Monday, November 14, 2016

Youth, Part 1

For months I've been brooding over a term which I see appearing more and more. An article in The Strad published a few months ago, while written about an organization with the best of intentions, included the words 'young' or 'youngster' several times. The Jumpstart Jr. program offers a much needed springboard for a select few string instrumentalists. The competition is tough, and the winners are "usually at the start of their career, freshly out of college, but have already established a reputation for excellence in their field," says Kati Debretzeni, OAE leader and artistic advisor to the York Early Music Festival.

What interests me here is that fact that my generation, and likely the following generations, are beginning their careers later and later in life. No surprise there. So at what point do I lose my youth? I ask this because, although there might be a perceived twinkle in the eye of a young musician, I can't help but think that there is more counting against someone styled a "young ______" than simple a "______".

If you were to google "Young Artist Program", the results are overwhelming. An endless supply of training programs geared towards young musicians abound (the first link to a website dedicated to another art form comes at the sixth page of results in my own search results), giving one the impression that "young artists" are in need of training, mentoring, or other institutionally-provided aid. But what about those musicians who appear in a concert series or festival labelled as such by the promoters? Does adding the adjective in question in fact relegate those performers, their performance, or their artistic decisions to some lesser plane of acceptance?

Taste is alive and well, I assure you, and it would be very easy for an audience to decide whether a certain performer is up to snuff.

Let's change our viewpoint, shall we? Can you imagine a 21 year old being appointed to a teaching position in a prestigious conservatoire or college? No way! No matter how astronomical the potential of that person might be, the "young" label attached to them would virtually dispel any possibility of employment today. Indeed I wouldn't be surprised that, if a young artist were to win a top job, a call for a reassessment of the applicants be made. What if I told you that Frans Bruggen was appointed professor at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague at 21?  You could say that, knowing his huge reputation today, Bruggen's appointment would have been justified. But that's the benefit of hindsight; how, indeed, would those in charge of appointing Bruggen know that he would climb to superstardom? They didn't.

I'm not saying that every 21 year old be granted a teaching position, orchestral position, etc. What I am trying to point out is the total change in viewpoint in half a century towards professional musicians at the brink of a career, and Jumpstart Jr.'s very existence speaks to the needs that musicians have these days.

In a previous post I mentioned discussing this topic at a past MOMO class. I found most of the students' reaction to my skepticism on the label to be rather surprising, possibly a byproduct of English being mainly a second language among them. "Young is what you make it," one said. The majority of the class felt that the term could just as easily be associated with passion or energy than with a lack of experience or a questionable investment. Language barrier aside, I still feel it was a rather naive reaction now that I look back at it. So why don't we use adjectives like passionate, or energising in the main headline to describe musicians in their 20s these days instead of young? They are purely positive words in a musical context and carry no hidden baggage that I can think of. If, like my peers, musicians begin their careers accepting this terminology - and any other constraints imposed on them from sponsoring institutions - in stride, 'making it their own' - what does that say about their concern for their image? Although as far as I can make it this is predominantly an issue for the English-speaking side of the industry, I for one don't want my persona to be one concocted by someone else and, I suspect, if they thought about it, my peers would feel the same way. I take so much pride in what I do, so why should I let the gatekeepers to my performances shape another's opinion of me before they even experience what I have to offer? 

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