As most of you know, I’ve not been blogging nearly as much as in the past–I go through periods like this. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing/thinking/analyzing things. I was just looking at all the recent drafts I’ve been working on and decided rather than trying to finish one I’ll just post some of the things I’ve been exploring in these posts–kind of a “cliffs notes” version of my blogging thought process. Some of this is inspired from some recent discussions I’ve been having on Facebook or other social media (where it seems like I’m having much more active interactions about these subjects), the rest is just I’d like to get some of these ideas out there even if they’re not complete thoughts yet.
So–here goes nothing–titles are taken from the working draft titles of the blog posts.
Music is [not] a Universal Language
This seems to be a persistent trope. I think the main reason for that is that for many of us, music has such a deep emotional connection that can’t be explained in words, but at the same time, we’re often so parochial about what we consider to be “music” that we can’t recognize how significantly different other forms of music can be and how those may have little to no emotional connection with us. As someone said–and I really can’t recall who it was that first coined it–“If music is a universal language, then it’s a language so many forms of grammar, different dialects, syntax and semantics, that it’s not universally understood.” (my terrible paraphrase).
In other words, we can understand when someone else is using a verbal language–and we might even understand something from it (some studies have shown that we can pick up quite a few of, though not all, cues from the non-verbal components of language interaction even if we don’t understand the actual words or structure of the language itself. I think this is similar to music–we can understand broad and general contours, but that’s as far as the similarity goes. The subtlety and nuance of verbal language is lost if you can’t understand the actual words or how the words are structured. Same with music–there are thousands of scales (many of them using microtones or macrotones) around the world. There are probably just as many different rhythmic modes. And since the vast majority of music is vocal, then we’re talking about hundreds of languages and dialects. Music is only universal, like language, in that practically every culture has both–and that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.
The Bastard Stepchild of Classical Music: Concert Bands
In keeping with the theme that the Classical Music Crisis tends to focus unrepresentative samples as emblematic in the field (see my post about Choirs) I thought Concert Bands almost never figure into these discussions despite the likelihood that they are much more ubiquitous in American culture than the rest of the SOBs. As Drew McManus reminds us every Memorial Day, the US Government is the biggest employer of full-time professional musicians–and the majority of those ensembles are Bands.
I remember when much of the talk about the American Soviet Youth Orchestra was about how invariably the winds and brass would consist of primarily Americans and the Strings would be mostly Soviet hinting at the fact there was a disparity in music education between the two countries. Band programs are much more common in the US than, say, String programs. String programs are often cut long before Band programs–part of this is due to the fact that band programs feed into Pep and Marching Bands which tend to have much more focus (and overall funding) in US schools.
While the above is slightly problematic, what is more disturbing is how often orchestra culture disparages band culture. I was in an orchestra rehearsal where the conductor recently berated members of the brass section about their tone quality saying something to the effect of, “this isn’t Concert Band.” Yet, there are probably also many more Concert Band, Wind Symphony, Brass Band ensembles in the US than there are Orchestras (even including the many community orchestras). Much of that has to do with the larger number of players of wind/brass/percussion instruments due to the greater number programs in schools.
Another thing that’s often not brought up in these discussions is the repertoire–a far larger proportion of new or recent music is being performed by Concert Bands than in, say, Orchestras. Being a composer myself, I’ve always been intrigued by this.* As I being my first semester as the official bassist with the IUS Concert Band, I look forward to learning much more about the repertoire (as well as the culture) of Concert Bands.**
NYC Opera Companies formed since 2000
I’ve posted much about all the new opera companies formed since 2000. My most recent collection of data is here, and of the nearly 80 new opera organizations, about 55 are still active. This touches on some of the ideas I’m exploring regarding the lifecyles/lifespan of arts organizations. Also, given the relatively high attrition rate of for profit corporations, it might be incumbent on us to understand why there might be a higher percentage of long-lived arts organizations as opposed what seems like a much smaller percentage of long-lived for profit corporations.
This is important because we’re seeing shifting talk about making arts organizations more like for profit corporations. this is all in the effort of “saving” the arts. But, again, we have that sampling bias–successful long-lived businesses are rare, and few business survive beyond an average 40 years (in some cases as low as 12.5 years) with their identity intact. So why do we think a for profit focus would actually do more to keep the arts afloat? Think survivorship bias again. We look at those few examples of success–the big pop star, the fortune 500 corporation–and we associate the exorbitant revenue these get, while ignoring all the groups which have done exactly the same thing but somehow failed. We then take what made this small sample of successes and cull some principles they have in common and translate that over to the arts field while ignoring other factors which might have been integral to the success of the former and which the latter isn’t expected to mimic.
Without a comprehensive list of arts organizations, we have little data to work with and we can’t be expected to understand a more general developmental history of them. We don’t even really know the actual attrition rate, much less the environmental factors which contributed to their existence. That’s what these lists are about for me–culling actual data to work with rather than simply focusing on tired tropes about Decline/Death/Failing Arts.
Another question that comes up–if new groups are forming at this rate, then what do we even mean by a decline in Classical Music anyway?
One of the reasons I’ve been far too busy to blog is my much busier performing and teaching schedule. I’ve recently started teaching cello classes at the Virginia Chance Elementary School in Louisville which has basically filled in the gap of age levels I’ve taught music–I’ve now taught music to ages 1 to Adult, and that has given me a fairly rounded understanding of learning styles, as well as preferences for music for a relatively wide variety of folks.
I’ve already performed three events this year–January is invariably light for me as I don’t like to risk travel given the possibility of bad weather. I’ve already got well over 70 other shows lined up for the year, and usually continue to pick up additional gigs until year’s end. While I don’t expect to pick up proportionally as much as I have in years past given this starting point (I usually start with 30 – 40 shows booked by January for the year, and end up with a range of 100-150 shows by years end), I imagine there will be a slight increase in performances following the trend I had from the growth of last year from previous years.
This all seems to track pretty well with how musicians (of many genres) have increased revenue streams that was studied by the Artist Revenue Streams project and interestingly, some of my biggest growth spurts happened during the recession–a time when I was hearing musicians from all side of the pop/classical divide complaining about lack of work.
Needless to say, I’ve become far too busy making a living doing music to talk about making a living doing music, but these topics are still at the back of my mind and I’ll post as frequently as I can though it will be with far less frequency than in the past.
*In my work in schools and early string instruction, I’ve also noticed how more often new or recent works are being played by young musicians. This is until they get older and “graduate” to playing the “classic” rep.
**In some of the youth organizations I work with, I also get the opportunity to have discussions about instruction, repertoire, and reflections by Concert Band educators on a regular basis. Many of the conductors of local youth symphonies that I work with are primarily concert band directors.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: photo of me playing an improv show with Misha Feigin and dancers, Ann Law, Polly Curtis, Lori Teague, and Meg Gibbs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. November 2015. photo by Ernie Paik.