The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was given the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Schools of Music in San Diego. Founded in 1924, this organization has about 625 member institutions, and through its accreditation process, establishes national standards for music degrees in higher education. The overall theme this year was advocacy for music and musical training. I confess that, in the rush to get future performers and educators trained in technique, musicality, and pedagogy, I sometimes forget that there are other practical skills that need to be developed in my students – for example, preparing them to communicate the value of music or art in general and its relevance to society to audiences, institutions, and communities.
Henry Fogel, Director of Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Music and keynote speaker for the conference, has been called one of the most influential music administrators in America. He is a former president of the Chicago Symphony, executive director of the National Symphony, orchestra manager of the New York Philharmonic, and chair of the Board of Directors for the American Symphony Orchestra League. He has led successful capital and advocacy campaigns to elevate classical music everywhere he has been, and written extensively on these subjects. In his keynote address, Fogel referred to a study for the National Endowment for the Arts on declining participation in the arts, particularly classical music, and the results were not necessarily encouraging or, for that matter, surprising. If you are interested, you can find this report on the NEA website nea.gov (see Publications). As he spoke about advocacy for music, it was interesting to listen to a person who has been so successful for so long, and yet is still so determined to participate in a fight that never seems to end. He had several thought-provoking suggestions, all centered around one useful theme – focus on the value system. To do this, one must concentrate on people not governments; governments respond more readily to value systems than large groups of people (i.e., voters) put or keep in place, not to arguments presented by individuals or narrow constituencies.
Fogel had many suggestions regarding how to meet audiences where they are, and thus advocate for music’s relevance and value. Give lots of information verbally before, during, or after concerts, or in program notes using clear, useful terms (no jargon). Present the music or the information in human terms, not in elevated, “hallowed” tones. Encourage the audience to be themselves (e.g., let them clap anytime). Present diverse programs that show music’s relevance to contemporary society. At the same time, he said, we don’t really need to worry about the “dead white male” syndrome – it is really about how it is perceived and presented.
In a larger context, Fogel said, be present, work with others outside of music, show interest in your community as a whole and be ready to describe the relevance or contributions of what you do to your community. If you teach, don’t just teach music, but about music’s place in society. Learn to speak to a range of groups of people, and train students to do this. Add diversity to every aspect of what you do. Be sensitive to societal forces – for example, people are more visual now, so give them more to look at. Consider every aspect of your presentation/performance – NB: orchestra concerts and recitals are staged virtually the same as they were in the mid-19th century (scary!). Schools should be laboratories for experimentation. Ticket prices should be reasonable, especially in hard times. We need to stop talking amongst ourselves and get out there and talk to others.
Speaking of considering all aspects of performance, NASM brought the chamber group eighth blackbird to the conference to speak about its approach to music advocacy. As an ensemble that specializes in contemporary, even cutting edge repertoire, I was interested to learn about their perceptions of the performer’s role in audience development and music advocacy. They shared the four aspects of their approach they feel has made them successful with current audiences.
- Play it like Brahms. No matter how new, their music comes from the Classical tradition, and that means one should always use good tone, genuine phrasing, interesting colors. Extended techniques should not sound “extended,” but be natural and credible parts of the musical expression.
- As an ensemble, always play together. In preparation, know the whole score. Make sure everything is done purposefully and with musical integrity. All physical motions (especially cues) should be musically relevant and practiced.
- When preparing the music, make group decisions efficiently. Be open and accommodating of other perspectives. Use metronomes and tuners actively to mediate technical disagreements. Make sure that group decisions are honored respectfully and with musical integrity. This attitude will influence the atmosphere of performances and be observed (positively) by the audience.
- Consider the whole performance – stage deportment, dress, setup, movement. Memorize to free up staging and increase personal investment in the music. Introduce pieces in ways that let audiences in on the secrets of music-making, don’t talk down to them or try to elevate yourself or the music – keep it as real as possible.
As you can tell, the weekend in San Diego was very provocative for me, and I hope that my message might encourage your own advocacy for music (and the horn!) in your communities. Frankly, our lives depend on it. I know I am not alone in my belief that music and the other arts are essential to society – through them, life becomes more than just existence.
Wishing you good chops,