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Portraits for a Young Musician

November 27, 2012

I: The Alum – Jon Green

Jon Green is a tailor, but better to say a bespoke designer, or, best to say, a clothier — a master of the international style, as was his father. Indeed, Green is one of the best clothiers in New York City, as well as one of the more expensive. His suits are drawn up in minute detail on paper patterns, cut with the finest shears, sewn with the utmost care, and start at $9,000. In Jon Green’s mind, a well-tailored suit is a measure of the man, not his physique.

He also holds a master’s degree from Juilliard, where he studied piano and composing in the 1970s. These days he returns regularly to 155 West 65th Street to impart the nuances of self-presentation to both students and faculty. Nothing irks Green more than going to Avery Fisher Hall to watch a slovenly, obese violinist with his belly bubbling over below his PK waistcoat.

Jon GreenHe has the same aversion when he goes to the conservatory to give a talk to Mary Cox’s ear-training class, where students arrive in platform heels, nose rings, tattoos, and chains, along with an air of careless brilliance and spiked hair. Incidentally, Mary Anthony Cox is a legendary figure at Juilliard. She’s been on the faculty since 1964 and always receives top marks from the Rate this Professor website, along with comments such as “Wow. A methodical pedagogue, a thoughtful performer, a terrifying authoritarian, and a genuinely compassionate person — I think.”

You can imagine the scene when the ever-so-elegant Mr. Green comes to class, the clothier and the pedagogue, two from a New Yorker cartoon, shaking their heads at the way the world has turned, trying to impart the old values, the old standards, lamenting days gone by when Toscanini put you out on your ear if you didn’t perform up to his impossibly high standard. Ah, but for the days when quality was revered and authority respected! So different from the now-now when young musicians are beginning to question the traditional career arcs, and when music professors all over the country are urging entrepreneurialism.

But what bothers the likes of Mr. Green is that young musicians don’t seem to show respect for conductors, no matter who they are, or the audience, for that matter, because as Mr. Green points out not only are musicians protected by the union, but much worse by the illusion of their talent, and the notion that their talent entitles — that’s the key word — entitles them to appear however they wish.

“This is the problem,” he went on. “When you ask them, they say, Well, this is who I am. OK, but guess what? Nobody cares. They don’t get the fact that the people buying the tickets are not like them. As a musician, you’ve gone to what is, in effect, a trade school, and so yes, you could say it’s a class thing. But the point is that part of your job is not to be offensive. And if you’ve spent the night in sexual bondage, that’s fine, but we don’t need to know that through your expression or the way you present yourself. And if you want to put tattoos all over your body, that’s fine, as long as you don’t show it. If you’re dressed in a certain way, most people don’t get past that. So why rub it in and stick it in their ear?”

Green sighed. “So many kids these days think they should be accepted because they’re great performers,” he continued. “But this city is filled with great performers. And so what? The truth is that most audiences can’t hear the music anyway. They don’t know what’s good. Look at Lang Lang, who gets nothing but bad reviews in New York (‘the J. Lo of the piano’), yet people outside the city think he’s the greatest thing. …

“Now, the world’s run by a few people who pick even fewer people to be superstars and dismiss the rest. In the ’70s, there were a dozen great cellists. Today, how many can you think of? Seriously, how many? Carter Brey and Yo Yo Ma. The same for pianists and violinists. When I was a child, I went to hear music played by a certain conductor. How many people do that anymore? What has classical music become but another commodity — like a Monet exhibit, it’s an event sold as a commodity.”

II: Joining Old School to New School

Jon Green’s is the quintessential New York perspective, that slightly quaint Upper East Side /West Side, Brooklyn Heights snobbery — cynicism mixed with truth, nostalgia, and just a little heartbreak at the irony of it all: the irony that even when you do dress appropriately — and after you’ve learned to talk to donors, not just shop-talk to other musicians — even when the presentation is right, and even in New York, the audience may not hear you the way you’d like to be heard, and they may well remember you only as an event, perhaps worthy of a badge in a social gamification app.

Of course, New York has always been about presentation — whether you were Joe Namath in his full-length fur coat out at Shea Stadium, or one of the Mad Men in your Brooks Bros. dappery down at Toots Shor’s, or Leonard Bernstein in “the Hall” (Carnegie), in his raspy voice and tails, the moody, charismatic lord of sophistication. The fact is, you’ve always been allowed to be whomever you want in New York, so long as you’re not seen as a pretender.

What’s new in Jon Green’s crusty lament, at least new in this era, is the call for more compatibility between the performance of music and the business of music. In the new world, the musician’s meme is to see the audience not as a vanity mirror, or as judges in yet another competition, but rather as the portal to a livelihood. Audience members as customers; music as a widget. Which sounds crass, but less so when expressed by, say, Yo Yo Ma when he describes one of the values of this new coda, the “citizen-musician initiative”: “Whether as performers, composers, or teachers, their work can’t be done alone, and isn’t done until their music lives in someone else.”

“So many kids these days think they should be accepted because they’re great performers.” – Jon Green

Ma is himself a great example of this renaissance musician, simultaneously “old school” and new, always looking outside the comfort zone, ever beyond the parochial. You think of his collaborators Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile in The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

In sum, there’s an odd optimism among musicians — news of foundering orchestras notwithstanding — an optimism based partly on new music and entities but more on a new sense of how music can encourage community. It may be about helping corporations to brand themselves, or about helping NGOs reach new clients or an orchestra to become the bedrock for a small town. The bottom line is, it’s a matter of redefining success, and not simply in monetary terms.

III: Surprise: The Dream Lives

Despite an unemployment rate of around 11 percent for musicians right out of college — and despite news that the percentage of adults attending a classical music performance declined from 12 percent in 2002 to 9 percent in 2008 — just when you’d think dreams of a career in music must be fading, in fact young musicians are not put off. The numbers are mixed, and it wouldn’t be accurate to say students are flocking to conservatories and music schools, but as one assistant dean for enrollment put it, choosing her words carefully, “Top-tier schools continue to see robust numbers of applicants and good selectivity.”

Moreover, the prospects for jobs as a musician over the next several years are reasonable, if not good. A recent NEA study projecting arts employment through 2018 shows that jobs for music directors and composers, for example, are expected to grow at 10 percent, which is the average rate for the labor force as a whole. Competition is expected to be “keen.”

Why, then, is there continuing interest in studying music? Dr. Mark Clague is an associate professor of musicology and director of research in the School of Music, Theater, and Dance at the University of Michigan, where, incidentally, the undergraduate selectivity rate in 2012 was 21.5 percent, a relatively low number over the last 10 to 15 years.

“I think it’s partly because of a sense that there’s no sure thing right now, so go with what you love. Another factor is that there’s a growing recognition that these skills are transferable. I know an HR director at a startup firm who actively recruits musicians because they’re self-motivated and disciplined, they can work independently, they can collaborate. They’re competitive, energetic, and they’re just smart. Clearly, finding success as a performer is harder than ever, but these skills are highly respected in other fields.”

“There’s no sure thing right now, so go with what you love.” – Mark Clague

Clague, who is also a music historian, points out that other broader changes are afoot that could afford still more opportunities. Yet for that to happen, students and faculties alike need to see the importance of service.

“For many students,” Clague continued, “their experience in music is all about competition, about me being better than you, and at a school like this we have all these ‘winners,’ but our obligation as an institution is to emphasize the service component and to show how music can improve the emotional quality of a community. The most successful orchestras — and you can see this going back to the 1890s — are the ones where social relationships between musicians and all the different constituencies in a community are strongest. We’re talking about community groups, age groups, income groups, and interest groups. We’re talking about building ‘the big tent.’”

IV: The Dean: Bärli Nugent

Bärli NugentFor 11 years Bärli Nugent has been teaching at the Juilliard School. She’s an assistant dean and director of chamber music. These days she spends a lot of time thinking about mentoring and career development. Asked how students had changed, she said that when she arrived a decade ago students blithely assumed they would be gently escorted through one of the finest conservatories in the country, carefully polished, and sent out the door to their careers.

“They just figured it would happen because they were good enough,” she remarked, “but inevitably as graduation approached there were always a certain number of hysterical students who became terrified, not knowing exactly what was going to happen next. I think the difference now is that students are more into who they are, and beyond simply shining themselves up to be a Lego piece that can be fitted into the appropriate Lego-sized opening.”

However, while they may be more aware, Nugent says they still suffer from “legendary-teacher syndrome,” following ever so carefully each word and instruction of some master teacher, though without the real confidence to activate their own interests and passion.

“Think of it. Someone puts a piece of wood at your neck and then has you twist your hand around to hold another piece of wood. To accomplish that, you have to follow the teacher, you have to trust the teacher. And this becomes your life. And when you’re 12 years old and the next piece to conquer is the Brahms’ concerto, what you’d really like to do is put your violin down and go to the New Jersey Coliseum and listen to some rock ’n’ roll. But you don’t, because for all your life you’ve been led to be committed to nothing but your music, and so you stifle the rock ’n’ roll idea. And then years go by and you end up teaching this same model. I see this again and again with teachers.”

In fall 2011, Nugent gathered some colleagues to build rapport and talk about the curriculum. From those conversations it became clear that there was a common desire to encourage students to explore entrepreneurship, both in the classroom and out. The problem was to convince some of the more revered faculty, who were holding fast to the conviction that nothing should come in the way of practice.

“What you realize as a teacher is that these kids have never improvised in their lives.… Inevitably, they come out of the studio glowing.” – Dean Bärli Nugent

“We thought, well, why don’t we show these faculty members how they are themselves examples of great entrepreneurs? Which is something students don’t often appreciate — that these distinguished performance artists are also entrepreneurs.”

So, in a “surgical strike,” they began talking up the idea, beginning with Itzhak Perlman, explaining to him that his music program was itself a great example of entrepreneurship. He readily agreed. They made a similar argument to Lewis Kaplan, a senior professor in violin and chamber music, whose students have included, among many others, Yo Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Pinchas Zukerman. He too readily agreed.

“The point,” Nugent said, “was that there was a lot of stuff we could hold up to faculty members as examples of entrepreneurship; many teachers don’t think of what they’re doing in those terms.”

And so now there has been a swell, if not a sea change, in the Juilliard community in acknowledging the significance and role of entrepreneurship. And what does that mean?

Nugent has adopted the mantra “Take action now.” In her classes she’s developed a series of exercises to make the point. One is in the context of performance venues. One day you come into class and she tells you that you have just one hour and 15 minutes to go out into the streets and line up as many free performances as you can. The instructions are roughly these: “Go anywhere you want, persuade people however you can. Drop the ‘J bomb,’ that you’re at Juilliard and you’re exploring places where you could offer a free performance.

“A few years ago, I’d say this and some students would burst into tears at the idea of leaving the building, much less persuading strangers of their talent. ‘Just do it,’ I’d say. ‘Go.’ Now, when I make this assignment, nobody bursts into tears.”

In another example, she brings into class a filmmaker who needs some background music for a series of short films. The assignment is to go to the recording studio and develop four takes. “You have 15 minutes.”

“What you realize as a teacher is that these kids have never improvised in their lives. And so I told them, ‘Think of it this way: You and your instrument are going to have a conversation, as though you’re sitting in the cafeteria with friends, and you’re just going to see what happens.’ And you know what? Inevitably, they come out of the studio glowing. And you realize, and they realize, that they’ve been imprisoned for decades by very old ideas about playing music.”

V: The Entrepreneur: Kimball Gallagher

Kimball Gallagher With Students Elham and Milad at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, AfghanistanThe superstar of music entrepreneurs and the epitome of the “portfolio-career” musician is Kimball Gallagher. “I’m just a kid who went to Juilliard,” he’s quick to say. And before that, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

For the last 10 years Gallagher has been a young man on his trapeze, most recently flying around the world doing a series of 88 concerts. The first concert was in 2008 at Carnegie Hall. It sold out. The critics were on top of their seats. And so began a journey doing private concerts, “salon concerts,” in people’s homes and in unusual venues. For kings and commoners. And literally all over the world. From the German Embassy in Afghanistan to the King’s Palace in Thailand to a drawing room in Manhattan.

It’s all very personalized showmanship. And at each performance Gallagher provides a gift to the host: a piano work written just for them spelling out the host’s name in music notes. Gradually, he’s added variations on a theme. He’s become a motivational speaker, in which the topic might be “shifting from a student mentality to a professional mentality.” He does fund-raising concerts, including one not long ago in Tunisia. He has a private studio where he teaches 15 students, ranging in age from 5 to 77. He composes and plays rock ’n’ roll music. He also does private consultation on career development and coming up with project ideas. He’s even started a gig called “Cocktails and Counterpoints,” where he brings business and law school graduates together with a select group of young musicians playing in Manhattan apartments.

He’s always thinking about new audiences, and new connections. In his mind, there are many more venues than musicians to fill them. In effect, anyone or any organization becomes either a venue or a link to a one. “Sure, it could be the hedge fund, the fire department, whoever is open to a creative partnership.

“The main people, I find, who are receptive are people with entrepreneurial spirits themselves, whether businesspeople who have started their own businesses, development people at NGOs who are often looking for creative ways to reach the audience and thank the donor base, or the founders of NGOs looking for solutions to the issues they are trying to address. …”

His most recent concerts have been part of a tour to India, on behalf of an environmental organization that organizes “wastepickers” in Mumbai. He sent me a description of one of the concerts.

The Russian Cultural Centre was the sight of the first concert. A beautiful auditorium, the piano was provided by Furtados, the biggest music store chain in India. Before the concert was the first workshop with wastepickers. I listened to some of their songs. They listened to some Beethoven. It was the first time all of them had ever seen a piano in person and the first time they had heard of Beethoven and certainly the first time they had heard the Moonlight Sonata. Some reactions afterward were that the first movement sounded peaceful and it sounds like a fairy with a white dress is moving in the moonlight.

The name of the organization that works with the wastepickers in Mumbai is Stree Mutki Sagathana [women's liberation movement]. They have a long history of using art to promote their cause. Their founder, Jyoti Mhapsekar, wrote a play that has been performed hundreds of times. The play portrays the treatment of Indian women and promotes efforts to change perceptions and conceptions about what is possible for women. Since 90 percent of wastepickers are women, this environmental issue is an obvious issue for Stree Mutki Sagathana.

After the concert, Gallagher received a note that read, in part, “If a renowned person like you will talk about zero waste, the people definitely think about their responsibility toward Earth. Women were excited, the way you introduced Susheela, and those who touched the piano were thrilled. It was [a] lifetime experience for them, as [for] many of them [it was the] first time [they had] seen such an instrument from so close a distance. We were happy that we were the first in India to experience this. Thanks again.”

VI: The Practical Musician: Sean Ang

Sean Ang remembers the moment exactly. He was 15, in his sophomore year in high school, an accomplished singer, as well as a violinist from the age of 6. If you had asked him then what he would most like to do with his life, he would have said, “Music.” Of course. Why would you even ask?

He and his family were on vacation in Las Vegas and one day they visited The Venetian, to see the “shoppes” along the ersatz “Grand Canal.” While watching a gondola pass back and forth, under the painted ceiling, with the singing gondolier in his striped shirt and straw hat with a red ribbon, his voice echoing through the fakery, Sean’s mother turned to him. “If things don’t work out,” she said, “you could end up like that.”

Sean was dumbfounded, not least because it was his mother saying such a thing. She was the one who had brought him to music in the first place. But also in that moment there was a long, slow shock from the whole idea that there might be stigma attached to the practice of music. That had never occurred to him, not once in all the years he’d been singing in the chorus or playing violin — first in a Suzuki school and then in the youth orchestra and after that in ensembles, in music camps, in competition after competition, practicing every day. And in the beginning, his mother was right there next to him, to be absolutely sure he was faithful to the challenge.

“For every Itzhak Perlman,” his mother reminded him from time to time after that trip, “there are 10 singing gondoliers.”

And so began Sean’s entry into the “real world.” What does music really mean to you? became a recurring question that year, and the next, along with Do you want to do what you love, or do something that can get you steady income and food on the table? And get you prestige, always the word underneath “income.” At the core of the question was the devil’s reminder that if you don’t get into Juilliard by the age of 10, you’re not going to the top and so better not to go at all.

“Part of me is always about making things meaningful for someone else. Music seems like such a personal pleasure.” – Sean Ang

In his junior year at Carlmont High School in San Carlos, between San Francisco and Palo Alto, Sean took five AP classes and at the same time kept up with his music. He largely gave up other pleasures, including martial arts and figure skating. The year was unexpectedly difficult, the pressure relentless. At the same time, he maintained a compromise with his parents made at the end of his sophomore year: that he would go to college and focus on pre-Med and perhaps minor in music.

Yet all the while, he kept seeking advice. In his college essays, he wrote about his dilemma and how he wanted to emulate his family doctor who was a musician himself and insisted that you can meld medicine and music, that you can have it all, relatively speaking. He thought about submitting music tapes with his applications, but then he felt that would be dishonest and insincere.

Incidentally, Sean’s parents are from Singapore. His father is a computer engineer; his mother majored in psychology in college and studied piano for many years. I asked Sean whether his story, which is so common, reflects a particular truth about the role of music in Asian-American families.

I feel like it’s true that Asians see music as extremely important in itself but also important as a way to get into college. But, once in college, it’s better if you study medicine or law. As my mom says, the Chinese are very practical. It’s important to have a career that provides a happy household and a family, because there is always the expectation that one day your children will take care of you.

But at the same time you look around and think, hey, but everyone else gets to do what they want when they go to college, and if they want to be an art history major they can! But in Asian families the expectations are set and the approach is, you must do what we tell you to do.

This fall Sean, now 18, began his studies at the UC Davis. He’s on his pre-Med track, with a minor in music. The music department is small. There are few performance majors. He plays in the local orchestra twice a week and in a string quartet two other days a week. He still takes private lessons and tries to practice an hour each day. Altogether, he devotes 15 hours a week to music, along with classes in (honors) chemistry, calculus, and psychology.

“I feel I can do both,” he told me one day in his dorm room, in the center of which stood his music stand. When I found him, he was watching a classic music video on his laptop and singing to himself. “At least until I get my undergraduate degree. In med school, music will have go on the back burner, but once I establish a career I can pursue it on the side. I suppose that’s the ideal.”

I asked if there was anything that would change his plans.

“I think if I were a better musician, if I could play in a good orchestra, or if I thought I could make a real impact. That’s what I like about medicine: you can made a direct difference in people’s lives.”

But not in music?

“If you were to teach, I suppose.” He paused. “It would also take someone that I thought very highly of to tell me that this is a real possibility, that this is really something I could do for the rest of my life.”

Later in our conversation, he noted that perhaps his favorite piece of music is Ralph Vaughan Williams 1910 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910). “That really resonates with me. But it’s kind of selfish. That’s how I feel. Because part of me is always about making things meaningful for someone else. Music seems like such a personal pleasure. …”

VII: CODA

What an odd thing: Classical music as a guilty pleasure! And therefore unworthy of such a daring commitment. Sean Ang’s feeling is partly a commentary on the work ethic in Asian-American culture, and in music culture in general, but his doubt, and his dilemma, raises the question whether you could ever put the study and performing of music on a par with the study of medicine or engineering or law.

And could you ever persuade students who love music, and may have done their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, that even by not performing for the New York “Phil,” as Jon Green calls it, or even by not teaching but by adopting an entrepreneurial spirit that they could still affect people directly and in a very positive way, they could still do something highly creative, interesting, and personally satisfying.

When I last spoke to Kimball Gallagher, as he was going out the door to India, I asked him what sort of curriculum he would construct for a class on entrepreneurship. “Well,” he replied, “I would begin by asking them, What do you really want to do in your life? Who do you want to meet before you die? Who do you want to help?

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair.  Recent pieces for San Francisco Classical Voice include profiles of San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink, and the great violinist, Midori; along with essays on Teddy Abrams’s effort to build political bridges with music and Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast.

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