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The future of classical music

As the new dean of Johns Hopkins' Peabody Institute, I have spent the past several months on a listening tour, talking with leaders among Baltimore's education and culture institutions, businesses, non-profits and government agencies. And for those of you who may have heard the premature rumors of the death of classical music, I have good news: Baltimore loves its classical music and embraces its institutions dedicated to the art form. As a newcomer to this town, I have been thoroughly impressed and energized by the warmth and enthusiasm that has been uniformly expressed about Peabody and about what we do.

It is also gratifying to see that Baltimore's enthusiasm for our performing arts has not blinded people to the challenges we face, which are very real. You don't have to spend much time Googling the subject to see dramatic claims about decreases in concert attendance and news of performing arts organizations in crisis. So Tuesday afternoon, Peabody is hosting a symposium bringing together national leaders in the industry to ask: What is the future of classical music? How is it changing? And what role does a conservatory like Peabody have in shaping that future and preparing our students to be successful in it?

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In a recent conversation on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, I reiterated my firm belief that classical music is alive and thriving but that its future will depend on innovation and connection to the community. We must adapt and be flexible. Performing arts organizations have to think more broadly about what they do and how they can expand that vision. The most successful orchestras today are those that maintain the classical concert as their core business but build around that a variety of other offerings which resonate in different ways with different audiences. They are also proactive participants in education and in creatively meeting the needs of the communities where they perform. Conservatories and schools of music need to adopt a similar approach.

We have a vital role to play in preparing musicians to do this important work. Music students must perfect their skills as performers, yes. But the ability to play Beethoven excerpts flawlessly is not enough for today's world. Just think if we were training physicians in the same way we were even 50 years ago, let alone 150! Young musicians today must be equipped with the skills to develop their careers in new and unexpected ways. They must emerge as trailblazers and creative innovators. Artists of the future will have to cross lines, combine disciplines, and then find and engage their audiences. To serve our students, conservatories have to prepare top notch musicians who are also entrepreneurs, educators and advocates for music.

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The most important piece of all of this, for arts organizations and individual artists alike, is to be always and intentionally developing new audiences. We have to take our music out of the concert hall and meet audiences where they are. We also have to break down the barriers that keep people from coming into the hall. We have to give more people — children and adults alike — the opportunity not just to hear music but to learn it, play it and create it. The thousands of students who study at Peabody's community-based preparatory school each year, whether or not they ever become professional musicians, will play an equally critical role in the future of classical music.

I find it heartening that so many people here in Baltimore are giving thoughtful consideration to these issues, at forums like the recent Future Symphony Institute conference at UB and tomorrow's symposium at Peabody. It's true that the world of classical music is changing rapidly, but for those young artists who are prepared to skillfully and creatively navigate the music world of the 21st century, and for listeners looking to experience the transformational nature of an extraordinary performance, there will be more avenues than ever before to participate in and enjoy great music. And that is welcome news for everyone, because can you imagine a world without Beethoven, Mozart or Monk?

Fred Bronstein is the dean of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University; his email is fred.bronstein@jhu.edu. To watch the livestream of today's symposium, please visit http://www.ustream.tv/channel/johnshopkinsu.

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