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Making Classical New

Arthur Rubinstein was one of the greatest piano performers of the 20th century, renowned for his unmatchable tone and the creativity of his playing. But he was not known for technical perfection. In fact, when he recorded music, he left his mistakes in, rather than editing them out. When asked why, he answered, “I’m after the music, not after perfection.”

Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.

This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”

Greg Sandow, a music critic, composer, and Juilliard lecturer, remembers a young violist at the conservatory who wanted to join a prestigious orchestra. She attended a music camp that taught her exactly how to play—dictating the precise amounts of seconds she should pause, directing the tiniest details of her artistic expression. She had to play within these constraints in order to please at her audition. “She was never allowed to play the way she wanted,” Sandow says.


“Technique is only a vehicle through which you develop your artistry,” says Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard, in a phone interview. “If you don’t communicate to your audience, you aren’t presenting your art. Technical performances that are perfect could be given through a machine—performance is about human communication.”

But the classical-music world has created a field in which musicians are expected to do the same things over and over, with the same tone, pitch, lilt, fingering, and pauses as the next performer. This perfectionism may make it easier to weed out applicants in search of a first-chair bassoonist, but it also means that musicians—and innovation itself—are left outside in the cold.

“It’s a brutally high level of competition,” says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a professional French hornist. “It’s just like professional sports, it just doesn’t pay as well.”

This intensifying competition is in part a response to the contraction of the classical-music profession, as orchestras brave a double-whammy of dwindling funds and diminishing audiences. While there is still a market for classical music, it has increasingly become a niche market—and this reduction has taken a toll on the available supply of jobs. Thousands of applicants show up to auditions for the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Symphony, and other top orchestras, even as thousands more young musicians spill from the doors of the nation’s top conservatories, diplomas and instruments in hand.

Recorded music continues to take a toll on orchestras as well: why attend a concert, when you can buy an album from iTunes or listen to it on Spotify? Live performances have become a costly and unnecessary luxury. We no longer need listen to a live orchestra to experience their music—especially since the nature of classical canon guarantees you will hear the same music, with the same tones and performance, every time. Though people will go to pop concerts to hear their favorite covers live, pop artists’ performances feature light shows and fog machines, huge interactive backdrops and hashtags for Twitter users. They encourage their audiences to use cellphones, to scream and clap along. Compare this with the stillness and dignity of a classical music performance.

Yet even as technology has given other genres an advantage and set seemingly inflexible standards for young classical musicians to meet, it may also be starting to give conservatory musicians new outlets for their creativity and new audiences for their work—ultimately leading, perhaps, to new career paths. Classical musicians are using tools like YouTube and Facebook to build their own audiences, and they’re beginning to re-think classical music performances in a way that will appeal to a younger generation.

Take the Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet, a group based at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York: they uploaded a video to YouTube video of their ensemble playing Lady Gaga covers and sent links to the clip to family members and fellow bassoonists. Slowly but surely, the video built a wider and wider audience—not primarily among Lady Gaga fans but among the musicians and music aficionados who appreciated this mixing of pop culture and classical culture. The video currently has about 400,000 views.

Similarly, the Piano Guys, a duo featuring pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, became a YouTube phenomenon when they began uploading instrumental covers of pop songs and modern twists on old classical favorites. Some would argue this isn’t “real” classical music—and it isn’t, in terms of following the canon. But by branching out from traditional mediums and canonical works, these musicians are opening the world of classical music to younger artists and audiences. Many are performing in new venues, too: looking beyond the concert hall to coffee shops, restaurants, parks, malls, and city squares.

Classical baritone Jesse Blumberg created the Five Boroughs Music Festival (5BMF) in 2007 in this spirit: it’s a nonprofit organization that performs concerts in nontraditional venues throughout New York City. Their performances usually feature a diverse repertoire, including early music, tango, jazz, and original string-band music. They also offer public master classes, “artistic talk-backs,” and outreach concerts for local philanthropic work.

Even top conservatories are today encouraging their students to think innovatively. “The biggest buzzword at conservatories these days is entrepreneurship,” says Sandow. “Schools are eager to at least make a gesture toward encouraging students to forge their own careers, in their own ways.”

Polisi says Juilliard is working to promote innovation by teaching students to communicate their craft through new mediums, to write and speak in public about their art, and to use technology to foster their work and build an audience. One Juilliard bassoonist gave a concert featuring indie rock-song variations alongside classical works. Another student, a comedian as well as a musician, put together a “Carnival of the Animals” concert, in which the Saint-Saëns music was coupled with storytelling and stand-up comedy.

Indiana’s DePauw University, which features one of the nation’s top music schools, has recently designed an entrepreneurial arts program called “The 21st-Century Musician Initiative.” According to the university’s website, the program is a “complete re-imagining” of what it means to be a classical musician. They want students to become flexible and entrepreneurial, to “find musical venues and outlets in addition to traditional performance spaces, develop new audiences and utilize their music innovatively to impact and strengthen communities.” Students can attend workshops in marketing and learn business skills. Senior recitals must not only feature excellent artistry—they must also be personally produced. Students track down their own venues, order their own programs, and do their own marketing.

Though these innovative classes are not required, Sandow says they have been very popular, and admissions at the university “shot up” as a result. “Students are more than ready for this,” he said. “They’re thinking entrepreneurially already, thanks to the wonderful climate of entrepreneurship in our world these days…”

Some classical music purists are likely to be shocked and alarmed by such developments. They represent an upheaval—a break from the conventions of the past. Some might even say they smack of progressivism.

But more traditional forms of classical music aren’t going anywhere. The New York Philharmonic will continue to hire the nation’s top musicians and perform to sold-out crowds. Classical music aficionados will continue to throng to hear Itzhak Perlman’s violin or to hear Handel’s “Messiah” performed at Christmastime.

Nevertheless, classical music is an art, and art must be “made new” with time, coupling the beauty of the old with the freshness of the new. Art cannot be reduced to mere technicality and rote skills. And classical music has always been a realm of creativity and innovation. thisarticleappears [1]

“The composers [we] like the most were innovators,” Arthur Brooks observes. Beethoven’s masterful creativity ushered in the Romantic era. Controversial composers from Debussy to Stravinsky eventually made their way into the classical canon. Their music was timeless and deep, even as it offered an important insight into their age—a glimpse into the collective philosophical and cultural moment they lived in.

“The whole idea that [classical music] should be solidified in amber—that’s a huge, real mistake,” Brooks says. “We shouldn’t reproduce the same things over and over that were new and innovative in their time. This is part of humanity: creativity and expression.”

Will this sort of entrepreneurship “save” classical music? There’s debate about whether the classical world needs saving at all: though the culture is small, it is vibrant. But enabling musicians to innovate both inside and outside the concert hall promises to make this culture better for musicians themselves, opening opportunities for them to express their art, build larger audiences, and—let’s hope—discover new career possibilities.

Perhaps because of the globalized and technological character of our time, musicians will never again feel the sense of imaginative release that was customary in bygone days. This is the era of the powerfully technical Lang Lang, not the messily creative Rubinstein. But there is growing room for players to make music their own and extend it into new mediums without fear of rejection. We may now be past the age of happily recorded mistakes, but we aren’t past the age of Beethoven-inspired innovation.

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

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10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Making Classical New"

#1 Comment By Emily Eckart On August 29, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

Great to see a featured article about classical music, and to see that classical musicians are innovating. Thanks.

#2 Comment By Worried On August 29, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

Something that you alluded to (without explicitly stating) is the tyranny exercised by recordings over the listening experience.

Today’s studio recordings are perfect in the sense of having no mistakes in playing, and some of them have become references for how a work is to be played. While live recordings are rarely perfect in this sense, some of them have also acquired the status of legends.

This means that your local orchestra is also competing against this vast recorded legacy. Since most orchestras are not playing at the level of the star orchestras in Vienna, London, Chicago and other major cities, there is less demand for a live experience that is almost certain to fall short of what the best recordings offer.

#3 Comment By Eric K. On August 29, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

Great, informative article Gracie. If innovations like this are a gateway to more people enjoying classical music then I’m all for it.

#4 Comment By Daniel Coxon On August 29, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

There are 60 million Chinese kids studying western classical piano. 60 million.

#5 Comment By Ken M. On August 29, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Anyone who likes this article should read Alan Rusbridger’s book, ‘Play It Again.’ Rusbridger is editor of The Guardian and a dedicated amateur pianist. The book chronicles his journey to learning a grueling Chopin ballade. Throughout the book, he interviews the great pianists of our time; one of the subjects he discusses with them is the “cult of precision,” or what is called perfectionism in this piece. Even the greats, who themselves have impeccable technique, view the trend with concern.

Finding new audiences and settings for classical music is well taken, but I would argue against Arthur Brooks that the great works must, to some extent, remain “solidifed in amber.” Classical music is classified as such because it is viewed as transcendent and permanent–the very best of what man, over the years, has been capable of producing. Combining the classical with the modern–the old with the new–is a sensitive business, and one that should be undertaken most carefully lest we exchange fidelity for popularity.

#6 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 29, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

I am much more interested in classical musicians bringing personal interpretation to the music, and creating new music, and to them reaching across genres, and using untraditional performances spaces and media, than I am in them becoming “entrepreneurs.”

#7 Comment By Darth Thulhu On August 30, 2014 @ 12:44 am

To accomplish anything creative, a performer would have to step out of this institutional straightjacket of “safe, secure, stultifying” jobs and try new things.

With no guide, with less than “perfect” precision, they will sometimes flub and sometimes outright trip and fall down. But they will learn, and they will make new, beautiful things … most likely for less money than the secure positions in the orchestras. For example, here’s entrepeneur Lindsey Stirling:


#8 Comment By Another Matt On August 30, 2014 @ 6:48 pm


We classical musicians have to be entrepreneurs because all of our traditional sources of funding have dried up. When we learn music history, we find that the industrial revolution was the first step — more people could travel to hear the greatest performers in the most important places, and in some places like Venice and Bologna it even became economically viable to sell tickets and more than break even.

Before that, of course, classical music had always depended on patronage, and was largely funded by the noble and governing classes on the one hand and the Church on the other (“church” writ large here, but especially Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Church of England). The larger the world got, though, the less any given musician – however talented – could rely on these sources. Also, once we had a canon, there was not really that much demand for new music, and longer life expectancy has meant that an orchestral position can be held by one person for 50 years or more, so young musicians – especially orchestral musicians – have very few professional options.

One stopgap has been direct government patronage as a replacement for noble-class patronage. It’s not just tradition that allows Germany and Austria to host so many world-class venues, orchestras, opera houses, and so forth — they subsidize their culture. It’s true to an extent throughout Europe and the UK. In the US we have a few grants that can be applied for, but it’s astounding to see how many extraordinary musicians have to rely on kickstarter and other forms of entrepreneurship to do their projects.

In some ways, it’s increased the diversity of the kinds of projects that can happen, but it’s necessarily reduced the scope: there will never again be anything like the Ring Cycle, and not because no living composer has the talent, but because no living composer has the resources to accomplish something so large (the closest in recent years has been Stockhausen’s Licht cycle). But even performing anything as beloved as The Ring takes subsidy way beyond what ticket and recording sales could possibly support. Entrepreneurial action can make lots of great small things happen.

In fact, I’d say it’s even worse for us composers than other musicians. Our current patron is the university, but it looks like that will fall apart soon enough. Furthermore, the economic realities make creativity impossible — most grants or other opportunities one can apply for require a piece not to last longer than 10 minutes and be for some kind of standard instrumentation. Many of my colleagues have started putting together “commission consortiums,” where the money for a commission will come from a large group of people who want a specific kind of work (say, for percussion quartet). Otherwise, it’s very rare for a classical composer to actually get paid for writing their compositions — a performance of one’s work is itself considered a kind of payment. Most of our compensation comes from teaching and research, and this is a huge problem because we’re teaching students whose only real prospect is to do teaching and research. Universities won’t be inclined to keep up this patronage for much longer, I’m afraid, and then classical music will be a museum phenomenon rather than a living art.

#9 Comment By Another Matt On August 31, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

There is one more thing to consider — you have to have the technique in order to play expressively. It’s not just a matter of hitting all the right notes — if you want to do anything subtle, you have to have enough control to do it.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 2, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

Another Matt:

I hear you loud and clear, and wish that government subsidies for classical music, and art and music generally, were more generous.

And it is not as if I disagree with the notion that, failing the above, classical musicians must be entrepreneurial, if they want to thrive or even survive.

Rather, what I meant was that I, personally, am not all that interested in hearing or reading about what entrepreneurial steps classical musicians have to take, but am quite interested in classical music being presented in untraditional forums, on untraditional media, in conjunction or in fusion with other genres of music, etc.

I personally love classical music, but am not comfortable in the “Symphony Hall” type space. Such concerts are often quite expensive as well. So, I love outdoor concerts, festivals, and so on. I have even heard classical music performed in tavern-like environments! And I like hearing classical music online, as opposed to only on the one or two radio stations that play classical music (one can hear a broader variety on line).