Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBTQ community, but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBTQ and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

As musicians, it’s one of our favourite pieces of wisdom.  It’s romantic and empowering, this notion that we — as artists, as musicians — uniquely hold some orphic power to imbue the world with beauty in times of trial.

fb-bocoAnd in many ways, it’s true.  As Karl Paulnack (formerly of the Boston Conservatory) pointed out following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, it was Yo Yo Ma — a prominent musician and cultural leader — who counted among the “first responders” to honour the victims and communities impacted by the blast.  In the midst of riots following the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop led a free concert open to the Baltimore community and fostering a moment, however brief, of restful unity.  Just yesterday, a group of students at the University of Michigan organized a “Requiem for Orlando” to honour the victims and offer a space for music, meditation, solidarity, and mourning.  The event drew an audience of thousands.

In these cases and others, making music “more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly” served as an apt “reply to violence” — these acts of creation amid destruction, engaging directly or in solidarity with the affected communities to encourage compassion and nonviolence when facing a shared experience of fear and loss.

This will be our reply to violence… But there’s something a little too kumbaya about it, isn’t there?  Let’s make music, hold hands and sing, curate something beautiful in a world that can too often be ugly — yet, such gestures remain, in many ways, apolitical.  A free concert in Baltimore won’t end police violence against unarmed African-Americans.  Yo Yo Ma’s performance at a church won’t curtail the politicized Islamophobia and institutionalized marginalization that drives radicalization.  And a performance commemorating the Orlando victims won’t push commonsense gun legislation through Congress.

We can reply to violence, sure, but we can’t end it — so we’re left only with this poetic yet inadequate piece of slacktivism, a Bernstein quote in the form of a sleek graphic that we can Like, Comment, Share, but never truly engage with, as earnest yet ineffectual as an ever-ephemeral battalion of “thoughts and prayers.”

It’s not that classical musicians don’t want to “do something” — something with political impact, something that enacts tangible and widespread change.  It’s that we feel like we can’t — like we’re stuck, voiceless, in the High Art machine.  We earn our living in an industry that relies on WASP-y donors and audiences who might feel alienated by an orchestra of social activists.  Forget the marginalized communities who are already alienated from our genre by factors ranging from tokenism to audience shaming to discriminatory hiring practices — without contributed income, our genre simply isn’t sustainable, and that fact is not lost on classical music administrators.

I am reminded of my interview last summer with The Dream Unfinished founder Eun Lee, who explained the genesis of her “symphonic benefit for civil rights”:

I…observed that while prominent musicians of other genres (hip hop, folk, jazz) were engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical music community at large remained silent….And, to be frank, I know exactly why none of these institutions are speaking out; they have donors and audiences they may be afraid of offending, and they may not necessarily have anything to gain from getting involved.  But, while these institutions may be silent, as I did more asking around, I realized there were a great number of individuals within the classical music community who cared passionately about what was going on in the news and in their own cities, but they had no platform on which to speak out.

So how can we use our position as classical musicians to speak out?  Metcalf offers one suggestion, a small and simple effort.  Major classical music organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and others would craft a statement on the issue of gun control:

“We deplore the growing gun violence in our country and we call on lawmakers at the local, state, and national levels to enact common-sense legislation that will make America safer for all of its citizens — including and especially our children.”

He goes on to propose that the coalition be curated by volunteers on a website and Facebook feed, and that a statement of support for the cause — The musicians of the Smallville Symphony Orchestra support Classical Musicians for Common Sense Gun Policy.  To learn more, please visit [website and Facebook addresses] — be printed in concert programs around the country and perhaps even around the world.  “I’m not naïve,” Metcalf writes.  “This effort won’t decisively alter the national debate.  But it would be a gesture, and maybe not a completely empty one.”

There’s that old adage, “Where words fail, music speaks” — but in this case, music can’t quite achieve what words can.  Until a Symphony in the Key of Gun Control manages to swing Congressional votes, a succinct and visible statement as Metcalf proposes could go pretty far — stir some dialogue, pique some interest, and present the classical music community as one of cohesion and social engagement.

Beyond words, beyond music, there’s even more we can do.  We can hold concerts to raise funds for issues we care about.  Take Orlando: let ticket sales be donated to Everytown for Gun SafetyThe Trevor Project, or the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  In the case of The Dream Unfinished, Black Lives Matter is the orchestra’s focus, with proceeds going to the Centre for Constitutional Rights.  That way, our music-making — intense, beautiful, and devoted as it is — can be measurably translated into real-world impact.

Because that’s the end goal, isn’t it?  Impact.  We want to impact an audience — emotionally, artistically — but that impact can’t exist in a vacuum.  It doesn’t matter what we do — issue a statement, raise money for a cause, stage an outright protest — as long as we recognize the need to do something.  As long as we recognize that, sometimes — in a world where 49 people can die for no reason other than being who they are — music for music’s sake just isn’t enough.

Classical musicians have a very particular set of skills: we know how to play the harp and the trumpet, how to make bassoon reeds, how to sight-read a symphony, how to follow a conductor.  But how can we use those skills to contribute and enact change beyond the concert hall?

Perhaps the greatest step we as classical musicians can take isn’t issuing a statement, or holding a fundraiser, or making music intensely and beautifully and devotedly.  It’s this: turn the concert hall into a safe space.  Foster an environment where everyone is welcome.  Go perform at a mosque, a prison, a women’s shelter — a gay nightclub.  Turn classical music into a mode of expression and collaboration that can be accessed, felt, and enjoyed without currents of bigotry and elitism.  Make music, and make it for all.

Kumbaya enough for you?

There’s a long and complex conversation that needs to be had before classical music “for all” is a viable possibility.  Racism, sexism, ableism, LGBTQ and religious discrimination are definitionally rampant in a field that prides itself on being connected to a centuries-old tradition.  But the only way that conversation can begin to unfold is if classical musicians let their voices be heard.

Why even bother engaging classical music in social issues?  What’s the point?  In answer, I’ll offer this: when we talk of classical music “dying,” we don’t mean the literal cessation of an entire art form.  We mean a loss of relevance — of connection — to the communities in which, but not for which, we make music.  It’s this loss that is driving classical music’s purported death — a slump in ticket sales and a slew of financial crises — because who wants to buy tickets, if they don’t feel welcome?  And why even bother making music, if it is only to be heard by a privileged set of ears, removed from the worries and dangers that face a forgotten audience beyond the walls of the concert hall?

Which is not to say that this is all about gaining a little extra ticket revenue from marginalized audiences.  Rather, it’s something bigger: it’s time for the classical music community to truly interrogate what it means to be an artist in society, and examine our goals and responsibilities in this privileged and vital role.  Why do we make music, and for whom?

When Bernstein penned his now-omnipresent words, they were not without context.  The nation was grieving the sudden loss of its leader, and the “reply to violence” that Bernstein set forth was not a generic, go-to sound bite, but a genuine plea for action.  I’ll leave you now with the full context of those words, courtesy of the Bernstein estate — and also with my own heartfelt, unironic, sickened and infuriated and devastated…thoughts and prayers.

My dear friends:

Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony — The Resurrection — in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President.  There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the Eroica?  Why indeed?  We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.  In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.  In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.

I know of no musician in this country who did not love John F. Kennedy.  American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth.  We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.  This reverence for the life of the mind was apparent even in his last speech, which he was to have made a few hours after his death.  He was to have said: “America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.”  Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet.  Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power.  Learning and Reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it.  And where does this violence spring from?  From ignorance and hatred — the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason.  Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive.  This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime.  But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art.  Our music will never again be quite the same.  This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.  And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.


*The initialism LGBTQ throughout this post is meant to be inclusive of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, non-binary or gender non-conforming, or have otherwise experienced discrimination or oppression on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

**The word kumbaya is appropriative and problematic, originating in the ethnographic and exoticized collection of Gullah creole spirituals which themselves arose in the traumatic context of slavery.  Its use here recalls the word’s place in contemporary pop culture, and is not meant to offend.


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