NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Is Classical Music Dying?
Through NYO-USA’s experience recording an episode of From the Top and engaging children in an interactive performance at Carnegie Hall, the musicians of the orchestra got a taste of community-minded musicianship. Apprentice Orchestra Manager Josh Davidoff explores what it means to bring audiences into the world of classical music.
After the taping of our episode of From the Top last week, we freshly minted alumni of the show got to participate in an arts leadership session led by From the Top’s educational team. While there were many thought-provoking questions and a lot of insightful input from musicians, the workshop focused on one issue in particular: whether classical music is dying in America.
This is an extraordinarily difficult topic for NYO-USA’s seasoned and dedicated players, many of whom are considering or actively pursuing a career in this art form that may or may not be endangered. For most lovers of classical music, the default answer is a reactive “no way, we’re doing just fine.” Generally, the evidence towards the affirmative tends to be overlooked because it’s just too scary.
My personal opinion on the matter is about as internally consistent as the intonation of a sixth-grade orchestra (i.e., not very), but in the past I’ve typically gravitated toward the less popular pole: Classical music is dying, albeit slowly. However, I don’t mean this as a condemnation. Rather, I see it as a call to action.
Classical music is laboring under the weight of a lack of access. Entry consists of a series of technical and intellectual hoops and hurdles to be overcome before anyone will be accepted into the culture. In my experience, it is difficult or impossible for someone who doesn’t know how many symphonies were written by Dmitri Shostakovich (15) to earn the trust or the camaraderie of someone who has known Shostakovich since preschool. It’s akin to a kid on the playground being excluded because he doesn’t watch a certain TV show. His family doesn’t have cable.
Here at NYO-USA, those traditions of exclusion and elitism are difficult to find. The overwhelming majority of these young musicians are happy to talk to anybody about the many joys contained within a Beethoven symphony, whether the conversation is on topics of complex music theory or simply emotional response. At the interactive performance for children that we participated in last week at Carnegie Hall, I saw many musicians connecting with young kids who had absolutely no musical background. Many players (including myself on tenor sax) were not afraid to employ familiar pop songs and even “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to demonstrate their instrument and make a connection. When music is used effectively, it is humanity’s common language.
So, is classical music dying in America? Frankly, it’s irrelevant. If we continue as a musical society to treat outsiders with a measure of disrespect or a lack of interest, then I firmly believe that we have nowhere to go but down. However, there exists hope, a lot of which can be found in the hearts and minds of young musicians. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard a hundred times: “You guys are the future.” Inclusion across boundaries truly is our decision to make.
As we continue our cross-country tour, the future looks bright.