Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

America has no culture. How many times has this been uttered by people around the world? America has plenty of entertainment: from vaudeville, ragtime and jazz to Broadway, baseball and reality television, we have always been able to pass the time, to manufacture celebrities and fill programming in every form of media. But culture? Surely not! When Americans crave culture, they import it–and why not? Americans love the exotic, and the world loves to come to America. Why should we need our own culture?

This is a tongue in cheek assessment, to be sure, but there are those who may already find themselves nodding in agreement. American culture often seems quite balanced: on one hand, we have an incredible sense of hubris, while on the other we have a massive inferiority complex. It is in this balance that so many of our cultural gems are lost. And when they are lost, or even overlooked, how may we begin to get them back?

Perhaps nowhere is this problem more evident than in concert music. Classical music is a European art form, goes the argument. It is not American; the best American composers merely borrowed from European models, and the finest orchestras tend to import their conductors and soloists (and a good portion of their musicians.) These facts are accurate, sad to say; far too many orchestras overlook top American talent in favor of more ‘exotic’ foreigners. And there is nothing wrong with foreigners! From Toscanini and Mahler to Muti and Masur, American music owes a deep debt of gratitude to men and women from all over the world who have come to America to contribute to our cultural life. But what of American talent? After all, we boast some of the best conservatories and universities in the world; why are we so eager to overlook the emergence of a talented young American musician as some sort of novelty or aberration–a second choice, at best?

Most alarming is the manifestation of the inferiority complex when it comes to American music. Our symphonic canon is, to put it mildly, underrated. In both the classroom and the concert hall, there are few perennial favorites, little patriotism aroused by, say, the performance of a Piston Symphony or the announcement of a new symphony by a Rouse or Corigliano. American music is certainly no pale imitation of European mastery! It is vivid, complex, descriptive, personable and uniquely American. 

A German knows what Beethoven means for national pride. The French have a certain way with Debussy and Bizet. The English adore Vaughan Williams and Elgar. And when it comes to the Russians and their national composers…well…to use the term devotion is hardly a hyperbole. But what of Americans? What does it mean to say Bernstein, Copland or Barber? How about Piston, Persichetti, Mennin? The post-war and cold war eras saw an arms race and space race with Russia, and every opportunity was taken to gloat and celebrate when America bested their Soviet counterparts in some area of achievement. And yet what have we been left with? The Soviets got the best years of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. We got the best of Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and many others. And yet how many times will we see those Russian masters on a program to be performed by American orchestras–while our American masters are neglected by the same ensembles? 

It is not merely a lack of performances; it is a lack of outrage at the lack of performances, a lack of awareness and an abundance of apathy. Aside from Appalachian Spring and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, there seem to be few real ‘hits’ at the box office. Why is that? 

The roots of this issue lie in two places, as far as I can tell. One is the classroom. American music is conspicuously absent from classrooms across the country. The continued compartmentalization of education is surely a factor in this matter. Heaven forbid that, while studying world war 2, we should have any mention of Copland’s Ballet for Martha or that upon examining the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we should be introduced to Bernstein’s Kaddish. How wonderful would it be for every elementary school student to know the themes (or at least the ‘Variations on a Shaker theme’) of Copland’s ballet! 

The second, of course, is the orchestra itself. Few appearances are made on orchestral programs, and when they are they often come with extreme fanfare or on concerts dedicated entirely to American music. Triumph, of course, would be to include with the programming of American music an omission of note; to simply include this music as part of the canon would be a more effective strategy in the long run, as introducing a new food to a child without gimmicks or debate. Give the audience a chance to love this music–their music. It is not merely ownership, but a matter of identity: this music is about them, their communities and their experiences! Why should it not be a part of their life?

I often wonder when music became ‘new music.’ All music was once new music, after all: Beethoven’s Eroica shocked the Viennese, Bruckner’s symphonies perplexed audiences and Prokofiev disconcerted even his mentors. We get over it; we move on, and, most importantly, we come to accept and love it. Why has the work of Americans been so often relegated to ‘novelty’? Much of it is (or once was) an experiment; but experiments prove a thesis, and then become a standard, then ubiquitous. And is that very ubiquitousness not a definition of success? 

Finally, there are the musicians themselves. We consistently walk a fine line between a tortured quest for individuality and a desperate search for association; to belong, to have some classification. The latter seems to be a recent phenomenon, at least as far as the specialty musician, as opposed to generations past in which being a consummate musician was the ultimate honor. But today we have early music specialists and Baroque coloraturas, period instrument orchestras and avant garde ensembles. For some, crossing the line is seen as an ideological shift! And thus we have the new music specialist. And what shall we say of this musician? Should ‘new music’ be the exclusive domain and property of this specialist? Shall this musician shun the works of any composer born before the heyday of Stockhausen and consider any fellow musician who has not studied in a special program the mysterious, exclusive world of ‘new music’? 

To our great masters, of course, this would likely seem quite shocking. The greatest musical communities in history thrived on a desire to learn and live with as much music as possible. And for great performers, it was essential to have relationships with composers. When did the line between composer and performer become so salient and so important? It is an important question, concerning both interpersonal relationships and individuals. For there are many (perhaps too many) performers who look with a wary eye upon living composers, and many (again, perhaps too many!) composers who consider themselves only composers and not practicing musicians. Neither attitude is healthy. Music will be played by people; thus, relationships are vital. And those must be encouraged! 

It is a feature of nearly every artists’ biography I’ve ever read in a concert program, be it a famous soloist or conductor, or a young virtuoso. Passionately devoted to new music! proclaims a section of the bio. A champion of living composers. New music–may I please, please, please simply call it music?–needs champions; it needs devotion, patience, and faith. A composer needs to be believed in, understood, afforded genuine passion. Works need to be commissioned and performed, then performed again, and again, and again. Histories and styles need to be developed, relationships between composers and performers or ensembles formed and maintained, and a lexicon unique to that composer established as a language with which to be familiar and to which fluency is aspired. America can be described in music; it has been, and will continue to be. Composers will speak; it is time for audiences to really have a chance to listen.

The need for brave artists.

Music and politics have always had an interesting relationship. Political leaders have shaped music history for hundreds of years, for better or worse. In the case of the former, we have the Emperor Franz Josef I, the Esterhazy family and King Ludwig II; in the case of the latter, we may look to Stalin and Hitler. And sometimes we see a more complex picture, as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which both oppressed (dictating rules of form and harmony) and empowered (the masses of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.)

The artist has always toed the line, for various reasons, between being politically active and apolitical. Sometimes it is a game of diplomacy, such as the case of Mozart and the bishops of Salzburg; other times, it is a case of reckless abandon, as in the case of Wagner’s involvement with the revolution of 1848. But we have a rich legacy of artists whose compliance with or defiance of political powers resulted in the creation of magnificent works—works whose legacies have shaped our culture and societies in profound ways.

With the recent passing of laws regarding homosexuality in Russia, music has been thrust into the spotlight time and time again. Perhaps most notably, we have seen protests in New York City, both at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. Commentary has not been in short supply regarding these events, with passionate voices crying out on both sides of the issue.

In the center of the debate, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are two living legends of the opera house and concert hall, both of whom happen to be Russian. In the case of one, protest has been met with silence; in the case of the other, a weak protest was issued, concluding with a very disturbing sentence: “In my next life, when I will be a politician, we talk!”

It is important to note that this has become much more than an issue of gay rights. The problem has gone far beyond a question of modern ethics and the role of government in the bedroom. No, this is a question of human rights, for when people are being persecuted and even hunted down, as a group, in an organized and official manner, there can be no silence, no idle talk. But to hear that from an artist is especially egregious.

The role of the artist in society is to be a good and productive citizen. There are other perks, of course: fame and fortune, celebrity and privilege, adulation and acknowledgement on a grand scale. But the artist has a unique and powerful voice. Politicians? A politician has tremendous power over the flesh and fortunes of men. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, ignorance is too often the domain of the statesman—and impotence. How may they address that over which they have no power, the immortal human spirit, when power is all they know and desire? Yes, they are rendered impotent! The value of money will change; empires and nations will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost, borders drawn and redrawn, power gained and lost, parties created and disbanded. This is the fate of the politician, no matter how skilled or even how altruistic. But the artist will always remain; the voice of the artist will be the voice of the people, the manifestation of will, the link between the physical and metaphysical.

I can appreciate that these two artists may have concerns for themselves and their families and certainly hope that they may remain safe and healthy. But excuses cannot be made. We have seen too many ‘issues of politics’ become the genesis of unimaginable tragedy. Jim Crow and Nuremburg laws were once ‘just’ public policy, after all; how can we stand idly by?

The artist must be an idealist. Everything else, whether a tribulation or a benefit, is merely a distraction. We are called to serve our fellow man. And we have plenty of examples. Perhaps most fittingly, we may examine Shostakovich. Arguably the most honest and brave artist of the last century, Shostakovich defied official orders time and time again, quite literally risking life and limb to compose music which was honest. Yes, he was patriotic; yes, he served his country and culture. But he knew he had an even higher calling: he served human-kind. And for that, he was willing to risk everything, time after time.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful movie ‘A Few Good Men.’ As he is cross examined on the stand, the antagonist defends his honor—and, in fact, honor in general. “We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line,” he says. In the world of art, we use many similar words: ideals, talent, genius, virtuosity, faithfulness and, yes, honor. We use them over and over and over again until they very nearly lose their meaning, their potency and their value. They become…nearly a punch line, or at worst, a cliché. The worst part of a cliché is that the value of an ideal becomes muddled or lost. It is time for us to stop speaking and acting in cliché; it is time to stop being casual with language and ideals, time to stop making excuses. The artist must be the voice of the people. Ideals, genius, fidelity, loyalty, and honor: these are our duty.

Dear Sesame Street: Less Hip Hop, please.

I have been a parent for a little more than five years now. It has been an incredible adventure from the first moment, filled with moments of terror, triumph, unimaginable joy and unexpected sorrow. I love being a father as much as I love being a musician. Indeed, the moment I held my son in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the moment I first heard one of my own compositions being brought from the page to the concert hall–though this moment was never to be replicated. 

Being a father has brought me some unexpected inspiration as well. Simple things–watching my son hold a hermit crab for the first time and squeal in delight, or chasing a frog across the lawn–become epic adventures and moments of discovery. And he always makes me better. Indeed, before he was born, I had little desire to teach. Now, I feel compelled to teach as much and often as possible (and, as a happy consequence, to seek out knowledge and aspire to wisdom with a passionate urgency.) I have become keenly aware of education in all its forms: the school system and curriculum, naturally, but also the history of education. 

What I see has begun to disturb me greatly. A comprehensive commentary is far beyond the scope of such a modest article as this and, frankly, is probably beyond the author as well. But I know what I see and hear, and I know what I want to see (and what I feel is missing.) The fundamental goal of education should not be the development of skills for a job; it should be the cognitive, intellectual, emotional and, yes, spiritual growth of a human being in a safe, social and challenging environment.

I believe that learning is a comprehensive art and ought to be compelling. Education and knowledge should not be compartmentalized; each discipline informs the next and keeps us from existing in the vacuum nature so abhors. Yet I see this more and more: each subject is isolated, broken into simple components and structured so that bits and pieces may be digested (or, perhaps more accurately, consumed) for the all-important test. The days of the trivium and quadrivium are long gone. 

Media has become such an important part of our daily lives, for better or worse, that it is difficult to argue against it as a serious tool for children’s development and education. PBS television has always done an excellent job in delivering quality content, and I myself grew up on two of their most important shows. One was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ warmth, wisdom and sincerity made me, at the age of 5, want to be a better person, to keep my sense of wonder and curiosity no matter what my age. His show helped me realize that compassion, kindness and empathy were essential. 

The other show was Sesame Street. A natural community, where neighbors lived, worked, played, and shared everything together, it seemed much less a fantasy or fictional world than a pleasant snapshot of reality, a vignette and allegory which was gentle yet firm in its messages. The neighborhood was a place to visit, the community offering a standing invitation to join. 

As a child I can remember seeing Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman join, and, given my love affair with music, I was captivated. I always carried these images in my mind; music was there, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. It expressed emotions that I didn’t even know I had, and best of all, I could express them, too! 

So when my son became old enough to start watching some television, I was delighted to see that Sesame Street was still on the air. I was happy to have some sense of continuity in this ever changing world.

Then I saw a recent show–and I was surprised. 

Why, oh why, is there so much rap and hip hop on Sesame Street? Where did it come from–and what educational purpose does it serve? This is ‘entertainment’ at best. It is not just guest artists; we see puppets casually rapping in certain segments, for no apparent reason.

Let us examine a few things. Rap and hip hop take two great arts–language (especially poetry) and music, and reduce them to simple elements. For young children, simpler is usually better. However, these elements are not executed in a manner which is fundamentally sound. Poetry, an art which has challenged some of the best literary minds in history, is reduced to ‘rhymes’ which are often trite and usually clever at best. Are these things not better exemplified by Mother Goose or Emily Dickinson? In addition, this language is riddled with slang, not to mention profanity–to things that are hardly healthy for developing minds which need to learn the building blocks of language not just technically but also socially. Then there is the question of the music. I think there is one term which can sum up the issue: beats. Yes, in these genres of music, it is all about the ‘beat.’ Forget, for a moment, that an incredibly powerful element of music (rhythm) is reduced to a single word. What does the word ‘beat’ make you think of? Beating eggs, beating someone at something, beating somebody up…’beat’ is a violent word. And that is the entry point with rap and hip hop. But what do we say in other forms of music, namely classical/art music? We speak of a ‘pulse.’ What does that word conjure images of? The pulse–the heartbeat, the first and most salient vital sign, a proof of life itself. Pulse…passion….energy…vitality….ever changing, at its safest when steady yet helpful when varying, racing ahead or slowing down. And that is what ‘classical’ music contains: every element of life, a window to worlds, ideas, experiences and knowledge. Isn’t that what children and young adults need?

The argument seems to be that this kind of music–rap, hip hop, popular music–is what children are most likely to be exposed to and, therefore, will relate to most easily. Yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are introduced to this as a matter of course then it will be their sole frame of reference. And they will be: this music is heard in everything from television commercials to the background music in restaurants and retail stores. It is in movies and television shows, ring tones and video games. And if they have older siblings…

It seems, lately, almost taboo to criticize or even question rap and hip hop. Yet it is an important issue–one well worth discussing. It is not merely that I wish we had more violinists, opera singers, conductors and string quartets visiting (or living on!) ‘The Street’–though that would be wonderful! It is a need to demonstrate that culture is more than politically correct characters traipsing about the screen providing entertainment. Culture is about life. Isn’t it time to discuss that with our children?

How to speak ‘musician.’

We musicians are a strange lot. There are good reasons for this, of course. Starting in early childhood, we tend to spend many hours every day locked in solitude, practicing the same music over and over (and over.) As we get older, it gets worse: we start to hang around other musicians. And then the real fun begins.

For the non-musician, it can seem…odd. Not only are we fluent in the sometimes mysterious language of music, but we also have our own language. Yes, ‘Musician’ is an ancient tongue which rarely translates well. It comes with its own customs and habits which can seem rather unusual to the outsider. For example, imagine that you are standing around a college campus somewhere in early to mid summer. You see a line forming and realize that the international music festival begins today; ah, these must be the students waiting for registration! Two people holding violin cases begin to talk, and this is what you hear (A: Violinist No. 1, B: Violinist No. 2):

  1. A.      Hi.
  2. Hi
  3. A.      How’s it going?
  4. Good! How are you?
  5. C.      Oh, good, thanks. Wow, that’s a nice case—got it from Shar?

Yes! It’s new. I like yours, too.

Thanks! So, where do you study?

I’m at Oberlin. You?

Oh, I’m at Eastman.

Nice…undergrad or grad?

Grad. You?

Undergrad.

Ah. So what are you working on these days?

Well, for solo rep, I’m doing the Chaconne, Tchaik and Dvorak concerti and the ‘Spring’ sonata. Oh, and I’m hoping to do Paganini 24, too—I need it for my recital. And I’ll be taking auditions this fall so I really need to work on Mendelssohn and Schumann scherzos.

Good stuff. I’m working on the C major fugue, Tchaik and Brahms, and Paganini 20 and 21. I empathize on the Schumann—man, I can’t find any good bowings! But the thing that really gets me is Don Juan. Kicks my butt.

Oh, well, I have good bowings for Schumann and Don Juan. Maybe we will end up in the same studio!

That’d be cool. Hey, by the way, I’m Sally. What’s your name?

 

Could you keep up? The two were talking about school and repertoire—but maybe most telling is the fact that the name was the last thing to come up! This is not unusual at all. Lines of questioning when meeting a musician usually go in this order: What do you play, where did you study, where are you playing now, do you know (name of mutual friend here), what’s your name?

Yup, it’s a strange world, all right. And you’ll find that we need to be spoken to carefully. Below I have compiled a list of comments and questions posed by non-musicians to classical musicians.

 

Did you go to Juilliard?” (Note: you are excused if you ask this in New York City, especially if you’re standing anywhere near Lincoln Center while asking.)

First: Bravo! We’re thrilled that you know about Juilliard. Sincerely, we are. And we’re flattered that you asked. After all, Juilliard is the most famous school of music in the world—and everyone seems to know how exclusive it is.

But did you know that there are other music colleges, too? And there are some very, very good ones: some as good as (or, sacrilegious as it may seem to say, even better than, in the opinion of some) The Juilliard School. But please, if we say no, don’t give us a pitying, quizzical or disappointed look! From the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (which is even more exclusive than Juilliard) to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester to the San Francisco Conservatory, America is filled with top notch music schools (we call them conservatories.) And there are plenty more—too many to mention, especially when including university programs, such as Indiana University and Rice, which have conservatory level programs. And if we didn’t go to Juilliard, we aren’t necessarily disappointed about it. Many factors go into choosing a place to study.

Where did you study? is a great way to ask—and gives us a chance to rave about our alma mater.

 

“You’re a musician? Did you go to college?”

This one hurts. I mean this in the least snobby way possible: We’re professional musicians and artists. It takes a ton of study to become even a decent musician, let alone world-class. Yes, we went to college. Yes, we had to study. No, we didn’t just sit around practicing all day—we had to take classes on music theory, music history, western literature, foreign languages (usually French, Italian and/or German, and sometimes Russian), ear training, form and analysis, harmony and counterpoint. That doesn’t even get into extremely specific courses such as Renaissance music, ethnomusicology, orchestration, pedagogy; post-romantic chromaticism…the list goes on and on. And besides all that practice, we have a mountain of repertoire to learn, perfect and perform in front of our peers in studio classes and auditions, ensembles, master classes…and lessons. Did I mention lessons? Ah yes, lessons: an hour a week with a world-renowned master whose recordings you’ve worshipped since you were 8. Glamorous—and often terrifying. Yes, we went to college.

 

“Can you make a living as a musician?”

One word: Argh! Do not, under any circumstances, ask a musician this question. It is the Red Button of questions. Just don’t do it.

The answer? Yes, we can make quite a nice living. The real answer? Sure, it is possible, but it is incredibly hard. And at a certain point, it has little, if anything, to do with talent (more on that later.) There are ‘secure’ jobs in the field. You can be a soloist or major conductor, making 5 or 6 figures per performance, landing lucrative recording deals, going from one major city to the next, your name alone enough to draw huge crowds, win friends, influence people, make women want you and men want to be you. That’s the 1%. Actually, that is more like 1% of 1%.

Then you have the 9 to 5ers (not really, but the equivalent of that in our field.) These are the elite chamber ensembles, top level recitalists, mega-star professors and tenured members of major orchestras. They make a great salary and benefits* (subject to a healthy and responsible board), enjoy prestige in their community (and often beyond) and have pretty good job security (for musicians, anyway.) This is the 5%, maybe the 10%.

The rest of us?

Well, there’s teaching. And there’s gigging. Gigging can range from weddings and bar mitzvahs to being principal at a regional orchestra. And there’s…well, that’s pretty much it. Once upon a time one could ‘gig’ and make a very good living. Now? Not so much.

So yes, it is possible—now, please stop asking silly questions and let us get back to practicing….

 

I don’t see what the big deal is…I mean, you get to do what you love, and it isn’t any harder to find a job than in any other professions.’

Sorry to say this, but you could not be more wrong. Well, half wrong. Yes, we get to do what we love! But a note on this: being a symphony musician is a job. You work long hours (have you ever tried to sit through a 3 hour orchestra rehearsal? 3-4 days a week?) doing something that can harm your body. Holding a violin or viola is a very un-natural thing for the human body to do. Playing a wind or brass instrument means forcing huge amounts of air through tiny holes. And percussion? Have you heard how loud those guys can be?!

An orchestra rehearsal is anything but low-stress. With 100 egos (musicians) led by one super, gigantic, titanic tyrant (the conductor), there is potential for…disagreement. Sometimes everyone gets along. Sometimes there is stress. Other times…well, let’s not go there. Everyone wants to be perfect, but there are frequently different definitions of ‘perfection’ to be found within an orchestra. (Roughly 100, sometimes 101.) Bringing that into one voice is possible, but it makes those three hours go by less quickly than one might imagine.

And did I mention that it can be loud?

What does one have to do to win this job, you may ask? Besides the old joke of putting a $5000.00 instrument in a $500.00 car to drive 50 miles for $50.00, it is a trying process. The applicant is one of several hundred resumes from highly qualified musicians all over the world. If one is fortunate, one is among the 50 or so chosen to audition live—assuming they can pay airfare and hotel to go to the audition, of course. Weeks or months go by, during which time the applicant spends hours and hours every day practicing the same dozen or so pieces over and over, working for perfection. Then the audition arrives: a job which can be yours if you make zero mistakes while being asked to play perfectly, passionately and expressively in complete anonymity (behind a screen.) And then, if you make it through each round and are awarded the job, you have another year (or two, or even three) to prove that you get to keep the job. If not, it is goodbye, back into the audition pool. So, no, no pressure at all.

 

La Boheme is a total ripoff of ‘Rent’” (Submitted by Karen Luna, opera singer)

You may notice that there are some operas which have plots that are strikingly similar to Broadway musicals. This is not a chicken and egg moment. The opera came first.

 

Oh, yeah, I mean I don’t HATE classical music…I listen to it sometimes.” (Nikki Airhart, violinist.)
or this variation “Oh, I like listening to classical music sometimes…it is so relaxing.”

We’re glad that you’ve listened to classical music. Really, we are! But a lukewarm enthusiasm can be deflating. First, we want to talk to you about it: we want to share it with you, to be listened to, for you to react and ask questions. But reducing it to one element—‘relaxing’ is pretty generic—is frustrating. Instead, ask us about some of our favorite pieces or composers (and use the term ‘piece’—never use the word song, unless you are specifically referring to art songs.) I guarantee you that our eyes will light up, we’ll launch into a passionate discussion, and we may even hug you. Ask this question and you’re also likely to come away with a list of pieces to listen to (though probably not Pachelbel’s ‘Canon,’ especially if you’ve just spoken to a cellist.)

 

So there you have it: a crash course on how to speak musician. Questions and comments are most welcome!