I just got done watching an incredible TED Talk by musicologist Christopher Lewis about the future of classical music. In this talk, he tells the audience that he asked people what they thought of when they thought of classical music, and most of them said it was snobby, pretentious and expensive. He then asked them if it was the industry that was snobby or the music itself that was snobby, and played them a classical piece. When he played the piece the people’s reactions immediately shifted and they said they loved the music and thought it was lovely.
Lewis argues that instead of playing in the same old traditional concert halls, musicians should play classical music in public venues where people can hear classical music without paying $100 for a ticket to the symphony. I’m not digging on the symphony in any way, and like Dr. Lewis, I myself am a classically trained musician. However, I found out this orchestra I love was playing the Schumann Cello Concerto and I was so excited to go, but by the time I got to buy the tickets they had already sold out of the $100 something seats in the front rows. I was bummed, but when I actually got into the auditorium I learned how to conquer my fear of heights because I was on the balcony looking down at the orchestra. I saw perfectly fine, but what was rather interesting to me was that there were more than a few of those $100 seats that were empty. Part of me wondered if next time, the orchestra ticket personnel should offer a discount if any $100 seats are left. But I also understood that musicians need to make money, and could understand why they were expensive. Still it boggled me why they would slap this huge price tag on it and then have empty seats. Then again, it’s not just classical concerts that are expensive. I can’t exactly envision Katy Perry charging anything less than $200 for front-row seats at any of her concerts.
Lewis continued the talk by sharing about music ensembles that were branching out to perform more than just classical repertoire. One of the groups plays everything from J.S. Bach to Beyonce, and another has a no-rules policy where audiences can mill about, be on their phones or chatting while listening to music. One of these groups even gives free wine and beer to people who attend. Now of course, I will say that I partially agree with the purists that being on a cell phone during a classical music performance (or really any kind of concert, be it Jay-Z or Kelly Clarkson) takes the fun out of just living in the moment and focusing on the music instead of the celebrity status of the performer. But I also understand that symphonies are long and I myself, even as a musician, have been guilty of falling asleep through other people’s performances. I just personally found that not being on my phone during the symphony concert I attended today helped me enjoy the music to its fullest. Also, I didn’t want to miss the cellist playing Schumann’s concerto because I love that piece and have been working on it for the past year or so with my teacher, so I wanted to know how to improve upon it by watching a more experienced performer play it. I cried throughout the performance because everyone was just so passionate and through their bodies they went beyond just technicalities and expressed their love for the music. I know technique is important in sounding good, but I couldn’t really hear anything off, not just because all the players were really good but also because they got so into the music, moving their bodies with the utmost soul. And the conductor was Ms. Sasha Fierce in the way she led the orchestra musicians, putting every ounce of soul in her movements and coordination. The cellist exerted himself so much in passionately playing his concerto that, during the parts where the orchestra plays, he had to blot his forehead with a handkerchief from his suit pocket. I envisioned myself playing that concerto and thought, I, one day, will be blotting my sweaty forehead as I saw away at that Schumann. All of this emotion I was able to feel deeply because I did not use my phone and just lived in the moment.
On the other hand, I understand from personal experience and frustration that just limiting classical music to concert halls isn’t going to address the still-existing issue of accessibility of classical music performances. Lewis’ friend told him that she loved classical music, but hated classical concerts because she didn’t know what to wear and didn’t know when to clap (after the piece is done? in between movements?). Lewis, a harpsichordist, said that he saw a harpsichord recital in a bar, and while he noticed that people were milling about and talking and drinking, they were also paying attention to the musician performing. I myself have asked this question multiple times when thinking about the purpose of my passion for music: do I want to spend my entire career playing in the same kind of golden elaborate venues? Not bashing these beautiful works of art, it’s just that I want to play in other venues, too. I want to go to Africa and play with musicians there. I want to play for homeless shelters, animal shelters, agricultural communities. I want to use my music to address social injustice such as gun violence and climate change. I basically want to go beyond what is traditional of classical musicians because I know so many who are doing it today. I know critics say that doing this somehow devalues classical music, but if we want to address the idea that classical music is dying, that no one likes it and that it is this high-class art that you must somehow be an expert in (thirteen years of playing so far and still learning a lot about composers and pieces. Trust me, I’m living proof). I remember playing in a bar/restaurant once and also a coffeeshop, but I don’t think it was the venue itself that was the problem, but mainly the fact that I worried about not getting paid for my performance, how people were going to think of me, if anyone would listen. I let my own self-doubt sway how I viewed performing in these public spaces. I always wonder sometimes, because I’m not performing for money anymore, if performing in public spaces means I’m making myself less of a professional musician. Yes, I understand you need to get paid, but that’s why I have a day job, so that I don’t need to worry about being paid for my music.
Lewis said that in 2018, classical music was the most streamed music genre, and that’s in part because people come into contact with classical music not just through recordings and concerts, but through film score music and video game music. Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are two prominent examples. I don’t think classical music is dead; obviously if people are hearing it in movies, video games and commercials, it’s still very much alive. However, I agree with Lewis that the industry itself is so concerned about preserving this pristine image and keeping all these rules that we end up staying where we are instead of making progress. I myself need to remind myself that I don’t play music to show the top cellist of, let’s say, NY Phil, how good I am. I don’t like showing off anymore; I do it because I love it and it sounds pretty. Here is the full TED Talk below.