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Ideas on Learning

Keeping classical music alive

I grew up in a classical music community that had tremendous faith in the tradition and artistry of its music. But it also sensed that its dominance was slipping.

The community felt under siege. It was the 1970s and 80s. Funding cuts in the arts, declining enrollment in school orchestras, declining symphony ticket sales and the popularity of rock were all signs that our community was threatened.

Paradoxically, the more threatened the classical music community felt, the more exclusionary we became. When a student left classical music lessons to play other styles of music, the loss was described by the adults around me in ways that sounded similar to when someone stopped going to church. Sadness, pity, irritation.

That community-wide anxiety I witnessed made the origin story for a band I enjoy so interesting to me.

Back in the early 2000s, 3 musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra would get together to jam and play folk music. One night at an orchestra concert, a thunderstorm knocked the power out.

The orchestra was unable to perform in the dark, so these 3 friends — 2 violinists and a bass player — came to the front of the stage. They began to play the very non-classical music they had been exploring in the privacy of their homes.

The audience loved it. The 3 orchestra players were so well-received that they decided to turn their informal jam group into a performance group that became Time for Three.

I’ve thought about that scene many times since hearing this story years ago. I can picture the stand lights on stage going off simultaneously and the orchestra coming to a tapered silence. Murmurs on and off-stage turn into conversations expressing concern and uncertainty. Then someone steps forward.

I’ve played out different scenarios in my mind about that moment.

One alternative story is that the Performance Hall manager comes out and says, “Ladies and Gentleman, in lieu of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing, we are going to have a folk band play some songs for you tonight.” And from off-stage walk 3 musicians, dressed casually, who play music that no one is familiar with.

I imagine the reception would have been different. I think these hypothetical visiting musicians would have been given a polite reception, at best.

What made the audience so receptive to the music from these 3 players? I suspect it was that they were from the orchestra. The audience felt surprised and excited that their own people were able to come forward and make music in this unusual situation. The music was not only enjoyable, it was a symbol of resilience and strength and creativity. And, it was fun. The audience was not at all bothered by the break from tradition.

I believe that musical communities are really as much about ‘the people’ as they are about 'the music'.

I think the anxiety I heard from classical music lovers growing up was really their love and connection they felt for me and others in their community around them.

It was a strong desire for our community to stay relevant and whole. A totally reasonable goal that, in retrospect, could have been achieved with a less rigid approach to 'the music' we shared.


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