In talking with classical music presenters about their work, the subject of attracting younger and more diverse audiences inevitably comes up. How do we create relevant programming for “today’s audience” while not alienating our base? It’s a challenge that interests me, because as the dean of the music school at DePauw, a liberal arts school in the middle of Indiana, the heterogeneous mix of students, faculty, staff and community is a perfect laboratory.
Borrowing from the entrepreneurial world, at DePauw we follow the mantra of fearless experimentation — “fail early and often.” At first, it seemed counterintuitive for a music school, much less an institute of higher education, to regularly risk failure, but in the absence of fear, better creativity and invention resulted. Take our Dvořák and America Festival, for example, an experiment in cross-curricular, contextual and experimental programming.
We wanted to explore the composer’s attempt to make a truly American piece of classical music instead of simply promoting European classical music on American soil. Dvořák accomplished this by integrating African-American as well as Native-American musics. The composer’s efforts prompted many interesting discussions in our planning meetings including one rooted in today’s climate: Was this cultural appreciation or appropriation? Was he paying homage to these populations or was he stealing from them? Someone noted the same could be asked of Dan Snyder about the name of the Washington D.C. football team he owns — a controversy that was raging as we were planning in Indiana.
We knew there was something really interesting to discuss here but we did not want to use it as simply a gimmick to sensationalize the festival. So, we settled on a panel discussion, consisting of our athletic director and head football coach, heads of our multicultural and cultural resource departments, the music school dean and the preeminent cultural historian Joseph Horowitz. The event opened with a Daily Show clip in which Jon Stewart humorously breaks down the key issue in the Washington mascot debate. “Some say the name pays homage to these noble people, others say it is a racial slur; some say the name is part of a proud tradition, others say it is a disgrace.”
The audience was with us from the start, ranging from the music aficionado to the sports lover with a generous mix of in-betweens. Someone suggested that with millions spent on branding, it would be hard to change a team’s name. Everyone chuckled as I, having recently located from near Baltimore, Md., with tongue in cheek, reminded the audience that the owner of that city’s team had no problem changing its first name from “Baltimore” to “Indianapolis.” The coach and athletic director reminded the audience of other name changes that seemed to work. Horowitz compared the current scandal with Dvořák’s efforts more than 100 years earlier. He reminded us that ‘Dvořák was obsessed with the idea of the “noble savage,” that “his assistant was an African American with a fine voice and vast knowledge of spirituals,” that “his summer residence in Spillville, Iowa, brought him closer to Native Americans than he had ever been,” and that “with these tools, Dvořák spun a music heretofore unheard — a music that some said ‘elevated’ this music to the level of art.”
As the event progressed, a consensus seemed to build around the idea that team mascots are not sacrosanct and that it seemed hard to defend the choice to keep this name. Dvořák would have had no idea what cultural appropriation was and should not be cast in the same light as Dan Snyder. An interesting point that was brought forward posited that Native-American music was created for sacred purposes, and to use it for secular purposes could be considered akin to using a racial slur for a team mascot. This was as far as the comparison could be stretched.
In the end, this festival — especially this session, brought in people we had never seen in our audiences. If they had never heard of Dvořák before, they knew him now; if they did know him, they heard him in a totally different way. Using current events (mixed with a little controversy) didn’t hurt either. It dispensed with the idea that classical music should be relegated to the realm of dead white Europeans, and it showed that outside-the-box programming brings folks to classical music that might be too intimidated, otherwise.
Though tradition supposes otherwise, music schools can experiment with the audiences presenters want to attract. Our institutions are not burdened with the challenge of profit as the sole indicator of success; the stakes are less threatening, and we are at the critical juncture in an artist’s career where the learning process allows for self-exploration and trial and error. We have all we need to create the perfect laboratory to keep the art form alive and thriving.