“But I don’t like classical music!”
A friend and I were attempting to convince her 13 year old son, who has an excellent ear, that he should take guitar lessons with a local teacher of my recommendation and become musically literate. I went through the usual conversation points, pointing out that learning music by ear is limiting, using all my best analogies, and finally asking him what he did like to listen to. He produced a list of rock bands that actually inspired me to update my rock listening – I’m getting stale. Clinging to songs and albums and groups I’m familiar with, rather than branching out with my listening.
And that’s the problem with so-called classical music, too. As I admitted to my young friend, I wouldn’t like “Classical” music either if I confined myself to listening to what my local public radio stations play. Most of the time, it’s Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. “Safe” music to keep the listeners tuned in. (Pop stations do this too, unfortunately.) And the Baroque performances the classical stations are broadcasting are often so uninspired and risk-free.
It’s no wonder folks talk so much about “relaxing” to classical music. Most people are hearing nothing new, and the Vivaldi twittering away in the background becomes white noise, and so why wouldn’t we go ahead and clean up the kitchen after dinner, make a phone call, or do homework?
In the hallowed halls of Academia, Classical Music is now referred to as “Art Music”. In some ways, this term is better. If it’s art, it means it’s something special, something we should listen to and pay attention to, listen to again and again. It’s something to discuss and enjoy. And on the other hand, if classical music is art, what is non-classical music? NOT art?
Are my young friend’s favorite rock bands any less an art form than Bach, Brahms, and Vivaldi? I say no.
Yet there are still great numbers of people in the classical world who want to elevate this type of music ABOVE other types of music, and who shun new classical works as well, and THAT is what is killing classical music.
My young friend is not interested in listening to or playing music that is so erudite, so status-filled, so, so, so . . . SNOBBY that clearly only adults, and increasingly AGING adults enjoy. My friend’s son wants something new, something exciting, and, because he is a teen with raging hormones and boundless energy combined with the ability for extended periods of sloth, something edgy.
Classical music, as he sees it, is not that. This young man’s view of classical music has been confined to what he hears on the radio and what his string-playing sister plays in her youth orchestra – Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. Why would he aspire to that? Why would he put himself through what he sees as drudgery, mastery of the fundamental skills on an instrument, to play music which does not inspire him?
I am, I promise, NOT saying that Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi have no value. Of course they do. J.S. Bach was a genius, and every undergraduate music major must study his works; Beethoven practically invented musical Romanticism. But these fellas are a small handful of DEAD composers.
Those of us who teach younger students (most of whom, if we do our jobs well, will grow up to be the audience members of tomorrow), have, as I see it, a mandate, if we wish to see our profession survive:
WE MUST ENCOURAGE AND ACTIVELY EXPECT OUR STUDENTS TO LISTEN TO AND PERFORM NEW MUSIC.
We must play music by living composers for them. I do this with students in the lesson, because I know they won’t do it at home. Because I know their parents usually aren’t at all informed on the exciting developments in so-called classical music today. I send them links to music by composers they may have never heard of. I have them sightread contemporary music, and we program it on our recitals.
What is interesting to me as that these same students who have just solemnly stated, “I don’t like classical music,” when forced (ahem, strongly encouraged) to sit down and ACTIVELY listen (no multi-tasking allowed) to a piece of music, will surprise themselves with how much they like it. Further, they are often able to make some rather brilliant observations about the piece we’ve just listened to.
We don’t always listen to new music. We listen to old music too. Most students I have taught love J.S. Bach, once they’ve played his music.
The rebuilding and (oh, how I hate this word) rebranding of classical music starts with us, the teachers of the young.
I was tired when I got home last night, and I could have let my conversation with my young friend go. But I remembered this mission. Sometimes it takes just one piece. I sent him a link to an intense piece for concert band by a young composer. (Protip – when introducing classical music to young listeners, start with easier-to-like intense pieces and work your way to the subtle.)
Let’s rebuild our classical music community – performers, listeners, and composers – one young student at a time.