On Community Engagement

Within the cozy confines of Music Academe, it’s possible to make a living without ever sullying oneself with anything as loathsome as sales. The music department opens its doors and sets its curriculum, and majors and nonmajors appear to partake of the credits. Recitals are held, an audience of 20 or 30 appears, listens respectfully, applauds listlessly, and disappears into the night until the next recital. If the campus is blessed with an Artist Series, an audience of a thousand or more will unquestioningly applaud a program of standard repertoire played by the touring virtuoso for the 49th time since the season began, simultaneously applauding themselves for their cultural acumen. In the meantime, the other 99% of the general population remain ignorant and indifferent to this art we take so seriously. It’s business as usual at the U.

While admittedly a harsh portrayal of the State of Music today, is it that far from the truth? More than two years ago, when asked to submit a bio and “running platform” for the CMS election, I wrote: “I would like to see CMS direct its energies outward, exploring, for example, the role of music in society. I am concerned that our university musical life is a closed system, that it exists almost entirely for our benefit.”

I’m still concerned. With gauntlet thus raised, I fired off e-mails to about 20 friends and acquaintances in variously sized music units throughout the country. I asked several questions about the degree to which their departments tried to reach beyond the ivycovered walls. My questions were not without bias, but despite the small sample and my obvious prejudice, there were some fascinating responses that I hope will stir reflection, debate and even action at your school.

The first question was basic:

Does your school have any kind of official or unofficial program that gets its musical product out to the society at large, beyond offering concerts on the university campus?

The good news is everyone seems to be doing something. The bad news is that the Deans know more about it than the faculty. Many mentioned pre-college or adult education programs on campus. While there is much to laud in such activities, we are still asking people to come to us; we are not going to them on their turf. A few reported off-campus performances by ensembles or soloists in venues such as hospitals, retirement homes, and the public schools. We’re getting warmer here, even if some of the audiences are captive. Tours by the large performing groups are not what I had in mind, and one dean recognized this when by writing: “Our concert groups make regional tours on a fairly regular basis, but the purpose is primarily to spread the good word about our School of Music rather than to educate audiences about music literature.” Right! An urban conservatory sends students to after-school programs where they actually give lessons to the younger students. This is exciting, since the experience of “doing music” lasts a lot longer than listening to a concert. Surely it’s time to stop congratulating ourselves for propagating the “drive-by arts experience.”

To what extent are concerts on campus attended by the community? To what extent do non-music majors attend them?

The first answer depended to a large degree on the type of community in which the school was located. Large urban centers tended to have good community attendance; smaller towns, where perhaps the general population is “less cultured,” had fewer people from the community. I find that remarkable, since in those smaller, more isolated places, there are probably fewer choices for a night out. Is it fair to ask, would people rather do nothing than go to a concert? As for non-music majors’ attendance at concerts, I received a nearly unanimous “are you kidding?” “Our music is not theirs,” wrote one friend. All the more reason to reach out.

Are professors of academic music subjects encouraged in any way to connect to a population beyond their classroom?

Several replies mentioned pre-concert lectures at the local performing arts organizations. Again, more power to them, but we’re preaching to the converted - or at least the predisposed. Performers recognize that there may be no audience unless we make one; I was fearful that theorists and historians might not be as invested in such proselytizing. If we in academia really want to make a difference, we need all the help we can get.

Are music students encouraged in any way to think of ways to make their music relevant to a population beyond their fellow musicians? If so, who does this encouraging?

There was a lukewarm affirmative from most people here, but not much detail. In fact, many said they weren’t really sure what went on when other faculty counseled students about careers. A notable exception is the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the College of Music has established a Center for Entrepreneurship in Music. If you’d like to see what’s possible with some imagination and dedication, check out this website: http://www.colorado.edu/music/ecm.

Does your school have partnerships with any other arts organization(s) in your community?

Some mentioned public schools (as a service), some mentioned other music organizations (local symphony, chamber music presenting organization, etc.), and one mentioned an art museum. My own school recently “partnered” with the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra to bring Leon Fleisher to town for an extended residency that benefited both organizations. Whenever a noun becomes a verb, such as “partnered,” you know it’s a trend. In this case, I think it’s long overdue. [I am less sanguine about the word “outreach,” which until recently was a verb. Arts organizations now use it as a noun; to me it suggests that from within our safe and cultured walls we will perform outreach on the unwashed. “We do outreach” is very different from “we reach out.” You’ll note that the word never appears in any of my questions; it nevertheless littered the replies.]

What do you think is the greatest hindrance within music academia to connecting to more people?

My respondents grew impassioned with this one. I will let them speak for themselves: “I am saddened by the lack of idealism in our profession…we are all working feverishly hard, running in place so to say, just to get through a day, and then a week. We work hard with our students, have to deal with committee work, have immediate problems to solve which seem to crop up everyday…all of which ends up leaving little or no time to think and dream about the future.” Another wrote, “We’re thinking too much in the box, our own box.” Finally, a dean lamented, “Musicians and music schools take for granted that what they do is important. Unfortunately, an increasing majority of our society does not share that assumption. If we are to sustain the cause of serious music, we must be able to show that music, like literature and art, is a viable and important expression of the human spirit, and that it matters. We have largely failed to make this case in our communities, and even within our universities.”

I’d like to believe that CMS could be a rallying ground for change. If you agree with me, start a discussion in your school. And remember, that to succeed, we have to be able to show that music is important, not just say it.

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Last modified on Monday, 18/11/2013

Robert W. Weirich

Robert Weirich has performed in such musical centers as Alice Tully Hall, Weill Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center, Chicago's Orchestra Hall, and at such summer festivals as Tanglewood, Ravinia and Marlboro. His performances across the U.S. of Bach’s Goldberg Variations during the 2010-11 season garnered raves from critics and audiences. During the 2009-2010 season he performed and taught in China and Argentina, and in the fall of 2013 was invited to teach for ten days at Beijing’s Central Conservatory. The New York Times called his 2008 Albany Records release, Piano Music of Aaron Copland, “brilliant, probing and austerely beautiful.”

He was the Artistic Director of the Skaneateles Festival in upstate New York from 1990-1999; during that time attendance tripled and support grew twofold while winning three Adventurous Programming Awards from Chamber Music America/ASCAP. Other administrative activity includes a term as President of the College Music Society, and chairing piano departments wherever he has taught. His columns for Clavier Magazine, and its successor, Clavier Companion, have been twice honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association. As a sometimes composer, his works have been performed at festivals nationwide.

He currently holds the Jack Strandberg Missouri Endowed Chair in Piano at the UMKC Conservatory. UMKC awarded him a Trustees’ Faculty Fellowship and the N.T. Veatch Prize for distinguished research and creative activity in 2002; he received the first Muriel McBrien Kaufmann Artistry/Scholarship Award in 2003, and an Excellence in Teaching Award from the UMKC Faculty Senate in 2006. Earlier prizes include a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Fellowship, and the Pope Foundation Award for career development.

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