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All Dressed Down, With No Place To Go: Do Orchestras and Young Musicians Have a Future?

by Colin Pinto-Martin

A century ago, the experience in symphony performance was very different. Every member of the audience would be in their formal best, even the smallest child coerced into attending by his parents.  Audience members came prepared. They knew the music before they set foot in the hall and understood that few could execute it well.  The classical player of the day bred elitism, the rare few to master their craft, and the audience revered them and rewarded them by performing their roles dutifully – applause and silence at the right times, and standing ovations at the end.  This arrangement created a gap between the performer and the audience, as if the latter were saying, “I know what you are doing, and I know that I can not do it.” The music was revered and paramount. The symphony orchestras of the early 1900’s were so successful because they reflected the dominant culture of the day:  formality.

The 20th century has seen a slide from formality to familiarity. Advances in technology have driven this change, and recent inventions seem to have accelerated it.  Before the invention of Television and later Facebook, the world of strangers was limited to what one would be exposed to in real life. Now we can follow the President on Twitter.

Formality, it could be said, was bred from ignorance.


Colin Pinto-Martin

Between Google searches and Facebook, a person’s life and inner thoughts can be known today without ever meeting said person.  It is no longer just the youth that are breaking tradition but popular icons of all ages.  The movement to familiarity can be summed up in Steve Jobs not even wearing shoes to work.  While our culture has changed drastically, the symphony concert has not.  Orchestral performance no longer represents the dominant culture of the day.  In order for orchestras to regain relevance in society, they need to reach out to those following the culture of informality.

Because of technology, music is more widely accessible to the general public than ever before.  While one might think that this supports the growth of the orchestra, it could also be argued that it breeds informality.  Pandora (a music streaming application for computers and mobile devices) played over 13 billion hours of music in 2012.  Companies like Wal-Mart offer what use to be expensive instruments only afforded by the few at prices that most can afford (i.e. a violin for $99.13).  The average listener has so much exposure to music that it begins to lose its elite status.

At the same time, exposure brings informality. As music (both listening and performing) becomes more accessible to the public, the formal feelings begin to fade.  The average person attending a concert could be compared to an “Arm-Chair-Quarterback,” professing a mastery of football from the cushions of his or her couch while lacking the true understanding and ability it takes to win.  Audiences are no longer prepared to step into the concert hall as they once were yet they walk with more pride.  Moreover, while they have greater familiarity with the “famous” among us, they know less than ever about classical music as a form. So we are left with a situation where an audience has neither the formal distance nor the background knowledge of those from 100 years back. Yet the blame does not necessarily lie with the listener. For as familiarity in culture was spreading, the classical musician responded with the cold shoulder of modern music.

Milton Babbitt, a modern composer known for his technique with the 12-tone row, participated in an interview in the February 1958 edition of High Fidelity in which he seemingly mocked the public by using terms such as “lay-listener” and comparing a lay-listener attending a concert to an uneducated person attending a mathematics lecture.  For him and most of the composers of the Modern Era, music was not for the masses.  Instead it was only for those whom dedicated all of their efforts to this labor.  This notion of creating music regardless of the opinion of the public can be extremely dangerous.  It breeds a culture of arrogance into the musician, putting his or her opinion above the listener when, in all reality, it is the listener who is technically the boss in that his or her purchase or donation pays the musician.  To have an institution that turns a blind eye to the public while simultaneously representing an outdated culture doesn’t bring hope for an expansive future.  It would be scary for one to imagine this corporate model being applied to any other institution.  Television stations, politicians, product innovators, and investors all spend millions of dollars on focus groups and product testing.  These organizations have different responsibilities to the public than the arts do. However, perhaps an Orchestra struggling with bankruptcy can learn from what a politician does when he or she is ten points behind in the polls.

Many young musicians today have the philosophy that  “I worked harder than everyone else and won an audition. I deserve to have a job.” This attitude is flawed, and no matter how hard we as musicians work in perfecting our technique it guarantees us nothing. If we as musicians and artists don’t begin to adapt to a rapidly changing culture soon our craft will be as valuable as making buggies for horses.  While many of the changes are still unknown, I believe that the first one is obvious:  listening.  Any orchestra member will tell you that the best player that doesn’t listen to the ensemble is the first one cut.  If we don’t turn our ears to the audience and listen to what they are saying, then like Steve Jobs we won’t have to wear shoes to work because there won’t be any place to go.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Right on, Colin. Taking a risk, putting it out there…I like it!

    You have packed a lot in here. I think I am caught in your argument that mentions Babbitt. It is a tricky problem. Where is the line between “listening” to what the modern audience wants and giving them what they need, or what they do not yet know they want?

    • pintopercussion #

      Very good point. TV stations are struggling with that very problem right now by giving the consumer too much power through the Nielsen Boxes that they give out. I guess I just wanted to stress that we should shift from this idea that we have all the answers to one that supports an open ear to the public more so that we are seeing at the moment.

      Also why are we both looking in the same direction pensively thinking about life?

  2. The dilemma of how to engage with the audience is not new (Mozart famously wrote about whom he aimed to please with his music), nor limited to music (writers deal with this, as well as academic researchers looking for funding and peer acceptance, and Steve Jobs gambled brilliantly in deciding to innovate by creating customer demand and showing them what they really wanted), but I think the world of Western art music is different in that it has not adapted as quickly and therefore any adaptation seems more radical than it would be had it started adapting earlier. As a lover of music (of many kinds), that’s my perception. I’m going to be frank: I’m just not very interested in going to formal symphony concerts these days. On the other hand, I totally had a blast going to Robert Dick’s flute recital in Bricolage last night.

    • pintopercussion #

      You are right in that this isn’t a new concept at all. I think that music more so than any other art form tends to drag on the innovation side. To be honest I am not that very interested in attending formal symphony concerts either. The experience doesn’t resonate with me as much as it use to. Hopefully I can work to change that but who knows what will happen. I will admit that recitals on a more intimate setting are better for me.

  3. Interesting article. Indeed, familiarity seems to replace formality in modern life and artists can’t deny this any longer. To throw in a paradox, I would like to add that the greatest challenge for artists may be to be familiar without being ordinary.


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