First day of music school, freshman year. There are more than 300 of us crammed into a choral/lecture space waiting to be split up into separate classes. It’s a room full of nervous teenagers bent on proving that they just might be the next great thing.
Suddenly the song ‘Fresh’ by Kool and the Gang (for the record, I DO NOT LIKE THIS SONG) booms from the immense speakers in the front of the room. In bounces the first music professor I met besides my instrumental instructor. He’s wearing a J.S. Bach-style pink wig. He sits at the piano bench and starts playing along.
The room is his, because we are pretty much laughing our a#$%es off.
The music stops. “If there’s one thing I want you to learn while you are here,” he said. “It’s that classical music is alive today.” Collective eye-rolling ensues. I mean really, the room is full of classical music nerds intent on defending the art until the bitter end. Plus we were 18, clearly we knew this already. We didn’t need bad 80s pop to reinforce the idea.
Granted, the Canon is maybe the most known piece of classical music on the planet. It’s right up there with the opening chords of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. I’ve never been wild about it, but still, this news was humbling.
This great art form, this classical music, the same in some way, as Kool & the Gang?
The whole experience was a bit corny and melodramatic, but somewhere in my mind, something clicked. Music is not divided into type or genre.
It just is.
And everybody has a part to play.
This is not an original idea. Talk to almost anybody who loves music, and chances are they like a little bit of everything.
And yet, the presentation of classical music in the symphony hall and on the air continues to struggle with this idea of connection with everyday life. Part of the issue may be that for too long, we who presented and performed this music worked in a bubble.
We only heard from the experts, from those who had spent their lives studying and appreciating classical music. After all, they are the ones who come to concerts. They understood cataloging systems, proper pronunciation, and the importance of preserving the high-art form of classical music.
Or at least, they worked hard to cultivate the ‘expert’ moniker, true or not.
Trust me, as a music host, the complainers are those who deem themselves experts. They get apoplectic over their opinion of proper pronunciation. It’s easy to start serving them instead of the audience.
The real thing to gauge and monitor are not phone calls and emails from ‘experts’, but rather your audience numbers. If your audience is growing, people are being reached.
For a long time, the bubble was enough. Then, the world changed, and access to music exploded, first through records, cassettes and CD’s. Then, it went digital, and became self-programmable.
Music education changed, or rather, went away. I can still remember singing Beethoven (ode to joy) and Woody Guthrie (this land is your land) in 3rd grade music class. In fifth grade chorus we sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, and ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ in the same concert. Sadly, this just doesn’t happen anymore in most schools.
We forgot that music is community, and that communities have all kinds of people in them.
Classical music is not the only institution experiencing a dramatic shift in how the larger culture relates to it.
My current gig with the Church is going through something very similar. For both, I think the idea is the same: everyone has a voice, a role to play.
The question for us is: are we willing to change to hear those voices and include them?
Will we break the bubble?