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Laurie Niles

Is Classical Music Dying? In response to Sunday's New York Times

November 27, 2012 at 6:04 PM

The New York Times had an interesting Sunday Dialogue this week: Is Classical Music Dying?

I'm not entirely thrilled with the way the question is cast, I mean, Are Newspapers Dying?

But never mind, I'll take a stab at the question, which asks us to consider this particular article, in which the writer argues that the younger generation "must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of 'American Idol'-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music…"

I'm sure more than a few people, young and old, would take exception to that. I also don't think it would work.

If there is a problem with the "younger generation," it is something that is not their fault: many received no musical education because it has been routinely cut from the curriculum in schools across the United States. They never had the opportunity to play in an orchestra or band, or to sing in a choir.

Perhaps a better way to frame the problem is not that classical music is dying, but that musical literacy is dying. And yes, it is possible to sing a song or even strum a guitar to a pretty high level without it, but musical literacy actually improves ALL kinds of music, not just classical.

What is musical literacy? It involves fluency on an instrument or with the voice, the ability to read music, and a basic understanding of music theory. At higher levels, it involves a knowledge of things like the physics of sound and harmony; the ability to compose melody, harmony and fugue; an understanding of various instruments, etc.

The best pop musicians, the best songwriters, the best guitar players -- they tend to be those who can read music, understand chordal progressions, have a high level of technique on their chosen instrument (including voice), and have overall discipline regarding their art. They also consider their art to be an art, recognizing its depth.

No doubt, people can press a few buttons on a synthesizer and make a "song." But that doesn't make an appreciation for a song, it doesn't make them understand why one thing works and why something else doesn't work. People who are musically literate tend to lose their taste for music that uses the same two chords for the entire tune, or a melody based on three notes, or a long improvisation that never changes chords, etc. They see through "autotune." They aren't satisfied with the stagnant nature of a synthesizer sound. There are many subtle things that make music a success or a failure, and I daresay they are a mystery to most people.

The best way to engage kids (for that matter, anyone) in classical music, and also to enable them to recognize good music in any form, is through participation. Teach them to play instruments or to sing, and start very young. Provide opportunities for older people to do this as well. Taking children to a couple concerts or renting some old movies does something, but not much if it's not part of an overall music education program. We teach people to write when we teach them to read, and we have them read and study many, many books. We don't just read them a good story out loud and then congratulate ourselves for "exposing" them to good literature.

"Weaning" people from rock 'n' roll is ridiculous and unnecessary. We don't need to wean people from any kind of music -- we need to engage them in it.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 1:55 AM
Very good blog Laurie, I totally agree!!!
From steven su
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 1:56 AM
Nice blog!

I do believe that music is the key but I also think it's how we promote classical music. I mean we are not all deaf or blind right. Then why would people pay millions to see mediocre or tone deaf artists that can't produce quality music? I mean my friends were so amazed by violinists that play "storm" on youtube and always tell me how good they are until I play for them. They immediately realize how easy it is.
It's no longer how good you are but how good you are at marketing yourself. I guess classical music needs to catch up with the fashion somehow? :)

From Kevin Keating
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 2:54 AM
I completely agreed that there is a declining level of music literacy in society in general. Part of the blame goes to cutbacks in schools that seem to target music (& arts) in general first. Another reason is the advancement of technology that allows people to take the easy way to artistic success. Why read a book when you can just watch the video? Commercials push tech gadgets like iPads that show users how to express themselves creatively through art graphics that are really just high-tech doodling. How many people can still open a hymnal at church and actually read the melody and sing a tune they're not familiar with? Learning to read music notation at one time was as necessary as reading & writing & math. Tablature is a crutch that has created a generation of musicians who wouldn't know a C sharp from sharp cheddar. Video games like Guitar Hero & Rock Band give kids the illusion of being musically talented when it's nothing more than hand/eye coordination on a computer keyboard. So many things in society contribute the lack of musical literacy. Since picking up the violin, I've sworn off Tablature. Wish I had learned it years ago.
From Philip Novak
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 5:30 AM
I agree with the perspective of musical literacy, playing violin for the last year has given me insight and appreciation for all forms of music. But I dont believe that classical music needs to learn marketing. I think mass media pop music/culture serves to get the greatest number of people to buy the most stuff. What if we all learned classical music and spent hours per day practicing and studying music? We wouldn't be purchasing as much canned pop and that's bad because the economy is driven by consumption.
From David Sanderson
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 1:43 PM
It's the same old complaint, and one can go back and find it made of early rock'n'roll, jazz, ragtime, and I suppose minstrel shows. And that's only in the US. It makes a nice dramatic headline - I recall a similar article about jazz in a recent Atlantic.

Music is perhaps more fluid than other arts, subject to multiple influences, changing constantly over time - consider, for example, how wrongheaded it is to treat "Classical" music as monolithic, as though Vivaldi, Beethoven and Stravinsky were all the same.

Popular music - that is, music made and sold to satisfy the mass market - is abnormally subject to fads and trends, in part because it is intended to be sold to the widest possible audience, and becomes a matter of marketing, not art. The present situation seems to me to be full of glitzy packages of alleged music, assembled not by artists but by engineers, and packaged for sale, not least via the variously spectacular videos, aided by nudity, eroticism and whatnot. History tells us that this is a temporary embarassment, eventually as dangerous as the Charleston is these days, or the scandalous intimacy of the waltz somewhat earlier.

Whether much of this has the quality to survive remains to be seen - consider the flood of music from the 1960's, and how little of it became part of any musical canon.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 2:16 PM
"I guess classical music needs to catch up with the fashion somehow? :)"

Well, we already are doing this (to glammorize classical music and musicians...and am sure it is made with good intentions to reach a larger public and be up to our time) but sadly, this is why many people are no longer interested in older or ordinairy musicians and orchestras who can still produce extraordinairy music.

Perhaps we need to find ways to do "a show" without implying the musicians. Maybe the symphonic evenings need livelier people to present the works performed or do a mix between liked classical repertoire and crowed pleaser music. But we can't ask a performer to entertain while playing a difficult concerto... I mean, it's music not a circus!

And Laurie has the most important point... musical education!

From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 6:12 PM
Aside from opera (which has its own history of a "showbusiness" element), classical music has produced, I think, only 2 genuine "show biz" personalities - Paganini and Liszt. Perhaps, in the last hundred years, we might add Leonard Bernstein.

While these artists did not stray from a focus on the performance of classical music in its own right and in its own terms, they certainly straddled the boundaries of what we might call today a kind of pop spectacle.

This certainly might have had something to do with their celebrity status with the general public, and indeed may have attracted many people to classical music who otherwise wouldn't be interested.

Until there's another genuine Paganini who comes along, I don't think it makes sense to make a calculated attempt to make classical music "popular" just by doing popular things.

You've all made the point - education, education, education. And if we can solve the problem of education to increase appreciation of classical music, maybe (just maybe) we can also solve some of the world's other problems (such as intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, hunger, war, etc.).

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 9:09 PM
What about Liberace and Andre Rieu, eh? :)
From Scott Cole
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 3:01 AM
Bruce Ridge's had a good point in his response to the letter: the incredible resiliency of classical orchestral music. Classical music is obviously past its heyday, but it has outlasted most every other style of music or past time. Remember big band music? Disco? Racket ball? Bowling leagues? Everything peaks and declines or plateaus. Classical music has plateaued but is far from dying. In our area, we regularly sell out our concerts.

I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect young people to want to see classical music, just like it would be a little odd for a 50-year-old to be stuck on Britney Spears or Justin Bieber.

Consider the letter-writer's opening remark:

A schoolboy recently asked me if Richard Wagner was a pitcher for the Yankees. At that moment I feared that classical music in America was doomed.

I consider that a rather silly statement. Schoolboys don't need to know Wagner. In fact, I still haven't decided whether his music is genius or just sucks.

I find the argument for some kind of superstar-savior to be rather fatuous.

From Paul Deck
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 4:14 AM
This business of heydays, plateaus, growth, death, etc. makes it sound like classical music is on a predictable trajectory, like the population of bacteria in a petri dish. Who knows whether there will be another surge of general interest in it at a later time?

Popularity is one thing that classical music should perhaps not envy. Ever watch "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" or "Jersey Shore" on TV? Neither have I.

From Sharon Reagan
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 4:59 AM
I recently watched the movie The Avengers and there is a great segment where a quartet is playing Schubert. Movies are full of classical music.
People are not used to listening without artistic visual images. There is a reason music videos are so popular.

I think it would be advantageous for the classical music community to consider alliances with visual and performing arts; drama, dance,graphic arts, photograph and video. Adapt to the new reality rather than decry the loss of what once was. I'm not thinking of the pit orchestra; but something more on the lines of a split screen.

From Paul Deck
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 4:05 PM
Yes, Bugs Bunny episodes had Mozart in the background too, and all kinds of other classical music. More people probably know one particular aria from The Marriage of Figaro because of a scene where Bugs is giving Elmer Fudd a haircut than anything else. And look what United Airlines did for Gershwin.
From Rory Williams
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 9:47 PM
Nice blog. But I take exception to this comment: "The best pop musicians, the best songwriters, the best guitar players -- they tend to be those who can read music, understand chordal progressions, have a high level of technique on their chosen instrument (including voice), and have overall discipline regarding their art."

Many of the "best" pop musicians meet none of those criteria: case in point, Sir Paul McCartney, who can't read music, plays a great bass, but isn't known for that, et al.

Also, this premise assumes that punk or rap or hip hop or garage rock or other kinds of looked down upon by many in the classical music world, lack merit. I'd suggest that attitude is partly responsible for "death" of classical music. Perhaps classical music needs to be redefined. If Brahms sonatas as not relevant,perhaps that's because music has evolved over the centuries.

If so-called contemporary classical music were to get more respect from the classical music audience (who hasn't seen symphony goers turn up their collective nose at a Ligeti piece, for instance) then classical music would have a greater impact in the mainstream and may attract younger audiences.

The classical music world needs to reassess itself and need look no further to assess blame.

On the nate, I was encouraged to see that the NY Phil is planning to re-invent the concert hall for the future in its upcoming rehab of Avery Fischer Hall.

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on November 29, 2012 at 9:04 PM
Agree about the need for education, absolutely. But honestly, I don't know that there's a need for all the hype in articles like this. Orchestras are struggling, school programs are being cut, yes: we do feel a sense of urgency on that front. But as for the music itself dying--not a single person I've ever played a classical selection or recording for has walked away displeased. Most don't have the stamina for a full symphony at first pass, but they love it and are refreshed and impressed when actually hear it. True merit, like truth itself, may ebb and flow in popularity but in the end, it speaks for itself and stands the test of time.
From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 30, 2012 at 2:03 PM
Laurie: Liberace and Andre Rieu? Well, Liberace never really presented himself as a strictly "classical" performer. Andre Rieu, on the other hand, might be in the pop-classical category, yes. And, of course, Bugs Bunny and friends have probably introduced more people to classical music than anyone in the last 100 years. But I didn't realize that Bugs was a Julliard graduate ("Kill the viowinist, kill the viowinist").

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 30, 2012 at 4:50 PM
"Classical music" isn't some kind of monolithic body which is capable of "reexamining itself," nor does it need to. Perhaps musical institutions need to re-examine themselves, but fine music is fine music. People like it. And despite the fact that people keep saying that orchestras need to "stop playing the same old tired classics," people bust down the doors to hear a good performance of Beethoven 5.

Music education and literacy can give people a wider basis for appreciating and engaging in all kinds of music in their lives. And those people who are so interested in music that they form a garage band are going to find a lot more success, armed with more ability and more knowledge. The idea that a rap musician and a pop musician must, by definition, be uneducated in music, is insulting.

The best musicians tend to have enough curiosity and respect for music to become educated and practiced in it. For example, McCartney was a fan of classical music from early in his life and attended performances -- it undoubtedly affected the way he composed music. Later in life, McCartney aspired to write symphonies -- interesting that he was drawn to that. Was his inability to read a hindrance or limitation? It's certainly an arguable point.

Take a close look, and most of the best musicians of any genre are literate, and their literacy is a great asset.

From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 30, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Sounds like it's time for Raisin Brahms -

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 1, 2012 at 8:00 AM
Sander, many thanks -- that's almost as good as a jar of prunes! ;)
From Brent Hudson
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Why not proceed forward, from "classical" music toward "composed orchestral performance," or some such more time-neutral term? There is a lot of music yet to be written and performed, is there not? There is much already written that is yet to be heard. Don't blame your audience. Get cracking -- and make it good.
From Kim Vawter
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 3:35 AM
(I tried to read or at least skim all the comments thus far so forgive me if I submit a redundant comment.)
I would like to say that if music is present in the home and the parents or family members are enjoying it then it has a better chance of catching on. Reading and listening to good music or playing an instrument regularly will do more to foster and encourage a young person to do the same.
From Enrique Lasansky
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 5:50 AM
Unfortunately we need to face the problem that classical music is in trouble. Many us are doing all we can to fight but I'm pessimistic about the long term scenario. What is the biggest influence on culture? It is still television despite the internet. Most people in our society have been educated by television. What is the image of classical music and classical musicians on tv? It's not good. The music is portrayed as nerdy, elitist and irrelevant as are the people who play it and compose it. Kids see this and it turns them against classical music. There was a time when Leonard Bernstein was on mainstream tv with The Young People's Concerts. There you had a charismatic teacher, a wide audience and most importantly, the underlying message was that classical music was beautiful, mysterious and could be accessed by anyone if they simply took the time to do it. The fact that regular tv stations carried it with the support of the business establishment sent viewers a message: this is cool stuff and there are many cool people who devote their lives to this art. When classical music left mainstream tv (I wonder who made that decision?) is when the problems started in my opinion. Oh please don't tell me Leonard Bernstein was the only person who could do the job. As great as he was, there are many people around today that could produce excellent tv shows for children that could decode the complexities of the music. No, It's all part of the dumbing down process that we've been experiencing for quite some time in our era. Not satisfied that the arts have been relegated to PBS the Republicans would like to abolish it as well. It's a very interesting phenomenon. Classical music edifies the soul-it does not necessarily make people want to buy stuff, so who needs it?
From Sander Marcus
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 1:56 PM
I can't say I take quite that dim a view of classical music's future. Thanks to the computer revolution (and before that, the recording evolution), there is more exposure (and even the potential for exposure) of great music and great performances than any time in history. How much exposure did Paganini or Brahms or Ysaye have to music in their youth? Only what was around them.

Sure, classical music always has had and always will have its ups and downs. But overall, as long as there are human beings, there will be a certain percentage of us, no matter how small, who will recognize and appreciate and be moved by the transcendent emotional impact of this exalted musical genre.

And if this is true, it will never die - even if we can't find another Leonard Bernstein.


From Filis Cardieri
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 4:19 PM
Great article, thank you! This is my personal experience only. In the 1960's, I had the great opportunity and privilege to start playing violin in 4th grade in the Long Beach Unified School District, CA under Fred Olendorf, I was blessed. Some public school districts still have a music program offering band, orchestra and chorus. But I think teacher's unions with their expensive demands on the tax payers have been slowly causing many school districts the need to do away with or not offer these important music programs to stay in their budgets. Sadly, students are not on their list of union demands, unfortunately are getting cheated of their music education. I have been witnessing this in my own community.
In the 1970's, I graduated from Performing Arts HS in NYC. In the 1970's, I graduated from MSM in NYC, I was ready to embark on my career. I was targeting the Broadway Show Orchestra scene and at the same time, the NYC Musician's Union killed off the job opportunities by their expensive demands. So the producers worked around it by hiring only a couple of musicians instead of a full orchestra to get the job done affordably.
Parents are a very important part of a child's education. My parents were very pro-active in my over all education.
I think their are many reasons classical music is not popular today, too many to mention here.

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