If I Were A Classical Musician

A Premier at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC. Courtesy http://www.brooklynvegan.com

Next month, I will graduate from the U of MN with a Masters degree in trumpet performance. My studies in my Masters program have been primarily in the classical trumpet field, though I did serve as the jazz theory TA for a semester, and have taken jazz comp lessons for three semesters (I have a BA in Jazz Studies). So when I say “If I were a classical musician….” I mean to say that I do not identify as a classical musician because the majority of the playing I do professionally is in a jazz setting.

So…If I were a classical musician, I would be treating my art as if I were a jazz musician. Jazz musicians are self-made performers. They grind it out searching for clubs that will have their music and pay them a little money to play it. When they’re not playing a gig, they’re likely practicing, transcribing, rehearsing or blogging about their art. They are visible, and they treat themselves sort of the same way a rock band might. You promote your music, play in clubs, and try and build a fan base. Really, jazz musicians look at themselves as independent musicians. Period. Not “jazz musicians,” just “musicians.” This at least does away with all the recent “jazz is dead” talk, and allows you to simply function as someone who makes good music. If you make good music, and you believe people will enjoy it, then who cares what it is called?

So why are classical musicians not acting this way?

In New York City there is a night club that is the new craze. People are lined up around the block every night to get in, but it isn’t your usual club mix thumping through the open front door, it is the sound of a string quartet playing a piece by Mozart, or a brass quintet playing the latest Samuel Adler work. It’s a club for classical musicians, and it really is a club. People sit at their small tables, sip a cocktail, and enjoy the prestige of listening to something a little more high brow than the latest Cee Lo Green hit. The club’s mission is to bring in great music, no matter what the genre. Their list of artists who have performed there includes the Calder String Quartet, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arditti Quartet and many other well-known and not-so-well-known classical groups. It also includes some bigger names in jazz and hip hop, including Brad Mehldau and Mos Def.

Surprisingly, clubs like this are not popping up all over the country, despite this one’s success. Obviously not all clubs of this nature can be successful enough to bring in such huge names. Location is an issue and bringing in Philip Glass from NYC is different than bringing him in to Minneapolis. Regardless, it’s clear that there is an audience for this type of thing, and it’s a wonder why no one has tried to duplicate the concept in some way.

Here is where thinking like a jazz musician comes in handy. You see, I think like a jazz musician. I love classical music, and I love to play classical music, but I am really not pursuing a career in the field. If I were, I would be knocking on the door of every type of place that might consider having a night where they host classical musicians. Jazz people do it all the time. We send out emails to clubs that don’t usually have jazz and we say “Hey, how about a jazz night?” Well, how about a night of classical music? Why the hell not? It’s an untapped scene that has a huge potential upside.

Can’t afford to spend $60 on opera tickets? Come hear so and so sing all the arias from Gluck’s Iphigenia. Don’t like having to dress up to see your friends play in the orchestra? Come check out their Woodwind Quintet hit it at a local music cafe or bar.

Why the hell not?

Then we’re looking at a world of possibilities: You know how jazz musicians sell CDs? They play shows. You know how they build a fan base? They play shows. You know how they get concerts and clinics at universities? They play shows. Why the hell aren’t classical musicians doing this? Be assertive, promote yourself, record a CD, rehearse, play shows, print T-shirts…treat your classical chamber group as a band, and people will start to act like fans.

You know why people look like a deer in head lights when you talk to them about playing classical music? It’s because they’ve seen classical music even less than they’ve seen jazz. If the scene isn’t working, why not change the game? Classical musicians, orchestras, operas…they’ve all experienced a drop off in attendance. The natural reaction is to find more donors, tighten the belt, and stick to the old classics, but that audience is literally dying off and we’re doing nothing to make sure this art stays alive.

There are some orchestras that are known for being cutting edge and are bringing in more people, but the majority are in the middle of a downward spiral that is accompanied by Beethoven’s 5th and the Nutcracker Suite. Do yourself a favor and do something different. The opportunities for classical musicians are endless, all it takes is a little initiative.



3 thoughts on “If I Were A Classical Musician

  1. “all it takes is a little initiative.” haha. It’s totally true, although when it comes to any kind of freelance art it’s assumed that “a little initiative” is along the lines of 20-40 hours/week. Amiright?

    I think one reason you don’t see the same kind of creativity in seeking out/making new gigs in the classical world is that there are lots of positions that pay substantial money, and for the most skilled musicians it’s more cost effective to compete for the good gigs than to make ones’ own. It’s just really damn hard to make money off anything new right now, whether it be new venues, a new band, original tunes or an album – it boils down to the fact that it’s harder than ever to be a successful entrepreneur. Blame it on digital music, a bad economy or general overstimulation of the population – I don’t pretend to know – but it’s obviously not impossible. And we’re trying, and it’s damn hard work, and it’s fun, and I don’t want to do anything else. Sothereyouhaveit.

  2. You know, I thought of the people having college jobs “professor” thing, but those people are a small percentage of the people who love performing. I was really thinking more along the lines of college-age people, or just after college. No chance for a prof job, and no other way to make money. Why aren’t they knocking on doors? I just don’t get it. I get why professor so and so finds it much nicer to hold out for the better paying gigs, but everyone else should be making it happen.

  3. The real reason you might not be seeing the same kind of creativity in seeking out/making new gigs in the classical world is simply because you don’t have your feelers out for it and haven’t read your recent classical history. It might not be generating a lot of press, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Jazz does not have information about self-promotion and DIY that classical does not. We’ve been stealing ideas from each other — musical and logistical — for a long time now. Furthermore, there are many characters in the experimental/underground scenes who are claimed by both jazz and classical musicians as part of their worlds. John Zorn is a prime example. You might see his actions only as they affect jazz; we classical folk like to see them as they affect classical.

    Le Poisson Rouge is simply the latest development in a 40+ year history of classical musicians in New York doing the kinds of things you are describing. We could possibly stretch this history back to the concerts that Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions organized in the 30s. There has always been an underground classical scene, but people don’t always describe it as such. Tom Johnson’s and Kyle Gann’s collected writings from their Village Voice articles describe the network of composers, performers, and venues in the underground/experimental/what-have-you classical scene in New York from about the late 60s to the early 80s (“The Voice of New Music” and “Downtown Music” respectively). But that doesn’t mean it stopped there. A myriad of groups, venues, record labels, and presenters have been carrying the torch since then, but no one has yet collected this information in a book. See Bang on a Can, Friends and Enemies of New Music, Anti-Social Music, thingNY, Newspeak, RedShift, Now Ensemble, New Amsterdam for examples of groups and presenters and look at the variety of places they’ve held concerts in their history.

Leave a Reply