It’s been a stimulating time, filling our heads with ideas as we get ready to launch this blog. Ever feel unsure of your opinion? Just read someone else’s, maybe someone you don’t agree with entirely, and you’ll find your own.
And so I’ve been reading Greg Sandow. His bold choice to publish an early draft of his book online gives the reader plenty to chew on. One idea in particular struck a chord, if you’ll pardon the pun.
He writes that young classical musicians and others involved in the field hold out hope for the future of classical music. Conservatories continue to churn out thousands of specialized graduates every year, and these folks choose to devote themselves to classical music even though they grew up with the same pop culture choices as their peers. Sandow states that young classical musicians “can be a bridge to the outside world. They can leap the gap if anyone can. They can find ways to present classical music that can grab the attention of people their own age.”
Really? It’s very easy to say. Sure hope those young people come up with something, if they want to keep playing that unpopular music of theirs! But I wonder if it’s the case.
I studied the French horn as an undergraduate with one sole intention: to practice hard enough to land a symphony job. I was well aware that music is a ruthlessly competitive field, that jobs internationally are scarce, and that classical music was a threatened genre. Still, any ideas I might have had to “bridge the gap” never left the midnight bull session. I was not going to be an arts administrator. I was going to be a French horn player. It was someone else’s job to save classical music, and it was my job to play it.
To study music in a conservatory means to commit your life to the pursuit of perfection. It requires the opposite of creativity. It takes focus, and the willingness to drum the correct answers into yourself over and over again through practice. To the outside, it must seem like an artistic life, immersing yourself in the greats all day and striving to become one of them. But the discipline does not demand more than intense study from its followers, and certainly does not challenge them to stray from the norm.
Most of the music studied in conservatories is from the classical period and later, after the composer had won the power struggle with the performer to determine how the music should sound. In other words, in the standard repertoire canon as it is taught today, there is scant room for improvisation, significant deviations from accepted interpretations, or questioning of the printed score. Either you have achieved enough technique to come close to the composer’s intent, or you are doing something wrong. Impassioned rehearsal discussions ensue over the exact length of a staccato or the timing of a crescendo, but there is little else to be creative about.
In this atmosphere of perfectionism, students have few incentives to think outside the box. The career model is to excel as a student in order to make it as a professional. Dreaming up ways to bring classical music to the masses would not help my tone in the Strauss concerto or clean up my high notes in Beethoven’s 7th. No audition panel would want to hear my innovative ideas. And a certain bit of hubris is present in every aspiring student when he thinks about his prospects in the shrinking world of classical music: yes, it’s tough to live as a musician, but surely I’m so good that I’ll be one of the few who do.
The horn and I eventually went our separate ways. But I do remember some of those midnight bull sessions, which I found more lively then my isolating late-night practice sessions. Maybe Greg Sandow’s students are poised to answer the call early in their careers, and devote some of their talents to finding new audiences for their craft. I couldn’t be bothered when I was a student, so from here, I’ll pick up where I left off.
Joining me on this endeavor is my Highly Opinionated Companion (HOC), who is even more of a classical music maniac than I am. We’ll be sharing links, reviewing concerts and recordings, and generally crying out in the wilderness to support the idea that classical music is one of the best things mankind has ever done.