American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

Reflections on the future of Classical music...from a love, life and death perspective.

Being a professional musician requires a great deal of sensitivity and high emotional IQ,  no doubt. No greater test of one's ability to control one's emotions in a performance occurs when one is called upon to play at a wedding, funeral or memorial service. Early in my career, I played a ton of wedding gigs. I didn't like it much, and resented often being  simply "background" music. However, over the years I have come to realize that weddings and funerals present a similar intensity of emotion- from the experiences most often associated with great music, particularly classical opera- living, loving and dying.
And thus, as I very recently planned and performed a memorial service for a young woman who passed away at age 56 from breast cancer, I was confronted not with my own immortality, but rather re-considering what my music meant to the audience of people who assembled to affectionately reminisce about and extol the virtues of their beloved wife, sister, aunt, friend, and colleague. In the between the spoken remembrances I was requested to play music to enhance the service. As I sat their listening to the accounts of this woman's life and her personal qualities and relationships with those who loved her, I began to feel as if I knew her, too. And then I began to feel saddened that I hadn't ever known or met her in her all-too-short lifetime.
So, with each successive remembrance and each successive piece I played, I began to well up with tears, and wondered how I could see the notes on the page in front of me when I would have to play next. But, it dawned on me that this was what it meant to be a professional- to be able to shut out the lose-control type of emotions, while retaining my sensitivity. I blinked back my tears, and with each successive piece I began to infuse as much expression as I possibly could, so that the audience assembled would somehow be relieved  or consoled of their grief. And then I realized even more acutely than ever before the true power of music-and of being a musician- which exists regardless of one is a professional musician or an amateur. We have this unique ability to express what cannot be said in words alone, and the singular ability to communicate to all people- regardless of their native language, culture or background. We have the ability to heal, console, teach, reflect, soothe, uplift and transport people to a different place, especially when confronting the reality they are facing is almost too difficult to bear.
All of this in-the-moment reflection made me begin to wonder why western classical music is not more widely appreciated, why it is still a "hard-sell", and why, at the same time, it has managed to survive through the ages?
The answer lies in its sublime qualities and it's demand to be listened to actively, not passively. While many can appreciate classical music in an absolute way, based on the pure sound, one's appreciation and love for classical music is at its greatest when accompanied by knowledge, understanding and experience. In all eras of human existence there will be those who covet the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional experience that classical music has to offer. No other music genre offers the complete range of human emotion and expression, and no other genre can claim to be the "foundation" of all other types of music. No other type of music demands that you truly "listen" with you ears, your heart, your brain. And as human beings confronted with technology that threatens our intercommunication skills and interpersonal relationships, and a body of knowledge that grows exponentially so that we can never feel as though we are masters of our universe ever again....I believe we need the "live" experience of CLASSICAL music more than ever. We need it to remain HUMAN!
Classical music teaches us to listen, to learn, to analyze, to remember, and to appreciate taking time off from our usual pursuits. It is a luxury but also a bare necessity. As society loses a connection to classical music, it suffers. If we increase that connection and immersion and it will thrive. We need to cultivate not just life-long professional musicians, but also amateur musicians. We need to make sure that everyone who wants to make music can do so, and that everyone who wishes to attend concerts can do so. We must inspire love and appreciation, but also motivate people and cultivate the work ethic that is required to fully immerse themselves in classical music.

Later that same evening I attended Ravinia's Music Matters Gala Benefit, and I thought how great it is to have institutions who invest so much in reaching out, teaching, and playing music for those who are less fortunate and are not receiving their "daily dose" of "music medicine". Hence, the program develop at Ravinia is aptly titled, "Reach, Teach, Play", and I applaud its mission and the results that are realized by this effort to bring classical music to all people, young and old.
I also applaud my dear friend and colleague, Larry Block, a lawyer and amateur cellist who founded the High Park Strings, which has been bringing free orchestra concerts to audiences in Highland Park for over 30 years. I applaud all the community music schools like those here in Chicago- Midwest Young Artists, Music Institute of Chicago, Merit School of MusicDePaul Community Music School, New Music School of Chicago, and the legions of private music teachers who reach and teach students every single day, impacting hundreds and thousands of lives for ever. I applaud all the visionary and entrepreneurial musicians who create new music, new ensembles, and broaden the audience for classical music be making it relevant to our 21st century society. Thank you to my friends and colleagues of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra , Chicago's Lyric Opera, Maestro Ron Arden and FullScore Orchestra, Francesco Milioto and the New Millenium Orchestra, David Yonan and The Fine Arts Music Society,  my colleagues of Chicago's Premier Piano Ensemble- Pianissimo!, the Lincoln Trio, Yana Reznik and Playful Talk,  the families and students of my own Sheridan Music Studio, not to mention the companies like Steinway and Sons who craft the miraculous instruments we play, and so many more,  for all the work we do together in our life's work. It is so great to be surrounded by musicians who share this unquenchable thirst for knowledge and passion for musical and artistic pursuits and the common bond of being musicians in the 21st century!
So, is Classical music going to remain alive and well in the near and distant future? I know it will be, because, in the words of Ludwig van Beethoven: "Must ess sein". It must be.

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