How to save classical music
By Antionette Sutto

First, I suspect that all the wailing over a supposed crisis in classical music is an overreaction. There are more classical recordings in print now than there were thirty or forty years ago - so many that many people (including me) are often bewildered at the variety to choose from when looking for, say, a recording of a Beethoven symphony or a Haydn string quartet. Even the works of relatively obscure composers are easy to come by. For example, there are at least seven or eight decent recordings available of the chamber vocal works of 17th century Italian composer Barbara Strozzi. Furthermore, the internet has made it easier to get information about music, about composers, and to buy new and used recordings, books and sheet music. Friends of mine who live in the middle of Wyoming, equipped with nothing better than good taste and an internet connection, have better record collections than I do.

However, with respect to live music, I admit that the situation could be improved. Those of us who live near Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, or other big cities have it relatively easy. If we put our minds to it, we can attend a lot of quality concerts - always mindful, of course, that we should give something back in return for the privilege. I don't mean simply donations, although there is not an orchestra I know of that would reject one. Giving back can also be as simple as inviting friends to come with you to concerts, sharing your reactions, or putting the word out at work that the Seattle Symphony (for example) is playing Schubert's 9th next week and anyone interested can get tickets from the Symphony's website.

People in university towns are almost as lucky as big-city dwellers. I am a graduate student, and in the past year I've seen Cavalli's opera Calisto performed as a project by a group of undergraduates (it was fantastic - there is an amazing amount of talent floating around in our universities) and heard the university orchestra perform Mahler's third symphony. Both performances were packed with other students and locals, and the tickets were cheap.

But of course, the vast majority of Americans don't live in places like this, where notices about concerts appear on office bulletin boards or float magically into one's mailbox. The solution is for music-lovers to organize. Look for listings of concerts in advance that are within, say, a day's drive. Find other people interested in going - post an ad in the paper, put up a notice at work or at the local record store. Carpool.

Another thing is to support any existing local musical groups, whether they are community orchestras, chamber groups, high school string quartets, or the Christmas recital put together by students of the local piano teacher. Donate time, money, sheet music, whatever you can. Go to performances. Write to the local paper and ask that concerts be reviewed, or better yet, offer to review them yourself. The solution to a lack of live classical music in your area is not to complain - it is to DO something about it!

But to return to the larger theme of 'crisis' in the classical music world, I think that when many people talk about this crisis, they mean a lack of knowledge and interest on the part of the average person. Many people see classical music as elitist, snooty, boring, inaccessible. The best way of changing this perception is not to try to popularize classical music by 'crossover' CDs (collections of syrupy love arias from operas, CDs of just the slow movements or just the fast movements from a bunch of different string quartets or chamber works, and so on) but by education. We gotta get 'em while they're young. Most of the people I know, myself included, who love classical music, first learned about it at an early age - because a parent or relative took us to (or played in) concerts, because we had the benefit of music lessons, because our schools had solid music programs.

Thus, step one in increasing interest in classical music is to help kids learn about it. Take your own kids with you when you go to concerts. It's fun, and they'll get to spend time with you. If you don't have kids, you probably have younger siblings, or nieces and nephews. Invite them. Don't treat it as something that's 'good for them', like medicine - treat it as something fun. Answer their questions. Most kids will love pieces like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, or Beethoven's 5th. It's loud, it's exciting. If you play an instrument, or have a friend who does, let them try it out (carefully, of course!). Encourage them to take music lessons.

Step two is to help improve music education in schools. This is hard in an age of state funding crises, when spending on public education is often one of the first things to get cut, and funds for 'nonessentials' like art and music evaporate quickest of all. For most of us, the only thing we can do is make our voices heard. Loudly and insistently. Vote for school levies. Volunteer. Attend school board meetings. Don't just complain about a lack of musical education - educate people!

But what about the perceived disjuncture between our casual, jeans-wearing, cell-phone-gabbing culture and the formality of traditional concerts? Do we need to abolish the black coats and sepulchral silence to get people into the concert hall? To be honest, I hope not, but I fear 'tis so - at least as far as the dress code is concerned. People are more likely to come to anything where they don't have to dress up. I know, I know, dressing nicely shows respect. But so does showing up. So does listening.

As for concert behavior (no talking, no eating, no phone calls, learning not to clap between movements of a symphony, etc.) I don't think much of that can be changed without doing too much damage to the experience. You can't enjoy a string quartet if the guy behind you is calling his girlfriend or there's a row of kids next to you slurping soda. Movies and rock concerts are loud enough that such sounds can usually be ignored. Classical music isn't. But I would suggest one thing. Growing up (in Olympia, WA) I remember going to a lot of concerts in a wide variety of places - school gyms, run-down theaters, parks, church basements, private homes, the rotunda of the capitol building (it's made of marble - neat acoustics). If I directed an orchestra, I would make an effort, a few times a year, to hold a concert or two somewhere most people would not be at all intimidated. Can you imagine, say, the Boston Symphony playing not in good old Symphony Hall but in, say, the gym of the biggest high school in Roxbury? I think people would come out of sheer astonishment. If the average person saw more examples of musicians demonstrating that it's about enjoying music and not about elitism or velvet seats, the perception that classical music is somehow snobbish would slowly disappear.

The way to save classical music is for people who love it to do their best to get people interested. We need to support music education in our public schools. We need to donate to our symphonies, we need to post fliers for the chamber group playing in the church basement. It's boring, it's obvious, but it's the only way. Music lovers need to take action!