Blog: Cutting Through the Noise

Blog of Cellist Joshua Roman

Classical Music and the Internet

Note: The following is a reformatted version of a presentation I gave at TEDxRainier on 10/10/10. Since giving this speech, the YouTube Symphony has announced their next event. It will be in Sydney, Australia, in March 2011. I have also recorded an invitation to audition for this exciting event.

In my personal experience, performing in homes, for large crowds of symphony lovers, in bars, in schools and Internal Displacement Camps in Uganda, and almost everywhere in between, music transcends language and cultural barriers, and has potential to give voice to the soul of humanity. Music and art can inspire us to look within, to express our emotions in ways we could not otherwise, or to share a connection that only a human can fully appreciate. To hear Glenn Gould playing the “Goldberg Variations”, or Jascha Heifetz performing Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” is an experience in transcendence and pushing technical and expressive capabilities humans are endowed with. Listening to the great orchestras, chamber musicians, and soloists of the world in superb concert halls is something that can be an amazing experience, and I am a huge advocate of hearing great music by great performers in great halls. This last Tuesday I went to Carnegie Hall to see the Philadelphia Orchestra, and could not imagine a better way to have spent my evening! (Okay, maybe to be with them on stage with the Dvorak Cello Concerto, or another great Concerto... but still) I have also seen the orchestras of Cleveland, Berlin, and Vienna at Carnegie Hall, and have had some of my most moving musical experiences in great halls around the world. What I’d like to share today though, are the unique possibilities for the musical community at large that are now available through the internet.

My Carnegie Hall debut was in April of 2009 at the first ever performance of the YouTube Symphony, where I performed the “Sarabande” from the 1st Suite for solo cello by J.S. Bach. Google, YouTube, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and international media descended upon the iconic performance venue with classical music stars and an orchestra made up of professionals and non-professionals who auditioned for a spot by posting videos on YouTube. This amazing event was advertised and characterized in a variety of ways, but the concept that stood out to me was the idea that here was an event designed to bring attention to the center section of the Classical Music Pyramid.

If we look at the Classical Music community as a pyramid with professional performers at the top, amateur musicians in the center and those who listen but don’t perform as the base, we see how most of our current focus is at the top of the pyramid. There are orchestras all over the world, most able to perform repertoire that would be considered challenging for even the best orchestras of 200 years ago. Across the board, technical perfection is being pushed to new limits by each generation, especially with recordings of great performances to listen and compare to. High level conservatories are turning out more young virtuosos than ever before. But with all this skill and talent, and the constant drive for perfection, where is the sense of community for those who are not top soloists or in a major orchestra? In the 18th and even into the 19th Centuries, chamber music (music for the home!) was an integral component in the proliferation of classical music. Amateur musicians played together regularly, and the goal was not to win the next Grammy, but to share in the joys of creating music with friends and family. When a composer wrote a string quartet, the goal was to sell as many copies of the sheet music as possible, not ONLY to have the best and brightest perform it. The classical music community was full of self-created opportunities for musicians of all skill levels, not just to watch and be consumers, but to also be involved. Some of these opportunities exist today, often in the form of community orchestras, school orchestra programs, and a few amateur chamber music festivals. By supporting, diversifying, and expanding these opportunities, I believe we would see more growth in all areas of the Classical Music Pyramid.

The YouTube Symphony brought attention to the center of the Classical Music Pyramid by honoring the tradition of classical music performance and pioneering a new form of musical community through one of today’s most powerful tools for sharing: the internet.

Two of the most exciting results of this event were:

1) Many non-professional musicians were able to travel across the world (at YouTube’s expense!) to perform at Carnegie Hall. These YouTube Symphony members were selected by online voting; any one who played any instrument, anywhere in the world, could upload a video and have a chance at being selected.

2) An online classical music community developed as many musicians realized that they could have ownership of their musical ideas, share them with an online audience, and receive new ideas and suggestions from fellow musicians. One might think of this platform as a virtual “living room” for a new kind of musical community.

As we know, YouTube and other video networking sites give anyone a chance to have their voice heard. Sharing performances online provides top artists with the quickest and most widespread access to audiences around the world. It allows musicians of all experience levels, from listener to top soloist, to share their ideas and interpretations. This dialogue can shape current trends toward relevant and interesting musical explorations beyond the “perfection” sought by so many and attained by so few. In fact, open source sharing, rather than diluting, can even strengthen skills by exposing vulnerabilities, which brings an honesty to musical communication. Giving a platform to people with ideas in music (bringing more attention to the center of the pyramid), strengthens the entire pyramid by creating opportunities for involvement by amateurs, connoisseurs, professionals, and new listeners. I believe that one of the many ways classical music can stay relevant in the 21st century is to make use of this “living room” on the internet to better serve all parts of the Classical Music Pyramid.

As a performing musician, the Internet is changing me as well. In addition to keeping a blog, a Facebook page, and uploading videos of previews, interviews, and performances, I am currently in the middle of a project to upload the complete 40 Etudes for Cello by David Popper onto YouTube. (yes, dorky, cello-centric project, I know) These are Studies that almost every cellist must play in lessons, but rarely performs. I record these videos with my laptop and upload them unedited to YouTube. Rather than being a finished product, this project shows my journey as I explore the potential online sharing has for challenging my own musical life.