David Taylor: About what we can do for the health of classical music

April 2020


I met and interviewed David Taylor in between writing assignments and articles about entrepreneurship in music. What he told me on that day is still resonating months after. If he is known as one of the leading entrepreneurs in the world of classical music it is for a reason; intuitive and dynamic, optimist but grounded, his insights are eye-openers. 


“We are currently in a situation where we maintain the same old narrative that if you are a very good player, you win a competition, you become a soloist; if you are a very good player, you do not win a competition, you get a salaried job – if you win an orchestra audition – that is your career, sorted. But that is not what is happening in reality. Moreover, no one is really honest about what their career is because winning a competition does not necessarily bring you a lifestyle you would want to have. No one mentions how, when you are doing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the sixtieth time that season, it is taking your creative freedom out. The field tends to glamourize the suffering, overworked and poor musician condition.”


This brings the dilemma of success in classical music. Because of attitudinal and hierarchical barriers, musicians who do not enter a performing career sees it as a major failure. It is thus difficult to make them see the relevance of learning non-performance skills and the exciting possibilities that it enables. Since it is highly unlikely that every graduate enters a full-time performing career, it is imperative for music students and institutions to redefine what should be seen as success in the 21st century’s classical music world; sustainable practice in the classical music field should be seen as successful. 


“As a culture we try to validate what we are doing and who we are without actually backing it up with action or elements. We tend to have this belief that there is an inherited right for classical music to exist, but it does not, and if we keep telling ourselves that, we become lazy and we will not do a thing. The best we can do for the health of classical music is to admit to ourselves that it has actually no right to exist and continue to work hard to make sure it does.”


“In fact, what classical music sees as very revolutionary is not that spectacular according to other fields. You never see a big orchestra that does something particularly revolutionary. Occasionally there will be a diversity project, but it is more a white saviour thing of coming into a neighbourhood dropping something as a project and disappear. Classical music industry’s leaders continue to be talking themselves around an organisational structure that is best, special and unique, and that they are overworked, tired and underfunded. There are a lot of dysfunctions in classical music and we have not wanted to recruit people with voices that challenge the status quo. Everyone has to roll up their sleeves and it has to start young as well, if we want to change this narrative.”


“Let me give you an example. In a past project, we asked teenagers what their thoughts were about using digital programme notes at the concert. You could almost draw a line where the age was. The 12 to 15 years old thought it was great and cool, but as soon as we got to the 16-year-old and up, they were talking a language you would expect from a 40-year-old person, saying that it was dummying down and devaluating the quality of the art. They were repeating something they must have heard somewhere.” 


“This is why waiting to get to the conservatoire level to start being entrepreneurial and trying to change something is too late – even though it needs to still be there. We need to be very aware with young people as to what they can do and provide sessions on different thoughts and change their world view. From there, we can build something and hopefully stop these negative, unhelpful values and views being entrenched at people at an age when it is quite hard to change their mind later.”


Fine, we need to change, but who needs to and how? 


For Taylor, there should be four elements of change happening first at the pre-conservatoire level, then in the conservatoires, in the profession, and finally in the coverage and the management of the profession. For him, if we can start changing those four things, we can then start moving.


“First, at a young age, people should not just be expected to play their scales but also be aware that there are concerts. That would have to include some level of creative thinking and ideas in order to make them aware that the world is different from what the classical music cocoon is telling.”


“Second, conservatoires should open up and really emphasis on the fact that career is actually first and foremost the most important part of the training and that ultimately as an artist your main goal is to connect people through arts – rather than making perfect art.”


“Third, likewise and as previously mentioned, we have not got to a point where the profession is open and honest. The profession can change by, first, being open as to what it really is and, second, by experimenting the format to showcase how it can be different.” 


“Fourth, media and agents have their role to play. You will find that publications and coverage keep portraying the same stereotypes and narrative. As on the managerial side, artist power should be democratised, and self-promotion encouraged.”


This is to say that if the system we have today does not work, perhaps, everyone has to do something different, perhaps, it all comes down to knowing oneself and not letting classical music telling what one should think and be. This might lead the way to gently breaking the system without going to an existential crisis of having less and less music in the future. The amount of work one needs to put in in order to become a musician is blinding people, but at the same time, if you are being entrepreneurial and work toward a series of small goals you can only be more efficient. Graduates and musicians should go back in history and look at how much entrepreneurial musicians were and how much they had other interests and influences.