Excellence vs. Opportunity

I heard someone mention excellence and opportunity awhile back and I can’t stop thinking about it. I chose a career in “excellent performance” once I began music schools, intent to play bass in a major orchestra. I joined the DSO and during 22 years began to see that “There is no way to be perfect; but there are many ways to be excellent,” as a deceased colleague used to say. And yet the industry seemed to define excellence only as mastering the world-class performance standard. This fosters a competition, conscious or not, among the full-time orchestras of the world via recordings, touring, reviews and budgets.


I realized this focus on top performance quality also brought great limitations and even fatal self-contradictions in our declarations of being an integral part of our cities.  What opportunities we create for the whole community to actually access our model of excellence depend on having some knowledge of classical music and audience behavior. In my observations these prove to be a very weak opportunities for new listeners. We can and must do better. Are excellence and opportunity mutually exclusive, or are they values that define and complement each other (yin/yang-style)?

First of all, I’m an optimist and consciously engage in wishful thinking because I can and it energizes me. We can ALWAYS look forward to something. There’s enough pessimism, skepticism and jaded behavior in society today. Hope is a glorious evolutionary trick; a coping skill to keep us breathing after disaster strikes. Hope springs automatically so that, on average, we rebound. It even makes us feel deliriously happy at times.

Second, I latched onto this word opportunity during the DSO strike in Fall 2010… when I also learned about Classical Revolution. I kept looking for opportunities and these two words gave plenty. In the process of using these words (with permission), I discovered that showing up with other classical musicians was half the battle. When we put it right there in front of people, as long as we can bring it, people are surprised that we tried, and surprised by the particular brain massage of the classical sound world. I dare point out that many are also initially uncomfortable being forced to confront their past feelings and political positions toward classical. But the fact that a black guy (of all people!) is embracing, explaining and refreshing this music opens many to the possibility this music has something valuable to offer. The opportunity tends to provoke strong feelings in everyone, and everyone deserves beautiful music (Plato?).

CutTime quartet + percussion on club stage as people listen on
CutTime Simfonica plays both background and foreground in clubs, changing the soundtrack of life.

BEING opportunistic happens automatically to all of life. ADMITTING how opportunistic we are is another matter. In the fine arts world, the excellence we might want to be respected for, comes with the price of a limited number of fans being aware we ARE excellent. When we stick close to the arts bubble where everyone inside knows we are, we FEEL popular. To feel popular OUTSIDE would seem to be impossible, delusional, or an opposing value to excellence altogether— but for the examples of both. This brings me back to yin-yang, because the exceptions may confirm the principle. Popularity IS an opposing value to excellence, BECAUSE there are 20% examples of both.

Does the fine art world OWN excellence? Is opportunity only COMMERCIAL? When fine art is exploited, does it cease to be fine art? When fine art is designed to be popular, does it cease to be fine art? Isn’t Rhapsody in Blue both popular AND fine art? Can I compose something similar?

It seems to me that we have an over-abundance of excellence and a burning need to trade some for more audience. Since the knowledge of the average person on the street is so low, why not take any opportunity to POPULARIZE excellence? The smoking laws of recent years have created the opportunity to showcase excellence in more popular places. Excellent opportunities are all around us. Chamber music let’s us put this music almost anywhere. The future belongs to the bold. Art, attack!

Rick Robinson takes classical to street level
Rick Robinson takes classical to street level

What do you think about this?