Call this the “connect-the dots” Convocation message. Over the past five months, I encountered three seemingly unrelated items that have oddly come together to form a potent message. One, I served on a panel at the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League (with two other dynamic speakers) on the topic of “Making the Case for American Orchestras.” My task was to speak to the intrinsic value of music and orchestras; theirs was to speak to the economic and educational benefits. Their presentations were zealous, full of concrete examples and beautifully presented. Not once did they talk about the power of music.
Two, a factoid on the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians website (ICSOM represents the 50 largest orchestras in the US) stated that in calendar year 2003, there were 159 position vacancies in ICSOM orchestras. In the same year, American music schools and conservatories graduated more than 14,000 students with music degrees.
And three, a book I read this summer called Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson, really jarred my understanding of the learning styles and capabilities of today’s young people.
After these three experiences, I realized that our call to leadership in music must be constantly on each and every one of our minds. It’s time to put the platitudes and delaying tactics behind us. Our task is enormous, awesome, challenging, essential: to imagine and create a totally new landscape and reality for music in American society.
Let me elaborate on my three experiences and how they relate to this call to action.
Because it is so difficult to explain the intrinsic value of music, and because we musicians have not taken the time to craft a message about it, others who passionately love music have taken up the standard. Build a new music hall in a downtown location and restaurants, hotels and boutique shops will follow! Your crumbling center city will be reborn! (Never mind that in most of America’s largest cities, audiences for concert music live an hour or more outside and don’t leave work until 6:00 p.m. or later.) Encourage participation in school music groups to build better social behavior, improve concentration and improve math and reading scores! Play Mozart to your baby and his/her IQ will improve! Have you heard any of these arguments before?
Let’s declare these arguments those of the past, and commit ourselves to finding and using a language that explains the importance of what we do. Let me suggest, as a start, that there are five zones where one can find the intrinsic value of music.
In the first area, music expresses a cultural history and legacy . It provides a window to other cultures, and as such, evokes empathy and understanding and builds social bonds. Here music taps the public’s sensitivity to diversity and its belief that we better understand each other by experiencing each other’s cultural traditions. One can imagine a listening- or performing- together experience in which the people involved are immersed in a work that opens up new musical vistas in form, sound, and means of expression. Through this shared participation, those involved develop a new sense of each other’s histories, becoming more empathetic to diversity of style and tradition.
The second area asserts that music provides an essential element in the complete or whole education of an individual – not in the “knowing about music” sense, but in the whole brain concept that music nurtures those parts of our brains that process emotion, feeling and abstraction and in doing so, leads to better mental health. Howard Gardner, the noted educational psychologist, would support this idea. His research and resultant theories describe a multi-functional, integrated brain with a specific identified zone related to music. His theories have been translated by numerous educators into curriculum that recognizes music as a distinct “intelligence,” nurturing it alongside other “intelligences” such as mathematical and verbal/linguistic.
Music as the voice of the community provides my third area of intrinsic value. Here music demonstrates its power to express a community’s response to an event or movement and as such, moves the group’s members to more in-depth understanding, stronger vision and more action-oriented social bonds. Perhaps the most powerful example of this voice of the community occurred around the tragedy of September 11, when music provided a means of expression and healing.
My fourth area posits that perceiving music, especially that which is new or new-to-the-listener, sparks one’s sense of creativity, one’s openness to innovation. Here music’s abstraction, complexity, surprise, and sense of play enhance a person’s latent creative impulses. Again, the intrinsic value lies in the activation and stimulation of the whole person. I have observed that in creative communities where invention is evident and nurtured, there is notable interest in newly composed music, that perhaps the creative IT guy or gal is drawn to new music because it sparks a sense of play, invention, and riskiness that enriches his/her own creative process.
The last area presents the most difficult descriptive challenge, but is also the most important one, that of how the individual is nurtured, inspired, given freedom to contemplate, and can be personally and privately allowed to process music’s complex and rich content. All of us in the room know what this means, as we have not only experienced it, we create and produce it as part of our daily lives. Those whom we touch know it as well.
The ICSOM statistics tell us about the emergencies of our present condition. Yes, of the 14,000 graduates of American music schools in 2003 (this number remains consistent in subsequent years), many moved from the bachelor’s level to the master’s or from a master’s degree to a doctoral course of study. Yes, not all were graduated in orchestral instruments, and of those who did, not all wanted orchestral positions. On the other hand, contemplate how many recent graduates are on the job market and that moreover, not all of these positions were filled. Needless to say, this is a vastly complicated topic.
However, I believe we can conclude that there are not going to be substantially more openings and fewer applicants for them in the future. Very few of you will get a position in one of these orchestras, no matter how wonderfully you play.
However, I believe that Americans’ appetite for music is greater than ever, that with imagination, zeal and artistry, one can enjoy a purposeful life in music. Zeal and artistry are a given among musicians of quality; imagination is not. We have been used to playing by the rules, figuring out just exactly how to play that excerpt from Don Juan so that that audition committee on the other side of the screen will pass us on to the next round. Don’t do anything expressive or out of the ordinary, we are often told. That’s a sure way to be eliminated. Is this music or is it a game of Jeopardy? It’s time for the intrinsic value of music to prevail, so that we can be poets in society, not music line workers or tradesmen.
This summer my older daughter gave me the Steven Johnson book Everything Bad is Good for You. He makes a cogent case that young people today, through their immersion in technology and other media, are more able to manage complexity and ambiguity; and that they respond favorably, even avidly to active engagement in process. Johnson does not argue that the content of popular media promotes these values, but that the processes and construction of popular media do.
As I was reading, something clicked. I was astounded when I contemplated the relationship between these characteristics
and concert music: complexity, ambiguity, avid engagement. However, perhaps more important, I realized that the way we have been presenting concert music to children has to be completely rethought; and that enormous opportunities exist to introduce and draw a new audience into concert music.
This is a window on the future. The digital revolution is well underway and its effects are ever present.
There are bridges to be found and developed. Think back to my fourth area of intrinsic value, that relating to creativity, invention and innovation. Perhaps that age group of 25-35 of IT types is drawn to new music because they understand the bridge and find important meaning emanating from their immersion in music?
And so, I call us to action. We have a task in front of us so daunting, yet so much fun to contemplate and tackle. The music to which we are devoted is rich, complex, ever growing, and critically important to the society we live in. Our job is to imagine, create, communicate, and never give up. Our job must be that of visionary zealots.
September 1, 2005