A Time for Change

The following is just a repost of a piece I did about three years ago from another blog site.

For much of the past year, I have been trying to wrap my head around a way to salvage the industry about which my colleagues and I are very passionate. I have been wrestling with many different ideas for the better part of the last six months, and have been biding my time, waiting for the right time to announce what I have come up with. I have a vision.

First let me start by expressing a couple of my beliefs about this issue. I believe that the disintegration of our orchestras actually has little to do with public school music education. I believe that it has every bit to do with a deep seated view by the general public that in order to be allowed to enjoy classical music in America, you must be a) White, b) upper-middle class (at least), and c) Old (or at least older than 30)…

Over the past year, I have attended performances by the Richmond, Cincinnati, Houston, and National Symphony Orchestras, and each time, I was dressed comfortably and casually, in “street” clothes, if you will. Since I am a trained classical musician, the concert hall is not a venue which is foreign to me. It is actually a place where I feel quite at home, so I feel no need to dress up.

However, while approaching the doors to the venue, or waiting for the house doors to open up, more than once I was met with looks of disdain from many of the other patrons. Suddenly, I was made to feel inferior and alienated in places that I once hoped to make my career. Why is that? Did I smell? Was there something stuck in my teeth? Then it dawned on me. I was one of the only concertgoers with dark skin, under the age of 50, and not wearing a suit and/or tie. I was dressed appropriately, I suppose as appropriately as a 22 year old male could dress in public. I was bathed and my clothes were in good condition. My hair was combed…well, it was probably styled in some sort of faux-hawky fashion. But I did not look any differently than any other young person would at any other public location.

It then occurred to me that a twentysomething-year-old-male-without-a-suit-and-tie was not societally “allowed” to enjoy classical music. I should have been at the mall, or at a rock concert, or at a bar… The funniest part being that I was, I am, trained; a horn player even, and I was very well versed and quite academically familiar with the repertoire on each of the concerts I attended. So, why was I made to feel so inferior to my suit-wearing, perm sporting, pachouli smelling fellow patrons? I listened intently, I applauded when I was supposed to, and I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent musical journeys on which I was transported by each of the magnificent groups which I had the opportunity to witness. Aside from not abiding by the unwritten dress code for each of these events, what other possible conditions was I not meeting? This is a problem.

Why do we have to dress up to see the symphony? I asked this question to a friend of mine, who kindly replied something to the effect of, “…it is out of respect for the musicians. They dedicate their lives to the music they play, so you want to look like you care.” A very honorable and honest response, I think. But, a doctor has dedicated his life to medicine, and you don’t put on a tie every time you have a checkup, do you? As a musician who has dedicated my life to the music I play, I couldn’t care any less about what my audience is wearing. I just want them to be comfortable and to enjoy the music. I want them to experience Mahler, Beethoven, and Brahms in the same way that moved me to have such a profound love for classical music. And if I can effect just one audience member in that way, I will have done my job, whether or not he is wearing jeans or a tuxedo.

Having never had a career in a professional orchestra (yet), it is difficult for me to say with much certainty, or even validity for that matter, what it is that directly causes the crises that our great orchestras face. But, based on my experiences, it seems, frankly, that young people feel like they aren’t allowed to like classical music, for fear of being thrust into a demographic incongruent with their own affiliations of choice? Picture this: a high school jock enjoying the power of Mahler, a head cheerleader relaxing to the simplicities of Haydn, a goth vibing on Beethoven string quartets. These examples seem paradoxical, wouldn’t you agree? That is a problem.

It is time that we young musicians take charge of the future of our craft, our art, our passion, our livelihoods. And here is my vision.

I hope for a group of musicians that share a mission and operate under one name, a sort of society, if you will, dedicated to perpetuating classical music as accessible to, literally, people from all walks of life. Easy enough, right? (I am fully prepared to accept the repercussions of what I am about to propose) How do we do it? Image. Classical music is BEGGING for a new image, the survival of the industry in the US depends on it. I am not stuffy, and I know for damn sure that my colleagues are not stuffy…especially those I shared my undergrad with. I do not walk with my nose in the air. When I sit on stage waiting for a downbeat, I am doing just that, sitting and waiting to have the opportunity to transport a group of listeners to another world through music, for whatever period of time. I do not expect the audience to respect me because I’m on stage. I expect them to respect the music, to give it a chance, to travel with me on a remarkable phonic adventure, to respect an experience than can only be had first-hand.

So what if, for my next solo performance, I walked into a crowded court yard looking like Adam Lambert, Horn in hand. Personal prejudice against Mr. Lambert aside, I anticipate that the crowd’s reaction to me would be much different than if I had walked into the courtyard in a shirt and tie. And what then, if I played the most beautiful exposition of a Mozart concerto? Would they applaud? Would they jeer? Would they notice? What if it were a small ensemble, dressed in a similar rock-star fashion, who gave the most tremendous rendition of the Schubert Octet, or Beethoven Septet? How would the crowd react?

What if an entire symphony orchestra performed the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at a downtown amphitheater dressed like rock stars? Or better yet, dressed like normal, everyday people? What if we could show the world that we are people, just like them. That we like to go to the movies, we like Ben Affleck, and sometimes we drink a little too much tequila. Do you think it would make a difference? The target demographic here is not the stuffy subscriber who leaves before the big piece because it was written after 1803. It is the unsuspecting classical music lover who thought they were never allowed to enjoy Mozart, because their social rules confined them to liking only Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

We need to make our music look just as cool as it sounds. And who knows? We may end up having fun doing it. So, who’s with me?

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