time to change the way we view music and the arts

The crossover in the casserole

Food Network chicken noodle casserole

Add a dash of punk here, a pinch of folk here, combine with primetime TV and let simmer…
(Cit. FoodNetwork.com)

You know that phase a lot of young children go through…the one wherein parents or other guardian figures have to cleverly hide and or repackage things like vegetables in “more kid friendly” food? Well it’s funny that this psychological “trick we play” on kids and their restricting palates is something that has become somewhat of a sport here in the US among nutritionists, dietitians and other developers of “healthy eating lifestyle changes” –except intended for grown adults. Other than just telling a person, “Make sure you include this much greenery in your daily caloric needs,” so many people are trying to come up with ways to transition the vegetable-averse, that it makes you wonder how the methods probably used on us as kids didn’t simply stick.

The reason many of you are probably now thinking back to the first times you experienced broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Lima beans or spinach, is because the music industry appears to be taking a cue from the food and health industry. Suddenly people are “hiding” or “sneaking” bits of seemingly “non-matching,” musical niches into more mainstream places –and not just by pairing musicians off, as was the case with the crossover fest that was the 2014 Grammy Awards.


During that broadcast, viewers listened to and watched the heavily promoted likes of Daft Punk with Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Sara Bareilles, Miranda Lambert with Billie Joe Armstrong (doing the Everly Brothers no less!) and let us not forget Metallica and Lang Lang head banging it out together, center stage.
No, straight up performances slated as concerts are not the only places now. As was quickly summed up and tweeted out by The 5 Browns on Friday night, (a fun group of classically trained, yet anything but repertoire-restrictive, pianists standing outside of a stylistically presumptuous box of their own), following the U.S. broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremonies in Sochi, the last few weeks have been “good” to the classical sector. A hat-trick (since we’re talking of the Olympics!) of Lang Lang at the Grammys, Renée Fleming at the Superbowl and then fellow Metropolitan Opera singer, Anna Netrebko, singing the Olympic anthem, rounds out the trio of unlikely appearances.
There have been naysayers about all three of these choices of course, so to those few, these decisions were not in fact anything worth cheering about or getting the least bit excited. Still, at least in the cases of the two ladies of the Met, exposing a massive audience to a style typically relegated to those who go to look for it, via a crossover of “approachable activity” rather than “approachable other genres” as the Grammys did with Lang Lang…perhaps this is the new way to try and bring people’s attention to not only classical repertoire and artists but really any genre that has trouble breaking out of a stereotypical or traditional box. We have essentially gone down the “vegetable trickery route” but through activities enjoyed by adults.
The idea that any confined genre could benefit from this strategy has some merit, as say singers steadily rooted in a genre, and lacking any interest in “lightening up,” could test out their sound and style for activities that maybe fall outside their comfortable geo-demographic. Then, if well received, perhaps tour expectations could gradually shift for individuals or even the entire musical style.

Renée Fleming performing the US national anthem at the 2014 Superbowl


It is not exactly common to see New York City appear on tour lists of artists that resolve to keep themselves well planted in the country/bluegrass genre; not looking to water down their traditional sound/lyrics/arrangements for more mainstream legroom. All too often, tour circuits for such musicians hover around states to the south or out west, many times never coming farther north than the Virginia border. When that does happen, the occasion usually prompts an attitude of, “take no prisoners,” with regards to getting a ticket because one is not likely to see the artist return anytime soon thereafter.
This is in no way an absolute, hard and fast stereotype across the board and exceptions are happening, (EDM DJ, Avicii’s, recent collaboration track, “Hey Brother,” with Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss and Union Station, is a prime exception, getting regular Top 40 and international radio play) but, there is definitely a slant and stereotypical affinity that comes across when it comes to mapping tours along certain geographic areas for the genres mentioned here.


Turning in a different but relevant direction for one moment, here’s another method of “attraction strategy” with potential:
Arts journalist, Greg Sandow, recently posted a guest piece to his blog, written by composer, bassoonist and musical activist, John Steinmetz, that examines this very dilemma on “how to attract more people.” The focus for Steinmetz is concentrating on classical. Tying in another branch of ‘attraction strategy,’ we are told the group referenced in the piece is made up of college students in a music appreciation course. The questions of how and subsequently why, the students enjoyed the new experience of hearing a live classical performance leave somewhat of an open ended conclusion, as Steinmetz cannot pinpoint a specific piece of information he told, or an action he displayed, that correlated directly to students coming away from the exposure with more positive feelings than originally anticipated. The reason that can presently be best theorized is because of the generalized but pertinent work they did in class:

I can’t help noticing that these concerts included none of the innovations that Greg and many others, including myself, have been advocating as essential for inexperienced listeners [such as: historical context, insight on composers, virtually no familiarity with musical periods, genres, or forms, type of classical repertoire, etc.]. Nevertheless, the music managed to engage these students. How did this happen? What’s going on?

The simple truth is that I don’t know. But I’ll speculate: What we did in class.

I suspect that some of the class work may have made the students more receptive to unfamiliar music.”

It remains to be seen, what the outcome will be when Steinmetz can take a second term of notes on students reactions but his observations about class work, as well as including speculation on the importance of including live playing, makes one wonder about the worries projected by the Telegraph over the weekend, concerning the possible killing of the opera star, thanks to the move toward cinema based viewing. Though, in all honesty, the Telegraph’s concerns seem to be more about the age old problem of money than the art of live execution itself. (“So the fundamental problem for opera remains pretty much what it has always been: who or what is going to pay for it?”)

Wrapping up this piece with a trio of my own, who’s to say that the old school and the wild card can’t have potential for a role in changing audience attraction and boundary-breaking methods, too?
A high school friend of mine, who now teaches grade school mathematics, posted a status in the form of a miniature story, to one of her social media accounts and shared an experience she recently had with one student:

So I had a random student in my class who has been telling me he’s not going to do any math this year. “He doesn’t need math,” he says.

He started talking about Battlefield 4 today. “What’s your kill/death ratio, Miss?”

I played along. We talked about kill/death ratios. I had him explaining the complexities of ratios to me in grand detail through the guise of video games.

When I pointed this out to him, he was absolutely amazed. What foul and beautiful ‘mathemagic’ had I unleashed unto him? He agreed that perhaps he does need math, especially if it will help him “pwn noobs.” I promised I would help him do this because I am a wise and kind gamer with higher ranks of math than him.

Despite this being math and video games talked about above, it is the core of how my friend chose to engage and enlighten her student, that is in the spotlight here. The idea of unveiling the connection between things we like and take to without question, and things we don’t necessarily think we like, is “an oldie but a goodie” of a teaching method. I even remember a time back in grade school, when my general music teacher was playing different examples of common classical repertoire and a classmate of mine shouted out, “That’s the theme song for Sonic the Hedgehog! Cool!” (We were listening to an excerpt of In the Hall of the Mountain King, for anyone that remembers both the piece and the original animated Sonic cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings in the U.S.)
In this case, for music, this strategy is really just music placement and syncing, strategies that are still in full force today. Nonetheless, for grade schoolers who don’t know the concept of music syncing, illuminating common usages and appearances of music genres from across the spectrum can help approachability and attraction from the “sooner rather than later” end of things, and, some early familiarity to flex stylistic expectations and boundaries never hurts.
Then again, any grown adult watching the Olympic Finland v. Canada women’s hockey game yesterday, might have caught a measure or two of Bach’s Toccata Fugue in D minor playing in the background and, while hockey is a high energy, contact sport, one can’t help but be curious about how that track got into the game play list. Even if you had never heard the specific piece or even Bach at all prior, perhaps someone in the stands got into the game and or the piece more, because despite the oddity in that choice, the D minor Toccata is plenty intense as well. Thus, in some ways, perhaps it fit the mood. A fellow writer and music tech savvy colleague from Twitter, inadvertently and humorously highlighted some future potential for attraction via this wild card, upon my noting the strange placement earlier:

@shadowmelody1“Why is Bach’s Toccata Fugue in D minor playing in the background of the women’s Canada v. Finland #hockey game? #olympics #oddmusicchoice”

@MarmiteJunction “That sounds pretty intense for any sport, perhaps they’ll all be broadcast with comically mismatched classical music now.”


Coming full circle back to kids and their veggies, no matter which strategy one chooses, whether it is,  

  • pairing common non-musical activities with uncommon music of your choice
  • gently pulling back the walls of the complete unknown with easy going and non-intimidating, but directly relevant, musical activities or,
  • simply highlighting pre-existing, specific connections people have with uncommon musical styles (this removes associations brought on by a style alone) and building upon those specific connections by incorporating contexts of an entire genre,

the important end point to remember is the same: Just because you would not think spinach belongs hidden in pizza bagels, that does not mean you did not enjoy it. The same goes with music being controlled by expectations or confined to certain environments, only because of self-generated apprehension.

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