David Rodeback's Blog

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Monday, December 5, 2005
A Minor League Team, er, Symphony, Is a Good Thing

I sat down to write a concert review, but I'm putting that off until my next post, in favor of some general discussion of the place of amateur music in our culture and community. (The same discussion generally applies to other artistic pursuits and even to athletics, as my title tries to suggest.) If you want to skip this discussion and go straight to my review of tonight's American Fork Symphony concert, feel free.

I go to concerts by the Utah Symphony or (particularly in recent years) the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, expecting fully professional performances by world-class musical ensembles performing in first-class venues. If the experience is in any way less than that, I may be disappointed. Of course, this is not a reasonable standard for volunteer community ensembles, such as the American Fork Symphony -- but such programs are nonetheless valuable.

Modern technology and commerce have made it easy to acquire a recording of a world-class performance of almost any piece of serious music. I've heard people ask why they should cough up $80 for symphony tickets, or even brave inclement weather or heavy traffic to attend a free concert, when they could do just as well on their nice stereo, and repeatedly, with a $15 compact disc. I myself happily listen to a lot of recorded music, but there's something, well, live about a live performance. It's not just the quality of the audio.

From that question, it's not a big leap to this query: When it's so easy and inexpensive to acquire recordings of so much music sung and played by world-class musicians, what's the point of having live performances by musicians who are not world-class? For that matter, what's the point of music lessons? There are at least three points, actually:

First, if you don't have minor league players, within a generation you won't have major league players.

Second, even if you could somehow create world-class musicians ex nihilo, there wouldn't be much of an audience for their music. Many people come to a lively appreciation of classical music -- or jazz, for that matter -- by playing it themselves, in a school or community setting, in groups which are anything but world-class. The same is true, I think, of such sports as basketball and soccer.

Third, a lot of people who make music in school enjoy playing or singing for the rest of their lives, even if they lack the talent or simply don't have the time to be world-class. It's a joy for them, and the discipline and teamwork (even the beauty itself) are good for the character. The same might be said of amateur athletic contests, or even of shooting baskets at the hoop by my driveway.

Fourth, the best place to learn concert etiquette is at a concert. I took my one-year-old to last night's American Fork Symphony concert. I wouldn't take him to Abravanel Hall or another venue in that league; they wouldn't even let him in, and for good reason. As a rule, he's shockingly well behaved at such things, for a baby, but he's still a baby. There are occasional, noisy disagreements with his father about what constitutes proper concert etiquette. But I want him to learn to love and understand good music, and I want him to learn to behave in concerts, so I can take him to great ones when he's older. So I take him to the American Fork Symphony and sit on the aisle, near the exit, in case of behavioral emergency. We both enjoy, and he learns. (He made it all the way through last evening's concert, by the way.) By the time he's six or seven, as one of his brothers now is, his behavior will be more or less reliable in a concert audience, even if he'll still be too young to get into some of the higher-brow concerts. At some point, maybe he'll even be inspired to pursue music himself, as an avocation or (if he likes poverty) a vocation.

Music isn't everything, of course. As I have suggested, the same basic reasoning applies to theater, dance, art exhibits, and amateur athletics. There is value in such programs for the participants and the audience.  

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