Category Archives: Sandow

Adventures in Concert Presentation: John Kamfonas at the Greencastle Summer Music Festival Wednesday

John Kamfonas

John Kamfonas is a young pianist (early twenties–to me, that’s young; he’s about my son’s age).  He’s playing tomorrow (Wednesday) night on the Greencastle Summer Music Festival, a series of 12 Wednesday-evening concerts I organize (or as the say in NY, “curate”).

To me, John’s a great example of a next-generation musician.  He’s a terrific classical pianist, who just received his Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music (MSM).  (Which is where I met him, when I sat in on some guest presentations at the MSM Center for Music Entrepreneurship). He also improvises and plays in a rock band.

We ended up sitting next to each other when a large group went out for burgers and beer after a presentation by David Cutler, the Savvy Musician himself. When John told me about his improvising and rock lives, I thought he might be great to invite to play in Greencastle. I love his musical diversity, and his youth and rock-music interest might appeal to a younger-than-usual audience. To me, the question for classical-music presenters and performers is how to we attract younger audiences and maintain artistic integrity?  One part of the answer is presenting young performers (with whom young audiences can identify) who play classical and original and/or non-classical music.

So while I was in NY, John, at my invitation, dropped a CD off at my building (ah, how nice it was to have a doorman!) and sent me an email proposing a program with improvisations, classical music (Brahms, Liszt, and Hadjidakis, the latter arrangements of Greek folk tunes) and some rock music–improvisations on Michael Jackson tunes.  Sounded great, and since he’s young and didn’t need a big fee (yet), we could afford to fly him in.

We’re having a “Meet John Kamfonas” pizza party tonight for college and high-school students in town.  That’s proved to be a bit challenging.  There are relatively few DePauw students on campus for the summer, since we don’t have summer classes. I don’t have the contact information for that many of them, and have had to recruit my kids and their friends to pass on Facebook invitations.  I also had to ask friends to host the party at their house, since I don’t have a piano.  They are big supporters of the festival, so they were happy to do it, but I hate asking for help with stuff (something I’m working on).  Since I just got back to Greencastle a week ago, and was shy about asking someone else to host a party, word may have gotten out too late for a big turnout.  We’ll see.

I also asked John to make a YouTube video or two we could use to introduce him–he made four!  I don’t know how much of a difference they’ll make in a small town, but I do know that a number of people appreciate videos on concert venue websites as they decide whether a concert is interesting to them.  This is something Greg Sandow talked a lot about in his Juilliard class: both using videos and having performers talk about themselves and what their personal connection to the music.  They’ll be in my next post.

Meanwhile, in addition to Facebook invites and email invitations, there’s been an article in the local paper and it got picked up by the DePauw site.  My guess is the the DePauw PR director decided to do a story on it because presenting a program combining classical music, improvisations, and Michael Jackson relates to my sabbatical research.

I’ll let you know how the party and concert go!



Filed under attracting younger audeinces, audeince building, Center for Music Entrepreneurship, Festivals/Series, Greencastle Summer Music Festival, John Kamfonas (piano), Manhattan School of Music, Sandow, Uncategorized, Young Performers

Allen Ginsberg (Indirectly) Solved My New York Dilemma

I wrote a while back:

The thing I like least about New York is that you have to harden your heart to panhandlers.  I live near a “hotel” for very-low-income men.  There’s always several on the street, especially at night.  There’s a young woman who sits in a subway station, reading, with a sign, “unemployed and pregnant.”  I want to give money to each of them–but if I did, I’d go broke in an evening.  So I am doing that don’t-make-eye-contact thing, ignoring another human being as I pass him on the street.  I don’t like that.

David Spelman (whom I met when we were both sitting in on Greg Sandow’s Juilliard class), read that and sent me this:

My friend, the poet and Dean of the spoken word scene, Bob Holman, shared a Ginsberg story with me recently. . . walking down the street, Allen said something to the effect that:

“You may give money to a beggar, or not give money to a beggar.

“But don’t always give money and don’t always not give money.

 “What you always do is make eye contact and acknowledge your mutual humanity.”

That was just what I needed to hear.

So much of life is about human contact.  It’s very easy to be lonely in a city of millions of people, homeless or homed, employed or not.  Ignoring people on the street–people who approached me–gnawed at me. I’m such an all or nothing person. I can’t give money to everyone, so ignore them all (as so  many do).  And, to be honest, when you’re on your own in New York, sometimes the only people who talk to you are asking for money.

But I just didn’t know how to deal with it.

And then Allen to Bob to David to me: a practical, balanced, human way to handle these encounters. I found it liberating. The part of my heart that was closing off reopened.

While I was still living in New York this spring (I got back to Indiana Tuesday morning), some days I’d have some extra change, or a few singles, in my pocket, was prepared to give, and was happy to do so.  Giving away money is enjoyable for me (so is spending it, which may be related to the lowness of my savings and net worth).

When I didn’t have extra money, or my inner sense was this was the day or the moment to give, I’d follow Allen’s advice.

Make eye contact. “Sorry, man, I can’t help you tonight.”  (Sometimes I wanted to confess, “I’ve been in New York for five months and spent all my money and am living on credit cards!”)

Almost always, he (or, less often, it was a she) would . . . thank me. More than once, I got back a smile and a reassuring “that’s OK.”

Yep, the street guy reassuring me.  Acknowledge your mutual humanity.  It works both ways.

I gotta go read some Ginsberg.

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Filed under and everything, life in NY, Sandow

Maybe it’s a babysitting crisis, not a classical music one

Is there a really a crisis in classical music?

“We’ve had gray-haired audiences for fifty years!” said a thirty-something musician who’s done a lot community outreach work and teaches a summer course on career skills at a music camp.  We met at a reception after last night’s Dallas Symphony concert.

A very famous, and very elderly, pianist told me the same thing at a party back in February.  “In 1960 everyone said the audience was dying out,” he told me, “but people are still coming.”

Well, how gray were those audiences 50 years ago?  Greg Sandow has gathered all sorts of evidence to show that the median age of concert goers was much younger back then.  He and others who have analyzed the data say it shows that with every generation since the 1960s, an increasingly smaller percentage of people have become involved with classical music.

Obviously there are empty-nesters and retirees whose concert attendance vastly increases when there’s time and money to do it.  But what if they liked and were interested in classical music all along?  What if classical music is something you get into as a young person, regardless of your amount of concert attendance, and it’s not a sudden-onset, mid-life passion? What if right now there isn’t a large mass of under-40 secret classical music lovers who are just too busy to go to concerts?  And what if those who do like classical music don’t like concerts (the way most of them are done)?

As this older generation gets too old and sick to go to concerts, and dies off, will there be an audience to replace them?

We wring our hands over orchestras (along with opera companies, the most expensive of classical-music institutions) going out of business, filing for bankruptcy, etc.  But some orchestras are doing very well. Drew “relax, it’s not a crisis” McManus points out Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Nashville, to which I’d add Dallas (who I heard last night), are flourishing.  As far as I know, the New York Philharmonic isn’t teetering, either. But if the audience-for-traditional-concerts-is-dying-off hypothesis is correct, those institutions might face problems in the not-so-distant future, unless they are doing a terrific job of audience building now.

It’s that audience-building thing that I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not just that it’s a critical component of the future of performing music organizations.  A lot of young people are missing out on some potentially extraordinary, life-enriching, and life-changing experiences.  Maybe because I’m a teacher, I want to share it with them.  After a year off from teaching, I’m surprised that an evangelical zeal for promoting classical music has returned to me.  (It’s not a bad feeling.)

One last thought for this point.  Sometimes we miss the obvious.  For example, there are a lot more families where both spouses work and come home exhausted at the end of the day–hard to muster the energy to go out.  What do we do about that? (Well, make sure the concerts are really worth going out for.)

Another thing is the babysitter factor.  It’s expensive, it’s sometimes hard to get one, and, well, teenage babysitters are not always dependable.

So the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra does something brilliant, I found out last night, from the same young woman who asserted the perennial nature of the gray-haired audience. For many of their concerts, River Oaks has a simultaneous program for children–they take care of the kids for you!  So not only is the babysitting problem solved, there’s an actual incentive to go to the concert–there will be an enriching activity for the kids. They won’t be watching TV while the babysitter texts friends.

What a fantastic idea. Maybe it’s not a classical-music crisis, after all.

(If only!)


Filed under crisis in classical music, Sandow

Too many musicians? Is it the fault of conservatories and music schools?

People who care about the financial viability of the classical music field, especially that of large institutions like symphony orchestras, are in the throes of mutual attacks as to whether or not there’s a crisis (of declining interest and support for classical music), and what to do about it if there is one. Lisa Hersch’s post from last Friday, This Week in the Death of Classical Music, is a wittily annotated set of links to recent articles and blog posts.  Well worth reading if you have the time.  And if you care about these things, well worth making the time to read.

There’s much to celebrate in classical music today–the wealth of recordings and videos available (even if this means there’s a much smaller market for new recordings of music that’s been recorded a zillion times before), the high level of technique and musicianship all across the country, and the flow of dedicated young people fighting to get into conservatories and music schools despite the well-known issues facing the profession.

On that last point, some people think part of the crisis is that too many high-caliber musicians are being trained.

They have a point. There’s a declining number of full-time orchestra jobs and the number of full-time teaching positions in higher education seems pretty much finite.  There is an oversupply of qualified, high-level players.  And, sometimes, conservatories and music schools take the blame.

But what else is new?

We don’t go into music because it’s a good way to make a living.  It’s always been a challenging, frustrating way to make a living. We go into music because we can’t help being musicians, and we get the best training we can because we want to be the best musicians we can be.

Conservatories and music schools don’t make false promises.  Do you think anyone, anywhere, really says, “Yes!  Major in oboe!  You’ll get rich!”? The entire culture screams that this is a near-irresponsible path to take.  I’ve never heard any musician say that their conservatory or university teacher recruited them with promises of financial security.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, family friends, parents, and even the occasional other musician would try to talk me out of going into music as a profession. My dad kept offering to pay for me to go to medical school until my sister did and he got his doctor in the family.

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve told young people that if they could be happy in a career other than music to do something else instead.  Only do music if there’s no other option for you, if it’s who you are.  In my twenties, I tried to quit several times, frustrated with my playing and my career. Eventually I gave up quitting, because I’m most alive when I’m making music, and I kept coming back to it.

Greg Sandow has very generously been letting me sit in on his Classical Music in an Age of Pop course at Juilliard this semester (while I’ve been in New York on sabbatical).  The last session is today.  Earlier in the semester, he paraphrased Arnold Schoenberg talking about composers being like apple trees.  All an apple tree can do is grow apples, and it doesn’t get to pick what apples it grows.  I just found the quote, on Classical Net (which doesn’t give the original source).  Schoenberg is defending George Gershwin:

An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it.

It’s like that for performers, too.

My daughter is studying acting here in New York, at one of the finest programs in the world.  I attended an amazing, moving production at her school this weekend, acted all by second-year students.  Their level, not just of technique but of emotional commitment, is extraordinary.

Not one of them, I’m sure, has any fantasy that she or he will ever have a full-time, long-term salaried, with-benefits job as an actor.  That just doesn’t exist in the world they are entering.

They are studying acting because they are actors.  They can’t help being actors anymore than an apple tree can help being an apple tree.  They know it is next to impossible to make a living acting.  Most of them expect to do other work in addition to acting to make ends meet.

Young musicians will keep going to music school just as actors will keep going to acting school and visual artists will keep going to art school. Because that’s who they are.  Being who you are is more important, especially to apple-tree artists, than ignoring your artistic drive and impulses and studying something in school that you don’t really care about.

It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a college-level music education.  But it never has. There’s never been a good market for classical musicians.  There have always been more qualified players than there are orchestra jobs.  People go to music school to become good musicians so they can have a life making music.  Their families and friends warn them that it’s not a secure way to make a living.  They don’t care.

Musicians, and other artists?  We’re crazy.  Crazy in love.  People in love do reckless things.

Like going to music school.


Filed under crisis in classical music, majoring in music, Sandow

Sandow and His "Inconvenient Truths"

Greg Sandow’s been at the ASOL conference and blogging like crazy on a separate blog set up for it. Now he’s back, blogging about his blogging, and the frustrations of being a privately thanked “provacateur” yet feeling more lke a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Of course, maybe I’m just too extreme. Maybe I’m out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we’re seeing is a hot day.

Or maybe he is, as I describe him, the Al Gore of classical music: a prophet pointing out irrefutable signs of a crisis, “inconvenient truths” those in the establishment want to rationalize away.

Of course, it’s the present structure of the commercial (if officially nonprofit) classical music establishment that is melting like the polar ice caps. There are many young people who love playing classical music. I’m actually all for a world with more well-trained musicians who are happy to be amateurs and dual-career professionals.

One of Greg’s main points, that the mainstream institutions need to learn to understand the young potential audience if they are gong to bring them in, seems to go constantly unheeded. But some of the mainstream institutions are going to be like the mainstream churches who, rather than make substantial change, have adjusted to a life of downsizing.

Much of what so many people dislike about traditional classical concerts (be quiet, don’t move freely, don’t respond, restrain yourself) is exactly what bores people to tears at religious services. Spiritually, I have a Sufi-like approach which is deeply interfaith. I feel comfortable just about anywhere there is real spiritual energy. And I hardly ever go to church. And it strikes me that the decline in attendance at mainline churches and mainline classical music institutions seem to have paralleled each other.

I’m not attracted to simplistic, pop-music, evangelical megachurches, either, where there often seems to be a shallow, if powerful emotionalism, combined with simplistic and often non-inclusive theology.

Some mainline churches have “traditional” and “contemporary” services, which seem to work for them. Pops concerts seem still to be aimed at an older, more entertainment-minded, audience. Do the old institutions really need to make dramatic changes in their manner of programming to survive? Can they do so and not lose their identities? Does the end of a bigger audience justify the means of compromising the traditional format?

And would the world be a better or worse place with a smaller professional music establishment and more “regular people” playing classical music at home and in small, intimate concerts? If a some symphony orchestras have to downsize or fold, is that the end of the world? For those who work there, of course, but for society as a whole? The symphony orchestra is a nineteenth-century invention, as are the concert halls in which they play. How long can a mammothly-expensive institution born in one culture survive into a hugely different subsequent culture?


Filed under crisis in classical music, Sandow

Read Greg’s latest chapter

On Monday, Greg Sandow posted a new chapter in his online book on the future of classical music. The entire project is very worthwhile reading.

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Filed under future of classical music, Sandow