Recently I have been reading Bowling Alone, by the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. It is about a disturbing diminution, during the latter part of the previous century, in many forms of social capital. By this, he means the connections among individuals and the resulting social networks, including their norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.
Putnam amasses a host of data to support his contention. Starting about two thirds of the way through the 20th century, people began participating less in a range of activities that typically serve to connect us to others. Fewer people worked on political campaigns or attended political events, and fewer people voted. People joined clubs less often, and didn’t serve as officers as much. And, of course, many fewer belonged to unions. He even has data to suggest that people entertained their friends and neighbors less often, and gathered together for family meals at lower rates.
The book was published in 2000, before the advent of the smartphone, and I am very curious how the trends have altered in the intervening 15 years, although I have my surmises. Having seen the videos and cartoons about the many ways that smartphones come between us in the course of daily human interaction, I have to believe that the patterns Putnam identified have only gotten stronger.
Some critics have argued that the advent of social media has not reduced social capital but transformed it. Indeed, in this column (as recently as the previous issue) I advocated the use of social media tools to reach our audiences and the general public. But as anyone who has read the comments section of almost any article can attest, some aspects of this transformation are not welcome—we may be reaching a greater network of people in our online interaction, but we are collectively saying things there that we never would utter in person.
As Chairperson Bruce Ridge notes in his report this issue, our profession requires discipline and hard work. It can be very easy to focus on the rigors of the job, to the exclusion of our other responsibilities. And I say responsibility, because I think we owe more to our orchestras than merely our best performances. It takes more than great individual musical performances from its members for an orchestra to thrive.
Although I am gratified by the contributions of our new Social Media Committee, I have also observed a few indications of a decline in the willingness of my colleagues to participate in the orchestra without their instruments. A few years ago, my orchestra had to hold a special election for the Orchestra Committee, because at the normal election there were not enough candidates to fill all the offices. And we recently had occasion to empanel our peer review committee for the first time. After completing their service, several of the committee members gave me the impression they would not serve in that capacity again, a decision I hope they will reconsider. Participation in the running of an orchestra—as an organic entity, not as a financial one—is critical to its success. When we serve on committees, when we attend orchestra meetings and Local membership meetings, when we participate in the discussion, the union and the orchestra can both grow stronger.
But I think there is a larger point here. While our concerts are not participatory per se (with rare exceptions), the very act of going to an orchestra concert (or any live music concert) is akin to the types of participation that have been in decline. Technology has made it extremely easy to be entertained from the comfort of one’s home, and so the decision to physically travel to the concert hall and attend a concert has become more like membership in a club. After a day at work, how often do people make the choice to sit at home and watch the playoff game (pick your sport) or House of Cards (pick your movie/series), rather than go to the effort of driving downtown to hear the orchestra (what’s that Higdon piece they’re playing?).
There are perhaps those who feel that they don’t need to go to a concert for music. They can hear the Berlin Philharmonic in its Digital Concert Hall, or just have Pandora or Spotify on whichever device is near at hand. We know that there is something fundamentally different about experiencing a concert in the hall, and that there is an interaction that takes place between audience and performers that doesn’t exist in a video; but many in the public don’t know about the difference or have forgotten.
I remember a time years ago when my wife and I flew to California to visit her parents. It was a long flight, our kids were very young, and we were exhausted when we arrived. Her parents said, “We got you a special treat. We’ll babysit so you can go to a concert tonight.” While it is true that I dreaded sitting through a performance of Händel’s Messiah, it is equally true that it was wonderful and I am richer for it. And just this week I had tickets to a (masterful) performance by the Miró Quartet and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, but I failed to persuade either of my violin-playing children to attend—their internal barriers to participation were too high.
We cannot magically transform the world into one in which everyone buys concert subscriptions, cities spend as much on concert halls as on sports stadiums, and all children learn to play musical instruments. But we can act to exemplify our values. Our art form requires participation, and we can lead by example, whether that means attending neighborhood association meetings or serving on the orchestra’s social media committee. We can attend rallies to support causes we believe in, or write (polite) letters to the editor (including this one). We can establish “Ask a Musician” programs in our orchestras and then volunteer to interact with the audience. We can play concerts to raise money for earthquake victims or cancer research. We can participate.