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Music Everywhere

William M. Rohner | February 2014

    Change can happen so gradually that we do not stop to notice it. Rejoining The Instrumentalist last month, after last working here as an editor in the 1990s, I find the magazine my grandfather founded in 1946 remains much the same. It still has the same focus, addressing those subjects that matter most to directors, teachers, and their students.
    Then again, some things are a bit different. This month’s issue features an interview of band director Todd Zimbelman, who describes how he gives students playing assignments in which they must upload performances of their parts to the internet. The other students in the section and the director then listen to and evaluate these performances outside of rehearsal time. While this is surely just one of many creative ways in which teachers now use the internet and technology, it is a reminder also of what a suddenly changed world this is.
    It also reminds me of what Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal in a column about the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Reflecting on the technology of the world today, Noonan marveled at the ease with which instantaneous communication is now possible. “Right now I can hardly believe it that I am in seat 6B of American Airlines…mountains and desert stretching below – and I am typing on an iPad, and will press a button, and my editor in New York in just a few seconds will read this and post it on The Wall Street Journal website.”
    Technology and computers have brought about wondrous changes in nearly all areas of our lives. Although perhaps not all of these changes are wonderful, I think the changes we have experienced in the world of music are extraordinarily positive. I can think of no better time in history to be a fan or a student of music.
    Never before has it been possible to hear so much music so easily. Nearly every major piece of music now exists on YouTube as a performed work, usually with multiple performances by different groups and conductors. With these performances so readily at hand, listeners can study how different conductors and ensembles approach the same piece of music and decide, for example, whether they prefer the approach of Bernstein or Paavo Järvi to the final movement of Beethoven’s Third. 
    It is also now so easy to enjoy music any time and anywhere. While the walkman has existed in some version for a long time, the recent proliferation of iPods and the like have created a world in which our whole music libraries can travel with us wherever we go.
    The wealth of information now available about music is also an enormous benefit. The internet abounds with information about seemingly every piece of music, every composer, and every musical style. For each piece a listener can now readily learn something about the composer’s intent, the reception of the work at its premiere, or the place of the work in music history. This information invariably makes the listener more intellectually engaged and makes the experience of listening to music more rewarding.
    For me, all of the new conveniences and sources of information brought about by technology combine to make this the most exciting time to study and enjoy music in history. This is perhaps true for all those who already know and love great music. Yet there are growing concerns about the fate of serious music with the public generally. Orchestras face declining ticket sales for music concerts, and fewer radio stations now offer serious classical music programming than ever before.
    The value of great music is timeless, of course, unchanged by our technological advances. We enjoy Beethoven today just as people before have done; it is now just easier to do so in some ways. It also may be easier now to bring students to develop a lifelong love and study of music, which should be a comforting thought to those who worry over the future of music. As the example of Todd Zimbelman shows, directors are finding new and innovative methods for using technology and the internet to engage their students. Although only a few students may go on to have careers as performers, it is reasonable to hope that all students will go on to spend their lifetimes enjoying music.