Evolution of The Muse Dialogue

by Andrew Swensen

My mornings begin with a little adventure of discovery. Like so many people, I settle down with a cup of coffee and my computer, and then read or listen to the offerings from National Public Radio, American Public Media and Public Radio International – especially The Writer’s Almanac, On Being, The Story, This American Life and Frank Deford. One day, an observation arose: Some time not too long ago, every one of these pieces was a radio story, but it had been years since I had heard any of them on the radio. A wealth of fascinating material was coming through this magical device on my lap, and each piece was telling an interesting story with personality, conviction, and a healthy intellectual curiosity.

An idea begins to coalesce.

Increasingly we receive things through the world of “asynchronous” media. This is a fancy way of saying that in our era of online media, we read or listen to something whenever we want and typically find them from an email, Facebook post or a tweet. We should be doing more of this in the arts, I think, and as the adage goes, “I used to think that somebody should do something about this, and then I realized that I am somebody.” So I decided to create something.

There are certainly plenty of good sources on the arts, and what I had in mind was not “reporting” or arts reviews (ArtsJournal and Huffington Arts and Culture do good work already). Nor did I want to be one more arts organization using social media in order to cultivate patron engagement. The goal for this venture would be to uncover good narratives, to cultivate a spirit of essayistic writing, writing that has a personality and takes a road perhaps less traveled. I had three priorities, and they remain with me still.

The first is a sense of wonder and delight in the discoveries of serendipity, which is often how we learn about things that later become the most important to us. Serendipitous discovery is the hallmark of intellectual curiosity, and both in an author and a listener/reader. Though we may listen to the same program or read the same column every week, we never know what it is going to bring us. If it is done well, then we make wonderful discoveries, brought to us by people who want to uncover good and authentic narratives. In this vein, I think of This American Life, On Being, or one of my lifelong favorites from the world of old media, National Geographic. In these cases, we learn so much that we never knew could be so interesting.

Second, I love writing that takes risks. What I have in mind likely differs from what you might expect from those words. There are plenty of people willing to tear other people down and take easy shots with words that might have some shock value, in order to attract attention to themselves. Disliking things is often easier than liking things, and it seems that many equate disdain with being cool. However, too often people equate acerbic words with candor. Tearing others down is typically the antithesis of risk because it comes from a place of insecurity; it is the action of fear and not of courage. The arts need their Frank Defords and Ira Glasses. Someone who is willing to step out and take a narrative risk, and tell a good tale in the process. Someone who is even willing to take the risk of liking something that might be subjected to scorn. While the internet teems with good writing on the arts, many of us are reluctant to say things, often for a variety of good reasons. We try to put on a good face because these are times of anxiety. People worry about funding and about alienating a foundation, they worry about attracting audiences, and they worry about getting a job. Yet I like stories that step into that space of anxiety and still speak candidly. I regularly tell contributors to step outside their comfort zones because in this space we express our true selves. In the arts, it is often a risk to reveal that authentic self, with all of its hopes and fears.

One final essential ingredient is a love of art itself. So much writing on the arts strikes me as devoid of love, choosing instead the pose of jaded cynicism and even bitterness. We need less intellectual grandstanding and more joyous passion in the arts, less snarky diffidence and more celebration for the gift that art brings to the world and to us. Art has the ability to reach deep within us, into our individual psyches and souls, and into our collective unconscious. It is the place where we wrestle with love and death, where we search for meaning and confront anxiety over the uncertainties of human existence and experience. It is the beauty that enriches our lives, as well as the fantastic and grotesque space of our shadow selves. It is the expression of our longing and our wonder. A healthy love for this magnificent endeavor leads to those moments of discovery and insight that we ought to share with one another.

With these thoughts in mind, I approached some colleagues. Dan Martin, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, wholeheartedly embraced the idea and offered to give the concept its first legs at the university. The Muse Dialogue was born.

As we have explored ideas, writers have strived to provide interesting inquiry, contemplation, and reflection on the arts. Goethe once wrote, “Personality is everything in art and poetry.” The same, I would argue, can be said regarding those writing about art. We learn from the personality of others as they share their ideas, their passions, and even their worries with us. One of our regular contributors, Alexandra Holness, characterized the distinctness of The Muse Dialogue as the “timelessness” of the articles and by the opportunity to “explore ideas that have been floating in our heads and exploring them.” In the process, we hope to live up to our name and generate dialogue as well.

These are interesting times in the arts. I teach an aesthetics course, where many of the story ideas have been born. Over the years my students have taught me a great deal about our world of art in transition – the innovation in emerging and rising arts, and about older art forms for which audiences are waning. Some art forms seem to suffer from unfortunate neglect, and two early ideas were to write about poetry and about chamber music. Both of them are wonderful, but as far as I can tell, people seem to have a barrier to them now, maybe even a stigma, as if these arts have become passé or too intellectually removed. Some other art forms are in genuine crisis, and yet people do not want to talk about it. I do.

We have also approached topics with a sense of aesthetic inquiry. Other ideas that have come up concern human activity that presses the perimeter of what we call art, and among my favorite topics – neither my idea – were series on “Is Fashion Art?” and “Is Food Art?” Topics such as these awaken that special place of intellectual curiosity that I mentioned earlier, and I am grateful to our authors who have taken genuine delight in their writing. We have of course also covered some of the core subjects that we all must be raising tenaciously – the intersection of arts and politics, the importance of arts education, and impact of changing demographics on the arts.

Through it all, work on The Muse Dialogue has been a joy. We are very grateful to Frances McGarry – who most certainly shares that sense of joy – for allowing us to share the story of The Muse Dialogue, and we invite you to join us on our adventures of discovery, storytelling, and delight in art.

Andrew Swensen is the Publisher of The Muse Dialogue. He holds adjunct appointments at the College of Fine Arts of Carnegie Mellon University and the Conservatory for Performing Arts of Point Park University. He also works as a consultant for arts and other nonprofit organizations. He has unabashedly filled this article with links to other articles from The Muse Dialogue, by himself and others, in the hope that you will join his adventures in the arts. Email: ajswensen@gmail.com, Twitter: @andrewswensen, LinkedIn profile

Testimonial #25: Annie Gordon, Performing Musician

“To have a career based solely in performing is no longer sustainable or relevant in today’s society and economy. I am proposing a paradigm shift. I propose that every musician out there, particularly those who define themselves as performers, recast themselves as performers and educators. We all have the responsibility of producing music of the highest quality and fostering the appreciation of that art.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

The classical music world is facing a crisis. Audiences and general appreciation for our art are dwindling drastically, orchestras are folding left and right, and money is tight in the majority of musicians’ pockets. The average partron’s age is on the rise and will continue this way until, inevitably, it cannot rise any further. Many arts journalists and commentators are speculating on the “death” of the classical music audience (click here for related article that summarizes the situation).

This is old news. Many already have conceived and enacted innovative action plans, but most plans call for external, perhaps superficial, change. Freshen up the concert repertoire; change up concert venues; liven up performances; integrate alternate art forms; make the concert experience more accessible to the general public. These solutions, however, are only band-aid solutions that avoid the more pressing, fundamental change that is needed. Both the problem and the solution to the classical music conundrum lie deep-rooted in the very definition of what it means to be a “musician.”

The future attendance that we do not want in our concert halls

Today, the definition of musician is pigeonholed to encompass only one, highly specialized skill: performer, theorist, composer, historian. That’s the problem. As musicians, we are preventing our own art from flourishing because we do not value with equal intensity our roles as music educators and mentors. To have a career based solely in performing is no longer sustainable or relevant in today’s society and economy. I am proposing a paradigm shift. I propose that every musician out there, particularly those who define themselves as performers, recast themselves as performers and educators. We all have the responsibility of producing music of the highest quality and fostering the appreciation of that art.

The role of educator can take many forms — a tutor to private music students, an elementary school band director — but the definition is by no means limited to these roles. To my mind, a music educator spreads awareness and appreciation for classical music as an art form and is a “music mentor” to someone less knowledgeable about classical music.

This semester I am the only student enrolled in the course titled “Music in the Urban Schools.” This fact comes as no surprise, in light of the unfortunate fact that music education classes, and the education field in general, carry a stigma among performance degree students studying at conservatories. Careers in education are generally regarded as back-up plans, and music education classes are viewed as irrelevant to those in hot pursuit of a career in performance, composition, or theory. It is time to let go of the utterly backwards stigma against music education within the conservatory setting.

Now more than ever, with the pressing issues of failing orchestras and lack of societal interest in the “high” arts, music educators are our most valuable commodities. And our most important consumers are children. Children are the future audience members and supporters of our art, and yet they are incredibly malnourished in the arena of classical music. We wonder why our society is overly saturated with “popular” art forms. These are the artists who are baiting children with their convenient accessibility. Pop artists are lucky that their art is much more easily understood, but with a little TLC, ours could be as well.

Every individual’s spin on the role of a “music mentor” will and should be different. Some musicians do well teaching in a classroom setting, others in a private lesson setting. Both are fantastic and effective ways to reach out to young children, and foster awareness and appreciation of classical music. Yet others may not feel so comfortable in these roles, and we need to broaden our sense for what can be an opportunity to spread appreciation. The same goals can be accomplished outside of the teacher-student relationship, as well. I implore musicians with personality types less conducive to teaching to consider more personal music mentoring relationships with individuals.

The educator’s role for a musician should extend to all of those moments of contact with young people, and in fact with adults. So the ideal paradigm shift eliminates the mindset that outreach is a one-time requirement, an onerous contractual stipulation for a performance position. Yes, we see it as an obligation and not an opportunity to help our entire field — we see it as a graduation requirement for a conservatory, or a contract requirement for an orchestral musician.

The danger of course is that single events create little lasting impression and, at worst, bore children and dissuade them from taking an interest in the art. The most rewarding experiences come from long-term, well-developed mentor relationships. The key is creating a contagious atmosphere of love and respect for music. So outreach events should only be prelude to cultivating deeper, lasting contact. That more enduring relationship is accomplished through enthusiasm and recognition of one’s role as a source of stability, creativity, and artistic growth in students’ lives. No one person can change the world, and no one musician can change the trend of declining audiences and declining interest. However, if we want to change the state of the field, we must realize that this change first begins with ourselves and our mindset.

The Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift appeared in The Muse Dialogue

Testimonial #20: Erin Yanacek, Classical Musician

depressed-artist1 Seeking the Love of Music That I Once Felt

I remember the moment when I fell in love with music. I was 12 years old, attending a high school orchestra concert. My brother was playing horn, and while the concert was anything but perfect, it was perhaps the first time that my budding adult mind witnessed a large ensemble in performance. Captivated and slightly embarrassed, I allowed myself to cry when the music moved me. It was as though I was both hearing sound and understanding tenderness for the first time. My lungs, it seemed, were filling with oxygen for the first time, and I could not have been more infatuated. Yet in the 12 years that followed, the story has changed.
Today, it is difficult for me to listen to classical music. I leave concerts at intermission, even when the performers are excellent. I insist that the radio be off while I drive, or at least turned to a pop or news station. And at home, I can only stomach the sound of jazz, if not only the chirping of birds or silence.
And yet, my profession is as a classical musician. I play the trumpet for a living and long to be furiously in love with this art form. Why does this awful feeling plague me?

The problem likely began with the decision to create a profession out of music-making. The standard first step was a successful audition for a university that offered a Major in music. My acceptance and matriculation into a program inspired the confidence that this would be the right step toward allowing my passion to mature.

The academic system, despite its well-intentioned faculty, was lacking. Numbers and test scores were easily quantifiable, while concepts like communication through music and aesthetic value were more difficult to grade. Emphasis was often placed on skills that contributed neither to artistic development nor to a helpful understanding of entrepreneurship.

As I developed, I began to participate in the local gig scene. Orchestras, chamber ensembles, and churches provided some opportunities to get paid to perform. Here I discovered an interesting set of unspoken rules related to hierarchy, ability, and camaraderie. It was crucial to network with the right people, and it was just as important not to step on any seasoned musicians’ egotistical toes. I learned to navigate the system, but I still squirm with feelings of guilt and superficiality when I paint on a smile for a potential boss, colleague, or patron.

As time went on, I discovered that classical music does not lend itself easily to a healthy salary. Capable musicians outnumber available gigs, and thus a battle for survival ensues, where more hours of practice per day will likely win in the end. It is amazing that any musician manages to keep creativity, musicality, or originality in mind with all of our modern-day challenges.
Now it is as though my initial love and passion for music, for creative, original, fascinating sound, is quelled. Difficulties persists in trying to juggle my own creative needs with the demands of a system that I had hoped would nurture my abilities. I am left exasperated, creatively frustrated, and unable even to hear classical music without facing a flood of conflicting emotions. And yet, I stay in the field—out of habit, perhaps, but also out of hope and trust that someday, classical music will somehow register with me once again.

The prospect of changing my career path arises… or I could simply continue to follow my mentors’ advice and practice my excerpts faithfully. Perhaps I will one day arrive at a point of happiness and understanding with the craft, and my original passion will return.

I recently stumbled upon a relevant piece of advice. Renee Fleming, who is arguably the most prominent soprano in the world, had an opportunity to sing for renowned mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani in her early 20’s. Fleming had arrived in the conservatory system by way of a humble background, with music infused as an everyday part of her family life as a child. DeGaetani, hearing Fleming’s natural and intuitive understanding of music, told her, “Don’t train all that naturalness out of your voice.” What a wonderful perspective —and one that I will certainly adopt from this point forward.

I long to enjoy music. To have the same uninhibited rush of the emotion, of tears, of clarity that I did in my first experiences of listening to ensembles perform, half of my lifetime ago. It is not entirely clear to me where to turn to achieve this, but I trust that the path will present itself over time. And in the meantime—back to the practice room I go.

This story was originally published in The Muse Dialogue