About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

November 12, 2015

Orchestral Distress

Carl Ellenberger, MD

I suppose it is necessary to ask questions, as Peter Dobrin does,in this time of empty seats and unbalanced budgets. I had thought an orchestra's purpose was just to play music, but that was in an earlier time of sold-out subscriptions. Dobrin asks, "What is the job of this orchestra in this city in this day and age?" [re Philadelphia] His answer in part: "I'd get all the input I could and hold a public forum on the question...more money to program and market properly...." The orchestra awaits a consultant's report.

Dobrin sees the cause of the problem as “undercapitalization.” That prevents the orchestra from expanding and improving activities necessary to generate more revenue (and in Philadelphia from honoring salary commitments), a vicious cycle. This condition affects more than a few other orchestras and musical organizations (not including Gretna Music). 

It seems reasonable to link that condition to a general diminished interest in classical music among our society. Sure, there is enough violence and misery in the world to distract any sensible person these days, but I don't see many empty seats in the stands for the Fall sports lineup (based on what I see as I pass by ESPN on the cable dial and one actual physical presence at a Virginia Tech football game last month--with >60,000 others). 

Attempts to treat the problem that tend to be short term, focused on the music and its players, and often called "thinking out of the box," have brought limited success:

1) Changing the music to appeal to a broader audience. Most 'crossover' and 'pops' concerts are unfortunate examples of a quest for 'relevance' and 'accessibility.'

2) Changing the concert: shorter duration, less intimidating ritual and formality, 
better 'communication' 

3) Taking concerts to more venues, conventional and unconventional.
4) Seeking a 'new image' by 'creative marketing'
5) Going digital: streaming and filming 
6) Avoiding the word, "classical"
Despite these efforts the recent words of conductor Jed Gaylin remain, in general, true: 
"We need to figure out ways for the potency of great music to reach audiences that admittedly bond, socialize, recreate, and rejuvenate with technologies unforeseen in the era when the symphony orchestra was born." 2
When I see our musicians connect that "potency" with literally every member of our audience again and again each season, my first thought is always, "Why aren't more people here seeking this same amazing spiritual connection?" Tickets are affordable, walk-ups welcome, pre-requisites not necessary. Some people I'm talking about are sitting on porches just a few houses away -- in a Chautauqua!!!

I would argue that classical music and concerts are very healthy (and 'relevant'), in large part because increasing numbers of children all over the world manage to discover they want to play. The current abundance of good musicians, and resulting stiff competition, is why orchestras, and smaller ensembles, have been improving for decades, at least over my lifetime. 

I can only conclude that changes in the "wider cultural environment which surrounds classical music" 3 have not increased the number of listeners, and patrons, apace with the number of players. 

David J. Skorton, MD, cardiologist, and new Secretary of the Smithsonian, dug up what I think is one root of the problem: "As long as we consider the arts as a frill and as intrinsically less important than learning to code a computer, we're going to systematically disinvest. In school, when something's gotta go, it's art and music." (WSJ, Oct 24)  In contrast, investment in sports -- in schools and beyond -- seems to be increasing as we continue becoming a "shouting culture."4 

As in good medical practice, it's important to explore causes, including the environmental ones, before prescribing treatment. I buy tickets for the Cleveland Orchestra when I am East and LA Phil when West because I think they're worth $89 and $127 respectively. I don't similarly value mid-range seats for the Cleveland Browns ($269), but obviously not enough people's values align with mine. 

Why do I value an orchestra? The answer, I think, goes way back. My earliest memories include my mother playing the piano and my father blowing his old trumpet, both instruments untouched since their school years. Now it's clear; they resurrected those skills just for my (and my sister's) benefit! Neither played well but how was I to know? They also played records; my mother liked Somewhere Over the Rainbow, my father loved Schubert. Absent similar parental guidance you might find 3rd graders today blasting JZ's Big Pimpin out of their ear buds. Adult participation is clearly desireable.5

When I was in the third grade, after-school home piano lessons interrupted my play, but I learned, in 15 minutes of gently encouraged daily practice, how to make notes printed on pages into tunes, rhythm, and harmony, my first second language, easy to learn at age 8. After that math and Latin classes came easier. 

Using my new language skills, I could solo with the plastic 'flutophone' band by the end of the 4th grade. When I finally picked up a real flute, reading and figuring came easy and I enjoyed being excused from class to play in the small orchestra. In succeeding years the school bands were even more fun (except the marching part). The gentle parental encouragement became pride and admiration.

Sensitive developmental periods for the brain to acquire skills, like sensorimotor musical skills and aesthetic taste, come and go before age 9 or 10 (March 5, 2013). We have to learn certain skills while we can. If kids participate only in sports during those years, their future may take them in different directions, eventually to stadiums rather than concert halls. Though only a handful of my friends continued playing instruments after high school (more than continued football), enough of them learned to value the cost of symphony tickets and support their symphony. And sing in church.

My parents got as much of a thrill hearing me in school orchestras as other parents get from seeing their sons 'suit up' for the team. There is a risk, of course, that adults hearing only an average school ensemble will decide they don't like 'classical' because they have never heard it played well. But some parents clearly do get inspired; there are few performances more exciting than a really good orchestra of kids who amaze you by how well they play The Firebird.

Summer music camp at Interlochen brought me the confidence that I could compete successfully with good players and learn a large slice of the repertoire sealed my fate as a musician and lover of music.

In medical science single case studies like mine don't prove much but can be educational. I think my example may help explain why at least some of the symphony audience are in their seats, and suggest that the decline of music in schools is one reason for their dwindling numbers.

Imagine the impact of a good orchestral brass quintet or string quartet visiting a third grade classroom! Maybe not on all kids, but enough of them. Dobrin too advises the Philadelphians to conceive of 
"programs that reach every public school student, regularly, in a serious way."


1. Peter Dobrin: The Philadelphia Orchestra needs to rethink its future

2. Jed Gaylin: Being Relevant -- Who Cares?

3. Philip Clark: What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?
. . . And perhaps it’s the wider cultural environment which surrounds classical music that has a problem.

In a culture increasingly obsessed with ephemeral celebrity, fed by a spin drier of rehashed PR trivia presented as ‘news’, where sport is the new religion, where Saturday night fluff like Strictly Come Dancing is analysed seriously and given acres of press coverage, then a cultural landscape invested in supporting all that activity damn well ought to have a problem with classical music – with its difficultly, with its emotional ambiguity, with its allusiveness, with its celebration of individuality, with its refusal to conform, with its ability to move our emotions beyond something that can be controlled and manipulated into turning a profit.

. . . the real reasons that students quit is often beyond their own understanding.  It is up to teachers and parents to create “magical moments” during the year for students to want to continue on their instrument, especially during the early years of study, in order for the child to be successful and stay with their craft.