What is your music ecosystem?

What is a healthy music ecosystem?

In the natural world, ecosystems are composed of animals and plants living in a given area, how they inhabit that area, and how their presence or absence defines that ecosystem’s health. In a healthy ecosystem, all organisms from plants to animals are in harmonious balance and alignment.

By using biology as an analogue to the arts and culture, and society more broadly, we can better understand what makes any given area a nice place to live.

A music ecosystem might contain the following:

  • Live music venues from opera houses to concert halls
  • Bars and cafés offering live, paid music as part of their identity
  • Churches, schools, and colleges with stages often used for concerts
  • Professional musicians of different genres
  • Event and wedding music companies
  • Amateur musicians
  • Community groups
  • Post-secondary collegiate music schools

Your hometown might have a concert hall that’s been the home of a symphony orchestra for over 100 years or it might just have a bar where bluegrass is heard every second Friday. It likely has a scene that is somewhere in between – perhaps a number of schools, colleges, and churches have stages and theaters that feature non-affiliated groups, eating and drinking establishments offer live music during dinner or even have a stage, and an older concert hall hosts an orchestra, opera, or ballet once per month while also offering other musical genres.  

A truly vibrant music ecosystem has the following five pillars:

  • A music education program in the public schools with all instrumental music ensembles offered from elementary through high school
  • A four-year collegiate music performance program
  • At least one dedicated professional orchestra as the resident ensemble in a performance hall with musicians on salary
  • A community orchestra
  • A community music school which serves all ages and income levels: 

1) A music education program in the public schools

Offering middle and high school students full orchestra requires a school to respect all instruments equally – and pay teacher salaries accordingly. There is probably a superintendent, or someone close to her, who sees as much value in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony as the marching band playing at football games. This kind of program’s impact creates sympathetic vibrations towards music throughout a community and ripples of influence that potentially flow over the course of entire lifespans.

2) A four-year collegiate music performance program

A strong undergraduate performance program reminds people from all walks of life of the respectability of performing music professionally, as worthy of fair pay as law, medicine, accounting, or the trades. 

While music education majors become primary and secondary music teachers – a vital initial contact with music when we’re growing up – and musicology programs graduate scholars who study the deep roots of music history and culture, performers of classical music define the art form and set an important high standard.

3) At least one dedicated professional orchestra as the resident ensemble in a performance hall with musicians on salary

A professional orchestra that gives its musicians a comfortable standard of living so they can focus on making great music at the highest level requires a support structure which initiates a cascade effect of jobs, opportunities, and meaningful connections:

  • A fine concert hall usually frames this type of group and the sophisticated music they perform, needing its own full-time crew and staff and hosting many different acts on tour, from popular music to comedy 
  • An administrative organization must exist to manage the orchestra behind the scenes, sustain its ties to the city, promote the group, and woo support from the business community – arts administration is a profession requiring acumen and dedication
  • The fine musicians of the orchestra ideally serve as arts ambassadors to their community, ‘closing the loop’ begun in childhood music education by confirming classical music’s relevance in the public eye

4) A community orchestra

5) A community music school which serves all ages and income levels

Community orchestras and schools are barometers of a music ecosystem’s overall health – they indicate our willingness to actively participate in music whether we play at a high level or otherwise, affirming that art is process. A community orchestra is a living, breathing testament to our belief that making music is a pursuit for our entire lives – not just for our childhood – and a fine community school similarly caters not just to the young but also to adults who wish to continue learning and improving. Ultimately, community orchestras and schools serve as focal points for avid, amateur music appreciation – they continue the early efforts of classroom music teachers when we enter the working world yet want to continue making music and art.

Of course, excellent teachers exist outside of community schools, encouraging us to play our instruments at an ever-higher level. 

Abundant instrumental music education in the public schools, a four-year collegiate performance program, a full-time professional symphony, a good community orchestra, and a strong community music school are the five pillars of a vibrant music ecosystem. Their presence creates myriad other organisms depending on their existence, including avid concert-goers who were former music students, future professional musicians and dedicated amateurs, music professors and advocates, arts administrators, stagehands, recording engineers, and others.

Beyond the five pillars of a music ecosystem is its nucleus: the artist-identity within all of us. The committed amateur musician is one great example of its presence and potential – we all carry the seeds of inspiration through artistic expression. Everyone has the potential to create art, whether in performance or in tangible formats.

You’ve made it this far so I want to hear your thoughts – what’s your take-away? What does your local music ecosystem look and sound like?

Send me a telegram at geoffreybakermusic@gmail.com

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