Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Heartening Quote

A YO friend sent me this quote this morning. Timing couldn't have been better.
"You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime
in your life." - Winston Churchill

The Deaf Youth Orchestra of West Yorkshire

Wow. This is wonderful! I wish I could go to the concert.

It will be the Deaf Youth Orchestra of West Yorkshire's premiere after forming in 2006 under the guidance of charity Music and the Deaf.
Many of the children taking part had never played an instrument until the orchestra formed but have become experts despite their disadvantage.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Bring Home the World

Here's an interesting twist. Bring international students to visit and play with your youth orchestra:
This year there will be 120 young musicians-from Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, the United States and Venezuela-in the orchestra. While here, the performers will stay at the homes of Loudoun families.

What do you think of that idea?

Alabama is culturally 'Third World'?

Twice in the last few weeks I have heard knowledgeable people comment that, when it comes to culture, Alabama is essentially Third World. I tend to react that, really, it's not that bad. But then I read articles about programs like the National System of Venezuelan Youth and Children's Orchestras and find Scotland wishing their music education was as good as Finland's:
We desperately need a national music strategy that embraces education and community; engages young people of all ages; engenders quality and high standards, and is uniform throughout the country. There are fantastic examples of this elsewhere in the world, not least in Finland. Why not seize this opportunity to assimilate all the best ideas, including the Venezuelan one, and create an all-embracing blueprint for nurturing Scotland's musical talent?

Since Birmingham can't even imagine the standards that Kenneth Walton says have been drastically lowered in Scotland, I guess I'll have to concede--and then get to work to see what can be done to change it. How about you?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sum of the Parts: Nick+Kids+Open Mind=MYO ≠ Avg B'ham YO

Comment by Robert Levine from the Engaging Art blog:

...orchestras are also instruments, and like instruments, they don't play themselves. When a Strad is played out of tune, it's not the Strad's fault. It didn't much matter what kind of violin Heifetz played, except perhaps to Heifetz. It's impossible for an orchestra to play at its best for a bad conductor. It's just impossible. And it's almost as hard not to play well for a really good conductor...

I have seen a lot of youth orchestra rehearsals. Most of the time, a pile of good reading material is a must. Every once in awhile I sense something special that will keep drawing my attention back to the rehearsal and the magazines slide unnoticed off my lap.

The first time I was aware of an invisible connection between the conductor and the students, where he was drawing more from the youth orchestra than the sum of its parts, was with Bob Frelly, who conducted All-State Festival Orchestra when it was in Florence. ASFA's 'mother mafia' speculated about how we could draw someone like that to Birmingham.

The second time was with Benjamin Zander and the National Festival Orchestra in New York City. I suspected that the National Festival Orchestra was going to be a vanity ensemble--and it partially was. But there were some very talented kids (Sarah Chang's brother, for one) and Mr. Zander called in students from all over New England to fill in the weak areas. Watching these strangers rehearse in cramped quarters, that magic thread was almost physically visible as Mr. Zander danced among the stands and knit the disparate strands into a coherent fabric.

Since they were playing Shostakovitch's 5th, Mid-America Productions packed Carnegie Hall with Russian immigrants recruited from Manhattan's senior centers. Before the applause had died on the Shostakovitch, many of these ringers got up to leave. Mr. Zander commented, "Isn't amazing that these young people played together for the first time 3 days ago?" I saw the stunned look on the faces of those departing around me. They all sat back down for the rest of the concert.

In Nick Lacanski's case, I picked up a hint of that connection at the November 2006 AYS concert. But I didn't see any of January's concert and I'd never seen AYS rehearse with Nick. When I watched AYS rehearse with the Showcase soloists at Boutwell, I was blown away. Nick was communicating with everyone on stage at almost a psychic level and it was exciting to watch. I couldn't believe I didn't know about this guy before. And I was sad that Molly hadn't gotten to play with him.

Every child in the world deserves to play music with someone who can give them that kind of experience. For those that are exposed to it, it undoubtedly changes the way they feel about music, classical music in particular, and that can only be a good thing.

MYO and CYO would not be imaginable without Nick. Our organization, Birmingham, and Alabama need to find more like him.

Digital Fugue

The Julliard School has put its manuscript collection online. Via Alex Ross.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rigor mortis

I've been thinking about Latin. When I was in high school, Latin had just ceased being a necessity for the college-bound. The Latin fan base moaned and argued and fought this decline in prominence. Didn't stop Latin from becoming an obscure elective for 99% of college students.

Perhaps classical music is headed the same way. Good, bad--doesn't matter. The best arguments from the most knowledgeable experts aren't putting young people in the concert hall seats. Doesn't mean I don't think that MYO should play classical music. (I am a fan.) It just means we need to seriously consider where we need to go with the orchestras over time. Is the purpose of a youth orchestra just to teach the classical repertoire? What do the students really need to get from youth orchestra?

What's to be done about classical music? Well, the influence of Latin on our language is acknowledged in the dictionary and by English teachers in passing. Is that what's to become of this music? A chapter in a book? Time will tell. But I cannot think of any art form that has persisted just because it should. If it does not speak to the human heart at the moment, it's history.

The only good thing about that is that whatever art form you currently passionately abhor will inevitably suffer the same fate.

Yo, Ho, Ho, Hamilton!

Hamilton Cleverdon, a recently graduated ASFA music major, has composed music for an Italian play about pirates.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Global Warming or Just a Hot Day?

The way youth orchestra is done has to change. It may be charming to see young people in tuxes and gowns perform Beethoven, but it's getting increasingly difficult to talk them into doing it. And if nobody's listening--especially their peers, what's the point? Despite its history, beauty and educational value, schools don't teach cursive anymore because no one uses it. We need to find out if classical music should be any different.

I can't see how anyone paying attention wouldn't agree with Greg Sandow at ArtsJournal:

"Of course, maybe I'm just too extreme. Maybe I'm out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we're seeing is a hot day. Or maybe, on the other hand, the field is too conservative. Take your pick. But I'd offer the following as one perspective that ought to be more than a provocation:

1, The arts are in crisis. There's not enough audience, not enough support. Why else are we having all these debates?

2. From outside the arts, the world looks very different from how it looks inside the arts. And, above all, the arts look very different.

3. There's even a literature partly about the arts, written by people in the outside world, including such widely read items as the Richard Florida book I mentioned above, and John Seabrook's Nobrow. People in the arts don't seem to know these books. Certainly they're not cited very often, even in the middle of debates where what they say is directly to the point.

4. People in the arts don't pay enough attention to what people outside the arts think.

5. People in the arts need to pay close attention to what people outside the arts think. Because if you don't have enough audience, or enough funding, or enough advocacy...well, we can all connect the dots ourselves.

But people in the arts are, in my experience, far too focused on inside-the-arts thinking. They (including me) talk, talk, talk about how to engage a new audience, without spending enough time considering what that new audience is really like."

Where do we sign up?

From WCAX News:

Burlington, Vermont - June 25, 2007

The Vermont Youth Orchestra's tour of China is in full swing, and the young musicians' fans back home can keep up-to-date with their travels.

The VYO has a blog on its web site. Twenty-five kids are keeping online diaries, and taking still photos, video, and sound recordings. The China Project is a program created by the non-profit Young Writers Project.

VYO tour manager Art DeQuasie explains, "We have kids who are just going to record ambient sounds of each place we go to, record several minutes of what's going on in each place, and do interviews. So there will be a whole audio segment to it, which will be great."

When they get back, the Vermont Youth Orchestra plans to produce a DVD using the materials the kids are collecting. Radio and public television documentaries are also possible. You will find a link to the musicians' blog at the top of this article. They plan to update it more frequently as their two-week tour continues.

Jack Thurston - WCAX News

Monday, June 25, 2007

Good Vibrations!

Judging from the mad pace of posting on the Internet, maneuvering behind the scenes, and vibrating on the grapevine, Nick and I have accomplished one of our primary goals. FINALLY, no matter which orchestra students choose, their experience is going to be better than it has been for some time.

That is a very good thing.


The Oklahoma Youth Orchestra is participating in a salute to Kodaly at the Budapest summer music festival. --Budapest Times

"Chamber music is dead. Long live chamber music." --NYT

"A recent Northwestern University study found that almost all incoming freshman music majors already have a playing-related physical ailment, Dr. Chesky says." --Dallas News

Cheap tickets to great events? "Goldstar Events, a California-based online company that sells half-price tickets to live performances in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, is successfully reaching young audiences with personalized Web-based marketing techniques that match buyers with events."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

An entirely new kind of orchestra.

Wow. I didn't know about these orchestras. Which of these ideas could/should we modify to use with MYO?

...there's Red, An Orchestra, in Cleveland, which draws over 1000 younger people to each of its concerts. Recently it played in Second Life. I've never been to its concerts, though I've talked to some of the people who run it. Red seems to succeed on programming, and most of all on branding itself, so to speak, as an exciting shared experience. People who identify with it wear red to its concerts...

...[River Oaks Chamber Orchestra has] taken a classical concert and made it into a friendly, fun, social event without compromising the music. Thus proving what I've always thought -- it's not the music or the programming that need help in the orchestra world, it's the EXPERIENCE...

...All the musicians present... agreed that musicians ought to look more involved...

...the formal dress really has to [g]o. I'd suggest, as an interim measure, that some concerts be given with formal dress and some without...

And here are some thoughts about audience involvement and happiness research: also suggests that the traditional, temple-of-art music-appreciation presentation (which I've always rather liked) is self-defeating as well, since it promotes monitoring of the experience. You're encouraged to listen for landmarks, to notice things, to sense the connection between the local and the global. And it turns out that all that encouragement just gets in the way of the joy of listening...

...It also suggests that the best concert experience would be the most neutral and music-focused, and that any form of window-dressing, be it old-fashioned or new-fangled, is just a distraction. Odd—you may be thirsty, but if you have to have the well pointed out to you, the water isn't as sweet. It turns out what jazzes us the most is serendipity.

Wake-up Call from Glastonbury

Excerpts from an article about another youth orchestra:
“We are beautifully placed to take risks – in terms of presenting classical music to audiences – that professional orchestras aren’t,” says Jonathan Vaughan, the orchestra’s director. “The NYO is young and dynamic and it wants to challenge the orthodox.” Vaughan’s players are equally serious about promoting the music they play. “I’ve got friends going to Glastonbury, who’ve said: ‘Wow! You’re playing – we’ll come and see you,’ ” says the 16-year-old percussionist Katy Hebditch. “They’d never in their lives come to a classical concert.”

...the NYO play with a musical understanding and vitality that leave one happy to be alive. Four times as many hopeful musicians, all Grade 8 distinction or above, audition for the 160-strong orchestra each year.

“It would have been great to explore another rock or pop collaboration,” Vaughan says. Bj√∂rk is on his wishlist, “but we had two weeks to think about a new piece.” Vaughan and the conductor Charles Hazlewood settled on Terry Riley’s In Cas sufficiently innovative. It is aleatoric; Riley wrote 53 phrases but how the orchestra plays them is up to each individual. “Putting classically trained musicians into an arena where they’re asked to make artistic decisions can be scary,” adds Vaughan...

I was working in my yard the other day when a woman pushing a stroller stopped to talk. Eventually we got to kids. When I told her Molly was studying cello in Salzburg this summer, she exclaimed, "Oh! I went there with my youth orchestra!" I was stunned by the coincidence, as my mind has been nothing but YO lately. Reflecting back on Molly's five years in AYS, she played 15 concerts at Indian Springs, 5 at Boutwell. Period. No Salzburg. No anywhere. She'll never enthuse to a stranger about her AYS adventures. There weren't any.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rock the Boat

When it comes to staking out adjectives, we'll let MOP have 'premier' and '30-year-old', as well as 'full-length' for concerts. (Although one might ponder which conductor got in trouble for programming enough music to require an intermission.)

We'll gladly take 'brand new' and 'fresh' with 'unconventional' for concerts. (Of course, that would only apply here in Birmingham. We're 'sticks-in-the-mud' compared to the rest of the world.) We'll also take 'risky' and 'insane'. I'm sure we'll also accept the burden of 'inexperienced' and 'bumbling'. But then we'll need 'flexible' and 'fun'. Oops, I think we took too many.

Our slogan for today:
Still making waves among Birmingham's young musicians after three whole weeks.


Nick and I have discussed the 'mission' of MYO. One of the purposes of a youth orchestra is to teach the classical repertoire. But we feel that our program should address more than that. I think it is important that at least some of what the students do is accessible to their peers. We need to create some performances that friends are eager to attend.

Good point from Greg Sandow:

We in classical music badly need to know what the Bjork/Dylan/Sopranos/Almodovar audience thinks about classical concerts. Note that I'm not saying classical concerts are, in themselves, bad or good, as presently presented. Even [though] I don't care for them (along, I might add, with many younger classical musicians), that's not an absolute value judgment. Just a personal preference. And in any case I've spent most of my professional life in the classical music world, and gotten a world of joy out of it.

In its most basic form, this is a matter of numbers. The mainstream classical music world isn't sustaining itself. The alternative classical music world (string quartets in clubs, Bang on a Can, all the things Molly goes to) has never sustained itself. Financially, I mean. These worlds, to sustain themselves, will need more audience. The potential audience is, as far as anyone can see, made up of people with -- generally speaking -- the culture I've described. So their cultural preferences, and how these differ from the culture classical music offers, are something it's crucial for classical music people to understand, if classical music is going to survive.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Really Old People: Can They Get a Clue? is hosting a public discussion of the following:
The ways in which people are accessing and interacting with art are changing. Suddenly the traditional rules don't seem to apply, and people are demanding different things from artists and art institutions. So what do these changes mean and how do the traditional arts adapt to them?

Nick and I have been following this conversation because we have been asking ourselves the same question. We've tossed around all sorts of ideas about what our orchestra members want and need--what will engage them in the orchestra, make them eager to come to rehearsal. In the years to come, these students will make up both the membership and the audience of the classical ensembles of their communities. If we can't convince them that this kind of music is worth their time now, it's unlikely they'll change their mind in the future.

Both of us came to the same conclusion at the same time. Why don't we just ask the kids?

So I will do that informally now and we'll ask more formally later. If you could design the perfect youth orchestra, what would it look like? What music would it play? Where would it perform?
Do you want to see your performances on YouTube or available as a ringtone? Cuts from rehearsals in a podcast?
What do you think would be the best way for a youth orchestra to serve the community?

Nick and I are really old. The connections we have with young musicians are through our own children and our jobs. We are 'early adopters' and try to pay attention to what's going on. But we know we don't really have a clue. So it's your job to fill us in. Any time. All the time. Don't be afraid to tell us we're idiots or insane! We suspect as much already!

Here's a great quote from Laura Jackson in the above discussion:

Take risks and have the courage to try new things. Even if they seem ridiculous to some of us or scandalously irreverent, we can only learn from trying. More importantly, we need to allow others in the field to do the same without an instantaneous negative judgment that shuts off opportunity. I admit that I will need to remind myself of this more often than most; more than once, I found myself cringing while reading the suggestions bloggers put forth for changes in the listening experience.

Trying new things also means giving them a chance to thrive with the full support of our institutions, from marketing to artistic, education to development. We must commit whole-heartedly and go for it. If a new idea is not an instant hit, we shouldn't automatically discard it either. Some of our confusion about the success of something may come from doing without the nurturing process of evaluation and improvement. Rather than just trying another experiment if instant success is not ours, we must learn from our attempts and try to refine our experiments to reach success.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Change or die?

From an article on the decline of classical music criticism by Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal:

One thing any publicist wants is advance coverage, preview articles about whatever's being publicized. Once, the opera publicists said, they'd get these automatically. But that had stopped. "You're doing 'La Traviata'?" an editor might say. "You did it three years ago. What's the story now?"

For orchestras, this could hit even harder. "You're playing Brahms? You played Brahms last week!" Classical music can look predictable to the outside world, and (to be honest) not very interesting. Same old, same old. Great classical masterworks, played by acclaimed classical musicians.

So the classical-music world needs to look at two things: what it offers and how it talks about what it offers. Why are we playing Brahms? What does Brahms give us that Mozart, Feist, or Bruce Springsteen can't? And how, exactly, is this week's Brahms performance different from last week's?

Some classical-music institutions are learning to answer these questions. But as for the many that haven't -- in an age when new arts groups compete for coverage and popular culture keeps getting smarter -- why should they expect any press coverage at all?

This is exactly the problem that MYO wants to tackle. There will be an audience for the ASO in the future if the students in youth orchestra now learn to love 'classical' music and discover how culturally relevant orchestral music of all kinds can be.

Peter Sellars: A Small Flame

Some interesting comments from Peter Sellars in the Jan/Feb 2007 'Symphony' magazine published by the American Symphony Orchestra League.

...the idea that you only read literature to answer one of three questions, and you better pick the one we will tell you is right. And that’s why you’re reading literature? Not to have your own ideas? Not to have your own imagination unleashed? No one ever has come up with your answer. That’s the point of reading literature. That’s the point of listening to music. Not to get the right answer, but to find your answer. You are the human being capable of finding it...

... we need the next generation of citizens who are informed, thoughtful, capable of listening, capable of imagination, capable of a new set of solutions and possibilities, not just following the guidelines that have already been laid down and repeating back what they’re told is right. That’s why Beethoven wrote music, to break those boundaries—and to do it with fury and overwhelming power and overwhelming commitment and some humor. But blazing! Not being polite...

...We stand for the ability to do something that is unpopular and difficult at a moment when it counts...

...If you want to diversify the audience, you have to diversify what’s on stage. You have to find ways of collaborating so that you actually are able to present and honor a whole range of traditions, a whole range of people, because a symphony has to represent who lives here. And that means on stage. That’s where the imagination really has to be engaged...

...may I ask you to build your organization out of the deepest things in your life. What you need is to still be alive 20 years from now to protect these things like a small flame in a terrible wind. If you stand for something, you will stand...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Unusual Fervor

Alex Ross gave the ASO a nice write-up in the New Yorker:
Thinking about the performance afterward, I understood more deeply that building a major orchestra isn’t a matter simply of gathering the best players from the leading conservatories and paying a celebrity maestro millions to lead them. Great performances can happen anytime skilled players respond with unusual fervor to a conductor whose vision is secure. That’s what happened in Alabama, when an underpaid but committed orchestra put together as potent a performance of Beethoven’s revolutionary symphony as I’ve heard in several seasons.


Sunday, June 17, 2007


Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
- Mahatma Gandhi

What do I care about youth orchestras?

I sat down with a retired business man last week to get his perspective on the creation of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestras. He's a former CEO and very savvy. He analyzed our project like a chess game, looking several moves ahead. This was very helpful, as I'm not very good at games.

One of the questions he asked me was why I would be interested in getting involved in a youth orchestra program when my children were not going to benefit, motivation being a key to success.

I participated in youth orchestras and my daughter has played in them for years. I've watched the members of each orchestra with awe. The energy and dedication the students put into the music is evident in their intensity during a performance. Youth orchestras provide a unique environment--different from sports, marching band, scouting--where these young people learn a new kind of discipline and teamwork--and to appreciate music from the inside out. The opportunity to play in a youth orchestra should be available to every interested student. I'll do what I can to make that happen.

So, for me, it comes down to 'Right Livelihood'. Or, as Richard Bach said: 'It's like, at the end, there's this surprise quiz: Am I proud of me? I gave my life to become the person I am right now. Was it worth what I paid?' I know what I want my answers to be.

The last two months have been difficult, painful and scary. They have also been exciting, challenging, and, at times, quite fun. I have found new strengths in myself and new friends. And old friendships have been tested. Some have held true, some, sadly, have not. I believe I have done the right thing. Somebody needed to do something. So I did. I expect there will be consequences. I'll deal.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


For the 10th day, my Internet connection is spotty and weak. So much for 'always on' and 'high speed'.
Updates for the blogs and website have been nearly impossible. And last night I decided to sleep instead of working all night while the Internet was good.

I have lots information to add and update. Please check back or subscribe to the newsfeed.

A Quote I Want to Remember

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. -Emma Goldman, social activist (1869-1940)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wow. We're off to a great start!

Yesterday was unbelievable!
We sent invitations to students eligible to join the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra based on past accomplishments.
We also announced our program to private teachers and the music community at large.
As a result, I spent the day delightedly responding to emails. Except for when my Internet went down--which was often. (Charter has been giving me fits since last Thursday.)
Four members have already paid online and three have said they've mailed checks. And we've even had a donation. How exciting!
Several teachers have asked to be listed on our teacher page.
And many other people have sent messages of support and encouragement.
Thank you to everyone!

When Nick and I decided to go ahead with this venture, we debated what kind of a response we might get. We hoped for enough to have viable ensembles for the 2007-08 season. These initial members and their enthusiasm indicates that we very well may be on track to success!

I've just emailed invitations to those eligible to join 'Cosmic'. I hope these students are also excited about what we're offering. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

I'll get to listen!

We've decided not to have receptions after our concerts. Receptions require a lot of time, money, and effort and do not seem to generate the social benefit desired.

Instead, we'll PARTY! At least a couple of parties for each orchestra. It's much easier to have fun when you're not worried about getting bean dip on your concert black.