View From Eastman: Good News, Bad News, Hopeful News, a Challenge

View From Eastman: Good News, Bad News, Hopeful News, a Challenge

James Undercofler
Photo by Laurie Beck Tarver

[Ed. Note: This article, originally given as the 2000 Convocation Address at the Eastman School of Music, is reprinted with the permission of the author from the Spring 2001 edition of Eastman Notes.]

The good news is that people are participating in music more than ever. And we have evidence to this effect. Public schools in this country will start this month short by hundreds of teachers in music, especially in the areas of general music and strings. Some school districts will become so frustrated over their inability to find certified string teachers that, my fear is, in time they’ll just give up. We have a severe shortage of public school music teachers. In fact, our music education department here guarantees any student majoring in music education a choice of jobs on graduation.

In community education throughout the country, settlement schools, community schools of music, and private music teachers are experiencing an abundance that is unprecedented. Our own Community Education Division [at the Eastman School of Music] grew beyond its capacity. The Hochstein School is enrolled to its limit. It goes on and on. The interest in music at the community level is extraordinarily high.

Children’s music programs in churches and synagogues are growing at an unprecedented pace, as are children’s community choirs. Our own New Horizons Band created by Eastman Professor Roy Ernst has grown throughout the world as a concept of older adults beginning music lessons for the first time and playing in bands. I am amazed that last year the New Horizons Band concert in Eastman Theatre drew more than 2,000 people. And today, in an e-mail from Ellen Koskoff, I learn that our own Gamelan Ensemble now has grown to three sections.

We have just a sampling of examples here, but a very clear picture emerges: People want to make music. Why is this so? Let’s be sure to look at this from the perspective of young professionals in today’s audience, as well as the seasoned professionals in music sitting among you.

One: music making is a basic human need. People need to do it. We know this. They need to make music. It’s something we do. Parents know that music-making is good for their children. They have a hard time telling you why, but they know instinctively that music-making and involvement in music is good for their children. Two: Many people enjoy the social contact of music-making. They tell me that the personal aspect of expressing themselves is very important, that social contact, again, is important. And, three: Music connects people to their own lives, to something inside them.

What is the bad news? In 1970, the Chicago Symphony employed one hundred professional musicians and approximately 25 administrators to support those hundred musicians. Today the Chicago Symphony employs one hundred musicians and over a hundred administrators to support those same musicians. We have to look at the reason for this and examine whether it is good news or bad news.

The growth in the Chicago Symphony’s administrative staff has been in marketing and public relations, to keep their audiences against the competition of other entertainment and cultural venues. Also, there is growth in the area of development and fund raising because the cost of running the operation has increased so rapidly, as has the cost of marketing. It’s in the area of education and audience development—what we would call education and outreach. The same pattern is true across the country in professional arts organizations. The administrative staffs are growing so rapidly our graduates could be employed as administrators in any number of organizations today.

I was concerned this summer when I read that Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, which undoubtedly presents a fine musical product and shares its operas with New York City Opera, earns only one dollar for every three it has to raise. Can you imagine the size of the development operation they need to raise three dollars for every dollar raised on ticket sales?

What else do I see as “bad news”? This summer at Tanglewood, I looked carefully at the Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s repertoire for its concerts in the Shed. If you are unfamiliar with Tanglewood, there are two performance venues. One is the Shed, the Koussevitzky Shed, which is really the place where the Boston Symphony performs, and then there is Ozawa Hall which is a wonderful concert hall, but is where the students perform and where less mainstream events take place. The only two American composers performed in the Shed this year were John Williams and Aaron Copland. Now, nothing against those two fine gentlemen—and John Williams will be here this year to guest conduct—but neither would be considered avant-garde or “cutting edge” in their stylistic expression.

Likewise, the New York Philharmonic is opening its season this fall with a series of all-Mendelssohn concerts, and the Metropolitan Opera‘s fall concert season is entirely 19th century: late 18th-century, 19th-century, and early 20th-century music.

The Boston Symphony will run a $500,000 deficit at Tanglewood this summer. They blame it on weather, on rain and cold, and my huge leap here is that perhaps they are not challenging their audiences with their choice of repertoire.

I am moving now into hopeful news.

First, repertoire: The American Music Center in New York (I happen to be on the board of directors there, so I have more information about this than other places) created approximately two years ago a new on-line magazine called NewMusicBox, which focuses entirely on contemporary music—the most avant-garde. Their monthly number of hits has reached 350,000, and in an analysis of their 350,000 hits, 35,000 of those hits are for a half-hour or longer. So they are developing an extraordinary readership and listenership through their Web site magazine.

The director of the Miller Theatre at Columbia University tells me that he doesn’t dare do Berio or Reich anymore because he can’t handle the audiences. People become too upset. Concerts sell out so far in advance, people line up all the way around the block for tickets the night of the concert, and they become angry. The image is just wonderful: people fighting over wanting to get in.

Look at the San Diego Symphony, which went out of business approximately four or five years ago. If you do an analysis of its programming at the time of its death, it was exclusively 19th century with some early 20th-century music. It has reincarnated itself involving music of its ethnic minorities or ethnic majorities. I should add in that area that its concert season is being greeted with much more enthusiasm and its revenue is up substantially.

Second, audience development: there are some very interesting attempts being made to connect to audiences. The St. Louis Symphony acquired the St. Louis Conservatory when it was in financial difficulty, and members of the St. Louis Symphony teach at the conservatory. A conscious effort is made there to connect the education programs of the orchestra to the conservatory. There are weaknesses in this program in that the musicians’ contract with the St. Louis Symphony does not include a responsibility to teach at the Conservatory—it’s voluntary.

Finally, we come to the challenge: Three years ago, I spoke to the School in my inaugural address about what I call “the great disconnect.” I’ll give you a perfect example of “the disconnect.” My wife teaches 30 violin students. When we interview them as to how many have ever attended a concert at the Eastman School or the Eastman Theatre, only a very small number ever have or really are interested in doing so, even if given free tickets. I would guess that as we went through the huge number of people studying music and engaged in music that I listed at the beginning, only a small percentage would be interested in “consuming” music in its traditional format, and I stress traditional format. We’ve got to find ways to connect these people who love music and love being involved in music with music concerts and events, perhaps in new formats. Not that what these students are doing is not music, but they need to be tied into the whole. I think there are some keys here, but I often think that my generation is the transitional generation and that it’s you young people who have the answers, and that you will find answers to this challenging question.

Of particular importance is that the music must be of our time. It must speak to us from something that reaches inside us and makes a personal connection. Now, that can be music of the 19th century, 18th century, 16th century, but it also has to be music of the 21st century and of the late 20th century. That music was written by us and for us, and it must be consumed, enjoyed, and processed by us. The music must touch our own culture, whatever that is, because to speak to us it must make a cultural connection. And perhaps most important, the music must be made available to us in a way that we can access it.

James Undercofler (BM ’67) is professor of music education and director and dean of the Eastman School.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.