For most of her life, my mother has been an active bridge player. In the 1940s and ’50s, when this started, there pretty much wasn’t any such thing as television. People got together in the evening to play bridge.

Until a few months ago, Mom was still playing bridge in a couple of different card clubs. What’s very noticeable about these clubs is that all of the women in them (which is to say, all of the people — they’re women’s card clubs) are over 70. Many of the participants are over 80.

Playing bridge is no longer an attractive social activity for young adults. Times have changed, and decisively, since the 1940s.

The situation in community orchestras is less extreme, but it’s part of the same dynamic. The demographic of orchestra members shows a wide age range, but the number of talented amateurs is clearly smaller than it was 50 years ago. Young people today have far more interesting and socially relevant ways to spend their time than practicing the violin!

The results are sadly predictable. Those who do volunteer to play in community orchestras seldom practice as much as they should. Some of us do, but there are also people who just get the instrument out of the case one night a week for rehearsal.  These people’s commitment to musical excellence is close to zero.

The question I’m asking myself today is, why should I bother participating in such an ensemble? It’s a form of torture, really. No matter how much I practice, the group will still sound like … well, my section leader has advised me that it’s not useful to say things like, “The orchestra sounds like shit,” so I won’t say it. I’ll let you fill in the blank.

The orchestra is competing for my musical time and passion with my home studio. In my home studio, the instruments are always in tune. The rhythms are always precise. If there are wrong notes, I can edit them. I get to pick the repertoire (or write it myself, if I choose). I’m in charge of the tempo and the balance of the various parts. I can use whatever instruments I like, and even create my own instruments if I feel like it.

At the rehearsal this week, one of the orchestra members (a high-school girl who plays violin, and is actually rather good) gave us a pitch for a project she’s working on, to encourage 5th graders to take up a musical instrument. She wants adult musicians to go into the schools and give pep talks. She put it in interesting terms: The idea is not to encourage kids to think of becoming professional musicians. It’s to suggest to them that when they grow up, they can continue to play music as a recreational activity.

I found myself shuddering. I found myself thinking, wouldn’t it be better to encourage them to spend their precious study time on math and science? Or, if they’re going to go into music, shouldn’t somebody suggest to them that it’s hard work, that excellence is important, that they’ll have to spend thousands of hours practicing in order to get decent?

In all honesty, I don’t think I could sit down in front of a bunch of 5th graders and tell them that they should aspire to become third-rate amateur musicians playing in a third-rate amateur orchestra. Not with a straight face.

I could get enthusiastic telling them about making music with a computer, because frankly that’s a much more rewarding process. Not that there aren’t a lot of third-rate musicians making third-rate music with computers. Maybe the real problem is that people today want something for nothing. They’ve been sold on the idea that they can expect instant success without effort.

Or maybe they just can’t tell the difference. Dunno.

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4 thoughts on “One No Trump

  1. Found your blog googling “play bridge” and found your comparison to music interesting.

    I just started a blog Bridge Table Chronicles at website given above. I’m just like your mother except I’m 90 and still playing (more now than in my 80s actually, because I’m in Florida). Different also because I’ve written a book Bridge Table or What’s Trump Anyway? ABOUT bridgeplayers like us–sociable players I call them.

    I’m just curious, are you saying that nobody should take up any skill unless they pursue it to high excellence? I think I disagree with that, in fact it’s one of the premises of my book. Think how few things one could do over a lifetime if that were the goal.
    One of the things I argue with bridge establishment about is their lessons seem always geared to produc ing competitive duplicate players. That isn’t how bridge came to be the fad it was when your mom and me learned to play.
    Also, way back in highschool in the 30s when I attended, I took violin lessons, never got past 2d violin in the high school orc hestra, never practiced enough either. BUT (and I’ve often said this to my kids), to this day I credit my less than great performance (I really did work on English, however) as a musician, that experience engendered a lifelong interest (and enjoyment of) classical music and opera.
    I guess I disagree with you, and don’t see from your post that your mom’s experience at bridge equates with young sloppily trained musicians today. Did your mom competee all those years? Or just play with her club and neighbors.

    1. Thanks for the comments. Much appreciated! No, Mom was never interested in duplicate … but over the dinner table she never tired of griping about the ineptitude of some of the other players in the card club. One woman would never double, because she didn’t think it was polite. Another took forever to bid. Bad bidding was a frequent source of irritation.

      There’s certainly a place in the world for people who just want to participate in an activity quite casually. Not everyone needs to become an expert! And you’re absolutely right that studying a little music as a child can lead to a lifelong love of music, whether or not one continues to play.

      One question I have to ask myself is how much time I’m willing to spend in an orchestra of casual players. Every good player has to ask himself or herself that type of question. I have a friend who is a professional cellist who used to sit in and play string quartets with three nice old retired amateurs whose cellist could no longer play because he had developed Parkinson’s. My friend was happy to do this … but she did try to pass the opportunity on to me! She wasn’t committed to it in any sense.

      Another question is, should an orchestra of casual players be charging $25 per ticket for folks to hear the concert? This is a harder question to answer. I’m inclined to say that the ticket price obliges the players to do their very best — which in most cases will mean practicing those darn sixteenth-note runs every single day.

  2. The questions you raise, of course, should they charge 25 bucks, etc. is beyond my playing bridge concerns.

    Here’s one aspect of the music scene that puzzles me. I have 2 grandsons who=totally independent of one another–took up rock (I guess!) music, taught themselves various instruments from piano to guitar to drums, wrote music and lyrics, formed a small band and at one point in their lives, I believe thought might be viable career for themselves. Have “records” out there that rated well on college radio, etc. made SOME money (I guess) but neither of them (far as I know) ever took a music lesson.

    I wouldn’t ask, but I wondered–how much competition could there be out there if you can aspire to a pop music career and never take music lessons?? I couldn’t understand how they could reach professional moneymaking level without some lessons!

    One has since become a high school English teacher (but stll dabbles with his music stuff) the other has found a great job for covering living expenses with great benefits and learning a very marketable skill, but I think he too still is in touch with his music group and makes records now and then. I know they’re not records, something else.

    Classical players could never become professional without lessons from good teacher. Mystifies me! Especially since people download the stuff for free and you can’t sell records anymore.

    Perhaps (influenced by the pop culture music scene) they think it’s o.k. to not practice, take lessons??

    1. Are lessons necessary? That depends on several factors. If you have some natural talent and study hard by listening to records and practicing what you hear, you can go a long way without formal lessons — but you may also be hampered in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. You may be able to play perfectly well, for instance, with your regular band, but if called on to sit in with a different group you might be a fish out of water.

      There is enormous competition for careers in pop music! I would advise any young person to do everything they can to give themselves an edge — and that includes lessons.

      On the other hand, a poor or overly strict teacher can harm a student by impeding the natural spontaneity that is an important part of pop music. The fear that this will happen is certainly overblown: There are plenty of would-be pop musicians who are afraid that taking lessons would ruin their natural spontaneity, when the truth is they’re simply bad players and need lessons.

      There is a mystique among successful pop musicians. Especially in the hip-hop community, musicians will lie about their training. They will claim to be self-taught when in fact they took extensive lessons, because of the “street cred” factor.

      Playing pop music is generally somewhat easier than playing classical music, so lessons are perhaps less crucial. In addition, if you’re hoping for a career as a pop star, other factors loom large. You will absolutely need to be sexually attractive and fashion-conscious, for instance. An understanding of contract law and finances, if you’re aiming at stardom, will also serve you well — nothing to do with playing your instrument, but everything to do with managing your career.

      I’ve read, for instance, that the Rolling Stones (certainly one of the most successful pop groups of all time) have no business manager. Mick Jagger is not only a consummate showman and inspired songwriter, he is also a savvy businessman.

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