Brian Chung | BC - How to Change the Future of Music Making

 

HOW TO CHANGE THE FUTURE OF MUSIC MAKING

Delivered at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference in Atlanta, GA on October 27, 2006.

 

I recently saw an old movie from the 1980s called “City Slickers.”  In the film, Billy Crystal plays a character named Mitch – a mildly-depressed family man and business executive who decides to leave his frustrations and failures behind by escaping to a “dude ranch” in search of the true meaning of life.  At the ranch, Mitch meets a gruff, bigger-than-life cowboy named Curly who, despite his “John Wayne-on-steroids” demeanor, seems to have life all figured out.

The two become friends. At a pivotal moment in the film, Curly turns to Mitch and says, “You city boys really don’t know the secret of life, do ya?”  When Mitch, who needs all the wisdom he can get, begs to know this secret, Curly leans closer and says, “It all comes down to this – one thing… just one thing.”

Mitch is all ears and urgently asks, “What is it? What is that one thing?” Curly looks him squarely in the eyes and says, “That’s what you have to find out.”

With that, Curly rides ahead leaving Mitch bewildered.  Hours later, before Mitch has a chance to find out what that “one thing” is, Curly suddenly and inexplicably dies.

There are a few differences between that cinematic scene and our situation here today:

  • First, we won’t be investigating the secrets of life.  But we will be trying to unlock secrets that can affect the future of this art form that we all love.  Thus, the title of this talk, “How to Change the Future of Music Making.”

  • And while I wish I could boil the answers down to just one thing, I really can’t.  Instead, I’ll be presenting three things that can forever change the art of music making.

  • And, finally, I plan to tell you those three things and somehow avoid sudden and inexplicable death.

There are three things that can change the future of music making – one goal, one strategy and one mindset.  Let’s begin with the goal.

The Collective Goal
Does our profession have a collective goal?  I’m not sure we do.  If I were to ask ten teachers about their goals, I would probably get ten different answers like these:

“I want to become a better teacher.”

“I want to create better musicians.”
“I want to keep kids playing classical music.”

“I just want to cover my monthly bills.”

All of these are important, admirable goals.  But whenever great movements occur that bring about radical and positive change, it’s usually because all the participants embrace one overarching goal.  For the last few years, I’ve been suggesting the following goal for our profession -- to cultivate millions who love making music.

The Importance of Love
There are two key words in this goal. The first is love.  Notice that I didn’t say, “To cultivate millions who play music well.”  I said, “to cultivate millions who love making music.”

When you truly love an activity, you want to spend every spare moment doing it. You want to get better at it. You want to tell others about it.  Love of music is the reason you’re here today.  It is the thing that enabled you to persevere through years of challenge and frustration to become a master of the art form.

We must never stop communicating the love of music – even at the highest levels of performance.  To neglect love is to reduce this art form to merely a technical skill – which turns our printed music and instruction books into technical manuals, our instruments into machines, and our students into technicians who will only be able to train other technicians.  To forget the love of music is to lose our soul.  

Of course, teaching love is different from teaching skills.  People don’t learn love in academic fashion.  They catch it.  They see your passion, or the passion of others, and it inspires them.  Or sometimes they’ll love something because you brought it to them on their terms… rather than your own.

But no matter how it comes about, let us commit to preserve and advance the love of music at every level of performance.

The Importance of Millions

But remember that there were two key words in the goal of cultivating millions who love making music.  I want to spend more time on the other key word – millions.  We need millions – in fact, tens of millions – added to the ranks of those who make music at any level of proficiency.  Some of you are nodding your heads at that statement; but others are suspicious.  You’re asking, “I wonder what he means by any level of proficiency?”  I mean just that – any level of skill – including millions who can’t read a note and play only by ear; including millions who don’t care if they ever play a Bach invention and only want to play pop songs that make them feel good; including millions who will never be “great students” by any traditional definition.

Some of you might be thinking, “What good is that? I’d rather have tens of thousands who play really well than tens of millions who don’t.”  But, you see, that line of thinking is a trap.  It leads us to where we are today – a perennial “also ran” in the quest for prime importance in this culture.

For those who think the world of music is in great shape, ask yourself a few questions.  How many classical radio stations are there in your city today?  How many orchestras and opera companies can survive on ticket sales alone?  How many of your college music departments always have ample budgets for the programs and instruments that you need?  If you’re a performing artist, are your concerts always sold out?  Are you content with the number of CDs you sell each year?  Do we, as serious musicians and educators, get the respect that we deserve in this culture?

Tough questions.  If we’re honest, things aren’t as good as we may think.  And I’m not sure we even realize what we’re missing.

I’m a frequent business traveler who flies about sixty to seventy thousand miles per year.  Despite all that travel, I’ve flown “economy class” for most my career.  But several years ago, one airline gave me a surprise gift.  They upgraded me to first class on a flight to Japan.  On that flight, I discovered what I had been missing for all those years – the magnificent sleeper seats, the choice of 8 movies playing simultaneously, the delicious food, the luscious dessert, and the tremendous personal service. It was literally heaven in the heavens!

After that, economy class was never the same.  I still fly economy most of the time, but with considerably less enthusiasm – because I now know what I’m missing.

May I respectfully suggest that we in the music teaching profession have been living in economy class. Collectively, we have never really experienced life in first class – where all our recitals are full, all our departmental budgets are overflowing, and all our students are way above average. We think everything is fine, because we don’t know what we’re missing.  

The worlds of sports and technology know very well what first class is like.  Pro football teams don’t need fund raisers to survive, nor do they have problems filling seats. Technology companies like Microsoft don’t have to worry about whether or not you’ll buy their software. These organizations revel in first class. Why?  Because they’ve unlocked the secret – which is having tens of millions doing what they do at all levels of proficiency.  It’s those millions of young men who play football from Pop Warner league to high school to college.  It’s the millions of us at all ages who use computers for work or for fun at all levels of ability.

Having those millions brings popularity; and popularity leads to something I like to call cultural assumption... a scenario in which so many people are doing a certain thing that it becomes part of the cultural context and people assume that everyone should be doing it.

Here’s an example.  Recently, I was doing a power walk in Hamamatsu, Japan at 6:00 in the morning.  I reached an intersection where the light turned red.  Across the street waiting to cross was a Japanese lady standing alone; on my side was a Japanese businessman with his briefcase. Normally, this would be a very busy intersection; but, at 6:00am it was pretty quiet.  Looking both ways, I confirmed that there wasn’t a single car in sight.  What would you do in that situation?  Well, I waited – for what seemed like an interminable 90 seconds!  Why?  Because I remember the indignant stares that Japanese people gave me when I had crossed on red during earlier trips. You see, in Japan, there is a cultural assumption that pedestrians obey the traffic lights. When the light is red, you stay put.  Most people in the culture assume this.

Now, compare that with New York City.  Imagine a red light and no traffic in either direction.. What do people do?  They go!  If you just stand there during the red light, you’ll get indignant stares for staying put as people have to step around you.  New York City has a different cultural assumption in which pedestrians rule.  People assume you will just go.

When tens of millions make an assumption, the rest of the world follows.  Whether we like it or not, there is a cultural assumption in this country that children should all play sports of some kind.  There is also a cultural assumption that children must be computer literate by the time they attend middle school.  But how about music making?  Are we there yet?  Have we reached the point where people assume that everyone should take music lessons?  I don’t think so. But it can happen, if we’re willing to work for it.

I’ve heard it said that less than 5% percent of the population participates in serious music making – the kind that we do.  If that’s true, and if there are now over 300 million people in the USA, that means there are over 285 million people (the other 95%)  who either have never been exposed to music making or simply don’t care about what we do.  That needs to change.  The path to cultural assumption and first class winds its way right through the 285 million people that make up that other 95%.  And we need to reach them.  But how?  This leads me to the second of my “three things” – the strategy.

Personalizing The Profession
If you agree that having tens of millions making music is critical to our future, then how do we attract those millions?  The answer to this could be quite complex.  But I’ve boiled it down to just one thing – we need to personalize this profession.

What do I mean by “personalize?”  Let me explain with some examples. We are all consumers in this room, right?  What happens when you walk into a store and discover that it doesn’t carry the kind of clothes you want?  You go somewhere else, of course.

Imagine that you’re in a restaurant and have some food allergies as I do.  You say to the waiter, “I’d like a house salad with no cheese or cucumbers.”  The waiter replies, “I’m sorry, but our house salads come with everything on them.  You’ll have to pick those things off by yourself.”  Would that trouble you?  Now imagine that you forgave that response and then asked for a steak medium-rare.  Then, the waiter replied, “Sorry, we only serve steaks the way we want to prepare them – you have no choice.”  Would you go back to that restaurant?  Most of us wouldn’t.  Probably 95% of us wouldn’t.

As consumers, we have choices.  We select those establishments and services that deliver what we want, the way we want it.  We buy on our terms, not theirs.

How is it with music making?  On whose terms do we teach?  Ours or theirs?  On the whole, I’m going to guess that our profession teaches mostly on “our” terms.  Here’s a test – let’s say a prospective student came to you and said, “I’d like to learn music my way, but I just want your advice when I ask for it.”  My guess is that many teachers would say, “It might be best for you to find another teacher.” (Some of you might be a bit more colorful than that.)  Am I right?

But if we’re going to reach the other 95% (the 285 million people who may be flat out ignoring us today), we need to accept that student and learn from that student – because he or she probably represents hundreds or even thousands more who want to learn a different way.  We need to bring music to them on their terms… by personalizing this profession.

This concept of personalizing can apply to many segments of the “other 95%” – to children and teens who are not our traditional students.  It means attracting them with fun, social experiences that engage them.  They won’t always want to learn one way.

It could apply to the millions who drop out each year because they don’t meet our standard.  When they fail to achieve, should we just let them disappear?  Or could we develop new methods (or a whole new brand of teacher) to keep them making music at some level?

Personalizing might also help us reach young adults in their 20s by teaching with the music of their generation, or by adapting music technology to meet their individual needs and wants.

Those are just a few examples of the ways we can personalize for specific segments of the “other 95%.”  But I want to give special attention to the one segment that can most affect the future of music making… the Baby Boomers.  

Baby Boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964.  There are roughly 77 million of them – about 26% of US population.  One turns 50 every 8 seconds.  They control 70% of the nation’s net worth.  And, right now, they’re beginning to think deeply about the ways they want to spend their time and money in their later years.

Why do I think Baby Boomers can affect our future so dramatically?  It’s because they have changed the world at every stage of their lives.  When they were teens, they put “rock & roll” on the map (American Baby Boomers made the Beatles an international phenomenon).  In college, they changed the ways that campuses looked and sounded (from Berkeley to Kent State to Columbia).  As they were raising families and buying homes, they fueled massive growth in the home improvement industry (superstores like Home Depot and Lowes didn’t just appear by accident).  Now, Boomers are completely redefining the meanings of aging and retirement.  If they embrace music making, they will rock our world.

Let me illustrate the power of a Boomer.  I know a guy who played tennis in high school and then quit for 15 years.  In his 30s, he dropped by one of the local courts and was re-infected with the “tennis bug.”  He immediately went out and bought a new racket, then another, then another.  Then, he needed a fancy tennis bag to hold all his rackets.  Of course, it wasn’t enough for him to just play well.  He had to look good – which meant fancy tennis clothes (4 shirts, 3 shorts, 2 shoes).  But then his playing had to match the quality of his clothes.  So, he subscribed to Tennis Magazine and bought a whole shelf full of technique/strategy books and videos by the tennis gurus. Then came the local tennis clinics, and eventually the expensive tennis camps where he could learn from the pros.  He followed tennis in the sports pages and tracked the careers of all the tennis stars (who now mattered to him). He attended pro tennis matches and traveled to Wimbledon twice.  Then, he widened his “tennis circle.”  He got his wife playing (which meant rackets, bags, clothes and lessons) and then encouraged some of his friends to play.  And, finally, he enrolled all of his children in tennis classes with a good coach to teach them properly.

After several years, this guy was no longer just “Joe Schmo amateur tennis player.” He was a poster boy for an entire industry (and a pretty decent tennis player).  Multiply him by tens of millions, and what do you have?  From the perspective of the tennis profession – utopia.  That’s the power of just one boomer.

I won’t tell you who he is… but I’ll confess that I looked terrific in those clothes.

The point is that many Boomers will go “all out” when they enjoy something.  And one of their greatest regrets is that they never played an instrument, or gave it up when they were younger.  If we will give them what they want, they will flock to us by the millions.  They will make our popularity soar and help to bring about culture in which participation in music is assumed.  And if they love it, they will want all their grandchildren to do it (by the tens of millions) and they may even pay for lessons.

If they do these things, their impact on this profession will amaze us all… and will reverberate for generations.

We need to personalize this profession and reach out not only the Baby Boomers, but to all the different segments that make up the “other 95%.”

What Can You Do?
Now, let me get real for a moment. Am I asking you to drop everything and suddenly move in this direction?  Of course not.  But what can you do?

Start by asking yourself whether you teach on your terms or theirs. If you’re an independent teacher, begin to devote part of your studio time to meet the needs of the other 95% -- maybe by offering group lessons of any size for people who are not our traditional students.  Or by offering classes for adults or seniors that are simply fun and relaxing (which might reduce your stress level while offering exactly what many of them want).

And because many of these other segments can be taught during times of the day when your traditional students cannot, these lessons and classes could maximize your use of time and even increase your income.  (More income, less stress – what a concept!)

If you’re in college pedagogy, begin to incorporate new types of curriculum that train the next generation of teachers to reach out to this new kind of student, not just the ones who will learn our way. Or work with your colleagues in the community colleges to create new pathways for teachers.

If you’re not in a place to do any of these things, then at least become a fervent advocate for change.  Use your influence, your resources and your network to support and encourage others in the effort to reach the “other 95%.”

If we are to succeed in personalizing this profession, it will take a total team effort.  If too many of us say “not for me,” then we may have to resign ourselves to a lifetime in economy class.

Inverting the Hierarchy

We’ve discussed the goal (“to cultivate millions who love making music”) and the strategy (to “personalize this profession”).  Now on to the “third thing” – the mindset.

There is an unofficial hierarchy in our profession that gives the greatest honor and attention to those who teach at the highest level.  This is a normal hierarchy that exists in many professions.  Those at the top are regarded as the most important and are relied upon to lead those at the grassroots to greater skill and a better future.

Here is where I risk sudden and inexplicable death.

With all due respect to the teachers of the elite – many of whom are represented here and are my personal friends – we need to turn that hierarchy upside down.  We need to make the grassroots teachers – the nurturers – the focus of our strategy and the ones worthy of the greatest attention and at least an equal portion of the honor.  We need to encourage them, assist them, and extol them.

Why?  Because they are the key to having millions who love making music.  They are the key to our life in first class – the key to overflowing budgets, huge audiences for our recitals, massive CD sales, and tens of millions more who actually know who we are and respect us for what we do.  If the nurturers get what they need from all of us – and if they are willing to personalize their teaching to reach the other 95% -- they can transform all of our lives… and faster than we realize.

Here is a real-life example.  When I graduated from high school in 1974, the sport of soccer was not on anybody’s mind in the U.S. – completely off the radar.  Nobody I knew played soccer.  Most people thought it was a pretty silly game.  For heaven’s sake, you couldn’t even use your hands!   Back then, if someone were to proclaim that soccer would be really popular in America one day, you would tell them they were crazy.  That was 1974.

Now fast forward 15 years to 1989.  By then, I was married with a 5-year-old son.  What did I do?  I put my kid in soccer.  Why?  Because everybody else was doing it! All my son’s classmates were in soccer.  It was the assumed thing to do.  Eventually, all three of my children did the same.

Soccer reached cultural assumption in 15 years – not a century, not even a generation – just 15 years.  And they got there not by focusing on the stars, the elite players, or the elite coaches (because there really weren’t any in America during the 1970s).  The focus of their strategy was the nurturers – the local organizations – the ones who could cultivate millions who loved playing soccer.  Their mindset was “a hierarchy turned upside down.”  By doing that, they attracted my children and millions and millions of others.

By the way, do you know what their official slogan is?  I’ll give you a hint – it’s not “Everybody plays well.”  It’s only two words – “Everybody plays.”

And for those of you who think this led to a bunch of hackers playing soccer across this country, fast forward less than 15 years from the time my son played his first soccer game.  What happened as those millions got older?  In 2002, the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team (a perennial bottom-dweller on the international scene) reached the semi-final round of the World Cup Soccer Championships.  And in 2003, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team beat China to win the Women’s World Cup in front of 100,000 screaming fans and a national TV audience at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Imagine that.  Having millions who simply “played” brought forth more soccer excellence in America than anyone could have ever imagined back in 1974. 

If we are courageous enough to turn the hierarchy upside down, it could lead us all to our dreams.

Excellence and Impact
Let me close with two final thoughts.  Some of you may be asking, “What about the pursuit of excellence?  You haven’t mentioned that once.  Are you implying that “pursuing excellence” means nothing?”

Let me make this perfectly clear.  The pursuit of excellence is immensely important. Exceptional teachers and their students will always be a critical part of our future.  They are the ones who inspire students both young and old, who thrill audiences, and who raise the bar for our entire profession.  Striving for excellence is certainly a critical piece of the puzzle – but only a piece of the puzzle.  So, please understand me clearly – I am not saying that the pursuit of excellence is nothing.  I’m only saying that it’s not everything.

And one final thought that is perhaps bigger than all of us.  If we truly believe that music making has the power to edify, to heal, to empower and to unite – if we truly believe that music making can transform lives for the better, accomplishing more than sports or computers could ever do to reach into the soul and uplift the human condition… if we really believe that… then attracting tens of millions to this art form will do far more than just change our future.  It will change the world’s future… for the better.  What a thought – that by changing music making, we could change the world!

So, how do we change the future of music making?  It all comes down to three things… just three things:

  • One goal – to cultivate millions who love to make music;

  • One strategy – to personalize this profession;

  • And one mindset – to turn the hierarchy upside down.

But how will this look for you personally?  What things need to change in your life to make this a reality?

“Well,” as Curly would say, “that’s what you have to find out.”

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