Humor in Music: The Future of Live Classical Music?

Above: Igudesman and Joo having fun with Mozart’s Rondo alla turca.

The Set-Up

I recently participated as guest lecturer and concert MC in Otterbein University’s Humor in Music Festival, six days of workshops, presentations and performances exploring the clever ways music can make us laugh.

In a public lecture entitled Is Music Funny?, I explored various examples of musical humor in scores by composers like Haydn, Peter Schickele and Schickele’s avatar PDQ Bach, as well as comedy acts by classically trained musicians like Victor Borge and the duo of Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo.

The response to these artists’ work was so overwhelmingly positive during my lecture, and has also been so in present-day performances around the world, that it causes me to pause and reflect for a moment on what humor in classical music might mean for the very future of live classical music.

We all love to laugh. Place for a moment our human desire – our innate need, really – for humor next to the doomsday prophecies auguring the “death of classical music,” at least in live performances. After experiencing first hand at Otterbein’s Humor in Music Festival the injection of life, energy and just plain fun that a humorous approach to performing classical music can bring to music and to audiences, I now wonder: Could humor in music – mining scores for humor, really performing humor in classical music concerts – be, or at least, help the future of classical music?

Classical Music Is Not Dying. It Wants to Laugh.

Stepping back for a moment, I must clarify that I, for one, do not think classical music is “dying,” nor do I think it ever will breathe its last, much less do so anytime soon. I would wager that the world has never seen more or better-trained classical musicians than are actively performing right now. And the fact that world-class violin soloist Hilary Hahn’s violin case has 28,500 followers on Twitter certainly is an indication that there’s a widespread interest in what she does.

But the other active ingredient in the, well, case (pun intended) of Hahn’s violin case is the whimsy in the notion that a violin case, much less one owned by a world-class soloist and responsible for housing a multi-million-dollar instrument has its own Twitter account and actively tweets from the concert circuit. In short, it’s funny. It’s funny because it makes light of something otherwise very weighty (Hahn’s career, how much is that Straddie in the window?), and it invites people to join in the fun.

Of course, Hilary Hahn’s violin case, however witty it may be, is not the only example of humor and whimsy on the global concert circuit. But the point is this: we all want a good laugh, even those of us who also love great music. The two are not mutually exclusive, and they might even be just the bedfellows – to push the metaphor beyond its rationally acceptable limits – we’re looking for.

Imagining a World of Funny Music

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what it might be like if more of the classical musicians embraced displays of comedic talent alongside musical talent as part of their performances. Students preparing for professional careers in music would practice not only scales and arpeggios, but also explore the basics of stand-up comedy, physical comedy, humor writing and other “funny” skills they could bring into their performances, as appropriate.

And speaking of propriety, the bounds of propriety could, perhaps, expand just a bit. Classical musicians could devise a new way of thinking about the possibilities for performing classical music, and audiences could formulate a whole new roster of expectations for the concerts they attend.

What would those concerts be like? Well, no one could ever be sure what to expect. And wouldn’t that be refreshing. If, as has been opined repeatedly in the media and elsewhere, the sacrosanct conventions of classical music concerts – the performers’ highly formal attire, the reverential silence, the “rules” about when and when not to applaud and other long-standing traditions that place classical music in the live-performance equivalent of a jewel box – are “intimidating” or “boring” to audiences, then why not shake things up a bit on stage once in a while with a little unexpected humor?

To be clear, I am not recommending anyone throw out the baby with the bath and simply discard the long-standing performance traditions of classical music. But I am wondering whether there might be any benefits were classical musicians, as performing artists, more routinely to think outside the score to see if, here and there, the comedy club might play nicely with the concert hall, to see, in other words, if performed humor might feasibly, productively and more routinely be brought into the musical sphere than unique acts like Igudesman and Joo suggest they currently are.

Concert Alternatives

Classical music ensembles and concert-presenting organizations have for years been employing any number of strategies to bridge the divide – perceived or real – between performers and audience members: performers speaking directly from the stage to their audiences, participating in parties and other social events with audience members before or after concerts, and so forth. Dress codes for performers, at least in some circumstances, have also relaxed somewhat, more closely matching the more casual attire of today’s concert audiences.

If classical music audiences crave a less formal concert experience than audiences of previous generations seemed to want, and if classical music audiences also desire a more direct connection with performing musicians, the why not bring humor into actual performances than has been the case? What better way to connect with other people than through humor smartly done?

The Punch Line

If, in fact, audiences of live classical music performances are undergoing a sea change, then that may well call for a corresponding sea change among would-be and current classical musicians. Does this mean that musicians should go to improv class instead of the practice room? Of course not. But it might mean that classical musicians should more routinely search the depths of their souls for the comedic talent that, as the students and faculty of Otterbein University proved over the last several days, lives within all of us, and bring it to their performances.

Humor is a hidden asset of classical music, and one with enormous value to reach people, to lift us up and to breathe new life into live performances. In an entertainment-saturated world, in a world in where people want to have fun, live a little, laugh a lot when they go out for a night on the town, what would classical music have to lose by putting on the comedic mask now and then in live performances? For classical music as for the rest of us, laughter may well be the best medicine.