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Dudamel’s Super Bowl Disappointment

ON THE SURFACE, IT’S A FEEL-GOOD STORY: Dudamel’s project, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), performed alongside pop giants Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé at Super Bowl 50’s halftime show. When the story broke a couple weeks before the big game, numerous outlets sung praises, proclaiming that it was a “touchdown” for classical music and the arts. My Facebook timeline saw share after share after share of this news report: indeed, for a youth orchestra to have a spot on television’s most watched event is a huge freaking deal. 1

How did it turn out? See for yourself:

[UPDATE (for now): Inserted a new video that’s not blocked!]

You get the first shot of the orchestra playing rainbow colored instruments at 0:23 as Chris Martin runs onto the stage, and get a decent shot of Dudamel conducting at 1:15. There was some cute choreography after that, with lots of jumping.

That’s it.

When I watched this last night, all I could think was:

This is it? This is a touchdown for classical music? Not even sure this qualifies as a field goal.” 2

What Happens When Style Trumps Substance

Last week, I warned of the triumph of style over substance, and indeed, that happened. Having kids with rainbow colored instruments perform as purely a backdrop for Chris Martin felt cheap–almost exploitative, with no content value. They seemed there mostly to just… be cute.

It was a sobering moment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe an appearance at all was the victory.

Scores of music-loving kids able to have their faces on the most watched TV event of the year can’t be a net-negative for music. As The Washington Post points out,

“if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in [a promotional video], other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.”

Maybe what this event did for me is crystallize the harsh truth of our genre: the more realistic approach for true reformation and revitalization of classical music is to infuse the youth culture (i.e. the future) with the aura that classical music is “cool” in the same way that greats like Michael Jordan, LeBron, and now Steph Curry have made basketball a cool sport.

And I think in that, the appearance certainly didn’t fail.

Indeed, kids will think that being invited to the Super Bowl is awesome. Young practitioners of marching band and orchestra will have a little extra “hey, I could still be on a Super Bowl half-time show one day” ammo to defend themselves against the “music is for nerds” crowd that I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with. Hell, Twitter was pretty happy with it.

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked for any kid to play and dance at an event this big. The show was a great experience for them, and I enjoyed seeing them on the big stage. But for classical music, their appearance didn’t feel like it moved the needle. All of the talk post-Super Bowl has been about Coldplay’s disappointing performance and Beyoncé’s racially empowered segment. Wouldn’t you think that a group of underprivileged kids playing at the biggest event of the year would have garnered at least a moderate amount of mainstream news coverage?

Really, I think most of my frustration comes from a point of dissatisfaction with the state of classical music today. In popular culture, it’s seen as this weird, stuffy, avoid-at-all-costs event. 3As I mentioned last week, classical music concert attendance is at an all-time low, and nobody really knows what to do about our situation.

Principally, I worry about the perception that classical music is not sufficient as a standalone to generate hype and excitement among non-musicians culturally–classical music is universally cool as a backdrop to film (Star Wars), or as a comedic TV series (Mozart in the Jungle), or when underprivileged kids get to dance with Beyonce at the Super Bowl. But an orchestra concert by itself, great music by itself: it can’t be the attraction. It’s too boring. Too foreign. Too unintelligible.

Mozart in the Jungle

Is oboe cooler now thanks to Mozart in the Jungle? I’m somewhat skeptical.

I don’t know, man. Was there really no opportunity for a young solo violinist to play a miked up melody of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida with Chris Martin, even if “bow-synced” ala Lindsey Stirling? Did Dudamel really not fight for some feature time with the orchestra where they’re not just dancing, but actually, you know, playing something meaningful as a 3 second star attraction? Thinking about the benefit that small tweak could have had for classical music and its perceptions among youth is a much prettier and meaningful visualization.

I guess what I’ve been grappling with is this:

Is our ceiling as 21st century classical musicians only to be an accessory for pop-culture? Do people outside of the arts really bore of them that easily? Or is this negative perception of classical music what a few executives have foisted upon society, since incorporating an orchestra in a meaningful way to projects can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming?

Maybe Dudamel did fight for his YOLA children to have a more bright and significant spotlight, and just lost. Maybe they didn’t have enough style for that.

Things to ponder.


Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone.

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Photo: One|Two

Notes:

  1. This year’s halftime show produced 111.9 million viewers. For comparison, the series finale of Breaking Bad produced 10.28 million viewers.
  2. Football jokes, haters gonna hate.
  3. Explanation for this link: in Modern Family, one of the gags is that the parents of a cello-playing child avoid going to her performance at all costs, but are pleasantly surprised when they find out their kid plays in a rock band and not a classical group. Sigh.

15 Comments

  • Alecia Lawyer

    February 8, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    The concert, the music canNOT be the attraction in classical music. No way! You name Beyoncé. You name Coldplay. Name the violinist that stood there. Disarmed should have shoved himself I. Between Beyoncé and Coldplay if he needed to be named!

    All the problems in our field can be solved when working on personal relationships. It takes time, it isn’t big and showy and it IS personal. We don’t have to be mass produced.

    ROCO here in Houston, my orchestra that founded in 2005, has found a way. We won’t be playing at halftime. But we will be smiling and premiering works on every concert and explaining how oboists make reads, how different trumpets sound, and providing timings of pieces and pronunciations of composer’s names and providing childcare/music education at concerts for parents to have date nights after shows and live streaming to hospitals, nursing homes and the public and having an app to deliver real time commentary from musicians during performances and on and on.

    Reply
    • Brian McCartty

      February 8, 2016 at 10:46 pm

      This is an idiotic defense of a TV travesty. I would opine that every TV viewer would have assumed these orchestral musicians, as weel as the marching band, were background fluff pretending to play (as was every musician). This did nothing to enhance music education or anything else. To suggest something some silver lining is ludicrous in the extreme.

      Reply
      • johnhongclarinet

        February 8, 2016 at 10:58 pm

        Hi Brian, I get where you’re coming from, but I’m thinking from the perspective of kids their age. If they’re watching the halftime show, it’s not lost on those kids that other kids are playing instruments and on the Super Bowl stage. And band/orchestra directors can use the event as validation of the coolness when they are trying to recruit kids to play music in addition to or instead of sports. Is it going to result in some giant sea change for music education? Probably not. But I think it’s rather cynical (and incorrect) to say that it will do nothing, no?

        Reply
  • Thom Mariner

    February 8, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    Much of our challenge boils down to the fact that so few people actually learn the language of music or participate actively in making music. “Learning” music these days means three-chords on a guitar, a simple, improvised bass line or a verse/chorus/verse pop song. How can we expect people who have no idea how music is constructed or communicated to be able to process and appreciate its artistry beyond superficial words such as “pretty” or “relaxing?” We must find a way to teach music the same way and at the same time we teach verbal languages, so people will retain this vocabulary throughout their lives. Learning music should be part of infant and child play, experienced among groups of friends to exploit the fun of making music together. Without this sea change, I fear we, as “classical” musicians, are doomed to archival relegation.

    Reply
  • Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    February 8, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    This is a balanced post, considering two sides of the issue and daring to articulate the INHERENT limitations of this POTENTIALLY significant salvo for the REST of the world to consider classical music. That they didn’t really is almost beside the point when considering that we can never know the long-term consequences of this event. Look for the bigger picture and you might agree that the reviews will be both largely unspoken and coming in for a long time, mostly from kids who want to try brightly colored violins (have to learn acoustic first) and parents who might now let them. We live in such a highly indulged society, the kids drive the parents who drive the SUV to lessons and rehearsals.
    In truth, getting more kids to take up classical instruments is NOT the larger issue. Kids try all sorts of things, only to give them up with the slightest excuse. Instead, getting young adults, many of whom are turned into jaded nihilists by peers, sports, games and pop music, dutifully buy the tragic hipness of trashing most anything older than 6 months. This is choking sound of the former “liberal arts education”, despite our benefit of democracy and the Olympics. My larger hope is that this appearance, however slight, might flip a switch in the minds of 5,000 young adults that playing strings or conducting an orchestra MIGHT be somewhat AS cool as Peyton Manning winning at 39.

    Reply
  • O-dawg

    February 9, 2016 at 5:53 am

    Oh the clash of popular sport culture and classical music. I think people need to take three steps back and just absorb what Football actually is. It’s an American-made military sport designed to create many types of atheletes for the sake of having a feeder-system to the military. It’s creation came at a time when the American’s wanted to stifle the values of Eastern Europe.

    The result of this is a culture with 95% of its population walking around with no idea what consonance, or dissonance or atonal means. They don’t understand why the subway chime might be designed the way it is, or the error prompt on their computer and how this has an influence on their life. They don’t understand that our aural asthetic should be built and educated on 600 years of world music history.

    Instead they listen to I-IV-V-I for the entirety of their lives and die without knowing.

    Classical music has been murdered by advertising, television, Hollywood, producers, politicians and the very people who have brought football to it’s mass hysteria.

    To be honest, I have no interest in it being promoted along side Super Bowl advertisements like the military, coca-cola, McDonald’s and institutions that only embrace what is popular, for the sake of their advertising projections.

    With this little rant said, I can garner some appreciation for football purely as a sport. I played it in university. The thing is, the NFL is technically a CHARITABLE organization. (Not the teams and players but the organization itself – check Wikipedia if you want). This is an abomination, what kind of “charitable” organization had executives making more then 30-40 million dollars per year?

    Classical music is endangered. At the high level there are still some organizations who are producing great art. However, the middle level and community orchestras are being coacered into accompanying popular musicians for the sake of ticket sales. This is where the collapse will begin and end. Slaves to the military-industrial complex that is destroying our community and identity as a culture.

    Reply
  • Yet Another David

    February 9, 2016 at 9:22 am

    So how is this not a classical-music minstrel show?

    Reply
  • Lauren Gilbert

    February 9, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Perhaps I have it wrong. Since when is YOLA full of underprivileged kids? One of the problems with youth orchestras in Los Angeles is that it usually takes an enormous amount of money and family support to get a kid to that level. All of classical music has this problem, and as much as we support outreach programs and try to get classical music to as many communities as possible, it’s still mostly rich kids who get opportunities like this. Is there something about this organization that I’ve missed?

    Reply
    • johnhongclarinet

      February 9, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      Hey Lauren, I feel you on the money element of educating youth in music–a big deterrent to what could otherwise be a transformative experience for a child. But thankfully not in this case! On their website, YOLA specifically states that they provide free instruments to the underprivileged.

      Reply
  • Chulhan

    February 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    Here’s a thought, the vast majority of classical music was commissioned and enjoyed by the rich. By definition, high arts require education-they’re esoteric disciplines that require an understanding of contextual philosophy and the tradition of allusion. Classical music never really was for the masses after secularism took hold mid-baroque period.

    Concert attendance is at a low and such, but looking at youth programs to salvage the music community seems to be an unlikely solution: classical music is involved in all major events, Olympics, world cups (anthems), movies, jingles, etc. There should be greater music education in appreciation that ties popular culture and classical motifs together. Why does the jaws theme sound menacing? Questions of that ilk are never answered to the majority of our youth.

    Reply
  • Rachel

    February 9, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Well written! I somewhat agree but also want to share: my young violin students have been filing in one by one asking if I saw the violins at the Super Bowl. They’re ecstatic and I’m glad they are not caught up in all of the argumentative adult stuff. Could it have been better? Yes, obviously. But if the future generations of musicians thought it was cool, as a teacher, that’s all I need. 🙂

    Reply
  • Nichelle piccioni

    February 9, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    As a music major who has completed a BA in music and is going through her masters in music history, I cannot disagree with you more. The fact that YOLA made it into the Super Bowl, even if they were not featured alongside of Coldplay for more than a few seconds of a group shot, it was a gigantic step for classical performance. Although they did not play any solos, these kids got to be on a stage with thousands of people watching them in the stadium and at home. It was publicity for YOLA and all other youth orchestras. It is more about the message behind the appearance than the actual appearance! The show was about believing in love and acceptance and to have a youth orchestra be the representation of youth and the arts having a role in that concept is so amazing that it bewilders me to hear that other people upset that the YOLA kids didn’t have a solo with Chris Martin. Yes it was a great experience for them! And yes! It was great publicity, NOT EXPLOITATION! More kids might be encouraged to join symphony orchestras, and others who were on the fence about staying, might have been convinced to stay by seeing peers on that Super Bowl half time stage. When I go to a symphony, the crowd surrounding me is 30 years and above, and a few college students and then the rest are kids that were most likely dragged to the performance in parents efforts to culture them. I believe that an appearance in this half time show may have been a great thing for kids and possibly just planted the seed that classical music isn’t just for the generations before them. We hear the strings in “Viva La Vida,” but do kids register that these strings could be played by classical musicians? The point of the show was to inspire, and I think it did exactly that. Baby steps, my friend. Classical music will not be the main feature for a Super Bowl half time show, because it is no longer music for the masses. I’m sorry to say it. But just having a role in it and exposing all the sheep to a different kind of music, the very music that had a part in giving BIRTH to what they are listening to today, and mindset should be enough.

    And also, what the heck? Lebron, Curry and Michael Jordan made basketball cool?! What about Larry Bird, Dr. J, Yao Ming, Shaquille O’neil, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Vladi Divak, Kevin Garnett, Alan Iverson, Kobe Bryant and T-Mac? LISA LESLIE FOR CHRISTS SAKE! Basketball has ALWAYS been cool. That was a terrible comparison. Classical music and basketball are just so different, the sport and art, as well as the players and artists, cannot be compared to each other. This appearance by Dudamel and YOLA didn’t make classical music “cool.” Although, I believe it is very cool. Instead, the appearance expressed that classical instrumentation, music and the arts still play a very big role in society and culture even though it is not at the forefront. Disagree with me if you’d like, but I strongly suggest that all of the people feeling sour for the lack of solo representation realize that nobody but the vocalists are able to be heard off that stage anyways and that the appearance was a great jumpstart to mass education of the purpose of the arts and American youth.

    Reply
    • johnhongclarinet

      February 9, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Nichelle, thanks for your comment! My issue is really that unless you knew about Dudamel and the performance beforehand, you had no idea what YOLA was. Simms and Nantz (the commentators) could have at least mentioned it, no? My general point is that yes, there was positive benefit from this happening, but some very, /very/ minor adjustments could have ratcheted up the impact on society 50x or 100x.

      Regarding basketball, having read up on the history of the league, the NBA was not always the gargantuan sport it is now. The NBA had to fight hard to get on television at all, and then to get off of tape delay, especially during the Russell/Wilt years. The NBA has not always been “cool”, they had to take steps to bring their brand into the public sphere of attention. That’s what I think classical music needs to be willing to do.

      And a minor note, since I love talking hoops so much: Yes, Bird and Yao had their impact, but they, nor the other stars you mentioned (Kobe and Shaq are close seconds) did not vault the NBA into the public conversation the way the latter two have, especially Jordan. No individual has had a greater impact on sports than Michael Jordan.

      Reply
      • Mabel MacMillan

        February 9, 2016 at 6:47 pm

        This is a very well-written and, as someone has already commented, balanced article. As the mother of two musicians (both of whom are now enrolled as string performance majors – one a cellist and the other a violinist – at FSU), and also the wife of a pianist/composer, I have to say I got my nose a bit out of joint over the fact that Dudamel and the YOLA were not even mentioned in any articles I have read since that half-time show. The closest thing was the mention of children dancing around Chris Martin – without even acknowledging that they were playing instruments! Makes me wonder what could have been done differently. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the situation.

        Reply
  • Jason

    February 10, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    I currently work for an orchestra in the marketing department. I never thought the halftime show was going to “showcase” the kids playing. It was going to be all about Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno. It’s unrealistic to think otherwise. I think Dudamel and kids being asked is a win.

    In regards to the comment that attendance is down in concert halls isn’t entirely true. Where I’m at, we are thriving. So are many others. You only hear about the big companies going into the red, which makes people think it’s happening to everyone.

    Reply

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