V. CONNECTION POINTS
Musicmaking is a social act. Sharing music together, that most human of
activities, can reaffirm our membership in the human community. The concert
experience can be a wonderful nourisher and amplifier of human connections.
At another Apple Computer workshop, I participated in a team-building session
for computer scientists and educators, led by a wonderful percussionist named
Arthur Hull. He gave us a long class in rhythm and drumming, not to teach us
about music, but to get us to experience our little group (about 30 people) as
a village of interdependent people, all equally valuable to the whole.
By the end of 3 hours of speaking and playing rhythms together, we did indeed
feel like a little village.The team-building had succeeded. When he left,
Arthur entrusted his drums to us for a couple of days, in case we wanted to
play some more.
I was preparing for a solo recital at the time, and the next day I offered to
play an informal concert for the workshop participants. When I arrived at the
conference room at the appointed time, everybody was already there, in a big
circle, drumming. I joined in the drumming for a few minutes, and then we moved
across the room, formed another circle of chairs, and I went to the middle to
play some music. Between pieces, the audience asked questions or made comments
about their reactions. I have never heard adults talk to musicians with such
spontaneity, curiosity, and openness. Afterward, I rejoined the circle, and
went back to the drums.
The sensation of being part of the village, then stepping for a moment into the
center of the circle to play for the others, and then melting back into the
village again, was a revelation. This seemed so much more comfortable and
fitting than the usual concert ritual. It was clear that I was first and
foremost a member of the village, and secondarily an expert in something. The
usual concert set-up, in which the performers have their door, their part of
the room, and their way of dressing, while the audience has a different door, a
different part of the room, and a different way of dressing, obscures the
connectedness betwen people at a concert.
This, I realized, explains why house concerts are my favorite format. This is
why I like talking to audiences. I knew I had been striving for intimacy and
informality, but I see now that I was really trying to create a feeling of
Many of us have explored ways to break down the barriers between performers and
audience, but this was the first time I saw that, not only do we need to remove
obstacles, we need to establish connections.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
People connect with music through someone they know. Try asking your musical
friends how they fell in love with music. Ask your board members. Many people
say they got hooked on music because somebody took the trouble to introduce
them. Often it turns out that a crucial person took them to concerts, explained
what was going on, named the instruments, or went over the story of the opera.
If people get hooked by other people, then maybe we can figure out how to help
more people hook each other. Music is a social act, and rather than be
embarrassed by that fact, we should celebrate it. Music is one of the most
human things around.
Many of the people in the audience are there because they know somebody else in
the audience, or somebody who is onstage, or somebody from the organization, or
a volunteer. Sometimes I think the best way to build audiences would be to
invest the entire marketing budget, and the marketing staff, into bringing
friends, friends of friends, and relatives to concerts.
If we want to cultivate new audiences from other communities, other ethnic
groups, and other cultures, maybe we should befriend those new listeners,
welcome them to our art form, and help them understand what is going on. As
with all friendships, it won't work if we only tell them about ourselves. We'll
have to get interested in them, too.
I have heard about a chamber music series that includes a dinner with the
concert. The idea, I guess, is to make the concert more clearly a social
activity, to emphasize the attribute of human sharing. I think this is a
One friend who has been involved in education for a long time says she thinks
the thing that audience members most want is to be seen and
have a performer say, "I saw you in the audience; it looked like you were
really enjoying yourself," or "That was a really interesting question you
asked." The usual post-concert reception tries to facilitate this kind of
interaction, but we know what usually happens. The musicians are in one corner
(near the food), and the audience is across the room.
VI. NEW MUSIC, OLD PROBLEMS
"CHALLENGING THE AUDIENCE"
If the music we most love is the music we have heard a lot, where is the place
for a world premiere? I happen to like hearing new pieces, but many people
don't like that experience. Some people even get mad.
Once I was spokesperson at a chamber music concert with a lot of new music. I
thought all of the music was easily accessible, but at intermission a guy came
up, furious about the repertoire. He was red-faced and shouting, and I was a
little bit afraid he might hit me. "Just tell me this!" he yelled. "Do you
think anybody's going to be listening to any of these pieces a hundred years
from now?" It was clear what his answer would be.
His real difficulty, it turned out, was that the newspaper had printed an
erroneous listing for our program: they had promised Mozart, Brahms, and
Beethoven. My assailant was furious that these composers were absent. Telling
him about the Lugwig Thuille piece on the second half (a romantic, Brahmsian
work) didn't help; he wanted his money back.
This man knew what kind of adventure he wanted, and new music was not it. I
could see why he was disappointed, but I didn't understand why he got so mad.
It seemed like he was threatened by something.
I was reminded of the way orchestras act when a new piece calls for them to
use some non-standard technique. They don't like it. They get mad. They get
petulant and rebellious, like a secretary asked to do something not in the job
description: "That's not my job!" Musicians know what they were trained to do,
and tapping on their violins with carrot sticks is not it.
Maybe listeners feel the same way: they know what kind of listening they're
Perhaps an unfamiliar musical language makes people feel stupid, or left out.
Perhaps they have a suspicion that everybody is understanding except them.
(Some neophytes believe that an art expert can look at a cubist painting and
imagine it folded up into a realistic-looking scene.)
Some organizations talk about a need to "challenge the audience." Unless the
people in the audience have already learned to enjoy being challenged, they may
hate you for challenging them! Once again, simply exposing people to something
new will turn many people off.
Maybe there's some way to help ordinary art-music lovers become lovers of
exploration and the unfamiliar. The very act of listening to the unfamiliar
might begin to feel familiar.
There are some things that can be done to change a premiere from a menace into
an exciting occasion. Telling the audience about the piece helps a lot. Having
the composer do the telling is good. Playing examples helps even more. (I heard
that in San Francisco one year, the premieres were the focal point of the
season brochure. More excitement was generated than usual, and more tickets
I'm surprised that so few organizations present excerpts before premiering a
new work. Today's bewildering array of aesthetic stances make it hard to know
what a new piece expects of a listener, or where the music's pleasures might be
lurking. Some pieces reward close attention to quicksilver transformations, but
others reward trance-like enjoyment of repetition. Some pieces are
sound-objects to observe, others are roller-coasters to ride.
At a chamber music concert at the Ragdale Foundation, an artists' colony in a
wealthy suburb of Chicago, I was playing in a premiere of one of my own
pieces. I said a little bit about the music before we played it. I thought it was a
pretty friendly piece, but after the concert a small group of
conservative-looking oldsters approached me, and I tensed for the inevitable
"That was so enjoyable!" they said. "It's great to hear something new, not
like the same old stuff they keep playing at __________." (They named a nearby
After a few experiences like that, and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's sucesses
with new music in youth concerts, I am confident that just about any piece can
be presented to just about any audience, if there's a chance to prepare the
VII. NEW FORMATS
Inexperienced listeners don't know what to do with themselves when they're just
sitting there during a performance. For some people, this is one of the most
baffling things about concert music. Surprisingly, when we try to train new
listeners, we tell people what it's like to be a performer or a composer, but
we don't often say what it's like to be an experienced listener!
Surveys show what newcomers worry about: they're worried about looking like
idiots and not being able to find the bathroom. They say they don't know where
to park, they don't know where to buy a ticket, they don't know where to sit,
they don't know when to clap, and they don't know what to wear. They rarely
even get around to mentioning that they don't know what to pay attention to and
they don't know what they're supposed to feel. They don't know what's going on.
They'd rather stay home.
Letters from the students whp attend the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's Meet the
Music concerts are almost as likely to comment on the beauty of the chandeliers
as on the beauty of the music. A concert is a brand new experience for them,
and everything is equally new and interesting. That's what makes it so
baffling: they don't know what to pay attention to.
In searching for new formats, new versions of the concert ritual, we can be
guided by the question, "Is this helping the listeners figure out what to do?"
At the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, we have learned only a few things to help new
listeners, but I think it's a good sign that so many recent letters from
students have said, "I thought the concert was going to be boring, but it
MAKING MUSIC FUN
In the attempt to draw new audiences, orchestras are trying to put more fun
into their presentations. Experimenting is healthy: there's nothing sacred, or
even very old, about the current concert ritual. (Not too long ago, audiences
were much more vociferous, even rowdy. They would shout their pleasure or
displeasure, and even throw things. Concertgoing was much more
There is one big problem with making concerts more fun. It's not an insoluble
problem, but it's tricky: what is really fun about art music
is different from what most outsiders can recognize as fun.
The real fun of music involves taking in sounds and connecting to those
feelings. This sort of thing is hard to market, so sometimes other elements are
added to the production to sell more tickets. Celebrity narrators, funny
introductions, big-screen video, onstage theatrics, lighting effects, and other
tools of the entertainment media can be inserted into the concert format to
sell more tickets and make it more fun. But one question remains: will all this
fun help anybody learn how to have the real fun of music?
If the added fun distracts from the music, or makes it seem pale and
out-of-date, then the fun may sell some tickets, but it won't do art music a
bit of good. If the fun draws new listeners, shows them a good time, makes them
want to come back for more, and offers an experience of the pleasures art music
has to offer, that's the kind of fun we should be searching for.
BACH TO THE FUTURE
The L.A. Chamber Orchestra recently presented its first new-format concert. The
orchestra had received a grant for an outreach concert, and we wanted to design
a fun event that would help people connect with the music. We had no idea how
to do that, but the organization was willing to experiment. The only date
available was Bach's birthday, so we devised an event called "Bach to the
It was a 3-hour afternoon event in and around a concert hall. After a brief
welcome and explanation from me and a surprise guest -- J.S. Bach just happened
to be in the neighborhood -- we dismissed the audience to circulate between
four different parts of the theater, where four different short performances
would run concurrently. Each of these repeated a few times, so that everybody
could see all shows.
In the lobby a vocal octet sang Bach and his contemporaries (including P.D.Q.
Bach). In the balcony Bach himself gave a talk about how later musicians have
recycled his music. Onstage a vocalist sang Bach and the Villa-Lobos
Bachianas Brazilieras. In a big conference room, costumed
dancers demonstrated Baroque dances to music from Bach's first suite.
Outside the conference room there was a "petting zoo" of musical instruments
for people to touch and blow and scrape. In the lobby a local bookstore sold
music books, and a local record store sold disks -- they had brought all of
their Bach bins. There was food and drink, and an orchestra souvenir boutique.
After an hour of circulating between these attractions, the audience returnd to
the theater for a lecture-demonstration on Bach's first suite. The Los Angeles
Chamber Orchestra was dressed in T-shirts bearing the names of their
instruments. We spiced up our usual Meet the Music format -- orchestral
examples -- with interviews of orchestra members and questions from actors
planted in the audience. ("Is it true that playing the oboe makes you go
crazy?") The costumed dancers danced Bach's Menuet and Forlane with the
orchestra. To illustrate the concert ritual, a big burly volunteer from the
audience walked onstage with the concertmaster and helped him tune the
orchestra. Then the conductor entered, accompanied by another volunteer, a
little girl this time, who bowed with him and helped give him a downbeat.
After an intermission, the audience returned to the hall to hear the orchestra,
now in formal dress, perform the suite.
How did the experiment work? First of all, attendance was greater than even our
most optimistic estimates. It seemed like almost everybody had some fun. We
heard a lot of very enthusiastic comments. Even the staff, the orchestra, and
the board members appeared to be having fun.
Did we help anybody learn where the real fun of the music was? Maybe. I don't
think anybody became a subscriber that day, but even if, for once, we didn't
turn anybody off, I'd be happy.
Will we do it again? Many audience members asked us to. It depends, as usual,
The point of all this storytelling has been to stimulate thinking about human
interaction with and through music. By now it should be obvious that I like the
idea of inventing new kinds of music events, but I hope it's also obvious that
the real purpose of innovation is to perpetuate something ancient: the
gathering of people to share a wonderful, rich, complex, beautiful musical
experience. If we design new events, we'll certainly hope to attract new
listeners, sell more tickets, raise more money, and improve community
awareness, but the real measure of or success will be whether we breathe new
life into that ancient purpose of joining together to share music.
The point, once again, is not to preserve any particular kind of music or any
particular institution, but to keep alive the qualities of attention, the kinds
of human interactions, and the ways of knowing and experiencing that go along
with art music.
I have said that art music's main problem is a shortage of people who know how
to pay attention. This problem is not exactly our fault; it has been caused by
a variety of changes in our culture, changes which can be described with a
current buzzword: the infrastructure which once supported art
music is now in disrepair. Our European-born supporters are graying; our
population is uneducated about music; our society doesn't value the arts; our
citizens prefer entertainment without involvement.
In the past, the job of art music purveyors was simply to put on concerts, not
to maintain the art music infrastructure. Now, like it or not, we all have to
rebuild that infrastructure. If we don't, there will be no one to appreciate,
let alone pay for, either concerts or recordings.
This responsibility is not just a burden; it is also a chance to refashion
American musical life. One thing that excites me about our current situation is
the opportunity for many new kinds of presentation to spring up. We now have so
many kinds of art music available to us, from so many cultures of the present
and past, and there are so many different kinds of listeners with different
levels of experience, that there can be no single solution to the question of
how to present live music.
Another opportunity shining out from our current mess is that people
increasingly express their longing for connection to others, for experiences of
community. The social dimension of live music can be a tonic. A practice that
seems old-fashioned in the electronic age -- people coming together for
attentive enjoyment of music that is being made at that moment in the same room
-- might turn out to be just what our postmodern hearts are searching for.
I believe there is more to be said about the importance of living composers and
their life-giving flow of brand new music, but I haven't figured out what it is
yet. We've all heard the standard reasons Why New Music is Important, but we
probably need to think them through again. It will probably turn out that the
justifications we usually give for new music, like the reasons Why Art is
Important, are not the real reasons. If we understand the real reasons better,
we might find new music turning from something that's good for you (like castor
oil) into something more people really love.
In designing education concerts, I have been greatly helped by the techniques I
learned from Helmuth Rilling and others: showing instead of telling, reaching
into the texture, repetition, and so on. But the technique that has helped me
the most is to keep asking stupid questions. What am I trying to accomplish?
Why? Will that really help?
Teaching is a tricky job. Sometime I think I'm helping people to understand
that "This is exciting," but all they get is, "This is boring, but for some
reason he thinks it's exciting." So I continue to wonder: how
can I create conditions that help people discover the excitement for
themselves? How can I help them aim their attention without getting in their
Audience education projects strive to change people. But what if we just
change the events instead? If we could do that really well,
people could see that you don't need to become somebody else in order to enjoy
art music. You can just be yourself, after all.
A couple of years ago I attended a concert shared by Robert Bly, the American
poet, and Ali Akbar Khan, the great sarod player from India's
northern classical music tradition. After Ali Akbar Khan played a set of Indian
music, Bly read some of his translations of Indian poetry, accompanied by a
different group of Indian musicians. The concert was part of a festival called
"Healing the Planet," presented in conjunction with a big convention of the
healing arts. The series brochure included music from several different
cultural traditions: as I remember, there was a group from Tibet, a Native
American flutist, and a vocal group from Africa. It was a wonderful idea, to
focus attention on the spiritual dimension of music from all over the world.
There was no Western art music on the series. Where, I wonder, was the Mozart
Requiem or the reconciliation scene from The Marriage of
Figaro? Where was Beethoven's Ninth? Where were
Josquin and Palestrina? Where was the Barber Adagio or John
Adams'Harmonielehre? Where was the B-minor Mass?
Where, for that matter, was Duke Ellington or Ornette Coleman?
Not enough money for a big work? Where were the Mozart quintet for piano and
winds, the Mendelssohn octet, the Clara Schumann trio, or the Copland
Sextet? What about some Dufay or Machaut? What about the Berio
Folksongs, or Joan Tower's Petrouschskates?
Still too expensive? How about the Bach cello suites, the Stravinsky
Elegy, or Frederick Rzewski's The People United Will Never
Why wasn't Western art music included, along with those other wonderful
traditions, as a source of healing power? Our culture may have come to
symbolize the errors of materialism, but we have had our share of great souls,
and we have music that is the product of their thought and feeling.
Some Americans think that the spiritual can only be found in some
other culture. That outward-looking search has been going on
for decades. Meanwhile, some of us practitioners of Western art music, while
aware of the spiritual dimension of our work, have gotten distracted from it by
technical details. Our Western art forms rely heavily on technique, and
sometimes artists forget their original reasons for accumulating such fabulous
In the art music industry, we have been busy trying to play better, to sell
more tickets, to raise more money, and to educate people. Perhaps we thought it
went without saying that music is, among other things, a source of healing
power and spiritual renewal.
Maybe it doesn't go without saying.
The drafting of this essay was made possible by the
Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois, which makes time and space
available to artists, musicians, and writers. The author is ecstatic to have
been afforded the opportunity to think things through and write them down. Many
thanks to Ragdale, to the friends and colleagues who helped me improve early
drafts, and to my family, who lovingly threw me out so I could do this work.
Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death
has a good explanation of how our culture has lost the ability to pay
This is not a put-down of other kinds of music. A culture
needs many kinds of music: music for easy consumption, music that we can use --
instead of drugs -- to quickly change our state of mind, music for dancing,
music to engender feelings of belonging, and so on.
Any point of view has its advantages and disadvantages.
Emphasizing hard work and practical matters has brought Americans many
benefits, most notably our much-envied material wealth. One disadvantage of our
point of view is that certain parts of the human psyche get ignored, and basic
human needs go unrecognized and unmet.
Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift, talks about
the difference between commodities, which can be bought and sold by people who
have no other relationship to each other, and works of art, which involve
interpersonal bonds like the bonds of gift exchange.
There are some things that can only be said in
mathematics. Mathematics is another way of knowing, equally rich with possibilities for
contacting beauty. The arts and sciences are not so different as we have been
led to believe.
Strings Magazine interview, May/June,
On the other hand, a formative childhood experience for
many music-lovers was attending a grownup concert with a parent or other adult
who helped the child prepare for the concert. Having an adult there with you as
a guide into an adult world can transform the event.
John's reply was, "No, that was a string quartet."
In her master class, violin teacher Kato Havas insisted
that students bow and accept the applause after their workshop performances.
She said something like this: "The audience has been receiving your music, and
now it is their turn to give something back to you. You must accept it
graciously. Enjoy it! Drink in the appluase -- imitate Pavarotti! Audiences
will love you for it."
Sure, there are people who come to concerts
only for the social dimension; they want status. Such people
are more interested in separating themselves from others.
Although music was just the vehicle for team-building,
this was also the best introductory musicmaking session I have ever seen.
Among many other things, people got a real chamber music experience, playing
one part of a complex texture while being able to listen to the other parts.
There was a time when audiences were expected
to clap after every movement. Mozart revised his "Paris" symphony because
the audience didn't clap enough after the slow movement.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin, 1986.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift, Random House, 1983.
Robert Danziger, The Musical Ascent of Herman Being, Jordan
Press, 5 Amberson Av., Yonkers, N.Y. 10705. 1988.
W.A. Mathieu, The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music,
Eloise Ristad, A Soprano on Her Head, Real People Press,
The Wolf Organization, The Financial Condition of Symphony
Orchestras, American Symphony Orchestra League, 777 14th St., NW,
Washington, DC 20005, (202)628-0099. 1992.
Biography of John Steinmetz, October 1998
John Steinmetz is a worker bee bassoonist in the great musical
hive of Los Angeles, buzzing between concerts, operas, and movie
soundtracks--everything from Tristan und Isolde to Leave it to
Beaver. He is principal bassoonist of L.A. Opera, he plays chamber
music with XTET and Camerata Pacifica, and he tours with the Bill
Douglas Trio (one of those bassoon-oriented
jazz-funk-Latin-Renaissance-Afro-Irish ensembles). He has been a regular
participant in the Oregon Bach Festival and the Skaneateles Festival,
and a guest faculty member at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music.
John's Quintet has been released on CD by the Borealis Wind
Quintet, and his One and Many, which features children and guest
musicians performing alongside a professional ensemble (including
sections composed by the children), was featured by the Apple Hill
Chamber Players on their "Playing for Peace" tours in the Middle East
and Northern Ireland.
John helped to design new concert formats for the Los Angeles
Chamber Orchestra, Oregon Bach Festival, Skaneateles Festival, Pacific
Classical Winds, and XTET. His weeklong residency at the University of
Oklahoma was called "Enlivening Live Music." As Artist in Residence for
two years at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, he facilitated design
teams of community members, parents, staff, and faculty to create new
kinds of concert events and innovative enhancements for administration
and teaching. He has been a featured speaker at the national conventions
of Americans for the Arts, Chamber Music America, and the National
Conference on Piano Pedagogy; he has given workshops for Young Audiences
of St. Louis and Valley Chamber Musicians of Phoenix. As a consultant to
computer scientists at Atari, Apple, and Disney Imagineering, John has
been exploring the effects of new and old technologies on learning and
expression. He recently joined Chamber Music America's Board of
Since its first publication in 1993 in the NARAS Journal,
"Resuscitating Art Music" has circulated widely among musicians,
teachers, administrators, and other music-lovers, and it has been
reprinted and excerpted in other journals, magazines, arts handbooks,
and concert programs. John's new booklet
"How to Enjoy a Live Concert"
is published by Naxos Records.
John lives in Altadena, California with his wife and two