An Arts Education Symposium

POLLY KAHN: In the programs that we run in the [New York] Philharmonic, it’s very true that the most challenging moment in the program is the moment when the kids come to the concert. All the work that we can surround it with, where the kids are so invested as musicians, as players of the recorder, as composers, as reflectors, as critics, all those ways, we can create opportunities for them that are full of life and spontaneity. And then they’re asked to come into a situation where they have to set those things aside. What we try to do is make the investment in listening so palpable that they can’t wait to get to the concert because there is something for their ear to do at that moment that makes that concert tremendously important and overcomes that proscenium problem. But it takes a lot of work around it. And it’s something, certainly as, you know, someone who lives in this world, that I worry about a lot. I would also add that so often you need to go back to what a musician brings to the table. My own idiosyncratic theory is that dancers in their training, and actors in their training, are trained to please the audience. Their goal is out there, just like in the dumb way, for instance, that a ballerina is brought up. They’re taught to smile all the time – I mean, it’s very unnatural. And I think that musicians are trained to please the composer. And that when a musician and an orchestra comes out, on a certain level, they’re saying: “Did I do right by John Adams tonight? Did I do right by Mozart in my playing, and in our playing together?” And if the answer is yes, they’re satisfied. I don’t think they’re trained to say, “this music – did I contribute to making this music really reach out to the audience” And that again is part of the challenge and the training and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed, because it contributes to that distance, that perceived distance.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then with orchestral music you have the other layer of not just pleasing the composer but pleasing the conductor.

POLLY KAHN: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: And they’re facing the conductor – that’s the person that they’re looking at, not the audience. And they’re looking at their music, so it’s the text, it’s the presence of this person directing the text, and then the audience is third on the list of priorities already, within that structure.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: And also I think a lot of it has to do with just some basic issues of familiarity, in having the music in the air, so that when you come in, if you’re listening to an orchestral concert, you hear that. I mean, some of that comes through the classes, so that kids in school are prepared when they come in. But if they’re not really prepared, it’s so foreign in lots of ways. Although they’ve heard it, because it’s part of music scores for movies and television and radio, but they’re still not aware of it. It’s not prevalent in the culture or in homes like it used to be. So you have to combat that problem. And then there’s the formality of the presentation, which you don’t get in many other settings. Where, if you look at popular music, even though there’s the formality of the stage and the audience, it’s all about that interaction. You play to the audience because there’s that interaction. But with musicians, even though the greatest communicators get it across to the audience, there is still that respect, as Richard was saying, to the composer, or to the conductor or an interpretation of the particular evening or a particular piece, and it’s the time that it was written, and all of those factors…

FRANK J. OTERI: Usually… there’s this solemn disconnect playing music of the past for an audience from today. Nowadays there are some ensembles who come on stage wearing blue jeans and sneakers… But the traditional thing where everyone’s in black tie, and is completely formal, and they all enter the stage at once and they tune up, and they’re completely oblivious to the audience while they are tuning up. I think it’s a real disconnect for young people, it’s a real disconnect for people, even more than young people, people who are not exposed to music. It doesn’t make sense to an outsider; it’s an inexplicable ritual of a secret community.

POLLY KAHN: You know, it’ll be interesting to see how technology begins to impact on this because… Opera has had a tremendous resurgence in interest. I think it has all to do with the presence of opera on television…

FRANK J. OTERI: …And supertitles.

POLLY KAHN: Exactly. Exactly. Supertitles were a way of drawing people in. And that it’s a medium that has worked very well. I can only speak from my own experience that seeing a concert, seeing and hearing a concert on television, say Live from Lincoln Center, I see the concert one night and I’m in the concert hall the next night. It’s a very different experience and television, to a large degree, I think, assists the aural, the listening experience.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it adds a focused visual element.

POLLY KAHN: But it also takes your ear in a certain direction, if it is something that is well shot. You’ll know when the French horn is about to have a solo. The camera is there. Your ear follows that in a way that you may not experience it in the concert hall. And I think that it’s a very positive thing. It creates a realm of interest that may not be there when you’re in the concert hall.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second, but as a teenager when these concerts first started happening (I go to tons of concerts now), but I found nothing more boring than watching an orchestra on television. I didn’t get it.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: There are certain mediums, certain musical styles that work well on a hi-fi, and you experience it that way first before you do in a concert. You know, pop music is an electronic medium; it’s created in a studio. It doesn’t have an acoustic signature; it was actually created in a studio. It’s electronic music, if you want to think of it that way. In the same way a lot of other new music, even though jazz you experience in a club, perhaps in its most optimal setting. Nonetheless, it still works well with a stereo. But acoustic music, with an orchestra, it just doesn’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: Over the stereo at all?

HOLLIS HEADRICK: It doesn’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: Really? I’m a record collector, and many times I prefer orchestral recordings to concerts…

POLLY KAHN: It’s a totally different experience.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: It’s a totally different aural experience.

POLLY KAHN: Right. And, you know, when we were talking before about the challenges of bringing kids into a concert hall. I mean, we certainly have a lot of work to do to help enhance that experience and make kids feel invested in it. But I don’t think you can minimize it. As somebody who sees kids every week go into a huge concert hall for the first time, it is a very powerful experience for them. And that acoustic experience, the surround of the setting, is something that has a big impact on kids. I am not an adherent of the thunderbolt theory. I don’t think it’s enough to just do that: march kids in and do a great performance and the world will be changed. I don’t believe that for a minute. And that’s why we do all the work around it. But I also see in ways that I didn’t really value as much, what it is to go into a space that sounds that way it is, for kids to experience a hundred people all working together to make this mysterious thing happen. And, you know, I don’t think that should be undervalued for all the challenges that are also inherent in that.

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, I think the really interesting parallel model to this – I’ve never been a sports fan in my life – last summer I was taken to my first Yankees game ever by friends of mine who are sports addicts. And suddenly I was mesmerized, because for me, as a teenager watching a baseball game or a football game on television was as boring, if not more boring, than watching an orchestra. It really didn’t mean anything to me. And I went to this game, and I saw it live, and all of a sudden it made sense. All of a sudden it was wonderful. Here was this audience, you know, with 10,000 people – and it was mobbed, and they were all responding to every move and it was a very highly idiosyncratic language, you know, balls and strikes and this is a foul – I didn’t know any of this language. And I thought, everybody here understands this. This is as arcane as understanding what a second theme is in sonata form. Or understanding retrograde inversion. And if you can understand those things in baseball, you can understand those things in music. So why is it that so many people are so turned on by team sports? Why can’t that energy be turned into people being turned on by team music making, which is what the orchestra is?