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Selected articles written for The Glenn Gould Foundation:
What Classical Musicians Can Learn From Pop Music (2016)
The institutionalization of classical music cannot be underestimated. All too frequently for example, hosts of classical radio stations introduce artists as having graduated from any number of distinguished universities, not to mention those institutions on whose faculties the artist serves and/or has given master classes. If the same could be said for popular music, then announcers would be introducing tracks by John Legend with a mention of his English degree from the University of Pennsylvania, or Sheryl Crow’s Music Ed degree from the University of Missouri.
What we do hear from pop stations in plain, simple language, is how the song (generally about relationships, love and the art of “getting by”) is going to get you moving and grooving, how it’s going to make your work day fly by, or get your Saturday night dance party rocking. The expectation has been set and the song delivers. The station seems to know what emotional hurdles we need music to help us with, things like getting to work on time, dealing with rejection and how to let loose on a Friday night.
We tune in because we know that we can relate to what we hear and that our already weary attention spans will not be taxed, nor will they be challenged to listen too deeply for, as musical medicine, this pop music (oldies, too) quite simply helps get us through the work week as quickly and easily as possible. In this same fashion, classical music can and should be serving our needs and, if the listener of pop music fails to realize that a Chopin Nocturne or a Mahler Symphony can in fact help them cope with failed relationships just as effectively as an Adele song (perhaps even more so) then classical radio hosts and musicians alike need to show the listener how. Simply being able to play well classical music is not enough, rather we should also be savvy “tour guides”, gently and patiently shepherding our listeners along a wonderful journey of musical discovery.
What does the institutional saturation of classical music mean? Generally speaking, classical musicians struggle with their role as artists of serious music in the twenty-first century and, for good reasons. They practice long hours, alone, often for little or no pay, all for the sake of bringing to life some of the most complex and beautiful works of art the world has ever known.
The craft of these musicians however, has for so long been dominated by the study of technique, history, theory and pedagogy, that perhaps the simplest of questions has been overlooked, namely “what is the purpose of classical music?” High atop its pedestal, classical music sits gazing down on the masses who, knocking at its door, often fail to locate the key of discovery.
Nor do the titles of this music help in the pursuit of building listeners. Admittedly, the draw of a piece of music titled, The Long and Winding Road or Lose Yourself to Dance is a little more enticing than Symphony #9, or Concerto in F-minor, yet behind these heavy exteriors exist an aural diet rich in musical nutrients (i.e. life skills). The drawbridge simply needs to be lowered in order to allow new ears into the ivory tower, for in learning how to listen to classical music we are in turn learning how to listen to one another, empathizing and learning to feel compassion for those with lifestyles and backgrounds different from our own.
Classical music is perhaps most effectively experienced when seen as the primary focal point and not as background music. This is because of its complex structures and rhythms and subtle gestures of instrumental colour and shading. As with anything difficult and complicated, effort must be applied daily in order for it to be understood and appreciated. One serving of vegetables in a lifetime of fried food is hardly enough to make a person healthy. Rather, the benefits of classical music are felt when we make it a habit.
Unloading on audiences upfront as it were, academic distinctions and competition wins, classical musicians are actually widening the gap between themselves and the everyday Joe/Joanne who, in theory, may perceive that classical music has the capacity to improve their lives, however, cannot explain precisely how and are too intimidated to try. They would simply rather be watching Netflix.
If and when they do make it to a concert, then they often feel intimidated by the formality. The lonely stage, void of video graphics and special effects can hardly compete with the visual stimuli they’ve come to expect from the endless sources of electronic media available to them. The gowns and tuxedos, the need to turn off phones, the serious expressions on the faces of players, the need to keep quiet and the shame felt over having clapped inappropriately is all a bit much for the everyday listener.
Classical musicians cannot afford to walk on stage without admitting that likely this is the kind of experience many of their listeners expect to have. Certainly there are and always will be connoisseurs of classical music. They are our champions and we must look for every opportunity to show our appreciation. Many of these individuals are the ones whose donations keep classical music on the air, and local concert series from folding. Connoisseurs and performers alike must unite in an effort to show that as good as that adrenalin-pumping pop music is, the beast that is classical music, when tamed, teaches us compassion, beauty and understanding.
Climbing down from the ivory tower, let us bring our craft to those who most need it, in spaces where we might not expect to find it. It might also do us some good to heed the advice of philosopher, Alain de Botton who, in the case of visual art, proposed that museums arrange their collections in such a way that each gallery represents a particular emotion rather than a historical period. Programing recitals in a similar fashion might involve a set of pieces related to the beauty of form in nature, and another to love and relationships. In so doing, we use classical music not as a mere form of entertainment, but rather a tool to help with our own psychological frailties, those things that on its own, the body cannot accomplish.
As classical musicians, let us also take it upon ourselves to develop the art of writing and speaking. So many of the great pianists of the past century, for example were prolific writers and gifted speakers (Paderewski, Rosenthal, Schnabel, Rubinstein and Gould). The precious gift that is an audience cannot be wasted. We must avoid the “shopping list” found at many recitals, the one where the player tells you how old the composer was when he/she wrote the piece, how many movements there are and, perhaps a few examples of some of the major influences upon the composer.
Rather, it is the responsibility of the artist to share with listeners, those things about the music that cannot be found on Wikipedia. A few years ago, I attended a concert where the conductor referred to a melody by Rachmaninoff as being romantic and having the power to make me want to kiss the person seated next to me. As I recall, there was also an update on the score of the local football game. Giggles are not necessarily the reactions we should seek to elicit from listeners.
Believe that classical music can and must be of service to listeners. Look for ways in which to collaborate with other art forms and, seek as possible venues, those outside the usual concert setting. Audiences want analogies between classical music and everyday life, a few clues as it were for understanding that the connection between a late Beethoven string quartet and a Beatles song about getting old really isn’t as far off as one might have it.