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Needed: a Revolution in Musical Training

There may have been a time when it made sense to encourage college freshmen to follow their career dreams, no matter what supply and demand suggested. But when the national infrastructure is decaying, the national debt approaching the GDP, and the indebtedness of our college graduates aggregating to more than $1-trillion, that time has clearly passed.

From what I’ve read, we need more general medical practitioners; more nurses; more scientists, engineers, and teachers of those subjects; and more Americans who speak foreign languages, especially Chinese and Urdu. We need fewer lawyers, fewer bankers, fewer professional athletes, fewer Ph.D.’s in the humanities, and, alas, fewer performing artists.

I have spent my life in the study and teaching of classical music, and in the administration of three of the nation’s leading professional music schools, and I’ve been increasingly concerned that America is producing ever more degrees in music. This year, we are awarding more than 30,000 American collegiate music degrees for a shrinking professional market. These graduates boast artistry superior to any in the history of music, yet they don’t have the skills necessary to keep the nation’s orchestras and opera houses alive. The Great Recession didn’t help, but the problems run much deeper.

Too many musicians have poor reading, writing, speaking, business, and technology skills, putting them at an enormous disadvantage, especially in an arena of falling demand where artists are in the thrall of labor unions. In the past few years we have experienced a damaging strike at the Detroit Symphony, a bankruptcy filing by the Philadelphia Orchestra (from which it has since emerged), a ruinous 16-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra, personnel and pay cuts at the Atlanta Symphony. The New York City Opera closed, the Metropolitan Opera went through contract negotiations with its unions and both sides took cuts, and the San Diego Opera came close to shutting down.

I don’t think the long-term situation is hopeless, but it seems obvious that we are not doing college music students any favors by failing to reflect on needed reforms. Students and parents, music professors and deans, provosts and foundation heads need to imagine a whole new musical ecosystem in which degrees granted would be kept better in check while audiences are better enticed and engaged. One model is major-league sports, where the training of shortstops and middle linebackers is matched by the development of a fan base. There has never been a euro in the federal German budget for the arts. The money, and there is a lot of it, is in the budgets of the individual states and cities, and that varies enormously on a per-capita basis, apparently depending not on education and affluence but on the participation of amateurs in avocational musical activities—singing in church choirs, playing in town bands, and performing chamber music at home for friends on weekends.

To that end, here are a few proposals to revive and broaden America’s classical-music culture:

•       Musicians need time to practice their instruments, but repertoires vary enormously. While those of the piano and the violin are long and difficult, those of the clarinet and the trombone are not. Both of the latter, for example, leave plenty of time for undergraduate double majors, including pre-med, pre-law, and business courses in accounting, marketing, and fund raising.

•       At present I know of no orchestra that makes hiring decisions based on both auditions and interviews. If several hundred candidates present themselves for an opening, why not include consideration of a player’s ability to relate to his or her colleagues and to be involved in fund raising and audience development? What’s better than a virtuoso English horn player? One who charms civic associations and wealthy patrons, and has friends managing nearby museums and theaters.

•       Fifteen percent of the members of a modern orchestra are required to perform in but 25 percent of the orchestral repertoire. Why not train that 15 percent to accomplish administrative work, thereby lowering the number  of necessary administrative employees? Unions don’t like this idea, of course, but they’ll like even less the thought of orchestras’ perishing altogether.

•       While many faculty members understandably prefer to teach graduate students already committed to the professor’s area of specialization, it is less expensive for the university to teach undergraduates, and it also places less pressure on a program to find professional positions for those advanced-degree holders.

•       Musicians need to learn a broader repertoire of music for ensembles of all sizes.  While classical music came to America primarily from Europe after our Civil War, the music of African-Americans was not taught in American colleges until 1947, at what is now the University of North Texas, and then not under the rubric of jazz but as  part of an experimental “lab band” program. One could get thrown out of the Eastman School in 1945 for playing jazz.  The breadth of repertory presented at the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration as our 44th president is much more representative, I believe, of programming that will attract future audiences. Long live the largely German and Austrian repertoire performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra till the First World War. But our audiences moved on and we have to catch up.  If that means juxtaposing works that used to belong in separate, watertight boxes, why in the world not?

•       Musicians spend our lives learning how to listen to classical works. But colleges should conduct studies to understand, in an age of diminishing attention spans and patience, how our audiences hear and what they want. Can we persuade them to spend the hour that a Mahler symphony demands? Maybe, but perhaps it will require types of priming or presentation we haven’t thought of yet. Potential listeners aren’t only our future ticket buyers, they are also our future donors and board members.

•       Universities, which annually spend several billion dollars a year on music, need to commission new works accessible to the interests and participation of new audiences. Links to liberal-arts curricula (as in programs under way at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Illinois, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), to current events, to historic anniversaries, to visiting scholars and artists should be developed. We need not be such purists. Yes, the eye can be used as a crutch to the ear and, ideally, a Mozart symphony can be appreciated on its own superb merits. But if it’s choreographed to, featured in a film, heard in between acts of a play or in a museum, are we really undermining the listening experience? Mozart himself understood patronage and a little show-biz flare. We should too. Sergei Rachmaninoff believed that each movement he wrote involved a series of hierarchically related climaxes, easily perceived with respect to the whole. Some visual reflection of that, whether on YouTube or on a screen in front of each listener, as at the Metropolitan Opera, would not be inappropriate. Never mind those old Pink Floyd laser shows—cue up the Shostakovitch!

Traditional narrow musical training has for too long dictated programming and presentation. A new generation of innovative, entrepreneurial musicians must shake up our field and wake up their audiences. That attitude, those skills, must begin with a revamping of their college and university educations. A huge challenge, that—but the opportunity for a great deal of inspired fun too.

Robert Freeman is a professor and former dean of fine arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously, he directed the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. In August, Rowman and Littlefield is publishing his book The Crisis of Classical Music in America.

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