Thursday, September 1, 2016

Do you have to be so snobby about classical music? (Part 1 of ?)

I have to confess, my original intent for this post was much grander than what I ended up with. I had two recent examples of classical music snobbery from opposite ends of the silly/serious spectrum: a listicle about being a classical musician, and an online discussion about a scholarly book about musicology. Both of them make assumptions about what should be considered “real” classical music, and I wanted to use them to make a greater point about how classical music is policed at every level: Is the audience knowledgeable enough? Do the performers play the right repertoire? Do the composers write in the proper style? Do the scholars say the right things? When it comes down to it, these questions are built on snobbery.

But the cliché of snobs liking classical music (or classical music being for snobs) is just too big for any one post, and trying to tackle all of it at once gave me writers’ block. So instead, this might just turn into an ongoing series where I call out classical music snobbery as I see it and offer suggestions to help steer things in a more constructive direction.

Okay, then! Some friends of mine have been circulating this listicle of “20 Things Never to Say to a Classical Musician.” My former performance major self identifies with so many of these, like the incredulity that classical music can be a career, or the “recommendation” to compete on a reality show. When you’re in a profession that’s not widely understood, you encounter a lot of ignorance, and some of it takes the form of unintentional condescension. It gets frustrating, and it’s good to vent.

This kind of post builds a community through shared experience, in this case, mostly negative. This type of activity certainly isn’t limited to classical musicians. It reminds me a lot of that “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” meme from a few years ago, a major difference being that the meme usually has a punchline and opens up the opportunity for self-deprecation. The list is just pure negativity with a pat on the back for knowing so much more than those ignoramuses.

One item in particular struck me as excessively snobby:
9. Oooo …. I love the ‘Four Seasons.’
Unlike the “Phantom” reference in #3, this item identifies a bona fide “classical” piece. Yet it’s not good enough for the classical musician on the receiving end, because it’s such a clichéd choice. It’s overplayed. It’s basic. Ugh, don’t they know there’s more to classical music than the greatest hits?

Well, no, maybe they don’t. Maybe they weren’t trying to impress you; maybe they were just trying to keep the conversation going in an area you seemed comfortable with. Granted, I have been in conversations where a comment like that turns into someone trying to show off, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than rolling your eyes, open up the conversation.

So, this comment shows they’ve at least heard some Vivaldi. Gauge the situation—maybe you mention a time that you’ve played The Four Seasons, and suddenly you’re letting them into the actual working life of a classical musician. Or you could ask whether they’ve listened to any Corelli, giving them an opportunity to branch out. If that’s lost on them, you can always just ask, “So, what do you like about Vivaldi?” and listen to their answer. Make classical music a point of engagement, not a chance for you to assert your superior taste.

It reminds me of one of my favorite comics by Sarah Andersen:

Substitute “composer” for “band,” and you’ve likely participated in the Not Nice conversation before, on one end or the other. The pain of receiving such a tirade usually outlasts the thrill of dishing it out, and it does little to win people over. But then, getting people to like your music isn’t really the point of such a display—the point is to identify yourself as someone with superior taste, and to protect your music from becoming too popular. I suspect that many of the people who loudly bemoan the death of classical music are secretly excited about it, as it means theyre in a more elite fandom. But such an attitude strangles the people who make their living on classical music, such as the musicians the listicle aims to amuse.

Strive to be the Nice fan, and you’ll be combating classical music’s snobby reputation while winning over new audiences. If you really care about the future of classical music, don’t try to make people feel bad about what they don’t know; give them a reason to want to know more.

“20 Things Never to Say to a Classical Musician” on The Violin Channel


  1. Love it. Can't wait for your take on #18!

    1. In a previous draft, I'd mentioned #18 as an example of someone trying to find common ground. I definitely understand how it can come off as, "You play piano? So do I! Therefore what we do is the same!" But that shouldn't be the default assumption--it could also be, "You play piano? I played piano, and it was hard for me. I'm very impressed!" We're so used to being defensive that sometimes we're looking to take comments in the worst way possible, when the other person just wants to have a nice conversation.

  2. Love your post. I agree with you as a former music major. My focus was classical music because I wanted to be an opera singer. Thanks for hating your thoughts.