Off the stage, into the world: 18 ways every musician can help save music

 “At the moment of greatest chaos, we respond with creation.” 
—Bruce Feiler

Writers have been predicting the death of the classical music industry for decades; 2020 nearly fulfilled all their predictions. And while individual musicians and musical organizations have scrambled to keep the music alive online, we’ve had to face a sobering truth: even in rich countries, no one is going to rescue us. Governments may give some funding to the largest organizations, but most smaller groups and nearly all individual musicians have been left to fend for themselves. We can decry the lack of support, write articles and make speeches about the importance of music, but in the end, I suspect, very little assistance will be forthcoming and it will be up to us to save things on the “grassroots” level.

I’m an American writer, and in America, “fending for ourselves” has been our reality more often than not. Joseph Horowitz, in his recently published article in American Scholar, Our Revels Now are Ended, writes that other than a few golden decades (primarily just after WWII), musicians and musical organizations have survived almost exclusively on philanthropic donations. These donations have been drying up for decades, but it has taken last year’s Black Swan Event—the pandemic—to wake many of us to the reality that philanthropy, too, has changed. And now, as we enter 2021, we are required to accept a painful truth: we must support music if we want music to support us. 

Douglas McLennan, founder and editor of ArtsJournal, wrote of two ways that artists and arts organizations are approaching the task of rebuilding the industry in the wake of this past year:

“The world is settling loosely into two camps: Restorationists, who believe that this was a catastrophic event we have to survive … and Opportunists, who believe that everything has changed going forward and that we have a historic opportunity to reinvent. … What the pandemic has exposed is the shocking impoverishment of our infrastructure at every level: medical, political, financial, industrial, media, logistical, and yes, cultural. … Delivery of arts education has been frail for [a] long time. … Our arts institutions are badly under-capitalized. … We have significant and persistent leadership failure issues. … Why would we want to restore infrastructure that has been sputtering and misfiring for a very long time?”

In McLennan’s parlance, I am an Opportunist. I believe that not only do we have a “historic opportunity to reinvent” but that through our involvement, we can create a more sustainable infrastructure, one that serves a larger portion of our population. It will take creativity and a lot of non-glamorous work because, as McLennan stated so well, arts education has been failing in most communities for decades. It’s no use going back to the old model of trying to convince people that they should support classical music because it’s are good for them. Whether through government funding, philanthropy, or the open market, people only pay for what they know and understand. If our society has starved music education for decades, why are we surprised when people who have had little or no immersion in music choose to funnel their money elsewhere?

As a musician and a music lover, I’ve been guilty of two damaging misconceptions about music advocacy: 1) that it’s someone else’s job to raise the funds to pay my performance fees; and 2) that teaching and grassroots music groups are less important than high-profile gigs. These are two self-serving and snobbish opinions that musicians can no longer afford to hold. If we’re going to save classical music in America, we’re going to have to do it through education, inclusion, and community involvement. Pre-pandemic, many of us were content to be arm chair advocates; post-pandemic, all of us will need to stop relying on others to keep the arts alive and start making this happen through our own humble efforts. 

This change won’t happen overnight; it may take decades. But I refuse to believe that the situation is hopeless. I also refuse to believe that we’re helpless in the face of bureaucracy. There are things every musician can do to keep the music playing for current and future generations in our communities—even while while working to support themselves. Start with one of the ideas listed below, or use this list as motivation to find your own way of giving back. 

Things we can do now:

Accept that things have changed

Live music will return, but virtual performances are here to stay. The faster we embrace the virtual format, the more we can share the music we love with everyone, everywhere. For inspiration, follow the L.A. Philharmonic

Become an #ArtsHero

Reach lawmakers by using an economic argument. Remind them that the arts matter because they represent a lot of money and they create jobs. For more information on how to be involved, visit DAWN (Defend Arts Workers Now). 

Teach lessons

 If you’re already a teacher, donate an hour a week to teach a scholarship student.

Support other musicians

This is no time to be competitive: donate to their online performances, share their music, help promote their careers. If they’re decent human beings, they’ll return the favor.

Mentor a younger musician

Offer referrals, give career advice, introduce them to community resources. Work with them to bring music to social media platforms. 

Expand the performance and teaching repertoire 

We live in a multicultural world and it’s our responsibility to expand the repertoire beyond the famous dead white guys. Composers of every ethnicity, nationality, and gender are writing the music that will bring classical music out of the museum and into real life. It's our job to find this music and to introduce it to our students and audiences. 

Create a community songwriting project

Partner with local composers and singer/songwriters to teach people to write their own songs. Even if we're not composers or songwriters, we can help organize projects like this that immerses people in the act of creating music. 

Don’t be a snob

Classical musicians have the reputation of “looking down their noses” at other forms of music (and the musicians who perform in these genres). Don’t be this person; it only alienates others from the music we hope they’ll learn to love. 

Things we can do when the pandemic ends: 

Update the traditional concert format

As famed concert pianist Stephen Hough recently observed, the traditional concert format doesn't work well for modern audiences. He suggests 60-80 minute concerts with no intermission--a format I heartily support. 

Start a concert series 

Partner with a local church, or (if you’ve got the space for it) host home concerts.

Put on a concert to raise money for a local charity 

Make it a true community concert that features local performers of all ages and all styles of music.

Teach group lessons for senior adults

This can be done inexpensively with keyboards, adult method books, and a lot of enthusiasm. Partner with senior centers and communities to purchase the equipment and promote and organize the lessons. 

Start a community children’s choir, band, or orchestra  (or volunteer for one)

Start a community adult choir, band, or orchestra (or volunteer for one)

Music direct a musical for your local community theater

Volunteer in your local schools

Help coach the choir. Play keyboards for the school musical shows. Accompany students for competitions. 

Bring music to nursing homes, prisons, homeless shelters, food pantries, and hospitals

Create performance opportunities for student players 

This can be anywhere, from farmer’s markets to civvic events. Give students a chance to showcase their music!

Got more ideas? Share them here, and with other musicians in your community. Through advocacy, creativity, and community we can keep the music playing for generations to come.