Are Classical Orchestras and Rock Groups a Good Mix?

Are Classical Orchestras and Rock Groups a Good Mix?

I want to hear from you, pro or con, because I’m about to go on a mini-rant.  I’ve decided the idea of youth orchestras playing backup to rock groups is misguided. Last year my Los Angeles Youth Orchestra students played backup for the Foo Fighters in their highly successful Sonic Highways album, even briefly appearing on nationally televised documentary. Just last week, the LA Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles played backup for ColdPlay and Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. Members of both groups were ecstatic. My LAYO students were completely thrilled to meet Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Some YOLA students last week mentioned meeting Chris Martin of ColdPlay and Beyoncé as one of the great moments of their lives. (Here is an LA Times article about the event by Mark Swed). In addition to the “life transformation” of some of the students, the world wide recognition and press is desperately important for any orchestra. Both these events were real “wins.”  So what’s my problem?

My problem is twofold: 1) the students weren’t inspired the right way, and 2) both events reinforced the model of classical instruments and classical musicians as the poor handmaidens for pop artists. First about inspiration: it’s in the wrong direction for a student learning the violin to feel meeting a rock star as the most inspiring moment of their lives. That should happen hearing and meeting Itzhak Perlman, Christian Tetzlaff, Joshua Bell, or Hillary Hahn. Not Beyoncé. Whoa! I can hear everyone screaming! No, I’m not slighting Beyoncé, or Chris Martin, or Dave Grohl. That’s not the point at all.  The point is that part of studying a classical instrument is to have a hunger to hear the best classical artists. It is musicianship of a different order—despite what we’re being told, it really is— and teachers should be pointing students in that direction. The best rock musicians around when I was studying music in the 70s and 80s were undeniably great. But they were/are simply not on the order of the classical heroes I heard then— Segovia, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rostropovich, Milstein, Oistrakh, etc. I’m sorry, they just aren’t. And if a music student doesn’t deeply understand that difference of order, the game isn’t over— it never started. That’s what disturbs me. Classical musicians should not be hungering to imitate the pop music world and its glamour of celebrity and power. I would like for students learning classical instrument to have different heroes than Coldplay and Beyonce.

When my LA Youth Orchestra students played backup for the Foo Fighters, they weren’t mentioned or credited on the TV show. They only entered in the chorus of the song and were visually a prop for a symbol of youth and the continuing creativity of our nation. Their musical contribution was barely audible. When the Youth Orchestra LA students played at the Super Bowl, the situation was similar. They were not really mentioned at the event. They also were pre-recorded! So they were just playing along for visuals and even so, couldn’t be heard very well. While all the rock stars were extremely kind to the students, they were really using them as props for their larger canvas. Yes, I’m saying in a way he orchestras were being exploited.There was no question of the hierarchy.

So if the goal was to spread the message of the importance of youth orchestras, what came across is that classical musicians can be a fun backup prop for rock groups. Why would we want to send that message?

Ok, yell away at me! I look forward to your comments.