The Most Important Thing You Can Do as a Musician
Classical music often falls into a trap of self-isolation. Our art requires diligent study and lonely hours of practice, and when we perform together it’s with fellow musicians. It’s a bubble of sorts, and more dangerously, an echo chamber where we lose perspective with the outside world. Some of this isolation comes as an inevitable side effect of dedicating yourself to a craft so fully. But we need to be cautious about this sequestering.
The thing about our art is that it requires an audience, and it requires considerable public support. Large ensembles necessitate huge budgets and logistical considerations. Without dozens to hundreds of people working behind the scenes of an orchestra, we don’t exist. And without a multitude of patrons and an abundant audience, we don’t exist. We can’t make music in a vacuum. And more importantly, we shouldn’t.
The issue with classical music is that it’s not easy. It’s worth the time, but the learning curve is far from ideal. To the untrained ear, our music is long and complex and incredibly difficult to navigate. Which is a considerable deterrent from laypeople ever becoming familiar with it. There’s an idea in game design called ‘frontloading your tutorial’. If you throw too much information at a person at the start of something, they will become overwhelmed, frustrated, and uninterested in continuing. So imagine a complete newcomer attempting to dive into classical music! They would be faced with an embarrassment of riches, with little to no framework to understand or recognize what they hear. If they hear a piece that they like on Pandora, they will be hard pressed to find what they were listening to with no lyrics or foreign lyrics, and limited vocabulary to describe what they heard. And assuming their phone or computer tells them the name of the piece, they may get as little information as “Allegro ma non troppo”, which is as unhelpful as it is forgettable. And the metadata for classical music is notoriously bad - the ‘artist’ may be the conductor, the orchestra, the composer, the soloist, or any combination thereof, adding an additional layer of complexity.
And the concert hall is hardly more inviting. For anybody not living in the social bourgeoisie, they will be faced with a shroud of traditions that effectively make the space uncomfortable and unfriendly to newcomers. Whether it’s the stuffy dress expectations or the unclear rules regarding when to applaud, live classical music falls prey to the same self-isolating behavior. Chamber music sometimes avoids these pitfalls because of their intimate nature, but larger productions who should be doing all they can to solicit newcomers end up doing very little to make their art more accessible.
We need to do everything we can to make classical music more engaging, and more accessible. We need to boil down a symphony to its core and find what is most beautiful and incredible about it, and show that, enthusiastically, to everybody. Explain the moments, highlight the drama - we can’t expect lay people to understand the musical development in a Haydn symphony, but if we can give them a beautiful passage to latch onto and recognize, it will go a long way towards making them love this art of ours. People like what they can understand, something they can process. So give them something to understand - explain why we love this, and they’ll see the beauty. Imagine a concert beginning not with the politics and trappings that we are used to, but with a conductor making impassioned remarks to the audience about their favorite moment in the symphony and why they find the work beautiful. This is already often done as a pre-concert lecture, but these usually end up only reaching the ears of music students and donors - what if it was a part of the experience for everybody? A newcomer could walk into the hall and know nothing about Sibelius or Shostakovich, and leave actually engaged in Sibelius’s patriotism or Shostakovich’s struggle against censorship. They will have some framework to understand the music, and be able to digest it. That goes a long way towards making it enjoyable and engaging.
We need to rethink the visuals of how we perform. Humans are visual creatures, and many of us are significantly more engaged when we are visually stimulated. But an orchestra performance tends to be a bit dull on the visual side. In contrast, one of the most memorable performances I ever saw was a concert with the Seattle Symphony. The first half of the show was Piazzolla’s Four Season of Buenos Aires. During the performance, two dancers emerged silently and began to tango. At one point the violin soloist, in a beautiful red gown, joined the dance and was lifted up into the air while she played. The visuals were never overpowering, but the effect was absolutely enchanting. Let’s do more of that. Or how about some tasteful lighting changes? We don’t need laser light shows, but hell, why not if they reflect the music? We have stand lights now, we can afford to do more than have the house lights at half the entire show. Live videography is expensive, but would be another possibility to be much more visually engaging (even if it were just a few GoPros or a split screen on some of the key players). How about miniature scores for the music students, and main themes for the laypeople? It’s possible this could be combined with digital resources to create a crash course for newcomers for the pieces they’re about to hear. There are countless possibilities.
And while we’re rethinking the visuals, let’s rethink how and where we perform. I have already bemoaned the unnecessary dress code of the concert hall, but it is not the only thing we can do to be more accessible for the common man. By sheer location, we literally isolate ourselves to the concert hall most of the time. Some of this is by necessity, and many orchestras do much to do park concerts and educational appearances to expand their reach.
But we could do more. Let’s do more public performances, more flash mobs, more music to reach the people slipping through the cracks. Exposure is essential. If people encounter classical music in their lives, in their schools and commutes and public spaces, they will learn to love it. If they don’t, because we’ve sequestered ourselves away and asked them to meet us on our turf, then we’re fighting a losing battle.
I don’t think this is something that we should do because we need to expand our audiences to keep our orchestras from going bankrupt, or to keep our art alive, or any such Cassandra-esque pleas. Of course, it is good housekeeping to work to expand our audience and make our art accessible, and it will help us avoid future financial problems and dwindling audiences. But that’s not why we should do it. I think we have a responsibility to bring this beauty to as many people as possible. I think the music demands it. Music is a performance art - without an audience it doesn’t make any sense. To paraphrase the wonderful choir director Meg Frazier, the audience completes the cycle. Music wants to be shared, it needs to be shared, it’s its purpose, its telos. So let’s not be stingy about who we share it with.
The most important thing you can do as a musician is spread your art with the world outside our bubble. Play for your friends, play in a school, sing arias in the park, or on the streetcar. Tell your friends and coworkers about the rapturous climax to Brahms 1 or the sensuousness of La Mer. Show them your passion, and show them the beauty in a way that they can comprehend. Our art can and will find new ears and new audiences. All we have to do is help it along.