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.