Thomas Stevens

Traditions II

  • General Quotes

Traditions Today

The preservation of valued and cherished musical traditions in modern day performance practices, the subject to which my faculty colleague referred in Traditions I, poses a significant challenge for members of the music profession.

Today’s musicians, particularly those working in today’s high-profile musical environments, major symphony orchestras and motion picture orchestras being prime examples, are not only more musically challenged than their predecessors, in terms of the sheer volume and diversity of the repertoire they are required to perform, but they are expected to do so with less rehearsal time*. One of the consequences of these circumstances has been the emergence of a type of generic musicianship, both on the part of individuals and ensembles. Rapidly disappearing are those days when reasonably sophisticated listeners could instantly recognize the regional or national origins of individual performers or musical ensembles, because today everything is sounding more and more alike, for myriad reasons, including such elements as the “globalization” (read; standardization) of musical instrument manufacturing and the recording industry-the old “shrinking world” effect. The most important factor, however, would seem to be the changing economic realities of the music business, which have, among other things, using bureaucratic language here, created time-management issues in the “workplace.” The resultant time-constraints have had a direct effect on the manner with which musicians approach their craft. It would seem fair to state the prevailing conventional wisdom among performers has devolved to a quasi-survival mentality: just play the notes and don’t get into trouble by taking too many musical risks or by trying to be too assertive or imaginative (musically). If, of course, some good musical stuff happens, either by happenstance or due to the efforts of especially gutsy players, that’s great, but the most important criterion remains getting the job done, and that job is “to play,” once again as expressed in a verbatim Quotable from Paul Hindemith, “the right tone at the right place with the proper strength.” As a former colleague, L.A. Philharmonic and Hollywood studio stalwart trumpeter, Robert DiVall, once opined in response to the request of a particular conductor who wanted him to take a musical chance by playing a difficult part on an instrument unfamiliar to him, “no none ever got fired for not being musical-they got fired for not playing their parts [correctly]. His comment, albeit a bit overstated and simplistic, is nevertheless worthy of Quotable status because it does indeed represent a valid observation concerning the current music business environment. The same could be said of a well-known Quotable from by Maestro George Szell to one of his musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra: “All I want from you, Mr. X, (name omitted to protect the innocent/guilty) is the [correct] notes.”

Today, in view of the increasing emphasis on individual creativity and self-expression in the arts, such comments and circumstances are probably more offensive and depressing to young or developing musicians than they might have been to those of previous generations. This type of work ethic exists as one of their demons, and it is ultimately up to them to determine how they will deal with it.

In the meantime, if you find yourself listening to a recorded classical music performance or a motion picture soundtrack and you can’t recognize the players or the group, something you once did exceedingly well, not to worry: You're not alone.

*During the mid-1980s, I casually read through a paper being prepared by a graduate student in a university arts management degree program. In one of the appendices, there was a chart showing that the ratio of rehearsals to concerts in four top-tiered orchestras had become almost completely inverted as compared to those same orchestra’s schedules during the early 1960s. I don’t remember many of the specifics, but I do recall reading that in the case of one particular orchestra, the ratio went from an average of 5.2 rehearsals to 2.8 concerts per work week (including “educational” concerts) to 3.2 rehearsals for 4.8 concerts per work week. In motion picture recording, at least in the U.S., there are no rehearsals and everything is done on paid "session" time, which is self-explanatory in terms of the requirements for player efficiency.