Resuscitating Art Music

NARAS Journal
Summer 1993 (Volume 4 No. 1)
A Publication of the NARAS® Foundation
Copyright © 1993 John Steinmetz, used by permission.


Click here for a bio of John Steinmetz.

In America today, art music
-- whether by Bach or Coltrane or Shankar or Zwilich --
sometimes seems like a species on the verge of extinction.

One summer I taught music at a computer camp. After years of experience as music camps, it was a shock to be teaching kids who weren't already involved in music. I didn't know how to connect with them. My class of high school students had no music training and no detectable interest in art music. They weren't interested in new experiences. They were frighteningly incurious. For them, "I hate that" meant the same thing as "That's unfamiliar to me."

I was pretty miserable until I finally gave up trying to teach anything and started asking the students what they liked. A spirited argument broke out about whether Journey or Def Leppard was better (this was 1983). To bolster their viewpoints, students marshalled a surprising amount of knowledge and perceptiveness.

I asked the class whether they would be willing to try an experiment. Would they listen to a song that everybody liked and another that everybody hated, and then discuss the differences? They said okay, but it took them a little while to think of a song that everybody liked. Finally they settled on a song by Journey. For the music that everybody hated, I suggested a fourteenth-century love song. They agreed immediately. Even without hearing it, they were certain they would hate a fourteenth-century love song.

We listened to both songs and, sure enough, everybody loved Journey and hated the fourteenth century. When I asked why, they had a lot of answers. One guy said he didn't like the fourteenth-century music because the music wasn't in English. Another student said she didn't like anything that sounded like "that stuff my parents listen to -- you know, Pavarotti and that kind of stuff."

One student answered, "I like rock music because even if I'm doing something else, even if I'm in a different room, I can still get it. I can still tell where the beat is."

Then he said something I've been thinking about ever since. "I like rock music because you don't have to pay attention in order to get it."

He really seemed to resent it that the fourteenth-century music required him to do something, to pay attention. Since that time, I have realized that, in our country, the ability to pay attention has become endangered. As a result, art forms that require the audience's attention are endangered, too.


In America today, art music -- whether by Bach or Coltrane or Shankar or Zwilich -- sometimes seems like a species on the verge of extinction. Those of us who have been moved, nourished, and inspired by art music find it hard to believe what's happening: symphony orchestras are collapsing, artist managers are going out of business, presenters are reducing their chamber music offerings, newspapers are cutting back on coverage, audiences are graying, and funds are drying up.

What's going on? How did things get this way? Is there anything we can do about it?

Art music isn't the only institution suffering right now. General Motors is in trouble. IBM is in trouble. Atmospheric ozone is in trouble. Even Japan is in trouble. Is it any wonder that art music is in trouble, too?

Sometimes, in my more optimistic moments, I think that all this trouble -- GM's problems, music's problems, the national debt, the ozone hole, all of it -- is really great. This is evolutionary pressure, forcing us human beings to learn to do things better. Look at General Motors: until recently it didn't matter that many of GM's management practices were stupid and wasteful. They still made tons of money. Now, if GM wants to survive, it will have to do its job better. GM is going to have to stop being so stupid.

Art music is in a similar situation. Until recently art music could be presented in thoughtless or inefficient ways without harming itself. It didn't matter if we put on performances that baffled the audience and bored the musicians. It didn't matter if we gave youth concerts that turned kids off. It didn't matter if we performed only for white people. It didn't matter if we ignored new listeners and didn't help them learn how to pay attention. We still had audiences. We still had plenty of money. We still had lots of people who cherished the medium.

Now, rather abruptly, all those things that didn't matter have become crucial. Art music is under pressure to do its job better. We can't be so stupid any more.

This essay is a collection of ideas about how art music could do its job better. Actually, the music is fine; these are ideas about how to present it better. I didn't think up these ideas; I have gathered them over many years of playing the bassoon, teaching, speaking to audiences, and working with organizations on new kinds of presentation.

These are practical ideas for purveyors of art music. I am writing for the practical people who work to help the music flourish: the musicians, listeners, administrators, board members, volunteers, educators, producers and presenters.

Although this is definitely not a theoretical discussion, I do want to encourage my colleagues to think. As practical people, we sometimes rush off to solve problems without thinking them through. Sometimes, proceeding from obsolete assumptions, we make our problems worse. Now evolutionary pressure is forcing us to think about things more carefully, and making us think about things we never had to think about before (such as "What's so special about this music and why should it survive?").

I'm going to ramble across several different topics, but I have tried to organize the trip so that you can find the scenery that interests you. Here's what each section is about:

    Reflections on the kind of listening art music expects, and America's attitude toward that kind of music.

    Why is art music worth preserving and promoting? Recorded music vs. live music. The influence of rock. (I hope that this section will provoke more discussion about our profession's fundamental purposes.)

    Anecdotes from the trenches: A collection of stories and observations from real-life education programs, with suggestions and techniques for helping listeners.

    How we musicians learn to ignore the beauty in the music we make. If musicians can ignore that beauty, why are we surprised that the public ignores it?

    Music as a social act.

    The challenge of getting comfortable with the unfamiliar.

    Re-thinking the concert ritual.

    Summary and final thoughts.

I hope you'll find something useful here. Even more, I hope you will discuss the ideas, act on them, improve them, and discover new ones.

To all the musicians, administrators, and listeners from whom I have gathered these notions over the years, thank you! 1



Even though many of the ideas here could apply to other kinds of music and to other art forms, this essay is about art music. When I talk about art music, I mean music that you have to pay attention to in order to reap its rewards.

I know this is an oversimplification. After all, whole books have been written on the subject. I oversimplify because of that kid in my first story, the one who said he didn't like music that required him to pay attention. He helped me see that the ability to pay attention is being lost. 2 That scares me, because what I most love about all my favorite music is how richly it rewards my attention.

I don't care so much about preserving any particular style of music, so my definition doesn't describe the music at all; it describes the listeners. What I want to keep alive are the qualities of attention, the kinds of human interactions, and the ways of knowing and experiencing that are found in the practice of art music.

So for the moment, let's simply say that art music requires conscious attention and some experience in order to be understood. This music rewards such devotion with multiple, complex layers of meaning and feeling.

You can see right away that many different styles of music fit my definition: jazz, Indonesian gamelan music, and South Indian classical music are only three of the many kinds of music that can be just as artistic in this sense as European classical music. And some European classical music probably doesn't qualify as art music at all.

If you think your favorite music also fits in, include it. My stories are mainly about Euro-American classical music, but that's only because most of my experiences have been with the tradition that uses bassoons.


Art music requires listeners who want to participate, not just consume. 3 European art music, for instance, was developed for an audience who played instruments, who bought new music and learned how to play it, who sang in choirs, who took composition lessons.

I've been trying to imagine being a musician in Vienna in Mozart's time. One night I'm playing chamber music with my friends. The next night I attend an orchestral concert, and while the players are mostly liveried servants, a few of my chamber music friends are playing, too. The following night I play in a reading of a new composition -- the composer was concertmaster of last night's orchestra concert. The next night I attend a ball; the dance music was written by the same composer. The next morning I sing in a choir rehearsal; in the afternoon is my composition lesson, and that night I listen to another concert.

Am I an amateur or a professional? Am I an audience member or a performer? As you can see, those questions aren't so important, because the line between performer and audience keeps moving around, as does the line between professional and amateur. All of us are participants in the ongoing liveliness of the musical community.

Such an audience would be capable of understanding subtleties of performance and composition. They would be curious about new developments. A concert for such an audience is a collaboration; performing for such an audience would be like performing for colleagues.

There's a story about the pianist Rudolph Firkunsky complaining that, "People nowadays hear too much music." In his youth, back in the days when the only way to hear music was to play some, an orchestra came to his home town to play a Beethoven symphony that hadn't been heard there for years. Long in advance of the concert, townspeople bought the score and played the symphony in piano reduction and four-handed versions. By the time of the performance, people really knew the piece. Imagine how exciting it must have been, after learning the symphony by playing reductions, to hear the music in all its orchestral splendor! Imagine playing for an audience like that!

I had such an experience playing the B-minor Mass for an audience of choral conductors. The concert was given by the members of the Orgeon Bach Festival at the American Choral Directors Association convention. The Festival Choir members are choral conductors from all over the country; their friends and colleagues populated the convention audience. Many of the 2,000 listeners had sung or conducted the B-minor Mass. All of them were highly experienced with choral music, and able to appreciate the virtuosic singing as well as subtleties of interpretation. Many of them knew the reputation of the conductor, Helmuth Rilling.

The quality of attention during the preformance was extraordinary. At the end of the Mass, there was a moment of deep, respectful silence, and then an eruption of applause and shouting unlike I have ever heard. Many of my Bach Festival colleagues remember that performance as one of the high points of their lives.

Now I certainly don't think that everybody in the audience has to be a practicing musician, but I am beginning to suspect that, in order to have a vital musical life, there must be some critical mass of amateur and professional musicians in the audience. If the number of musicians in the audience falls below that critical mass, the health of the music-making may deteriorate.


For some people, art music is one of the basic necessities of life. Apparently many, many Europeans feel that art music is just as important as breathing or eating. While some Americans have the same feeling, I don't think art music is as important in our country. For example, many American jazz musicians who are welcomed as heroes in little Eurpoean villages are practically unknown at home.

In our country, the arts are not a basic necessity of life. They may never have been. America seems to see itself as a hard-working, no-nonsense sort of place. Our country was founded by people who had time only for work and prayer. Now most of us just work. 4 Our workers get only a couple of weeks vacation per year, while their European counterparts get a month or more. Our cultural archetypes -- cowboys and hardboiled detectives -- are not the sort of people you expect to run into at concerts.

People who moved to America from other cultures, where the arts are a basic necessity of life, have been some of the most enthusiastic and most visible supporters of the arts in America. These immigrants brought their love of art with them to their new country, founded and funded many of our cultural institutions, supported artists, and savored their works. A huge number of Central Europeans came to this country around the time of World War II, and they gave a tremendous boost to the practice of European art music in this country. Orchestral and chamber-music audiences have been full of people with foreign accents. Soon that generation of music-lovers will be gone. Who will replace them?

Of course we have home-grown music-supporters, too, but it appears that we have not grown enough of them. Like imported oil, our imported music-lovers have contributed to spectacular growth. Having become dependent on overseas production, we now need to do a better job of developing sustainable domestic resources.


A consumer society like America has trouble understanding something whose value can't be expressed in dollars and cents. One of America's favorite questions is,"How much does it cost?" Newsmagazine articles about musicians almost always include a price: how much he made last year, how much her last album grossed, what his fee is for a concert, how big her commission was.

Look at how we promote music education. We promote its economic value: playing in the school orchestra will improve your math scores and self-discipline, making you a more productive future employee. Music institutions now fundraise by touting the economic benefits of their activities: supporting the local symphony orchestra promotes spending in downtown businesses, generates tax ravenue, promotes tourism, and so on.

Even though your concert ticket or recording has a price determined by the laws of supply and demand, you can't assign a price to the experience of hearing music. What you experience will be unique to you, because it depends on what you bring with you. The price of the experience can't be set by the marketplace because the experience is different for every listener.

Art music requires some involvement from the listener. You can't just buy it; you have to pay attention. You have to have a relationship with the music. Your experience will be affected by how you involve yourself.

In marketing art music, we mustn't mistake listeners for consumers. 5 They are co-producers of our product! Without an excellent audience, we will have a lousy product.


Many music organizations, seeing their audeinces graying and their funding drying up, have embarked on education campaigns. These campaigns have two goals: to get more listeners (to replace the dying ones), and to reshape society's attitudes (to assure future support).

Unfortunately, although a lot of education programs have been launched, our profession has a very limited understanding of what brings people to love and understand art music. Most programs focus on "exposure," the idea being that you'll never get to like something if you're not exposed to it. That's true enough, but exposure is just as effective at turning people off as turning people on. (Among the people who get turned off are the musicians, many of whom hate doing conventional education concerts.)

Why does exposure to art music turn so many people off? Maybe it's because people have made assumptions long before we expose them. Before they arrive at the concert, people have decided, "I'm going to hate this," "I don't belong here," "This is going to be boring," "I've never liked this stuff," or "I don't know enough." Before we start playing the music, we need to influence those assumptions.

There's a feeling around that music education used to be better, that we need to get back to the good old days when there were more school music programs and more youth concerts. Before we rush back to the good old days to recreate those programs, let's consider whether they worked. Children who were educated in those good old days grew up to become the adults who stood by while music vanished from school curricula. For me, that's more than enough evidence that music education in the good old days was not good enough. Why should we recreate those programs? For art music to flourish, education will have to be better than ever before. (That's good news for artists and teachers; it's a lot more fun to invent something new than to reproduce the past.)

Is it possible to design activities that will help more people to enjoy, understand, and be nourished by art music? Can we make falling in love with music less random?

What should we teach people? How should we teach it?

These questions will be discussed in Part III, but before answering them we first need to ask: Why do we want to promote art music at all?



"Okay, maybe we need military bands and commercial art, but all the other stuff, the stuff that NEA funds -- what good is it for?"

I was one of many artist-types who just couldn't believe that the Jesse Helms/NEA "controversy" was happening. I was appalled at the low level of discourse. I was shocked to realize, as were many of my colleagues, that we arts-lovers had done such a bad job of explaining our values. We artists have surrounded ourselves with like-minded people for so long that we don't know how to talk to anybody else.

Of course, it's always hard to have a conversation between people from different value systems. It's difficult to find a shared set of assumptions with which to begin.

I haven't learned how to talk about the arts with people who don't value them, but I've noticed that when we try to talk about Why the Arts Are Important, even among ourselves, we get a little fuzzy. Here's what we say about Why the Arts Are Important:

  • Nations are remembered for their artistic and cultural achievements more than for anything else. If America wants to be remembered well, it must produce art of lasting value.

  • Involvement in the arts promotes important human qualities: character, self-discipline, discrimination, perceptiveness, creativity.

  • Our society uses modes of expression that were invented by artists. Art shows us how to use and understand our culture's communication tools.

  • The arts help people to express themselves.

One nice thing about these reasons is that they can be discussed with people who don't value the arts very much. One can care about the reasons without caring about art. Lots of people care about America's future reputation. Many value character, self-discipline, discrimination, perceptiveness, and even creativity. Entire industries are devoted to how our culture communicates, and others to self-expression.

The arts really do yield the benefits listed above, but I think that these are merely side-effects. They are secondary benefits. They are not the real reasons why people love music or painting or poetry, nor are they the most important benefits the arts have to offer. After all, did you fall in love with music in order to preserve America's future reputation?


What are the Real Reasons for Art? This is one of those topics to which entire books, multi-volume sets, and miniseries have been devoted, so I realize it's a little ridiculous to try to answer it here. Nevertheless, here are some possible answers:

  • The arts are different ways of knowing

    We have music because there are some things that cannot be said in words. Some truths can be conveyed only in poetry, others only in sculpture. 6 To ignore the arts would be to ignore a large portion of what human beings can perceive, experience, and communicate.

    The arts provide different modes of perception and understanding, thought and feeling, different points of view. They show us truths that would otherwise be invisible. They are doorways to parts of ourselves, and parts of our universe, that we can contact in no other way.

  • The arts transmit experiences

    Knowing something is very different from experiencing it. In a time when information threatens to crowd out direct experience, the arts are especially valuable.

    Arts experiences can have lasting effects. Looking at paintings can change the way you see: out in the world, you might stop to look at something you never looked at before. You might notice beauty where you never noticed any.

  • The arts provide nourishment

    People need emotional, psychological, and spiritual sustenance as surely as they need food, sleep and love. The need cannot be met a by a single vaccination; regular doses are required to keep the organism healthy.

  • The arts are sources of pleasure and fun

    These can be sheer childlike pleasure and fun, or very grown-up, profound pleasure and fun.

Unfortunately, there's a big problem with these Real Reasons: they make absolutely no sense to somebody who isn't already a convert. If you haven't experienced and enjoyed alternative ways of knowing, then that concept will be meaningless -- it may even be threatening. If you haven't been nourished by art music, the idea of nourishment from music will sound insane. If your experiences with art have been off-putting, then talk of pleasure or fun from the arts won't make any sense. (And if you think pleasure and fun are dangerous or sinful, then such talk will have you up in arms.)

Still, I think we should be talking about these reasons more. First of all, it's probably inherently good to be honest. Second, the reasons aren't worked out very well here, but if we work on it together, we might find ways to explain ourselves to non-artsy types. Third, talking about these reasons might help us all, in the throes of busy lives and complicated decisions, to remember what's important, and how we got into this crazy business. Finally, if we want to educate the public, these are the things we want to help them learn.


Okay, so maybe now you're convinced that art is really important for your well-being and for the well-being of society, and you want to immerse yourself in art music. Shouldn't you just run out and buy a stack of CDs? Why bother going to a concert? Thanks to recordings, there are now more people listening to art music than ever before. But has electronic reproduction made live music obsolete?

Some of us say no, there are important qualities unique to live performance. We want to preserve those important qualities. Well, what are they? Here's a list to get a discussion started:

  • The special energy of a concert: the crackle of present-tense excitement, focussed attention, and concentration. Feeling the attentiveness and responsiveness of the audience. Watching the musicians sweat and frown and smile and move.

  • Shared experience with other human beings: we can reaffirm our connection to other people by sharing music together. As a member of the audience, you are part of the performance. You contribute to the music and influence it, instead of just observing.

  • Acoustical immediacy: hearing the actual sound of strings and metal and wood and vocal chords, unmediated by wiring or speakers.

  • The uniqueness of this event: these sounds will never happen quite this way again. Even tomorrow night's performance of the same music will be different.

  • Multisensory experience: concerts are visual as well as auditory. (In some traditions, there's incense, too.)

Oddly enough, some concerts today seem to be designed to minimize these qualities! It's almost as though such concerts were trying to imitate recordings. Performers strive to be consistent instead of surprising; audiences are respectful instead of participatory; auditoriums separate performers from audiences instead of bringing them together; the music is far away instead of up close and personal; auditoriums are visually bland instead of exciting.

People who are familiar with the conventions surrounding concert music have no trouble ignoring these barriers. An experienced listener can still have a great time at a concert. But for someone unfamiliar with concert halls and concert ritual, a conventional concert can be baffling, off-putting, vague, and remote. A CD would seem much more appealing: immediate, vivid, and powerful. And a CD has another advantage: it is less threatening, because the listener can control it.

If you've grown up with the amplified sound of music that is designed to power past your ears and go straight to your internal organs, then acoustic sound can seem distant and weak. If you've grown up with the passion and frenzy of rock concerts, then the emotions in acoustic music can seem bland. Even the shocking opening chords of Don Giovanni will seem, relatively speaking, like white bread. If you're used to concerts where everybody dances in the aisles, it's going to be hard to figure out how a string quartet recital, with the audience just sitting there, could be any fun at all.

How can we help people retune their hearing and their emotional receptors to experience the thrill of a live unamplified concert? Can we help people learn to reach out to acoustic sound, learn to find the varied emotions in it, and learn to amplify the experience for themselves?


For most Americans these days, there is an abundant supply of music that can touch their feelings powerfully without the listener needing to expend any effort. (In my house in Pasadena, with all the doors and windows shut, I can sometimes get feelings from music playing inside a car half a block away.) Faced with art music -- which, according to my definition, requires attention and involvement -- such people don't know how to find any feelings, and they resent the implication that they have to do something -- the music won't just reach out and grab them.

Live art music may be great, but from a typical American vantage point, that greatness is almost completely hidden from view. We need to make what's special a little more obvious. Perhaps we need a completely new kind of event to make the pleasures of live music more obvious, more accessible, and more enjoyable.

Composer John Deak, bassist with the New York Philharmonic, has said, "Painting was challenged late in the 19th century by photography the way musicians are challenged now. Photography suddenly made many of the functions of painters obsolete. But did painting die? No, it immediately branched off into amazing creative directions." 7



Many organizations, wanting to create new listeners and change society's values, decide to produce big children's concerts. I think this is a horrible idea.

One week, in a large concert hall, I heard three different conductors lead orchestral concerts for elementary school children.These conductors had been engaged because of their expertise with programming for children. All three programs started off well, but the kids quickly got bored, and all of the concerts ended with children squirming and high levels of noise. The musicians played on valiantly and, I thought, excellently, but it became increasingly difficult to hear the music.

I think the fault may not be in the conductors, but in the very idea of filling a large concert hall with young children. The best programs for introducing young kids to music are small, intimate, and participatory. Children need to dance, sing, and get their hands on instruments. They need to be close to the center of the action, not 25 rows back in a giant auditorium. 8 The last thing they need is to sit still and be quiet.

One reason for the persistence of children's concerts is the inspiring example of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Many musicians and music lovers report that their first powerful experience with music came while watching those concerts on television. Orchestra board members want to recreate that experience for another generation of children.

The trouble is that the people who got hooked by Leonard Bernstein's concerts got hooked by seeing them on TV, not by sitting in the concert hall. I've heard about a study of concert attendance in New York, a study which tried to determine what factors influence people to buy concert tickets. Apparently, the only reliable predictor they found was a strong negative correlation between attendance at Lennie's Young People's Concerts and purchase of tickets. Adults who had been taken to those concerts as children were now extremely unlikely to buy tickets to anything.

I've never seen that study. It might be a myth (I'm hoping somebody will tell me if it's real), but when I was in college, a visiting artist who had played in those concerts observed that the kids were incredibly bored. He thought the programs were horrible for those in attendance. The children had to get there early, and they were admonished to sit very still. They had to sit still for a very long time. If that's what concerts are like, they probably wouldn't want to go again!

This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from those Young People's Concerts. They are a tremendous achievement. We should emulate them, and learn from their methods. One thing to learn is that the people who had an intimate experience of the music, where the camera helped them get up close to the conductor and the instruments, had a much better chance of getting turned on. Another thing to learn is that large-scale children's concerts can prevent children from learning to love music.


The best education concerts I've witnessed are for adults. For more than two decades the Oregon Bach Festival, a two-week summer event in Eugene, has presented afternoon performances of Bach cantatas. A different cantata is performed almost every day for two weeks. Before each performance, the music director, Helmuth Rilling, gives a talk about the cantata. He says a little about the piece and the occasion for which it was written, and he says a lot about the text of the arias and choruses, and about how Bach expressed the text's ideas in the music. Almost all of the people in the audience are grownups.

As he talks about the words and the music, Rilling has the musicians perform musical examples illustrating what he is talking about. The obbligato instruments play the motifs that convey ideas in the text, the vocal soloists show how their music reflects the text, and the orchestra and chorus play and sing, sometimes section by section, to show how the meaning of the words is built into the music.

I have been deeply impressed by these talks over the years. Mr. Rilling speaks to the audience as though they were intelligent, perceptive people. He takes them deeply into musical details, always with the intention to illuminate musical meaning. The audience seems to be fascinated. Last year the eight cantata performances were nearly sold out before the Festival began.

Mr. Rilling does several important things. First, he not only talks about the music, he shows the audience the music itself. This means that the lecture is not just about concepts, it is about sounds, the real phenomena of music. The talks are always about things that people can hear. Although he makes many points about the music, the music itself is always the main point.

Second, Mr. Rilling demonstrates details in the music, often having one voice or section perform its part without the rest of the texture. This means that inexperienced listeners get a chance to practice "reaching into a texture" -- directing their attention to some specific part of a complex musical landscape.

Third, Mr. Rilling does not shy away from talking about musical meaning. He addresses both kinds of musical meaning: ideas and feelings. He shows how these are linked, and how they are expressed in the music. (Admittedly, this is much easier to do with music that has a text.) He relates Bach's texts and music to human concerns that we still share today, and to feelings that we can all understand.

One of Rilling's great gifts is a clear, direct eloquence. In English, which is not his native language, he is able to reach people's hearts by way of their minds. His talks are always reasoned and logical, but he makes it clear that Bach's purpose was to touch the heart. His eloquence and his choice of examples help people connect the music to their emotions.

Mr. Rilling asks more of his audience than I had ever thought possible. He expects them to listen to subtleties, to hear details, and to understand complex ideas about music and about life, and he expects them to connect all of this to their feelings. Whatever he's pointing out, he always gives the audience a chance to hear it in the music.


When I became host of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Meet the Music concerts, they had already been running successfully for a few years. The originators of the four-concert series, Deborah Rutter, David Young, and Welz Kauffman, had made many intelligent decisions. The concerts are for junior high and high school students, who are old enough to enjoy the Chamber Orchestra'a repertoire. The orchestra plays complete works drawn from that week's evening programs, so the students get to hear what the orchestra really does. Most of the students are instrumentalists in school music programs, so they have something in common with the orchestra's musicians. Instead of trying to touch a lot of kids with a one-shot concert, the Meet the Music program aims for deeper contact; the program provides buses for some schools to attend all four concerts. In advance of each program, orchestra musicians visit those schools, and preparatory materials -- a tape and background notes -- are sent out. In recent years, we have also sent a docent to each school, to give a lesson on the music before every concert.

I began my tenure as host -- "Young Persons' Guide" -- by trying to use the principles I had learned from Helmuth Rilling. One of our programs included the West Coast premiere of Christopher Rouse's Iscariot, a very expressive, dramatic piece, with an unusual form. Before the orchestra performed the piece, I had them demonstrate its several sections, each of which has a very different texture. The audience heard a few seconds of each section, and so heard a condensed version of the entire form.

Several months later, when students wrote letters about the concerts, many singled out Iscariot as particularly memorable. (Ultimately the composer, not the teaching technique, deserves the credit for this response.) But the reaction that impressed me the most was that of the orchestra's program annotator, who had sought me out immediately after the Meet the Music performance.

She had read the composer's commentary about the piece and its form. She had written program notes describing the form. At the evening performances for grownups she had heard Iscariot, and she had heard the conductor tell the audience about the form before playing it. You'd think she would have known everything there was to know about the form. She told me, "I didn't really get it until I heard the form demonstrated like that!"

So it really is true: there's an important difference between hearing about the music and hearing the music. Instead of talking about the music, show the music.


We human beings tend to like things that are familiar, things we've experienced before. We like to experience enjoyable things again and again. Experiencing enjoyable things again and again tends to make us enjoy them even more.

This runs counter to conventional education-concert wisdom. We think we have to surprise people with the pleasures of a piece; we think we have to keep stimulating them with something new. But consider the movies you still love after seeing them many times: you can relish the same surprises, even when you know they're coming. Is Casablanca ruined after you've seen the ending? Does knowing Beethoven's Fifth spoil the pleasure of that surprising oboe cadenza?

The pop tunes we love are ones we've heard a zillion times. Why, then, do we expect people to love a Mozart symphony after only one hearing?

One of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's youth concerts was devoted to John Harbison's new viola concerto. Luckily, the piece had been performed and recorded already, so I was able to get a score and listen to the piece well in advance of the concert. I wasn't too crazy about the piece at first, but as I listened to it over and over to decide what musical examples we would show the students, I came to love the music.

I had a couple of conversations with the composer, and got his ideas about what we might show the audience. We were able to do unusually elaborate pre-concert preparations. By this time our standard pre-concert services included a newsletter for the students, a tape, a musician visit, and a lesson on the music from a docent. For this concert, Mrs. Harbison shot some videotape of the composer in his studio playing snippets of the piece on the piano, and our Education Director, Francine Di Blasi, set up a master class with the viola soloist, Marcus Thompson. By the time the students got to the performance, a lot of them had heard the music, most of them had seen the composer on video, and a few of them had played for the soloist.

Mr. Harbison himself was conducting the orchestra that week, and at the evening concerts for the adult audience, the program concluded with his concerto. I noticed the audience fidgeting during the piece. A surprising number of people left before it was over.

The youth concert was a startling contrast. The audience sat silent and rapt through the entire concerto. Even I was amazed by the ovation.

Why were the kids a better audience? Thay had several advantages over the adults. Being less familiar with the standard repertoire, the students were less hampered by expectations about what chamber orchestra music is supposed to sound like. Before even entering the hall, they had had contact with the piece. During the program, I interviewed the composer, the orchestra played some excerpts, and the soloist said a few words to the audience. Thus the students knew more about the music, they were more familiar with the sounds of it, and they had a better human connection with both the composer and the soloist. When they heard the music for the first time, it was really the second or third time.

Several of us noticed how much it helped to have a soloist; the audience could focus attention on the lone hero. It didn't hurt at all that Marcus Thompson has such a compelling stage presence. It also didn't hurt that Mr. Thompson is an African-American. When he strolled out onstage to stand between our mostly white orchestra and our mostly nonwhite audience, you could feel people wake up and pay attention.

But the main advantage the kids had over the adults was repetition: the concert wasn't their first hearing of the music.


For several years the Apple Hill Chamber Players have participated in workshops on learning sponsored by Apple Computer. (It's just a coincidence that both the chamber ensemble and the computer company are named after the same fruit.) The workshop participants are scientists, hardware and software engineers, educators, Apple staff and consultants (like me), and a few musicians and other artist types, gathered together by Apple's Learning Concepts Group.

At one workshop, a music teacher gave a lesson on the variations movement from Schubert's Trout Quintet. First, everyone learned to sing the melody, with English words, over Schubert's original song accompaniment. When everyone was familiar with the song, the Apple Hill Chamber Players guided us through the movement. After playing a variation, they would ask, "which instrument has the theme now?"

This may seem like a ridiculously basic question, something more suitable for children, but it captured the audience's interest. A participant asked, "What do you mean, melody?" The Chamber Players demonstrated the distinction between melody and accompaniment, a great discovery for those who never noticed the foreground/background dimension of the music. (That the question needed to be asked at all was an important reminder for us musicians: the ability to distinguish melody from the rest of a texture is a learned skill, not to be taken for granted.)

Once listeners had mastered the aural distinction between melody and accompaniment, they were ready for the question, "Where's the melody?"

After one variation, several people shouted, "The bass! The bass!" The bassist played his part alone, and the audience was stunned to hear, not the melody at all, but a single note, a long silence, another single note, and another silence. This wasn't the melody -- how could they have been so wrong?

Determined to find the answer, they listened to the variation again, and eventually located the melody. They found it on their own, without listening to a lecture or reading program notes, and they seemed to have a terrifically good time discovering these new phenomena. They were figuring it out for themselves, with their own ears.


It's not hard to perceive musical details, but often listeners need help learning how to aim their ears. These days, people get more practice tuning sounds out than tuning them in.

At another Apple Computer workshop, an Apple Hill musician coached a student ensemble while a group of non-musicians watched. After watching for a while, the observers complained that they were getting bored. They didn't understand what was going on; they didn't know the lingo; they couldn't hear what the group was working on.

We decided that the observers needed their own coach, to help them understand what was going on and answer their questions while the other coach attended to the ensemble.

In the next session, the music coach said something about intonation. The observers asked their coach what that meant. Somebody asked, "Does 'out of tune' only apply to people playing the same note, or can it apply to people playing different notes?"

These questions intrigued everybody, and we realized that the best answer would be a demonstration. The music coaching came to a halt, and the two violinists in the student group proceeded to demonstrate what in-tune and out-of-tune sound like. First they played a unison, and the observers were surprised by their own ability to tell the difference between in-tune and out-of-tune. If it was out of tune, they winced, just like good musicians. They could pinpoint when a slowly shrinking half-step became an in-tune unison. They could also recognize whether or not intervals were in tune.

"How come I can do that?" one non-musician asked. He seemed pleased to learn that he had been pre-wired to perceive subtle differences in frequency.

The coaching session was almost over, but there was just enough time for the quintet to play through their music: a movement from the Schumann piano quintet. Afterward, one of the listeners said that he had felt a lot more emotion in the music this time. He thought it had something to do with the time we had spent focusing on those little tiny technical, seemingly unmusical, details.


Up to this point I have been talking about the music itself and how to aim your attention at it. For many people, though, the big problem with art music isn't the music. It's the atmosphere.

Atmosphere is everything else that goes on around the sound. Atmosphere includes information, like program notes or pre-concert lectures, that can either help you understand the music better or make you feel stupid. Atmosphere includes what everybody is wearing. Atmosphere includes when you're supposed to clap and where you're supposed to park. Atmosphere includes stuff inside your head: your expectations and memories, such as "I'm going to like this," "This is going to be a drag," or "What am I doing here?"

Atmosphere can overwhelm the music. If you're worried about finding the bathroom, you might not notice how great the flute sounds. If you're concerned about how you're dressed, you might miss the recapitulation. If you've never enjoyed a recapitulation, if you're not sure what it is and don't know how to pronounce it, you might tune out altogether when you see "recapitulation" in the program notes.

The atmosphere of a concert has a huge effect on how people listen. It determines whether a concert seems familiar or foreign. It affects people's comfort, confidence, and ability to open themselves to musical experience.

Any one of the components of atmosphere can be designed in different ways for different effects. However, any design choice will affect different people in different ways, depending on their experience and expectations. For example, at Meet the Music concerts, the orchestra wears suits and colorful street-length dresses. Some of the teachers who attend the concerts complain that the orchestra is not in formal dress; they want the concert to be more "special." Other teachers complain that the suits and dresses are too dressy; they want the orchestra to look more casual and "friendly." (Regrettably, and typically, we haven't asked the students what they think.)

No way of dressing is inherently better. There's nothing intrinsically important about knowing a double bass from a deceptive cadence. It's not inherently important whether people clap between movements, or whether somebody talks to the audience. These things are only important insofar as they influence the way people interact with each other and with the music. Concert presenters should consider what kind of atmosphere they want, and carefully design the concert to create that atmosphere.


One of the biggest problems in art music, particularly European classical music, is that outsiders think it's snobby. They may have a point: some people go to concerts only to accumulate snob appeal. You certainly don't find many poor people involved with classical music. To make matters worse, TV advertisers use classical music to sell snobby products. There's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik selling luxury automobiles, and here's The Four Seasons selling gourmet frozen food.

How can we overcome this misperception? Orchestras around the country are experimenting with new kinds of presentation; that can help. Talking to the audience always helps -- as long as you don't talk like a snob.

Amadeus helped. Even though the movie made Mozart look like a jerk, at least people could see that he wasn't a snob.

If art music organizations really want to counter the charges of snobbery and elitism, they're going to have to admit that it takes some practice to enjoy the music, and then provide opportunities for more kinds of people to practice.


If music is valuable because of its experiential nature, why do we spend so much time disseminating information: liner notes, program notes, pre-concert lectures, talks from the stage, composer biographies, player profiles, glossaries, synopses, translations?

The reason is that information can help people connect with the music. Most people can enjoy an experience only when they can place it in relation to other experiences they've had. People need to know, "How does this fit in with what I already know?" So we quite rightly offer them information that will help fit today's music into their collection of experiences.

The trouble is that everybody has a different collection of experiences, so everybody needs different information. What gets one person excited ("Beethoven's great final quartets were commissioned works") is just so much useless gibberish to somebody else. An explanation that helps one person ("This is like those scenes in Star Trek when Scotty can't get the warp drive going") is insulting to others. One person's important tidbit ("Bach lived from 1685 to 1750") is another person's oppressive burden. Language that is clear and precise for some people ("After a cadential trill, the continuo begins the coda, a fugal reworking of the secondary material") is absolutely terrifying for many.

It also helps to remember that the purpose of information is to affect familiarity. When people feel like they're in familiar territory, or when they can at least get their bearings and see that they're close to familiar territory, they are more likely to particiapte in the music. Information contributes to familiarity, but it is only one part. It may not be the most important part. The tone in which the information is delivered affects people's comfort level more than the audience itself. The act of talking to the audience often helps more than anything the talker says.

Perhaps the most important piece of information to transmit is "Don't worry! You don't have to know a lot to enjoy this music!" Certainly there are things a listener needs to know, but the most important things are simple.


Many people think of art music as an intellectual pursuit. "That music isn't for me," such people think. "You have to know a lot to enjoy that stuff." Those people are wrong, but one can hardly blame them. The explanations given of European classical music are usually technical, full of jargon, and hard for outsiders to relate to. Swirling around art music is a maelstrom of intellectual activity and a fair amount of posturing. But the musical experience itself is the opposite of intellectual.

For years I have wanted to host a radio program called Stupid Questions. I'd have guest musicians each week, a live audience, and a chance for listeners to phone in questions. The emphasis would be on questions that people are embarrassed to ask because they think they are too basic.

I don't have a radio show, but I did host an event at the Oregon Bach Festival called "Bach to Basics," at which a panel of Festival musicians fielded questions from the public. I made it clear that we were especially interested in stupid questions; if we couldn't answer a question it wasn't stupid enough. We even had ushers circulating with pencils and paper, so you could write down your question if you were too embarrassed to ask.

The session was so popular that it has become a regular feature of the Festival. One of the best things about it is that it's so funny. Many of the questions are funny, and often the answers are funny. I try to stack the panel with the Festival's funniest musicians. The audience loves anecdotes, and musicians have a million of 'em.

One question was, "What's the stupidest question anybody ever asked you?" Panelist John Hollenbeck, a trombonist, answered that at a brass quintet concert for schoolchildren, a child asked him, "Is that the kind of music they played on the Titanic?" 9

Finding out what the audience really wants to know is enlightening. It's a relief to be able to answer people's questions directly, instead of having to guess what might help them in a lecture or program note. Giving listeners a chance to ask basic questions releases some of the tension that accumulates around the music, and builds understanding between performers and listeners.

My favorite comment from this year's session was, "I didn't realize you musicians were so funny -- you all look so serious onstage!"


This bring us to a new topic: the musicians. Musicians often do look like they're suffering onstage, and many novice listeners have commented on this. "Why don't they look like they're having any fun?"

Rock musicians aren't necessarily all smiles, either. Having fun doesn't mean grinning all the time. Nevertheless, if we want to make the concert experience as vivid and rewarding as possible, we should consider the musicians. Are they having any fun? They do look pretty unhappy sometimes.

Of course, it turns out that many of them are unhappy. Audience members are astounded to learn how ambivalent many musicians are about their careers. Excellent oboists quit playing and go into the computer business. A successful conductor considers taking the civil service exam. A major soloist gives a fabulous performance, smilingly accepts the ovation, and then sulks miserably in his dressing room, dismayed over some imperceptible mistake.

Maybe one of the reasons that Americans have a hard time understanding the joys of art music is that many musicians can't see the joys, either. Musicians often have difficulty perceiving the beauty of their own work.

I didn't realize this myself until I caught a glimpse of the problem in myself. Not long ago I heard a couple of tapes of my own performances, and was shocked by my reactions.

One tape was of a recent trio performance. I remembered enjoying the concert. The audience had been exhuberently appreciative, and the group's director had expressed his pleasure.

Two months after the concert, when the tape arrivwed, the leader asked me if I wanted to hear it. No way, I thought. I'm going to hate this.

"Okay," I said, pretending to be calm.

He put the tape on, and I clenched the arms of the chair, surprised to find myself so certain I would hate my own performance.

To my utter amazement, I liked what I heard. Could the audience have been right? I gave copies of the tape to my friends, and they liked it, too. Some were uncharacteristically enthusiastic.

Why had I been so sure that I would hate that tape?

I heard the second tape a month later, when my wife and I visited an old friend. He dug out a ten-year-old recording that we had never heard, of a performance he and I had played in at a music festival. I recalled the concert, but all I remembered was that, in spite of insufficient rehearsal and a conductor who didn't know the piece (we didn't dare look up during meter changes), we had survived the performance. He put the tape on, and I had another shock.

There I was on tape, ten years before, playing the way I remember hoping I would someday be able to play.

It wasn't that the performance was perfect. It was just that the basic approach and sound were exactly what I had wanted to achieve some day. How come I hadn't known that I was already meeting my goals?

The next morning, as my wife and I drove on to our next destination, my head was spinning with the revelation from these two tapes. What had happened to me? Why had I been so deaf to my successful performances?

In thinking back, I remembered that people had complimented me on my playing, so it wasn't as though I had received no praise. Nor had I been victimized by false criticism. All the audiences for the trio had been wildly enthusiastic. Why hadn't I agreed with the positive assessments of my work?

One thing that occurred to me immediately was that, as a professional musician and as a student, I had received plenty of positive comments, but they had almost always been very general. ("Nice playing!") The negative assessments, on the other hand, had usually been very specific and detailed. ("That f-sharp in the third measure is a little bit too high.") This meant that I had been trained to see the problems in my playing with great precision, while having only a vague, general idea about what I might be doing well.

My wife and I talked about this -- she's a musician, too -- and she said that this sounded like the stuff she was reading about in John Bradshaw's books about shame. I haven't read those books, but if shame is a deep conviction of unworthiness, then I think a lot of us musicians are suffering from shame.


Watch a musician accept a compliment. Quite commonly, we musicians turn compliments aside, or just say thanks and try to get it over with. Those people don't really know anything, we think. Although we are familiar with receiving criticism and using that to improve our performance, we don't know what to do with praise. It embarrasses us.

Watch musicians at the end of a performance. When they stand up to receive the applause, do they seem to be enjoying it? Do they realize that this is for them, in gratitude for the beauty they have brought into people's lives? Are they participating in one of the great communal moments of the concert, when the audience gives something back to the performers? 10

Or are they looking at their watches and thinking about escape?


Every musician brings his or her unique emotional baggage to the task of making music. Part of becoming a professional musician is learning to overcome or cope with one's emotional baggage, and we are fortunate to live in a time when this is talked about more openly, when help and encouragement are more forthcoming.

In addition to personal baggage, I believe we musicians have accumulated some professional baggage. As our teachers passed along the tradition, they also unknowingly passed along the baggage. It has been handed down through the generations of our profession, just as disorders like alcoholism get handed down through the generations of a family.

When we were music students, well-meaning teachers, hoping to raise our standards and help us meet our potential, pointed out our mistakes. Even the most loving, gentle, and supportive teachers spend almost all their time telling students what they need to do differently. I have taught this way, too, because that's how I was taught. The collateral damage from this kind of teaching is that students become more or less deaf to their successes. The ability to recognize what is okay atrophies.

A musician friend told me that, in college, he had once burst into tears at a lesson. Sobbing, he asked his teacher, "Don't I ever do anything right?"

"Of course!" said the teacher, surprised by the question. "You do lots of things right. but I don't have time to talk about that!"

Conductors, who have been trained in the same way, tell us what we're doing wrong much more often than they tell us what we're doing right. Some conductors purposely try to shame and embarrass the musicians into playing better. I have played for more than one conductor whose effect on the orchestra was to get all the players so worried about avoiding mistakes that they had no brain cells left for creating beauty.

As a student, I had a telling experience with a conductor who, although a very caring man off the podium, managed to spread misery whenever he was conducting. In a rehearsal, after he had been whining and complaining at the musicians for some time, the orchestra became more and more lethargic, less and less responsive. A friend in the audience later told me that, although she couldn't hear what he was saying, every time he stopped to talk half the orchestra slumped and the other half bristled.

Suddenly the conductor stopped beating. He complained, "I don't know what's wrong with you people! I'm just trying to make beautiful music!"

I was stunned. He really thought he was trying to make things better. I was frightened to see that a person could be so unaware of how his actions affected people.

The unhappy result of this kind of well-meaning but misguided teaching is that excellent musicians lose their self-confidence, or never develop any. I just heard yet another story about a player giving a beautiful performance and being completely unaware of what had happened. Afterward she was depressed, because she knew she'd never be able to play as beautifully as she should. She is the prize student of a famous teacher, and now she is nearly ready to give up playing.


Is there a cure for this problem? I would guess that the remedy is not to give out more praise; we're too good at ignoring it. Perhaps it would help to learn how to collect more balanced data. We might look for ways to gather detailed information about what we're doing right, in order to balance the details we collect so expertly about what we're doing wrong. To have more complete data might make for a more accurate picture of our playing. Musicians ought to be able to recognize what works as easily as they can recognize what doesn't.

Here's some advice I received about how to teach: "Make sure you say something positive before you make your criticisms." Unfortunately, if a teacher gives a positive comment only to prepare for a negative one, probably nothing will be heard as positive. On the other hand, if positive comments were given not as praise, but as important data to help the student get a clearer picture, maybe they would help.

It has helped me to make a distinction between praise and data. Both seem necessary for psychological health and musical growth. In the past, data have been exclusively negative. I recommend that data also include positive details.

Even better would be to help students develop their own standards instead of always looking to the teacher for thumbs up or thumbs down. Part of what good teachers do is to stretch the ears of their students, to help them notice things they hadn't noticed before. Unfortunately, teachers usually help their students become aware of unnoticed problems, not unnoticed successes. Is it any wonder that so many professional musicians aren't sure how they're doing, or are pretty sure they're doing badly?

As teachers, we could help our students learn how to know what their own standards are, recognize whether they are reasonable, and recognize when they are meeting them. We could help them develop and modify their standards in order to improve both their performance and their awareness.

Teachers don't have to stop criticizing, but they should say what's bad and what's good, so students learn to hear everything. Striving to get better doesn't require ignoring it when you're good.

A cellist who attended Gregor Piatigorsky's class told me, "Piatigorsky encouraged us to play the passages we did well over and over. He said that no one needs to be told what he does poorly, but we all need to know what we do well. The sense of musical well-being could then 'infect' the rest of the music, including the difficult stuff."


After reading the previous section, an orchestra administrator told me, "I understand what you're talking about, and I see how it affects the musicians I know, but what am I supposed to do about it?"

I don't know the answer, but I'm willing to speculate. Here are some things to try:

  • Playing music is very, very difficult -- physically, mentally, and psychologically -- and musicians often forget this. Knowing that their efforts are recognized, and that they pay off for somebody, is a big help. Tell performers that you appreciate their hard work. Tell them what their work does for you.

  • All artists need praise and reassurance, but to solve the problem I've been talking about musicians need information. Give musicians details about what you liked in their performance, or about what moved you. Be as specific as you can, both about what you heard and about how it affected you.

  • Offer personal observations and reactions instead of evaluations. ("I liked that!" is better than "That was good!")

  • Tell a musician about something you felt or imagined during the music.

  • If you didn't like something, go ahead and say so. There's nothing worse than false compliments, or the suspicion that a listener is unhappy. (Make sure you say "I didn't like that part" instead of "that part wasn't good.") Say why you didn't like it.

  • Express appreciation for simple things; these are the very things that musicians forget they have done well. Some people who are new to concertgoing are dazzled that all the violinists can move their bows together. It is impressive. If you were impressed that the wind choir seemed to play so effortlessly together, say so. If you noticed that the piccolo was beautifully in tune with the tuba, mention it.

  • When a musician asks "How was the balance?" be aware that this may really mean "Am I okay?" Be honest about how the balance was, and then make a comment about something that was important to you.

  • If a musician turns aside your positive remark with some negative comment, insist that the musician accept or acknowledge what you said. She doesn't have to agree with you, but she should accept that you believe what you are saying.

Once I happened to be backstage after a student performance, and I overheard the teacher say, "That was great!" The student performer immediately began listing all the things that had gone wrong.

The teacher interrupted, "Hold on there! Here's what's supposed to happen. First I say 'That was great!' and then you say, 'Thank you very much, I'm glad you enjoyed it.' Okay, now let's try it again from the top."


Many of us musicians, myself included, have made the terrible mistake of letting our sense of personal worth and our self-esteem get wrapped up with the quality of our performances. Somewhere along the line, we decided that we have no value as people unless our performances are really good. If we play well, we deserve to live. If not, we are worthless scum. No wonder musicians have performance anxiety!

As if that weren't bad enough, we know in great detail what's wrong with our performances, but if they're good we don't notice. So we're never satisfied with our performances. We therefore conclude that we are of negligible value to the universe.

As double-binds go, this is a very good one, guaranteed to make you miserable: you can't be happy unless you play well, and you will never play well. No wonder musicians look confused when somebody says, "Oh, you're a musician! That must be so wonderful!"

Obviously, we musicians need to learn how to separate our performances from our self-esteem. We need to learn how to make our happiness not depend on how well we play. For better or worse, there is plenty of advice around: half of the average bookstore is devoted to How to Be Happy.


Before leaving the topic of misery, I want to mention that manager-types are suffering, too. I don't know much about this, but I feel compelled to bring it up because it deserves more attention.

I keep meeting good administrators who overwork and run the risk of burnout. In many cases, we pay them too little and work them too hard, taking advantage of their love of music in the same way that unethical employers try to take advantage of musicians. As a profession, we should pay closer attention to this problem. The pressures on art music and the people who make it happen are not going to lessen.


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. 11

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. 12 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 community.

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.


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 terrific idea.

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.



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 trained for.

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 were sold.)

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 backlash.

"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 venue.)

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 listeners.


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 wasn't."


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 participatory.13)

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.


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 Future."

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, on funding.



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 way?

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 Be Defeated!

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 technique.

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.


  1. 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.

  2. Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death has a good explanation of how our culture has lost the ability to pay attention.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Strings Magazine interview, May/June, 1992.

  8. 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.

  9. John's reply was, "No, that was a string quartet."

  10. 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."

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

Further Reading

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, Shambhala, 1991.

Eloise Ristad, A Soprano on Her Head, Real People Press, 1986.

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 Directors.

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 children.

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