against the background of the striving, active, bracing world so many of us live in?
Back to UTEP
Some thoughts about the new Entrepreneurship Center, as emailed to me by Steve Wilson, trombone professor and interim chair of the music department:
Our Center for Arts Entrepreneurship will officially begin in the Fall of 2017 with our cello professor, Zuill Bailey, as its Director. The CAE will serve as a hub for multidisciplinary work with the arts, provide community engagement opportunities for faculty and students, provide incentive grants for students and faculty to think outside the box and go beyond the traditional music school degree requirements, and provide courses in Arts Entrepreneurship for all those studying the arts.
So many conservatories, so many arts schools are going in this direction. Because some of the old ways of doing things — of presenting your art, of making an income — are drying up,. And because in our emerging new world, nobody knows what artists will do to survive.
Which we should understand is an opportunity, not a problem. Especially if you want to do something in your art that no one every did before. Something new and creative. Which means that you’ll be an entrepreneur. So if you know something about entrepreneurship, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Classical music…its role in our culture…that’s something I’ve pondered for a long time, and talked about often here.
My usual answer hasn’t been very positive. If classical music is going to focus on the past — as of course it still does; such a large percentage of performances are of music from past centuries — then is it really still art?
Art is a furnace
Art, I’d think, is stronger than focusing on the past. Should tell us things about who we are now, what’s going on in the world around us. Or, to use a phrase I love from the very end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Words of an artist. Swap out the now-loaded word “race,” substitute another one (culture, world, whatever) and what Joyce wrote still seems powerful.
Our deep consciousness (I like that better than conscience, though of course it has a different meaning) is forever changing, forever renewed, forever forged in new ways, both in the furnace of art and the furnace of life.
Hard to do that if you’re always returning to the past.
But now another view
And then I saw Manchester by the Sea, a masterpiece of film, nominated at the Oscars for best film, which it didn’t win, though it won for best screenplay and best actor.
In Manchester, people go through life hurt. Trying to make the best of it, falling back, picking themselves up, fighting over nothing because they can’t articulate the big things. So gripping. So real.
And in the film, classical music plays a role. We hear it on the soundtrack — meltingly beautiful old classical works — when the director, I’d guess, wants us to feel compassion for the people on the screen. When the pain is too great, when we need some consolation.
A deep calm
Classical music provides that, in the film. Goes to a depth the characters can’t reach, speaks without words of things they can’t get to.
I’m reminded of something often said by people with no deep classical music knowledge, but who like to listen to it — that they like it because it’s “calm.”
I respect that feeling, even while thinking that it leaves out so much that happens in classical pieces, and certainly takes them far from their creation. Beethoven’s music (an obvious example) didn’t seem calm at all to his contemporaries. Just the opposite, really. Often it seemed wild. Crazy. Disturbing.
And yet I understood that more from seeing Manchester. Classical music, as its role has evolved, really does seem to speak with a voice beyond time. Contemporary life can be jangling. As it was in past centuries, by the way, but that’s another conversation.
So by losing its roots, taking on a new existence in our time, classical music separates itself from the jangle, and brings consolation.
But then…once again…can it still be art? Is it still a furnace? I’d think our consciousness is formed in large part from the jangle. How else could it be our consciousness today?
And if classical music above all means consolation, how can that sustain the enterprise? The concert halls, the orchestras, the vast expense. Is all that just so we can be consoled?
And then why should it matter whether we play Beethoven or Debussy? I guess we’ll never play Xenakis.
But I’ll stop here. You get the point.
Quite a lively discussion in class this week, about how conservatories could change. One quick takeaway: That the Juilliard graduate students in my class would love to go to a school where the focus was on how students want to make music. And where music of all genres was talked about, taught, and played.
Here comes the ice cream!
But of the many ideas in the readings I gave them, and the videos I asked them to watch, there was one they most loved. An ideal music school “will have pour over coffee and ice cream readily available at all times. These things make people happy. Ice cream.”
So why did my students love this idea so much? You could say it’s frivolous, far less important than unleashing creativity, fostering student initiative, opening the doors to all the world’s music. Or anything else that seems crucial.
But I don’t think it’s trivial at all. It cuts to the heart of what goes on at so many schools. Focus on work, focus on careers, focus on practicing. Pressure.
So if a school gives students ice cream, that’s another message. Life is good! Have fun! Or, if you want to get formal, giving out ice cream strikes a blow for work/life balance, something all of us now are coming to understand is crucial for living well.
Giving out ice cream would say that the school cares for its students, loves them as whole human beings. And from that everything else could flow.
Elsewhere in the world…
As we talked about this, some of the students talked about tech companies, startups that make sure that working for them is fun.
One student had been in Google’s New York office. She wistfully said they had game rooms there. And massages!
And, you know…conservatories really should offer massages. Everyone at these schools knows how physically demanding it is to play an instrument, how there’s a danger (especially, I’d think, for string players) of repetitive strain injury.
So offer massages, all day long, to whoever might want them. Many students play for hours each day. Is this good for their bodies?
What a revelation these simple ideas are. How much good they could do. How much they could relieve the tension many students feel, with all eyes on them to see how they d.
Thanks, Ivan Trevino!
And, to conclude, here’s another idea he had. Open mic nights, where students can play. At Juilliard, as I’m sure at almost all conservatories, at least in the US, performances are formal. Produced by the school, following school guidelines.
How freeing, then — what a boost for students’ creativity, for their pure love of music — to have performances the students themselves are in charge of.
Where anything could happen. Where students could make any music they wanted, including — of course! — things the school doesn’t teach.
Here’s the curriculum for my course, where you’ll find the reading and videos I assigned the students for this class. Just scroll down to March 22.
And, related, because it’s fun…an annual event at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, where as a complement to an annual Bach festival, there’s also a Beatles festival. Where each year one the Beatles’ albums is given a complete live performance, by conservatory students and others. Here’s a video from a past year, with the school’s trumpet teacher nailing the trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.”
Last week, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, one of my students asked about art and commerce.
Where do they fit in classical music’s future? What roles will they play?
Questions like that often come up in my work. They’re often asked — though not, I think, by this student — with some suspicion. Art is good, commerce is bad. Art is pure, commerce is, well;, commercial.
Which of course is true. Though it’s also true that wonderful music can just as often go nowhere — meaning that hardly anyone hears it — because it’s not marketed well.
Taking this question seriously, as it deserves to be taken, I said we could picture art and commerce as a circle. Art on the top, commerce below.
You start with art. You’ve got wonderful music you want to make.
But no one knows about it! Nobody knows who you are. How do you get people to hear what you do, to come to your performances? How can your art make some income for you, so you can start to make a living from it?
That’s where commerce comes in. That’s where you (of someone working with you) needs business skills. That’s how you generate interest in your work. If you’re giving performances, that’s how you sell tickets. That’s how you generate income. So that, cross your fingers, someday you can make a living from music.
But now we go back to the top of the circle. Let’s say you’ve got great business skills. You’re getting known. People are paying attention.
So now your art has to be good! You can’t let people down. Entice them to hear what you do, then disappoint them.
If they’re disappointed, they’ll come once, but never again. And maybe they’ll take about you, tell others that you do bad work.
Back to art
And so now — now that you’ve got an audience — you work even harder on your art. Keeping it good. Making it better.
And then back down to commerce. While your art stays strong, your commerce has to stay strong, too, You want your fans to keep coming back. You want new fans. So it’s commerce again. You can’t slack off.
And now, again…
…back up to art. You’ve got new ideas. You want to do new kinds of music. Or you want to expand. Do more performances. Perform in more cities. Collaborate with other musicians, with people in other arts.
You want to do things that you’ve never done.
So back down to commerce!
Now, even more, you need business chops. To do more things — do new things, bigger things — means doing more business work. Selling more tickets, raising more money.
Which is especially true if you move into new areas, do things you’re not known for. You’re a performer, but now you compose. Your string quartet gives concerts, but now you want to do multimedia.
You’ll need to attract new attention. Get your fans to try your new stuff. Find new fans, people who might like the new things, even if what you did before didn’t interest them.
And your new projects might be expensive. Another reason for working harder on business.
Around and around
And that’s how it works. Art needs commerce, commerce feeds art. You keep them both going, to keep your music alive.
More about an engaged, participating audience…following up on my last post.
I exchanged some email with Tom Wolf, the consultant whose firm’s newsletter I’d happily quoted. In this exchange, he told me a fine story involving Boris Goldovsky, whom I’d known of as an opera personage (host of the Met Opera’s old radio intermission feature, Opera Quiz, founder of the opera training program at Tanglewood).
I hadn’t known that Goldovsky was Tom’s uncle, or that he’d been a pianist and conductor. Or that, as a musician of the old school, he’d have reacted ss Tom describes. Or, for that matter, that Tom himself doesn’t like a passive audience.
HEre’s his story (I’m quoting his email with his permission):
As I got older, I found concert “manners” totally off-putting and still do. I remember going to a concert when my pianist brother, the late Andrew Wolf, was playing the Schumann piano quintet which, as you know, has a barn burner of a first movement. When the first movement ended, there was silence in the hall and my uncle, Boris Goldovsky, who had played the piece hundreds of times said to me, “These idiots. The musicians play like Gods and the idiot audience sits and does nothing. Their silence is a crime.”
Thanks for this, Tom!
I wouldn’t myself blame the audience. The people in it are only doing what they’ve been taught to do. To show reverence for the music, by keeping quiet till the end of the piece. A concept that would have been utterly foreign to Mozart or Verdi or Brahms.
So if anyone’s to blame, it’s the classical music police, the arbiters of classical music decorum who believe in these rules, and still sometimes try to enforce them.
Very good comment from Matthew Hodge on my Tabatha Coffey post. I’d talked about Coffey, the embodiment of tough love — just go to her site and read the powerful words you’ll see — who on a reality TV show impressively fixes failing hair salons.
What — I asked participants in a workshop I led — would Tabatha change if she came to an orchestra?
And I listed some of the responses I got. Things people had seen, that might revivify orchestras. Audience coming up to talk to the principal cellist during a break. Kids in a youth orchestra smiling while they played.
It’s fascinating how all of the suggested Tabatha responses all involve the musicians getting more intimate with the audiences. (Talking from stage, saying hello in the intermission or even smiling.)
Remarkably simple to implement and all coming in at significantly cheaper than a laser light show and fireworks!
…of other musicians getting intimate with an audience. So I replied to his comment:
Another, similar idea — when Michael Christie first was music director in Phoenix, he stood outside the concert hall, greeting people in the audience as they came in.
And something I saw myself in St. Louis in the 1990s. At that time the St. Louis Symphony had an active community program. (They may again, but it lapsed earlier.) Before one of their concerts in Powell Hall, I saw audience members come up to the stage, to say hello to musicians they’d met at community events.
Or this: The St. Louis Symphony years ago played a Steve Reich piece, and when it was over, some of the musicians went out into the audience to talk about the music with anyone who wanted to do that.
Or this: Maxim Vengerov giving a solo recital in Carnegie Hall, on the big main stage. After the first piece, he turned to the audience and asked, “Any questions?”
From then on, the concert was a dialogue, with people in the audience shouting questions, even from the top balcony. I wasn’t there, but heard about it from my wife Anne Midgette, who reviewed the concert for the New York Times.
I’m sure we can all think of more examples.
More ways to make concerts interactive…
…to break down the invisible (but very tangible wall), to get musicians and audience talking together. And — a key to classical music’s future — to make performances really distinctive events.
(Now anticipating comments from those of the old school, who’ll say that I’m cheapening the music, that only the music matters, that in it lies all the communication we need. Thus blaming our audience for our failures, saying they’re just not educated enough. Or putting the blame on schools, which ought to jump to our commands, and teach every student to love the music we love.)
And today I just read this, from the seasoned consultant Tom Wolf, who in the newsletter his company WolfBrown sends out, talked about being barred from taking photos — even before a concert — in a concert hall he loved.
Thinking about all of this later, I was reminded of a concert I attended a few years before at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas when the immensely popular Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared with the magnificent Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The audience was filled with ebullient Russians who, when the popular Hvorostovsky came on stage, whistled and cheered, and shouted bravo and took out their phones to snap photos. Ushers ran from person to person admonishing them to stop, but they refused to be denied. It was a happy crowd and the feeling was infectious. By the end of the concert, the audience was singing along when the baritone offered a popular Russian folk song that served as one of his many encores. I left the hall feeling completely upbeat.
Which then reminds me that after the premiere of one of the early Shostakovich string quartets, there was a party, at which the quartet was played again. This time the audience sang along with one of the themes.
And of course in earlier centuries the audience was anything but quiet. A subject for another post.
Here’s something I did in the workshop I led about imagining the future, at a League of American Orchestras conference. You can read about the workshop in my last post. We imagined hat in 10 years, all orchestra problems would be solved. They’d have a big new audience, community buzz, all the funding they need.
So how would that happen? What would have happened to get us to that paradise?
This is a workshop I’d love to do again. If you’d like to talk about it, contact me!
So here’s one of the things I did. Imagine, I said, that Tabatha Coffey comes to town! The name didn’t ring many bells, but when I said she has a reality TV show, Tabatha Takes Over, a ripple of recognition went through the room.
What we can learn from Tabatha
She’s a hair stylist, hair salon owner, and entrepreneur. And on her visits failing hair salons, and turns them around. An almost irresistible guilty pleasure, when I’ve run into her, as I’m flipping channels on TV. She looks like she could overthrow a third world country simply by showing up at passport control. And she has an acute understanding of both business and people.
Imagine, I said, that she’s come to your town to do an episode of her show. And that you have a donor who’s in the TV biz, who hears that she’s coming, and pays her to stay and work with your orchestra.
So she spends a week with you. At the salons she visits, she pounces on discourteous employees, bad customer service, unattractive premises, and so much more. I’ve seen her order the whole staff to show up early in the morning, to repaint their place. I’ve seen her telling them to dress more attractively (but not too trendily, which might scare customers away). I’ve seen her order staff to sweep and clean.
And in the last episode I saw, she visited a salon in Miami Beach. She decreed — after much reform and redecoration — that they’d have a grand reopening. To promote it, she sent the entire staff out to the beach, where they talked to everyone. Everyone! Inviting them to the grand reopening, and offering a free haircut, right then, right there, right on the beach, in a tent she made the staff set up.
Brilliant marketing, I thought. So now imagine Tabatha coming to your orchestra. She observes you for a week. What would she say?
That could be a long discussion!
And one worth having. Could almost be a workshop by itself.
At my workshop, we could only dip into what Tabatha might tell orchestras. but here are some suggestions from participants.
Three good thoughts! So much of what we do in classical music presents a blank or even unfriendly face to the people who come to us. And even more to the people we’d like to attract, because they’re not used to our ways.
Even when we sometimes do things like this, we don’t do them enough. I’d bet everyone reading me can think of many more ways we could present ourselves better. And can think of ways to keep it going, even though a full season at a major orchestra.
Or market ourselves better. Free haircuts on the beach…what’s our equivalent of that?
Suppose in 10 years all problems that orchestras have will be solved!
Suppose that orchestras have a vibrant young audience, that people all over the country are talking about what orchestras do. Suppose there aren’t funding problems. And that all of this has been accomplished without the slightest artistic compromise.
How — looking back now from this imagined 10-year perspective — would we have gotten there? What would have changed?
That was the conversation I led four years ago at a League of American Orchestras national conference. You can watch the entire session, if you like, since the League filmed it, and put the video on YouTube. Thanks to everyone there for that!
And thanks to my invaluable assistant for transcribing the workshop. You can read the transcription here.
But I thought I’d share the outline I made in advance — my script, if you like (though I was more than ready to toss it away if discussions erupted that were better than anything I’d planned).
I’m sharing this — recycling (though with a few changes) — a post I did just after the conference, because the session was a great success. Because the questions it asked proved to be very useful.
And above all because I’d like to do this workshop again. As an internal discussion for an orchestra, or any other classical music institution. I could even do it long distance, via Skype, though it’ll be much stronger in person.
Here’s what happened at the League.
Outlining the dream
It has a large, new, excited young audience. College students go to your concerts on dates. Not a crazy idea. I’ve seen reports of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts being hot items for date nights back in the 1950s.
So your orchestra builds on that. You have special nights for area colleges, and students turn out by the hundreds.
Again not crazy. A century ago, the Boston Pops had college nights. MIT students snakedanced through the streets — all the way from Cambridge, across the Charles River — to get to their evenings.
When it was Harvard night, the Pops asked for extra police, because the Harvard students were rowdy, loudly demanding to hear the Academic Festival Overture. (These priceless details come from a 1940 book, Our American Orchestras and How They Are Supported, by Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger.)
In 10 years, your community talks about everything you do. The buzz is amazing. You measure it — people are tweeting about your orchestra every day, whether they go to your concerts or not.
Though of course people do go to your concerts. They also listen to them online. They buy your recordings. They buy your merchandise, which isn’t just sold at your symphony store. They can buy it in stores and shops all over town.
You have no funding problems, and, as I said, you’ve done all this with no artistic compromise. In fact, you’re in a better artistic position than you’ve ever been in, more able to play whatever music you want. That’s because your support is so solid, and also because so much of it comes from younger people, who welcome hearing new music.
Why aren’t we there now?
I freely admitted — as of course I’d have to — that this is a dream. But dreams can be useful. They offer goals that, for all anyone knows, just might be achieved. They help us think in new ways. They jog us loose from preconceptions that, we might discover, are holding us back.
I quoted “Happy Talk,” a song from South Pacific:
You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?
And then I moved on to the first exercise of the session. I asked the participants — more than 80 had signed up, and the room must have held around that many — to quickly write down three reasons why the dream wasn’t true right now. Why, I asked them, isn’t your orchestra having this kind of success?
To be honest, I was expecting some difficult replies. Attacks, maybe, on popular culture, how it’s destroying appreciation for any kind of art, classical music included. Or maybe orchestra staffers would blame their unionized musicians, given the ugly labor disputes we’ve seen this year. Or maybe musicians (a few were there) would blame orchestra managements.
I was ready — gently — to resist negativity, to suggest we put problems aside for the hour the session would last. To suggest, also, that if we put them aside, we might come up with solutions. That we should be wary of blaming others for our problems, not least because that might blind us to things our orchestras could do on their own.
And I had examples of success, most of which will be familiar to faithful readers here.
But I didn’t need any of this. When I asked what people had written down — either waiting for hands to be raised, or else descending on people who hadn’t raised their hands, because I’ve learned from long experience (I do this each week in my Juilliard classes) that their thoughts are as valuable as those coming from people eager to speak — people just about universally blamed their own orchestras. Blamed them for not doing enough, for being stuffy, for not reaching out to their communities.
Here’s some of what they said:
So the people at my session were ahead of the game. They thought (hope they don’t mind me putting it this way) that they themselves were the problem. Which meant they were ready to change. Orchestras aren’t where they could be, because they haven’t done the things that would take them there.
Though I’d add one more reason. We aren’t in the bright place I imagined because we don’t really believe we could be there. Which then means we don’t put muscle behind major changes, because deep in our hearts we don’t believe they’re going to work out.
That’s enough for today. I’ll continue this post tomorrow.
Black History Month is over. But classical music stills needs to be more diverse, every month of the year.
So another post on that subject, recycling one I wrote in 2013.
That year I led a workshop at the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. My job was to ask participants — mostly orchestra staff and board members — to imagine a glorious future. Just suppose, 10 years from now, all the problems orchestras now have will be solved! Orchestras — yours included — will have vibrant young audiences, eager support from their communities, no funding problems, and freedom to play any music they like.
Yes, that’s a dream. But dreams can be freeing. Especially when, as we did in this workshop, we imagine — in generous detail — how we’d reach the dream, how we’d get from here to there.
This is so worthwhile, I think, that soon I’ll recycle my full discussion of the workshop. Of how, in this exercise of our imagination, we all freed ourselves.
But I’m mentioning it now, because during the session I threw out a challenge. We’re heading toward our bright, bright future, and now…
…it’s Black History Month!
What does an orchestra do?
Imagine that the mayor of your city — a dynamic young Latina — is leading celebrations this year of all the leading ethnic groups in your town. She’s asked all the city’s arts and community groups to take part. So again: for Black History Month, what does your orchestra do?
I asked the workshop participants — there were around 80 of them — for ideas. The first I heard was one I’d expected: Play music by black composers. But, as I told everyone, there are problems with that idea. Is this music you honestly like? Is it music you play when it isn’t Black History Month? Will you play it again?
And an important point here. Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight these questions, to think harder than we usually do about diversity. But really we should address these things all year round. And, if we really want to reach the black community, do things involving them every month, not just in February.
If your answers to the questions I asked are “no,” then you’re not addressing the problem in an honest or workable way. And, as I found, years ago, talking to African-Americans involved with classical music, the black community will see right through yo. sees what you do, and thinks that you’ve failed. You draw them in, with (true examples) an opera about Malcolm X, or a piece by a jazz composer, using a gospel choir. And then you never go back to them. They don’t like that. And who could blame them?
The African-American community might also say that it doesn’t know the composers you’ve chosen, and that their music might not reflect community concerns.
To move further along, I imagined what other arts groups in town might be doing. For the theater company, Black History Week can be a slam dunk. They can stage one of the plays from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which, in 10 installments, looks at life in the Pittsburgh black community in each decade of the 20th century. Or, to celebrate this very special Black History Month, the one the mayor cares so much about, they can announce a 10-year project to do the whole cycle.
The dance company could commission a new dance, celebrating black life both in the past and now. Using, in alternate sections, blues recordings from the past, and current hiphop hits.
The art museum could do a show of outsider art from your town’s black community. A few years ago, at Baltimore’s stunning American Visionary Art Museum, I saw a show full of outsider art, much of it by African-Americans, and it changed my view of what art is. “Outsider art” seemed a silly term. Why label this stuff, in a way that sets it off from art by “real” artists? It’s just as strong, just as transforming as work by those with, so to speak, official arts status.
The art museum in your town, doing what I’m imagining, may knock you flat on your back, with the power of what they show. And also reveal an up to now unwritten chapter in the history of your town’s black community.
History we didn’t know
The historical society, finally, might do a show about a pioneering doowop record label, which flourished in your town back in the ’50s, even if it never had a national hit. This label (I imagined) was black-owned, which in those early days — before Motown Records, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision had any wide impact beyond schools — would have been rare.
The lead singer of this label’s most successful group, I imagined, has run a barbershop for the last 40 years. He’s widely known in his community, and he’ll be featured in a panel discussion of what this record label did.
Back to us
So given all that, what does your orchestra do? How do you stand side by side with these other efforts?
I offered three ideas.
Years ago, I talked to an African-American cellist in the Cincinnati Symphony. In the late ’60s, he told me, Aretha Franklin (then in her first flush of stardom) did a show in a big New Jersey club. She asked for a string section, and said its members had to be black. At that point, nobody knew of many black string players, including black string players themselves. But Aretha (as I’ve seen first-hand) is a commanding woman. We don’t call her the Queen of Soul for nothing. So black string players were found. And, for the first time, realized how many of them there were.
That’s a historical moment most people — whatever their skin color — might not know about. Is there someone in your orchestra with another revealing story?
Second: the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in 2012, conferred with community leaders in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, one of the leading African-American communities in New York. They wanted to find programs that made sense both to the orchestra and to the community.
They ended up with hiphop star Mos Def, who comes from Bed-Stuy, doing some of his hits, with the orchestra playing arrangements of their instrumental tracks, made by Derek Bermel, a terrific composer who’s had commissions from big orchestras, and who’s also (as I know from talking with him) a mad hiphop fan.
So when Mos Def did his songs with the orchestra, the result was both real orchestral music and real hiphop. Mos Def (who’s now known as Yasiin Bey) also did — powerfully! — Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, a piece about an event in black history, which requires a speaking voice.
That’s one more model for how your orchestra might engage African-Americans, not just with something theoretical, but with something that really connects.
A third way
Finally, I mentioned a warm, revealing book by Elaine Mack, Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia: Oral Histories Covering Four Generations. The book shows us (in such full, deep, human detail) an active classical music life inside the African-American community, much of it in generations past. Much of this, it’s safe to say, has been forgotten (except, of course, by those involved).
So one last thing your orchestra might do, to deeply observe Black History Month, would be to find people in your own black community who took part in this African-American classical music life, and celebrate them, with exhibits, and, best of all, discussions in which they can talk about their history.
Your partner in this could be the local historical society. They and your orchestra might even publish a book like Elaine’s, about your own city.
And in this way you might be going further than anyone else, because you’d be uncovering something that even the historical society might not previously have known about.
Why all this?
Here are my last words for now about Black History Month and diversity. If you expect your community — in 10 years, or right now — to take a great interest in you, you, in turn, will have to take a great interest in your community. I’ve italicized that because it’s important. Read it again! Think about it. Community relationships go both ways, something I fear that we in classical music sometimes forget.
And when you truly get involved in the community around you, it may lead you to places — including an explosive new freedom in the music you make — that you never knew you could go.
Again about Black History Month, as it ends…
It’s hard to find ways to honor Black History Month in classical music, because the classical music mainstream hasn’t related much to African-American life.
A sad tale:
When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball — something now celebrated as a key event in American history — the Met Opera had never had a black soloist on stage. This was in 1947.
Jackie Robinson played in Brooklyn, across the river from the Met. So don’t think no one thought the Met might baseball’s lead. Someone went to Edward Johnson, who back then ran the opera house, and suggested it was time. No, said Johnson. “Don’t I have enough trouble already?” (I’m paraphrasing. Don’t have the exact quote in front of me. The source for this story is Irving Kolodin’s masterful, thorough, and immensely readable history of the Met, year by year from the founding to 1966.)
The Met didn’t have a black soloist until 1955. That 1947 conversation wasn’t a great moment for classical music.
While in pop music…
1947 came near the start of something unprecedented. What happened was the emergence — first gradual, then explosive — of African-American music into the pop music mainstream. And no, I’m not talking about the influence of African-American music. I’m talking about the music itself, sung and played by black musicians. Or by whites, doing what the black musicians did.
This was explosive. This was the arrival of rock & roll, which hit the pop world bigtime in 1954, the same year as the Supreme Court’s epochal decision banning the state-imposed segregation of the races in schools in the American south. Which of course was a key moment in the march toward racial equality, still in progress.
From that time on, we can map the black struggle — the civil rights movement, and everything else — against the history of American pop music. So much is reflected. Like the emergence of Motown Records early in the 1960s, again a major step toward equal black participation in American life. A stellar black-owned business…songs written, sung, played, produced, and marketed by African-Americans soaring on the pop charts. Never happened before!
You can read about Motown Records in a stellar (and, again, immensely readable) book by David Maraniss, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. About how Detroit’s peak years in the early ‘60s already bred the seeds of its decline. Motown Records is a big part of the story. The Detroit Symphony is barely mentioned, if at all.
Returning now to my main thread…
All of this is a longish intro to three songs I assigned in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. Three songs that show something missing in classical music’s links to our wider culture: Any close connection with African-American life.
This didn’t mean African-Americans didn’t care about classical music. Many did. In fact there was a lively classical music culture in black communities before World War II. But AFrican-Ameridans, the lives they lead, and their history — almost none of that was reflected in anything the classical music world did. Or in the music itself.
Remember my last post, with Aaron Dworkin talking about the performing arts not reflecting the lives of many people in our world? Pop music hasn’t had that problem. There were struggles — black music relegated to a “race music” (ugly term) category, before World War II. And then the pop music industry trying in various ways to suppress or limit or segregate it. But black music fought back. Emerged fully into mainstream view.
And, even when segregated, always was there to reflect black life and history.
The three songs:
Chuck Berry, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (1956) Sly song about how powerful, how potent black men can be. Because every time Chuck Berry says “brown-eyed” you know he means “brown-skinned.” Way ahead of its time in 1956! Lyrics.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1963). Cooke was a gospel singer who saw an opening for African-Americans in the pop world, when rock & roll came in. Wrote lilting, sweet songs for teenagers. Huge success. Then when the civil rights movement grew wrote and sang this haunting song — surely one of the greatest pop songs ever — about what the future could bring. Lyrics
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982). Urban black communities had serious problems. And this song — the first hiphop song with social commentary — told us the news, with a harsher sound and harsher words that the pop mainstream was used to. A shock — necessary, bracing shock — to hear it on pop radio. Lyrics.
Argue all you want about the deep inner strength of classical music. But for cultural power, in today’s world — and for relevance in Black History Month — we can’t match these songs. Can’t even come close.
It’s Black History Month again, and though I haven’t blogged about it, it’s been on my mind.
I’ve thought of it when I’ve gone to the Kennedy Center, and seen that their most visible gift shop this month features Chinese New Year.
Which does come in February, and nothing against it. But featuring Chinese New Year over Black History Month in a black-majority city? In a time of Black Lives Matter? In a season when the biggest cultural even in DC was the opening of the Museum of African-American History and Culture?
…for Black History Month I did three posts. About three ways to mark Black History Month in the classical music world.
First by remembering the tenor Roland Hayes, an African-American concert artist who in the 1920s (!) was said to be the world’s highest-paid recitalist.
Second, by remembering — and performing — William Grant Still’s oratorio on lynching, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered by them in 1940 (with many dignitaries in the audience), and now forgotten.
And third, by noting Elaine Mack’s oral history of classical music in Philadelphia’s black communities, a book that’s an eye-opener for people (most of us, I think) who don’t know how much love of classical music, and how much classical music-making, went on in black communities in past generations.
The book isn’t currently available, but should be back in print in a few months. I’ll post here when that happens.
So this year…
For a start, you might read Aaron Dworkin’s essay on diversity, “Collaborating Across Diverse Communities,” currently featured on the DePauw School of Music’s 21CM website. Dworkin was the founder of The Sphinx Organization, which promotes diversity by helping and featuring minority musicians. Now — a really stunning choice for this job — he’s dean of the University of Michigan School of Music.
He has a lot to say on 21CM about his biracial background, about being the only black kid in his town, about doing things (like playing the violin) that marked him — for people who believe in stereotypes — as not black.
But what will echo in my heart for quite a while are the thoughts at the end of his essay. No choice but to quote them:
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “The danger of a single story is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete.” The stories we weave in the performing arts today are incomplete, and I believe it is your responsibility (if you choose to be an artist-citizen of excellence) to deliver more complete stories about the lives we live. And it is my obligation as an educator to prepare students to be relevant to our full society while empowering the disciplines we teach to be relevant to our communities.
What we do know from the lessons of history is that a segmented society, where differences are not celebrated but rather mocked, attacked, dismissed or not tolerated, is not sustainable for a thriving civil democratic environment. As an artist-leader, you are the bridge that crosses these more shallow man-made barriers. You have the opportunity, influence and, ultimately, the power to bring human beings together across racial, religious, gender, socioeconomic and other boundaries. But you must not be passive. You must act.
In my next post, another thought on what we can do for Black History Month
This week I learned something from a paper one of my students wrote. About how to present a case for classical music. Two words in that paper showed me something i hadn’t so strongly realized.
What we were working on
This was a paper about why classical music is valuable, what it can do that no other kind of music can. I ask my students to think very carefully about this, because it’s crucial for classical music’s future. We need new listeners. So how do we find them? What can we say to make them think classical music can do something for them?
As we work on this, I caution my students not to say that– as if it were demonstrable fact — that classical music is better than other music. Especially pop. That it goes deeper emotionally, expresses more.
Often this is what some of the students want to say, and of course they’re not alone. Many people in our field say this.
But there are two problems with it.
First, it isn’t verifiable. How can you prove that classical music goes deeper, expresses more?
Really, you can’t. You can set up a straw man, say that pop music is created only to make money, that it doesn’t have classical music’s complexity, that it’s empty and shallow.
But then you run into people like me who’ll say those things aren’t true. Or you can read rock critics who say profound things about pop music (in its many forms). And who have as fine an intellectual pedigree as anyone who writes about classical music. (Greil Marcus is the obvious example, but there are many more.)
That’s the first problem. No one really can prove that classical music is superior. Suppose you say classical music has more complex harmony and form. But examine your assumption. Why should complexity give music its value? And what’s going on in pop music? What are its internal processes? Maybe they’re different from what we find in classical music, but just as complex.
And, finally — do the people who make these comparisons really know much about pop?)
And now the second problem
Let’s say you preach to people, tell them that classical music is better than the music they listen to. How do you do that without patronizing them? Without implying that they themselves are inferior? Or at least uncultured, uneducated, deprived of musical opportunity.
And what do you do if they disagree? If they resent you saying that your music is better than theirs, if they discover that you don’t know their music, and so have no grounds for making comparison?
If these things happen, you’ve shot yourself. And shot classical music down, too. Because you’ve turned people off, instead of getting them to give classical music a chance.
Two magic words
“For me.” Those were the words that opened new doors for me. Fir me, my student wrote (and now I’m paraphrasing), classical music expresses deep things that no other music can bring us. Though others, he said, may find that other music expresses these deep things for them.
And with this honest and courteous way of stating his case, he taught me something:
If you say — claiming it’s factually true — that classical music is better, you’re giving a lecture. Starting a fight.
But if you just say that for you this is true, then you’re telling a story. Not arguing with anyone, not telling anyone what they should think. You’re telling a story about yourself. About your life, your experience.
Which can get people interested. Why, they can ask, with genuine interest, does classical music have so much power for you? What about it gives it that strength? Which pieces — which moments in pieces — show its great force?
Now you’re having a conversation. You’ve got someone listening to you. Someone you haven’t asked to devalue any music that’s dear to her. Someone who can say to herself, “Wow, if classical music has so much power for him, maybe I’ll find it powerful, too.”
And that’s a win.
What they should do to prepare students for classical music’s future. These are things I said in my talk at the Jacobs School at Indiana University.
First, conservatories should make the future of classical music a major topic of discussion.
I’d think this has to come from the top. The conservatory’s dean or president needs to be talking publicly about the problems we face, and about solutions. The subject has to come up in courses. Be discussed by studio teachers. There could be courses specifically about the future, like the one I teach at Juilliard, and the required course called “State of the Art” at DePauw. I’m sure there are others.
And schools should hold public discussions.
Of course conservatories should keep on teaching entrepreneurship.
No need to write much about that, because it’s so common, and so much talked about. But maybe entrepreneurship courses should be required (as they are at DePauw, and maybe elsewhere).
Students should be taught how to speak to their audience, when they perform.
And they should be mentored each time they’re going to do it. (That would take a lot of staff time, I know.)
They need to stress their love for the music they play. And downplay the history and analysis that usually figure so strongly when classical music is talked about.
They should be told to aim what they say at people who don’t yet listen to classical music, or who are new to it. That’s the audience we — and they — need to reach!
Students should be taught not just how to play, but how to perform.
They should make their performances jump off the stage. Or be quietly mesmerizing. They do that by being aware of their audience. They should be taught to make eye contact, to move (if they want to) while they play. To communicate both lively music and quiet, rapt music with their body language.
And they should learn to make the music in every piece stand out, by (for instance) making sure that contrasts really register as contrasts, and that climaxes really register as climaxes. Register in a way that no one could miss.
Students should be encouraged — empowered — to be creative. To do new things with music. To play the music they want to play, in the ways they want to play it. Even if they break with classical tradition. They should learn the tradition, of course, but should also be free to break with it.
Students should study many kinds of music, not only classical.
Because they may well play many kinds of music. Either because they want to on their own, or because they find themselves collaborating with musicians in other genres.
They’ll be more employable if they can play music of many kinds. And finally, they need to be citizens not just of classical music, or the arts, but of our wider culture, including our wider musical culture. They have to know what’s going on with the music the people in our hoped-for new audience — their new audience — already love.
They should be helped to have flexible careers, doing more than just performing at concerts that other people organize.
This, too, speaks for itself, I think. Students can become teaching artists, community leaders through music — so many things. Much talked about these days, of course. They can create ensembles, create institutions. Create performing opportunities. And find performing opportunities that conservatories don’t always talk about, like (as the Jacobs School Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development showed students) playing in military bands.
Conservatories need to open all of music for their students and graduates.
Conservatories should stream student recitals.
So that students can develop an audience. Which of ties in with the entrepreneurship they should be taught. And it also ties in with what comes next…
…which is that students should be taught how to find a new audience of people their own age.
Many schools teach outreach, or provide opportunities for it. So students play for community groups, or play in prisons, or in schools, especially schools in underserved communities.
All of which is terrific. But somehow we’ve forgotten that students also might reach — and might want to reach — an audience of people their own age. An audience of people like them, with only one difference: These are people who don’t yet listen to classical music.
And of course it’s crucial to reach those people! They’re the audience we need in the future, if we’re going to survive. So why aren’t students taught how to reach them? And then mentored as they go out to do it.
They could even — as I briefly said in my last post — develop a local fan base. These would be people in the city the conservatory is in, or on the larger campus many conservatories are part of.
Students should learn to cultivate this new audience. Not all will be able to do it. But some will! And then maybe we’ll see students drawing 50, 100, 200, 400 people to their recitals. With more watching online, when recitals are streamed.
This may seem unlikely. It’s far from our current thinking. So far, in fact, that the very idea may seem radical. Or unrealistic.
But it can be done. Gerald Klickstein, who runs the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at Peabody, told me that as a guitar student he got hundreds of people to concerts he gave. And one of my Juilliard graduate students, a percussionist, told me he got hundreds of people to come to his undergraduate recital at NEC.
So it can be done. All we need is the will, the determination. The belief that it’s possible. And the means to learn how it can be done.
More about my IU visit (to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University).
I found the school, overall, to be an open and welcoming place. With a lot of emphasis — in the composition department, for instance — on student initiatives.
Of course, as I said in my last post, I only got a taste of what’s there. Certainly there were some old-fashioned things. I’d love to go back, and get to know things better.
I mentioned in my first post about my visit that the school benefits from being part of a major university. Because, for instance, the university has a business school, with a top-ranked entrepreneurship program. So the conservatory’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development can partner with the business school.
But here’s another benefit. The music school;’s IT department doesn’t have to do some of the more mundane IT tasks, like maintaining an email system. The university’s IT department does that.
So this frees time, staff, and money at the music school to — for instance — put video cameras and microphones in every performing space, permanently installed. Whenever there’s a performance, IT people sit in a central IT studio, recording the event, controlling the cameras with joysticks.
Thus every performance can be recorded, archived, streamed (if they want to). Including the talk on the future of classical music I gave in their small concert hall. Which soon enough will be online, so you can watch it.
One possibility I love — that all student recitals could be dreamed. This would help, a lot, with something I wish would happen: That students would develop their own fan base, building audiences of their own, which would come to their recitals or watch them online.
At lunch with people from the Jacobs School administration I was asked many questions. Picking my brain on things I hope I know about.
One of those things was students speaking at recitals they give, and elsewhere. I’m all for that, of course.
And this goes beyond students. I once watched a much-admired chamber ensemble (one of the new-style kind, that presents classical music in new ways) tell the story of L’histoire du Soldat at a concert where they played it. And, sadly, speaking without much life, almost in a monotone, so the story didn’t ring out.
And I’ve seen the director of a major presenting organization speak in far too diffident tones about a (terrific) concert she was presenting. Saying, well, you know, I try to program interesting groups, so you’ll know what’s out there.
While what she might have said was that this group is fabulous, that she’s thrilled to present it, that she tries to bring her audience the very best, the most exciting, the most path-breaking of what’s available. You want your audience to be excited to be at your shows, and to think they’ll be just as excited when they go to the next one.
Example of how to do that, from the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, when their performance series presented Roomful of Teeth.
He came out, and told the audience (paraphrasing now) that he;’d never heard of the group. But then a friend who runs the performance series at Dumbarton Oaks (these are important Washington, DC venues) called him one day, to say that there was a group performing there that the Folger guy had to see. Roomful of Teeth.
When he went to their concert, the Folger director continued, his jaw just about hit the floor. Roomful of Teeth was wonderful. So he couldn’t wait to present them himself.
How could his audience, hearing that, not be on the edge of their seats, excited to hear what made the director so thrilled?
I’ve known both students and professionals, making presentations, to slur their words, or speak too fast, so we can’t hear what they’re saying. Mentoring in public speaking — it’s crucial!
About my talk
In future posts I want to write about the talk I gave. In particular, about what I’d love to see conservatories do, to build a future for classical music.
And about pop music’s deep and sustaining role in our culture. We in classical music underestimate that, I think.
And about classical music in the past, how free and exciting it was, with the audience clapping whenever it heard music it liked (right in the middle of performances!), musicians improvising, musicians empowered to be individuals, to make music the way they wanted to do it.
Understanding how classical music was in the past can help to empower us, help to free us to make classical music what we’d like it to be right now.
(A big topic, I might add, this week and last in my Juilliard course on classical music’s future.)