Young Musicians in Training, Part 1

This is the first in a series of essays which will explore the purpose and methodology of musical training in the United States. While there is general agreement that music training is essential, there is no such agreement on the specific purpose and goals attached to the training. There are many contexts where musical training is relevant – early childhood and K-12 education, private teaching, community music schools, colleges and universities, conservatories, senior centers, etc. But even within each of these contexts, there is little agreement on the “why” and “how” of musical training.

I view this confusion as a threat to the long-term viability of the musical art.

Defining a musician is a surprisingly difficult task, one that produces many more questions than answers. By musician do we mean those who earn a substantial portion of their income from musical activities? Do we include anyone who self-identifies as a musician? Do we stipulate that a musician is someone who produces art? (Of course, art is another difficult thing to define). Charles Ives was example of a musician who (in my opinion) created art, but he did not earn his living substantially as a musician or composer.

The Future of Music Coalition (FMC), a non-profit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., provides a wealth of data relating to how musicians earn money. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2013 there were a total of 62, 450 musicians, singers, composers and music directors. According to FMC, there are an estimated 42 revenue streams within seven broad categories:

  • Performer, Session Musician
  • Performer and Recording Artist
  • Songwriter and Composer
  • Knowledge of Craft: Teaching and Producing
  • Brand-Related
  • Fan, Corporate and Foundation Funding
  • Other: Arts Administrator

There are many organizations that represent various segments of the field, not one of them remotely comprehensive. Moreover, in most cases membership does not correspond to the data from the BLS. For example, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) claims 540,000 members. Membership criteria have a low threshold i.e. having at least on musical work available to the public by any means, including live performances and You Tube postings.

Therefore, there are many hundreds of thousands of people who view themselves as musicians, but don’t necessary earn any money as a result. For many, music is an avocation which enables artists, dabblers and everything in between. There are many more people who engage with music at live events and through recordings, and as casual participants in the making of music. With the population of the United States approaching 325,000,000, with most having broad access to music, this is a bloc that deserves our attention. For working musicians, these millions are the source of all earned income.

Music is also more than a commercial enterprise. Significant engagement with music is the norm in American society. In a letter to his wife, John Adams, the second president of the United States wrote, “….I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Engagement with the arts can easily be viewed as the right of all Americans.

Musicians can serve themselves, serve society, serve the art, or serve all of the above. It is the responsibility of music educators to figure out how best to train them to do all of it.


Musical Sport

The role of music at sporting events has always fascinated me. As in other parts of life, music has a tangible effect on people. The primary objective for music at sporting events is to excite the crowd and prompt them to participate musically, or simply make noise. Who hasn’t been tempted to do the stomp-stomp-clap of Queen’s We Will, We Will Rock You?

There are other roles for music. Teams often have music associated with their identity. Sometimes the music is expressly connected to the team. College football teams often have fight songs, whose words and melodies are known by students and alumni, and repeated with Pavlovian furor after each score. Professional teams can have uniquely composed music, often a legacy of a time when their might have been live music at a game, or drawn from past promotional campaigns.

Of the many musical fragments meant to encourage fan participation, some are particularly ubiquitous. Ta-ka-tata, tata…….charge! – is borrowed from a military bugle call. Another bugle call, though without participation, is appropriated from the summons to the starting gate in horse racing. Many other simple and repeatable tunes and rhythms are led by an organist, or triggered electronically by an audio director. Occasionally, full-fledged songs inspire singing, dancing, clapping, or all three, in the case of YMCA by the Village People.

The Star Spangled Banner is almost always performed before a professional sporting event begins. It is considered an honor to sing the national anthem before the biggest games. The brightest stars from every musical background put their unique stamp on the song, not always to the wide approval of the fans and television audience. Renditions during times of war or national tragedy are received with much more solemnity, as are performances of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

There are other examples of music which seem to unify people and build a sense of community. For reasons sometimes unknown, certain songs bring certain communities together. In recent years, Boston Red Sox fans have poured their hearts out in unifying performances of the 1960’s hit Sweet Caroline. After several months of this phenomenon, Neil Diamond himself showed up to sing it. Chelsea Dagger, an obscure song by the rock band The Fratelli’s, became the exuberant victory song of the Chicago Black Hawks. Other songs are associated with teams and cities for more obvious reasons. A recording of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s New York, New York, as sung by Frank Sinatra, is played at the end of most Yankee’s home games.

For me, one of the most annoying musical expressions associated with a team is the so-called Tomahawk Chop. Originally chanted by fans of the Florida State Seminoles, the song was adopted by the nearby Atlanta Braves in the early 1990’s. Aside from the questionable faux Native American and racist overtones of the chant, my annoyance is deeply personal. When the Braves played my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1991 National League Championship Series, the ‘Chop’ was chanted incessantly. After a heartbreaking Pirate’s defeat to lose the series, the sounds and gestures of the chants were relentless on the television broadcast. I was living in Cleveland at the time, and as I escaped my house, stewing in defeat, after the game to walk my dog, I could hear a few displaced Atlanta fans howling the chant in the distance. Ouch.

The use of classical music is a remnant from a time when people generally knew more about it. The level of knowledge decreased from the early twentieth-century, when people learned about classical music in school, to mid-century, when knowledge, or at least familiarity, was gleaned from radio broadcasts and cartoons, to the present day, where there is but a vaguely disconnected recognition of the genre. Still, a use of certain pieces persists in sporting venues. The notion of charging forward is evoked with a section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture or the horse galloping regularity of the Light Cavalry Overture by Franz von Suppe. You will also still occasionally hear Bizet’s Can-Can, Strauss’s Redetzky March or a Hungarian Rhapsody of Franz Liszt.

It is now much more common to hear the classics of rock-n-roll in ballparks or stadiums, We Are the Champions, another hit by Queen, Twist and Shout of the Beatles, Centerfield by John Fogerty, and many more. In baseball at present, players get to choose their entrance music when they come to the plate. The selections here are usually more contemporary, a collection of rap, reggae, and grunge or metal rock. It would be surprising, and hilarious, if someday, someone came out to the finale from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

By far for me, the most interesting use of music in sports is when the organist or music director plays a song which associated meaning with a situation or personality on the field. More often than not, the selections are predictable. During a rain delay you will hear songs like Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head by Burt Bacharach or Rainy Days and Mondays by Paul Williams. However, there are more clever applications.

Vince Lascheid was the organist at Three Rivers Stadium for thirty years beginning in the 1970’s. He practically invented the art of musical punning and commentary. Sometimes the puns were absolutely groaning, such as when Benny Ayala came to the plate, and the organist would play the hit by Tony Orlando and Dawn, Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree. Get it? Ha.

The commentary songs could be much more biting. Steve Garvey, a decidedly vain first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers entered to the organist playing Here She is, Miss America. When the Dodgers complained to Pirates management, Mr. Lascheid switched to Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely.

When an opposing player of awesome stature appears, he might hear the Imperial March (Darth Vadar’s theme) by John Williams. Of course, the commentary could also be complimentary. Roberto Clemente would often walk out, perhaps to his embarrassment, to Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, it is the fans that are often the most poignant performers. There was the relentless, mocking minor third refrain of Da-ryl, Da-ryl which greeted Daryl Strawberry in visiting stadiums. At home he heard the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. And finally, when a pitcher is taken from the mound, or a team is eliminated from a series, the dishonored players can expect to hear the classic Na-na-na-na, Na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey………Goodbye.

Music and Social Responsibility

Do musicians have a special responsibility to serve their community? This is a question I have asked myself throughout my more than thirty year career as a musician, music teacher and arts administrator.

Music is a language that is at once abstract and entirely accessible, endlessly fascinating to the brain and capable of provoking profound emotional response.   With or without awareness, humans are extremely sophisticated in taking in, processing, and interpreting sound.

Music is also unique in that it exists only in a singular temporal environment. No two music performances are the same. Each performance, whether conveyed live or electronically, has its own frame-of-reference….the acoustic environment, the mood of the musician, the prior experiences of the listeners. There is always a necessary negotiation between the musician and the listener. Music is a participatory activity for all parties.

Herein lays the special power of music to motivate, inspire and console. Musicians create music by representing their ideas and feelings with sound, which is then physically transmitted to listeners as vibrations. However, at its best, the transmittal transcends the physical. A special relationship is forged between musician and listener when the interaction occurs in close proximity. In a live and in-person performance, sustained attentiveness can elevate the musical experience to a level of profound significance.

Individuals are enticed to feel something more deeply because of their direct contact with the music. In a mostly involuntary negotiation, a depth of communication can occur, with references to past musical experiences, contact with present feelings, or by recognizing a glancing similarity to some other experience.

The communication can be quite direct. A song is connected to an earlier experience and comes to represent it…Your Smiling Face for my first love. An anthem comes to signify the solidarity of a group…We Are Family for a baseball championship. Sometimes the communication stems from a simple loss for words. I had to teach a conservatory music theory class the morning after 9/11. All I could do was play a recording of Pablo Casals performing Bach. It helped.

I have come to believe that this deep level of communication is a kind of super-power, and with it comes a responsibility to use that power for good in the world. When musicians embed themselves in places where there are emotional needs, and there are few places that don’t, they have an opportunity to make a difference. They can help someone to feel better.

It happens that the act of connecting through music is also very good for the musician. In my career, I have performed throughout the world in formal settings large and small, winning praise, awards, (and at least a modest amount of remuneration). But my most meaningful performances, by far, have come in hospitals and nursing homes, connecting with people whose lives were mostly behind them. In the end there is music….and love.

Why do we learn music? Why do we become musicians? The life of a musician is almost certainly not the road to wealth. The connection with the art form and the highest achievements of humanity is heady and rewarding. The adulation that comes with professional success is undoubtedly a boost to self-esteem. However, I prefer to think that making music is simply a gift, not a rarefied gift of the talented, but an accessible gift that needs to be shared. Musicians have a place in the world and that place is wherever someone needs them. And if I have learned nothing else in my life, it is that the need is great.

Music in Time

My father Edward George (standing with the sax) performing at a USO show in 1944 with the late Mickey Rooney (pretending to play the clarinet). 54 years later I played in the pit orchestra for a touring Broadway production of the Wizard of Oz, starring……Mickey Rooney as the Wizard.

How to Get Into an Ivy League School

Have you heard the one about the 17-year old high school student who was accepted to all eight ivy league schools? Kwasi Enin, a senior at William Floyd High School, “ran the table” so to speak, with superior grades, high-test scores and a fantastic essay.

Last week the New York Post (unfairly) obtained and published a version of Mr. Enin’s common form essay. While the release of the release of the essay attracted enormous attention, some of it negative and hurtful, it also highlighted the eloquence with which Mr. Enin expressed his thinking about the role of music in his life.

In one paragraph Mr. Enin wrote, “Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music. There are millions of combinations of key signatures, chords, melodies, and rhythms in the world of music that wait to become attached to a sheet of staff lines and spaces.  As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onwards, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit from an undesirable situation. In middle school, my mind also started to become adept in the language of music.  Playing the works of different composers, such as Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch and the Coriolan Overture by Ludwig von Beethoven, expands my diverse musical vocabulary, my breadth of techniques and my ability to practice in order to succeed in solo performances.”

Mr. Enin, a violist for the past nine years, went on to say, “although I hope my future career is in medicine, I love that I still have much to learn about and from the world of music.”  For those of us who believe that music has the power to transform lives, Kwasi Enin provides powerful testimony.  His study of music transcends the common notions that music is only for the talented or music is not a worthy pursuit within the academic curriculum. He may even put to rest the relentless sport of viola jokes…



LEARNing to love music

Musical Petting Zoo 1This past Saturday I visited a very impressive school in the City of Chicago. The Campbell Campus of the LEARN Charter School Network educates about 400 children Kindergarten through grade 5 in the neighborhood of East Garfield Park. LEARN schools believe in an inquiry and project-based approach to teaching. As I walked through the building with Principal Nikole Laskof, I noticed scores of pennants hanging high on the walls, representing colleges and universities. When I mentioned that it seems they want all their students to get into college, Principal Laskof corrected me saying, “No, we want every student to graduate from college.”

I was visiting the school on the occasion of a community music celebration. Dozens of musicians, teaching artists, and a throng of volunteers from the William Blair Company had come to teach, perform and inspire students and families. Performances included a trumpet soloist, woodwind quintet, jazz trio, jazz vocalist, and a young violinist named Emelia from New Trier High School in Winnetka. In fact, Emelia Suljic had visited the school three years earlier and was astonished to find that the school did not have a music program. She actually could not imagine any school without a music program. This is the kind of naiveté or über wisdom that absolutely warms my heart. So for the past three years, Emelia has volunteered her teaching and performing skills AND her fund-raising skills to support a fledgling music program at LEARN Academy.

Emelia is a violin student at the Music Institute of Chicago (MIC) and once the school found out about her passionate volunteerism, it through its weight behind her. LEARN Academy became one of a dozen Chicago schools for which MIC provides teaching artist residencies and professional development for teachers on how to integrate the arts into the daily curriculum. Earlier this year, William Blair and Company, a private investment bank, signed on as a major supporter of MIC’s Arts Link program, which oversees the outreach work in the Chicago schools.

With the many successes of the program at LEARN Academy, a community music celebration was definitely in order. In addition to four hours of performances,including one by the newly minted LEARN Academy band, there were many other activities…a display of heartfelt quotations from students expressing why music is important to them (to be shared in a subsequent post),continuous hand-drumming workshops and a musical instrument petting zoo – a place where students and their parents could explore many kinds of musical instruments with guidance from experienced musicians.

The joy of music was plainly evident on the faces of the LEARN Academy students. Perhaps someday they will walk into a school and be appalled by its lack of a music program…

Dimitri Shostakovich, Edward Gorey and Trey McIntyre

The Trey McIntyre Project (TMP) performed last night at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. The program included a new work, co-commissioned by the Harris, entitled The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction. As a musician, it is very exciting to see the work of a choreographer who understands both the emotional import and musical details of a work. McIntyre had decided last year to base the commission on the work of Edward Gorey. A Chicago native, Gorey created a unique ouevre which tread the line between macabre and humorous. His illustrated books included The Gashlycrumb Tinnies and The Beastly Baby. Many are familiar with his animated illustrations featured in the title sequence of the PBS series Mystery!.

As part of the commission, the Music Institute of Chicago was asked to suggest music that could be performed live with the dancers. Even before I knew the work was about Gorey, I suggested the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, for violin, cello and piano, Op. 67, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I have a special affinity for the piece, based first on hearing an incredible performance of the work in 1980 by the Borodin Trio. Later, as a graduate student at Indiana University, my ensemble played the work and was coached by Luba Dubinsky, the pianist from the Borodin Trio.

The Borodins learned the Trio under the tutelage of Shostakovich himself. One story told to me by Ms. Dubinsky has haunted me ever since. Shostakovich had told her what he had imagined when writing the 3rd movement of the work. The seven chords played be the piano at the beginning and throughout the movement represent the clanging of two large metal poles. This was the sound that prisoners would hear in a concentration camp when the guards wanted everyone to gather. The call to gather almost always related to something horrible. For me and many others, the Trio is imbued with a tremendous emotional power. When Trey heard it he immediately saw that it would be the perfect partner for his Gorey-based choreography. And so, the creative process began.

The result was a spectactular work of art, performed by the amazing TMP dancers. Three students from the Music Institute’s Academy program played the Shostakovach Trio brilliantly and movingly. The combination of the visual – which included puppetry by Michael Curry, well known for his work in Disney’s The Lion King – and the musical was absolutely stunning – tragic, funny, profound, beautiful.

The experience of collaborating with a a group like TMP was phenominal for our students. They all have aspirations to have a life in music. Last night they got a wonderful start.

I write a piece for the Chicago Sun-Time last week on the importance of apprenticeship, a reflection on the process of working with the Harris Theater and TMP. The link is below:

The Importance of Apprenticeship