What does a average 21st century classical musician’s life look like these days?
Two factors have prompted me to ask this question of myself recently.
1. The continuing dialogue within the music community on the relevance of classical music and how to keep it alive. How is classical music relevant to contemporary culture and society? Should it be? What about young people? How do we get them engaged to ensure the future of classical music? The interwebs are awash with classical musos talking about how to grow audiences, educate audiences, teach them to appreciate our ‘heritage’ art form and so on and so forth.
2. Music education institutions are changing their programs to cater to the “music industry” (for want of a better term) rather than “art for art’s sake”. In more and more music schools today guitar-strumming singer songwriters can walk away with a Bachelor of Music degree alongside their Sibelius-loving virtuoso violinist peers. The skill set required to complete a Bachelor degree in music has become incredibly broad, which the institutions argue is the most important thing in preparing music students for a career in the incredibly diverse “music industry” (there’s that word again. Sorry.). Many are saying it’s a “dumbing down” of music education, that this different focus is happening at the expense of thorough teaching of “core” skills i.e. secure instrumental/vocal technique, harmony and counterpoint, structural analysis of music, knowledge of historical/social context etc.
I’m certainly not going to change the classical music world in one blog post, and neither do I intend to try. What I will do, however, is tell my own story about how I grew into the musician I am today, here in the brave new world of 21st century music making. I’ve been moderately successful thus far without needing all the Machievellian techniques they think they should teach at universities about how to stay employed in the music industry. Let me tell you straight off the bat, the most important thing I had was a quality education in core skills. And the most important thing I do now is communicate directly to the people my passion for all the different kinds of music I play, conduct, teach and compose (classical and contemporary, old and new) and it’s worked pretty well for me thus far.
The musical life story should help set the scene, contextualise my opinions. I was very lucky to have a musically privileged upbringing - that is to say we weren’t rich but my brother and I had great richness and variety in the kinds of music we heard around the house. My parents house was, and still is, never silent. My father’s mother also lived with us in the house when I was growing up and the combined tastes of all the adults were shared (inflicted?) in a constant stream from dawn to dusk and beyond. Grandma loved Chopin and Beethoven, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Mum loves Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Simon & Garfunkel and Frances Yip (Hong Kong’s answer to Barbra Streisand… and so much better!). Dad loves Monteverdi and Bach, and also The Beatles! By the time my brother was old enough to start buying his own music there was lots of Pearl Jam, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pink Floyd added to this already eclectic mix. We were early adopters on audio technology, we had the first CD player in the neighbourhood (it was quite a few years before any video machine appeared on the scene).
My brother and I also had the benefit of quality music education. He had classical guitar lessons for a number of years (so there was also plenty of John Williams and Andres Segovia on the stereo too), and I had my piano lessons. Grandma played the piano too, and we would often have sing-alongs or play-alongs at her huge old steel framed upright in the lounge. It was a very happy time, musically speaking. Later on in my teens, having decided that a ballet dancing career was not for me, I started having bassoon lessons. I played in youth orchestra, school orchestra, school band, accompanied and sang in various school choirs, had some pipe organ lessons… my involvement in music was all consuming. I’d finally found my people. I knew that music was the life I was going to lead, in some form or other, even if i wasn’t sure exactly how or where that would happen!
Then came university. I started a Bachelor degree at the ANU School of Music (then, the Canberra School of Music) majoring in Bassoon Performance. It was a traditional conservatory style music education, an appropriately rigorous degree program with exactly the right balance between instrumental performance studies, aural training, harmony and counterpoint, analytical skills and music history. I did some piano and accompaniment study during this time too, and then went on to study Accompaniment at the Sydney Conservatorium. Despite having some truly wonderful accompaniment lessons in Sydney, I found the creative environment created by the university frankly less-than-inspirational when compared to ANU - fortunately my peers provided me with the creative spark I longed for. I looked for work rather than spending a second year there. And henceforth fell into the beginnings of a very varied and rewarding creative life.
These days, I think I can pretty safely say I have one of those music careers for which the universities are trying to “create pathways”, to use typical bean-counting-university-administrator speak. I perform and record as a solo pianist, with two solo albumsunder my belt (one of them ARIA Award Winning!) and have a fairly extensive discography playing as an ensemble musician. I play a good deal of contemporary chamber music. I’ve worked extensively in improvised music as a dance accompanist. I’ve done the odd musical, doubling as an accordionist. I’ve written bawdy queer late night cabaret shows. I accompany and conduct choirs (young and old, amateur and professional). I teach kids about music reading and sight singing. I compose and arrange music, not only for myself but for community/youth choirs and increasingly for younger or less experienced instrumentalists.
How did I end up here? I’m not really sure. What I do know is that it wasn’t because of anything any university professor might have told me about the “industry”. No sir. What am I most grateful for? Core skills - harmony, counterpoint, aural studies, sight singing, analysis, history. I’ve a pretty solid and adaptable skill set that can be applied to multiple aspects of music making in multiple genres from contemporary to classical, even world music. Alongside this, I’ve had the stimulation and encouragement from not only other artists but from audience members and fans, and from those close to me personally, to do all the things that I do. What do we call this? The School of Life?? I don’t know, but without the core skills to back it all up, I’d have nothing.
As far as the relevance of classical music goes? Well, all I think I can do about that is influence the people immediately around me. A couple of anecdotes;
1. I taught a special music program for a little while at a very special school. This school was for primary school (elementary school) kids who had been effectively thrown out of their normal schools because of extreme behavioural issues. They’d all without exception been affected by hard drugs whilst still in utero, they mostly had pretty bad lives at home, they’d come to school without meals provided for them, occasionally not dressed properly (no shoes), most of them were extremely angry for most of the time, constantly lashing out both verbally and physically. I tried all kinds of types of music with them; kids songs, pop songs, call and response songs, African drumming and more. What was their favourite song? Non Nobis Domine by Roger Quilter, a Victorian era unison song for treble voices. None of them had anywhere near the skills to perform it, but they just loved joining in. I ended up having to use it as a reward - “If you play this percussion game with me, we’ll do Non Nobis at the end of the lesson”. The power of a rousing Victorian hymn tune eh? Classical music speaks.
2. When I perform in recital, I talk to the audience, I tell them what I’m going to perform, any history of the piece that might be interesting/amusing/moving and then I tell them how I feel about the music personally. People seem to like it. I find that my audience then engages me in all manner of interesting conversations, in the foyer after the show and via email and social media for quite some time afterwards. I’ve made all these new friends, it’s fantastic!! To those who never attend classical concerts, this may not seem a big deal, but in classical music world it is sadly the exception rather than the norm. In a lot of classical music concerts the performers can seem, metaphorically speaking, quite distant. For example, in most orchestral concerts, the musicians stroll onto stage in dribs and drabs, warm up their instruments, chat to each other as if the audience is only there to witness some music making accidentally. There’s no sense of excitement or occasion, I don’t feel the musicians are really performing to me or anyone in the audience. They seem very distant, completely separate from me. It doesn’t matter how well they might play, if they don’t perform or communicate their passion, I can totally understand why people might think there’s no point paying to see it live on stage. I could easily be listening to it at home, or on my iPod. When the orchestra finally stands at the end of the concert, it’s often a rather awkward rabbit-in-the-headlights look that the musicians are sporting, and it makes me feel uncomfortable, like they’d really rather I wasn’t there. Such a shame, because I know for a fact that musicians have lots to say and should be loved for what they give to us.
So… for me, relevance is not the issue. The important thing is communication. If it speaks to me, I try to communicate all the things that make it really special and wonderful to me personally. Generally, I find that this makes people curious enough to give it a try and that’s half the battle. If they try classical music and then decide that it’s really not for them, there’s nothing I can do. But I’m pretty proud of the success I’ve had thus far *grin*
Just gonna keep on making music.