To Dr. Ronald Crutcher, musicians should do more than aim for Carnegie Hall. They should be working to “lift the human spirit” through their music, and they should be doing that in schools, nursing homes, prisons — anywhere they can find and develop an audience.
“Every artist, musician or theater student ought to have a mission to play their role in developing audiences for the future — not just so they will have a job but because of what art can do to lift the human spirit and to improve the human condition. And if we sit back and do nothing, there won’t be any audiences for classical music,” says Crutcher.
As director of the School of Music at the University o[ Texas at Austin, Crutcher is able to translate those beliefs into action.
Music students at UT-Austin are required to take liberal arts courses and a “freshman seminar” class in which they are introduced to the broad array of possibilities in the world of music and what it means to be a musician in today’s world.
Crutcher also requires students to do community work or what he calls “informances.” Students go to nursing homes, schools, churches and other non-traditional venues, but they are expected to do more than just play their music. They dress informally, introduce themselves and talk about the music to be performed. This is to make students as comfortable in front of a group of third-graders as they would be walking on a stage at Carnegie Hall, Crutcher explains.
“The way classical music has been packaged…such as you have to dress a certain way and have some background, is one of the biggest impediments to people — especially minorities, but to all people.”
Cello is `Soulmate’
Crutcher remembers when he first became interested in music: “Coretta Scott King came to do a recital at our church and my minister introduced me to her. And later, I saw Sanford Allen, the first Black to play in the New York Philharmonic — and that’s when I thought this [field] could be a real possibility.”
Crutcher began playing the cello when he was 14.
“Until that time, I always thought I would be an architect. But when I first played the cello there was something about it that let me know immediately that I had found my soulmate,” Grutcher recalls.
A music professor, Elizabeth Potteiger, took notice of Crutcher and gave him free lessons, preparing him to enter, and eventually win, competitions at age 17 that led to his admission to Yale University, where he received a doctorate in musical arts. Along the way, he has played with such well-known musicians as Aldo Parisot, Siegfried Palm and Enrico Mainardi.
Crutcher has performed at Carnegie Hall, but he has also played in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and Elementary schools.
“What I’ve learned after 26 years of playing is that the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms ca be appreciated by anyone if you present it in a way that the audience can be receptive to it. With the majority of people, if you reach out to them, they’ll give you a chance,” Crutcher says.
In the old days, says Crutcher, musicians were like highly trained racehorses, wearing blinders and trained to look straight ahead. Musicians were taught not to focus on the audience but to practice eight hours a day and focus on their instruments, he says.
“That approach worked fine as long as there were orchestras,” Crutcher continues. “But there are only so many concert halls and only so many symphonies. Also, funding has changed and orchestras are being forced to do more community and children’s concerts and often their musicians don’t have the background and and skills to communicate, other than through their instruments.”
Schools of music should be taking a less myopic approach to their programs, looking at skills that one can acquire in music school as being the same ones that you need to live a good life, says Crutcher.
“Students need to be given a broad enough background that regardless of what happens to them when they get out, they can have a viable life in the future,” says Crutcher. “There will always be room for that one-half of 1 percent who are gifted. But for some, a viable life might not mean playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It might mean they will go to a little town and start their own studio. And in order to do that they need to know how to do something other than just play their instruments.
Back to Africa
Crutcher says people see him, an African-American classical cellist, as an anomaly. “But I tell them I’m not that unusual.” Some who are taken aback by him have come up to him at concerts and asked, “`What kind of cello do you have? It sounded so wonderful,’ they say, as if to say hat the cello produced the sound by itself,” he laughs.
But Crutcher doesn’t let the skepticism get to him. He tells all who question him about playing the cello that stringed instruments have been played in Africa sine ancient times. “Most people don’t know it but the majority of waltzes and music on plantations were played by slaves,” Crutcher adds.
But the thing that wins over the most resistant listener, says Crutcher, is when he plays.
“I get their attention.
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