I have spent the last year working with one of my oldest and closest friends, Michael Stepniak, Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory, on a book, which is about to be released by Routledge:
I am deeply grateful to be part of this project for many reasons, but especially because it forced me to clarify my thoughts around the possible path forward for classical music. While we are living at a time of tremendous cultural change which includes virtual disappearance of traditional forms of employment for classical musicians, there is an opportunity to find new deeper relevance beyond culturally marginalized vintage form of entertainment it has become. From an evolutionary biologist’s perspective, all art at its core is a “fitness display,” signaling surplus energy resources to prospective mates and competitors. While some classical musicians and music lovers may find this point of view too utilitarian and simplistic, to me this view makes a case for arts being at least as essential to human development, as sports and humanities.
In sports, there is no expectation that even among those few athletes who manage to reach Olympic podium or become a part of professional team, sport would provide a life-long employment. If more young musicians preparing for major international competitions understood that while winning several of these contests may lead to proverbial “15 minutes of fame,” it will not lead to statistically significant long-term improvement in financial outcome, it would certainly help setting reality-based expectations. Sports do offer a lifetime physical benefits and there should be a similar expectation when it comes to musical training. Finally, sports are often credited with developing leadership and teamwork skills and playing in an ensemble can offer similar developmental opportunities.
In humanities, there is perhaps even less of an expectation that English or Philosophy majors would be able to make a living as writers, poets or professors. There is however an understanding that critical thinking, ability to speak and write well, and ability to consider issues from multiple perspectives in a debate, are fundamental to success in an increasingly fast changing world.
Perhaps our future is in a commitment to empowering individuals by developing skills and senses, rather than in an increasingly futile competition with other forms of entertainment. If enough classical music institutions make this commitment a priority it could lead to unexpected sources of support and it could also significantly grow a number of stakeholders in our beloved art form.