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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Field Notes, Vol. 2, no. 3: Preparing for What's Next

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

As I wrote last month, a critical component of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic – both economically and socially – will be to fund a significant bail-out of our arts and culture industries. Not only do the arts make up a larger percentage of our GDP than agriculture, they play a central role in our communal and individual well-being: in times of crisis and disruption, the arts provide a path towards healing. (You can check out that post here.)

While I’m hardly the only one calling for the Federal government to do far more for the arts and artists than they have to-date (or than is being proposed in the current relief package), there’s one aspect that I haven’t heard others speaking much about. Recall this paragraph from my previous post:

“Because the arts possess a unique ability to bring people together, change hearts, and inspire positive action, they can be potent vehicles for addressing the many critical issues facing our country. For instance, the role of the arts in revitalizing economically-depressed communities is well documented; the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, could partner with the Departments of Commerce and Housing & Urban Development to help boost the recovery of hard-hit communities. The arts can and should play a central role in addressing issues such as racial and cultural equity, climate change, and criminal justice reform, to name just a few. The arts create a bridge between our individual selves and our collective selves, they represent the one universal thing that has held humanity together in every society throughout the whole of our recorded history. In these times of division and strife, we need these qualities more than ever, and the arts can show us the way. We cannot afford to ignore this opportunity.”

I then went on to say:

“Such broad-reaching change requires collective buy-in from artists and arts organizations of all types and sizes, from large urban areas to small rural ones, with practitioners representing the full and vibrant array of artistic traditions.”

I left something out of that sentence, however, and that’s what I’d like to focus on today. Yes, we need a broad coalition of arts organizations and individual practitioners to meet this unparalleled moment. But we also have to ask this question: are we training tomorrow’s artists – musicians, painters, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and all the rest – to successfully carry out such activities? How many of our recent graduates are truly equipped to go into an economically depressed neighborhood or a women’s shelter or a prison and meaningfully engage with the people they encounter there? How prepared are our graduates to use their art to affect substantive change on issues of social importance?

The short answer, of course, is that they’re not prepared at all for such things.

The modern music conservatory, more or less operating on the same model that came out of Germany in the 19th-century, has been spectacularly effective with what it’s designed to do: train musicians to engage with the Western classical music canon at the highest level of excellence. We have more world-class musicians today than we ever have, and the trickle-down effect of that means a person can now hear an excellent performance with a professional orchestra or chamber music group without having to make the trek to a major city. High-quality live professional music can be had in even small cities (like my current home of Boulder, Colorado, with its excellent Boulder Philharmonic and world-class soloists as guests) and at reasonably affordable prices.

This is, of course, something to celebrate! We have more access to more amazing music-making than ever before. At the same time, there’s a flip-side to having such a deep pool of talented musicians: the supply of them far outstrips the demand – at least, if we’re only talking about the traditional careers as orchestral performer, soloist, chamber musician, or collegiate educator. Where there is a huge positive gap between supply and demand – that is, a large, inchoate demand unmet by the supply of artists – is in the area of community impact: using the arts as vehicles for addressing the many societal challenges facing our country.

There are two essential ingredients required to address this gap: teaching artist training and entrepreneurial skills. Let’s take teaching artistry first.

In the words of Eric Booth, author of The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, What teaching artists know and can do is essential to engaging new audiences for classical music, and for leading the entire field toward a culturally-relevant future. […] A teaching artist is the future of art in America.”

What Booth means is that if classical music is going to thrive in these tumultuous times, it must increase its cultural currency. And in order to do that professional musicians must learn how to engage not just their current audience but potential new audiences—and that, in turn, means making meaningful connections with communities that have never been reached by classical music before: marginalized communities of all types, urban and rural, minorities and the economically disadvantaged, even the affluent and educated who nonetheless don’t think they like classical music. And in our media-saturated world, they also have to learn how to do a better job keeping the audience they already have. To do these things effectively, one requires training. It’s not realistic to think you can just go out and “wing it” when you’re trying to connect with a population with which you may have very little in common (especially if you are educated, white, straight and cis-gender).

The pandemic has exposed this reality in stark terms: while some remote, streamed concerts have embodied something special and unique and are executed at a high level, most have simply tried to replicate a concert experience and send it out over the internet, often with poor sound and even worse lighting. This was not terribly appealing to begin with, and now that “Zoom fatigue” has set in it’s even less so. But you can learn how to make compelling online content – content that can continue to be a part of what a musician or their group does. This is less about learning the technology – which has become remarkably affordable and user-friendly – and more about developing a deeper understanding of the nature of artistic experiences and how to use our music to foster connections outside our comfortable bubble of our mostly white, educated, and affluent audiences. You simply need to be taught how to do it.

The other essential element is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship goes beyond “business skills,” it rests on a foundation of understanding the needs and sensibilities or the people you are trying to reach with your art; it requires the ability to recognize unmet opportunities and then to devise sustainable methods to capitalize on those opportunities. Without this piece of the puzzle, being trained in teaching artistry will be the sound of one hand clapping.

Now, a common response to teaching these things within a conservatory setting is that they are a distraction from the school’s core mission, which is to train musicians at the highest level. Worse still is the perception that engaging in teaching artistry and entrepreneurship will actually compromise the musical excellence on which the whole conservatory is based. In order to address these concerns, we must remember that it’s not a zero-sum game: music excellence need not be compromised by also training our students how to use that excellence out in the world. We have countless examples of this among the most elite of classical musicians. Nor is this an indictment of the traditional training paradigm I mentioned earlier, one that has succeeded so incredibly well. We need not throw out the baby with the bath water, starting from scratch and reinventing the whole thing: after all, as I’ve mentioned, much of the traditional conservatory approach is incredibly effective. Why burn it all to the ground?

We don’t need to. Rather, we must recognize that the traditional conservatory education is simply incomplete. It cannot address the imperatives of today’s musical marketplace because those realities didn’t exist in the 19th and most of the 20th century! (As I discuss in my book, The Entrepreneurial Muse, the explosion of higher education in the post-WW II era is at the heart of the supply/demand imbalance we struggle with today, as elite musical training went from a few conservatories graduating no more than a few thousand students a year to university schools of music graduating tens of thousands of musicians today.)

The answer to these dilemmas is to recognize the deep and fundamental ways that the world is changing around us. A recent article in “The Economist” identifies some of the ways that the pandemic has upended traditional economic trends regarding recessions and other market disruptions. The bottom line, according the article, is that “the big will get bigger” and smaller businesses will be hit the hardest. We can see this playing out in the arts world, too: Broadway shows will return, and we can be pretty sure that the likes of the NY Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera are not going anywhere. It’s the small and mid-sized regional orchestras that are on the brink of collapse, the self-managed string quartets or contemporary chamber ensembles, the community music venues: these entities were precarious to begin with, and now are truly in peril. And the kicker is that these sorts of entities employ the vast majority of practicing musicians in our country. Even the lucky few currently in full-time orchestral jobs will likely face cuts in the number of services they’re engaged for and/or cuts in salary. If you think things in the music world will just “go back to normal” after the pandemic passes, you’re mistaken.

Yes, live music is never going away – who of us isn’t longing to be in a concert hall once again, experiencing glorious music in community with the people around us? But the business models supporting that music are shifting. We must equip the musicians of tomorrow to adapt to this changing landscape, to identify and capitalize on needs in their community for which music can play a role. And the thing is, we have all the ingredients we need already! Our schools exist in communities, communities with pressing needs. We have role models and experts to help train our students how to engage these communities. And there is money to support these efforts, from donors longing to make a substantial and tangible impact, to private and public funds aimed at bringing the arts into the public sphere. Everything we need is already there. We just need to be willing to take action. Our world needs us. Will we answer the call?

Sing for Hope gathers in NYC to bring music onto the streets

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