The music on your unique coming-of-age soundtrack.

As a musician, my view on this is no doubt skewed, but based on what I’ve observed among society at large, people develop a deep and personal relationship with the music that they love. The music industry has gone through its ups and downs, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that a life without music would be unfathomable to most people! One genre within that umbrella, however, seems to be a no-go zone for many: classical music. What do those two words bring to mind? The answer will vary for everyone, but I think for a large percentage of modern society, the associations are not necessarily positive. Despite its long and storied history, it is an art form that has been fighting to survive in the public consciousness and in the court of public opinion.

In addition to my work as a performer, I also teach 30 private flute students, ranging in age from 11-18 years old. They come to me for flute lessons, to supplement the instruction they get in their band programs at school. Most of these young people will not become professional musicians, and that is fine! I’m not necessarily here to create more flutists. I feel my role as their teacher is to teach them life skills through music (punctuality, responsibility, accountability, time-management, the ability to break a large task into smaller, manageable goals, etc.), as well as showing them the joy and satisfaction of self-expression with this language that expresses more than words ever can.

While I knew that my students generally like music (they wouldn’t be in their school music programs if they didn’t!), I was curious about what my students’ attitude toward classical music would be. I decided to informally poll them, asking them to tell me the first thing that came to mind when I said, “classical music.” Their answers really gave me some food for thought.

Old/dead people.
Music from a long, LONG time ago.
Violin. (Oddly, no one said flute!)
Good to study to.
My parents’/grandparents’ music.
Blue. (I will come back to this particular answer later!)

I then asked them if they ever listened to classical music for fun. Naturally, the ones that said classical music was boring said no. But, even the ones that expressed a liking for it mostly said no as well! A few did say yes, but the majority of my students do not listen to classical music unless they “have to” (for band class, etc.). This then led to me asking if they listened to other kinds of music for fun (pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, etc.). Not surprisingly, most said yes (several had looks of, “well, DUH” on their faces).

In a previous post on this blog, I mentioned an interview from the Sound Opinions podcast where a representative from the streaming music service Spotify talked about the listening habits of their users. Basically, their research showed that young people (teens, twenty-somethings) kept up with popular music and spent time seeking out new music, but that these habits slow down as people age and by age 33, most people stop looking for new music and they prefer to stick to what they know they like. The music that people fall in love with in their first few decades of life will be music that they love for the rest of their lives.

“Having been brought up in a very musical household, I think anybody who, like me, has a family where everybody listens to music… it is still an incredibly special thing when you first discover some records and bands that are just yours.” Lauren Laverne, BBC 6 Music, February 5, 2016 

When I entered middle school, my small music collection was an assortment of what my parents listened to, what my friends listened to, and what my older sister listened to. I enjoyed music already, but it wasn’t until I discovered my local alternative radio station (KROQ 106.7 in Los Angeles) at age 12 that I started getting obsessive about it. For me, it all started with The Cure and their album Wish. This was a band that no one else I knew liked – this was perhaps the first group that felt like it was uniquely mine. The spring and summer of 1992 felt like a fever dream of discovery as I basically listened to the radio nonstop and discovered the wonderful world of indie, post-punk, and shoegaze music. In a time period where it seemed like all of my preteen classmates were obsessed with grunge and hip-hop, I definitely was an odd duck, not that I particularly cared. There was something kind of satisfying about feeling like I had a musical secret, and how this music felt like a portal into a world where I belonged. My love for these bands continues to this day, over 20 years later. It’s entirely possible that I might still like them if I had only discovered their existence last year. But, I think the fact that I discovered these bands during those important formative years plays a big part as to why this music so much to me. I do buy new releases from new/current bands, and enjoy them (in some cases, immensely!), but if Spotify’s research is correct, it’s going to be the music I listened to from my teens and through my twenties which will mean something particularly special to me throughout my life.

The other musical world I lived in during my youth was the classical music world. I started flute lessons when I was ten years old, and it was an activity that came quite naturally to me. Classical music was something that was always around when I was a kid; my dad loved listening to all sorts of classical music (particularly classical guitar, which he also played). Hearing Luciano Pavarotti, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, James Galway, and Andres Segovia at home was pretty much a normal everyday activity. However, the classical music that I ended up developing a personal connection to was not the same as what my dad liked. Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius pieces with the LA Philharmonic made me feel like I had found what I had found with shoegaze music when I was 12. I absolutely fell in love with the way that a Mahler symphony can make you feel so small and yet so all-encompassing at the same time. Debussy and Ravel’s music featured some of the most deliciously perfumed harmonies I had ever heard. Later, in graduate school, I became fascinated with the way that minimalist music made time stop and made me feel like I was entering another dimension. This wasn’t my parents’ classical music. This was music that felt uniquely mine.

“Hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” The Smiths, “Panic”

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. They are classics for a reason, of course. Musical geniuses, visionaries… but my students seem to see them as old hat. It’s music from a long time ago, that they can’t relate to, that doesn’t feel uniquely theirs. I’m generalizing (of course there are people that are deeply passionate about these composers!), but I wanted to show my students that classical music is more, MUCH more, than the narrow definition that most people have of it (Bach through Beethoven, orchestra, piano, etc.).

As an experiment, I chose to play a short excerpt from a recording for my students. The piece I chose for this first week was Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Yes, it was a selfish choice because I love it, but I also chose it because I knew most of them would have never heard anything like it. Reactions included the following:

“This isn’t classical music. This sounds cool!”
“What IS this?” (said incredulously)
“I really like this!!” (Three students had this reaction – two are in middle school and one in high school.)
“It’s orange and purple!” (This was from the kid that said classical music was blue. We talked a bit more and figured out that this child is a synesthete. How cool is that?)
“It sounds like we are flying through space!”
“I’m not sure what to think about this. Is this music?” (We then went into a long discussion about what constitutes music. Pretty deep territory!)

A few of my students also made the connection that the cover art to the recording I played for them really looks like the music sounds, which made them appreciate the music on a whole different level. The student with synesthesia expressed a liking for the Reich, so I then hopped on YouTube to play a video of the same composer’s Music for Pieces of Wood which had a series of colorful blocks added to punctuate the different entrances. The student then stated, in that authoritative way so characteristic of 13-year olds, “The colors in this video are ALL wrong.” (I love this so much.)

People have been sounding the death-knell for classical music for a long time. Classical album sales are down. Symphony orchestras are frequently in the news these days with stories of financial troubles, management lockouts and dissolution. However, there are also bright spots. Up from the ashes of the Honolulu and New Mexico Symphony Orchestras rose new orchestras (the Hawai’i Symphony and New Mexico Philharmonic). The Minnesota Orchestra weathered a punishing 15-month lockout at the hands of their management and emerged as an even stronger artistic force with a rabid audience fanbase. In recent seasons, major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and Dallas Symphony (just to name a few) reported record ticket sales. I know my view is pretty orchestra- and USA-centric; I hope you’ll forgive me that as this is my spiritual and physical home. I think despite the glimmers of hope, everyone agrees that new audiences need to be reached, and key to this is outreach to young people, to help cultivate the next generation of classical music lovers.

My time with my students is too short as it is… approximately 30 minutes (on average) once a week for just seven years of their lives if I’m lucky. We have much that needs to be covered in our lessons: tone, breathing, finger and tongue technique, posture, dealing with nerves, dealing with disappointment, cultivating an inner strength that will carry you through life’s challenges. But I am also hoping to add a love for the creative possibilities of classical music to that list. I want the students I come in contact with to know that classical music isn’t “old music” or “boring,” but that it’s vibrant and exciting and colorful. It’s being written today, at this very moment, by men and women all around the world. It’s important to me that I do this now, when my students are in their teen years and are the most receptive to discovering new music. One thing I’ve learned in my time as a teacher is not to underestimate young people… I’m regularly blown away by things my students teach me!

I plan to play all sorts of things for them, but I will concentrate mostly on living composers, because I want my students to really feel connected to history in the making. I want them to feel like they are part of a larger tradition that started hundreds of years ago and will hopefully continue for hundreds of years after we all depart from this earth. I’m not interested in making them forget about other types of music (heck, just try and take my Ride and Smiths and Nick Drake records away. I dare you). Life is much too short to limit ourselves to one genre! But in an age when many adults feel classical music is unapproachable or elitist or not for them, I want the kids that I see on a weekly basis to feel like classical music (whatever branch of it they most connect with) can be uniquely theirs.

Dr. Margaret Fischer is a freelance flute and piccolo player in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who probably spends way too much time thinking about unanswerable questions. She is privileged to teach a group of inquisitive, bright, receptive kids every week who make her realize how much more there is to learn in the world. She also can’t wait to see what happens when she plays John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” for her students this week.

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