The downturn in our economy has affected people in dramatic ways – loss of income, houses, jobs, and entire lifestyles.  In this blog, I want to talk about a more subtle way that the economy is changing us – as a society.  This is not “life or death”, and is something which many of us hear about in passing, but move onto more important items. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra has gone bankrupt and is now in Chapter 11

The reasons for this are varied, complex and controversial.  In short, it’s got to do with the poor economy, high musician salaries and pensions, plummeting ticket sales, high rent at the Kimmel Center, where they play, among other things.  But – I fear that there is another insidious reason for it’s slow demise:  the lack of music appreciation and education in our homes, schools and religious institutions.

I grew up in Philadelphia and going to the monthly Saturday morning “Children’s Concerts” was a part of my childhood.  As I remember – these were made possible by my grandparents, but my mom would take us into the city and make it into an “event” for us.  We’d see the concert, usually directed by William Smith, the assistant conductor.  He would teach us about classical music and the orchestra would play selections to demonstrate.  It was fun, although the conduct of many of the children present was horrible.  I have memories of paper airplanes shooting down from the balconies of the Academy of Music and William Smith admonishing that behavior!   Following the concert Mom and I would go out for lunch in downtown Philly to a place of my choosing.  Oddly – my choice was always to go to the Horn and Hardart’s “Automat”, the precursor of today’s “fast food”.  You served yourself by putting coins into slots to get the food out of the enclosed, see-through bins!  I’m sure Mom would have preferred ANY place else!

Then, as an adult, my parents would often invite Ray and I to come for a concert if we were going to be in Philly on a concert weekend.  My parents always had season tickets and purchased two more so that they could invite friends along to make it a social evening.  Again, we always had dinner “in town” prior to the concert, again making it “an event.  My mom and Frank still have season tickets to the orchestra.

I also remember my Uncle Ned inviting me to come to Philly for a specific concert which included a flute solo.  What a treat to be specifically invited, knowing that I had the interest in flute.  As always, we had dinner out prior to the concert. 

Then, when our son was attending Moravian College, many of his friends were music majors, and he grew to appreciate classical music through them.  So – my mom purchased “student orchestra tickets” for him – about 12 of them – which could be used for any concert not sold out.  Our son would then invite his music major friends for an evening at the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Mom and Frank have a memory of seeing their grandson – flanked by 7 girls – headed to their seats at the Academy of Music!

In the home, my mom and dad listened to classical music records, as well as WFLN (Philadelphia’s classical music station, which I do not believe exists anymore).  My father sang in the adult choir in church, as well as, for a while, in the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, traveling 1 hour to get to their Monday night rehearsals.  It was tacitly expected that we children would sing in all the church youth choirs – and there were many of them:  Cherub Choir (age 3-5), Children’s choir (1st – 3rd grades), Carol Choir (4th – 6th grades), and the Chancel choir (7th – 12th grades).  There wasn’t one time in my childhood when I was not in a choir!  In addition there was also an unspoken expectation that we learn an instrument when the school made that option available to elementary students.  That’s where my flute playing began, and my sisters picked up the clarinet, my mom’s instrument, and my brother, the trumpet.  We also all took piano lessons for varying time periods and with varying degrees of success.   (My lack of success at piano was legendary!) 

In short – – Music was considered important. 

However, even for the non musical family, the schools jumped in and provided for the non choral or instrumental student music classes which included basic note reading and music appreciation.  In 5th grade we had a teacher who put personal emphasis on music, and had the entire class learn to play these small, inexpensive and easy to play metal flutes.  Slowly – over the course of the year, we learned the fingering, and in the process how to read notes and rhythms.  Then, our class played a few concerts over the course of the year.

What I ask now is whether even a small amount of this focus exists today?   I admit – now – that maybe my family was a bit “over the top” – but even without the family influence, the schools and religious institutions filled in the blanks.   I note with the budget cuts that the first thing removed are art and music classes.  People are not learning to read notes!

Yet – we continue to be a music listening society.  Case in point:  look at the popularity of American Idol.  Yet – there is something missing.  We like it – we dance to it – we sing along to it – but we don’t understand it. 

I do not want to sound elitist and give the impression that Classical music is the only kind that is “legitimate”.  Personally, I think that this has been part of the problem, and young (and older) people have rushed AWAY from it to more “modern” sounds. 

I remember one Philadelphia Orchestra concert where they had Bobby McFerrin – of the “Don’t Worry Be Happy” fame – conducting the orchestra.  I didn’t realize it until that night that he straddles the classical and rock genre, which made this concert rather unique.  One half of the concert was traditional – with Bobby in his tux and tails conducting the orchestra.  But – the other half was more casual – and included a bit of audience participation!  As I looked around, I noticed a few of the “old timers” were sitting in their seats with their arms folded in front of them – disgusted.  Yet – – the interesting part was how MANY young adults were in attendance.  The Academy of Music was packed!

Whether we like it or not, music is in transition.  We have many legitimate genres of music out there besides classical:  rock, jazz, blues, folk, sacred, rap, etc.   Some of the old time Classical lovers do not want to believe that other styles have merit.  And, in all fairness, we all have our personal likes and dislikes, which need to be respected.  However, when it comes to learning about music, I believe we need to give the other styles of music the attention they deserve.  We need to learn about all styles – and not just from the classical music standpoint. 

Sacred music is changing, too.  Instead of using hymn books (which include notes and words together), The Christian contemporary services flashes the words to their praise songs onto a screen.   The notes to these songs are not included on the screen, and to learn these songs one simply copies the song as you hear it sung by the Praise chorus and congregation.  One of the reasons for this is the violation of copyright laws if notes were to be included.  Yet – in eliminating the notes to the tune, we have also eliminated another music learning opportunity. 

Church choirs – in my opinion – are slowly dying.  I’m 61 years old, and in BOTH my choirs (Hilton Head and Long Island) I am one of the youngest members.  What will happen to choirs in the next 20 years?  Will people join praise choruses?  I’m not so sure, because, from what I’ve observed, they are usually small in number.

In addition, I also think that symphony orchestras need to change with the times.  I’m not suggesting they abandon their classical music roots, but they maybe need to see the value of including other genres in their repertoire.  If they don’t – we may lose it all.

For now the Philadelphia Orchestra is continuing their concert series this year while they try to reorganize in Chapter 11.   Mom and Frank have also purchased for next year.  But, the events make me wonder how I’ll feel should it disappear.   No – it’s not a magnanimous issue – like food, clothing and shelter.  Yet – combine this with other struggling orchestras that might also disappear, and we might not realize what we’ve lost until it’s too late – when it’s all gone. 

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