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.

Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.

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?