Seize the Day!

A lot of my musician, actor, dancer, writer and artist friends, and a lot of people on the news, have been forecasting disaster for the arts, with the latest downturn in the economy. I have responded to several people privately, and although I don’t often write personal opinion here, I am going to step out of my persona to give you all some hope and advice. You are all not only my friends, my colleagues, and my neighbours, but a part of the larger community and so I am telling you that this is an unprecedented opportunity for all of us, and I hope to demonstrate how.

The Great Depression was a horrible time for many, many people. My own grandfather was a printer and lost everything in the bank collapse. The only way he could get money was for building a structure on a farm, so they moved some miles outside of Houston, Texas, and got a loan for their original money they had lost, built a house, and my grandfather walked to work (I’ve been told nearly twelve miles) once a week, worked for three days, and walked home again. My mother and father both remember World War II and its privations clearly, when people even in the cities had to raise their own food or go hungry, shoes were rationed and went only to the children, and the adults wore theirs out and did without in the house. Women used eye pencil to draw a black line up their calves because stockings weren’t available. I’m sure every one of you has your own family stories of hardship.

And yet, let’s take a look at that again. What industries prospered? Among others, the movie industry. People wanted escape from their problems and flocked to the movies in droves. And the movies employed a lot of people–not just actors, directors, writers, and producers, cameramen and lighting people, costumers, seamstresses, art directors, set painters and builders–but locally, throughout the country, ushers and usherettes, pianists or organists (and people to maintain those instruments) during the silent era, vendors and hawkers of various kinds of merchandise, cleaners, projectionists, and so on. Another industry that did well was the recording industry. It was the boom of music on radio and the recording industry during the Depression and in the recession after World War II that made rock-and-roll viable.

Back row: four boys with bagpiper in piper costume. Middle row: Four boys with handbells. Front row, left and right, boys with gourd mandolin, reclining; center, seated boy with small-sized guitar. Bunting reads "National Waifs Association"

Band of the National Waifs’ Association
Peter Higginbotham


And it’s a time of opportunity today. For the past thirty years, the arts have been in a long, slow decline in this country. As much as people would like to blame recent events, this recession has been a long time in coming. The housing bubble replaced the dot-com bubble, which replaced the IT bubble, which replaced . . . well, you get the idea as we’re already back into the late 1970s. There’s no bubble now. And here is what we need to learn : during this time, the arts were considered a luxury, something to be enjoyed after work, and career, and making money, and getting better cars, and getting more expensive houses, and other frivolous luxuries (nobody really NEEDS a video game console or a 50-inch TV).

This is our opportunity to tell people, “This is what happens when you ignore the arts.” Moreover, with the advent of the internet, we have the opportunity to connect with our audiences, for them to participate in the process and tell us what they want. I did a survey not long ago of what people thought when they thought of classical music, and I’ll tell you what I found: not one person mentioned madrigals, string quartets, lieder, chansons, waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, minuets, isorhythmic motets, or any of the other hundreds of forms of classical music. They knew only symphonies, concertos and operas (and only the people who knew me personally thought of opera, and not all of them). One person said he didn’t like classical music because there was no singing! When I asked them to name classical composers, they knew only half-a-dozen, at best. When I mentioned my own specialty, French Baroque drinking songs, they all perked up.

It turns out in my survey, in any case, that people are completely unaware that there is a vast repertoire out there of historical music—and they are also unaware of the repertoire of novels, plays, dance forms, essays, and so on—and they are intrigued. They want to know more than the standard fare we give them of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tschaikowsky; not that these aren’t wonderful composers who deserve the recognition they’ve received so far, but we need to perform works by Delagard, Desfontaines, Boismortier, Tallis, Khatchaturian, Enescu, Sarasate, the vast repertoire of Central and South American Baroque and Classical music, and all those hundreds of other composers who haven’t, so far, gotten their day in the sun. Our followers, fans, enthusiasts want to know more, they want more exposure, and they want to learn. I’m currently in the preliminary phases of writing a book on Central and South American classical composers and the count is over sixty composers; most people are shocked to discover that such a large quantity of classical music has been almost completely ignored; most Latinos are unaware that classical music is an enormous part of their heritage, too.

So for all of you in creative fields out there: the composers, graphic designers, sculptors, painters, playwrights, novelists, poets, and, yes, musicians, don’t give up hope. In hard times, people re-evaluate themselves and their choices. Now is our chance to educate people on the value of the arts and how they can benefit from the transformational power the arts have on each of us.

  • Connect with your fans and clients. Ask them what they want. Make them feel a part of the process. That doesn’t mean pandering to popular tastes; it means building a connection to your audience’s hopes, aspirations, goals, and putting your abilities and your specialties to work with them in helping them achieve their ends. Maybe they love what you do already, but want a different setting. Maybe they don’t love what you normally do, but would love something you would love to do–you’ll never know until you ask.
  • Share your education and expertise. Whatever your expertise, hold lectures or question and answer sessions for your audience.
  • Inform your audience. Give them some hard facts and some trivia to lighten things up. You don’t want to give a graduate course, you want to whet their appetites.
  • Accept small victories. Of course it would be great if everyone appreciated the arts for arts’ sake. That’s not going to happen all at once. Having been a part of the civil rights movement and the movement for women’s equality, I am here to tell you that you take whatever gain you get and be grateful for it, and use that as a launchpad for the next goal. So for those readers of my blog who complain bitterly that I’m telling people to take music lessons because it will help their brain development instead of to take music lessons just because, I say: take what you can get. The arts have a power to transcend any obstacle and if you expose children and adults to the arts at all, their lives are already better, regardless of the original goal. Just as in any other subject, some take to it right away, and others need a reason for learning it or involving themselves in it. Don’t alienate your audience; meet them where their lives are affected. Not everyone is able to work on blind faith.
  • Seize opportunites. Whether you’re a beginner, a virtuoso, or something in between, reach out to other people. Change your thinking because everyone in your field is not your competition but your colleague. A person in any field can be your collaborator. People are going to take some convincing but each of us needs to start talking. Whether it’s a blog, microblog, phone call, or conversation over the back fence or in the grocery store line, start talking. Find who is interested. Start meeting. Recruit others. Devise a strategy.
  • Revitalize your thinking. You’ve been smug all these years because you’re the creative one. Now is the time to put that creative thinking to use. Don’t wait around to be discovered. Get yourself out there. Explore the unlikely. Have a show or performance in an unexpected place.
  • Be prepared. My father once told me, “When your ship comes in, don’t be waiting at the bus station.” Open your thinking and start looking for possibilities. Many of my classical musician friends are waiting to be hired by a symphony. I know only one that has started his own group–but each one of you could be doing this, hiring other musicians, providing work for countless people over the years. The music industry is larger than the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Ask for money. Apply for grants, hit up your local philanthropic societies. Give stuff away for a donation. Better to sell a postage-stamp sized painting for $5 than to starve, so think smaller. Think miniature. Think enormous. Think collective. And above all, think positive. Allow yourself to see only possibilities; if a negative thought comes into your head that this can’t be done, don’t allow that thought to exist but replace it immediately with a positive one. (For those of you who say that changing your thinking doesn’t work because it’s noticing some things and ignoring others: ignore the obstacles and focus on the possibilities. You’ll notice more possibilities, right? And then go read the posts on neuroplasticity and how your thoughts change the physical structure of your brain, and tell me that there’s not something to this, after all.)
  • Talk! Become an editor or contributor on this blog or another arts-related site. Leave a comment. Forward this on to your colleagues. Start your own blog or web site. Worrying, fuming silently, and all that is not going to change anything. Only concerted action will change the prevailing attitudes.

Friends, colleagues, competitors, current and prospective students, and, yes, enemies of the arts, I wish you all the best in this difficult time. Comment, email me privately if you wish what you have to say to remain private, or otherwise contribute. Make your voice heard. Questions, complaints, opposing viewpoints, this is your forum. Welcome, and let’s find some common ground.

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