Seeing Past the Stereotypes: A Closer Look at BU’s School of Music

It’s 1906. At the opera house, Composer Richard Strauss paces back and forth as the curtains rise for the debut of his new production Salome. The story is risky. Salome—based on a fable in the Gospel of St. Matthew—is a dark mix of beauty, perversion, and avant-garde spirit; necrophilia, dysfunctional family relationships, and an erotic dance called “The Dance of the Seven Veils” coexist within the space of a few hours. Despite the subversive content, or perhaps because of it, Salome was immensely popular and the audience praised it, and Strauss, as outstanding.

Yet Strauss was part of a declining tradition. As the twentieth century continued, opera, underpinned by jazz, popular music, funk, and rock and roll, fell out of vogue. By Strauss’s death in 1949, it no longer stood as a cultural beacon and a beloved form of entertainment.

Nowadays, statistics for opera and classical music look rather grim. The Metropolitan Opera lowered its ticket costs for the 2013-2014 opera season by 10 percent—from a whopping $174 to a mild $156. The standard opera attendee is 48 years old, according to the 2008 National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Survey of Public Participation of the Arts—a year older than in the NEA survey in 2002. For classical music, the NEA graphs show that between 1992 and 2002, the largest age group attending classical music was between 35 and 44 in 1992, and between 45 and 54 in 2002. Recently, the San Diego Opera and the New York City Opera have announced that they will both shut down because of a lack of funds. These facts indicate that as opera and classical music attendees age, few people, outside of a core group, have become interested in the art form.

Interest in opera and classical music has declined. What does this mean for those still immersed in its world?

At Boston University, the culture of classical music exists predominantly within the walls of the College of Fine Arts, specifically the School of Music. Inside CFA there is a thriving subculture of performers.  Students continue to learn about arias and neoclassicism. They carry the history of music, because classical music is the foundation on which all other genres exist. They perfect an instrument, join choirs, and put on shows. As Rachel Steinberg (CFA ’15) notes, “It’s just, like, being surrounded by art 24/7.”

photo courtesy wikicommons via tanglewd
Photo courtesy wikicommons via tanglewd

The conservatory style program is a rigorous place to learn about music. Hailey Markman (COM ’14), a former CFA performance major, compares the difference between the perception of a musician—playing musical instruments all day, jamming with friends, expressing oneself thorugh music—with the discipline and commitment it takes to be a student in CFA.“Really, you’re taking languages, diction, theory, music history—it’s a huge amount of classes you’re required to take. Theory, for instance, you have to take for three years. And I have friends who are majoring in music education and voice; for music education you have to be at least moderately proficient in most standard instruments,” Markman says.

This can be supremely rewarding. School of Music students become a close-knit community because they spend so much time together. They live and breathe beautiful music and the students who stick with the programs are able to study what they truly love. The discipline, energy, and knowledge required to learn an instrument also prepare students with useful skills for the post-graduate world.  Melanie Burbules (CFA ’14) thinks of CFA as a place that helped her cultivate life skills through musical knowledge. “I have seen myself grow into a truly confident person and performer, which is invaluable. Organization, resilience, self-discipline, openness, perceptiveness, and the ability to present and market myself to new people/employers are only a few of the many qualities and skills I have developed.”

Yet being in the School of Music can also be isolating. A lack of communication exists between CFA and the rest of Boston University. “We always ask people, are you going to come to this concert or that concert, and they’re like, ‘What concert?’ I think that needs to change,” says Steinberg.

In part, the dissconnect occurs because students are so busy with classes and extracurricular activities that they have no time to reach out to the BU community. “Our class schedules are packed,” notes Burbules, “and then you have to factor in outside rehearsals, actual performances, outside projects and gigs, and individual practice time (which can range from 1-4 hours a day). That doesn’t leave much time for collaboration with the rest of the campus, or make it a top priority.”

A grand classical experience |courtesy of wikicommons via Szalax
A sometimes ornate experience |courtesy of wikicommons via Szalax

Additionally, Burbules, Markman, and Steinberg all noted in their interviews the antipathy most students have towards classical music. “I think people think it’s old-fashioned, which automatically puts it in a box and makes it inaccessible,” Burbules says. “Many think it is for the elite, that it’s stuffy, or that they won’t understand it. While a night at the symphony or opera can be a glamorous one, and has been portrayed as such in movies and popular culture, that is not at all how it was intended. This was the people’s music; it was the rock music of its time when it premiered.” Burbules highlights both the stereotype associated with classical music—that is is boring, elitist, and old-fashioned—and notes the subjectivity of that stereotype.

Yet stories like Gustavo Dudamel’s reveal that oftentimes it is underlying cultural ideas that steer people away from classical music, not that music itself.  Gustavo Dudamel is a Venezuelan conductor who was lucky enough to have access to a program called El Sistema. Founded by Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema is a brilliant organization that has set up free musical centers in Venezuela’s poorer barrios with the belief that music echoes life: the discipline, teamwork, and confidence of the orchestra practice room provide children with valuable life lessons. In addition to promoting a space for children to learn and grow, Abreu uses El Sistema to bridge social barriers between the rich and the poor. “Today,” he says, “we can say that art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites and that it has become a social right.” Abreu believes in the transformative powers of art and music to bring out the best in humanity.

Dudamel, raised with El Sistema, shares Abreu’s ideals. Dudamel works especially hard to make classical music an experience that is inclusive to those of all social classes. At the end of a performance, Dudamel instructs the musicians to bow to the audience, then face the cheapest seats, the ones known as “orchestra view.” He is a figurehead for a new approach to classical music, one that is inclusive and uses music as a tool for positive social change.

As Burbules says, “Classical music has been and will always be evolving. If the music is triggering some kind of emotion in the listener, then it is successful, and there is nothing to understand past that. There is a reason this music has stood the test of time and is still being performed! The continuous uphill task for musicians and music administrators is to get people into seats despite this stereotype. Once they are there, they will enjoy it and appreciate it. Here’s what I say: come to “say you did,” stay for the music and the story, and come back to get another enriching, moving, exciting experience, which it will be every single time.”

Gustavo Dudamel performs in a tracksuit with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra| courtesy wikicommons via VALE TV
Gustavo Dudamel performs in a tracksuit with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra| courtesy wikicommons via VALE TV

Throughout the twentieth century, opera became equated with the political structure and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, and thus antiquated. The beauty in its highly complex structure was overshadowed by its inaccessibility. The extravagance of its productions was ignored for the extravagance of film. Its associations with wealth and security roused disapproval in a more democratic age, an age where diverse groups of people vied to tell their own stories rather than engage in a single story.

While it made sense for rebels of the twentieth century to eschew classical music and free themselves from the confines of the highly classist culture that accepted it, relegating opera and classical music to grandmas and billionaires no longer serves a cultural purpose. Enough time has passed so that disassociating from classical music does not signify cool counterculture.

At this point, opera has a stuffy elitist stereotype because culture, and sometimes, sadly, the opera community itself, reinforces that stereotype, not because of anything inherent to the art.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the lack of participation in CFA programs is a missed opportunity. “All of the School of Music concerts and performances are free forms of entertainment,” notes Burbules. “The Symphonic Chorus/Symphonic Orchestra, for example, performs at Symphony Hall twice a year. This is an opportunity for the BU community to not only support their musicians, but also experience the beautiful and historic Symphony Hall, which many people graduate from BU never having visited. Additionally, the Opera Institute and the voice program perform at the award-winning Huntington Theater 2-3 times per year, which is also free, and another place that many do not take advantage of visiting.” On campus, the Symphonic Orchestra plays concerts at the Tsai Center, and they perform every week at CFA.

Additionally, from a purely biological point of view, humans react to classical music differently than to other forms. In their book, Healing at the Speed of Sound, Alex Doman and Don Campbell, also authors of The Mozart Effect, discuss the positive neurological benefits of classical music on the brain. They argue that classical music is favorable to the individual because it “primes the brain.” The brain, “loves its [classical music’s] complex structure and symmetrical architecture, which have a demonstrable positive effect on brain activity cognition and behavior.” On a molecular level, classical music is able to stimulate more genes involved in changing and creating connections between brain cells. Students could all benefit from a splash of Mozart now and then.

There is no doubt that in the fast-paced world of the 21st century, classical music is perhaps more difficult to understand, and certainly more of a time commitment. But must classical music be spliced from popular music?

Classical spectacular combines stunning lights with classical music| courtesy of wikicommons via fir0002/Flagstaffotos
Classical spectacular combines stunning lights with classical music| courtesy of wikicommons via fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The composer Stravinksy once said, “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all… If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention–in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Underneath all the social and historical layers, classical music is  just sound. Beautiful sound, worthy of a chance.

Corinne Keer

Corinne Keer (CAS '15) has a dual major in English and underwater basket weaving. Ideally, she will put her knowledge of heroic couplets to good use and, starting from the bottom, become a bonafide rap star. She may also settle for a casual day job as a petroleum engineer, computer programmer, or VC.

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