So for a change of pace…
Last night I was at a birthday party for a kid in Rafa’s class, one of his best friends. “I like him a killion!”
While the kids played, I sat with some other parents from Rafa’s school. Three women were on their phones, looking at the summer concert schedule at Wolf Trap. Big performing arts center in the DC area, for anyone who doesn’t know it.
These were educated, professional women, age around 40, I’d guess. And they were going wild over this show:
I LOVE THE 90’S
THE PARTY CONTINUES TOUR
TLC, KID N PLAY, MONTELL JORDAN, ROB BASE, C&C MUSIC FACTORY, SNAP
And then Googling to find set lists for this and (I think) other similar shows, to see just what songs would be done.
Said Wolf Trap’s blurb:
“Everybody Dance Now!” The ‘90s are back and “No Scrubs” allowed. Don’t miss this throwback party featuring faves like “Waterfalls,” “This Is How We Do It,” and “Rhythm Is A Dancer!”
And for these women, this was just the literal truth. Said the show would be a party, and that’s what they thought it would be.
Let’s tuck away all the usual flurries about the quality of this music, or whether singing the tunes is how we should react to profound classical pieces.
(Though I do think “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C&C Music Factory is about as irresistible as anything in music.)
Just for this moment, at least, we should let all that go. Because last night what got to me was how happy these women were, just beaming with delight.
And so I have to ask: Does advance word of anything in classical music get our smiling and singing?
I haven’t seen it. Here’s how Wolf Trap hypes the two classical music events on their main stage summer schedule, a National Symphony program and a concert performance of Tosca:
Wolf Trap welcomes the National Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Gianandrea Noseda, in his first weekend at the helm of the Orchestra. Maestro Noseda leads the NSO, a massive community chorus, and Wolf Trap Opera alumni in Orff’s epic Carmina Burana. Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition, opens the program with Beethoven’s magnificent “Emperor” concerto.
Caught up in a world of political intrigue and corruption, Puccini’s fiery diva is trapped between her allegiance to her rebel lover and a treacherous police chief who will stop at nothing to possess her. The explosive conflict between these three unforgettable characters comes to a hair-raising conclusion in one of opera’s most popular, suspenseful, and unforgettable dramas.
Who’s going to get excited at that? So many indigestible words about Tosca, meaningless epithets like “epic” and “magnificent” in the Symphony blurb. Not exactly red meat that gets you up on your feet singing “Recondita armonia” or “O fortuna.”
Trying now to imagine classical concertgoers singing and miming the opening piano sweeps of the Emperor…(because all these pieces are singable, however deep the Emperor might go)…
It’s just not happening. We’ve leached that out of our classical music world. Even if we had a light classical program, Strauss waltzes and Rossini overtures — we just don’t read the concert announcement and start to sing.
And the Wolf Trap blurbs feel, as you read them…unfelt (to avoid any harsher word). As opposed to the 90s party blurb, which, again, struck the women at the party as simply the truth.
Some years ago I was at a large gathering, involving musicians, board, and staff from more than a dozen orchestras. Held in Cleveland, jointly hosted by the Cleveland Orchestra and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Part of the program (optional) was free admission to the Rock Hall. (As it’s locally called.)
Some longtime orchestra musicians went, saw some live performance videos, and came back wistful. “I wish our audience cared that much!”
Another time, I went to a Neil Young show with two people from classical music. One was a Neil Young fan, the other hadn’t been to many rock shows. And after a couple of songs was saying, “Everyone from classical music should go to a show like this! To see what it’s like when an audience cares.”
Once the audiences for what we now call classical music really did care that much…clapping during concerts when they heard something they liked…shouting at singers on the opera stage.
Here’s a recording of an Italian audience in 1957, rippling with audible excitement while Maris Callas sings a high C.
And I treasure the story of a party after the premiere of one of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the third or fourth, can’t remember. The quartet played the piece again, and the audience sang along with one of the themes.
I have to wonder: If people in the audience got word of another performance of the piece, would they have started humming that tune?
Why I’m writing these posts about SHIFT *a festival featuring orchestras from around the U.S., coproduced in Washington by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, with all tickets affordably priced at $25):
Because the festival wasn’t marketed well, wasn’t promoted well. And will come back next year, so a look at its problems could be helpful.
And because the mistakes are instructive. Others can learn from them.
Use common sense.
Think really hard about how your marketing will look to your target audience.
Plan your marketing when you plan your programs. Not because you only want to do popular programs, that will sell tickets easily. But because you need to know where you stand, how many tickets the programs you plan are likely to sell. If you don’t like the answer, you can adjust the programs, adjust their marketing, move performances to a smaller space, or — if you can afford this — accept fewer ticket sales.
But at least you’ll know. And you’ll have a chance, long in advance, to set things up as strongly as possible.
In an earlier post, I asked if SHIFT was a success or a failure.
Looking only at the concerts, and leaving aside an assortment of community events, this is what we saw. Four orchestras played. One nearly sold out the more than 2000 seats in the Kennedy Center concert hall. Two filled about half the seats. And the fourth sold way less than half.
That’s not a success, even if half-full houses seem to be the norm in DC these days. But if one concert nearly sold out — and the audience cheered — then there’s hope!
So call SHIFT a work in progress.
One thing that failed
And this, I fear, is a biggie. There was no advance buzz. As far as I can tell, people in the Washington, DC classical music world weren’t excited. They weren’t talking about SHIFT. If you asked them, they’d say they’d go to the concerts. But there didn’t seem to be much interest.
Worse than that, there was, if anything, a kind of anti-buzz — skepticism about the festival, doubts that it would succeed.
The reason for the anti-buzz was very clear. SHIFT was positioned as a continuation of the Spring for Music festival in New York, which brought orchestras from around the country to Carnegie Hall, with all tickets $25.
And which was perceived as a failure.
So why continue the failure in Washington?
More on that next week. About how it was a promotional blunder to link SHIFT — or let it be linked — to Spring for Music. And how that could have been avoided.
But there was another reason SHIFT didn’t get much buzz
And that’s because — quite apart from any Spring for Music link — it wasn’t conceived clearly, and it wasn’t promoted well. Starting with its name, SHIFT.
What does that even mean?
Contrast Nissan’s famous “Shift” ad campaign. I’d see their commercials, and the meaning of shift was always clear. It was used in many ways. Like “Shift the way you move.” I get that. This was a car commercial. Nissan has changed, the commercial implied. Now it has great new cars. So if we drive one, we’ll shift — drive differently, move through life differently.
And then of course there’s a subliminal reference to something we all do when we drive, shifting gears.
But “SHIFT: A festival of orchestras”? What does “shift” tell us there?
Nothing that’s immediately clear.
Deciphering the word
I think I know what “SHIFT” is trying to say. Orchestras have changed. They’re energized, vital, doing new things. They’re alive in their communities.
Or, in other words, they’ve shifted, and we should shift what we think of them.
But how does SHIFT, as the name of a festival, without any further context, tell us that? There’s a thought process going on, but we don’t know what it is. We have to guess on our own.
So of course the festival didn’t generate buzz. We didn’t know what it meant, what it was supposed to accomplish. Or why we should care.
Which would have been easy to fix! Just tell us what’s going on. In direct, lively words we can all understand.
A modest suggestion
For instance — as I said in my earlier post — they could have called the festival “Orchestras Unleashed.”
Let’s not argue over whether that’s a great name. Or whether it described what the SHIFT producers had in mind.
Just consider its virtues (or the virtues of another name like it).
It’s clear. It promises something. Promises something we might like to see. People in the DC classical music world, I think, could have gotten behind it.
Plus, special bonus — it might have helped WPA and the Kennedy Center plan their festival more sharply. Much easier to build on a clear idea than a vague one.
Next, the buzz killer — linking SHIFT to Spring for Music.
Re the SHIFT idea:
Maybe WPA and the Kennedy Center wanted to do the kind of hip marketing Apple is famous for.
But Apple’s ad campaigns are simple, and hit home very strongly. Take what I think is the most famous one, “Think different.” When it launched in 1997, anybody buying a computer knew what it meant. “Be different — buy a Mac! Everyone else has a PC.”
Not that those words ever had to be used. The message didn’t have to be spelled out. And was reinforced by photos of artists, thinkers, and social figures — people like Maria Callas, Einstein, and Gandhi — who really did think different(ly).
Resuming my blog after a gap…
I’m sorry that I said some provocative things about the SHIFT festival in DC, and then fell silent.
I hadn’t planned that. But life intervened, taking me by surprise, when my schedule got crazy.
My bad. I apologize.
And I also apologize for something off-base I said in my SHIFT post:
Special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.
Yes, the performance by the North Carolina Symphony did sell fewer tickets than the other SHIFT concerts (by quite a lot). And they did play a Mason piece.
But wrong to suggest that Mason’s name didn’t sell tickets! How could I know that? Maybe sales would have been lower still if his name hadn’t been on the program.
Apologies, again, for going off track this way.
But there’s another issue
This is crazy.
Here — from the joint Kennedy Center/Washington Performing Arts web page for SHIFT — is the PR blurb for the North Carolina concert:
The orchestra offers an innovative program, deeply evocative of North Carolina, represented in particular by four composers with ties to the state: Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Mason Bates, and Robert Ward.
Caroline Shaw gets props (as she should) as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Mason gets nothing. He’s just a name on a list.
Even though he’s the Kennedy Center’s own guy! Personally chosen (I’d assume) by K Center president Deborah Rutter, after the success she had with him as composer in residence when she ran the Chicago Symphony.
Don’t they want to give their own guy props?
Don’t they want to be courteous to him, and mention that he’s an important figure at the place where the concert will be given?
Wouldn’t they hope Mason’s name might sell some tickets, if they reminded people in DC that he’s on the home team, a composer whose music they maybe have heard and liked?
And it gets worse
Aren’t those groups collaborating with the Kennedy Center?
The orchestra writes a longish paragraph about Mason, praising him as the second most performed living composer in the US. But doesn’t say he’s composer in residence.
WPA gives a special nod to Caroline Shaw. Pulitzer Prize winner! She’ll make a “special appearance” at the concert! Mason’s name isn’t even mentioned.
(And, for even greater craziness, the email doesn’t say that Caroline’s “special appearance” will be as a violin soloist, playing her own piece. Sorry for the emphasis, but…they didn’t think to publicize Caroline as soloist? Nor did they on the SHIFT webpage, which I quoted above. What word would you use for that?)
How could this happen?
These look like silly mistakes.
But maybe there’s some deeply overthought reason for not mentioning Mason’s DC title.
“Let’s see…if we give him props for his K Center work, we’re putting the K Center ahead of WPA and the orchestra, because he’s not composer in residence for them…”
Which might just possibly make sense at 3 AM, to people with deeply furrowed brows. But then you fall into something else that seems wrong, promoting Caroline more than Mason. And you look bad to any informed observer on the outside.
I fear this is one more example.
Did Mason’s name sell tickets to the North Carolina concert?
I’d think the Kennedy Center would want to know. Would want to know what impact their composer in residence has in their city. Selling tickets isn’t the only way to measure that, but it’s one way.
And, more generally, I hope they and WPA did audience studies for all the SHIFT concerts. What made people choose which one to go to? What made them want to go to SHIFT at all?
Having that data would — to put it mildly — help WPA and Kennedy Center plan the continuation of the festival next year.
I’m late in getting to this, thanks to some traveling. But I’m asking a vital question. Both because the SHIFT festival was a major move for two top DC institutions. And because the marketing lessons here can be helpful to everyone.
What SHIFT is:
A festival of orchestras, coproduced in DC by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts.
Four concerts. Called SHIFT, because (like the festival it’s partly modeled on, Spring For Music in New York) it’s designed to show that orchestras are different now.
Or, to quote the festival’s program book, to show
≥the dynamism of four exceptional American orchestras…[how] through creative engagement and artistic daring they’re distinguishing themselves as leaders…[how they’re] SHIFTING our perceptions of what an orchestra is by doing amazingly innovative things in their communities…
Plus more, scattered through separate sentences floating in a full page of fine print. All, for me, s little gushy. Can’t believe the purpose of the festival couldn’t have been said more strongly in one clear paragraph.
But later for that. The festival wants to shift our perceptions of what American orchestras are.
So in more detail…
SHIFT was four concerts, given at the end of March and beginning of April. All tickets were $25, and the orchestras encouraged to do programming they loved, programming typical of them at their best, programming that would be key to them and their dreams.
The orchestras were the Boulder (CO) Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and The Knights (a Brooklyn collective born from changes in classical music).
And one measure of success…
…is of course the box office.
The Boulder Philharmonic had a triumph, nearly filling the Kennedy Center concert hall (more than 2000 seats), with an audience that roared with delight.
The North Carolina Symphony — doing music by composers with ties to North Carolina — had rows of gaping, empty seats, the house not nearly half full.
And The Atlanta Symphony (doing a full-evening oratorio by Christopher Theofanidis) and The Knights (with a program featuring the very sweet and very capable San Francisco Girls Chorus) fell in the middle. They drew what seems to be emerging as the new normal for orchestra concerts in DC — houses more or less half full.
There were also what the festival called “residencies,” community and outreach events. But later for those. The concerts of course were the main events. So did they fail or succeed?
A little of both, it seems clear. So for future planning — SHIFT will come back next year — it’s important to look at the biggest success and the biggest failure.
Why did Boulder sell so well, and North Carolina so poorly?
I should say, full disclosure, that I’m not the ultimate expert. I couldn’t even go to three of the concerts. Family obligations and my Juilliard teaching kept me away from Boulder, North Carolina, and Atlanta. Though I did go to the Knights, a sweet but oddly disjointed affair, which I’ll talk about in another post.
But I’ve talked to people variously involved. And just by using common sense I can make a guess about Boulder and North Carolina.
To explain my guess, I’ll do an elevator pitch for those concerts.
First Boulder. They played three contemporary pieces, all about nature (about Rocky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the prairie). The composers were Stephen Lias, Jeff Midkiff, Steve Heitzen, not names that I’d guess would be known to many of us in the DC classical world.
But clearly the names didn’t matter, partly because hardly any classical composer has an audience, and partly because of everything else about the concert.
What mattered, I’m guessing, was first the nature theme, which of course resonates wonderfully with Boulder, a city in the Rocky Mountains, whose people famously love the outdoors.
So the elevator pitch is easy to make:
Mountains! Nature! Video! Acrobats!
Cut to North Carolina. They did two works by the dean of North Carolina composers, the late Robert Ward, also not a name to strike any sparks, though he’s known for his early 1960s opera The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play.
Then they did pieces by Mason Bates, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all of whom turn out to have a North Carolina connectionI. Who knew? Of course they’re best known as leading younger composing stars (to whatever extent, without much audience, any classical composer can be called a star).
Certainly they’re bigger names than Robert Ward, or the composers Boulder played.
But look how little that mattered. Composers really don’t have an audience.
(And, special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.)
So back to the elevator pitches. This is what North Carolina’s would have to be:
Music by North Carolina composers.
I don’t know in any detail how these concerts were marketed. But, whatever was done, Boulder gave much more to work with.
Not that the North Carolina music might not have been worthy. In fact, some of the buzz I picked up called this the best concert, musically, of the festival.
But it’s not promotable as North Carolina music. To be brutally honest, no one — or anyway no one outside North Carolina — is likely to care. North Carolina composers! Doesn’t light any sparks.
Looking toward next year
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that we need acrobats to sell tickets to orchestras. If that’s true, we’re dead. There are many other ways to make an orchestra concert seem interesting.
So of course this was an extreme comparison. But sometimes extreme examples are helpful to clarify things at the start of a discussion.
They make the basic point crystal clear. And the basic point here is that people need a reason to come to a concert. A reason that echoes beyond the walled city of classical music.
So since SHIFT returns next year, here’s a suggestion for my friends involved in producing it. Do an elevator pitch for each proposed event. At first do it just for yourselves, not for public consumption.
But take the pitch seriously. And be merciless about the results. If, for any event, the best pitch you come up with — looked at in the cold light of reality — won’t sell tickets, don’t do the concert!
Plan something you can sell. Or at least put the concert with a smaller draw in a smaller hall.
And yes, this isn’t how classical music usually works. I’m suggesting you should avoid the time-honored classical thing, which is to plan the concerts your heart yearns for artistically, and only then think how you’ll market them. What you love may not be what the world loves.
Think of marketing right from the start, so at the very least you won’t be surprised.
(Cautionary example! In a previous post I talked about how smart Zuill Bailey is when he books classical soloists and chamber groups. Always he’s thinking how many tickets each artist or ensemble will sell. He mentioned another chamber music presenter who doesn’t think about that. Someone who books the artists they want, pays the fee the artist normally gets, then accepts whatever the ticket sales are. “Why do you do that?” Zuill asked, explaining his more grounded approach. The other presenter, baffled, said, “Hasn’t it always been done that way?” No wonder classical music is in trouble.)
Wouldn’t help to make the NC elevator pitch “Exciting new music.”
First because all the SHIFT events featured new music. And also because not many people equate new classical music with excitement.
But, above anything else, this pitch won’t work because just saying something is exciting doesn’t make it so.
Think of the orchestras that — haplessly — use exclamation points when they tweet upcoming events. “Tomorrow’s concert — Mozart’s G minor symphony!” Routine announcement. The exclamation point doesn’t make it any less routine. .
If you want people to believe something is exciting, say something — something specific — that’s exciting about it.
Some conceptual problems.
Here — from the cover of the SHIFT program book — is some marketing language. Prominent marketing language. The first thing you see, in big type, when you look at the program book.
SHIFT your expectations.
SHIFT your senses.
SHIFT your spirit.
What does that mean? What’s it even about? If you know the backstory — if you know the festival is all about changes in orchestras — then, fine, you’ll understand what you’re reading.
But if you don’t know that? Look at Nissan’s “shift” advertising, which I believe is the most famous marketing campaign ever to focus on the word “shift.”
You watch their car commercials, and you hear about the car. Only at the end, do they tell you to shift your thinking — after they’ve given you reasons to do it.
That’s how really top marketers work.
And anyway, the whole orchestra SHIFT promotion, starting with the very word SHIFT, and continuing down through those words on the program book cover…it’s all a bit vague, overthought, overhyped.
Why not just one strong, clear sentence, driving home what the festival is? Why couldn’t they call it “Orchestras Unleashed”? (Or something like that.)
To me that’s far more effective. A far better elevator pitch. Far more likely to get people to come.
Two things new to me, in my El Paso trip, when I visited UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso.
First, it was a family trip, They invited both Anne and me (Anne of course being my wife Anne Midgette, classical music critic at the Washington Post).
Often people who invite her places would love me to come, and when I’m invited, I’m often asked if she can be there. We love working together, but it’s not usually possible, above all because we have a five year-old son. No one to take care of him while we’re gone.
But this time — when they invited us jointly — they and we made it work. We brought Rafa along, and people at UTEP (bless them) provided enough childcare to make the visit work. It was good childcare, so we all had fun, Rafa included.
We’re open to other invitations!
And then my talk
The centerpiece of the visit for me was the talk I gave, on the university’s Centennial Lecture series.
So, well, I got a standing ovation, which I don’t think has happened before. I think talks I’ve given have been well received, but not like this.
There’s no recording, but I’m writing out what I said, and will share it here. Of course I talked about the future of classical music, with a focus on how we all — all of us in the classical music field — need to change.
Often I’ve said (those of you who’ve read me for a while have seen this) that classical music hasn’t kept up with the rest of our culture. The culture has changed, classical music hasn’t. That’s why classical music is in trouble.
But this time, instead of just saying that, and giving examples, I thought I’d make the point musically.
So I assembled a soundscape. Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Björk’s “An Echo, A Stain.” The first two being pop songs with a harsh edge, the third a pop song that sounds like contemporary classical music.
Not that all pop music has an edge, but much does. And an edgy sound — dissonant and dark — is something you can’t escape in the soundscape of our wider culture.
Even straightahead rock songs, with simple chords, sound harsher than classical music with the same chords would. That’s because the voices are rougher than classical voices, and because rock instruments — especially electric guitars — produce such a wild tangle of overtones that simple chords aren’t simple anymore.
Thus Bob Dylan, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” can sing notes from a dominant chord over tonic harmony, and tonic-note chords over dominant harmony. And it doesn’t sound wrong at all.
On his early records, he’ll sometimes play harmonica chords that don’t fit the harmony in his guitar. But again it doesn’t sound wrong.
And now for some classical
Having established all this, I played the start of the Brahms Second Symphony, in an embracing performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Compared to the pop songs, it came from another world. A peaceful world, reassuring and rational.
My point was made. No wonder people think classical music is a refuge from modern life.
You may not get the full force of my soundscape if you follow my links. For the pop songs, you get videos, and the visuals might mute the harsh edge of the sound.
And then the Brahms — a live performance — starts with the orchestra warming up, followed by Bernstein’s entrance, of course with applause. So you don’t get the the immediate pure, gentle sound of the symphony, as people did at my talk.
Still, I hope my soundscape comes to life.
What did I learn in El Paso?
At the University of Texas in that town. Or UTEP, as it’s branded itself. During my visit last week.
Of course (as I said in my last post) I learned what a special place the university is, with a mission to educate everyone from the poor and working-class, mostly Latino community in its town.
In the musical part of my visit…
I learned many things. How Zuill Bailey, the cellist — UTEP faculty member, head of the school’s new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship, and Artistic Director of the chamber music festival El Paso Pro Musica — visits, over and over, local schools.
I went with him to a high school and an elementary school. The focus at the high school was kids who play music, and might want to do it professionally.
The focus at the elementary school…well, this was a special place. A special charter school, for kids from families so poor, I was told, that there might be nothing to eat at home.
The kids wore uniforms, were attentive, seemed smart and fun. Such a sense of aspiration in the air.
For the high school kids…
…a special pleasure was Trio Jinx, Peabody graduate students in residence at UTEP. They were also great with the younger kids, easy, fun, approachable, playing irresistible music.
But something special they could give: They’re early in their careers. Which, as Zuill said at the high school, meant they were just a few years ahead of the students. And would be able to relate closely to where the students wanted to go with their music.
Likewise for UTEP students, of course. Very wise to have them there.
And then Zuill
Fascinating to hear him talk, as we drove around with him or hung out, about how he runs four chamber music festivals.
He’s very business-oriented. No question about his musical knowledge, of course, or the gorgeous sound he gets on his cello.
But I was struck by his realism, by his care for his bottom line. How after years of booking artists he knows how many tickets each will likely sell, and offers fees accordingly.
And of course can offer four bookings, not just one, Making gigs with him more attractive.
I’ve settled on the word “unworldly” to label how…well…impractical the classical music world can be. Putting artistry first, at whatever cost, and thinking it’s impure to focus on the money.
But since concerts do cost money, focusing on that makes them better. And easier for everyone. And more likely to survive.
I wonder whether independent festivals could do better if they band together. Which may be happening already. Can anyone enlighten me?
Next: things El Paso brought me personally
I could say many things about my two days last week at UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso. About the music department, about the new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. About Zuill Bailey, the cellist and UTEP faculty member, who’ll run the center. And whose entrepreneurial success in running four concert series makes him an ideal choice. Plus giving anyone else giving classical concerts a lesson in how to do it.
And about Trio Jinx, a flute/bass/violin-viola group from Peabody, who were in residence, and whose playing — of much more than classical music — I loved.
Or about how my wife Anne Midgette was invited there also, how this was the first business trip she and I have taken together in quite a while, how we brought Rafa, our five year-old son, and how much fun we all had.
And of course I could write about the talk I gave, for which I’m humbled to say I got a standing ovation.
But later for all that.
What I most took away…
…was what I learned about the university itself. Certainly one of the most inspiring stories in higher education. Impressive enough to get the long-serving UTEP president, Diana Natalicio, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Though she’s so down to earth I doubt she’d ever mention that she got such an honor. She seems about as straightforward as anyone I’ve ever met.
What’s amazing here is what Natalicio set as the university’s mission. And how successful that mission has been.
It’s so very simple. El Paso — which lies right on the border with Mexico — has a large Latino population, mostly working class, not wealthy.
In past generations, these people mostly didn’t go to college. The prevailing thought at the university was that they were destined for humbler lives, that they should learn trades, or get civil service jobs. That they weren’t college material.
The university’s mission was to change all that. To make it known that brains and ability are found everywhere. That a not wealthy Latino kid from El Paso can do just as well as anyone else, given the chance.
So these students were admitted, and given remedial classes if needed. And then got the same high-quality education as everyone else. With spectacular results, as measured by graduation rates and later achievement.
Which is especially impressive, because during this time the university also shot up academically, becoming a top-rank research institution. So the new students from El Paso were getting a really top-rank education.
When I learned all this I was thrilled. And inspired. Purely on human terms. Look what can be done, if you simply decide you’ll do it! I can only imagine how much work it took, how many minds had to be changed, both in the university and in the community.
Natalicio’s current goal is to develop El Paso economically. Not that it’s economically depressed. But the El Paso students who graduate have to go elsewhere for the jobs their education can get them. Why, Natalcio asks, shouldn’t there be jobs like that for them in their home town?
Of course this blog is supposed to be about music. But some things are more important.
For two days this week I’ll be at UTEP, the University of Texas in El Paso, helping to inaugurate a new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. And giving a talk I’m calling “How We Have to Change,” on Tuesday, April 4, at 4 PM, in the Undergraduate Learning Center. Come say hello if you’re there!
“We,” of course, is those of us who work in classical music. What we have to do differently — how the enterprise of classical music has to change, — if classical music is going to be reborn,.and thrive.
Worth a thousand words
One thing I’m going to try, which I’ve never done before — offer a musical landscape of our current culture. Maybe we don’t realize how bracing, how dissonant, these days, a lot of music outside classical is. Indie rock, EDM, and hiphop songs, movie and TV soundtracks. To go from these to something that by comparison is melodious, and in no complicated way beautiful, like a Chopin Nocturne, or the start of the Brahms Second Symphony — that’s to move from one universe to another.
So what exactly do we offer people, when we hope they’ll be the future classical music audience? On a purely gut level, purely instinctive, what does the sound of classical music convey, heard against the background of the striving, active, bracing world so many of us live in?
Back to UTEP
Some thoughts about the new Entrepreneurship Center, as emailed to me by Steve Wilson, trombone professor and interim chair of the music department:
Our Center for Arts Entrepreneurship will officially begin in the Fall of 2017 with our cello professor, Zuill Bailey, as its Director. The CAE will serve as a hub for multidisciplinary work with the arts, provide community engagement opportunities for faculty and students, provide incentive grants for students and faculty to think outside the box and go beyond the traditional music school degree requirements, and provide courses in Arts Entrepreneurship for all those studying the arts.
So many conservatories, so many arts schools are going in this direction. Because some of the old ways of doing things — of presenting your art, of making an income — are drying up,. And because in our emerging new world, nobody knows what artists will do to survive.
Which we should understand is an opportunity, not a problem. Especially if you want to do something in your art that no one every did before. Something new and creative. Which means that you’ll be an entrepreneur. So if you know something about entrepreneurship, you’ll be ahead of the game.