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Music Feature

NEA Notebook: Your Tax Dollars at Work - A Level-Nine Call for Awareness, and Other Thoughts & Reflections

October 27, 2005 - New York, NY:

While leaving the production of Falstaff at the Met on October 19, it occurred to me what a wonderful luxury is this NY market. On a Wednesday night in the middle of October, the 4,000 seat Metropolitan Opera House was nearly full. At the same time, just across the plaza, a concert was in progress at Avery Fisher Hall. In another direction, the City Opera and Lincoln Center Theater both had presentations, Broadway theaters were in full swing, local clubs offering jazz/rock/alternative and comedy were full, and the streets and sidewalks were teeming. The previous night, Avery Fisher was nearly full, as was Carnegie hall on the 18th – a Monday! What makes it all work?

Maybe a population base of ten million for starters – and active arts analysis in the media.

I experienced this scene as a participant in the NEA Institute in Classical Music and Opera hosted by the Journalism School at Columbia University from October 16 to 27. Along with 24 other journalists from across the US (representing Hawaii and Alaska too), I spent time in classes, lectures, one-on-one interviews with arts industry leaders and artists, attending concerts, traveling the length of Manhattan searching out historical venues including Carnegie Hall, and sitting with distinguished writers discussing the state of art and condition of arts analysis in the media. It was twelve intense days of taking in and sharing experiences, professional observations, and opinions. I wrote four articles that were critiqued by NY Times and Newsday journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Justin Davidson. Our headquarters was the Journalism Building of Columbia University, founded by Joseph Pulitzer in 1912. I was honored to be in the company of colleagues from all across the country, among professional writers, and in a place of near-continuous arts motion. I was the only professional musician, so of course I played a brief recital too.

I came away with some startlingly selfish observations. When not tending to the business of my music performance or teaching career, I have spent my entire professional life creating and producing grass-roots-level lecture/music events in the local region of my home, usually in communities off the main path and thus in need of concert programs and receptive to the classical guitar experience. Even allowing for the occasional business misstep or unrealistic expectation, it has always been a struggle to make money and draw a satisfactory audience. Even making money is secondary to creating a first-generation audience that might then return and bring friends and children a second and third time.

As a producer, a creator, and one who is accustomed to sitting on the front line of cultural activities, New York City is a revelation and reminder. It's hard to vanquish thoughts of longing, and I want to be where the market is broader and more responsive, and to experience the success of art and music in culture.

During the week of October 23, the primary trend in thinking changed to a continued and persistent need for education among the public. This appeared on several levels – the need for music programs in elementary schools, the benefits youths derive from studying instruments, the need for lectures and performances in more remote and unconventional places, support for pre-concert discussions and lectures, and the steady need for informed articles in the local media – all of which accrue in positive ways to a public audience. Over the long arc, this emphasis on education trickles up and down, to both youth and adult citizens, regardless of economic level. For over 30 years I have spoken to audiences, even in the most formal settings, about the music they are about to hear. It always seems to help.

A second and related theme emerged during discussions on the future audiences for classical music and opera. The task as outlined was to understand how and where these audiences will be cultivated. After extensive and spirited conversations, I have come to the conclusion that the conventional models that generate both the task and related market anxiety are not factoring in one important element: maturity.

The standard thinking is that since arts – like music instruction and large ensembles – have been cut from public school programs, an entire generation will, or perhaps already has, come of age with no baseline or precedent to understand the history of art music or the values that make enjoyment and perpetuation obvious. Their experience and values are rooted in popular entertainment forms such as interactive media, television, and generational music, and therefore classical music will be discarded from society by omission.

But missing from this formula are changes associated with individual maturity: physical, emotional, and financial. As a generation crosses the age of forty, there is a prospect of greater financial independence and less stringent time constraints resulting from career promotions and success of early investments. At the same time, intellectual maturity generates a renewed appreciation for and personal investment in the cultural well-being of the community. If the previously-mentioned educational programs are in place, the prospect of second-tier education looms and is available to this middle-age demographic. The result is a ready-made feeder system for classical music and other arts audiences at precisely the correct time for the individual.

It would be wrong to suggest that classical music and opera are wasted on youth. Yet it is hard to ignore societal influences which tend to bias behavior, namely media driven pop music forms that appeal to the youth demographic. It should come as no surprise that, generally speaking, youth of the technological age do not widely embrace classical music forms. They are considered representative of the older generation's values and not something ready-made to hear, whereas the omnipresence of popular music forms in common media, combined with peer recognition and association, reinforces this bias.

I have no proof for any of these theories. Yet witness the myriad programs across America offered by community centers, senior centers, arts councils, and community colleges. Even today, these agencies target citizens of middle age and later with many different types of educational programs related to the "mature years," including music education. It is clear that any combination of efforts to inform our citizenry via all available media can only benefit the culture. Continuous awareness and utilization of contemporary technological trends will be necessary to accommodate the widest possible public. And it can be done. Today, CVNC.org is poised at the leading edge of technology and is serving exactly these needs for the state of North Carolina.

Two things remain troubling, even in the NY market: the presence of cell phones in places that defy logic, and a culture unwilling to confront the resulting abusive intrusions head-on. The cause is simple: the advent of cell phone technology was not accompanied by guidelines defining acceptable behavior, and the vanguard of this technology suggests no penalty for violation of an individual's state of mind or space.

My first solution is to acquire a high-power electronic cattle prod and take it to concerts. If a ring-tone were heard during a performance I would jab the offender. Zap! After all, one ringy-dingy and the entire spell is broken, so a little more ruckus couldn't possibly hurt. Bringing a cell phone into a concert hall – regardless of whether it is on or off – defies any real logic. But consider this: if you bring an active cell phone into a concert hall, it is exactly like dragging in your old black, rotary phone from grandfather's house with a long cord attached.

Expect to hear my voice on this subject quite a bit. I will be taking names.

"Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations." Joseph Pulitzer, North American Review, May 1904.