First a true story:
A local cello studio in town, mostly made up of school-age children, is approached by a young engaged couple that is wanting to have classical music played at their upcoming wedding. The teacher replies, saying that yes, the studio has a cello quartet that is available for the event. The couple then asks if they might be able to come by and hear the kids play sometime before agreeing to hire them. The teacher gives them a time and a place.
Here's where I think it gets interesting...
The fiancé then asks what they should wear to this arranged time. The cello teacher responds by saying that they can just come as they are.
Fast forward a bit to the actual meeting.
The couple shows up at the pre-arranged place and time dressed up, as if they are going to a formal recital, with both individuals looking quite nervous and uncomfortable.
When I heard this story a few weeks ago I went through an evolution of emotions, from shocked, to embarrassed and saddened for this understandable but unnecessary reaction to classical music culture, to determined not give up on making my way in a rural community as a classical musician.
Since hearing this story I have read many posts and articles, ranging from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's blog to the Wall Street Journal that have all had to do with the issue of classical music culture. In them I hear the common arguments that seem to go back and forth between those that think that the classical music world needs to change in order to stay alive and those that think it is fine just the way it is. In this last round of dialogue I've chosen to remain quiet, partially because I am not in the mood to get caught in the firestorm and also because I feel that each camp is firmly dedicated to their own position thereby making discussion pretty futile. But I also didn't join in because quite frankly, I wasn't quite sure what to say. After much thinking, and a doozy of a migraine, (those things can inspire some pretty interesting revelations,) I now feel like I have something to say although it may take a few posts to do so.
|Illustration by Arthur Rackham,|
from Wikimedia Commons
After growing up as a city girl, surrounded by classical music and now living as a country girl where bluegrass and folk music are the staple, it seems to me that there doesn't have to be just one type of classical music culture that works. Where I live now, the more formal performances that one finds in the larger cities rarely seems to fit the rhythm of the community. People don't know what to expect, they don't know the music, they don't get all the "rules" and why should they? Most of the people here grew up here and were not exposed to classical music, to symphonies, to ballets. We have to drive over five hours to get to Washington, D.C. to catch a big city symphony performance; we have to drive an hour away to get to a see a Met broadcast of one of their operas; we have to drive to another state or even fly to a big city to get our instruments repaired! Rarely do the top-level performers venture to our small area and I don't blame them. I get it. There isn't much of an audience here. But that means we need to understand this when it comes time to draw in an audience. I believe this is the reality for many musicians living in rural America and for the communities that we're trying to reach with classical music.
So what can those of us living as country mice do to keep our music alive? Personally I don't think we should abandon any type of musical presentation. If performances in the concert hall cease, a lot of passionate listeners will be left out in the dust and they will be denied an important source of musical and cultural inspiration. If we give up on performances in more informal venues - in bars, libraries, outside on the lawn - we're going to risk having lots of people, especially young ones, slip through the cracks out of sheer lack of exposure. It seems to me that right now organizations and musicians are either trying to merge the two approaches or they are trying to push for one above the other. I don't think either way is going to solve any problem or pull in new audiences.
So here's my most recent hair-brained idea and I think this could apply to both city mice and country mice - perhaps we could come up with some sort of rating system like they do for movies, not to embarrass anyone or to say that one person is better than another, but simply so the expectation is made clear as to how a given concert will be presented and what those in the audience and on stage can expect:
E = Experienced audiences: for audiences that have been steeped in classical music culture and that are comfortable with a more reverential performance.
G = General audiences: for audiences that may or may not have experience in classical music culture but are looking for an opportunity to take it in without fear of breaking any etiquette rules. These performances may also include non-classical music.
I = Informal audiences: for audiences that don't have experience in classical music culture but would like to experience it in an informal setting, free of any etiquette rules. These performances may also include non-classical music.
Using a rating system like this might address a few issues:
- It would encourage presenters and performing organizations to decide what it is they really want for a given performance.
- For people that are nervous about attending a classical music performance this would take some of the mystery out of what would be expected from them.
- For people that have been steeped in classical music, this would enable them to go to a performance with the expectation that those around them will be seeking the same sort of atmosphere.
- It would encourage families with children to take their children to concerts. They could start out with I and G-rated concerts, ending with E concerts if that's something that attracts the child.
I realize that there are probably countless numbers of arguments against setting something like this up, but what has become very clear to me, especially through scenarios like the one with which I opened this post, is that the classical music culture can be highly intimidating for many, many people. I didn't realize that when I was a city girl. As a country girl now I'm trying to figure out a way to share what I love in a way that will make sense to the people in this community. It seems to me that taking the mystery out of our world, especially when it comes to performances, might be one step. We should at least foster an environment where people feel like they can truly come as they are when we tell them they can come as they are.
Stay tuned for some more thoughts in the days to come. And as always, I welcome your own thoughts and experiences.
Other posts in this series:
City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part II - repertoire and programming