How Tuba Players Are Going To Save Classical Music
By Drew McManus
This article was originally written as the final installment for a series of articles I wrote for my column at Arts Journal (www.artsjournal.com) entitled How to Save Classical Music. And although it focuses primarily on the relationship between orchestras and their communities the fundamental ideas contained within the article of creating a positive internal culture that can be used as a template to build outward toward.
All of these ideas can easily be adapted to a wide variety of classical music mediums.As a tuba player I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the unique culture of tuba players. As such, I’ve been able to adopt many of the principles that we take for granted toward finding solutions to the declining interest in classical music. This article is a summary of one of those solutions.
The world of orchestral music has grown cold and excluding toward its patrons, and in turn those patrons loose a little more of their understanding and interest of classical music each year. This has continued for so long that many patrons now feel incapable of understanding classical music beyond what their program notes tell them think.
Orchestra concerts are often static experiences; you sit, listen, and go home. Patrons are kept at arms length from the performers who create the art and are not provided the tools to develop any real confidence toward forming an opinion toward what they are listening to.
Patrons don’t have many avenues which facilitate a personal connection to the music, or the musicians, available to them. Without this connection, it’s difficult for the majority of existing patrons, let alone newer listeners, to develop a continuing excitement about the concert experience.
Even recent attempts to modernize and personalize the concert experience, such as the Concert Companion device currently in development, push people toward hearing and interpreting music a certain way. Such endeavors unconsciously reinforce a “right” way to listen, thus inadvertently decreasing the self confidence listeners need to remain engaged.
The old is new again
Classical music hasn’t always been cold and stale, keeping performers and patrons divided by a chasm of intellectualism. Fortunately, history likes to repeat itself. Compared to the historical development of classical music, the tuba has only recently entered an age of true refinement. Since the tuba is still in the relatively early stages of it development, everything about the instrument is in a state of constant development and, therefore, new and exciting.
Each year, technological and musical advancements in what the tuba can accomplish are expanded. The small and diverse groups of individuals across the world who share an interest in the instrument also share an interest in two primary aspects of the instrument which are lacking in the world of general classical music: refining established repertoire and an inherent expectation to develop technique.
Up until the time when Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Europeans to the music J.S. Bach, orchestral audiences expected a continuous flow of new and continuously developing music. But after Mendelssohn’s great revival, audiences not only expected a regular diet of new music but also reveled in refinement of the old.
But sometime during the mid 20th century, that trend changed. Instead of a continuous interest in both the new and the old, orchestras began to focus on performing only the established works that were becoming to be known as “standard repertoire”.
Although the reasons behind that decision is currently a subject of great debate, what’s important to realize is an unintended result of that decision: a typical orchestra patron currently knows little about the “standard repertoire” they are routinely supplied and have lost the ability, and therefore confidence, to appreciate and expect the new.
It is at this point in time where the world of tuba players can step in to provide a working model for how classical music can once again reinvent itself. Tubist David Zerkel communicated that sentiment well when he said,
“Classical music isn’t a dead art, it’s not as though we’re trying to keep Latin alive. It’s worth keeping alive because it’s exciting in a personal way that’s different to each person and unique to its own form.”
The contemporary world of tuba playing is very similar to classical music during the time when Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach. As evidence, I would invite you to examine the annual Tuba-Euphonium convention at Ft. Meyer, VA sponsored by the U.S. Army Band.
What you’ll discover are hundreds of tuba players with a wide variety of experience and interest coming together to share a common denominator: a love for the instrument and the music it creates. This is the beginning of the “exciting internal culture” which orchestras need to establish.
According to SGM Jack Tilbury, the enlisted leader of the U.S. Army Band, tubist, and organizer for the U.S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium convention for nearly 20 years,
“When we presented the idea of the conventions, the Army Band met the idea with open arms. At the time (1983), there was a direct mandate from the Secretary of the Army to promote community relations. Everyone thought this was a great way to get the community directly involved with musicians in particular and the band in general. To our surprise, over the years the participants attending conventions continuously ask for more direct involvement. On average, we have anywhere from 400-600 people attending the convention. I think everyone here agrees that the conventions have done a great job at integrating music consumers into the Army Band’s program and help it achieve its mission.”
It’s unrealistic to assume we can make every orchestra concert as exciting as a specialized convention. But what we can do is recreate the amount of personal interaction between patrons and musicians. The idea of turning music consumers into participants is critical to classical music’s future.
Each concert will turn into “mini conventions” with a distinct portion of the audience having personal contact with musicians, or hopefully a large core of trained docents. Each of the unique groups of people will have an interest, or a developing interest, in a particular composer, instrument, or musician.
But without the ability to share that enthusiasm with someone connected to the orchestra, they will not let those feelings of interest grow to their full potential. And if that remains untapped, they won’t develop as deep of a connection with their orchestra as they could.
I talked to Harvey Phillips, one of the “founding fathers” of modern tuba playing, and who is also a first rate arts administrator, about this point. Harvey said,
“Classical music is one language but has many different dialects. Society has become so television oriented, meaning entertainment driven. Orchestra concerts need to be more fun.”
It’s the individual dialects that interest groups of patrons who orchestras need to make a connection with. Creating a personal connection between players and patrons will help simulate the entertainment driven aspect of television and computer based entertainment.
Tubist and educator David Zerkel agrees saying,
“Live concerts include the element of chance, and you can’t get that by listening to a CD. Being there live is far more exciting, and being surrounded by like minded individuals helps to inspire interest.”
Dallas Symphony Orchestra tubist, Matt Good, had an experience at his orchestra that correlated to this idea,
“The DSO used to have a concert format that would feature a 90 minute program and hire musicians to play in the lobby before and after concerts. They also used to encourage the musicians by offering something like drink vouchers to mingle with the patrons and just talk to them.
They were always well attended and the musicians that talked to the patrons usually had a wonderful time. But we’ve been cutting back on this program and I don’t know why. Management needs to invest money and time in a program like this. I could definitely see that it was getting more people interested and it was becoming a tradition that people wanted to be a part of.”
If the industry were to dismiss the culture of tuba players as an ineffectual model, it would be an unwise decision. Certainly, tuba players are a niche group among musicians, but isn’t classical music a niche segment among popular culture?
In order to recreate the excitement and enthusiasm of the typical tuba player among the world of orchestral classical music is not really a difficult task.
All you have to do is study it. One good resource is the ITEA (International Tuba Euphonium Association), which is an organization comprised of tuba performers, educators, students, and amateurs of all backgrounds.
You can also visit one of the longest running and largest online tuba discussion forums: Tubenet. With over 1,200 registered participants, it’s easy to tap into the culture and mindset of the tuba industry.
I talked to Patrick Williams, the artistic director for the Henry Mancini Institute, and a friend of tuba players about these ideas.
“The more versatility and virtuosity musicians have the better; Harvey Phillips is a prime example. There’s too much dumbing down of music and ‘classification’ in the industry, it destroys creativity.”
Patrick is correct, and the more contact patrons can have with those involved in the creation of the music the better. The less people believe they have to think or perceive music in a particular fashion, the more likely we’ll see a patron driven renaissance in classical music.
To help accomplish these goals, orchestra administrators will need to initiate programs like the orchestra docent program advocated in Part 1 of this series, as well fund initiatives that put musicians side by side with patrons at concerts.
That means managers will need to offer musicians a reason to participate besides “do it because it’s good for the organization”.
Offering extra pay, complementary food, drinks, even babysitting if necessary are only initial suggestions. But participation on part of the players should be voluntary.
Creating a high quality player biography is another good route, much like the “Concertgoer’s Guide” available at the Honolulu Symphony Musician’s web site. This helps makes the musicians special in the minds of the patrons. You can also let the audience know when particular musicians will be at some of the special functions, so they can plan to meet their favorite players.
Musicians need to be excited about the music and allow the patrons to share in that excitement. Matt Good articulated this idea well when he said,
“Tubists tend to be more excited about their instrument than other instrumentalists, and it’s that enthusiasm that other people find invigorating.”
In addition to sharing the excitement about music, musicians also need to be willing to mingle. Those musicians that may have a particular week off due to the instrumentation of a given performance (such as many of the wind and percussion players do not perform on all baroque concerts) should also be willing to volunteer for small ensemble performing before concerts and during intermissions.
They can even perform on their “second” instruments (you might be surprised to learn how many musicians can play more than one instrument proficiently) if they desire.
In the end, the goal is to show the patrons just how special the individual musicians really are. In turn, the musicians show the patrons just how special classical music really is.
If orchestras can create all of these conditions among their stakeholders in the organization, they’ll begin to grow their audience from the inside out.
Drew McManus is a tubist, private teacher, conductor, arts administrator, and cultural journalist. His teachers include Jerry Young, Bob Daniel, Dave Fedderly, and Ed Goldstein. Since launching his industry related weblog Adaptistration: the evolution of orchestra management at Arts Journal (http://www.artsjournal.com/adaptistration), Drew has been described as the “Mike Wallace of the weblog world” and is a must read for musicians, manager, board members, and patrons alike. back to top
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