Thursday, September 19, 2013


A few weeks ago, via the blog Sounds and Fury, an article on how America’s orchestra’s are in crisis. I have been debating whether or not to write on it, in part because it reads to me like something that is right in the overall conclusion but wrong in the details. So like many articles that come across my virtual desk, I was planning on just ignoring it. Also, is this really a classical music blog? I guess it is, with a smattering of terrible posts on Rob Ford...

Anyway, I was going to ignore it, but then it popped up on Metafilter. And the comments there really annoyed me, as they often do on Metafilter. (I do really like Metafilter, by the way!) Perhaps because so much of the bile directed toward classical music is the same straw man that I have written about many, many times before, that it’s hopelessly elitist and inaccessible to “average” people, and that if only classical music were MARKETED appropriately, we wouldn’t have these problems. I think this is completely wrong.

There are a bunch of insightful comments too, about maybe the fact that it’s become increasingly unaffordable to play or learn classical music, or any music for that matter, as Public schools have increasingly purged their schools of viable arts programs. That might actually be a huge reason for it, but the whole “classical music needs to be accessible, and this elitist jerk just wants to push regular people out of the classical music halls” is something I’ve been accused of a million times.

I am even writing this knowing full well that the very idea of a "crisis" in orchestras has been shown to be a very old trope by classical music bloggers far more involved and insightful than I am.  But hey, no one can stop me!

Perhaps before you read what I write, you should read the New Republic article.

Done? OK.

I’d like to propose the possibility that the article actually does something really good. In looking at outreach as something that has cost a lot of money but yielded almost nothing in return, it has exposed a strain in North American classical music culture that has been there since I got into classical music in the early 90’s.

But hey, while we’re in the 1990’s, how about I describe, for the benefit of my audience, what growing up in Calgary Alberta in the late 80’s and early 90’s felt like from the perspective of a budding classical musician. I don’t really know if there was any outreach or those kinds of things when I was a kid. I never attended a classical music concert until high school, and I never took piano lessons as a kid. So how did I wind up getting a BA in music?


I had taken band throughout junior high, and although I enjoyed it, the idea of becoming a professional music never occurred to me, especially as a tuba player. I enjoyed sitting at the back of the band, playing away, but seriously, who thinks about becoming a professional tuba player?. My first week of high school, that all changed. The high school band had a retreat out at a farm the first weekend of September, and we were treated to a concert by a local brass quintet, followed by a clinic.
So here I met this professional tuba player. And he was perhaps, the most infectiously excited and hilarious person I had ever met in my life. By the end of our lesson with him, I wanted to take tuba lessons, and within a pretty short period of time, say 4 months, I had stopped listening to pop music and was spending most of my time ducking out of school to see free organ concerts and listening to Bach.

But when I look back on this, and I peel away the layers of “my life”, it’s not hard to see that there was a pretty robust infrastructure (sorry, not sure how else to describe it) that supported my ability to pursue classical music.

For example, I rented a brand new professional level Yamaha Bb tuba from the Calgary Board of Education, and I think it cost about $100 per year. Can you imagine? Can you possibly imagine, in this day and age, that not only would a local board of education rent out their own instruments, but that they would heavily subsidize a student’s ability to play it? Here in Toronto, they were talking about getting rid of all the part-time music teachers!


So this New Republic article. Here’s the thing. When I was growing up, in Alberta, it was pretty easy to be a classical musician and not be rich. Yes, there were lots of rich kids doing it too, I met a lot of them, but there were tons of incredibly talented kids who came from relatively poor backgrounds. We all somehow found this music, and we loved it, and we were supported in it. By the government...

Philip Kennicott’s point, at least to me, isn’t that all these pop musicians should get off his lawn, but that the classical music industry one day decided that instead of just being happy with what it had, classical music needed to “grow” its audience. So what does it do? It alienates the very people who paid the bills in the first place, and then blames the decline on some ridiculous notion of inaccessibility.

Pointing to my own education, I never once felt shamed or degraded showing up to a classical music concert as a teenager, dressed rather poorly. In fact, as a student, they had $10 rush tickets in Calgary.

What Philip Kennicott is describing is the same affliction that plagues most non-profit organizations, from hospitals to universities. It’s that they are administered by people who fundamentally believe that the only way in which to gauge the health of any organization is whether or not it’s growing.

In other words, even non-profit organizations must somehow conform to the logic of capital, even if it doesn’t make any sense. They have to find new audiences, but what does even mean? In my case, it was having a school system that made it easy (and cheap) to get really involved in music, and then a broader community that behaved the same way.

I feel as though so much of what one reads about classical music these days is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we need to find new audiences, when in reality, and this is likely how it’s always been, the audiences will find them.


And I say this having just read Musical Toronto to see that French CBC is replacing their Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts with a pop show.

Anyone familiar with my blog knows how I feel about what happened to CBC Radio 2, and I don't really bother speaking about it anymore because I haven't listened to Radio 2 in nearly 3 years. But what's going on with the CBC is part and parcel of this perverse need to "grow" arts organizations and find new audiences whether they need them or not.

What's especially awful in the classical music realm is that this always seems to be a zero-sum game. At the CBC, they realised that the only way to gain a new audience was by completely destroying their old one. Hiring Ben Heppner to host Saturday Afternoon at the Opera might look like a coup, but when they cannot even afford to record performances of operas in Canada, it smacks more as an attempt to cover up the fact that they've gotten rid of everything else. CBC is now trying to do "outreach" by bringing in a big name in the hopes that it will improve ratings for them.

They are also going to start having ads on Radio 2. What can I say? It just reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa sees into the future and Marge is in bed and says "You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice."


But what do all these digressions have to do with the aforementioned article? Well, I guess I'm trying to get across the idea that there's so much more to the waning popularity of classical music than marketing. How about actually teaching kids music in schools, or making it cheap and easy to learn music in a community? 

And maybe it's going to be really bad for a while, because there's been an entire generation here in North America who have grown up in very different circumstances than I did, and it's entirely possible that for them, none of this is worth saving. But the reality is, it's not their fault, it's ours.

Perhaps this is my concern with where writers like Alex Ross point out that there are far more new music groups out there now than 30 years ago, or Lisa Hirsch suggests that there is likely no crisis in "classical" music, the one thing that is difficult to avoid is that even if there are a lot of ensembles out there, how many of those people are making any money at it, and if they are, is it anywhere near a living wage?  And if we don't teach music to kids anymore, or price it out of their range, who is going to listen to it?

I think I'll end here because this piece is bad and digressive enough as it is!

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