As a professional classical violinist who performs regularly for audiences in New England, I often wonder about the role of classical music in our society. Many people who do not understand our art view what we do as elitist or snobbish at best. Rather than expounding on this belief and placing blame, instead I wish to comment about how I see the future of our industry evolving.
Classical musicians today live in wonderful times for our art. Yes – That is what I said – WONDERFUL times. While it is true that the respect for our music has waned, I contend that never has the potential for success of the individual musician ever been so great.
You see, in the glory days of violin playing, which can roughly be categorized from around 1920-1980, there were many great performers who took advantage of the new technology of recording to spread the “gospel” of classical music. Never in the history of the world had musicians been able to reach so many people in the comfort of their own homes. The downside of this blessing was that these musicians were required to fit a certain mold. Getting a recording contract was tough and the market was saturated with many players trying to constantly impress the big labels. Only a few slots were available and the performer had to be “sellable”, as far as the label was concerned. As recording technology blossomed, I believe that the individuality of the performer was stymied as a maniacal drive for perfection and virtuosity became the name of the game. In essence, the messages in the music and its importance were lost. This drive for perfection was also exacerbated by the recording engineer’s ability to “cut and paste” music digitally.
It is my contention that we are on the threshold of yet another glorious period of classical music. The difference, this time, is that the purpose of performing is radically going to change. Whereas in the past musicians were required to fiercely compete and prove themselves worthy of a performing and recording career, it is now the performer’s ability to relate to the audience on an individual level that is paramount. Yes, playing at a high level is very important, but it should not be the be all and end all. Rather, it is the message in the music that really resonates with us.
While it is true that Western Culture has unfortunately largely abandoned the torch of understanding the Classics (whether in literature or music), the challenge of our generation is to present a story that is compelling enough that the listener understands the message of the composer as interpreted by the performer. In other words, our audiences will not come to hear us in person or buy our recordings for culture’s sake, but rather because they are inspired by our story. This story is unique to the performer, just as it is to the listener.
The beautiful thing about classical music is that unlike the popular culture of the masses (such as Brittany Spears, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga), our music comes from the inside-out. I can see it now – some of my readers are now thinking “WOAH…What kind of snotty statements is this guy making!” Folks, please allow me to elaborate and keep an open mind while I do so.
The most successful popular music in society today, in my humble opinion, has been designed to come “from the outside-in”. In other words, the role and purpose of music for the masses is to make the individual feel “high” off of a loud, sexy, and sometimes angry performance. This is a generalization, I know, but there is a large element of truth in it as I see it.
Where classical music often differs is in the fact that the composer was not trying to get a certain reaction from the audience. Rather, the composer would see his or her world and reflect this in music. This reflection comes “from the inside-out”. For instance, the late Beethoven string quartets demonstrate a rich and vivid emotional world that the composer imparted to us even at the end of his life and after he had lost his hearing. In effect, what classical composers are doing is they are asking the audience to join them in experiencing their internal journey. The most relevant and successful composers are those whose music seems to relate across generations.
At the end of the day however, it is up to the performer to interpret the music how he or she sees it based on the conventions of the generation. This is what we call “taste”. It is a reflection on who we are as individuals. After all, our emotions, needs, and yearnings do not change on a fundamental level.
Just to play the devil’s advocate, one could argue that the music of pop culture does resonate with us across the generations but I believe that this happens on a more base level. Yet, there comes a time when many people feel that this type of hypnotic culture isn’t enough for them. They yearn to feel a deeper connection with the performer and composer.
Coming back full circle, with the rise of the internet, today’s classical performers have so many tools at their disposal to share their interpretations of music. Youtube, Kickstarter, and Nimbit are just some examples. While it is true that the internet does not very easily allow the average musically uninformed person to find out about new talent, it is a great facilitator of selling one’s art once that relationship between performer and audience has been established.
There is another mixed blessing relating to the times we live in. The average individual expects online music to be either free or at a very low cost. On the other hand, this “giving away” of music can result in an artist’s reputation going viral. In the past, musicians were expected to appear in concert in venues around the world or at the very least, around the country. This was taxing on any individual and family life was compromised. On the other hand, this model resulted in music being seen as a necessary and important diversion from day to day life. A concert was (and largely still is) seen as a way for the individual to relax after a long day or a long week. But then, is that what we musicians want? Is our music really just a diversion? (This is an open ended question whose solution is not readily available today either). In today’s society, however, we have even lost the ability to stop and smell the roses.
It is my contention that in the future, the nature of the instant communication that the internet provides will allow performers to spread their message without the need to appear “in person” as much. This is possible because the consumer, who expects free media on the internet, will be able to “try out” some of our recordings without any risk before making the decision to buy. This new business model also fits nicely with the fact that most listeners today are more likely to listen to their music for shorter periods of time, often in the car on the way to work. This is a reality that we musicians must face.
The upside to this is that the repeated hearings of music that truly resonates with the individual can result in the artist achieving a live following, particularly on the local level. In fact, it is at the local level that audience building must start. Only after developing a local following can the internet truly help artists get the word out, as word-of-mouth takes its effect.
How does one get this following? My belief is that because we all have a unique story to tell, it is up to the artist to make himself or herself relevant to the particular audience. After all, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. If artists focus more on the message behind the music and cultivate a sense of real authenticity, I believe that they will be successful.
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.