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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