How to practice?
Short notes by Roberto Prosseda
9. The social role of the musician today
« I am personally suffering from the proliferation of undeservingly recommended artists that pervade the concert seasons across Italy. I find it unjust that so many young “novice musicians” not really equal to the task are always present in the programs of the most important seasons instead of those who have more experience, ability and talent than them».
This is how a pianist who had won important international competitions unburdens himself on Facebook. And there are many musicians today who, having reached an excellent professional level, feel themselves cheated of the right to be engaged: almost as if a utopian “musical system” should guarantee them regular concert activity. This may perhaps have happened in the ’60s or ’70s in the communist countries of Eastern Europe, when a centralized organization managed the country's cultural production with exclusively public funds. Nowadays, in Italy, the situation is drastically different: the economic crisis and the ever greater cuts to culture compel artistic directors to work on the basis of commercial convenience, sometimes at the expense of mere professional quality. The error we often fall into is to see the reality of cultural life in Italy today only from one point of view: our own, that is to say, as in my case, of someone who goes on stage and is paid to play. Seen in this perspective it would be natural to think that the criterion of selection for a concert season would be the bravura of the players. But is the opinion of the person who assures us of our professionality sufficient, alone, to make the public and organizers wish to hear us in concert? And are we sure that the public is really able to appreciate the quality of an artist in the same way as a professional in the sector?
Analyzing the fulminating career of certain musicians today riding on the crest of a wave and not exactly faultless from a professional point of view, some distinctive features can be noted that determined their success irrespective of their artistic qualities, and that would be worth setting and studying in a sociological context: a particular biographical detail, a look that makes them immediately recognizable, a peculiar way of speaking or presenting themselves. Members of the public generally need to immerse themselves in stories that are humanly involving, and simply listening to music can be a more or less intense experience, depending precisely on the surroundings, the image that contextualizes the musical perception with aspects that don't belong to the music in itself, but which have an influence on its communication. There is much to be learned from the fortune of these phenomena: the marketing strategies successfully applied in the world of pop or in publicity campaigns can just as easily work in the broader context of projects involving art music, as effective means to create new generations of listeners.
Other the other hand, today's public is already largely made up of people who love music, but who listen to it with an approach that is different from that of the professional. I am convinced that nearly all members of an audience at a concert (and I include myself among them) are looking for emotional involvement, are waiting to be moved, hoping for a moment of magic that transports them to distant and superior worlds. A wrong note can even pass unnoticed, whereas weak emotional participation and lack of communication from the performer are lethal. And this is also true for all the “rest of the world”, the other 99.9% of people who normally never go to a classical music concert, but who could potentially allow themselves to become involved, if they are reached in an appropriate way. But how?
For example, by inventing new forms of musical communication: not only concerts in the theater. Offering live classical music even in very small doses, with micro-concerts lasting 5-10 minutes in schools, in public places, in shopping malls, in private homes, could perhaps gradually create greater interest and break down the artificial wall that prevents most people from listening to a sonata by Beethoven. Experiences like Pianocity (a project foreseeing hundreds of concerts in two or three days in private homes in a city) have shown that it is possible to maintain the magic of a concert also in places other than those traditionally assigned to listening to classical music. The important thing is to guarantee the concentration and silence necessary to “administer” the music of Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, without altering its sense. So not background listening, but moments in which the attention of 5, 10, 50 people is totally directed towards the musical message. The “piano recital”, invented by Liszt in 1837, today risks becoming an obsolete format. Maybe it won't disappear, but it surely needs to be remodeled on the basis of the new modalities of communication of contemporary society.
And in any case it is not true that the audience is “on the road to extinction”. But we must certainly work on restoring a sense of social utility to live classical music, so that it is perceived as a primary need, something natural: not just entertainment, but rather an occasion for interior growth, for introspective development, for individual energies directed towards a common listening. Many people today feel the need to renew their “spiritual health”, to live with greater awareness of their own emotional sphere. Listening to a concert isn't like attending a Yoga session, but it can give the same beneficial results.
Above all, we musicians should ourselves also become “music communicators”: popularizers in the highest and noblest sense of the term. Popularization does not necessarily mean debasement or trivialization. On the contrary, it means breaking down the prejudices and social barriers that at times limit the poetic message of a musical interpretation. Also creating occasions in which music is explained: not in murky musicological conferences, but through informal meetings in bookstores, schools, pubs, gardens, where a group of musicians talk about their experience with music, their personal view of a given composer or piece. In Rome the “Music Lessons” organized by Giovanni Bietti at the Parco della Musica on Sunday mornings attract over 1,000 people, including many youngsters and families, to listen to a musician speaking about Beethoven Symphonies or the principles of piano phrasing. Every evening in New York places like Le Poisson Rouge offer live music (of varying genres, but always of high quality) in the context of a night club, with a relation of direct and natural conviviality between performer and public, and the gratification is even greater than what can be experienced in a traditional concert hall. The concerts at Le Poisson Rouge are broadcast in video streaming on the internet and are publicized most of all through the social network: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And from the basic principles of Facebook there is much to be learned: share, like, that is to say, sharing common passions. These are the ingredients for a new form of communication. If this happened also through television productions devoted to music popularization, disseminated virally via the internet, the effect would be still more effective and global.
Returning to the understandable frustration of the many music professionals cut out of the market today, just one hope remains: that they themselves, before it is too late, abandon their self-referential standpoint, and instead rediscover the beauty of communicating music at all levels, both inside and outside the concert halls. In this way the public can be provided with the tools to help them appreciate music, understand it better and distinguish a great performer from a commercial product: so that quality music, and those who have dedicated their lives to music, can finally regain the attention and dignity they deserve.