“Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen?” I thought. Dashing out the stage door of a late-night Broadway show to beat the blundering crowds back in 2019, violin case in hand, I stepped onto the uptown C train for a swift escape out of midtown Manhattan. As I scrolled mindlessly through email, a message caught my attention: My colleague was requesting musicians to record with Bruce Springsteen — later to be disclosed as a live album recording of Western Stars. Not recognizing the all-American legend and turned off by the Jersey shoot location, I asked my spouse if I should waste my time with this gig. Shocked, my husband immediately went into a diatribe on the greatness of “The Boss.”
I was shaken at the almost-missed opportunity. I’d been a musician for decades, graduated Juilliard in 2013, and studied works like Paganini’s technically demanding 24 Caprices and Bach Chaconne. But I’d really never heard of Springsteen.
In my field, I wasn’t the odd one out, either: I still know many classical musicians who brush off pop artists as hacks made wildly popular by uncultured audiences. In conservatories, that attitude persists, despite decades of massive album sales, huge tours, and raging festivals attesting to the appeal of stars like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, The Weeknd, and Springsteen.
The Juilliard School trained me in excellence for a traditional orchestral career. It’s what makes the institution so extraordinary. But why is it continuing to prepare brilliant students to only enter the world of dying orchestras with downward spiraling funding without helping them explore other genres or expand their skill set to survive a changing market?
The outdated “Beethoven or bust” model
Classical music’s long-term viability was in question well before the pandemic. The New York Times pointed out in 2016 that many orchestras now function as “charities,” living on donations rather than ticket sales; although European orchestras funded with culture-oriented government assistance may survive this way, American orchestras lack that type of state sponsorship. Instead, the U.S.’s donation-dependent institutions must acquiesce to its wealthy donors — most of whom are older, highly traditional, and over-focused on the likes of Beethoven and Mozart. But the answer to getting more people to listen to orchestras isn’t “more Beethoven.”
I paid off my school debt by performing — but the next generation may not be as lucky.
A different New York Times report, from 2004, tracked down Juilliard’s Class of 1994 and found that only 11 of 44 graduates had full-time orchestra jobs. The rest were either out of music, couldn’t be found or worked freelance careers. If only 25% of Wharton’s business graduates found full-time work, wouldn’t that ring alarm bells for the school?
Orchestras have not gotten more popular since 2004 — and in fact, Covid-19 has dramatically slashed many already-struggling orchestras’ incomes and audiences, and put some of their futures in peril — which means Juilliard students are training for an evaporating job pool. My former Juilliard teacher David Chan, who’s now concertmaster for the Metropolitan Opera, puts it this way: “The classical music industry has resisted change for far too long. It will no longer be sufficient to produce great players.”
How should classical musicians reckon with the ground shifting beneath their feet? One example: Facing a silent Broadway, Jonathan Dinklage, the concertmaster of Hamilton — and brother to Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage — has found success running a weekly recording schedule for ABC’s hit series The Good Doctor from his daughter’s nursery in their Central Harlem apartment, filling all the roles of a string section with the added help of a cellist. But schools cannot expect all its musicians to become on-the-fly entrepreneurs on their own. Juilliard and its peers will be forever beholden to the dwindling number of orchestras unless they adopt a broader view of music as their driving curriculum.
How to break musical barriers in the 21st century
To start, classical schools should teach technological advances as survival skills — and introduce different genres to their students, audiences, and donors alike. (There’s no point teaching new musicians how to write a pop hook or rap beat if the donors remain sold on only Mozart.)
And moving into new genres doesn’t mean severing classical tradition. Sergei Prokofiev, the late Russian-Soviet composer, is survived not only by his masterpieces but also by his grandson, Gabriel, who creates turntable compositions performed from Royal Albert Hall to East London night-clubs. Gabriel Prokofiev mixes classical motifs with modern technology and new ideas. “The way classical music is presented just got really old-fashioned and out of synch with modern lifestyle,” he told Eva Mackevic at Reader’s Digest UK. “I think classical composers are foolish to ignore musical development outside of classical music.” Unashamed to bring DJs to the stage, Prokofiev breaks conservative rules to further its growth.
The classically trained multi-genre cellist Ben Sollee and the band Time for Three are pop-folk pioneers who experiment using acoustic instruments. They recently collaborated to score and record the soundtrack to the movie Land, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival. This project was produced in the same way Taylor Swift collaborated with Aaron Dessner on Folklore — by sharing files remotely and layering ideas to create a bespoke Appalachian landscape. These musicians wear multiple hats, meeting a need in today’s artistic community as player-composer hybrids. Sollee believes “classical musicians and the institutions in which they study need to intentionally cross-pollinate with other disciplines and adapt our collective toolbox by collaborating compassionately, being inclusive of new ideas and people in the classical community. Now is the time to open doors and invite the future in.”
This concept of inclusivity has been demonstrated by composer, singer, and violinist Caroline Shaw winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices.” Her music is a breath of fresh air, opening a window on classical music as she allows pop culture to waft in with unexpected ease wielding her creativity with open-mindedness. Proven by her musical collaborations with Kanye West, writing film scores, and even singing at the Kennedy Center with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, Shaw’s talents are limitless and show exactly the type of unbiased thinking we need in today’s conservatories.
Intrigued by the idea of stepping out of classical or jazz genres, I attended a non-traditional music camp at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2013. Each instructor taught us how to apply classical and bluegrass rooted techniques to perform funk, hip-hop, and pop on our stringed instruments. One class led by a Juilliard graduate, Tracy Silverman, taught a series of techniques introducing his “Strum Bowing Method,” showing violinists how to groove at rock-n-roll. The scene was electrifying. Creativity flowed from room to room with palpable energy; it felt like I was taking a walk through the eclectic troubadour scene in New York’s Washington Square Park as students joyfully riffed away on chords.
Juilliard teaches the optional history class “Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop,” which is a start. But it doesn’t weave this encouragement of innovation throughout its broader curriculum. Crossing over musical boundaries and integrating technology are still viewed like extracurriculars, not core accomplishments.
Envision a school teaching the classical greats while also inviting Springsteen or Swift to guest-lecture on their own songwriting or musical style. Imagine how many young students would sign up.
Classical purists clutch their hearts in disgust at the mere suggestion of their holy shrines teaching business skills like freelancing or contemporary styles like pop, rock, or electronic music. But consider that the geniuses we hold in high regard from ages past — the very ones we teach in classical schools now — were trail-blazing innovators in their time. We must become innovators, as well, before we fossilize. It was an honor for me to perform on Springsteen’s Western Stars concert film. But more than that, it convinced me that symphonic sound can live well beyond the limits of a concert stage, and it was a reminder that music is designed to unite humanity, not divide it.
Emma Sutton-Williams is a violinist and writer based in Manhattan. She has performed on the motion picture soundtracks to Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, as well as The Greatest Showman, and Joker.