Thursday, August 31, 2006

The sky really IS falling. So dance!

(Note: I've done a slight bit of copy editing to this post a day after originally posting it.)

As I sit down to write, there are 23 comments to my first after-the-fact post on the "Classical Music in Jeans" concert, which all appear to be from different people. That's about 14% of the audience of 166--a pretty high percentage, I think.

The overall consensus in the comments seems to be that the informality and participatory atmosphere worked, at least to a point, but that things got a bit out of hand at times. Some people liked the playing so much that they would have liked more silence. (That's nice to hear, of course!)

In speaking with people today, what I've noticed is that the more seriously committed, the more deeply in love with music the student I've talked to, the less they liked the audience-participation aspects of the evening. But with colleagues, at least the ones I've encountered, the more concerned they are with the incredibly shrinking audience for classical music, the more enthusiastic they are about the high attendance and the high energy at the concert. (I haven't spoken yet with the two colleagues who walked out during the concert, though.)

166 people in attendance--that's nearly three times the average School of Music faculty recital attendance of 56.

The comments, the vast majority from students, are very thoughtful, very honest, and much appreciated. They focus for the most part on the experience the writer had at the concert, and of course, that's what I asked for when I emailed the music faculty and students and invited them to comment. Those who didn't like the participatory aspects didn't like them because they love music and wanted to hear it more fully.

The thing that doesn't seem to have come up in many posts so far is the larger context. I don't think many of us, students or faculty, really get that there is a crisis in classical music. It's like global warming and the national debt--things are worse than the present effects seem to indicate. Classical music is a catastrophe not waiting to happen, but one already well under way. And it may be beginning to snowball.

I had dinner with an arts administrator and consultant last year, and we discussed her views on the crises not just in classical music but in dance and drama as well. Classical music, especially orchestras and opera companies, will be the first to go, she predicted. Ten years from now, she predicted, there will be many fewer full-time orchestras unless something drastic happens.

Greg Sandow is writing and writing and writing about this (here and here) and working with everyone he can to get people thinking about what to do about this. (I'm one of the musicians he's impacted.) A lot of us do a lot of hand wringing and/or go into denial (head-in-the-sand, one colleague said to me today).

The music faculty here at DePauw has at times even considered cutting way back on the number of faculty and guest recitals, thinking if we had fewer concerts more people would come to them. I've always opposed this. I don't just love to make music, I need to make music. And if only 50 or 20 or 10 people come to hear me, I don't really care.

But are people not coming to concerts because we have too many of them? I don't think so. I think people don't come because they aren't enthusiastic about classical music, and they think it's going to be boring.

Now the people who do go to concerts already love classical music. But everyone else pretty much thinks it's going to be a boring experience in which basic human responses, including the need to move, must be repressed. Oh, gee, I could watch TV, or play cards, or smoke a joint, or drink a case of beer, or play Ultimate Frisbee, or hang out with friends, or even study . . . or I could go and listen to (what I assume to be) boring music and have to stifle my humanity.

What would you choose?

Most of our music faculty go to few concerts here. (And this is not a situation to unique to our campus.) Even the musicians don't think it's worth the trip.

We had a guest speaker here some years ago who thinks a lot about audience building, including at universities. He told us that if we want lots of people at our concerts, we can't look to the music faculty and students. There is a music fatigue we experience, and no matter how much one loves music, you can only go to so many concerts a week. It's the liberal arts faculty and students, and people from the community, who need to be the audience. That's the audience we need to build.

So my experiment with this concert was not about a new way to experience music for people who already love classical music the way it is. It was about creating an experience for non-musicians in which they could experience classical music in an interactive way. One in which their aliveness would not be deadened, but enhanced. I always hope that an audience will leave a concert more alive than when they came. As this concert approached, I decided I wanted to remove all the fear, all the inhibition, and let whatever wanted to happen happen. How enlivening can we make it for the audience?

Sure, there were times in which the audience participation reminded me of all the carrying on many new college students do: no rules, so let's run wild, let's do it because we can. OK. But really, so what? As the concert went on, there was less and less of that, and I think if we have more events like this a new culture will develop.

This concert was not for the classical music lovers. The concert was for the people who don't go to classical concerts and came because this one was different. Who came because someone invited them.

So I asked my seminar class this morning what the friends they brought thought. "My friend said, 'Oh my god, it was absolutely orgasmic,'" one told us. One guy brought four biology majors who had a great time.

A colleague in the philosophy department who brought his 5-year old son wrote me,

I had a couple of main reactions.

One was that allowing the audience to express itself more ended up giving us more to be entertained by and applaud--namely, each other, what with the dancing and all. Some undergrads have a really delightful innocence and sense of play.

The other was that the informality drastically reduced the interpersonal distance between performer and audience. In the usual stuffy setup, tuxedoed performer(s) silently glide onstage and do their thing while the audience watches. They are separated by physical distance, the difference in height of the stage, the darkness in the house which makes the audience l sort of voyeurs, and the (now) traditional silence. In that setting, I feel less or no personal connection or empathy with the performers, and find that what I mainly expect from them is precision and am disappointed by any lack of it. The whole thing is brittle.

Last night's informal setup allowed more empathy, making the music more of a shared experience rather than something transmitted from stage to audience. That was pleasant in itself and it heightened my enjoyment of some of the music, especially (dunno why) the sad parts. Sometimes the audience got so noisy it interfered, but I didn't mind much.

Main thing I want to say is this: I really hope last night's format doesn't turn out to be just an isolated incident.
Quite eloquent. Has he not put his finger on why many people don't go to classical concerts?

It's quite similar to this quote from Christopher Small's book Musicking (which I admit I haven't read yet, but is on my list), which I've copied from a post on Alex Ross's blog:
The silence that will greet tonight's performance while it is in progress suggests a different attitude [from the audience behavior of past eras]. Those who wish perfect communion with the composer through the performance can have it, uninterrupted by any noise that may signal the presence of other spectators. On the other hand, while our attention is without doubt active, it is detached; we no longer feel ourselves to be part of the performance but listen to it as it were from the outside. Any noise we might make would not be an element of the performance, as were the sighs and murmurs of the Parisian audience, but an interruption or distraction. I have even known the minute clinks and jingles of a female listener's Charm bracelet to put its wearer's neighbor in a rage. Who we are, then, is spectators rather than participants, and our silence during the performance is a sign of this condition, that we have nothing to contribute but our attention to the spectacle that has been arranged for us. We might go further and say that we are spectators at a spectacle that is not ours, that our relationship with those who are responsible for the production of the spectacle--the composer, the orchestra, the conductor, and those who make the arrangements for tonight's concert—is that of consumers to producers, and our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy.
WAKE UP! PEOPLE AREN'T GOING TO CLASSICAL CONCERTS! When was the last well attended solo piano or voice or cello or string quartet recital, for which people actually bought tickets, where you live? My gosh, I can't think of a solo cello recital in Indianapolis that wasn't at a college for over ten years, and that one was Yo-Yo Ma.

I could rant on and on and on, and will some more in a later post. Watching the video of last night's concert, what is absolutely clear to me is that the audience felt part of the performance. And they responded with great enthusiasm.

There's still much to digest. Lots of ideas are being generated in my mind for how to build on this experience. Obviously it's not for everyone, especially those who like things as they are. But there are fewer and fewer of us in that category. Those of us concerned with the future of classical music can't afford the luxury of the status quo.


That's the question last night's concert was an experiment in answering. It's not better posters and fewer concerts that will bring in larger audiences. It's different sorts of concerts (and they don't have to all be what we did last night, either).

When it comes to the future of classical music, the sky really is falling. The audience is shrinking. Young people aren't coming in to replace the older members as they pass on. It's as simple as that.

And if it takes letting them dance to get new audiences in, let's let them dance. I can't think of anything better to do in a crisis.

The Classical Music in Jeans Concert

Last night was the "classical music in jeans" "informal/interractive musical event," the cello/piano recital of short Romantic pieces in which the audience was invited to clapp between movements, clap during movements, dance/move in front of the stage, and otherwise respond freely. I'd promised my students that if they brought non-music major students with them, I'd wear jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.

We had a big crowd, and the music students had indeed brought a good number of their liberal-arts major friends. And it was very interractive. And the audience was very enthusiastic.

There was indeed a lot of dancing, including some very uninhibited moving by young children. From time to time, the little kids became the focus of attention. As a performer, it was such a different experience--exciting, relaxing, and distracting all at once--that there will be a lot to write about.

For now though, I'm getting the post up quickly so that members of the audience can post comments and observations. So please do!

By the way, if you add a comment, please note if you are a classical musician (student or faculty) or not--especially if you were one of the liberal arts students invited by a music student. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Comfort zone? What comfort zone?

As I get ready for tomorrow's alternative classical music event (with everyone encouraged to move and respond audibly and non-traditional times), there is some trepidation. I'm a worrier, so I worry about almost everything, anyway. And this is different enough from anything I've done before that it is definitely out of my confort zone. (Most of what follows below is from an email I sent to Greg Sandow, who is being wonderfully supportive of this experiment,)

Yes, there's a very slight concern about peer disapproval, but that doesn't feel significant (one of the upsides of being an out gay man is being comfortable with the disapproval of traditionalists). I am more worried that some people who are used to classical concerts, who like having the silence while they listen, etc., may be distracted and bothered. That for them, whatever moving, clapping, and other visual or audible expressions may occur will be distracting and take away from the experience. The feeling that some of my long-time local fans (for lack of a better word) may be uncomfortable at this concert is feeding a new (although mild) anxiety.
I'm more worried that nothing unusual will happen! Or that the audience may be too noisy, or the moving, if it does happen, may include young people with nervous energy doing silly stuff that wont be stemming from the music itself but from adolescent silliness.
So I keep reminding myself that it's an experiment, that I can draw on all my Zen, meditation, and New-Agey experiences to let go of attachment to any particular result and embrace and include whatever happens, and that I use my workshop-facilitator skills to create the appropriate atmosphere and encourage the kind of involvement I'd like to see. But I know that whatever happens is unlikely to be exactly what I imagine, and the control freak in me is freaking out!

More than anything, though, I think it will be a fun adventure.

My Experiment in an "Alternative" Classical Performance

Well, like just about every classical musician I know (especially those who don't have a full-time gig in New York, where classical music life is much healthier than in many other places), I'm worried about the shrinking and the "graying" of classical audiences. Even at DePauw University where I teach, we see this phenomenon. A fantastic School of Music, a tremendous number of faculty recitals, guest artist events, and wonderful student concerts, yet smaller and smaller audiences. I don't have any numbers to back up my general impression, but it sure seems to me that there has been a declining number of non-music majors and non-music faculty attending concerts over the 18 years I've been teaching here.

Over the last year, I've become quite taken with Greg Sandow's blogs about the future of classical music (links in the right column). Inspired by his Juilliard course "Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop," I'm teaching a seminar for first-year students at DePauw called "Creativity, Non-Western Music, and the Future of Classical Music."

The students and I have been talking about alternative ways of presenting and performing classical music. What's so off putting to their peers, and often to themselves, is the formality and the atmosphere of fear that pervades the audience, espeically the younger members of the audience. Don't make noise. Don't clap between movements. And whatever you do, don't move.

It just happens I'm giving a faculty recital tomorrow (Wed. 8/30) night, of short Romantic pieces. And so my pianist colleague and I have decided to throw all the rules out the window and invite people to respond however they wish. Quoted below is an email I sent to all the music students. Other versions went to the enitre university faculty and have been posted on the university's intranet classified ad board.

So far, only positive response from colleagues and some excitement from students. Stephanie Gurga, the pianist perfroming with me, and I played part of the program for my seminar class this morning so they could practice moving, clapping, etc. There was a lot of nervouse energy and a bit more chatter than I'd prefer at the concert, but it was also fun to play for people moving and having a good time. One thing I realized is that when the audience is free to move and respond, the focus becomes more on the collective, shared experience and less on the performers and how "well" (in my case) I think I'm playing.

More soon. Meanwhile, here's that email:

Wednesday Aug. 30
7:30 PM Thompson Recital Hall in the PAC
The Romantic Cello: An Informal and Interactive Musical Event
Eric Edberg, cello and Stephanie Gurga, piano
featuring short, entertaining pieces
one hour max
performers in jeans
clap whenever you want
and dance in the aisles if you feel like it
Ever think classical concerts are too formal and have too many intimidating rules? Could one of the reasons classical audiences are growing older and smaller be that the whole stuffy ambience, in which newcomers are shamed if they do something natural like clap between movements or during a movement, be part of the problem? (Did you know that before the 20th century, audiences clapped between movements and even during them, and composers like Mozart encouraged it?)
Stephanie Gurga (a recent SoM grad and brilliant pianist) and I think so. So we're trying an experiment. To make the atmosphere unintimidating, we're going to dress very casually in Wednesday evening's recital. I'm wearing jeans.
And the usual rules of audience deportment are suspended for one night. Clap between movements (well, there's only one multi-movement piece). Clap after a good lick, or shout out an "amen" or a "boo." Dance in the aisles or in front of the stage.
I made a deal with my first-year seminar class (which is looking at the future of classical music): I'll wear jeans and make the concert as fun as possible if they'll bring someone new to classical music to the recital. So I'm making the same invitation to all you music majors. Our future as classical performers is dependent on getting young people to start coming to classical concerts again. Let's see if this helps.
Bring a friend who's not a classical concert-goer, and let them know they don't have to worry about clapping at the wrong time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Speaking of LGBT issues, this video doesn't directly mention anything about them, but is perhaps the best thing I've seen on same-sex marriage. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for posting it on his site recently.)

(Sometimes embedded Youtube videos don't load; if you don't see the vido above, try this link.)

More like flying an Israeli flag in a neo-Nazi neighborhood

J.R. and Robin Knight run the Lakeway Hotel Bed and Breakfast in Meade, Kansas. As TV station KBSD reported on July 20, J.R.'s 12-year-old son bought a rainbow flag at a Wizard of Oz Museum. Nobody involved realized that rainbow flags are a nearly universal symbol for LGBTQ pride and support of diversity until the local radio station started making a fuss. The community is not one, evidently, to tolerate even a mistakenly-hoisted symbol of tolerance for non-heterosexuals who think they have the right to lead their own lives. (Plenty of further stories, by the way, on these Google searches: web and news.)

The Knights, however, were not as horrified as their neighbors to learn the flag's more common connotation. So they are standing their ground, keeping the flag up, and receiving all sorts of harrassment, much of it coming, I'm sorry yet not surprised to learn, from self-described Christians, who seem to be overlooking all that stuff about not casting the first stone, loving your neighbor as yourself, etc., etc.

I was particularly struck by this comment in the KBSD story:

Local resident, Keith Klassen says the flag is a slap in the face to the conservative community of Meade. “To me it's just like running up a Nazi flag in a Jewish neighborhood. I can't walk into that establishment with that flag flying because to me that's saying that I support what the flag stands for and I don't," says Klassen.
I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that Mr. Klassen is a "Bible-believeing" Christian, and that his thinking is influenced by the conservative religious/movement which believes that the U.S.A. was founded to be a Christian country and that much of the country's prosperity now and in the future is inextricably linked to the extent to which it institutionalizes and enforces "Biblical morality." Whatever his personal religious views, the idea that those not following the current popular understanding of "traditional" and "Biblical" morality (I say "current" since other moral positions thought not that long ago to be Biblical, regarding issues such as women's rights, slavery, and racial equality, are no longer in fashion among most fundamentalists and Evangelicals) are a threat to the health of society as a whole is a powerful one, shaping the politics of many.

Klassen's "running up a Nazi flag in a Jewish neighborhood" comment really stuck with me. Sure, they are flying a flag which offends the values of many of their neighbors. But other than that, Klassen has it backwards.

What the Knights are doing much more the equivalent of flying an Israeli flag in a neo-Nazi neighborhood.

The rainbow flag symbolizes inclusion, diversity, mutual respect and tolerance, and celebration of different people living together as theirselves. The rainbow flag says lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and otherwise "queer" people have the right to live openly, safely, and free of harrassment. It is a statement about the equality of all people.

Nazis and neo-Nazis, on the otherhand, believe in the superiority of one group of people over the other. The Nazis exterminated millions of people whom they decided were inferior and represented a threat to the "master race." The Nazi flag represents the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The Nazi flag represents facisim and murder and genocide.

Are those harrassing the Knghts acting more like neo-Nazis or Jesus?

Meanwhile, many people around the country are sending messages of support, and even contributions, to the Knights as they experience a loss of local business. That's a great thing about the internet, isn't it? We can find out quickly about incidents of harrassment and do something to help out.

By the way, I am NOT NOT NOT saying that Mr. Klassen or anyone else in Meade is a Nazi. I don't like these "like a Nazi" comparisions anyway; it trivializes the Holocaust. Mel White, of Soulforce, taught me long ago to think the best of those with whom I disagree and to understand that those who campaign against equal rights for LGBTQ people as good people who are well-meaning, afraid, and misinformed. What the folks in Meade need is less condemnation and more interaction with a variety of nice, out LGBTQ folks and learn that we are human, too, and quite often great to hang out with. By not giving in to the fears and prejudices of the people who are their neighbors, the Knights are doing something very important for their community. I'd say bless 'em, but it seems as if they already are.