Monday, April 10, 2006

"Chamber music as it was meant to be . . ."

Well, I'm certainly not the only one taken with Anthony Tommasini's excellent Sunday NY Times story on Condoleezza Rice's piano playing, particularly her regular chamber-music gatherings with string quartet of lawyers.

Important point: the joy of making music.

She is not the only secretary of state to pursue amateur music-making. Thomas Jefferson, the first to hold the office, was an excellent violinist who played chamber music, especially Baroque trio sonatas, throughout his political career. But back then, playing music at home was commonplace.

Not so today, in the era of recording technology, when you can hear almost any piece from the entire history of music by switching on an iPod. The trade-off is that so few people know the personal joy of making music.

I've been trying to nudge Greg Sandow to embrace more fully that one key to ensuring a healthy future of classical music, including his focus, professional classical music performances, is the promotion of amateur music-making. Tommasini's article captures vividly the power and value of playing chamber music in private. "It was wonderful to hear chamber music as it was meant to be: played by friends for their own enjoyment, in the confines of a living room, which makes the sound seem enveloping."

Everyone I know who is a professional "classical" musician or a music educator, save those with their heads stuck in the sand, is mortified by the shrinking audiences for professional classical music concerts, and the simultaneous rise in the number of extremely well-trained professional-caliber players emerging from conservatories and university music programs.

It's a truism that in every problem lies an opportunity. And the one of the opportunities today is for conservatories and colleges, and their faculties, to promote more actively the idea that it is a great thing to develop professional-level musical skills and do something else for a living.

Unfortunately, we tend to define success only as professional success.

I've known people who were passionate about music but then, like Ms. Rice, had this sort of experience:

At 17, she attended the prestigious summer school at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and came to believe that though she was a very good pianist, she was "not great," she said. "That was the really the revelation," she added. "And it wasn't just that experience. You start noticing prodigies, and you realize that I'm never going to play that way." There is "just some intangible" in music, she said. Whatever it was, she said she felt she didn't have it. She decided to major in international relations instead, focusing on the Soviet Union.

Rice came back to music, and it now serves an important role in her life. People often ask her, Ms. Rice said that day, whether playing chamber music is relaxing.

"It's not exactly relaxing if you are struggling to play Brahms," she explained. "But it is transporting. When you're playing there is only room for Brahms or Shostakovich. It's the time I'm most away from myself, and I treasure it."

She treasures it. How many people do I know, though, who discovering that they for one reason or another weren't going to "make it" as a professional musician gave up on music and themselves? I knew a man who was so dissapointed and bitter that he didn't make a success as a concert pianist that he couldn't bear to attend classical concerts.

We in music education need to do a better job of promoting life-long music making (and participation in other creative activities) for everyone. We need to educate our students that to be a well-trained classical musician who is also an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, a stay-at-home parent, or a Secretary of State is not to be a "failure" as a musician.

Much of my education took place in conservatories where the "success = being a full-time professional musician" was the only paradigm. In fact, many string students even felt that to have a career in a professional orchestra, rather than as a soloist or chamber player, was to be a failure. I was as caught up in this mindset as anyone.

When I started teaching, some part of me resented teaching people without professional aspirations, and even the healthier and more generous sides of me had trouble relating to their point of view. Now, though, I am genuinely enthusiastic about helping young people develop the skills to enjoy a lifetime of making music while they also study other subjects and prepare for other careers.

Playing classical music is too great an experience to leave to the professionals alone. And it's great to see the Times, Tommasini, and the Secretary of State remind us of this.


Scott Spiegelberg said...

Excellent post, Eric. For the last week I've been advising music students to explore other subjects while continuing their music studies. To me that is a strength of DePauw that we need to advertise more, the ability to pursue a liberal arts education while continuing to seriously study music. Sort of a Bard approach, if not as institutionalized.

Ron Ratney said...


Right On!

The decline in interest in classical music might be related to the decline of music education in primary and secondary schools. (This is largely due to financial constraints.) If school kids have an opportunity to play and hear classical music, some of those kids will become enthusiasts; but if they never hear it they cannot learn to love it. Parents, music teachers and music institutions should make special efforts to expose them to classical music. Not just Peter and the Wolf, and special arrangements aimed at the student level; but the real stuff: concerts, operas, chamber music.

Anne-Lise said...

I am an adult amateur, who started on the cello as a teenager, quit for a few years while in college and picked it up again when I had my first 'real' job. I still take lessons and I'm still growing, also as a musician.
Right now I'm a teacher in secondary education (not a music teacher). Most of my students say they find classical music boring, but when they see me lugging my cello around, or when I talk about my musical projects, something is triggered and they want to know more. I think that curiosity would never have been triggered if they hadn't known anyone who's into classical music herself.