After reading Mr. Daniel Wakin’s article in the New York Times entitled “High Notes and Low Points for Classical Music” (12/22/2011), I felt it necessary to comment on this state of affairs. In his editorial, the writer lists the top news stories from the Classical music world. Unfortunately, one cannot miss the terrible financial distresses in which many orchestras find themselves today. Mr. Wakin particularly mentions the disasters that befell the Syracuse, New Mexico, Louisville, Utica, and even the Philadelphia orchestras. Then, there is also the Detroit Symphony, which only recently has been struggling to regain its footing.
For years, naysayers have been predicting the death of classical music. Many cite graying audiences, “expensive” tickets (never mind that pop concerts and sports games can cost much more), and a general lack of interest among the public in quality music.
It is also certainly easy and comfortable for us to put up our hands, shrug, and blame the difficult economy for the woes of the above orchestras. Yet, I find it necessary to dig deeper as we examine why this has happened.
Let me first state that I am not a pessimist by nature. Nor do I believe that classical music is dead. In fact, I would not have pursued my dream of becoming a violinist had this been the case.
As musicians, it is my belief that we have voluntarily placed ourselves out of touch with the mainstream society. There are many reasons for this and my conclusions might not agree with my colleagues’. Yet, I believe that our fixation on perfection and purity at the expense of substance has done us a great disservice. Before I can examine this problem, I need to explain the atmosphere in which we musicians find ourselves. This will give you an idea as to why this has happened.
Most musicians go through years and years of education, accumulate massive student loan bills, and then take whatever job comes their way. Many “struggling musicians” in expensive cities will then work horribly long hours for little pay in seasonal orchestras and music schools. Many are content with this lifestyle but others, who want a family realize that the money isn’t there. Then there are those who were always ok with this fact, as music is their passion, and money was never meant to be in the cards. Some quit and pursue other goals. For those who try to climb the musical ladder, after taking grueling auditions for top orchestras two handfuls of very lucky people will be accepted every year for a job that pays a semi-decent (but too often not comfortable) wage. One handful will make it into orchestras that pay really well (but are most likely in cities with high costs of living).
As you can see, competition is fierce. It is not uncommon for 300 musicians to audition for 1 seat which was given up when someone passed away in the orchestra.
Against this backdrop, the music schools cannot but help stress that perfection in playing is the only way to “make it” in music. Coupled with an audience of CD-buyers who expect note-perfect CD’s due to modern editing techniques, musicians who fall short of an extremely high level of musicianship simply will not make the cut.
It is my belief that as musicians, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Due to no fault of our own, we have tried so hard to become perfect (ie: god-like) that society has left us behind. As we have attempted to play the same repertoire over and over again in order to emulate the great master conductors and performers, we have not brought anything new or of value to the majority of society. It is for THIS reason, that we have been accused of being “elitist”. After all, one must be quite dedicated or even infatuated with music in order to buy contrasting recordings out of a passion for varying interpretations of a piece that has been recorded 20 times.
One might ask the following question: “How come great violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein could become world class soloists AND fixate on perfection?” Obvious talent and very hard work aside, it is my observation that they were products of a different time. Rather than lamenting a change in societal attitude toward classical music, what I mean to say is that these greats were providing something of VALUE to the general public. If we put ourselves in their shoes, we come to realize that audio technology was still developing. New interpretations of a violin concerto were being disseminated (often for the first time) to the general public en masse via a new medium – the LP record. Today, due to the immense success of the recording industry, we take it for granted that music can be recorded. In other words, great musicians have “been there and done that” when it comes to recording phenomenal masterworks.
What can we learn from this? Today, as musicians, we must think outside the box. A performer is not just a parrot, perfectly repeating sounds from a page of music as we might believe the composer intended.
What I am proposing is a radical shift in music education that focuses on the individual and his or her relationship with the audience. Every musician has a story to tell. Whether old or new, there is special meaningful music for every performer. There are also unique listeners out there for every musician. We simply have to find the message and the medium. Why shouldn’t conservatories be able to teach in this way while still maintaining technical excellence?
New England Conservatory has recently awakened to the call with their focus on “Entrepreneurial Musicianship”. Schools all around the country should be encouraging students to find their own voice. Rather than subjugating individual expression, as is often done, empowering the uniqueness of the student will ultimately result in a stronger, self-supporting musician. It’s a scary prospect for a school, but the alternative of “business as usual” is a dead cause.
- Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.