Gershwin As The Soundtrack For Labor Protest

Artsjournal.com linked to a story about Oakland Symphony’s tradition of social justice in the experiences and programs it has offered. One of the things that popped out at me though was in line with my post yesterday about learning more about the emotional associations people had with classical music.

Hatano, the Oakland symphony’s executive director, said that she gets goosebumps thinking about one of Huerta’s choices for the Playlist series, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Huerta recalled listening to the piece on record as a child. Later, when she protested with grape farmers in New York as an adult, she heard the piece playing in the back of her mind, like a heroic soundtrack for her day.

This stuck out to me because most of the time when people talk about why they enjoy classical music, it tends toward relaxing and sublime imagery like the example given yesterday about sitting in a chair by the lake.

However, Huerta talks about “Rhapsody in Blue” in the context of a heroic theme for a labor protest. And really, that is sort the way a large segment of the population has experienced classical music–as the soundtrack for movies. The most recognizable and memorable are likely those that accompany moments of high energy and dramatic tension whether it is Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” anything by Wagner and Beethoven “Symphony No. 5” for movies with explosions and high stakes encounters with villains; or everything that Carl Stalling put in Looney Tune cartoons.

While there are often efforts to remind people that they are familiar with all this music already, if only on a subliminal level, thanks to movie and television scores, I don’t know that I have ever heard anyone say it pops into their head as background theme for their daily lives.

It made me think that if you can find people who can talk about having that experience, it might create a stronger positive association with classical music with people.  Since we are all the heroes of our own stories to some extent, recognizing that the music under girding the most dramatic and exciting movie moments could also be appropriate for scoring your personal narrative might improve the perceived accessibility of the genre.

In the last few years of posting, I have often talked about how surveys have revealed that people want to see themselves and their stories depicted on stage. Reflecting the stories of the community on stage may not be the easiest thing for 80 orchestra musicians to accomplish. However, if people begin thinking of classical music concerts as a place where music that has a resonance with the events of their lives, that may make a big difference.

To be clear, people already obviously use music in this way. Pretty much everyone has blasted music that energizes them when they are getting ready to go out and strut their stuff.

But if you have people saying that “Ride of the Valkyries” or “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” depending on the conditions, was running through their minds as they deftly navigated a busy subway station in order to get to work on time, that reframes a daily routine as a bit more magical and special.

Drawing a connection between music with which people are widely, if not unconsciously aware of, and the mundane moments of their lives may help make the genre feel more relatable and accessible than it had before.

Would You Start Taking Piano Lessons From A 14 Year Old?

A few weeks ago economist Tyler Cowen discussed how he had taught chess when he was 14-15 years old. His regular clientele were two adults in their 50s and 20s and a child prodigy around 10-11. He said he would have likely had more students if it weren’t for transportation issues.

My first thought was to wonder if anyone, especially and adult, would ever pay a teenager to instruct them in an artistic discipline. I don’t know about acting or visual arts, but by 14-16 there are some pretty skilled dancers and musicians out there.

Yes, I know there are summer camps, etc where teenagers are placed in a position of teaching younger kids, but I was thinking more along the lines of hiring someone in your hometown to provide lessons.

Cowen does admit that his situation was something of an outlier, but only because he felt most teenagers would assume no one would take them up on the offer rather than just offering their services. It also doesn’t appear that Cowen was necessarily exceptionally skilled. He said he stopped teaching when he stopped playing chess and characterizes it as something of a transactional decision. But that might be adult Tyler imposing his economist bias on his memories.

It has long been recognized that teaching your skill to someone else improves the teacher’s understanding of that skill so there is a benefit to teens hanging up a shingle and offering to help people get started.

Looking at some of Tyler’s reflections on his experience, there seem to be applicable parallels to teaching an artistic discipline.

2. Chess teaching isn’t mainly about chess. A chess teacher has to have a certain mystique above all, while at the same time being approachable. Even at 14 this is possible. Your students are hiring you at least as much for your mystique as for the content of your lessons.

3. Not everyone taking chess lessons wanted to be a better chess player. For some, taking the lesson was a substitute for hard work on chess, not a complement to it… Some of the students wanted to show you their chess games, so that someone else would be sharing in their triumphs and tragedies. That is an OK enough way to proceed with a chess lesson, but often the students were more interested in “showing” than in listening and learning and hearing the hard truths about their play.

4. Students are too interested in asking your opinion of particular openings. At lower-tier amateur levels of chess, the opening just doesn’t matter that much, provided you don’t get into an untenable position too quickly. Nonetheless openings are a fun thing to learn about, and discussing openings can give people the illusion of learning something important, if only because you can share opening moves with the top players and thereby affiliate with them.

As I read these, (Cowen offers seven insights in total), it seemed that paying attention to why people took lessons had a lot in common with why people attend performances. Some people want to improve, but others’ goals are to obtain a lesser degree of knowledge, mastery and affiliation with the people and practice of those skill sets.

Gaining an understanding of these motivations from the point of view of a teacher, even if it is in retrospect as an adult, might help artists do a better job of relating with audiences as an adult.  There is a difference between understanding what audiences want having learned it from teachers and mentors who are providing their worldview and reflecting on direct experiences you had before your perceptions were colored by years of formal training.

I think about the tasks I resented having to do and the difficult experiences I had when I was a young kid and a teenager that I would later realize gave me a competitive advantage when interviewing for a job. Now I resent that the foul medicine turned out to actually be good for me.

Is This “Yes, And…” Problem Solving?

A couple weeks ago I caught Thomas Wolf’s blog post about why Concert Companion, the hand-held device that offered commentary synchronized to the performance content, had failed to gain wide distribution. I really appreciated the information. I have written about Concert Companion’s lack of traction among orchestras but Wolf provides far more detail than I was ever aware of.

Wolf suggested reviving the practice with modern technology and setting it during rehearsals instead of performances.

Rehearsals offer one of the best ways to learn about music. You not only get to hear a work being played, but you can gain insights into how musicians think about a piece as they work on it. However, observing an actual rehearsal, without some help about what is going on, can be downright frustrating if not boring. Musicians talk to one another in ways that are difficult to hear and even if they are miked (which many of them find distracting), they often talk in musical shorthand that a non-musician doesn’t understand.

[…]

Now imagine that you are sitting in a real rehearsal (or watching it on a screen) and a trained musician who is not playing is offering commentary in real time that you can read on a screen. For example:

The musicians just stopped and are discussing whether a repeated passage should have an echo effect the second time it is played. They are going to try it that way. Listen to the effect when they play that thematic material boldly the first time and quietly the second time.

or

The basses and cellos are in unison here and they are trying to make sure they are in tune with one another. That is why they are playing those notes so slowly. Each player is adjusting his or her pitch until they get the intonation just right.

I didn’t think this really would solve some of the problems that Concert Companion faced. One of the things Wolf identified as a problem was that it needed a trained person present to advance the notes in synch with the music and that was an additional expense orchestras couldn’t afford. Wolf’s suggestion of having someone writing live commentary requires someone even more highly trained to provide high quality insight on a moment’s notice AND type quickly enough that the viewers receive the information in a timely manner.

I can tell you from experience that people underestimate the amount of time it takes just to type in supertitles for an opera and then get that to synch up correctly. While the commentary wouldn’t have to synch quite as well, that is still a tall order. It seemed to me there would be a greater cost in time, energy and funding.

I was prepared to write a post about it when Drew McManus beat me to it, and worse, he liked the idea.

It wasn’t until the end of his post that Drew provided the obvious answer. He mentioned that 20 years ago he had been organizing outings to live rehearsals where they would sit far enough from the stage to avoid interrupting things. Today you can put people in the audience with their cellphones and earbuds, set up an audio only Zoom meeting, and have an interactive conversation with one or more guides to learn more about what was going on.

This still requires a trained staff member, or as Drew suggests, a super fan, but would present far less of a scramble to provide content.

The obvious extension of this is that you can do the same thing at a final rehearsal for a live performance of any genre. Live streaming a rehearsal with commentary to even a small group of people watching from home might be problematic until things can be worked out with rights holders. However this could enhance the value of seeing a performance live and expand the core audiences for an organization.

As I wrote this, I recognized I am the third person in a chain adding an idea about how to solve a problem. Is this “yes, and..” problem solving?

What Does It Mean To Have Influence

I saw an article containing an interview with choreographer Robert Moses that basically opens with Moses saying the conversations occurring regarding equity are addressing the wrong questions.

How to increase equity? “Ask different questions,” is the reply from Moses. Or preferably, don’t ask the same tiresome questions.

“The notion of change is sophomoric,” Moses says. “The idea is to give people honest opportunity to be part of whatever they’re intending to be a part of. The questions get tiresome because they come from the same place. It’s not interesting if it doesn’t have anything to do with what needs to happen.”

Moses poses a question of his own: “Should we have more representation? No, we should have more influence. More actual ability to exercise that influence and power. All those things will be happening for the better of everyone,” he says, heavily emphasizing the “everyone” in his declaration. “It has to be in as many hands as possible… It’s about talk that’s useful. An organization that powers those things is what I care about. The conversations then can take place that move us all. We’re not spinning our wheels and using portions of a cultural experience to affix something to the moment.

I’m not exactly sure I completely understand what he means. Which is good I guess, because if I thought I knew what he meant, I might stop considering the larger implications of the statement.

If influence and power in as many hands as possible isn’t more representation, what is it? It is obvious that representation can be employed superficially, but so too can pursuing talk and conversations that is useful. Often both can feel like progress when they are just the appearance of progress. So isn’t productive work in representation and/or conversation valuable?

The distinguishing element that sticks out to me is the mention of “…using portions of a cultural experience to affix something to the moment.” That seems to reproach focusing on creating standards based on conditions at a specific time versus embracing broader, long term goals. For example, the idea that you are done when the composition of your board reflects the demographics of the community versus the broader goal of seeking to create an environment where power and influence are shared in the broadest terms possible.

Anyone else want to share their thoughts?

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