Classical Music is Elite, and thats okay

June 12, 2017


The word "elite" is a bit of a dirty word these days. Very rarely have I heard someone use it to positively describe someone. Granted, it would be pretty awkward to tell someone "hey man, that performance was great. You're totally one of the elites". Even if you were to use elite in a positive context, there is still a baggage associated with the word. "He went to an ELITE private school". Oh how WONDERFUL for him. "The Smith family is truly one of the elite families in the area"...what are they, a family of super heroes? Do they only eat foie gras and drink champagne?

When it comes to politics, elite tends to conjure negative stereotypes for both the conservative and liberal minded. For example, my alma mater, Oberlin College and Conservatory, is frequently targeted by conservatives for being a bubble for the wealthy, out-of-touch-with-real-folk,liberal elite. Students at Oberlin are enthusiastic and itching to make the world a better place, which is what makes Oberlin so wonderful, but occasionally overenthusiastic. Where as my conservative all-boy high school was frequently the target of liberal newspaper columnists and people in the area for being an out of touch school where white boys learned to treat women with contempt and continue a tradition of brash white entitlement. I bring up the concept of elite because the world of classical music seems to be having a crisis of character, and a lot of it is coming from a fear of being categorized as elite. This is an understandable reaction from the perspective of people who's job it is is to fill seats in conservatories, or concert halls. If you were to ask a random, non- classical music listener on the street to use one word to describe what they thought classical music was, they would probably pick a word like "boring", "stuffy", or maybe "intimidating"(or elite!). That is a HUGE problem. 

Responses to this problem have been varied, but by and large the principal I've seen applied in these situations tends to be the same, I imagine the conversations going something like this: 




President of Orchestra: We are seeing a decrease in attendance at concerts over a 5 year period. At this rate we'll be broke by summer, what have you all come up with to combat this trend?


Person 1: We can continue to develop and promote the community engagement programs we have, and expand on what we've learned.


Person 2: Yes, and invest more in our social media presence, that has been successful as well.


Person 3: AND get our highly trained musicians to play AWFUL arrangements of pop songs and mostly play music that doesn't challenge the listener.






Okay so thats may be a bit overly dramatic, but the domination of pop concerts in second and third tier orchestras suggests two things. One, that it must be working to a certain extent, and two, we've sacrificed the whole purpose of playing classical music. That second statement is not overly dramatic. There is a place for concerts that have broad appeal and that can bring in audience members that might normally avoid the classical music scene. However, we cannot hope to keep the classical music scene a vibrant and living organism if we are only making time for crowd favorites and collaborations with John Mellencamp. What keeps classical musicians stubbornly invested in a profession that is both extraordinarily difficult and financially unwise is a love of the incredible, mind altering music we are privileged enough to be playing as our job. The best repertoire is often not easily accessible. The pieces that we worship, that give us the mana we need to continue, have very little in common with the concert line-ups we see across the country. 

It is not just performers who are making unwise intellectual/musical/soul-draining concessions. The philosophy of many of this countries top conservatories and music departments have seen a radical shift away from traditional pillars of education in favor of a more inclusive approach. This takes many forms, from watered down theory and aural skills classes, to classical music appreciation courses that attempt to broaden the criteria for the sake of encouraging students from more diverse backgrounds to go into music. The argument is that a survey class is not only a presentation of traditional western classical music, but a reflection of both the professor teaching it and the students taking the class. This is a worrisome argument for a lot of reasons, and seems to downplay the idea that in addition to being educators and performers, we are stewards of the best literature the western world has ever conceived. Our opinions of what we like must be generously tempered by what is essential.


Being inclusive and encouraging diversity, democratizing classical music, are both noble goals obviously. The achilles heel of the current approach comes back to the word I started this stream of consciousness with; elite. Classical music IS elite. You don't have to be a genius to appreciate it(if you need any proof of this, lets have coffee some time), but you DO need to be educated on the basics. Classical music is part language, part math, part divine intervention, and to get the most out of it, an audience member must be made to understand that, unlike the majority of music consumed(of any era) classical music demands the listener lean forward and engage. A little bit of theory might help, but is by no means necessary. My mom never took a music theory class in her life and is a better concert-goer then most musicians I know. A few historical cocktail facts help to wet the wheels of imagination, perhaps giving the new listener a point of entry. The only sure-fire way to destroy a classical music audience is to play music that can be done better in a different genre. If I ever ask to hear "The Best of Frozen for String Quartet", lets all agree to take away my violin.


The same goes for higher education. I recently taught a music appreciation class to around 30 non-music majors. It was, overall, a wonderful experience. The class was pretty predictable for a college class full of non-music majors; about 4-5 people seemed to really get into it, most of the kids were interested enough to get a decent grade, and 2-3 people had terrible attitudes and made me want to hit my head against a table edge every time I had to read their essays or listen to them speak. The dream is to get a majority of the class excited about classical music, but in reality I would be lucky to have 3 students eventually become classical music enthusiasts.


Musicians, especially the newest generation on the scene(I'm speaking to you, millennials) are constantly inventing and re-inventing new ways to engage audiences. There are a lot of excellent ideas that are catching on in the music world. As we continue to seek a more democratized listener base, or to encourage people with non traditional backgrounds to invest their time and attention in classical music, it  behooves us to trust in our audiences and students. Trust that the music we play and listen to is its own best ambassador. Do everything except water down the actual product you are presenting, even if it may not be enough for some people. If you can get just 3 out of 30 people to believe in what you are doing, you are doing it right. Classical music transcends economic and social backgrounds, but it will never have the broad appeal that pop music genres have, because it does not exclusively seek to entertain. In this way, it will always be a prize for the seekers of this world; the people who want to be part of something that is infinite. Basically, classical music is elite.

And thats okay.

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