THE BLOG
11/19/2015 04:41 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2016

Is This the Right Time to Study Music?

The following address was given at Aspen Convocation, June 25, 2015

From time to time, I'm asked, "How can you sleep at night, knowing you're helping prepare so many young musicians for... and now you get a multiple choice test: (a) an elitist, cutthroat profession; (b) a field where you know everyone burns out (c) a field where there are no jobs; (d) classical music, which is dying; (e) classical music, which is already dead."

Sorry to begin this way. It gets better, I promise.

For one thing, I sleep great. I'd say that I sleep like a baby, except I'm reliably informed that babies don't always sleep so well. So, speaking from firsthand experience, I'll say that I sleep like a dog. Dogs love to sleep, and they're good at it.

But what I mean is that I am not deeply worried about the choice you are all making to pursue an education, and then a life, in music.

Here's one way to approach this: is this a good time to meet someone you hope to spend the rest of your life with? Yes, it is. Is this a good time to think about starting a family? If that is your dream, then yes, it is. Is there ever an ideal time to be young and in love? I'd say no: not ideal in the sense that some time is better than others, because it is always the right time. My own parents embarked on marriage and family in 1942, a time of the greatest uncertainty and even chaos. It was the Second World War, at an early time when no one knew what was possibly happening. But it was the right time for them, and when my mother died this past year, they had celebrated 72 years together, six children (and lots of dogs). They were young and in love then, and the world held light as well as terrible darkness, but it was their time.

And this is your time.

So let's think a bit, together, about your time for studying music.

Good things: beautiful new halls in Kansas City, Nashville, Los Angeles, Miami, and many more places that are making a civic commitment to music. An explosion of activity on the Internet, where classical music has proportionally more activity than it does elsewhere in the entertainment world. Tremendous vitality in the entrepreneurial world of new music and chamber music, where exciting new groups are defying routine.

Bad things: the failure of some iconic and important musical organizations, loss of government support all across Europe, and wrenchingly difficult labor crises involving some of our greatest orchestras and opera companies.

But I think my over-all view is that what we do has such importance and relevance that it will prevail, in a way analogous to the way that young love has such importance that it will always find a way.

When I started out after music school, I was a professor of theory and composition. Thus I frequently encountered the following sincere, generally worried question: "Is there going to be a test?"

And my answer was unvarying: "Yes, there will be a test." There is always a test! Everything in life is a test. Every lesson is a test. Every piece of music you pick up will test you. Every concert is a test and, curiously, every time you leave a stage after a concert, it is a test. (I knew the great, and sometimes terrible, teacher Adele Marcus, who would say, "You're only a concert pianist during a concert!" This can be a terrible thing -- being done with a project, and immediately moving on to the next.)

If you, or I, or any of us, are going to succeed in the music world, it is going to include an embrace of this constant testing. You'll be tested every time you practice, every time you perform, and also every time you are disappointed, whether by a colleague or by some administrator, or by your audience, or by yourself. And these tests will come, believe me.

But I was the kind of young person who loved tests, and I still do.

I do mean "tests," and not "contests." When we are tested, we all have the opportunity to shine. But contests have an essentially artificial element -- that there is only one winner. Because in the world of music, the world of art, the world of education, there is not only one winner or only one who is "best." The creative world has infinite room.

People who know me reasonably well know that I love reality TV. Not the Kardashians or Sultans of Sunset, or any of the various Real Housewives, whom I've actually never seen, but, preferably, shows about excelling in difficult, even stressful professions. Shows about tests! Top Chef, Project Runway, The Next Food Network Star, Chopped, that show about decorating -- you get the picture.

But, as much as I watch these shows, I know there's something wrong with them. This is pointed up in the slogan, "There can only be ONE Top Chef!" Because, life always shows us, many can succeed, not just one.

In fact, you are more likely to succeed if you are part of a network in which many help each other, than if you see success as lonely. Real success is not lonely; it is wonderfully social. And the kind of network that leads to a happy, fulfilling, shared success is exactly what we seek to create here in Aspen.

I now want to take a bit of a detour, by way of two musical performances I recently saw, each with a different meaning for the profession.

The first was produced by "From the Top," a great radio show I'm proud to have an association with, and to have brought to Aspen. "From the Top" gathered a wonderful group of young musicians, from different genres of the performing world, to make a cover of a Wiz Khalifa piece. The front guy was a rapper, which I guess is natural, but the band was classically prepared, and did "classical" things. An important blogger covered it with this question, "For this you would send your kids to college?"

I myself posted a response: "Yes, for the ability to create a joyful, innovative, confident, sincere work of art, I would send kids to college!" Our regular work in classical music can be seen as mostly interpretive - using existing texts, honoring them, relying on them, learning from them -- but great interpretation partakes of creation itself, and, in our art form, becomes inseparable from it. Beethoven exists because we give him life. Mahler's greatness depends on our own greatness. And let no one forget that classical music is a living genre, constantly invigorated by experimentation and by the new. Our season theme this summer, Dreams of Travel, encompasses the fact that, in every generation and every period, through every style, musicians hear new things around them, or seek new things in new places, or dream of new things, and make them into art.

This brings me to detour number two. I recently heard a mash-up that began roughly as follows: the first two, magisterial, challenging, miraculous E-flat chords of Beethoven's Eroica, played by a fine orchestra. Then a few licks of a Coldplay song, sung by a few really good pop singers. Then back to Beethoven for a while. Then back to Coldplay for a bit. You will easily find this on-line, if you wish. I'd rather let the guy who puts this together speak for himself, but I believe the idea is that, since Beethoven is truly great and people love him, and he deals with profound things, and since Coldplay is truly great and people love them, and their music is about profound things, then it is twice as good, or more than twice as good, to combine them.

Well.

It might be as if one said, "Michelangelo is great and people love the "David," and Disney is great, and the Grand Canyon is great, or else they wouldn't have called it that, so if we rafted through the Grand Canyon with a statue of "David" and a film loop of "Snow White," that would be the ultimate!"

Or: "Van Gogh's late work is really great, and the Parthenon is also great, and people love fjords, so if we floated the Parthenon through Norway, papered over with thousands of reproductions of Van Gogh irises, that would be even greater!"

Among many problems with this approach, a fundamental one is that it misses the fact that all great art has a rigorous, powerful, internal integrity. The thing that Beethoven's contemporaries immediately understood about his music was the tremendous, seemingly "inevitable" logic and dramatic propulsion in his music. I think Coldplay is indeed great, but to mash it up with Beethoven is, well, to mash it up.

Because another aspect of great art is that it requires attention. People say, "Young people these days have no attention span, so we have to reduce everything to 140 characters, or six seconds, or a single picture, and we have to offer seventeen different things to be thinking about or doing at once." The proposition that an audience of all ages would willingly concentrate just on Brahms's First Symphony for 46 minutes seems crazy.

But that is the right proposition. If we don't give all our attention to this great art, whether as performers or listeners, we will never know what is truly great about it.

We must never apologize for the extraordinary thing we have committed our lives to! It is worth it. Even if the rest of daily life becomes nothing but multi-tasking, cacophony, competition, and noise, the experience of music can and should be an oasis of attention, preparation, discipline, contemplation, thought, and feeling.

Do not apologize for what you love. Do not wish it were something different from what it is. Do not wish it were easier. Do not wish it were simpler.

One of my beloved teachers, Annetta Lockhart, used to say to me, when I was just barely a teenager, "Music has to be about the big feelings!"

Kirill Petrenko, recently named the next music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, says, "Music is not only a consumer product that is bought and sold, but, before everything else, it is a world of creativity."

I want to close with a story that took place last week. Many of you will have seen what I am talking about, and read about it, but some will not have, so here's the thing. In Charleston, South Carolina, a young person, meaning to inspire further acts of hatred, went into a church where people were engaged in joyful study and prayer. He killed most of them. At a funeral just a few days later, families, friends, and supporters of those who died gathered in a service full of joy as well as pain, optimism as well as grief, beauty as well as loss. They were tested, and they were found to be strong. The President of our country spoke, full of intellect as well as feeling -- intellect and feeling do not compete, they complement each other! -- as well as a sense of theater in the best sense of performance. As he spoke, the musician sitting at the organ began improvising. This was not planned, and certainly not rehearsed. The President didn't know there would be an accompaniment! It was spontaneous devotion from the organist. But what the President had planned was to incorporate a great hymn into his homily, and at a dramatic moment, he began singing. "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!" The crowd rose to their feet and joined in.

I think I will never experience a more convincing demonstration of the sovereign power of music -- a power to console, a power to inspire, an art truly about the big feelings. An art that tests us, and gives us a chance to be worthy. This was a moment when the power of making music together was shown in its full force.

The joy and importance of making music together is what has brought us all together, here, today. I salute all of you for your dedication to this beautiful profession, and I and all the great teachers on this stage welcome you into it.