Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Three

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Part Three

In this post, I am not discussing the appreciation of classical music, but the participation in classical music as a performer.

Classical music, in any culture, is a high art, which sets it apart from other forms of music such as folk music or popular music. Classical music is not the only type of music to be a high art. I would argue that some jazz is, but not all. However, pretty much all classical music would be considered high art.

I hate the term high art. It implies that a high art is higher, and thus superior to, another form of art. I don’t agree with this sentiment. I believe all types of art are very valuable, and they all have their place in a culture.

However, the descriptor “high” is not used for only art. In mathematics, for example, higher mathematics are “of more advanced content than ordinary arithmetic and algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and beginning calculus” according to Merriam-Webster (italics are mine.) While we might call these “lower” mathematics ordinary, that doesn’t make them less important at all! In fact, most of us use arithmetic, basic algebra, and basic geometry on a regular basis, if not daily! I personally occasionally use Algebra II concepts, though not formulas, in my approach to musical composition, and my basic understanding of Calculus certainly helps when I am reading up on pitch temperament and the overtone series.

Ordinary math is common to most people. Higher math is reserved for specialists. The same is true for classical music. Folk and popular music are, by definition, common. Classical music is reserved for specialists. It is not common.

One could say it is “elitist” because it is out of reach and inaccessible to many. Following this argument, many things are “elitist.” Working for NASA is elitist. Medical school is elitist. Becoming a full-time professor is elitist. These things are not open to everyone.

That’s not a problem.

Most people I know hate math and do not complain that they don’t pursue higher math. Most people I know do not wish they had gone to medical school and put in the grueling hours demanded of interns. They know the effort and money it takes and said “not for me.” It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to complete a PhD, then endure the hoop-jumping required for gaining tenure, to become a full-time professor. Many quit along the way.

Playing classical music professionally is elitist. And it should be.

The competition is fierce, and the music is artistically and technically extremely demanding. Classical music, at least in the Western tradition, demands surgical precision. Those who pass auditions and make it into professional ensembles have paid their dues, in years of diligent practice and thousands of dollars invested in training and instruments, and are worth every penny they make, and more. The more the number of professional ensembles is reduced, the more intense the competition, the more elitist the field becomes.

One cannot become a classical musician simply by listening to a recording and copying what is heard, outside of the very rare prodigy. A teacher is necessary. A teacher will correct posture, hand positions, pitch, technique, and so on. A teacher will explain and demonstrate musical interpretation. A teacher will guide students to appropriate opportunities for musical growth outside of lessons.

The access to quality teachers is where the problem of elitism in classical music resides.

Schools don’t prevent students from ever working for NASA or from becoming doctors or professors by cutting academic studies in elementary and middle school. Yet, while public schools are required to provide instruction in academic disciplines without extra expense on the part of students, music programs in many districts are cut, even in comparatively well-to-do suburban towns! Even in the districts where musical instruction is provided, beginning students who wish to learn to play an instrument must provide their own instruments. Later, as students advance, they will require study with private teachers who specialize in an instrument if they are to continue to progress. This automatically reserves musical instruction for those who can afford it. It is not simply an issue of talent or desire. I would argue that most people have innate musical ability that has never been tapped into and developed. Sometimes that is due to a lack of interest, but for many that is due to a lack of opportunities stemming from a lack of resources.

It’s not wrong for the professional field of classical music to be elitist. It is wrong to make the study of classical music elitist from the start.

A great number of classical musicians – those who I know personally or who I have read about – know they are privileged. They have either come from families that have had the resources to provide the training and materials they needed to achieve high levels of performance; or, they have been blessed with generous benefactors who have, directly or indirectly, assisted them through inexpensive or free lessons, purchasing or loaning quality instruments, providing scholarships to schools or music festivals, and so forth. Many classical musicians also seek to find ways to help younger musicians through these financial hurdles. Some have started foundations; some provide free or reduced-cost lessons themselves; some volunteer with educational programs for underprivileged students. I, myself, have taken action to provide low-cost instruction to many students.

My own children would not have had a quality music education themselves without programs like these. As much as I could teach them piano and theory, they needed specialists for their instruments. They both benefited from financial aid and scholarships, and for three years my son participated in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which was absolutely free, run only on donations. They were both loaned equipment and given quality instruments.

I will tell you a fact: it is not classical musicians who are keeping classical music elitist.

Rather, it’s the people who put up with eliminating music programs from the public school budget. It’s the people who say that studying music is not as valuable as studying math. It’s the people who say “studying music is not for me or my children; it is for the elites.” It’s the people who do not invest in the arts themselves, by attending classical music concerts or supporting musicians, ensembles, or organizations through donations. They are the ones who have decided that classical music should be reserved only for the elites.

I think it safe to assume that most classical musicians would prefer for classical music to be less elite. We would all like to have more ensembles, more performances, and a larger audience. We would all like to have more students and more support from the public. We would like more people to participate.

We can’t change the music; classical music is demanding and difficult, and those who perform it professional are, indeed, elite musicians. But we can change the culture surrounding classical music education. We just can’t do it alone.

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Two

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here.

Part Two

Let’s talk about names.

One of the recent controversies to hit the news regarding classical music is in regard to how we name composers in concert programs and wherever else classical composers are discussed. In this article in Slate, Chris White, an assistant professor of Music Theory at UMass Amherst, makes the claim that leaving out the first names of well-known composers while providing the full names of lesser-known composers is racist and sexist, and thus elitist. Daniel Lelchuck, Assistant Principal Cellist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and host of the Talking Beats podcast, says “insisting on full names for everyone seem a little pretentious, annoying, tedious, and dare I say . . . elitist?” You can read his comments in The Bulwark here and in Quillete here.

As I said in my previous post regarding the elitism associated with classical music, I do not believe the music itself is elitist. However, I do think the culture surrounding classical music has been. On this particular point regarding composers’ names, I’m going to have to agree with Chris White. In concert programs, reviews, and other public discussions of discussions, full names should be used for all composers. However, I do not come to this conclusion for the same reasons.

I don’t believe that incorporating first names is an issue of racism or sexism towards lesser-known composers. While all the “big name” composers of the past were, as far as I know, white men, using their surnames alone does not preclude other composers from being part of the program. Yes, many lesser-known composers now performed are women or persons of color, but those “full names” listed on the program do also sometimes belong to white men. The issue of full-naming is not one of racism or sexism.

However, I believe it is one of elitism. When we provide only the surname of well-known composers, we are indirectly communicating that these composers are the “pillars” of classical music. They are the ones that deserve the most attention. They are big, they are powerful, they are the models to be emulated and provide the framework on which everything else is hung. All other composers are “lesser” – not just lesser-known, but lesser quality, lesser value, an afterthought. (This is further communicated when the work of the “big names”, so big as to only need a last name, takes up most of a concert program.)

Using only the surname of some composers makes classical music appear elitist to the general public. As I said before, my work brings me mostly into contact with music-loving amateurs who participate in community music. Some of them are classical-music aficionados, but many are not. My parents, who obviously raised a classically-trained musician, may know the first names of Beethoven and Mozart* (and that’s a stretch.) They certainly don’t know the first names of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok*, or a host of other composers who may have only a surname provided in a concert program. I know people who love to sing who likely do not even know that the sole name provided is a surname!

What does providing only a surname for the “well-known” composers communicate to the general public? Does it communicate that only people who already know these names belong at the concert? Elitist. Does it communicate that if audience members do not know all these names already that they are uncouth, uncultured ignoramuses? Elitist.

I’ve experienced “elitism” from the other end of the spectrum. In elementary school, I was “quizzed” everyday by my classmates who teased me for not being able to name more than one or two popular bands or hit songs of the time. They let me know I was weird and didn’t belong. I am still not up-to-date with popular music. Sure, I know a few famous names, but my knowledge has a limit.

Elitism is about being in an exclusive club. Too often, classical music concerts require that audience members already have a baseline level of knowledge in order to attend and get the most out of a concert. Even program notes are often obnoxiously heady.

In a day when knowledge and appreciation of classical music is waning and audience size is diminishing, it behooves performance ensembles, and anyone who writes or speaks about classical music, to make the connection to the music and the composers who wrote it easier for audience members, especially those who are new to classical music. No, the music itself is not elitist. It can move anyone. But, yes, the culture surrounding it has been elitist. It’s time that classical music was more accessible to more people. I find it very sad that the Filipino hotel worker Daniel Lelchuk mentions in his article had never previously had the opportunity to hear classical music. Could that be because of the elitist culture surrounding it?

Starting with using full names for every composer is an easy first step. Frankly, there is no good reason not to take this step. Dates and country of origin should also be given for every composer in the program notes. I understand that some performance ensembles are already doing these things – and kudos to them if they are.

There is one danger, however. In providing full names, dates, and country of origin for every composer in a program, the audience will quickly catch on that, in concert after concert, especially for orchestral music, 75% or more of each program is music written by long-dead, European, white males. The audience may tire of this and start demanding something else.

*Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang (how he is commonly known) Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn (as opposed to Fanny, his sister, who must be given a full name), Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartok

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part One

I have been very happy to see articles about classical music show up recently in publications that appeal to more readers than the small subculture of arts aficionados. A couple of months ago, I responded to news reports about the controversy regarding music theory and analysis covered by news outlets such as the Dallas Observer, National Review, and NPR. (See “Is Music Theory Racist?”) In this series of posts, I am responding to articles I have seen show up in such diverse publications as Slate, Vox, and The Bulwark which make the claim that classical music is, or is not, elitist. (Links are to articles relevant to this discussion.)

I want to point out that all the links above are to opinion pieces. And, likewise, what I present below is my personal opinion, based on my first-hand experience. However, I believe that my personal experience provides a unique perspective. Unlike many classical musicians, I am not purely trained in classical music. My training spans classical, jazz, and musical theater, and my professional work does not primarily involve other classical musicians; I mainly work in a community setting, with music-loving amateurs. My perspective comes from both my education and my work.

In short, my answer to the question, “Is classical music elitist?” is: yes and no. Elitism has to do with restricting access to certain people. Classical music is not inherently elitist, but the culture surrounding it has been. Does it have to be? Absolutely not!

Part 1

I’ve been playing the piano since I was three years old, which now brings me to over forty years of playing. Until I was thirteen, I had a strictly classical training; at that point, I got sick of it and switched over to jazz. At the point that I “quit” classical piano, I was playing advanced high-school/early college-level Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, as well as some of the more challenging Chopin waltzes. The first time I played a classical piano solo written by a woman was, oh, about two weeks ago.

I’ve been working on an educational project about musical form, for which I’ve been selecting some public-domain piano pieces to prepare and perform. The upcoming video is on the minuet and trio/scherzo and trio form. As I began to prepare this project, I pulled my handy collections of piano sonatas off the shelf, leafed through and found a few pieces. I quickly chose something by Haydn and something by Beethoven. As I prepared them, I began to feel that these two pieces were not enough. I needed something newer. As I began to seriously look for something unfamiliar to me, I hoped to be able to find a suitable piece written by a woman or a person of color. It also had to be in the public domain!

That’s hard to find, and part of the reason is that website searches are not set up for such criteria. Of course, I made use of the International Music Score Library Project. However, while I could search “Minuet” and “Scherzo” for solo piano, all I got for search results was a list of pieces with the last names of the composers. The listings did not include the composer’s date of birth, gender, or race. It would take me a very long time to research each composer in the list to find out that information! The best I could do was scan the list and see if there was any last name I recognized as belonging to a female. I found a piece: a Minuet by Cecile Chaminade. I was lucky I knew who she was, and that was only because I have attended a performance of her flute concertino. Otherwise, her name would also have been unknown to me.

When I printed out the piece and started practicing it, I started asking myself why I hadn’t been introduced to this piece earlier in my life. Why, as a young, relatively accomplished pianist – a female pianist at that – was I not introduced to the piano works of female composers? This piece by Chaminade is no more or less challenging or interesting than the Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin I was learning at age thirteen! It’s a super fun piece! (See this link for a description of the unfair criticism she faced as a female composer.) How much more motivation would I have had to continue in classical piano studies if I had had access to this work?

The author of the opinion piece in The Bulwark claims that classical music is not elitist because anyone, regardless of background, can be moved by classical music. Listening to and appreciating classical music does not require a certain education or cultural sensitivity. I do believe that is true; I think anyone with an open mind can appreciate classical music. But elitism is not about the music itself; it is about access. And access to classical music, and within the realm of classical music, has been cut-off to certain groups for quite some time, intentionally or not.

In high school, when I chose pieces to prepare for the state Solo-Ensemble Competition, I looked through the big, blue New York State School Music Association book of graded repertoire, listed according to instrumentation and difficulty. When I turned to the piano section, I came across the same standard last names: Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, even Gershwin. To my knowledge, no female composer was listed there. Back in those days, before the internet, it wasn’t easy to search uncommon names. The local library didn’t have it’s own copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Do musical girls need role models of female composers? Do students of color need role models of composers of color? That’s a resounding YES!

The fact that female composers (as well as composers of color) have been historically left out of the educational repertoire IS elitist. Those lists communicate who is, and is not, considered part of the club of legitimate composers. These things are beginning to change, thankfully, as more of the committees who design these repertoire lists actively attempt to include minority composers. But people like me, who grew up before this was considered important, have to work extra hard to intensively search for such material.

Let’s change things.

Let’s publish more music written by female composers and composers of color (I’m assigning myself a project here.) Let’s increase the amount of information provided about composers in searches (are you listening, IMSLP?) Let’s add more pieces composed by females and persons of color in the repertoire lists (and, yes, include the first names so we have a better idea of gender and race!) Let’s start appreciating the different qualities these unique perspectives bring to classical music. All these things increase the flow and accessibility of classical music, from composer to performer to audience.

Has classical music been elitist? YES. Does it have to be? NO!

(By the way, as I was creating the links for this post, the capitals I put on Cecile Chaminade’s name were automatically undone and when leaving out the capitals for Mozart and Beethoven, they were automatically put in!)

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