Thoughts on the labor discussions at the Metropolitan Opera….

I’ve been pondering the flood of responses to the recent dispute between Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and the union representing the musicians at the Met.

There are many insightful discussions on Facebook, blogs, newspapers & journalistic media as well as heavy-handed PR campaigns on both sides. I’ve been attempting to gather my (conflicting) thoughts on the matter.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a man who worked in accounting for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This particular person was explaining the intricacies of the job, specifically the way to be successful and eventually move up the ladder in the organization (Madison Square Garden is the parent company of the Christmas show, owned by Jim Dolan). He was an eager MBA student, and was preaching the gospel of cutting labor costs. This argument typically makes me cringe and loathe its respective supporter. He said that “labor” accounts for %40 of the total operating budget, and if they could just cut the labor costs by, oh, half, that the organization would thrive and have a surplus for bonuses and other non necessary expenditures. And, he would look good to his superiors in the process.

My response to him was ” By ‘labor’, do you mean people? “.

He said …… yes…..

“So, the people who make the show happen, the artists, crew, the Rockettes, account for %40 of the total operating budget of ‘Madison Square Garden enterprises’ ? “

Reticence, uncertainty, and a general cloud of confusion entered our conversation. It seems I stumped him. “Well, no, but the budget for the Christmas show is, well, you know, it’s huge, and it’s …….”

We we’re interrupted, and the topic changed. I left with a sense of fascination at the idea that “Labor” isn’t considered “Human” in business speak.

From an administrative perspective, there are some distinct advantages to calling humans “labor”. It lessens the psychological guilt of cost cutting initiatives that affect people’s lives, for one. It also streamlines the way an organization can cut costs when the need arises; it’s natural – and encouraged – business practice to consolidate and analyze streams of expenditures, making cuts to the largest section of an organization to ensure its growth.

I believe that this can be necessary and helpful. Kind of like pruning an overgrown plant -  it needs to be cut in order to grow better and more fully next season. And sometimes, you have a bad branch that is eating up the health of the entire plant. In a theoretical, non human world, this makes great sense.

But music non-profits are not purely capitalistic entities. I think we wade into dangerous waters when we apply free market, capitalistic principles to artistic organizations that depend on the quality of their “labor” to survive and thrive.

Pruning may not be the answer here.

However, some type of cut on the part of the music makers could be accepted as a good faith gesture – albeit a sacrifice – for the overall growth and blossoming for future seasons. That gesture would be wonderfully human; sacrificing for the good of the whole is one of the noblest choices we can make as human beings.

Like all cuts, balance can and should prevail in order to ensure healthy future growth. And cuts can come from many different sides in an organization like the Metropolitan Opera. For instance:

1) less extravagant and superfluous production values – People want an experience based on what they hear, not what they see. Opera is a sound world, not just a visual world.

2) less wasteful marketing expenses -it’s really not having an impact, sorry Mr. Gelb. No one in my generation knows what you’re trying to accomplish with your branding here…. or how your marketing sets the Met apart from anything else in society. There’s only one Hollywood.

3) lower administrative salaries – which has already happened a few times, a good faith gesture on the part of administration.

4) Mr. Gelb could even take a deeper pay cut – perhaps he could sacrifice enough to cut his salary to an even million….. as a good faith gesture….

Any cut that significantly affects “labor” (in this case human beings who are remarkably talented and are some of the best in their field) should be approached with extreme care or should not be taken at all. You risk lowering the quality of your labor (the musicians and singers find better jobs elsewhere and turn down the Met) and subsequently the quality of the product ( discerning listeners are already going elsewhere for great opera, which undermines the argument that there’s a lack of popular interest in seeing opera at the Met- it might be that people aren’t moved by what they’re hearing and feeling at a Met performance).

*And as a side note, I highly resent the argument of overpaid musicians with indulgent salaries. Last time I checked, an industry wide ceiling of $200,000 annual income is significantly lower than other specialized competitive labor sectors. But that’s a topic for another day, with it’s own thorns attached….*

In light of recent global conflicts – Ukraine and the Malaysian airlines plane crash, bitter, acrimonious violence in Palestine, and all hateful, stubborn fighting we are seeing in the world today – some good faith gestures would go a long way. Maybe we can all make “labor” human again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music and politics: Should government take an interest in supporting music in America?

I think after last week’s election results, we can easily say that America has become deeply partisan. Sad, but true. There are few issues that actually bring us together as a nation anymore, save for natural disasters- though some tried to politicize that as well.

Since I’m not by any means an expert in matters of politics, I ask for your indulgence as I ponder some ideas about our political system.

There are many things that seem to motivate voters to be either a Republican or a Democrat, but one issue overall seems to define the distinction for me; small government versus large government. These basic ideas have spawned policies that were argued about, twisted, manipulated and misrepresented over the last year ( Thank GOD it’s finally over !). In essence, the idea is that a small government can be more efficient and would allow the free market to guide America – “Get government out-of-the-way…. people can do it themselves !”. Large government, in contrast, supports the idea that government can play a pivotal role in helping its citizens, therefore proposing social programs that improve the lives of all Americans – “We are here to help and support you… as you do it yourself”.

The idea of small government manifests itself in policies such as 1) Cutting government programs 2) lifting tax burdens/simplifying and decreasing tax code 3) reducing aid to citizens under nearly all circumstances. The idea of large government manifests itself in policies and programs like 1) Social Security 2) Medicare and Medicaid 3) FEMA.

So where does music fall into all of this?

There are many countries, particularly in Europe, that believe in the necessity of supporting music. In fact, their stance demonstrates their opinion of music as part of a cultural value system, one that the government has a duty to uphold and preserve.  You might say they are of the “large government” ilk. As a result, they have continued to provide fertile ground for musicians to thrive over the course of time, and they continue to remain innovators and trend setters in the field of music.

In America, our  approach is “small government”. We have almost entirely de-funded the National Endowment for the arts, and state grants hang in a precarious balance after the past few years of massive cutbacks. What this leaves is a vacuum for the free market to ride in on a white stallion and save the day……. or not.

Private companies have given less to music organizations now than they ever have. Donations from individuals have fallen drastically despite the fact that the markets have risen substantially from their 2007 levels and the economy is beginning to stabilize on an upward trajectory (albeit a painstakingly slow one). This downturn  has barely affected so-called “high net worth individuals”- those whose fortunes remain impervious to the rise and fall of markets. In the past, these individuals have been primarily responsible for the philanthropy that keeps music organizations alive and moving forward. But, in the wake of the instability of our national economy, they have taken the opportunity to give less, despite not having lost much over the last few years.

And… it makes perfect sense. Because we, as a country, do not see music as part of a larger cultural value system. I sometimes wonder IF we even have a larger cultural value system, but I’d say that is a question for another post. Neither individuals nor government are supporting music in a meaningful way and even though there are enormous benefits to having a strong music presence in a society, we seem to be uninterested.

An example- Germany has supported its music field since it became a unified country, and as a result has allowed music to flourish as an industry where many individuals find good paying jobs, excellent healthcare and benefits, and a consistent pulse on the cultural, national, societal trends of our time. It is a field where incomes are not over inflated, many jobs are considered comfortable middle class incomes, and many people partake in the act of making, producing, or actively listening to music. It is a source of national pride; its presence helps to define who they are as people, and to bring them together in support of it.

I think, as we look ahead to four more years of President Obama’s leadership,  we can find a way to re-balance the way we support music in America. Hopefully individual donations and the “free market” will increase their support for music organizations, now that we are stabilizing the economic waters. And- it looks as if the National Endowment for the Arts won’t be entirely dissolved. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to prove to lawmakers and Americans alike that musicians and music organizations are vital to national morale, help improve our abilities to be creative and to work together, and generate consistent revenue that stays IN AMERICA. My hope for the next few years is that we will come together to re-expose the benefits of music to our larger society and to take a stand and support music in the public eye.

Do you listen to music at home?

I always enjoy meeting a new student and finding out why they chose to take music lessons. This past Tuesday I met a whole slew of new students, some of whom were taking their very first music lesson, others who were returning to piano or singing after a long break.

So, the first question I typically ask is “What made you want to take music lessons?”. The answers are wonderful, pretty standard, and usually don’t surprise me all that much.

But the next question STUNNED me this week. “Do you listen to music at home?”

“No”.

” (Silence… crickets…) Do you listen to anything at home? When you do your homework, or maybe on your ipod/iphone? “

“No”.

“What about on TV? or Youtube? Do you listen to anything on the Radio?”

“Not really. I mean, whatever is on TV I guess, like commercials. And the Radio in the car, I guess”.  ” OH, and the X Factor”.

WHAT???!?.

I’ve stopped saying that, since I don’t want a new student to feel embarrassed or alienated. Much to my disappointment, they are in the vast majority. Most Americans have stopped listening to music at home without it being background accompaniment to some other Media form. Their main music exposure comes from TV commercials, TV shows, Movies, Radio (which to be fair, isn’t all that bad) or the occasional viral Youtube clip.

It’s hard to imagine, but think about it; When was the last time that you listened to a piece of music or song at home for it’s own sake?

I’ll admit that I haven’t always been proud of my answer. But, on further thought, I realized that I listened to a lot of music at home growing up. I have clear memories of Sunday mornings with my Mom’s Joni Mitchell records or the “Bach for Breakfast” CD, the first time I heard Desperado in my Dad’s car ( not on the radio, but from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album). And eventually, I began exploring other kinds of music on my own; A Tristan und Isolde CD that I bought off Ebay when I was 15, Dawn Upshaw’s White Moon CD with songs ranging from Thomas Morley to George Crumb…..  I can’t really quantify just how influential it was, but clearly listening to music at home made a huge impact on me.

While I appreciate the enormous benefits of listening to music, many people don’t realize how many positive things come from choosing to listen to a piece of music. And while I’m not an expert on the subject ( or at least not yet….), writers like Philip Ball and Oliver Sacks are. And, they’ve written about all this in books like Musicophilia and The Music Instinct which, if it piques your interest, you should definitely read.
So, even though I’m not one of those writers, I will make a humble attempt to relate a few of the benefits of listening to music at home.

1. It will improve your health -This is a big claim that has many sub-headings, including stress reduction, reduction in physical pain,  and improving mood associated with chronic depression or anxiety. Through the release of dopamine and endorphins (both are chemical neurotransmitters that create feelings of intense happiness and numb pain), listening to music helps us improve our overall ability to weather the ups and downs of life. This has been proven many times over by some reputable sources, including the Mayo clinic and the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

2. It will improve your physical coordination – Studies show that when you listen to music while doing some type of movement or exercise, your brain reacts to tempi and other musical gestures in sync with your body’s rhythm, thereby improving your coordination of movement. Philip Sheppard, composer, cellist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London talks about this in great depth in his book Music Makes Your Child Smarter. It’s a fabulous book, and all parents should read it.

3. It will make you smarter- Ok, so I alluded to this from the addition of Sheppard’s book, but listening to music REALLY does make you smarter. The sounds of a musical instrument stimulate areas of your brain that no other study or recreational activity can, thereby improving neuronal connections and increasing the potential for increased brain plasticity ( the brain’s ability to execute a new activity or acquire new skills). Listening to a large scale work, either for a single instrument or for an entire orchestra, has been proven to increase your attention span and memory building skills (I touched on the attention span issue in an earlier blog post…). It also helps your brain to recognize patterns and make contextual references within a piece of music, consequently affecting your ability to do this in life.  And of course, it stimulates creativity- which is a necessary skill to succeed in America. Make no mistake; Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because he was good at only math and science.

When you deprive yourself the opportunity to listen to music at home, you are robbing yourself of an activity that will make you happier, healthier, and more thoughtful. When we blindly put on the TV or the radio, we give up our choice of what to listen to; You are at the mercy of marketing and PR campaigns instead of your own judgment.

This may not seem like a big deal. But it’s long term affects will make us a country that’s less aware, focused, creative, and less engaged in our daily lives. So…. why not try listening to a piece of music at home tonight? Or maybe a couple of songs? You could listen to something by the Beatles or Brahms, alone or with your family. I guarantee you won’t need a TV show or a commercial to hear how great the music is.

Does this election mean anything to the future of Classical Music?

After a wonderfully long family vacation, I’ve returned back home and am now plugging back in to what’s happening in the world.

Let me tell you; I’m glad I took some time off to decompress, because there is a lot to be worried about when it comes to this election and, indeed, the next four years in classical music.

In the past year, New York City Opera has perilously survived its first year out of Lincoln Center, Opera Boston abruptly closed it’s doors, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, Seattle Opera has decided to ax their Young Artist Program for the 2013-2014 season, San Antonio Opera has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and owes over $200,000 to performers, administrators, as well as ticket holders ( among them is Placido Domingo, who is owed over $50,000). That is the tip of the iceberg- there’s so many examples of closings,  deep budget cuts and failed union negotiations that I can’t name them all.

This is not new; we’ve been hearing about struggling music organizations for years now, and frankly it’s starting to seem like routine. Kind of like the economic recovery in general; the incessant stream of “potential indicators” of whether or not things are getting better, and the shaky expectation of a better tomorrow- all of it has become commonplace.

So I wonder… does this election- these two candidates- mean anything for the future of Classical music in America? Let’s quickly look at their individual records in the arts and in charitable giving.

Mitt Romney- As I learned last night (yes, I stayed up all night and watched the convention………) Mitt has given a nice sum of money to the Mormon Church. As required by his religion. Also, he spent a significant amount of time as a pastor in Boston, where his fellowship work has touched the lives of many within his church. This is a good thing- it means that he actually thinks about something other than money. Also, Bain Capital started a charity for Children in 1997, and continues to be instrumental in it’s involvement with  it’s Children’s charity. Nice going, Mitt.

As for the arts, his record is an abomination. Deplorable. There is not a trace of interest in music or the arts anywhere in his Governorship in Massachusetts, nor anywhere on his website. The fact that he has vowed to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts is just one example of his noticeable disinterest;
“Reduce Subsidies For The National Endowments For The Arts And Humanities, The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, And The Legal Services Corporation — Savings: $600 Million. NEA, NEH, and CPB provide grants to supplement other sources of funding. LSC funds services mostly duplicative of those already offered by states, localities, bar associations and private organizations.”

This was taken from the Mitt Romney website. It is part of his “day one” plan. Let’s see; $600,000,000 (Million) out of $15,000,000,000,000 (trillion) is….  Less than a drop in the bucket. There is no symbolism in cutting Arts funding, it’s simply too small a sum- and not part of the real debt problem.

Although, apparently -Mitt likes Music, including this

Thanks to the Gregory Brothers for that.

Barack Obama – President Obama has given to charitable organizations proportionally to his gross income for most of his life- in the same percentage range as Mitt Romney, though he makes substantially less. In his yearly tax return statement it is evident to see just how much he spends on that charitable giving, and that he donated the entire amount of his Nobel Prize to charitable organizations.

When it comes to music and the arts, President Obama has a less than stellar record, with little or no budget increases for Arts funding.  But, interestingly enough, he believes in the societal importance of the arts:

“Equal to the impact you have on each of us every day as individuals is the impact you have on us as a society. And we are told we’re divided as a people, and then suddenly the arts have this power to bring us together and speak to our common condition.”

That comes from a speech given at the 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Ceremony.

He also spent time in 2008 extolling the virtues of Music Education in America:

Barack Obama on Music Education, 2008

I agree with this stance, and would love to see evidence of it-  perhaps a larger pushback from all the recent Republican proposals….

Though neither political candidate feels like music and the arts are a worthy stump issue, I think it’s pretty clear which candidate offers more to the cause overall. What we need now is a larger dialogue of how music and arts are woven into the fabric of our economy, our education, our individual values and moral responsibility to one another- a missed opportunity for politicians, and indeed for all of us.

Is Classical music really inaccessible?

I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make classical music more accessible to more people. In fact, I know many people in the field of classical music and opera who spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to widen our audiences; they dedicate hours upon hours to convince potential audiences, companies and corporations, and government of the benefits, the beauty, the importance of classical music.

Based on my evening this past Monday, I wonder if we don’t have to work quite so hard.

I had the  pleasure of attending my first NY Philharmonic Parks Concert this past Monday night. I’m no stranger to outdoor Summer concerts; I’ve been performing in Summer festivals for years, and loved attending concerts of visiting orchestras and ensembles. But most of the work I’ve done in the Summer is not in a major city; in fact, most Summer music festivals are not in major metropolitan areas. So it was not a new experience to see a wonderful orchestral concert in the Summer, but it certainly was to see the audience that showed up for the Parks concert.

The entire great lawn in Central Park was packed. PACKED- It took me the entire Tchaikovsky 4th Violin concerto to reach my friends seated at the eastern border of the lawn ( I foolishly thought that, having taken the C train to 79th and Central Park West,  I wouldn’t have a problem getting across to my friends…….). I suppose I didn’t think about the fact that New York has over 8 million residents- but even if I had, I’m not sure I would have expected the concert to be as full as it was. As I attempted to walk through the crowd, I was amazed to see how many people were really enjoying the music- not just sitting around idly passing the time outdoors or dismissing the orchestra as background. I missed the first piece since I was coming late from teaching, but for the Tchaikovsky and Brahms’ 1st symphony, which they played on the second half, the lawn was remarkably quiet.

And they played beautifully. It was a wonderful experience to have shared with my friends, the little girls behind us ( who, between intermittent giggling and playing with glow sticks, were actually listening), and all the other people around us.

Now, the obvious conclusion you might draw is this: The concert was packed because it was FREE. And yes, that certainly reduces the obstacles to growing an audience for classical music. If everyone could hear the NYPhil for free, I’m sure concert attendance would certainly be higher. So, who helped to make this concert free? A combination of private donors, a corporation and the city of New York.

This was a cooperative effort, from three distinctly different groups of people- one small group, one large group, and one medium sized group ( pardon the Goldilocks’ reference). They all donated financial resources as well as time and effort to make this happen, and it has been enriching the lives of New Yorkers for many years- 14 million listeners so far.

But… why stop there? Sure, supporting a free outdoor concert series in the Summer is great; but the continued exposure, development and support of music in New York City and elsewhere will continue to enrich the lives of all Americans. Continued cooperative efforts from all of us- performers, administrators, audiences, corporations, and governments- can help give music it’s rightful place in society.

America and the case of the disappearing attention span…..

I teach at a small music school in Morris Park, a small neighborhood in the Bronx. I enjoy it tremendously, and am always fascinated by the effort it takes us to pay attention in a music lesson. Most of my students are young, so naturally there is less attention span to be found; and I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to support their interest and further engage them in their music.  But it’s not just my students that have rapidly disappearing attention spans; it’s most of America as well.

There is a lot of research on this- the decrease of the human attention span. Roger Ebert wrote a very compelling piece on it in his journal for the Chicago Sun Times :

blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/05/the_french_word_frisson_descri.html

In it, he describes how he has become swept up by the “frisson” or, the jolt of excitement, that he gets from quick tweets and internet surfing. He mentions that research is being conducted that shows our actual BRAINS are being rewired by this, capitalizing on our instinct to want to feel short lived excitement, or the “frisson”. ( That link is:  http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1)

His discussion goes on to describe how he observed his own habits of attention span- and he noticed that amidst his tweeting and “Frisson” seeking, he had stopped activities that required longer term investment of attention, like reading Dickens. And ultimately, when he commits to reading literature more often and tweeting less, he finds a sense of deeper satisfaction, calm, focus. I certainly agree with him- and then I noticed the very end of his article.

A music  clip! The irony hit me in the face. He ended with a two minute clip of a man playing a guitar, saying it gave him that real frisson. I’m not sure if he was referring to the music itself, or the visual element of watching a person play guitar, but I couldn’t help but wonder- did this intelligent, wonderful writer not consider listening to music equal to reading classics? Or worse-  does a music clip go in the same category as the tweets, the short term thrills, the empty, non-substantive internet surfing? And if a person of Roger Ebert’s stature considered this non-substantive….. then clearly we are thinking about music in the wrong way.

Seeing as Mr. Ebert is in fact, a writer, it makes sense that his conduit for greater enjoyment and soul-searching would be through reading. But the choice to listen to a piece of music without any distraction provides the same experience as reading a great novel.  Forms and characters in literature are similar to forms and musical ideas in classical music. A composer introduces ideas and then develops them-  he or she creates dialogue between two or more contrasting musical themes, developing them into something new and exciting, often times increasing the tension , and then resolving ( or, sometimes more interestingly, choosing not to resolve) them in a final movement that ties the meaning of the entire piece together.You can get wrapped up in Beethoven just as much as Great Expectations; It is as worthy of our attention as any great piece of writing.

This kind of engagement of our interest and attention is precisely what I think we should be supporting in our society- and music is a fantastic way of doing that. Studies from Stanford University provide some evidence to this point:

http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2007/july/music.html

As we move forward in 2012, I’m sure that Facebook and Twitter will continue to evolve and shape our habits- but perhaps we should consider sitting down with a piece of music more often and give ourselves a break from that unrelenting string of little “frissons”.