The complex ins and outs of a life in music: The Story of ‘Tuba Bob.’

A recent post on a classical music forum on social media asked the following: ‘Why are so many artists today concerned with equity of outcome as opposed to equity of opportunity?’ One of the responses seemed to imply that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be successful–and anyone who isn’t successful is either lazy, whiny, or just doesn’t have what it takes. For those of us who are professional musicians–and those who had the opportunity and turned from the path because of, well, you know–this is probably the most insulting thing we can hear. Whether the comment was callous, malicious, or just ignorant, I am not certain, but in response I offer this humble parable in hopes of illuminating why the response was so unacceptable–and erroneous. This is the (fictional, but plausible) story of Bob the Tuba Player:

Bob is the principal tuba player at Mid-Size City Symphony (MSCS.) He’s 48 years old, married, has 2 kids in high school, and owns a home. He’s a respected member of the Mid-Size City musical community, as well as the tuba world in particular and the professional music community in general. Bob went to Top Music School, where he did his grad work after going to Excellent State Music Program for undergrad. Before undergrad, he played in Top 5 Youth Orchestra, studied with Professional Symphony Tuba Player, and did a few high level summer music festivals. Top 5 Youth was 2 hours from where he lived, so he had to make a 4 hour commute every Saturday for rehearsal. His teacher lived an hour away, so that was 2 hours every week. Bob’s parents were very proud and supportive of Bob, but they were solidly middle class, not wealthy–so Bob’s accomplishments came because of small and slightly larger sacrifices they made, and Bob had to take student loans for his undergrad, though he was lucky enough to have a fellowship for his grad work. After he got his masters, Bob did a few fellowship positions and took a number of auditions. For 6 years Bob networked, taught, performed in small orchestras, and generally hustled like crazy. He took 8 professional auditions, and lost them all (along with the money he spent preparing for the auditions and traveling to them.) Finally, he won the job at MSCS at the age of 30–6 years after grad school–and, after winning tenure 3 years later, finally felt somewhat stable.
MSCS has had some financial issues lately, and over the last 5 years the orchestra reduced their roster from 90 full time musicians to 70. Last year they tried to make more cuts and reduce the size to 65, but a strong campaign mounted by the musicians association, union, and certain donors successfully held that off. Bob was happy. Not only did he get to keep his job, but he got to keep his lifestyle, which he really enjoys.
In addition to his position at MSCS, he teaches at Really Good University. He has a small studio there, with 5 undergraduate tuba majors and 3 grad students, but over the last 10 years he has grown the low brass program into something special. A number of his students have gone on to win positions with major orchestras, and now some of the top brass students in the country make getting to study with Bob their top priority. Low brass jobs open up relatively infrequently, and Bob always knows when someone is getting ready to retire or leave their position, so he is able to help his students professionally, often tailoring their training to prepare them for specific jobs he knows will be available in the next few years.
One such student is Lisa. Lisa grew up in a small town, and her family doesn’t care for music at all. She never really fit in at school, and had a really tough time socially even after joining the band. She was the only girl in the brass section in both middle school and high school, and had to fight for respect and opportunity every step of the way. She managed to win it in every instance, because her talent was always too bright and obvious to ignore, but it has left her perpetually exhausted.
When Bob heard her audition, he was instantly mesmerized and offered her not only a spot, but the spot in his studio: graduate assistant. Lisa was initially a bit wary of all the positive attention–she had heard stories, and seen first-hand, some of the questionable behavior of some teachers toward certain students–but Bob had a sterling reputation and set her at ease. In their first session Bob talked with her about this issue and the greater issue of sexism in music, and promised to do what he could to help her. Bob knew she wasn’t just good–she was as good as Bob himself, with the chance to surpass him in a few years, and Bob was wise enough to see the opportunity to mentor Lisa and avoid feeling jealous.
A few months went by, and things were going well for Bob and for Lisa, who somehow managed to exceed the already lofty expectations Bob had for her.

One day Bob heard that Bigger City Symphony (BCS) would have a major retirement at season’s end: that of their tuba player, whom Bob had subbed for one season a few years earlier while the BCS tuba player was on sabbatical. Bob knew that this was a perfect job for Lisa, and that her sound, phrasing, and musicianship would be perfect for BCS. Moreover, this was the first full-time principal tuba job in the country that had come open in 4 years, and he knew that it would probably be at least 3 or 4 more before another one opened up, so he went above and beyond in laying the groundwork to make Lisa their top candidate.
Then came the bad news: after a market correction and the election of a new MSCS president, it was announced that MSCS would cut down their season. The alarm grew louder and louder and louder as it became evident that what seemed to be small problems were bigger than anyone had realized, and finally came the stunning news: at the end of the season, MSCS would disband.
Bob and his colleagues were aghast. 70 musicians were now to be out of work. The starting salary at MSCS was $65,000.00 per year, plus benefits, and many musicians had been there for quite a while and were making well over $100,000.00. Frantic phone calls and emails were sent by the members of MCS to arts administrators at other orchestras across the country, and a few musicians were offered positions elsewhere—most of them temporary.

Bob knew that, on average, there are only 250-300 jobs available in American orchestras in any given year–and now nearly 70 musicians were going to be auditioning for them. The members of the string section had a fair number of jobs to which they could apply, and a reasonable number of substitute gigs to tide them over; but the timpanist and harpist would have to wait at least a year, as there weren’t any principal jobs to apply for, and many of the winds and brass had only a few potential positions each.
Bob was secure with his University job, and so wasn’t as panicked as some of his colleagues, and he also had a few sub gigs that would help tide him over. But he worried, and wondered what was next–he loved playing in the symphony, loved the repertoire and had built a wonderful and special rapport with the members of the MSCS brass section.
Then it happened. BCS called him one day, ostensibly to speak about Lisa and her upcoming audition. But then he got the offer: ‘Bob, we heard about MSCS. We’re so very sorry. Would you like the BCS job? It’s yours if you want it. We all know you, the section loves you, and the orchestra would be thrilled to have you. Think it over, but really–we want you!’ Bob is torn. He needs the job, and he truly loves BCS. It would be a pay raise, and though he’d have to move his family he knows it would work for them. But he’s promised to do everything possible to help Lisa win this job. He’s seen the work she’s put in. She’s more than qualified for the position–heck, she’s made some adjustments and, at this point, is a better player than Bob. Sure, she’s young and there will be other chances down the road…probably. But Bob knows just how tough that road will be. He also knows that the next 2 jobs likely to be made available, one in 3 years’ time and another in 4 or 5, are both with teachers who once taught Lisa and were angry with her–one because she was better than the teacher, and the other because she rejected his romantic advances. True, Lisa had been nothing but professional, had never complained or said anything public about their behavior, had tried her best to be a good colleague when she met them at festivals, workshops, and conferences–but they still held their grudges, and Lisa knew that it was a small enough world that it could be a problem. And Bob wondered: could I really compete with–and take a job away from–my student? It wasn’t merely altruistic: Bob had put an enormous amount of work into making sure Lisa was in the best position to get this job. Was he really prepared to waste that effort?

So now I say to the social media forum poster: please don’t tell us that it is just a matter of working harder, or networking more, or that we can’t handle it and shouldn’t be trying. When someone has poured their heart and soul and hours and hours a day for years and years and years into their craft and profession, nobody has the right to tell them that they’re not cut out for it. Nobody has the right to say that trying to raise money for a project or building something or wanting their work to bear some fruit is ‘asking for a handout.’ Shame on you. Not everyone will win a job with Big City Symphony, or become a World Famous Soloist, or become Hallowed-and-Wise Conservatory Professor. But your remarks embody the problem–disguising them as ‘solutions’ is absolutely horrible.

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Which conductor should you fight?

A brilliant little list/essay was recently published, and I heartily recommend reading it. The subject? ‘Which composer should you fight?‘ I surely prefer violins to violence, but the topic is nevertheless intriguing. In the spirit of taking things a step further, I propose the following list: Which conductor should you fight? This is limited to historical (read: dead) conductors for…very obvious reasons.

Mendelssohn: A gentleman masquerading as an artist, despite the high quality of his genius, Mendelssohn would steer you away from a fight, then invite you to tea. No fighting.

von Bulow: Sure, you could take him, and it’d be a good, spirited fight. Unfortunately once it is over he would insist that you fight again.

Richard Strauss: He’d fight you, and would probably overwhelm you with futuristic moves. Your only chance at a victory is to make sure the fight drags on long enough for him to start thinking about the post-battle card game.

Arturo Toscanini:….you’re kidding, right?

Wilhelm Furtwangler: Oh God, the fists just don’t stop…

Leopold Stokowski: If those magical hands don’t get you, that magnificent hair will.

Fritz Reiner: His movements will be so small, you’ll never see them coming. Best to stay clear.

Bruno Walter: He’d put you down with just a few well placed punches…then gaze upon you with a heartbreaking expression of disappointment.

Karl Bohm: A tricky fight. He’ll lull you into a false sense of security, then somehow get you to match his very deliberate style of fighting.

Otto Klemperer: Run. Run fast, run far.

Sergiu Celibidache: Fight? Why would you want to fight? Just close your eyes and breathe…very slowly…that’s it…just breathe…

Sir George Solti: Pound for pound you will fight well, but his battle cry will finish you off.

von Karajan: Fight? Who gave you permission to fight?

Leonard Bernstein: You’ll lose, but he’ll make you feel like the best loser in the world.

Carlos Kleiber: Why would you fight him when you could not fight him instead?

Amid more talk of diversity, action is still curiously absent.

A recent article in the Wall St. Journal reported on the awarding of a $400,000.00 grant from the Mellon Foundation to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Normally this would be cause for celebration: 6 figure grants for performing arts organizations are significant and not easy to win. Orpheus, besides being a top-flight ensemble, seems almost like a bit of a Cinderella story, especially today: formed in the 1970’s by a group of musicians who worked together from the start, building a sustainable organization and driven by their mission, they’ve become world renowned and an important institution in New York City. Yes, a $400,000.00 grant is nothing to sneeze at. The reason for this grant, however, may be cause for cautious optimism at best–and active worry at worst. A significant reason for the awarding of this grant is to hire more minorities–especially, at least ostensibly, latino and black musicians. The article quotes the League of American Orchestras figure which estimates that a mere 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are of hispanic or black descent. A grant designed to address this problem seems, at first glance, to be a boon to those it may help. After all, bringing attention to the problem is the first step in rectifying it; taking steps to fix it is a logical second step. Unfortunately this sort of thing throws into sharp relief the problems behind the problem–many of which are not addressed at all. Perhaps the first issue is the lack of classical music in the ‘black’ and ‘latino’ communities. It was more than a century ago that one of the musical giants of the Romantic, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visited the United States. During the four years he lived and worked here he taught, traveled and composed, among other things, his 9th Symphony, the ‘New World,’ which is regarded as one of his finest works (and certainly one of his most popular.) Dvorak also became familiar with the music of Native Americans and freed slaves–the so-called Negro Spirituals. His enthusiasm for this music was genuine, and he advised the American musical community to take advantage of this bounty and incorporate it into the American musical language. No less a person than Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most accomplished and admired classical musician that the United States has ever produced, also argued this point with great fervor, going so far to say in his senior thesis at Harvard, that “(To sum up, then:) American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America’s art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.”  While the particular merits of each argument may be debated in social and scholarly circles, the positions of both men are clear. Yet more than a century after Dvorak’s proclamation and three quarters of a century after Bernstein penned his thesis, the idea of a National Musical language influenced by indigenous and minority cultural experience largely remains an historical footnote. Classical music, unfortunately, remains a prisoner of stereotypes: that it is ivory tower music, elitist, snobby, inaccessible, and perhaps most unfortunately, that it is exclusively white. Blame is ample on both ‘sides’ of the problem: orchestras tend to cater to ‘traditional’ audiences, in traditional (and ‘safe’) venues, waiting for the willing to come to them. Non-traditional communities are ignored, but often don’t take initiative: disadvantaged youth, particularly those ‘of color,’ are not encouraged to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, not introduced to the instruments of the orchestra, and, simply, rarely, if ever, told that they could be a violinist (or pianist, or oboist, or composer) if they wished. It is a poor message to send, and perhaps the cornerstone of the issue. It is interesting to note the presence of high-budget orchestras in cities which have large black and hispanic communities. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has a budget of nearly $100m, a black population of 9.6% and an hispanic population of 48.5%. Boston, whose famed Symphony comes in 2nd with a budget of $89m, includes populations which are 24% black and 17% hispanic. Orchestras in such cities with large minority populations as Baltimore (no. 15) St. Louis (no. 16) and Detroit (no. 17) are outside of the top 10 in budget size but, with budgets over $20m a season, still have plenty of resources. Orchestra administrators across the country often cite a desire to be more ‘representative (on stage) of the communities in which we play’; but when orchestras in these major cities include minority members whose numbers account for just 5% of membership, one may wonder how great that desire truly is. A second problem is that of the attempts at ‘solutions’ that have cropped up here and there in recent years. From the Sphinx competition to orchestral fellowship programs designed exclusively for ‘musicians of color’ to ensembles comprised of minority musicians, there have been some well recognized ‘innovations’ over the last decade or two. But oh, what problems they come with! A competition designed exclusively for a single demographic immediately attaches a qualification to its competitors–not to mention its winner. Thus the career of a ‘brilliant young violinist’ becomes the career of a ‘talented young black/latina’ violinist.’ Descriptive adjectives and personal pride in ones heritage aside, that sort of qualification can do as much harm as good, if not more. Instead of anticipation building ahead of a performance because the soloist is known for, say, an especially luxurious legato tone or a special way with Brahms, he or she becomes known simply as ‘the winner of this particular competition.’ In short, a musician–a complex human being!–becomes an other, possibly even a curiosity. Fellowships for minority musicians are helpful, but I wonder how they can help but being seen as a sort of affirmative action program. Music is hard enough: getting just the right colors in Debussy, the depth and subtlety of emotion in Brahms and the right articulation and tempi in Bach, for example, are challenges that require the most intense attention to detail. To be scrutinized for those details is difficult enough, particularly in an audition, but to have additional scrutiny because one is seen as the ‘other’ fellow–well, that is another thing entirely. And lastly–the idea of an ‘all ethnic’ ensemble is perhaps the ultimate double edged sword. It certainly runs the risk of reinforcing or affirming the convictions of those who may think that ‘people of color’ have little to no place in a professional symphony orchestra–that it is not ‘their’ music. Orchestras such as the ‘Soulful Symphony,’ performing gospel versions of Handel, could be seen as apologizing for (or even misunderstanding) classical music. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that music is designed to break down barriers, not to reinforce them. Beethoven has as much to say to a poor kid in the Bronx as it does to the Wall St. exec or PhD. The kid in the Bronx needs to know that he’s welcome: welcome at the children’s concert, welcome on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, welcome to take up the violin or the trumpet, welcome to love Beethoven and Brahms–and, perhaps some day, welcome to study at Juilliard and take his place in (or in front of) the orchestra, too. And for all the talk of hispanic and black, heritage and identity, that kid also needs to know this: when the music begins, that’s all that matters. What you are is irrelevant; who you are is important. Yes, there have been more outreach programs recently. Certainly the philosophy of ‘El Sistema’ has taken the country by storm, and programs are springing up all over the country. And of course the purpose served by organizations like Sphinx is noble and useful! But there is more to do–much more. And it really isn’t that complicated. So to Orpheus or any other organization out there that is ‘grappling’ with diversity, here is my advice: forget about diversity. Embrace inclusiveness. Do a runout concert in a rough neighborhood. Send your musicians to give free lessons in a failing middle school or high school. Preach the Word According to Beethoven, and let them know that his music is for them, too. And above all, don’t look at someone dark-skinned as an other, a minority, someone different: look at them as a friend, a colleague, a musician, a member of Schiller’s universal brotherhood. Look, listen, and give them a chance. That is worth far more than $400,000.00, and it’ll cost you far less.

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Why do we place…

Why do we place responsibility in the hands of politicians? Why do we expect that they can (and will) effect change in any positive way? When did the artist–the musician, writer, philosopher, teacher–lose power? When will the citizenry of humanity realize that man does not need to be governed, but rather inspired?

Program music: Subject and meaning

Program music is a tricky thing to experience. Whether conducting it, performing it, listening to it or even composing it, it is difficult to avoid falling into a sort of extra-musical purgatory from which emergence is often difficult.

This kind of music has two chief concerns. The first is its genesis: it was a product of the Romantic, pioneered by Liszt and a cornerstone of the ‘Music of the Future.’ The goal of the romantics was hyper-emotional expression, with an emphasis on individuality. Sometimes this meant musical individuality, but it often meant that of the composer—and his ego. Thus it became entirely possible for the subject of program music, whether heroic or tragic, to be a representation of the composer himself rather than a musical exploration of an extra-musical subject such as literature, art or history.

The second concern was the place of this kind of music within the scope of musical form. Program music sat comfortably (perhaps uncomfortably!) at the intersection of absolute music—pure, some would say—and storytelling. The former was, in orchestral terms, expressed most powerfully by the symphony, which was fast becoming a cornerstone of concert and compositional culture as Beethoven’s life drew to a close and the first wave of romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner, began to mature. As the symphony orchestra became independent and concert culture evolved, the symphony took on new meanings—and new dimensions. Its evolution into a vehicle for program music was an intriguing form of intellectual and musical currency, albeit only one side of a very large coin.

The latter became increasingly complex. Music had always been used as a storytelling device, and it crossed boundaries very easily. Stories were told around campfires with singing and dancing; this had always been true. Folk-songs were story-telling devices almost as a rule. Opera had found a way to marry music, drama and literature in an entirely new way and was two centuries old by the time the Romantic era began. And even the Catholic Church, with their strict rules about…well, everything…had room for musical storytelling: forms such as the Miserere and Stabat Mater were very popular among composers.

Program music was not always about a story, of course. It sometimes dealt with ideas and philosophies, specific emotions and experiences. A linear narrative was not necessary; but imagery abounded, aided by the unbridled passions of the romantic composer and the ever-expanding orchestra and art of orchestration.

So with program music, where does the musician or listener begin? For that matter, where does a composer begin? The latter is an intriguing question with which to begin. First is the selection of the subject. It is an idea? Is it an existing work, such as a painting or character from a novel? Is the goal to recreate faithfully the inspiration for the music, or to merely suggest it through imagery? Is it an interpretation of that work or a reimagining of it? And then what should the audience listen for? Which is more powerful—symbolism or literal meaning?

Some composers’ intentions seemed clearer than others. The opening of Strauss’ Don Juan is brimming with bravado and virility; it is not only clear that Strauss is introducing us to the legendary lover but that the composer has definite ideas as to what kind of lover he is. We may hear clearly that this man, Don Juan, loves love, loves women, and is a master of seduction. We understand immediately that this is not the scoundrel of Mozart’s opera but the complex protagonist from the original story—with, perhaps, a slightly Straussian influence.

Other times we are entirely unclear as to where we are in a story—or what that story is! In the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, we are informed by the title ‘The Kalendar Prince’ of the subject for the movement. The story involves a young Prince and his misadventures following the escape of a coup-d’état. Rimsky-Korsakov spins a magnificent web of sound, with brilliant orchestration and virtuosic exclamations from every section of the orchestra. It is marvelously exciting music and wonderfully written. But alas—there seems to be no hint of the Prince himself, or anything resembling a narrative of any kind! To try and find one or interpret the program literally is utterly confounding.  

This is where the matter of music interpretation comes into play, along with a host of questions. How intimately acquainted with the original subject matter should the musician be? Is it part of a larger tradition? Such is the case with Don Juan, which Mozart set to great effect, and Strauss revered Mozart; so is it fair to ask whether Strauss was influenced not only by Molina and Byron but by Mozart as well? What of the context of a movement or motif in a larger work? With Scheherazade it is clear that the second movement is not a literal musical telling of the Kalendar story; perhaps the movement is about Scheherazade’s telling of the story rather than the story itself? But then, though the work evokes the mysticism of the Orient, it is at its heart Russian—so, then, should it sound ‘authentically’ Oriental or authentically Russian? Ah, the questions!

There is yet another matter that arises from the performance of programmatic music, and that is music which has been taken from a dramatic work. The orchestral repertoire is full of overtures and suites taken from ballet, opera and stage plays.

How does the meaning of the music change by being transported from the stage to the concert hall? Clearly the audience is now tasked with shifting their attention from singers or dancers to the orchestra. And how should the orchestra respond? After all, they are no longer accompanying theater but are now the main attraction. Certain considerations made necessary due to the technical concerns of accompanying may, in theory, no longer apply. Suddenly a written p, necessary so as not to drown out a singer, may be played mp or mf. Shall the dynamic be altered or will it remain p with a different quality and color? Similarly, a tempo may be adjusted: Allegro with the quarter at precisely 126 may be perfect for a performance with dancers, but with an orchestra on its own it may change. Would going slightly faster (assuming it sounded good!) change the music drastically or give a better or worse effect? Would new meanings reveal themselves? Ah, there is the magic!

In the end, we may be left with one important question: Does program music tell the story of the story—or the story itself? 

The real death in classical music.

There has recently been much discussion regarding ‘the death of classical music.’ Such conversations are nothing new, of course; classical music has been dying for some time and yet always manages to outlive the very authors of its obituary. Yet the whispers persist, too often rising to a dull roar and, now and then, erupting as a full-throated shout from the rooftops.

It is most unfortunate, because classical music is actually doing quite well. In spite of the funeral march we have witnessed many exciting developments in the field in recent years: record ticket sales at some orchestras, the introductions of new outreach programs, the establishment of modern music ensembles and festivals, the proliferation of orchestras and opera houses in new markets across the world, exciting young soloists bursting onto the scene and the release of notable and important new recordings. And the music–oh, the music! Mozart and Beethoven have aged extremely well; their music is still as fresh and vibrant as it was in the Enlightenment and Napoleonic Europe. Mahler’s prophecies about the future of his music have come to pass and he has become a repertoire mainstay. The eternally autumnal glow of Brahms’ oeuvre continues to find new ways to warm us and his romantic-era sparring partner, Wagner, has continued its Kantian hold over our collective psyches. Yes, the music is just fine, thank you very much.

But, back to the issue of death. Yes, to read recent articles would leave the music lover scratching his or her head in puzzlement. While there are problems–real problems which need to be solved–the music, that which is most important, is absolutely fine. So why do we keep reading such grim reports?

The fact is that there has been a death in the classical world, a death which we should all mourn. Unfortunately it has gone unreported, its corpse still animated and somewhat coherent. It is a death in two parts, with one all but completely gone and the other still in the throes of Denial. 

This is the death of musical criticism.

The first death is the most lamentable. Full time positions for critics and journalists have been eliminated at major publications across the United States, leaving many audiences without a voice. This may lead to a sigh of relief for musicians and arts administrators in some corners; but the fact is that a critic (a good critic) is an essential voice in a musical community. That these positions have begun to disappear is cause for real alarm and dismay, and we may only hope that they may experience a resurrection in the future.

The second death, however, is regrettable for different reasons. This death is not yet complete, but the animated remains are too often kept alive only by large amounts of hubris. This death, that which still resides in Denial, is the death of the Critic (or Journalist) as Artist.

Musical commentary seems largely to have followed the trend of journalism in general. Fact is replaced by conjecture; insight by opinion; a desire for truth by a desire to be first, loudest or most sensational. This is not to say that it has always been different historically. On the contrary: musical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century was often salacious and motivated by politics, leading to near destruction of some of the greatest musicians in history. Yet there were notable bright spots: this was an art practiced by Schumann, Shaw and Twain, after all! And the one thing those men had in common: they always wrote about the music.

Today, sadly, we seem to read more about the politics and finances of institutions; the personal lives, rather than the musical insights, of performers; and, worst of all, comparisons of performances to other performances (or even recordings.) This last matter is most troubling. To compare one orchestra to the other, especially in the performance of a particular work, is not especially helpful. To compare one performance to an historical performance is often even less productive. Certainly the commentary may be interesting or entertaining, but the only comparison which truly matters is that of a performance to the score. The intentions of the composer are the most important things to consider. What a great conductor or orchestra did in the past; what traditions have developed over time; these are beside the point. To offer any meaningful commentary, one must begin with the score.

Unfortunately it is rarely thus. Aside from the often mediocre quality of the writing in general, especially in non-traditional formats, reviews seem to spend a very little time actually writing about the music. And why should this be so? The musicians of an orchestra have a responsibility to the music: to inspire those who hear it. Likewise, the journalist has an obligation: he must find a way to inspire his readers to love this music, to become curious, to explore, learn and grow. Far too many seem to buy into the most ridiculous aspect of the ‘brand’ of classical music: gleeful snobbery. 

There are excellent journalists writing today, absolutely; but we need many, many more. If the critics are to be the proverbial watchers, then on whom may we rely in turn to watch them? In an age of ubiquitous musical virtuosity, it is time for a few more Virtuosi of the Pen.

The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.

The industrial nature of art.

I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied: 

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature. 

Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.