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  • alanberquist

Music and Meaning

If you are a musician, think about the first time you ever touched an instrument, sang something you liked, or wrote something down because you wanted to re-create it over and over again. A spark was ignited in us. We were drawn to it. We could not live without singing or playing. Some of us had more external pressures, but to ultimately make a life in music usually starts from an internal calling to create.

Over time, we are told many conflicting things from adults, schools, peers, and family members. Positive, negative, neutral, correct, incorrect. Nobody is held to any one standard (which is likely for the best). Eventually, if you decide to pursue music and had the means to study it before college you were afforded many privileges. These come at a price not only to your wallet, psyche, but also your community. Those who could not access lessons and training before college play a wildly unfair game of "catch-up" to match their peers who have already jumpstarted learning 5 to 15 years earlier. It's why many professional orchestras still have shockingly little diversity to this day. The inequities have never been addressed in the public sphere as our national education system continues to crumble. The arts are always the first on the chopping block and receive little to no federal funding in many areas.

You see, American society at large doesn't understand how music education works after it was all but eliminated from core subjects in the 1950s-1960s. We've shrouded it in mystery and someone just had to "have talent" and everything would just magically happen for them. This oversimplification of an entire field has led many to believe that because music is entertaining, musicians live a charmed, cushy lifestyle having fun singing or playing whatever they wish. "Oh you play/sing? Oh that must be so fun!" The complete lack of nuance or reality in questions and statements from the public completely misunderstand and underestimate (read: underpay) your entire profession. Facts hit a nonstop wall of examples from pop culture or what people perceive through media.

If a non-musician actually understood all of the time, money, effort, and sacrifice it took to be a musician, these myths would turn to dust. Many classical musician circles have had to defend against so many irresponsible and ignorant assumptions from society. We haven't appreciated our own artistic communities for support. Everyone is competition in a capitalist framework. Conservatory training taught (and some continue to teach) a scarcity mindset where only the best win and if you don't work hard enough, all opportunities you don't get are completely your fault. This mindset is unsustainable and burnout is all too common. Large and small arts organizations are still rooted in white supremacy and Eurocentric colonizer hierarchies, which serve a dying audience.

Music *IS* community. Your peers are your best resource. But also, your community is more than the people you went to school with. It's the people in your area. What can all of us do to help each other? How are you serving your community? How are you representing your community? I find these questions don't get answered by large institutions because they have walled themselves off from the people that don't regularly attend concerts. Wealthy patrons are not the way forward. People will not value what you do not share with them. The most popular form of classical music is film scores - yet most ensembles treat them as one-off events if they touch them at all. Tickets for "special events" like these are inaccessible for a majority of communities. So, what can we do? We can come together as a community to listen and reflect what they represent and what they need. What gets someone excited to come to a recital or concert? It may not always be what we as musicians would assume.

So is it all doom and gloom? Is everyone your enemy because jobs are scarce? Do I discourage students from a career in music? Are audiences disinterested? There is no easy answer to all of these things... because it depends. It depends what type of person you are and where our collective culture ends up going. Shifts in society are usually slow, but as individuals, we are highly adaptable. I know one thing - we cannot treat each other with contempt. We cannot judge everyone harshly because of our own insecurities. And we cannot give up on future endeavors because it is scary or won't earn us enough money. Being a musician in this day and age has to look different because times are different. We need innovators in every field, not just music. The world needs art to tell stories, question everything, and bring solace. Because without it, why are we here?

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