My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts from a "Podunk" musician after chewing on Teachout's Wall Street Journal article

Last night I spent several hours on twitter discussing an article that was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal titled, "The Zero Option: Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense."  I sense that the author, Terry Teachout, was looking to stir the pot a bit in regards to the future of American orchestras and he definitely succeeded.  Bravo!  

Wait, bravo?!?  Why am a shouting an accolade in response to an article that made me bristle for hours on end yesterday?  How could I possibly be happy about such a degrading, close-minded, big-city elitest article (that's just in my opinion, of course)?  Well, because that article was the spark that seems to be serving as a catalyst for musicians and supporters of the arts to band together and to think through the points Teachout raises; this one article has inspired an outpouring of comments and blog posts that clearly demonstrate our desire to have live music around us, even if the quality of music-making is beneath the level of, say, the New York Philharmonic.  If I was wondering if folks felt the same way I did - that we need to move away from the expectation of note-perfect performances, that we need to make music-making fun again and more of a community affair, that classical music might fare better if we just relaxed a little bit inside and outside of the concert hall - I now seem to have an answer.  And that answer is one that truly gives me hope and encouragement.  Here are just a few sites on the web where people have voiced their opinions about the article:

Wall Street Journal - original article and comments

Orchestra R/Evolution - blog post and comments

NobleViola blog - blog posts and comments

Adaptistration blog - blog posts and comments

Horn Matters blog - blog posts and comments

So what are my own thoughts and reactions from all of this?  Here they are...not that I've thought about them a lot, of course...

  1. Mr. Teachout compares over and over again, the regional symphony orchestra to art institutions and drama companies but this is a faulty comparison, in my mind.  "Podunk" towns most often don't have art museums or professional drama companies so there is no choice.  Having a regional orchestra, either made up of community members and/or professionals, is therefore a crucial opportunity for a community to enjoy some culture and to reap the benefits of having something artistic to be engaged in whether as a musician or as an audience member.
  2. If regional orchestras were to disappear, how would people living in "Podunk" towns have access to live music?  Would we be expected to drive to the nearest major city in order to hear a live performance of Beethoven's 5th?  For me, that would mean hauling myself and my husband over 5 hours away to Washington D.C.  And what would we do with our 5-year old?  Hire a babysitter to stay with her?  How expensive would that be?  Or would we bring her with us and raise the ire of audience members that would rather not share the experience with a bored pre-schooler?  Perhaps Teachout would recommend me just downloading the symphony from i-tunes but that's not a live performance - I want a live performance!
  3. So if podunkers can't make the needed pilgrimage to a classical music mecca, we have to stick to recordings.  OK, but then our young musicians only experience note-perfect performances as being acceptable.  They won't even realize that all musicians have bad intonation at times, run out of breath, play a piece too fast...I already see a high level in obsessiveness in young musicians.  Some obsessiveness is OK because after all, that's what gets us as musicians to constantly improve, but I see the current level as being way too high and too detrimental.  And another thought, if young musicians don't watch live performances, how are they going to be inspired to perform themselves?  There is so much energy and passion that can only translate in the flesh.  And performing really can be thrilling, both for the musician and the audience.  You can't get those experiences plugged into a sound system.  A result that I see from taking away live performances is a leeching of joy from music-making, especially classical music-making.  If we go down this path then will we even have very many musicians or audience members in the future?  
  4. Without live performances, there is less of a sense of community when it comes to music-making.  Where else are musical podunkers going to play together?  Sure they can play chamber music and there are always town bands, but strings don't play in bands. And in  "Podunk" town, how are musicians going to have the opportunity to do things like play a concerto with an orchestra?  I'm a little biased here, I realize, because I was given the opportunity to perform with Virginia Tech's orchestra this past season. I had a great time trying to create a mutually magical experience in preparation for the performance and I appreciated the orchestra members' talent and hard work even though the end-result was not what anyone would find via recordings and Teachout-approved ensembles.  And I do believe that the orchestra members enjoyed getting to tackle one of Beethoven's great symphonic works.  
  5. I am in no way stating that the top symphony orchestras aren't exceptional and aren't inspiring.  They certainly can be and I have burned into my mind memories of many life-changing performances that came from their halls.  But those orchestras are facing many of the same problems the smaller orchestras are facing.  Everyone should be asking many of the same questions.
  6. What would folks say if we decided that no more funding should go into sports, for instance college sports, and that community sports teams should be eliminated?  I have a feeling that might not go over well but in my mind, they offer similar advantages and disadvantages.
  7. In regards to funding, in today's economy it doesn't seem like most podunk orchestras receive much funding from the government so why should wasting funds really be something for him to worry about?  Shouldn't that be up to each individual community?  Besides, money gets wasted all the time, on much worse things...I don't think of spending it on community, education, and culture as being corrupt or wasteful.  
I really could go on and on here, but I'll stop for now.  I also want to acknowledge that Teachout states that he isn't actually promoting the idea of dissolving regional orchestras, but rather that he was creating a "thought experiment" in writing "The Zero Option."  Therefore I apologize if this post comes across as being overly critical.   Like I said in the beginning, I am actually grateful to have read his article and hope that many others read it so that they too can be inspired to really think about what he's saying.  There is always room for making changes to how we do things so I figure let's make some lemonade from this sour lemon.

Many thanks to my twitter friends for all of the good conversation last night on this subject.  There's an example of a great benefit of twittering.  In closing, all I want to say is...

"Play on, proud podunkers, play on!"


  1. I've been commenting on this article too long, but I largely found myself AGREEING with Teachout, at least when it comes to a place like Pasadena (an L.A. suburb) or other "podunk" orchestras that find themselves in suburbia after decades of urban sprawl.

    That said, I think he barks up the wrong tree. The question is one of repertoire: not "less Schubert more Star Wars," mind you, but more new music and even lesser known works from the standard repertoire or once beloved but now forgotten composers (as long as it's not Max Reger).

  2. Thank you for your comment, Armando. And I've been talking about this for too long too ;-) I suppose that means Teachout did a good job of writing a thought-provoking article!

  3. I agree that Mr. Teachout has done us all a favor by bringing this out in the open, and you've done us a similar favor by making a compelling argument on behalf of regional orchestras.

    To me, there is no reason whatsoever to abandon those regional symphony orchestras that receive reasonable community support. On the other hand, if your "symphony orchestra" is only supported when you can provide a half dozen "Star Wars" nights (and similar events) each season, do you really have a "symphony" orchestra in the first place?

    That whole thing about quality of performance is a red herring. Given the tricks that can be brought to bear in a recording session, CDs provide a better quality of music than you'll hear in any live performance, whether its the Podunk Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera. What they can never provide is the edge, the zing that you get from attending a live performance. Even recordings of live performances can't capture what it's like to actually be there, in real time.

    Thanks again! As usual, your blog is excellent.

  4. Thank you, Dale, for your kind comments about the post and the blog.

    In regards to programming, I think it's important to note that not all regional orchestras bow down to the pops concert god and choose instead to primarily perform classical masterpieces. So again, I feel like Teachout's statements about that are not applicable to many, many organizations. But even if they do sometimes program occasional Star Wars medley, I don't think it's the end of the world, especially if it's done well. There are many soundtracks out there that are legitimately decent pieces.

    Thanks again, Dale...I look forward to more comments and discussion!