The healing power of music
American orchestral musician and arts advocate Bruce Ridge gave the keynote address at the recent conference of the Symphony Orchestra Musicians Association in Sydney. Ridge served as chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), representing about 4000 musicians from 52 major symphony orchestras throughout the United State from 2006 to 2016. Reproduced is an edited version of his speech to the SOMA conference.
A couple of years ago, in a very small used book store in a very small town in the mountains of North Carolina, I found a disintegrating collection of ten copies of a classical music magazine, from 1947, called The Etude, which was a kind of current events publication reporting on the classical music field. Every page is fascinating, even though the pages are moldy and falling apart. There are reports of Stravinsky working on his “new opera” which turned out to be The Rake’s Progress, the American premiere of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic, and a notice of an invitation to the “young American conductor” Leonard Bernstein to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. The editorial attitude of the magazine seems to suggest that the publishers saw it as topically progressive, even though the articles and advertisements contain many social stereotypes from the time. But inescapable in these post-war editions is the palpable sense that musicians represented a great hope for the new and uncertain world.
An editorial in the May, 1947, issue states, “The time has long since passed when musicians were expected to stand submissively, as ‘souls apart’ outside the gates of world progress, and not participate in the tremendous movements of the age…the participation of musically trained minds cannot fail to be of priceless value to the body politic at this startling moment in world history.”
Now, over 70 years later, though the circumstances are different, the world again finds itself at a startling moment of unrest, and musicians most certainly will participate in the “tremendous movements” of this age as well.
We live in a time when negative rhetoric permeates the depths of our societies, and self-serving politicians and commentators bombard the world with destructive words that inspire hatred. There have always been, and there will always be, opportunists that place personal ambition over service to others, but in this modern age, perhaps more than ever, they are profiting from the division they sow.
At times of crisis, as I once read in some article of analysis, leaders tend to emerge that “…lead people to feel they have lost control of their country and destiny, people look for scapegoats… then a charismatic leader captures the popular mood, and singles out that scapegoat. He talks in rhetoric that has no detail, and drums up anger and hatred.”
Last weekend in America, August 3 and 4, within a 13-hour period, over 30 people were killed and dozens more injured in two mass shootings. It is sadly not an uncommon occurrence in my country, and I know that such events have deeply affected other countries as well, as in the terrible tragedy in New Zealand just earlier this year. In my own country we seem to have an epidemic of violence. A major news organisation reported that, by one definition, in 2019 there have been more mass shootings than there have been days.
In the inevitable hand-wringing that always follows such events, pundits speculate on how we might respond. To me it seems clear that one element of the problem is that in certain areas of my country it is easier for a child to get a gun than a trumpet, and that in many neighborhoods children grow up with a greater familiarity with the sound of gunfire than with the sound of an orchestra.
I don’t mean to simplistically suggest that music can immediately change the world to a more harmonious place. After all, Leonard Bernstein once said, “…art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed…because people are changed by art—enriched, ennobled, encouraged—they then act in a way that may affect the course of events…by the way they vote, the way they behave, the way they think.”
I believe, deeply, that in our troubled world, humanity will always persevere in the face of violence, and music will forever be a response to hatred.
It is clear that in this age of incivility, musicians can lead the way by continuing to offer an elevated message of hope to the world. In doing so, the world will surely benefit … as will musicians everywhere.
Musicians always must stand for peace, and we must take action with our art to bring compassion to those who are hungry, alone, suffering and discriminated against.
As we ask our communities to invest in us, we must also invest in our communities. In that way, we will inspire our audiences with our actions just as we have always inspired them with our music.
That is how to respond to terrorism, that is how to respond to violence, that is how to respond to hunger, and discrimination, and injustice.
The musicians of the world have begun organising their own efforts to serve their communities while elevating the profile of their orchestras, by creating programs that bring music to hospitals, as music has now been scientifically proven to have healing affects. Food bank drives, serving and playing in soup kitchens, all work to demonstrate that our music is vital to a world in need. Any assertion that our music is elitist or irrelevant is dispelled by demonstrating that the work of musicians is valuable in the halls of cancer hospitals as well as great concert halls.
But these activities cannot come at the expense of the preservation of the artistic quality of our organisations. So much ink and time is spent on the notion of a “new business model” for our field, but some basic aspects of any successful business are being ignored in the discussion. A successful business knows to protect its “brand” at all costs, and for orchestras, our business “brand” is the “product” on stage. Should that brand not be protected through investment, then all other outreach activities are being built on quicksand…and when it comes to the role that all orchestras play in their communities, both through service and aspiration, the greater the investment, the greater the return.
These are the arguments we must learn to make for ourselves, and every musician in every orchestra should be eagerly seeking opportunities to spread a positive message for the future of our music. Build your Twitter feeds, your Facebook profiles, your Instagram accounts, and fill them with positive messages. The world needs to hear them, and people will listen to our words as they have always listened to our music…for while there may be some who doubt the relevance of symphony orchestras to society, we will not doubt ourselves or the value of what we do.
“I believe, deeply, that in our troubled world, humanity will always persevere in the face of violence, and music will forever be a response to hatred.”
And why should we?
In terms of media, a report from Britain revealed that, in 2018, classical music grew faster than any other genre with more than two million classical albums purchased, downloaded, or streamed. It was further reported that classical music is experiencing a huge resurgence, largely due to millennial streaming.
Back in America, in the city of Boston, the arts sector attracts more attendees than all spectator sporting events combined, and the Boston Symphony’s residency at Tanglewood leads to over $103 million of economic activity very year in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. The arts sector in America represents 4.3% of the Gross Domestic Product, which is an amount greater than agriculture or transportation, leading to over 5 million jobs.
The advent of technology and the availability of new media must be utilised to advance the support of our orchestras, and the aspiration to excellence found in all of our concert halls, even at a time when the world seems too often content with mediocrity. After all, there is more technology in an iPhone than there was on the Apollo space crafts that sailed to the moon 50 years ago this summer.
When I was a kid if I wanted to hear a Beethoven symphony, or a Stravinsky ballet, or a Britten opera, I had to walk about two miles to a small library that had a modest collection of vinyl records. Today, people of all generations hear our music, and I do think that it allows young people to find our music more easily.
One of the standard criticisms of orchestra concerts is that our audience is aging, though as I have traveled throughout the world I continue to see people of all ages at classical concerts, and that was certainly true again last night at the Sydney Opera House. I think that if the graying of our audiences is a fact at all, it is being misinterpreted.
In 1940, the average life expectancy, at least in in America, was 62 years. Today, it is 79 years. Never in history has a civilisation seen such a rapid increase in life expectancy. If that fact is ignored I could make an argument that the audience for everything is aging.
But if we generally accept that people tend to turn towards attending orchestral concerts as they age, having achieved a measure of success that allows for more freedom and leisure time, then we are likely the only business in the world that would perceive the fact that we have our target audience for an additional 15 years of life span as a problem instead of an opportunity.
It remains the early years of a child’s life where we must continue to invest, as no education is complete without music. By bringing music and hope to the lives of young people we not only are working to create a new generation of audiences, we are also helping to create socially aware citizens who may be able to lead the world to a greater understanding, and a new era of peace.
We live in a media age where the truth tends to belong to the person who says it most effectively. We have seen people who seek to use these tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, for nefarious purposes. But we have a real truth to tell, and a positive message to spread. Our orchestras do change lives; our orchestras do benefit our cities, even for people who might never attend our concerts. Of course, more people should attend, and experience, what can only be found in our concert halls. But we cannot attract more audiences by allowing a negative message to be spread about our art.
In a world that often slumps with the weight of its burdens we can use these tools to tell our uplifting story. We must never shy away from our efforts to spread a message of hope. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged from our aspiration to beauty.
I was recently reminded that James Baldwin, the great novelist, playwright and activist, once said “The precise role of the artist is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place."
The same sentiment was expressed by the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who saved so many lives through the founding of the Israel Philharmonic, when he said “The true artist does not create art as an end in itself; he creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal.”
The orchestral musicians of the world need not ever feel isolated or fearful as we face the future. The orchestral musicians of the world are a united and international group of friends. I often think as I walk on to the stage in North Carolina, that I am doing so just as many of my friends are, to play the same great music, to spread the same message of hope, at the very same time. I think of all the musicians I’ve met in the great concert halls of the world, and I never feel alone. We are connected by a common bond, with the complete confidence that this is who we are, and this is what we do. It is not too trite to say “We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” The greatest musicians across the world are those who are still inspired by the opportunity to inspire.
In a very noisy world, every note we play is a call for peace. Every concert we play is a communion in our cities, and every lesson we teach connects a new generation to a great past. In its most generous interpretation, time connects us all to Bernstein, Beethoven and Mozart.
But as Mahler once wrote, “tradition is not the worship of ashes; it is the preservation of fire.”
We must embrace our future as eagerly as we celebrate our past. Answers may be found in the past, but solutions are found in the future.
We can and we will create our own future. For while others worry about what is sustainable, we can aspire to what is achievable, and we can speak of what is possible more than what is not.
In Asheville, another mountain town in my home state, there is a rock-climbing wall on one of the downtown streets, but they don’t want you climbing it at night, so there is a five-foot fence around it that they lock up. I’ve looked at that fence many times on many evenings, and thought “if you think you can climb that wall, then that fence isn’t going to be much of a problem.” I’ve tried to apply that lesson to our work. Sometimes we never reach the largest obstacles because the initial barriers are too much of a nuisance to surmount.
In 1961, when John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade, he told an Irish folk tale where two young boys on a journey confront a stone wall, too high to mount but too long to circumvent. Facing the prospect of a retreat that would end their adventure, one boy threw the hat of the other over the wall, leaving them no choice to but find some way to overcome this obstacle. Kennedy also said that day "While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure on our part to make these efforts shall make us last."
These are the efforts that orchestral musicians throughout the world must make to preserve our art form for this and future generations. We must be our own advocates, demonstrating our obvious relevance. We will stand as a beacon of peace, inspiring our members and our audiences alike, and our music will remain an antidote for darkness.
Musicians will always imagine, and will always work to realise, a more beautiful world . . . and in this way we will not only serve our art, but we will serve humanity.
Currently a member of the North Carolina Symphony, Bruce Ridge began his professional career when he joined the Virginia Symphony at the age of 15. He later studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, where he graduated with Distinction in Performance honors. Ridge served as chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), representing about 4000 musicians from 52 major symphony orchestras throughout the United State from 2006 to 2016.