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The Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift

by Annie Gordon

The classical music world is facing a crisis. Audiences and general appreciation for our art are dwindling drastically, orchestras are folding left and right, and money is tight in the majority of musicians’ pockets. The average partron’s age is on the rise and will continue this way until, inevitably, it cannot rise any further. Many arts journalists and commentators are speculating on the “death” of the classical music audience (click here for related article that summarizes the situation).

This is old news. Many already have conceived and enacted innovative action plans, but most plans call for external, perhaps superficial, change. Freshen up the concert repertoire; change up concert venues; liven up performances; integrate alternate art forms; make the concert experience more accessible to the general public. These solutions, however, are only band-aid solutions that avoid the more pressing, fundamental change that is needed. Both the problem and the solution to the classical music conundrum lie deep-rooted in the very definition of what it means to be a  “musician.”

The future attendance that we do not want in our concert halls

Today, the definition of musician is pigeonholed to encompass only one, highly specialized skill: performer, theorist, composer, historian. That’s the problem. As musicians, we are preventing our own art from flourishing because we do not value with equal intensity our roles as music educators and mentors. To have a career based solely in performing is no longer sustainable or relevant in today’s society and economy. I am proposing a paradigm shift. I propose that every musician out there, particularly those who define themselves as performers, recast themselves as performers and educators. We all have the responsibility of producing music of the highest quality and fostering the appreciation of that art.

The role of educator can take many forms — a tutor to private music students, an elementary school band director — but the definition is by no means limited to these roles. To my mind, a music educator spreads awareness and appreciation for classical music as an art form and is a “music mentor” to someone less knowledgeable about classical music.

This semester I am the only student enrolled in the course titled “Music in the Urban Schools.” This fact comes as no surprise, in light of the unfortunate fact that music education classes, and the education field in general, carry a stigma among performance degree students studying at conservatories. Careers in education are generally regarded as back-up plans, and music education classes are viewed as irrelevant to those in hot pursuit of a career in performance, composition, or theory. It is time to let go of the utterly backwards stigma against music education within the conservatory setting.

Now more than ever, with the pressing issues of failing orchestras and lack of societal interest in the “high” arts, music educators are our most valuable commodities. And our most important consumers are children. Children are the future audience members and supporters of our art, and yet they are incredibly malnourished in the arena of classical music. We wonder why our society is overly saturated with “popular” art forms. These are the artists who are baiting children with their convenient accessibility. Pop artists are lucky that their art is much more easily understood, but with a little TLC, ours could be as well.

Every individual’s spin on the role of a “music mentor” will and should be different. Some musicians do well teaching in a classroom setting, others in a private lesson setting. Both are fantastic and effective ways to reach out to young children, and foster awareness and appreciation of classical music. Yet others may not feel so comfortable in these roles, and we need to broaden our sense for what can be an opportunity to spread appreciation. The same goals can be accomplished outside of the teacher-student relationship, as well. I implore musicians with personality types less conducive to teaching to consider more personal music mentoring relationships with individuals.

The educator’s role for a musician should extend to all of those moments of contact with young people, and in fact with adults. So the ideal paradigm shift eliminates the mindset that outreach is a one-time requirement, an onerous contractual stipulation for a performance position. Yes, we see it as an obligation and not an opportunity to help our entire field — we see it as a graduation requirement for a conservatory, or a contract requirement for an orchestral musician.

The danger of course is that single events create little lasting impression and, at worst, bore children and dissuade them from taking an interest in the art. The most rewarding experiences come from long-term, well-developed mentor relationships.  The key is creating a contagious atmosphere of love and respect for music.  So outreach events should only be prelude to cultivating deeper, lasting contact. That more enduring relationship is accomplished through enthusiasm and recognition of one’s role as a source of stability, creativity, and artistic growth in students’ lives. No one person can change the world, and no one musician can change the trend of declining audiences and declining interest. However, if we want to change the state of the field, we must realize that this change first begins with ourselves and our mindset.

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Power of Will, The Power of Genius” by Kristine Rominski

“Seeking the Love of Music That I Once Felt” by Erin Yanacek

“A Question of Arts Survival” by Andrew Swensen

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post. The ‘marketing’ problem of classical music is not so different from other things. People like music (and art) that is familiar. Those scores always draw the best crowds at symphony performances (William Tell Overture, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1812 Overture, etc)

    Building an audience of classical music fans must begin early in life – whether in school or other venues..That’s why so many companies market to children; they become Coke or whatever fans for life. There was a day when the background of many TV programs, particularly cartoons, was classical music. Ren and Stimpy alone carried on this tradition in recent times.

    It would be a great benefit to have classical music played more widely in public spaces and studied in schools.

    Here is an interesting paper on the use of classical in cartoons:

    -Melanie’s Dad

  2. Jonas #

    Great piece and I wholeheartedly agree. Another aspect of it, however, is how narrow the educational spectrum is seen at most colleges and universities. Even in education departments or schools of education, there is a massive emphasis in school-based learning. But so much arts education happens outside of the school building and outside of school hours–we do fantastic work in after school programs; in concert hall, rehearsal, or gallery spaces; in private studios, or even virtually!

    If the goal an “education” class is actually centered on how to communicate and pique and nurture the natural curiosity of others–if that can be our midset in education classes instead of merely classroom pedagogy–then I think more artists, who (almost) always desire to have a real connection with audience members, would be quite attracted to that sort of coursework.


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