At one university I attended, Famous Ensemble came to visit the composers’ seminar: the topic was “How to Make It In the 21st Century Music World.” I walked into the room excited and bright-eyed, ready to take notes. Students asked questions like: “What are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?” Over the course of the lecture, my eyes kept getting drawn to a faculty member in the corner, who was staring at his iPhone the whole time, even while the extremely polite members of Famous Ensemble were talking. I was shocked – how rude, and what a wasted opportunity. I couldn’t understand it.
By some time later, I had sat through what felt like a hundred seminars with famous performers, composers, and conductors. The opening speeches were the same. The questions from the crowd were the same (“what are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?”) By the time I saw Famous Ensemble again at yet another composers’ seminar (some years after the first), I understood why that faculty member was more interested in his iPhone: he’d heard the same thing a thousand times before.
But he was still wrong – after all, the problem wasn’t the artists who showed up to share their work and thoughts with us. The problem was us. We asked them about craft, economics, career, technical specifications. We forgot to challenge them, to engage them in questions about art and music and how the two fit into this ever-factioning cultural world. Most artists, I think, have a lot to talk about. How exciting those hundreds of seminars would have been if we’d only done our job.