Beyond Dumbing Down

This post is the speech I delivered at SphinxCon last week. (Video) Yes, it’s long at 15-minutes… but I’ll bring in some of the more interesting pictures from the slideshow. I’m leaving many words capitalized to show what I emphasized. Please share your feedback.

Rick Robinson 1989 NY Times
Rick Robinson 1989 NY Times

Never underestimate the value of a SMILE!

When my high school asked me to play a solo at the school concert, my mother came to see me play. She was very proud… but on the way home she asked me why I didn’t SMILE. I told her I was concentrating, and that if I smiled all the time, they’d put me in a strait-jacket!

Well, she stopped bugging me about that, but a decade later, I began to appreciate her viewpoint and embrace it as one of many metaphors for what troubles the classical industry. Because I didn’t seem to be having a good time, even though I WAS, SHE wasn’t having a good time! Recall I didn’t say she came to HEAR me play, she came to SEE me play. What she heard was COLORED by what she SAW.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra 2010 by Hart Holmann
Detroit Symphony Orchestra 2010 by Hart Holmann

After joining the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, I could still IMAGINE her and MILLIONS like her, wondering why we didn’t SEEM to enjoy what were doing… even though we were often enough in deep bliss.

Playing serious music IS of course serious business. For a full orchestra to sound like a SINGLE player, nailing our parts that are sometimes barely playable, demands careful rehearsal, and that we concentrate on several things at once; playing, reading, listening, watching… while refreshing the music with new INSIGHTS. I thought there were FEW brain cycles left over for SMILING… but that’s where I was WRONG.

Bass part of Mendelssohn Symphony #5
Bass part of Mendelssohn Symphony #5

In the orchestra, where I could, I began MEMORIZING chunks of music to synch with the conductor. And by getting my head out of the page, I began to discover the REAL music. It’s not these lines, dots and circles on the page. The music is what happens BETWEEN us as a RESULT of what’s written. It’s this visual DANCE between the conductor and ALL of the musicians, AMPLIFIED by the occasion of an attentive audience. It’s the WILL to pull OUT the POTENTIAL, FROM what the composer started.

CutTime Players plays for DPS
CutTime Players plays for music students.

This is how I learned that the goal of ANY great music-making, jazz, rock, gospel, classical or whatever, is simply to make the music MATTER, first to each other, and then to our audiences. The music is not the END, but rather the MEDIUM by which we INSPIRE. [*Slide 7] We are in the INSPIRATION business, THRU music. And smiling, moving, talking and engagement with a broader audience inspires just as much!

Clarinetist Ted Oien speaks to music students
Clarinetist Ted Oien speaks to music students

So when it comes to the challenges of DRAWING diverse listeners to concerts, or truly CONNECTING with the broader community, it’s KEY to realize that while classical music may be formal and serious, it is not serious as a heart attack! The page may be what the composer originally set, but this is merely a recording technology… The MUSIC is more like a pair of shoes, a HAT or an overcoat we borrow in which we strut our stuff. And that music which has fallen into the public DOMAIN after 90 years, if it truly belongs to the whole world, can be recast as very adaptable and friendly: I dare say MORE adaptable and friendly than our high standards in the classical industry will let on.

DSO Tiny Tots 2000
DSO Tiny Tots 2000

The prevailing high standards of orchestras for example let us COMPETE in the Olympics of world-class performance, for high marks from important reviewers, affecting everything from tours and tour attendance to recording sales, subscriptions, sponsorships, donations and grant support. Cash flow has relied on parading our WORLD-CLASS credentials. Success depends on being perceived as a leading artistic AUTHORITY and as an ambassador representing our cities across America, Europe and Asia.

High standards inspire and pay the bills for the most part… but they also come with a social price. Everything has a tradeoff… because every VALUE has an OPPOSING value. We musicians learned this tradeoff as we began to value playing.  We began to PAY this price when we gave up afterschool sports, watching TV, playing video games or hanging around with our buds in favor of practicing, alone in a room, for hours.Musicians Arent Real People

We paid this price if whenever we felt pushed away for LOVING classical. And we brought that PAYMENT plan WITH us into our orchestras. It is a price of a WIDER SOCIAL CONNECTION. It’s most often called the IVORY TOWER, but it’s really more like a worldwide CHURCH, for reasons I’m about to make more apparent.Classical Music Perceptions

What DOES classical music represent to the average American, especially in a country with much LESS arts education than in the past, a subculture of REBELLION and now with so MUCH available online?

As it has became apparent that times were a-changin’, many orchestras and musicians are interested to draw new listeners. Yet without trading some artistic standards, no matter how temporary, it’s NOT effective en masse. I sat in countless orchestra meetings where musicians warned against compromising our standards of presentation. “Don’t dumb it down. Let the music speak for itself. Always dress better than the audience. The audience should always look up to us. We should never talk down. In fact, it’s best not to talk to the audience at all.”

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Our RESPONSE to the need for change was to demand technically perfect PLAYERS, authoritative conductors, winning soloists, demanding leaders, trending composers and academic speakers. And we also demanded experienced AUDIENCES… boston-symphony-hallaaudiences who know how to take in a concert, who have some idea what they’re going to hear, who wear appropriate attire, who can sit quietly without distracting anyone else. These demands undoubtedly MAXIMIZE the concert experience for all who are playing and attending… they maximize FOCUS on the dramatic variety of sounds… in the spirit of meditation. This traditional, authoritarian, and essentially spiritual practice is PURE and SACRED, but also SANITIZED and INTOLERANT. I’m convinced that consciously or unconsciously, we’ve been filtering OUT new audience to maximize our OWN satisfaction.

If fine art music is to CONTINUE as an end unto itself, its chief PURPOSE, inspiration, must be APPARENT without further explanation. I contend to you that this PURPOSE, this VALUE is no longer apparent to the vast MAJORITY of the American public. While a great performance CAN speak for itself, songs IMMEDIATELY set their own context, whereas instrumental music is a foreign LANGUAGE that needs some introduction. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we use CAPTIONS nonetheless to set its CONTEXT.

Bassoonist Bob Williams talks to students
Bassoonist Bob Williams talks to students

That’s why I began to BEND the standard. I was not SURPRISED to discover that new listeners and even many veterans really LOVED IT when we musicians would open up and talk to them like family and friends!  Artists CAN BE real people. And when I started articulating my OPINION of how classical music uniquely works, such as the dramatic principals of tension and release that drive this music forward and make it sexy and bold, people listened and WATCHED for these in our CutTime performances.

I recognized that there is this burning CURIOSITY about WHY we chose classical or this particular piece to play, or what to listen for that makes a performance compelling, or how someone without experience can access the SECRETS of this music. There’s a large mass of adults who ADMIT to INEXPERIENCE with classical music and who are CURIOUS to pick up information in a comfortable manner.  Is the thought of serious FUN with classical just too sacrilegious to contemplate?  Am I a traitor for uttering those words? Well, just call me DR. STRANGELOVE… because I learned to stop worrying and LOVE the casual, new audience.

Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)
Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime) by Michelle Andonian

I think of my big SISTER, Ami. She studied violin thru college but eventually earned a doctorate in PSYCHOLOGY. And while she LOVES classical, she rarely comes to concerts. And when she DOES, she has to sit in the BACK. Because when she thinks she knows the music, just like at home with a stereo, she wants to sing ALONG and play her air VIOLIN!  She doesn’t like to just sit and LISTEN to the experts play. She wants to join in, to SHOW what she knows.

But rather than tell anyone it’s not possible to truly appreciate the symphony without trying to play an instrument (clearly it’s not), we can begin warming UP classical for the masses simply by INTRODUCING it with genuine regard, humanity and engaging activities. It’s clear that we artists must innovate… but we need the go ahead to step MUCH FURTHER outside the box depending on the listeners. If we have an artistic license to understand and enjoy classical, then we need to SHARE that license both literally and liberally!

Composer Rick Robinson at the mic
Composer/director Rick Robinson scores points for black composers at the National Gallery of Art.

We are the missionaries needed to JUMP OFF the altar in the concert sanctuary and spread the great news that SOME of this music is accessible to, let’s say HALF. And we can demonstrate exactly HOW, with movement and effective analogies. I’ve been able to compare music to food, to meditation,tos breathing, to sport, to sailing. Classical is another ALTERNATIVE to all the other kinds of music we enjoy!Classical Revolution Detroit event playing Brahms Clarinet Quintet 2011

And there’s NO better time than NOW to show this to the millennial generation, which doesn’t want to be denied ANY style of music. Esp. In the CLUB scene, recent smoking laws have made it possible to place classical WHERE they people discover other favorite music. That’s where we ALL feel free to sing, dance, yell, drum the table. And that’s a place to let Beethoven take us on a brief inward journey… either of struggle and redemption… Or just for the FIREWORKS. So I think it’s worth doing a SNOOPY DANCE! Snoopy Dance2

Rather than art-centric, I call this kind of artistry audience-centric. It is another way to serve or better yet to LIBERATE fine art, because it wants to touch all of humanity. Rather than center on a quality musical performance, the impact quality hinges on whether the audience leaves armed with enough relevant information and experience into the mysteries of classical to enjoy a traditional concert. And if not, will they come back for more introductions, or will they rave about it with family and friends…?

Putting classical in front of those who AVOID concerts is the first step to effectively connecting. How then can we translate the value of classical in non-academic terms? What is in classical for them? And how do we make wild imagination more apparent? How can we get REAL with classical? How do we reset the context for largely instrumental music? Why is it even CALLED classical?

Classical Revolution Grand Rapids
Classical Revolution Grand Rapids

Popular culture and music in America are dominated by WORDS man! Song is KING! And he’s married to rhyme and rhythm. Songs, rap… even poetry and story-telling backed by music… have personality at their core.

The song form sets strong cultural values, within which instrumental classical music struggles to relate. So it’s about time WE use words and more, to ADD value.

Let’s GUESS, that if HALF of all Americans don’t seek out instrumental music, just relaxing and exposing them to what is personal and fun will create a certain percentage of new audience. Don’t give ‘em long half hours… just demonstrative maximum FUN making serious music!  Sharing REAL excitement, vulnerability, risky jokes, as well as fascinating information… THESE are the NEW benchmarks for growing love AND trust with new audiences, both younger and older. This is NEW Classical… it’s less focus on perfect execution, in favor of real connection THRU music.The Time Is Now

Because music is essentially a form of LOVE. And a bit of anything goes connects new listeners. The time is NOW for the RAW CLASSICAL that liberates both artists and fine art MUSIC to have IMPACT and real FANS in the casual community! There’s more CURIOSITY than ever… let’s facilitate a meeting!   Who DOESN’T deserve more MEANING?

Repeat after me: Creating curiosity is the CURRENCY for creating new community.

A certain percentage WILL upgrade to traditional concerts from introductory shows, esp. When we can program a broad historical VARIETY to clue in new adult listeners to the development of Western written music with attention to its timeless qualities.

Yin-Yang Cats
Yin-Yang Cats

My call to artists is to consider and find balance with both sides of this coin. Within the opposing viewpoint to our perspective will be the definition of our own special purpose. My call to concert presenters is to embrace your surrounding community and send out enthusiastic resident fine artists to places where people already gather and allow the cultural bridge to flow sometimes in both directions.

My call to veteran AUDIENCES is to ENGAGE new listeners at traditional concerts, and AVOID the specially marked NEW Classical concerts if you can’t accept CLUB RULES. We need to take the symphony to the people’s house, AND we must make new people feel really WELCOMED in our house. When NEW, it’s easy to feel judged or shushed out: we will need YOU, AND the ushers to dial it back.  My request of donors and foundations is to fund community-centric artists like the Kresge and Knight Foundations. My call to cultural writers is to spread the word that fine art music can drink beer with pop culture. In fact, they lend each other more meaning.

In closing… Fear of dumbing down makes perfect sense when we’re trying to build and maintain standards which compete on the world stage. But fear of experimenting, FOR people who don’t understand fine art, makes NO sense when trying to build a new community. To move beyond this dilemma facing classical institutions, we can recognize and embrace the paradox. Opposing traditions don’t ALWAYS work in opposition; they can also define and complement each other.

Yes, Classical music is SACRED. And yet it ALSO makes great entertainment, when we LET it! And THAT’s worth smiling about!

Thank you!

One thought on “Beyond Dumbing Down

  1. Azwar Reply

    Wow. This saddens me a liltte. Everything these days is revolved around the television. I have been to a few concerts that are all preformed by computers. The visial part of them is very interesting, but the music that is being performed i don’t like. With the whold videogame music, i guess it would be alright if it was not performed all by computers. If the music was being performed by the classical concert orchestra/band, then i think maybe once every few years that would be a nice change to see a concet like that. Getting the sheet music might be the difficult task

What do you think about this?