Today some fellow musicians helped me with the archival project. In reflecting on the day, I can’t help but feel grateful for ending up in a field that is fundamentally collaborative in nature. Imagine a performance where the musicians were actively competing against each other to play faster, louder, or whatever. It would be a very strange performance. What would it be like if we took that collaborative spirit and applied to other places in our lives? How might we get more done or our lives improve? Our collaboration might spill over into other parts of our lives and other people.
I would like to cordially invite you to contact that person and those people you’ve been meaning to for that advice, to put that group together, to make amends--that thing you haven’t gotten around to because you've been too busy. Now is the perfect time to do it.
For the past three weeks or so, I’ve been sorting and sifting through old band music from a civic band that unfortunately closed after the conductor died. For almost thirty years, the band would play music then throw their concert folders into boxes, which in turn sat in a garage until very recently. They played virtually all of the classic marches and band works, along with many lesser known works. Some of the music dated back to the late 1800s. As I had to sift through the music (which had become mixed with historical flotsam and a healthy dose of mold and dirt), I could feel the history in my hands. I had lots of time to consider the band tradition--something I had not really appreciated before. Bands really do have a tremendous history--going from Frederick Fennell’s wind ensemble to civic bands to Sousa’s band to military bands ranging back to and before Mozart’s day (all this without mentioning the extensive use of bands as a means to involve American students in the music making process). It has touched many, many lives through its accessibility and participatory history, which have been overshadowed by the artistic success of the string/ orchestral tradition. Surely there are whole other traditions (like the play-in-the-gazebo-in-the-summer-band). What other traditions have been lost or overlooked? How might we re-engage with them to connect the past with the future--and more importantly to connect people with each other?
Right now, much of the classical music professional field seems to be in a race to the bottom. Many musicians will take gigs for little to no pay. In the past, I have asked musicians to do that (and have done so myself). However, work at no cost to anyone does a disservice to ourselves and to the broader music field. First, we provide our time and labor at a loss to ourselves. Second, we make it so that performances are possible at such a low cost that those who put on concerts assume such low numbers in their estimates. Musicians take gigs for less and less pay, resulting in a race to the bottom to see who can be cheapest. It starts in college when musicians represent their university (typically) for free at performances not directly related to the completion of their coursework. Then, after focusing so much on completing their degree and keeping their teachers happy, we suddenly notice that we need employment. In our desperation, we take any jobs are offered. Of course, the challenge is that it’s up to us what’s worth what pay. We may take a gig in order to break into a particular network. Whatever the reason, the end result is basic economics: workers are willing to work for less pay, so the average wage goes down. What happens when we win the race to the bottom? How do we stop? Should colleges stop asking their students to represent them? The answer will require creativity--and fortunately, our field has that in great supply. I would suggest we need more engaging ensembles that are “minimally viable” (make just enough to keep their respective audiences happy and their musicians gainfully employed). While working to generate more LA/ NY Philharmonics is one solution, I would propose that having more micro-ensembles that target very specific audiences and meet this minimal viability would help strengthen and expand the ecosystem that is classical music by embracing the diversity that is modern music, modern musicians, and the modern audience.
Many composers have told the stories of Orpheus, the lyre player who could make even the gods weep with his beautiful playing. The one most often told goes something like this: on their wedding day, a viper fatally bites his new wife Eurydice. Heartbroken, Orpheus goes to the underworld to bargain with Hades and Persephone, eventually convincing them to allow him to leave with her. She can leave on one condition: he cannot look back until both of them are out of the underworld. Orpheus agrees and he and Eurydice make the long trek out. However, in his anxiety, he looks behind him before she has left the underworld, forever losing her to death.
Many lessons can be pulled from this and Orpheus' other stories. The two important ones for musicians are 1) the need to trust our fellow musicians and our audiences and 2) to never look back. I've been thinking about this second one lately: so many times in life, we come to difficult decisions. Whether we should continue in music remains a constant choice, especially in the face of difficult job prospects, better opportunities elsewhere, and the requirements of family. Whatever we do, it seems the story of Orpheus warns us to never look back--own the decisions we make, musically and extra-musically. With less time spent on regrets, we can focus on shaping the present with the people who are here now.
In my short life experience so far, so many classical musicians spend so much time learning how to do music that we so often neglect to reflect on why we do music in the first place. I was helping a saxophonist friend of mine consider his options as a classical saxophonist. After brainstorming a few ideas with him, I eventually asked him, "Why do you play the saxophone?" He stopped and thought. After a while, he told me that he hadn't thought about that in a long time. A busy couple of degrees had taught him how to play well. Yet, he could think of why he even played the saxophone to begin with or what he hoped to get out of his career. Eventually, we agreed that he couldn't make a good career decision if he didn't know what he wanted out of his (saxophone) life.
Later that night, I wondered why I was still attempting to have some career in music. What continues to draw me to the art? Why have I spent so much time in a practice room? Why should I continue striving to do something musical? If the next several years will be devoted to building this career, only an articulated why would help me through the difficult times. I have often flirted with other fields, transitioning into something more traditionally corporate, and abandoning what has already been a difficult road.
After weeks of reflecting, I remembered why I slid into a music double major, why I joined a military band program instead of going to law school, why bringing musicians together brings me joy: as a political science major and debater in my undergrad, I studied evil things. In my master's, I studied various aspects of global policy. The world has truly terrible, horrific things in it. I have looked into the yawning abyss, that chasm of human misery and stood frozen. How do you respond to awful things? From some unknown part deep within me, I responded by seeking to create something beautiful through my clarinet and later, after some very difficult times in my life, through building ensembles. I cling to music like a raft. Only a few years ago did I hear Bernstein's response to violence, and it has resonated deeply with me. "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." What else can be the response to the dark things that would crush our souls and extinguish the human spirit? To me, Beauty and the creative process that invokes it fuels hope, our dreams of a better world, and most importantly our spirits. My performances and my work to bring musicians and audiences together through concerts has been in service of creating this fuel for a better world.
All musicians (and artists) dream. I would submit that the professional music world would be better if we spent more time exploring our dreams (beyond winning an audition) and why. What is your dream? What's your why for doing music?