My life as an orchestra geek started in the 5th grade, when Ms. McMahon spoke to each of the 5th-grade classes, inviting us to join the orchestra. This was 30 years ago, so my memory isn’t terribly clear on how it all happened, but I’m pretty sure there was a demonstration of the 4 available instruments, violin, viola, cello, and bass. I’d been taking piano lessons for a couple years by then, and decided I’d like to play the violin, too. And fortunately, my parents agreed, and rented me an instrument.
And I was good, for a 5th-grader, because evidently I have musical genes and I picked it up more easily than the rest of my orchestra mates, which means my playing sounded less like full-on merciless cat torture than the rest of ’em. I was using my music notation skills learned in piano lessons and writing up solo arrangements of songs like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and Ms. McMahon (whose personal instrument was the cello), kindly allowed me to play them in our concerts by the end of the first year. I imagined myself a minor prodigy because she humored me, and she probably shouldn’t have created that monster, because by 7th-grade, I’d lost my edge. I was a lackadaisical practicer at best, and my unwillingness to practice either violin or piano was the source of more than a little conflict between my mother and me, until she finally told me I had to quit piano if I wasn’t going to practice it.
So I did, because I didn’t like my teacher anyway. She was the stereotypical old biddy piano teacher (though thinking back, I’d be surprised if she was actually much older than I am now) who poked her bony finger in my back to make me sit up straighter, and harassed me endlessly about curving my fingers over the keys. My first piano teacher, before we moved, I loved. She was patient, enthusiastic, and encouraging, and never once poked me in the back, and let me play groovy songs of the late ’70s instead of crappy folk songs I’d never heard of. This one was definitely a step or five down from where I started, and I didn’t miss her a bit when I quit. The lone bassist in my elementary school, and our junior high, a girl named Julie, took lessons from her, too, and didn’t like her any more than I did.
By 7th grade, though, I was in a junior high orchestra with kids who were taking private lessons (I wasn’t), and who actually practiced outside of class (I still didn’t practice enough), and through my own lack of effort, by the time I was in high school, I was a utility player: competent, but any delusions of being a prodigy were long gone as I was lapped by more dedicated classmates. I was still getting by, and passed my audition for the local youth symphony, but had long since been relegated to the second violin section, the parts for which were usually pretty dull. I still liked being in the orchestra, but I took it for granted enough that my senior year, when orchestra and school newspaper were the same period and I wanted to take both, I went to both classes, attending every other day. This didn’t do much for my playing, because now I wasn’t rehearsing daily. And then I graduated and didn’t pick up the violin for five years, until we moved to a small town in Minnesota that had a community orchestra. I joined and played with them for a season until we moved out of town. I lamented the considerable rust on my skills, and how much I’d forgotten that had been basic musical vocabulary when I was 16.
But I never lost my love for orchestral music, and went to the symphony whenever I could. Sometimes I bought tickets; sometimes I was gifted those of someone who wasn’t able to go, and despite sitting quietly in the audience, I could remember sitting in the middle of all that sound, how swiftly my fingers moved over the fingerboard, and how much truly great classical music I had experienced as a player. It was a running joke between Scott and me how I’d hear something in a movie, or on a TV commercial, and say to him, “I’ve played that!” and he wouldn’t believe me. But it was never a fib.
But sadly, I think that’s changed, and I’m a little worried for the future of orchestral music and symphonies in general. I’ve been to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra three times this spring, twice for traditional performances, and once for a collaboration with the Indigo Girls, and every time I’ve gone, I’ve been a little shocked at the advanced age of the bulk of the audience. I would guess that 90% of TSO attendees are collecting Social Security; I am generally one of the youngest people there, and I’m no spring chicken myself. It is a white-haired, and largely white-skinned, crowd, unusual in Tucson, where our Latino population, and their cultural presence, is so significant that when I travel elsewhere in the country, I am disconcertedly aware of their absence. I rarely see truly young people at the symphony, and there is far greater diversity of age and ethnicity on the stage than there is in the audience.
This does not bode well for the future of symphony orchestras across the nation, and perhaps across the world, because I’m not sure there are enough orchestra geeks to fill the orchestras themselves AND the audiences, especially as music programs are being discontinued in schools for financial reasons, cutting kids off from first-hand experience with classical music and preventing the creation of the next generation of symphony-goers.
And the orchestras themselves aren’t doing much in the way of outreach, either. Sure, they do off-site pops concerts (in nearby cities with large concentrations of retirees and up in the foothills, where the wealthiest folks in town live), but just reading through the program, with ads for expensive boutiques, high-end real estate, luxury car dealerships, fancy jewelers, plastic surgeons, and custom builders for your next mansion, you get the idea that they’re not at all interested in changing the public perception that you have to be old, rich, and white to go to The Symphony. The tickets are expensive, and not something a family can easily manage (although that’s also true of sporting events and even non-matinee movies these days–seriously, how do people with families afford to partake of any of these entertainments? Scott and I don’t even go to full-price evening movies anymore.) And then there’s the shilling at the beginning of every concert for financial support in the form of annual giving, estate bequests, and the luxury car raffle–where a raffle ticket goes for a mere $100.
And that’s fine, I guess, if you are willing to accept the probability that municipal symphonies are going to die, along with the majority of their current patrons, in the next 15 years. Because I don’t see a lot of people my age at the symphony, prepared to pick up the baton–certainly not enough to support them at current levels. And there are even fewer truly young people, and they don’t have that kind of money anyway.
And what’s more, I begin to wonder if their day has passed, because I have to admit, the thrill just wasn’t there for me anymore. The pieces that were familiar were too familiar–stale, even–and the pieces that were modern didn’t speak to me at all. And that bothered me: how could I be over classical music? And going to the symphony? Could it be true? And do other people feel similarly? Has classical music had a good 400-year run, and its time has passed?
I’ve been thinking about it ever since, wondering if there was still orchestral music that moves me, that thrills me, even, because I didn’t want it to be true, and I realized there was: movie scores. Movie music composers are still writing big, beautiful orchestral pieces that touch my heart in a way that more modern, experimental stuff that so often feels like the notes and figures that were left over after the heyday of classical music patchworked together does not. Maybe that’s where we’re headed. Or maybe it’s just me.
So I ask you, my 9 readers: Is classical, symphonic music even a consideration for you? Do you think it will continue in its current form, or are symphonies going the way of the buggy whip and the harpsichord? Or is it already such a non-entity for you that you stopped reading this after the first paragraph?