I’ve been doing…

…a lot of meditating lately (as much as I can meditate, which for those who know me, is pretty much none…unless by “meditate,” I mean “loudly obsess over with my roommate”…which is kind of what I mean, anyway) on Greg Sandow’s riffs for his book-in-progress, Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music.  If you’re interested in classical music at all and you’re not reading these riffs, start RIGHT NOW!  You can find a link to his fourth riff here, which has links to the previous three.

Sandow touches on the major aspects of the crisis of classical music’s quickly-diminishing role in society today, talking about everything from who’s going to the concerts, to what the musicians are wearing and why.  But the main reason I’ve been doing all the obsessing lately is because of Sandow’s capturing of exactly how I feel about change in the world of classical music, that is to say that on a visceral, gut level, I’m scared of it, for many reasons.

In his latest riff, Resistance to change: reasons for resistance, Sandow identifies three major reasons given by people who are hesitant to bring classical music to what he thinks is a level of relevance equal to that of the other arts:

  • Change will dumb classical music down.
  • There’s no need for change, because there is no crisis, because classical music is doing just fine as it is.  There is no crisis.
  • Any problems that classical music might have can be blamed on our culture. There’s nothing wrong with classical music, but our culture is now too dumb to support serious art.

Sandow says that the root of all of these reasons is basically nostalgia, which I get if you’re old and you’ve been going to classical music concerts your whole life.  At 27, I’m not “old” yet (and thanks to you crazy Baby Boomers, “old” has been pushed to about 90 these days, so I’ve got a lot of skateboarding-grandpa years left before I hit that mark), but I still feel the deep apprehension about change coming to classical music.  Why would I be feeling this way?  What attachment do I have to the old ways of classical music, especially when these ways are so very different than the way that people of my generation are supposed to interact with music?

If I had to put myself into one of those three categories outlined earlier, I would say that I come up mostly in the third one, which blames our culture for not understanding classical music.  There’s also a decent part of me that worries about the dumbing down of classical music, but not as much as the third category.  I attribute this to not really growing up with popular culture influences: my parents heavily monitored what I listened to and watched while growing up, and as a result I’ve never felt as deep a connection with popular culture as the vast majority of other people have, especially with popular music. I turned to classical music (amongst other sources, such as old band music, drum and bugle corps, American Songbook classics, etc.) to fill the void.

What’s been interesting to me has been my reaction to how this disconnect with popular culture has affected how I use classical music in my life.  While other kids were learning about “cool” bands like Radiohead (a band that, sadly, still doesn’t resonate with me no matter how many classical musicians tell me how awesome it is), I was fixating on the Repertoire (if I could find a way to make the word “Repertoire” more time-worn and cob-webbed, I would…is there a font for that?).  I was able to convince myself that music outside of classical music was for the unwashed masses, and that I was becoming part of something much greater: a tradition and a legitimacy.

This is a reason that I feel Sandow might allude to in his riffs, but never outright states.  A lot of people like classical music for the fact that it is given a position of “high art” by our society.  The fact that lots of people don’t understand it is the point; it makes it exclusive.  It’s like driving a luxury car or owning expensive jeans.  As classical musicians, we spend years devoting our lives to becoming part of this grand tradition that, we are told, transcends the world of popular culture.  Any music liked created for the masses can’t be any good because it’s not our music.  Our music was created (and is still created, for the time being) for people who were able to work as hard as we did to nurture our great taste.

This brings me to my next reason why some are apprehensive of the changes Sandow describes in his riffs.  As classical musicians, we pride ourselves on the years of training that we receive.  We have come to equate these years of training with granting expertise in music, as if we were engineers or scientists.  But the truth is that when it really comes down to it, there is nothing in our classical music training that grants us true expert knowledge over any other type of musician out there.  We hear that some guy with a guitar and a band (and none of our precious training) is the voice of our generation and we are forced to come to terms with that grave disconnect.  To compensate, we end up telling ourselves that either this man can’t be the voice of our generation, or that our generation is full of idiots, because they don’t have the training to understand the music that we like.  How dare those idiots go behind our backs and label this man the voice of our generation without us?  We’re experts, after all!

Another issue is that often the training that classical musicians value so highly doesn’t prepare the new generation of classical musicians for a career in anything except the old ways of making classical music.  Performers aren’t taught to find new ways of presenting the music that they care about to a larger audience.  They’re taught how to compete for fewer and fewer spots in orchestral jobs where the audiences are slowly dying off.  I’ve been part of numerous new music ensembles since getting to college, and none of them have been able to reinvent the actual concert-going experience.  No matter how exciting or new the piece might be, it is still presented in adulated silence in a half-full (at best!) concert hall.  Classical musicians are basically taught that the only models for legitimate success (a subtext that is difficult to explain, but omnipresent) are the old and outdated ones.

Thankfully, this last point is starting to change.  At the University of Oregon, I’ve witnessed a new spirit being ushered in with several influential new hires such as Steve Vacchi (bassoon), Lydia Van Dreel (horn), Nicholas Isherwood (voice), Brian McWhorter (trumpet), and Molly Barth (flute).  These dynamic, young faculty are doing a great job in challenging the old assumptions about what makes for a career in classical music; they emphasize new music as much as repertoire, are fostering connnections with living composers, and are demonstrating new models of how to succeed in the real world (granted, they all make their bread and butter from faculty spots, and many of them play orchestral gigs, but they also play in much less traditional ensembles, push new music, and teach their students to do the same).

Every time I read Sandow’s riffs, I know he’s onto something.  I desperately want to be part of the future that he paints, but until I can get over these old fears and prejudices put into me from years of traditional education and closed-mindedness, I will be on the outside looking in.