HARLEM, NYC—Conservatory students are perhaps the last in line among today’s young people to actively commit themselves to social change. After all, spending day and night locked in a practice room is not exactly conducive to developing an awareness of the hardships faced by your fellow human beings, let alone helping to mitigate their suffering.
There is at least one group of conservatory students, however, for whom the stereotype of isolated, disengaged artist does not apply.
Last month, a team of young musicians from different conservatories and music schools in New York City traveled to Harlem to lead a week-long service project aimed at delivering aid and support to a particularly needy and vulnerable population: classical musicians.
Rather than going on vacation somewhere far from the city, these socially conscious conservatory students spent their spring breaks venturing into dozens of apartment buildings in the Harlem area, where they met countless freelance instrumentalists, opera singers, and composers struggling with the daily realities of being poor, urban musicians living in the twenty-first century.
The program began with icebreaker activities designed to promote camaraderie and teamwork among an unusually antisocial population. Games such as “Two Truths and a Lie” and “Big Booty” helped the disgruntled classical musicians begin to challenge the egocentric impulses and relentless competitiveness they developed after being brought up in a culture of music instruction that prizes individual excellence over social belonging.
Classical musicians experience higher-than-average rates of social alienation, owing to the more than ten thousand hours they have each spent withdrawn from the world, singularly devoted to an art form that is either ignored or mocked by the mainstream culture. Conservatory volunteers thus dedicated part of the week to helping participants overcome their deep-seated estrangement from society by exploring ways they can embrace their starving-artist identities and use their musical gifts to reconnect with ordinary people.
In a workshop entitled “The World Is A Stage,” for example, team member Kayleigh Jones introduced participants to the basics of busking.
“Performing in subway stations is a great way for deadbeat classical musicians to break out of their bubbles and realize that their art can serve an important social function,” Jones told Submediant in an interview. “Every time a hurried commuter dropped a crumpled dollar bill into an open instrument case, it sent a message to participants that they are a valued part of this community.”
Spring is tax season, which can be a real headache for the average self-employed classical musician who thinks the terms “exemption”, “deduction”, and “reimbursement” refer to the three parts of sonata form. To address this ignorance, team members hosted a special seminar on filing taxes led by Saul Grape, an NYU double major in percussion and economics.
Grape showed the participants what income to report and what money they should keep “under the mattress,” in his words. While Grape explained how going out to eat with friends can always be written off as a business expense, the other team members set the mood by performing an arrangement of Bach’s organ chorale, BWV 1099, subtly referencing the miscellaneous income form of the same number.
Since it is not feasible for classical musicians to eat out for every meal, each participant also received a private cooking lesson with team member Andy Dodge. Some of Dodge’s dishes were unconventional, mixing whatever random ingredients he could find in the participants’ kitchens, even if they didn’t blend well. “Just think of this dish like it’s dissonant music,” Dodge said to one participant. “It’s a little unpleasant at first, but eventually you start to like it.”
Cooking was just one of several life skills emphasized during the week-long service project, as years of intense study of an abstract art form like classical music turned many participants into uncompromising idealists without any practical knowledge of how to get by in the world. In a similar vein, conservatory student volunteers organized a series of role-playing activities toward the end of the week aimed at turning the classical musicians’ dreams of a good life into practical, achievable visions.
The participants were first asked to imagine themselves as successful people in the future. Then, using costumes and props, they performed their own skits in which they dressed up and acted out their dream careers.
One violinist’s idea of a successful future involved him leaving music entirely to pursue a career as a physician. As a generously compensated medical professional, he could finally afford the leisure time to pursue his love for the violin and increase the likelihood of actually winning an audition, as his former conservatory training would make him a shoo-in for the doctor’s orchestra. Dressed in physician’s garb, the violinist, now brimming with enthusiasm, began performing routine check-ups on team members and participants. This came as a pleasant surprise to both the students and freelance musicians involved in the service project, most of whom lack decent health care options.
Another participant envisioned a future scenario in which he remained self-employed in the classical music world but was actually paid well enough for gigs and engagements to go off food stamps and stop living in an apartment with four roommates. When the participant was shown a fan of one hundred-dollar bills, drool began collecting around his lower lip as he stood transfixed by the magical green tickets that would one day allow him to buy his own home where he could actually practice his instrument without ever hearing knocks on the walls from annoyed neighbors.
Some participants explored other ways they might achieve success without leaving music. Two classical musicians imagined themselves pursuing a more lucrative path in the music industry, dressing up as pop stars and pretending they had made millions after their first album went platinum. With the encouragement of team members, the participants were able to let go of their current career anxieties and pour their hearts into a pop arrangement of Schubert’s “An die musik” while pretending they were performing in a stadium for tens of thousands of screaming fans.
While the classical musicians walked away from these role-playing activities feeling empowered and hopeful about the future, the reality is that most of them continue to live with crippling debt burdens that severely limit the prospect of one day realizing their dreams of stability and success. Many conservatory student volunteers were somewhat familiar with this predicament and felt great sympathy for their slightly older peers, and wanted to leave behind a special gift that could provide more lasting relief for a debt-encumbered participant.
In one of the most moving events of the entire week, team members worked in collaboration with the service project’s sister program “Harmony for Humanity” to build a new cello for a participant who was forced to sell his in order to pay off his student loans. Donning precautionary yellow hard hats, a quintet of student volunteers fashioned a working cello from scratch using only household materials in just under two hours.
While not every participant received a tangible asset to help alleviate his or her financial woes, all of them were left with a sense of optimism and purpose as they prepared to return to normal life. In an era of slashed arts funding, shifting patronage, exploitative working conditions for performing artists, and ballooning student debt, it is all too easy for today’s classical musicians to navigate their lives with cynicism and bitterness. It is thus heartening to see so many young conservatory students put action over apathy and bring joy to an aggrieved population of freelance musicians.
“I honestly feel like I learned just as much from the participants as they did from us,” said team member Kayleigh Jones, who added that her newfound knowledge of the hardships classical musicians experience in a precarious labor market will come in handy next year after she graduates and enters the real world.