19 January 2007

Greater and Lesser Divides

As the subtitle "death by eclectic chair" is meant to imply (thankfully for you it's a pun, not a typo), this blog is showing signs of going in phases in terms of subject matter, the current manifestation of which would appear to be an abnormal preoccupation with issues relating to the orchestra in various ways. Rather than resisting this, I'm going to embrace it and have yet another post on the topic (remarkable for someone who once alienated a college orchestra conductor by accidentally blurting out that "orchestral brass players are just a bunch of jocks" within his earshot). I've been reading this, obtained by way of Henry Fogel's blog, and of course, I have an opinion and will subject you to it presently.

I originally got into blogging (reading them, that is, more than writing them) by way of the whole "saving classical music" thing that the Arts Journal people in particular are always on about. There are, of course, still good reasons to be having such a discussion; nevertheless, I am growing weary of articles like this. It once seemed very much appropriate, very hip and avant garde in a pedestrian sort of way to be taking the long view on these issues out of concern for the future of the music. Now I just bristle. Why? For one thing, it is no longer avant garde at all: this article is more detailed and informative than most, but is really just making the same recommendations and is based on the same premises as most everything one reads on this subject. The other part of the problem is that some of these premises are tenuous.

Before I get into more specific/substantive critiques, let me first say that between the things I read in these kinds of articles and the things I've observed in peers of mine who aspire to orchestral jobs, I can only laugh when they say things to me like, "Freelancing??!! That's a terrible way to make a living!" To each his own, my friends. I will not pass judgement on you if you agree not to do the same to me. Most pros I've talked to personally absolutely love their jobs, whether they are orchestral players or total freelancers. (according to this and other articles, that's most likely because none of them have been orchestral string players, who, true to what is said behind their back in music school, really do seem to be a bunch of emotional malcontents) Even aside from what happens to them after they win the job, it seems to me that there certainly is a personality gap between orchestral pros and the rest of music (not surprising considering the necessary preparation; maybe that will be fodder for another post).

Now, here's what I think is more objectively wrong with this article. In attempting to "bridge" one gap (namely, that between what student musicians think their job description will be in a pro orchestra and what it actually is), the recommendations made here would just create a new gap between how academia trains them to fulfill these obligations and how they actually have to be dealt with in practice. The article advocates for conservatories to implement required classes on fundraising and outreach activities, complaining that most aspiring orchestral musicians win their first audition with no knowledge whatsoever of these things and must learn "on the job." I'm certainly willing to take their word for it, BUT...considering all the aspects of musical training where one is already struggling with theory-versus-practice issues, this just appears to me to be one more. It could do a little bit of good, but say someone from Minneapolis gets really good at schmoozing with donors here and subsequently wins an orchestral job in the deep south. Can you say culture shock? There are elements to social interaction that are not taught in school because they cannot be taught in school. To put it mildly, I think that these are idealistic recommendations. It all sounds peachy in theory, but I'm not holding my breath for a breakthrough. I suppose we'll find out in due time if the program at Eastman, for example, bears any fruit.

There was a larger theme (I was laughing, actually) running throughout the article whereby it is repeatedly implied that orchestral musicians lack social skills (the word curmudgeon was used at one point). I am again willing to take their word for lack of sufficient personal experience. However, by the time they get to college, is it not a little bit late to start working on this? While college was overall a productive and enjoyable experience for me, it felt way too much like high school already. Many professors took attendance and factored it into grading; students repeatedly whined and coerced instructors into granting opportunities for extra credit or throwing out certain test questions; and as a music major, 89 out of the 120 credits I needed to graduate had to be in my major, which meant that I had almost no real decisions to make when it came time to register for classes. If you had also required me to take a class on outreach and another one on grantsmanship and another one on wine and cheese party etiquette, I might have quit. Actually, there is very little in the classes that I did have to take that I could not have learned elsewhere (common critique of majoring in music which I should have heeded before jumping in). How about we reserve valuable credit hours for those things instead of micromanaging every last detail of everything else? I'm not aware of other fields where the training aspires to be not only intellectual and practical but also social. People simply are panicked in music to the point of irrationality because money is drying up faster than you can spell "anacrusis".

Now for the most galling line of the entire thing:
"Rather than simply introducing a piece of music by offering factual background...[actor/arts educator Eric Booth] teaches musicians how to connect emotionally to introduce a piece."
Touché. Did I mention that Ligeti's piano etudes make me happy, or that Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" makes me feel invigorated? Anyone can play this game. It doesn't take a workshop with some "arts educator" to develop, and it's not going to make Ligeti or Dolphy fans out of an audience of conservative midwestern suburbanites. In case anyone was wondering, that's why it has not traditionally been used in pre-concert talks. With all due respect toMr. Booth, I can't help but bristle at the apparent total absence from his resume of any relevant experience as a musician. Leave it to an actor to tell you that your shoe is untied while you're wearing sandals.

Is it criminal that some of us just want to play our damn instruments, that this is the reason we pursue careers in music, and that we don't need or even always want to know anything about the composer or the performers in order to enjoy listening to the music? I suspect that we have always been here and that we're not going away any time soon. I also know that we are not all "curmudgeons" as the article implies, but that somehow our passion is not readily communicated by our intuitive actions as functional musicians. The message here seems to be that perhaps the place for us is no longer as professional orchestral players. Good thing I got the message in time without anyone having to tell me.

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