It's 5:30am and I am tossing and turning in my bed because, in my dreams last night, I relived an experience I had fairly recently. I won't reveal any names or where I had this experience, so don't ask me.
Someone tried to "mansplain" (and I mean that word in the worst possible sense) to me what the Scientific Method is. This person is a scientist - and a celebrated one at that. We were having a discussion about ways that people learn things. I explained that a Music Theory class, in its very essence, is first and foremost a science. This person vehemently disagreed with me - steering me to how music and the arts function more on the right side of the brain rather than the left and citing the definition of the Scientific Method as though I "clearly didn't understand what it was." They said something along these lines:
"Look, Vince, what you do and what we do are not the same at all. We spend our time trying to prove and disprove hypotheses by doing experiments and testing them. That is the Scientific Method. That is not what you do."
I replied: "What is it you think we do, then?"
"Well, I don't know beyond what I hear and I certainly think you put beauty into the world, but you don't use the Scientific Method to do that."
I recalled how, when my beloved teacher and Friend, Conrad Susa attended school at (then) Carnegie Tech and, later, at Juilliard, the degrees which were awarded to them were "Bachelor of Science" and "Master of Science." Nowadays, they are, of course, BMus and MMus - another mistake in the long list of regression which has continuously grown in music schools - even conservatories - over the last 50+ years.
I replied to this person:
"For an example: when one studies species counterpoint either modally or tonally, one is given a line called a "Cantus Firmus" and asked to compose a second and/or third voice against this given line. There are a plethora of rules - some of them rather stringent guidelines - to which one must adhere in order for the resultant line to be organic and serviceable and for the juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance to be balanced in a traditional sense. There are entire treatises written about this. There are countless papers and books written about both this and practices that spun off of this - such as the Schenkerian theory. The vast landscape of not only musical composition but also musical interpretation and pedagogy is largely perched on this basic premise. The value of whether or not something works in the environment in which you set it is NOT entirely a function of emotion and feelings and impulse. If musicians throughout history acted only (or primarily) on feelings and impulse, we would certainly not have the lion's share of the masterworks to which we constantly look today for examples. One should note that these are the very same works which have inspired so many composers who followed to push themselves harder, to continue searching for new thought, and to offer their listeners something compelling to think about."
The person was looking at me with an obvious mixture of perplexity and irritation because I pointed out to them that it was arrogant to assume that:
This is an urgent societal problem.
As musicians, we have done such a phenomenal job at affecting and manipulating the human brain that our entire species has evolved in its thinking and processing of audio material to the point of hypnosis. In other words, people are, indeed, so affected by the music they've experienced that they have become blind and deaf to how it got into their ears in the first place. They treat us (musicians) almost exclusively as entertainers and as emotionally charged, volatile people - as though we, ourselves, are the absentminded consumers.
I have even encountered young, emerging composers who would rather think of themselves as "Architects of Sound" (this is actually something a graduate student once said to me) than adopt any kind of established technique for assembling their ideas in a cohesive manner on the page. This is, of course, regardless of the kind of musical language in which they reside. In other words, it doesn't matter if you are a tonalist, atonalist, polytonalist, pandiatonicist, or whatever. We need all of those languages in music. It does matter, however, that you write your musical words down with technique, syntax, cohesiveness, and some kind of structure, be it loose or meticulously scaffolded. This is a huge part of what musicians formally study when in school - or, at least, it WAS.
As I was typing that just now, I was kicking myself a little bit because it is, in fact, this level of technique and structure that leads to such fluid consumption of music so as to create consumers like said scientist above.
Here are my assertions:
To my fellow musicians:
We must do all we can to stop perpetuating this absentminded notion in society. How?
And most of all...
Happy Thanksgiving to You and Yours! I write from my Mom's house in Folsom, CA. We are here briefly for the Thanksgiving holiday. I started the morning with my favorite giant cinnamon rolls and am now curled up on the couch with my hoodie and my fleece throw around me. In short, I'm a happy camper. Today, I'm sharing a response I wrote to a blog article posted some years ago by a Canadian composer named Aaron Gervais. I've often talked about this article because I believe that it's at the heart of what is happening with concert music today. Thanks for reading!
Canadian composer Aaron Gervais posted an article on his blog titled "Accessibility is a Dead End". It was brought to my attention by a composer colleague.
Please read it before reading my thoughts below.
I'd like to take a moment to respond and add to Mr. Gervais' comments. To begin and to be clear, I will say that there are many aspects of his argument which are spot-on, and which appeal to me. I agree with him on several key points, including:
Accessibility means more to me than "dumbing the programming down". I like to think of it as "meeting people where they are and leading them down new paths of joyful curiosity and shared discovery." If we're talking about teaching people, we can't start by teaching to our ideal students. We have to teach the students we actually have in front of us.
To summarize the article, Mr. Gervais laments that the downfall of "classical" music is due, at least in part, to people who try to make it "accessible". He speaks of "accessibility" in this way:
"In order to regain audience attention, presenters fell upon the idea of accessibility, which has two goals: (1) prevent current subscribers from leaving, and (2) lower the barriers to entry so that greater numbers of non-subscribers are willing to take a chance on your concerts...
For most people, classical music is more foreign than ever, and the focus on accessibility has siphoned attention away from audience-building techniques that actually work. I’m heartened to see more progressive classical groups experimenting with other models, but we need to completely reject accessibility as a concept in order to really see results."
Really? COMPLETELY REJECT ACCESSIBILITY?
First of all, accessibility means something different to Mr. Gervais than it does to me. The dictionary defines accessibility as "able to be easily understood, obtained, or used; of a person: friendly and easy to talk to; approachable". This says nothing of intellect or complicated ideas themselves. There is no reason why performers can't find creative and engaging ways to make even the most complex musical thoughts, textures, and concepts "easily understood, obtained, or used."
My NYC-based vocal ensemble, Choral Chameleon, provides what I would call "accessible programming" to our listeners. However, there's nothing dumbed down about it. We attempt to use music that might be more familiar and/or contemporary to unlock meaning and depth in music likely to be less familiar or more intellectual from our listeners' viewpoints. I like to use the phrase: "unlocking intelligence we already possess". We have found tremendous success in doing this and are even surprised sometimes at what people's reactions are to concert pieces we initially thought they might have a hard time embracing. People constantly tell us that our programs are both educational and eye-opening; but also fun, energetic, and emotionally uplifting. The two are not mutually exclusive. Importantly, all of the themes and through lines in our programs are very human and are matters that affect all of us in our daily lives. Therefore, they are immediately relatable. After all: just like each of us, before Bach and Haydn and Mozart et al were composers, they were people - with real lives and experiences which fueled and influenced their work just as it is for us. We can connect with them from across centuries by unlocking the power of their human nature and drawing comparisons between our lives and theirs. We can also teach in concert through allegory and metaphor.
For example, I wouldn't call asking our audience to listen to THIS* an example of programming that is "lowering the barriers to entry". In fact, even though it was the most obscure, intellectual, complicated writing on its particular program, our survey data tells us at first glance that it was, in fact, the most beloved piece from the concert. I do feel that it was most effective and prudent of us, after asking them to embrace this piece, to then give them THIS**. The amalgamation of the two is the important part: each piece carefully picked, deeply considered, and chosen as companions for each other with the audience in mind. The text of the first piece is drawn from the words of Charles Darwin. The second text begins with "Look! I Bird...", which was just a little added tongue-in-cheek panache to drive the point home.
I was brought up in the conservatory. I did all of the studying, practice, lessons, analysis, and so forth. I have three degrees in music and so on. As a music pedagogue, I'm a staunch traditionalist, employing almost exclusively the musicianship and composition techniques promoted and developed by the French school - the training of Boulanger and Dieudonné. I think Mr. Gervais would agree that no one who has had that training should take for granted, for a single moment, that others who have not had this training will experience concert music in the same way. At the same time, I did not "fall upon the idea of accessibility". The need for it presented itself to me organically during my upbringing as a musician: when my predominantly-male composition department gathered to discuss and compare scores; when certain teachers of mine spoke openly about the inferiority of women to men as composers and musicians in general; when I became the white Hammond B3 organist in an all-black Baptist church and had the best ear training of my life; when another composition teacher of mine looked me square in the eyes with utmost sincerity and told me he had no idea who Madonna or Sting were, and first recalled John Lennon as "the young man who was shot in the Dakota in the 80s".
Time keeps moving and the world keeps changing - now at a pace ever so much faster than it did even just ten years ago. It is incumbent upon us as artists to react and respond to what is happening around us here and now, and furthermore to tie the present to the past as a means of bridging gaps that separate groups of people from each other. Perhaps Mr. Gervais will agree with me that our real job as musical artists is not to be the entertainers, the court jesters of society. Instead, our job is to feed, nurture, educate, crystalize, and empower the living and the dead from across centuries. The beauty in the real artistry of doing this lies in our ability to do so without letting people feel like they are being taught. I would say the same thing of classroom teachers that I say of us as performers in the concert hall. Yes, we need to educate our audiences - even prepare them, perhaps even prior to some concerts. However, condescension and patronization through establishing exclusivity is not an effective way to attract strangers (or civilians, as I love to call them!) to what we do in concert music.
Let's start with taking away the suggestion of "ESTABLISHING A DRESS CODE" shall we? What we're wearing doesn't have anything to do with the actual act of experiencing the music. Dress codes are about conformity and uniformity. There are places where this is helpful. The concert hall is not one of them. Creative minds don't respond well to expectations such as these, especially when they are a direct reflection of high society and class. Furthermore, if learning through creative thinking - allowing audiences to draw their own connections and conclusions from a program - is to be encouraged, then invoking systems of imposed expectation does the opposite of encouraging freedom and openness in a shared concert environment. Just my two cents on that one...
I could really go on, but I want to reiterate that I am not in complete disagreement with Mr. Gervais here. I just think that the general statement (and title of his article) that "accessibility is a dead end" is very extreme and it assumes that everyone thinks of "accessibility" the same way - which we obviously don't. I point out that both Mr. Gervais and myself want the same thing - for as many people as possible to come and experience Art Music anew in this day and age. Hell, there are (as I said) a number of points (even more than the ones I mentioned here) that I will happily bring back to my team and our board as suggestions for improving our reach to our community. I thank him for writing this, especially as a means of starting the conversation. Perhaps if he's ever in New York City, he'll let me buy him a beer so we can talk more. I'm sure it would be fun and interesting. I'm not going anywhere with a dress code, though!
* - This View of Life by Jeffrey Parola
(premiered May 19th, 2013 by Choral Chameleon in New York City) (Text by Charles Darwin)
** - Time Pops Bubbles by Erika Lloyd and Brad Whiteley, arr. by Vince Peterson
(premiered November 20th, 2011 by Choral Chameleon in New York City)
New York is an incredible place, brimming with drive, ambition, originality, and power. Many people come here year after year to "make it" in their artistic endeavors. There is, however, a cloud of smoke and mirrors to get past before one meets their truth, authentic self as an artist in NYC.
I have been here for eleven years of my life. Yes, there have been times when I kicked myself and said: "what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?" Then again, there have been more times where I stop for a moment in the middle of the chaos around me and think, with gratitude, that I can't imagine my life thriving anywhere else as it has here.
With all of this excitement and drive, though, a person is still a person first. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to have a roof over our heads to hide away from that rain, snow, and wind, or that godawful humid, sticky air in the summer. We need to take ourselves out once in awhile for a nice dinner and a drink. We need to maintain active connections with other people, which involves paying phone and internet bills, going out on Friday nights for social gatherings, and having a laptop and a phone that work properly. Obviously, this takes money. Where does one draw the line between being pragmatic enough to survive in the world, and making music in the world about which they can feel good and proud?
Without a doubt, this is one of hardest lessons I have learned in the arms of New York.
Being a musician for a living means making sacrifices. It means taking work that doesn't necessarily appeal to one's own aesthetic preferences. It means serving someone else's vision for awhile, putting your own dreams aside in order to be fully present and fully musical in each moment; and if you want to make money making music, you simply have to do this. There's no way around it.
The words of Maya Angelou are coming into my mind at this moment:
"People Will Forget What You Said, People Will Forget What You Did, but People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel."
And The Rev. Jesse Jackson said this:
"It's your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude."
Playing or singing gigs for pay is a literal means of survival for musicians. If you want them to call you back for the next one, you have to do great things for them with a smile on your face and some sense of genuineness. In the food chain, there is always someone right behind you who is ready to take your place. It doesn't actually matter if that person is "better" or "worse" than you. The attitude around here tends to be "There are 8 million people in New York. Everyone is replaceable."
THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE.
Not everyone is replaceable. Music is a joyfully imperfect thing and without the nuances brought to the table by a widely varied tapestry of hands, feet, and voices, everything we listen to would sound like a midi mock up with little or no air to breathe between the notes. Real Music doesn't live in a vacuum like that. It depends on the conditions of living, breathing people, and it thrives on what they bring to the table from their different points of origin. That said, it's very hard to "be yourself" and not to want to "try to be what you think they want."
I think the confusion comes in knowing when do take each of these stances and when to take both at the same time.
Sometimes, you have to temporarily be what someone else needs you to be for that project. Sometimes you have to make momentary creative or interpretive decisions as you play or sing. Sometimes it's both at the same time.
The first real enemy in all of this, though, is that awful feeling of resentment. You know the one I'm talking about or you wouldn't be reading this. Shall I remind you? See above...
"what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?"
We tell ourselves that "if we had stayed there" or if we "moved here" or if we "had gone to that school instead" or "pursued this genre more than we did," we would be or would have been more successful that we are. Then, we look around at the people who have invited us and are paying us to make music with them. We often compare ourselves to them in a knee-jerk reactionary way, and we resent them for being the one on the other side of the checkbook.
This brings me to the second real enemy in all of this: greed. It's hard to stare into the face of greed, especially knowing that most of us are taught from a very young age that the amount of money you make in your work and in your life at large is the primary indicator of success.
When you put these two things together, resentment and greed, it makes a deadly elixir. What's deadly about it, you ask? I'll tell you.
It goes down so easy when you drink it and it tastes so good. It makes you feel like you're "in the know," "more experienced," "in control," and like you're "the cool kid on the block and everyone wants to be in your gang." It's a way of reminding yourself that you are a diamond in the rough and are just waiting to be found by the right person - you know, the person with all the money and power who's going to thrust your career into overdrive.
The problem is that this poisonous elixir also poisons music-making. It alters your ability to think clearly and it takes your mind out of the game, rendering you useless to the people who are signing that check - the money that will pay for your rent, your bills, your food, and your other life needs. It also makes you forget your own essence and why you gave your life to music to begin with. If you forget these things, how can you share your uniqueness as part of that tapestry of hands, feet, and voices when you come to the table?
Resentment and Greed Kill Music.
I have a very dear friend who is an organist. He is one of the best organists I have every worked with. He studied in major conservatories for both undergrad and graduate work. He was taught by some of the foremost organ teachers of our time. His innate musicality and his professionalism are rather unparalleled from my perspective. We were working on a Choral Chameleon concert together. One day, after rehearsal, he told me that he was going to delve further into his "day job" and go back to school and get an MBA. I was absolutely stunned. I told him he was crazy. His response was amazing. He said:
"Well, I've learned that I just don't want to make any and all music that comes my way. I want to be able to choose which music I engage in and which I don't. I am tired of playing gigs around lots of people I don't know and with whom I am very disconnected just to be able to pay the bills. I am tired of feeling resentful. I find what I do at my day job interesting enough, and so when I'm there, I want to do that well. What's two more years in school? It will be done before I know it and I don't have to stop playing while I do it."
What all of this amounts to is a vital choice that professional musicians must make. It comes in the form of these questions to ask yourself: