Who cares about live music?

"Tell Someone Who Cares"Time for a rant/ rave/ vent, methinks. It’s been a while. Bear with me:

Who cares about live music?

Everywhere I look there are stories of musicians being yelled off their stage, performers crying for “decent” pay, orchestras and opera houses closing down, music schools diminishing beyond recognition, and a host of other music-related news that simply doesn’t play a pretty tune.

So, who actually still cares about music?

  • Musicians do (instrumentalists, singers, composers, conductors).
  • Politicians will if it makes them popular.
  • Some film producers and directors do.
  • Music writers and administrators do.
  • Music teachers and professors do.
  • Some corporate executives hoping to make their company look good by supporting local musical establishments might.

Who else?

  • And don’t tell me dancers do – if they did we’d still have live musicians at every performance.
  • And don’t tell me most audiences do – if they did they’d willingly pay the costs of every concert.
  • And don’t tell me clergy do – if they did they wouldn’t be promoting celebrities who sing to pre-recorded tracks.

But despite the seemingly exhaustive list of supporters, first: look how many people who experienced music directly in their lives are those who remain passionate about it, and second: I can’t help but feel an underlying podium of obligation and hidden-agenda persuasion.

The fact is, in 2013 there are very few people who care about one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of expression. “Music” has been around for as long as birds could whistle and people could control the pitch of their voices. For centuries it was just a part of everyday life for just about everyone.

16th Century Gregorian Chant Song Book

This 16thC songbook in Seville Cathedral contains many chants “composed” over hundreds of years

Then, about 500+ years ago, someone figured out a way to write it down so others could repeat what was being expressed. (Actually, music was used in the church to aid priests with their memorization of liturgical text – a trick that is still used today.) I’ve seen one of the earliest songbooks known to exist, currently housed in Seville cathedral, and when people stop to consider what it represents, it is an awesome thing. But, like so many museum pieces, most people just wander by and say ¡Qué Bueno! (“That’s nice.”) You can hear the apathy in their tone.

Since then, there’s been a direct split between formal music and popular music. Even these words seem insufficient to describe the horrors of classifying and labeling just about each individual’s specific tastes, desires, likes and academic output of organized sound-based expression.

But what really scares me are these two facts:

1. Older generations are telling younger generations that music is unworthy, not to be valued, and an interrupting annoyance. Instead, we are taught by decision-makers and influencers that it is a gimmick, a sometimes useful but very expensive tool of persuasion, and wholly unessential or unnecessary for anyone’s well-being. Example: “Our youth groups don’t want to see an orchestra on stage – that’s not our vision for them.” Example: “Oh! That youth orchestra is just way too loud whilst we’re shopping. C’mon, let’s leave.” Example: This whole flashmob was commercially staged, including the little girl at the beginning – the bank the performers were in front of was celebrating its 130th birthday.

2. Musicians are out to prove their relevance/ worth/ value, demand certain rights, and are using Music as a political means to get what they want (be that income, satisfaction, their own worth/ value, proof that they matter or haven’t wasted their lives pursuing something pointless, etc.).

Ouch.

And I’m fed up with it.

In today’s technological digitized world, is there even a future for music? At all? We have created machines that compose and conduct, and devices that source every piece of music that has ever been recorded or constructed as an audio file. [And that’s a whole other rant – are we listening to the performers, or the sound system? More on that another time.] Music provides some sort of background sensory stimulation in almost every activity many Western humans undertake, including shopping, using public toilets, driving, office work, jogging, and so on.

The recent spike in popularity of orchestras playing music whilst a film is displayed above them is an extension of the old piano-playing cinemas of… wait for it… not even a hundred years ago. In Beethoven’s time it was rare for concert halls to have seats. People mingled, chatted, ate & drank, and had a good old time hanging out. In Mozart’s time, operas told stories of faraway places and unknown cultures with drama and costumes and scenery and, of course, dramatic music.

Mention opera nowadays and most people yawn.

What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are humans headed next? Hardly the dearly desired World Peace, that’s for sure! And I fear the loss of music and the senses that rely on it for their useful/ proper/ full development, will transform humans into unthinking creatures of survival habit.

And yet we’ve come so far…

What do you think? Add a comment below and let’s talk about it…

Maybe it’s just in specific cultures. Maybe this is all totally imagined. Regardless, I’m upset so many humans around us are dismissing live music making, and I’m getting angry enough to do something about it in my little circle of influence. More about that soon!

 

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

#PsalmQuest Bass Clarinet Joint Commission!

Well, this turned into an amazing project!

A local performer reached out to me and said “We should work together!” He was very generous in sharing what a good reputation I have amongst some of his colleagues, so with my esteem duly stroked I said, “Sure!”

Bass Clarinets rule!

clarinette familleTurns out Calvin Falwell is a Bass Clarinet geek. Geeks are cool these days, so that is a compliment. It is also a compliment because I used to play bass clarinet myself when I was 12. You can hear a little about that story on the video below. You can imagine how excited I was when Calvin suggested I write a concerto for bass clarinet and strings.

YES!

Well, some international celebrity solo musicians have the label backing and royalty income to pay for commissions out of their own pockets, whereas the vast majority of enthusiasts and professionals like Calvin don’t. He is a remarkably busy orchestral and opera clarinetist with a hefty teaching schedule at the University of South Florida as well, so I’m thrilled to be working with him.

But how can we make this work? Well, speaking of thrills, I’m trusting that whatever I compose will be thrilling for you, too. Perhaps there’s a way we can partner up and not only produce a piece of music that ROCKS (Calvin’s term), but that we can perform and record – possibly even put on film.

Many small parts = one HUGE outcome

(Click it to tweet it)

As I state in the video below, many small contributions can make a much bigger impact than one or two large grants. So instead of finding someone who might generously donate $1,200 for this piece, why don’t we pool a tiny portion of our own resources together and make it happen much sooner!

Think about that – the more people you share the video below with, then that many more people can participate in jointly commissioning this new concerto! We all win!

  • A fabulous new piece of music gets composed
  • It then gets performed, possibly as part of the Festival of Psalms in May
  • We can get it professionally recorded (and I’ll even send you a CD if you put up $100) so you don’t have to put up with a computer generated MIDI audio file

AND,

  • If you share the video below with enough folk, we can get it filmed and put on Youtube, too – with your name as one of the commissioners or contributors!

Past success:

The last time I wrote a piece of music and invited you to participate, we pooled together more than 650% of the intended budget! 6.5 times the amount I was expecting. This goal is somewhat higher but I think we can still achieve it (especially if you know any clarinet players!) Share the project several times over the next month, and we could even exceed our goal 🙂 Wouldn’t THAT be terrific!

Here –

Watch the video and see what it’s about, what you get, and how you can help others participate:

You can help Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown write a Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings

17 insane (but probably true) things about music

This is just a fun post. None of these facts have been verified, but I bet at least one of them will put a smile on your face! Have a great week 🙂

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown - Conductor Arturo Toscanini

Toscanini’s radio programs started the silent orchestra concert revolution in the 1930s

1. There is a law in New Hampshire that prevents you from tapping your feet, nodding your head, or in any other way keep time to music whilst in a tavern (pub), restaurant or cafe.

2. In the 1930s, applause caused Toscanini’s radio concerts to be too long so the audience was asked to be quiet. Until then, classical music concerts were extremely rowdy with people standing, walking around, drinking & eating, and having complete conversations while the musicians performed.

3. No one knows where Mozart is buried.

4. Warner Communications paid $28 million for the copyright to the song Happy Birthday.

5. The Japanese national anthem is expressed in only four lines. The Greek anthem runs 158 verses.

6. In France, between the hours of 8AM and 8PM, 70% of music on the radio must be by French artists. (Maybe not so insane?)

7. James Brown had 99 “Hot 100” Billboard entries, yet never had a number one Hot 100 hit.

8. British leader Oliver Cromwell outlawed Christmas Carols in England from 1647-1660.

9. When rural Pakistani folksinger Zarsanga sings in public, fans routinely mark the choruses of her most popular Peshto-language songs with mass shotgun-firing.

10. Diana Ross appeared on at least one hit single every year between 1964 and 1996, an incredible 33 years.

11. At age 4, Mozart composed a concerto for the clavier (“piano” predecessor).

12. Dvorak’s symphony nicknamed “From The New World” contains music mostly inspired by his native Bohemia (Czech Rep). It’s actually a musical letter he wrote whilst working in the US, often reminiscing about his homeland.

13. The famed “Here Comes the Bride” march is actually from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin and is the transition into the newlyweds’ [dramatic] bedroom scene, after the wedding had taken place.

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown share an insane fact about music

14. A piece of music written in 1964 by Lamonte Young, is called “The Tortoise Recalling the Drone of the Holy Numbers as They Were Revealed in the Dreams of the Whirlwind and the Obsidian Gang, Illustrated by the Sawmill, the Green Sawtooth Ocelot, and the High-tension Line Stepdown Transformer.”

15. No-one knows how much of Mozart’s Requiem was composed by Mozart, as it was completed by several others after his death. Salieri was not one of them.

16. Apparently, Franz Schubert never owned a piano. He always went to one of his friends house when he needed one.

17. The first conductor to use a baton (Jean-Baptiste Lully, 1632-1687) stabbed himself with it during a concert, and eventually died of gangrene.

Click here to tweet this list!

Do you know of any other strange facts about music? Add them in the comments below.

.

Dreamy… to start with.

The composer Zoltan Kodaly has a special place in my heart and history. I like much of his music, which is very folk-based. He was the chap that pioneered formal classical music based on local regional folk & popular music. He actually traveled around his native Hungary with wax cylinders recording peasants, villagers and gypsies singing their made-up songs. Then he composed pieces of music based on them, and inspired his colleague Bela Bartok to base much of his music on folk tunes and hence the formal genre now known as ‘ethnomusicology‘ was born.

Hungarian Cimbalom Ida Toth Tarjani, 1987 Kodaly Hary Janos Stephen P Brown

Hungarian Cimbalom player Ida Toth Tarjani, 1987

Perhaps Kodaly’s most famous piece is a suite from his opera Hary Janos which features a weird instrument called a cimbalom – it’s like a sideways piano played with sticks instead of keys. When I was playing this piece in Budapest I actually got to have a 3 hour lesson (through an interpreter) with the famous soloist we were playing with, Ida Toth Tarjani. I still fondly look through her autographed instruction manuals with intrigue as I still don’t understand the Hungarian language.

But Kodaly was also present on that trip. Scarily so. In one of the towns we toured through, the orchestra played in a modern concert hall with large huge headshots of Kodaly and Bartok on the sides of the stage overlooking proceedings. During the Hary Janos Suite by Kodaly I made a mistake and played a cymbal crash in the wrong place (something I did again in a Tchaikovsky piece when playing for Henry Mancini a few months later. I was 17 and we were on a barge!). After playing it in the right place I sat down and continued counting the beats until my next entry.

As I counted, I was naturally embarrassed and desperately hoping no-one noticed. But I felt a presence, a “look”. It wasn’t the conductor. My fellow players were giggling at me. Inconspicuously I turned around and looked up, and there was the 12 foot face of Kodaly glaring down at me from on high! The composer did not approve.

I’ve played the piece many times since and never had a problem.

Another of my favorite pieces that Kodaly wrote is the Dances of Galanta. As it happens, this is not based on actual folk songs Kodaly collected but because he became so studious at them, he was able to compose original music that sounded like folk music. It starts out wonderfully dreamy and evocative, but I love the fast-pace ending. Click on the video to watch, and ENJOY!

 

Mind the Gap!

Curved platform, straight carriage.

If you’ve ever been on the Tube (London Underground) you’ll be familiar with the phrase “Mind the Gap!” Not only is it announced as train doors open, but it’s also written on the floor in numerous stations.

To make it easy and efficient for trains to traverse the underground tube-like tunnels throughout London, some tracks are curved even in the stations. Therefore, the platforms are also curved. But train carriages are straight. Naturally, the center of each train carriage is the closest it gets to the platform but the ends of each carriage can be far away. For the sake of providing an efficient service, there is a gap.

By this time next week the world of classical music will have a terrific new resource that reduces the size of a similar large gap: A central concert calendar for classical music happening around Tampa Bay. This is a huge area with more than 4 million year-round residents, and what feels like an almost matching number of part-time residents (a.k.a. “snow birds”). With that kind of crowd spread over Florida’s largest metropolitan area it’s no wonder it can boast three regional performing arts centers and seven local performing arts centers.

There’s a lot of music going on around the Bay.

However, to find a concert you have to look at each venue’s website, or each performer’s website, or any one of the media sites that list hundreds of entertainment opportunities of which only a handful may be ‘classical.’ It gets frustrating. So here’s the solution: a new concert calendar website dedicated to the thousands of classical music fans who have access to Tampa Bay. And that includes you! Seriously, even if you don’t live here, have a winter home here, or have never even been here yet, it’s just a quick and easy flight from New York or a couple of hours from Orlando (think: Disney & Universal), but we have far better beaches.

As a truly loyal reader of my blog, I’m going to give you a sneak preview. Click here to take a behind-the-scenes look around the pre-launch site and as you do so, you may notice some gaps. (If you end up on the prelaunch home page, simply click your browser’s BACK button.)

Mind the Gaps:

  1. We need to encourage local performers and presenters to add their concerts. Have a look at March in the calendar view – it’s pretty full but that’s not everything.
  2. Some of the preview and interview articles are all ready for publishing over the next couple of weeks, although you won’t find them on the prelaunch site – just a Welcome article for now.
  3. None of the paid ads are active, yet. Classical music advertisers book spots by the week, so you’ll start seeing some ads after the launch.
  4. We do not have any concert reviews scheduled yet as the site needs to earn some income in order to pay for reviewers’ tickets.
  5. Your name doesn’t appear as a Partner, yet. During your site exploration did you come across the Partner page? That’s a list of people like you who like Classical Music and believe that this site is providing an incredible service. (If it works well, there are other cities that have already expressed interest in having me setup similar sites for them). The costs of hosting and running the site plus providing outstanding editorial content that is not influenced by ads, is pretty intense.

For as little as $1 a week you could help fill the gaps – especially those last two. Please click here to become a Partner of TampaClassical .com and you will be supporting a valuable service for the classical music industry. Seriously – we need to stick together in this day and age of massive distraction, and I hope you feel motivated to inspire the world through becoming a Partner. Or you could buy some ads!

Thank you.

Please visit TampaClassical.com/Partners now

 

#OrchChat – January 2013

Twitter was the home of another FABULOUS discussion amongst some passionate orchestra enthusiasts last night!

#OrchChat was scheduled for one hour and although it got off to a slow start, people from around the world joined in and the discussions got meaty. I’m thrilled so many people participated and some have already made terrific suggestions for next month’s session.

The three topics we explored, with very interesting perspectives from performers and audiences, were:

  1. Public Self-Condemnation: does the language orchestras use turn people off?
  2. Dull vs. Sparkling: ballet, opera, film, video games all have visual elements. Are orchestra concerts boring?
  3. Why should orchestras use Twitter?

What are your thoughts about these topics, and what topics would you like to discuss? Add your comments below this post.

Some stats:

Click this link to read the transcript:

 orchchat_tweets_2013_01_08

THANK YOU to the following participants who I hope will join you and me next time on Tuesday, February 12 at 6pm Eastern Time:

19_eighty_2
afrikajay
AudienceDevSpec
AzuriteEnigma
CStarek
gilypoz7
MaestrosLover
MarkTannerPiano
mlaffs
njd2245
pianobug
Pishlipops
RGinDC
RichardBratby
Stephen_P_Brown
TylerBarton27

You certainly asked!

THANK YOU to all who participated in the 3rd Annual #AskAConductor Day on Twitter earlier this week. Remarkable stuff! Some friendships were rekindled, some new ones made, and I’m hoping that those who like live music (orchestras, choirs, musicals, opera, film, etc.) are now more aware of what conductors actually do, how they do it, and why.

After all, that’s the purpose of giving you a global opportunity to ask a conductor whatever you want!

If you missed it, glean the incredible list of original tweets from the transcript linked below and make sure you join my mailing list so you get to hear about next year’s event ahead of time.

But grab a last-minute chance now – add your question in the comments below and I’ll put it to ‘the crew’ and have a go at answering it myself. We don’t want you non-Tweeters to be left behind, so ask away!

Here are some 2012 #AskAConductor stats:

  • 1028 total tweets between December 11 & December 13 (Eastern Time)
  • 860 original tweets, 68 Retweets
  • 56 participants
  • Most questions from gabriela_hb in El Salvador
  • Top 3 tweeting conductors (excl. me):

Be sure to join in the fun next year!

Click here to download the full transcript (131KB. Need Adobe?)

 

Churches and Arts

How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?

How many churches can you fit into one square mile?

It didn’t take long to get overwhelmed by both the sheer number of churches in Tampa Bay as well as the incredible arts scene. There are artists everywhere, from muralists to house sculptures, street musicians to ballet, four opera companies to symphony orchestras, three regional performing arts centers and seven local ones.

You’ll have no problem finding a
church in Tampa Bay

As for churches, there is barely a single block without one. Every denomination is represented and quite a few independent ones, too. And it’s not as though these churches are spread so thinly they’re all empty – far from it. There are two on the same street with 2,000 seat auditoriums as well as schools. They don’t need a volunteer policeman to help with traffic flow, they have a whole brigade!

So when thinking about what piece of music to write, it happened that the most obvious but probably understated thing about Tampa Bay is the proliferation of churches and arts. Active churches and live arts.

So that’s actually where our story begins, with what became movement 5 of my piece “Tapestry Tampa Bay.” It also happens to be my most favorite piece, because it’s well written and it’s pretty.

Think church bells. Think artsy. Combine the two, and you get a high-pitched bouncy theme that is repeated and repeated and echoed and echoed. Tinkling and hymnal at the same time. Religious yet constantly defying normal conventions. It’s all rolled into one little ditty, which to me encompasses all that Tampa Bay is.

On top of that, there’s some thematic material (i.e. a tune) that was initially a pleasant secret that I can hold in no longer: this movement directly reflects the title of the whole piece. Say “Tapestry Tampa Bay” out loud, in a rhythm and with natural inflection. Soon you’ll be singing along with the music!

—–

The World Premiere concert of this piece has been getting some pretty wide press coverage, I’m very happy to say. The Tampa Bay Times, The Palm Harbor Beacon, NBC News, WFLA-TV, and a spectacular article in the Tampa Tribune.