Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What 'The Internet's Favorite Pianist" Can Teach the Church

I heard the radio announcer introduce the upcoming recording with the phrase, “the internet’s favorite pianist.” I was intrigued, so I did what anyone would do, I googled the phrase.

Google told me to read this Washington Post article about Valentina Lisitsa, a conservatory trained, classical, pianist from the Ukraine. Instead of becoming “just another blond Russian ex-pianist,” as she puts it, Lisitsa decided to do something differently. She uploaded a video of her playing piano to YouTube.

Her channel now has over 126,000 subscribers. Every video has tens of thousands of views. The most popular have millions. And what is the content of these videos? Is it edgy, crazy, and weird? Is it violent, aggressive, and arrogant? Is it exhibitionist, shallow, and vain?

Nope. The videos she posts are her sitting at a piano playing classical music, just like classically trained pianists have done for ever and ever before her. And it just so happens that sitting at a piano playing classical music is something that Valentina Lisitsa does very, very well.

The church needs to pay attention to stuff like this – especially the portion of the church that fears change, that doesn't like to do things differently, or that feels like the Gospel is somehow compromised if presented in a different format.

If there is a sub-culture of the world that is even staler than the church, it must be classical music. The stereotype is old, rich, well-dressed people sitting in luxurious places applauding politely at the appropriate times. The perception is that classical musicians are all about the purity of the art form, appreciating the music at a highly knowledgeable level, and staying faithful to the composers’ intentions without deviation. In other words, snobs.

But Valentina Lisitsa says, “We musicians want a bigger audience, we want more people to come and listen. We sometimes act as though you need a great education to understand [classical music]. But I look at who is listening to my videos on YouTube, and it’s people from developing countries, not associated with classical or big concert halls. I see the growth and want to connect with these fans.”

Now, the ironic kicker in her story is that her online success has led to album sales, concerts, and much of the more traditional markers of classical music success. None of which would she have experienced had she not posted a few videos on YouTube seven years ago.

Not that Valentina understood this inherently; she learned it. A DVD of her playing was being uploaded illegally. At first, she was removing the videos one by one as she discovered them. Conventional wisdom is that online access, free downloads and such, will be detrimental to a musician’s career.

“At first I was removing the clips one by one, but then I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m angering my fans,’ ” she said. “I uploaded it to YouTube and a strange thing happened: It hit number one on Amazon.”

If I might analogize, the music is the Gospel.

The way the music gets to the audience is the church.

If we are unwilling to change the way the music is getting to the audience, then the music will remain unheard.

I do not want the music of the Gospel to go unheard. The church needs to think differently, speak differently, and act differently. We need to stop metaphorically taking down YouTube videos out of fear that it will detract from other markers of so-called “success.”

However, the flipside is also true – I do not want a video of some random person playing Chopsticks to be packaged as the Chopin Etude Opus 10 No.4. Make no mistake, Valentina Lisitsa is a highly talented, conservatory trained pianist whose technical skill and artistic prowess are exceptional. If she was not, there’s no way her Chopin gets 3,750,000 views.

She wanted more people to hear Chopin; she did not want to play “Chopsticks,” thinking somehow it will be more accessible to the audience.

To continue the analogy: sometimes the church thinks we have to change the music so that more people will hear it. Sure, a piano player can start with Chopsticks, but maturing and growing at piano means hard work, moving on from Chopsticks, to “Heart and Soul” and beyond, realizing that Chopin is out there beckoning, inviting, and challenging us to excel.

If the music isn’t getting to the audience, and one of our jobs is making sure it does, then we’re going to want to figure out what to change. It will not suffice to wring our hands and wonder why more people aren’t coming to the concert hall.  Neither will it suffice to put on a concert of repertoire exclusively from Mel Bay’s Big Note Songbook.

We have got to look for new ways to convey the Gospel in new places. We have got to share God’s love with creativity and innovation and vision. We have got to let go of old models and experiment fearlessly.

Dear Church – John Wesley submitted to be more vile for the sake of the Gospel, and we must follow his lead. We have to put Chopin on YouTube. 

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