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My (long-winded, and potentially provocative) thoughts over the months

May 3, 2012 at 10:03 AM

If you love something, won’t you want to share it?

Well, I guess that depends on what it is. If you have to lose or divide something in order to share it, maybe not.

But how about other things? For example, music?

When it comes to music, I always think that it goes the same with joy: you have it, you share it, and it doubles.

But today, after this brief exchange of comments (I was CW), I realize that not everyone thinks so. But I’ll talk about this later; although that post was what made me decide to write this long blog, I have been thinking about related topics for several months, and I think it would be useful to first talk a little bit about my classical music listening experience.


Unlike most of the people in this community, I’m not very musically educated. I learnt to play the guitar from 6-9, but I wasn’t particularly into it (I later realized that I just didn’t particularly care for instruments that can't produce “real” legato). I started to like classical music when I was about 14, and discovered my love for the cello. But knowing my clumsy nature, I didn’t dare to take cello lessons – until I finally couldn’t help myself when I was 18. It was not entirely a disaster: I got along very well with my teacher, heard some great stories about her experience and about string playing, got to know a nice luthier who allowed me to play with his violins and cellos. And my most important discovery: I’m clumsy as hell. And my fingernails always get in the way. So a year later, after coming to America for college, I gave up playing the cello. I still sing in choirs (mainly learn from ears), and I listen to a lot of music, but not being able to read music, I know that I’ll always be a mere listener. I’m fine with that.

My story with the violin music started almost as early as with classical music, but until several months ago, it was mainly about indifference and missed opportunities. I loved the cello for its dark, warm sound, and its extraordinary ability to sing lyrically. As for the violin, for a long time, I thought of it as a squeaky, melodramatic “sawed” instrument that gives blisters to my eardrums. And isn’t fate a wonderful thing: my ex-boyfriend used to play the violin. So despite my “hate at first listen” of the violin, I did want to try to enjoy violin music. I tried some famous violin concertos, some Schindler’s List, some Secret Garden, and some Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Among them, as it turned out, what I liked the most was the Bach – mainly because I like almost anything by Bach. So in the end, I was “ok” with the violin, but wasn’t interested enough to listen further.

Then I came across this singer, Josh Groban; I was blown away by his voice. There was a violin solo in one of the songs, Mi Mancherai. It was the first time that the sound of a violin really caught my ears. And I learnt the name of the violinist: Joshua Bell. However, having been living under a rock (i.e. not actively seeking out information), all of the violinists I had heard of were dead people. I had no idea who this Joshua Bell person was. My residual prejudice toward the violin didn’t help, either. Even though I was moved by his playing, I didn’t try to find more of his music. At that time I was snobbish and close-minded, with a lot of preconceptions about certain kinds of music and composers. Hell, I even looked down upon Tchaikovsky, so of course I couldn’t be bothered by a nameless(!) violinist who played half a track on a pop singer’s album. How foolish and ignorant I was.

For another few years, I kept expanding my knowledge in some parts of the classical world – early music, renaissance, more Bach, 20th century, a lot of choral music, and almost anything cello… But I didn’t listen to the Romantic repertoire or the violin music. Sure enough, I hear bits and pieces; it’s just that I didn’t pay enough attention to the violin to allow it to grow on me. Outside of the classical world, however, that nameless violinist kept reminding me of his existence – the “Angels and Demons” soundtrack, his second collaboration with Josh Groban, etc. The exposure was enough to make me aware of how good he sounded, but again, being my foolish self, I didn’t listen.

Everything changed, when I stumbled upon his infamous performance in the metro. That night, I was in the mood of a little Chaconne, so I took out Milstein’s DG recording (the only violin album I had in my dorm at that time, and shame on me, I bought it for Bach, not for Milstein). After repeating it twice, I suddenly had an urge to look for other people’s renditions. After some googling, I opened the Washington Post’s article (which I had somehow failed to hear of), and at the top of the page was a link to Bell’s metro performance. I listened to it while reading the interesting article. Then, a couple of minutes later, it hit me – music flowed out of my laptop speakers, at first like a rivulet, gently shimmering; then it gained momentum, growing, taking up more and more space, so powerful yet so light, as if a torrent was taking flight; it soars above the noise of the passer-bys, higher and higher … And the magic faded. The rivulet returned, along with the stomping footsteps. I had tears in my eyes.

I always knew that Chaconne was a great piece. But not like that. The playing was not perfect, with a few glitches, but it sounded so right. I bought the Milstein because I was told by many people that that was the “best” version. It was beautiful Bach, but I had never liked it as much as I treasured my various recordings of the Cello Suites. However, at that moment, I felt I finally understood why so many people hold the Chaconne at such high regard. And why so many people love the violin.

So started my obsession with the violin. In a few months’ time, I have accumulated more violin recordings than all the cello recordings I have ever bought (thanks to cello’s small repertoire), went to a few concerts that featured violin soloists, and loved the violin more and more. And I really embraced Romantic music.

I guess now you can see why I got all protective towards Joshua Bell. I don't think he's the "best" (whatever that means) violinist out there, but I know I love his sound. And he was the one who opened the door to this whole new world for me.


Exploring this new world is a great joy, but not all discoveries are pleasant.

I have to admit that I was taken aback when I first saw certain comments about certain violinists. The kind of dismissive comments directed at some violinists was quite an eye-opener. Needless to say, being the crossover matinee idol, Bell got his share of all sorts of criticism, from his intonation to his hairstyle. That was unexpected when I started to love the violin music. My listening experience with the cellists was simple – they play, and I listen. I have my favorites, but I would never say things like “Starker is better than Rostropovich” or “Fournier is the best”. In my heart they are all great cellists, and the difference in my liking has nothing to do with their level of artistry. It never occurred to me that Yo-Yo Ma’s venture out of the classical realm can be a problem; I have never heard criticisms of his repertoire from the cellists I know, either. I felt confused, even pained; surely a musician is good enough if he can touch people’s hearts? And why do people have to compare one violinist to another, anyway?

Later I realized that this difference probably has a lot to do with the competitive environment that violinists are in. And sfter I read some comments about singers, I have a feeling that there’s perhaps more to it than competition.

From some of the remarks, I get the impression that the commenters take issue with some musicians’ attempts to popularize classical music. They consider that a selling out. I never quite understand that. Of course a professional musician is going to play music in exchange for money; it’s not as if they can eat sheet music for dinner. And of course they want to sell more records and have a bigger audience; no musician would want to play in an empty concert hall.

Another impression I get from those listeners is that somehow the appeal to the masses automatically lowers the quality of a piece of music. Or rather, the quality of a piece is determined by its listeners. What they seem to dislike about “crossover” is not the music itself, but the audience it attracts.

And I wonder why. I had a vague idea, but it was today’s comment that put all the pieces together.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Philly Orchestra’s concert with my friend. The wonderful Orchestra has an incredible student program: for $25 a year, a college student can get access to almost every subscription concert. The seats are not too shabby either: that week, we sat in the back of the orchestra floor, on one end of the middle section. Sitting next to us was an old lady. We didn’t do anything inappropriate, but for some reason, she kept glaring at us disapprovingly. In the end of the concert, when we all stood up to give the orchestra a standing ovation, the lady wanted to leave. I moved back as much as I could, but she kept saying “excuse me, I need to get out”, so I told her that I couldn’t move. There was enough space for her to get out, but she looked really offended, scolded me, and muttered something about college students before she squeezed past me.

Looking back, I do think that I could have done better – I could have walked out of the section to give her more space. What I do take exception, however, was her attitude towards us. Yes, it’s true that we can’t afford the tickets if the Orchestra didn’t offer us the student subscription, and yes, we might not have a lot of knowledge about classical music. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to come to these concerts, or we can’t enjoy the music. If I manage to live to her old age, I'd only be too delighted to see youthful faces filling the concert hall. That would mean that the orchestra I love would be doing fine after my generation is gone.

Coincidentally, dear Joshua recently chose to appear on Dancing with the Stars, which caused quite some discussion on this page and this page. So came my little conversation with Mr./Ms. Ariel. After seeing his/her second reply, I decided not to respond. I simply can’t win. When one is convinced that he/she has the best taste and knows best, there is no way to make him/her see it otherwise. When one genuinely believes in the existence of the “yahoos”, you can either agree with him/her, or become one of the “yahoos”.

I would rather be the latter. I don’t think I have the right to judge other people’s taste, nor am I an “elitist” (elite) player of any sort.

Compared to the vicious attacks that some listeners throw at certain musicians or a group of audience, sports hate looks like such an innocent thing. The sports hate is completely emotional and utterly irrational – one can hate a player or a team for the most childish, ridiculous reasons. But reasonable sports fans all know that. They bash their rival teams and their supporters, but they wouldn’t seriously believe that they are superior to other fans.

It is ironic that, in that comment, classical music was compared to sports to prove the validity of elitism, while sports are widely enjoyed by the masses. And it is sad that something so personal as classical music can be reduced to this unidimensional thing in some listeners’ minds. Classical music is beautiful because of the rich possibilities it offers, and because one can enjoy it in so many different ways.

I wonder how a piece is like in those people’s ears.

And I wonder whether these “elitist” people also think that by listening to elite music, they become the elite.

So I guess it is not about the music itself, after all. It is about those listeners – they want to keep the music to themselves, so they can maintain their status, their sense of superiority. What they don’t seem to think about, is what happens to the music, when they do keep it to themselves.


I remember when I first read an article about those famous violins, I was a little surprised to see that they all have names. Not that I don’t pay attention to a soloist’s instrument, but the brief notes in CD booklets often read like this: X plays on a violin/cello made by Antonio Stradivari in 17XX. After reading it, one can know of, but not know the instrument. A name somehow seems to give an instrument enough personalities to make it memorable, alive.

And what eventful lives these extraordinary instruments are living.

During his concert, when Joshua Bell turned around to conduct the orchestra, I had the chance to look at the back side of his 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman. It was a poignant sight – close to the lower edge, behind his shoulder rest, the beautiful red varnish wears thinner and thinner, and finally fades into the muddy brown of the ancient maple wood. 300 years ago, when a Cremonese luthier painted his newest creation with the red varnish that he rarely used, would he imagine that the violin would be treasured and played by many masters, travel with them, outlive them, and still have the power to bring people to tears 300 years later?

I remember reading a discussion post about the varnishes. In the post, someone mentioned that the varnish on the well-preserved Messiah or Lady Blunt look different from that on a Stradivarius that has been played heavily by players, and that those heavily used violins are all “messed with”. But I think those violins are beautiful precisely because of that. A violin ages, but it is constantly given new life. Every day it goes to work, it faces a new audience; every note it sings is different from last. It travels over continents with its master, being used and sweat upon day and night, its parts repaired and replaced over the years. I have seen a few precious violins in the concert halls, and they all sound and look beautiful, but I think I will always remember the worn face of the Gibson ex-Huberman. The bare wood is the scar of a soldier, a veteran’s badge of honor, a reminder of the great journey it has gone through, of the beautiful music it has produced, and of the joy it has brought to people. To me, a “messed with” violin like that is the perfection of imperfection.

Someone very wise once told me, ‘I don’t worry about my old age, because there is only one way to avoid aging.’ That is to die. These words come to mind whenever I hear that a great instrument is sold to a private collector, or look at the pictures of those instruments in museums. True, the Messiah is beautifully preserved, and it makes a great exhibit. But I can’t help but feel sad for it – if you were a musical instrument, how would you feel when so many people come to see you, but your only listener is the curator? For instruments like the Messiah, the museum cabinet is their coffin. Once entering it, they become museum pieces, perfectly embalmed, but lifeless as 18th century naturalists’ specimens. A Stradivarius or a del Gesu is deemed valuable because of its beautiful sound. And if it no longer makes a sound, is it still a great violin, or merely a silent ghost of its real self?

A great violin is a great piece of art, but it is first and foremost a musical instrument, a tool for the musicians. In this sense, the Gibson ex-Huberman is a fortunate violin – it would have been a German collector’s museum piece if Bell didn’t buy it. After all the turmoil, it is now in good hands, its voice heard and admired by people all over the world. And I can imagine myself going to those concerts year after year, seeing the violin cradled in those hands, hands that are now strong and masterful, but will one day be weakened and wizened by age. And maybe someday, I will see the violin in a new pair of hands, singing in a youthful voice, living life anew.

And I’m reminded of those great violins handed from one great violinist to another. When these masters are gone, their precious instruments, their singing companions, live on.

Like the pieces by those great composers in the past – centuries after their death, their creations live on.

Not on paper, but in people’s ears.


Whatever the intentions, the attempts to keep classical music from a wider audience are to the detriment of classical music itself.

I do understand the urge to possess certain things. When you love it so much, you are afraid that it would be messed up, if someone plays with it. Interpreting a piece, or playing an antique violin is like that; you are taking risks. In fact, it shouldn’t even be called risk, because the damage is a given. For a violin, any playing adds to the wear and tear; for a piece, any kind of interpretation has imperfections.

Ken, a classical music lover who also works in a record store once said, a perfect piece is the piece that’s written on paper. How true. It’s just like the violins in museums, perfect, and perfectly silent.


That is the silence that classical music cannot bear.


From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 2:35 PM
Very, very good thoughts. Thank you.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 4:57 PM
Thank you for this blog, and for your comments as "CW." I have some similarities in background in that I'm not very musically educated relative to people such as Mr. Lebrecht (or as "Ariel," I suppose). I learned to play the violin in a public school program. I'm grateful for that and feel lucky that I got that chance, but even as an adult I can feel out of my element among people with more experience listening and playing and critiquing, even when, objectively, my playing isn't any worse than theirs. In particular I'm often insecure about my ear and about my ability to hear intonation--but that's just my stuff I need to get over.

In particular, I found this comment of yours very poignant:
"When one genuinely believes in the existence of the “yahoos”, you can either agree with him/her, or become one of the “yahoos”."

You took the high road by not responding further to Ariel. I suppose I believe in the existence of some yahoos, out there somewhere. But I don't believe they are people who would stop to listen to Joshua Bell busking, or who would take the time to listen to a crossover artist playing the violin.

And I'm really so sorry to read about the reaction you got from the older lady next to you. I play in a community orchestra that has, as players and audience members, quite a number of old ladies. The oldest just retired from playing last year at age 94. She played in the orchestra--was concertmaster of the orchestra--back during World War II, when the orchestra was raising money for war bonds at concerts. And she has never been anything but gracious and supportive of the younger members of the orchestra and the audience. As you said, if I'm lucky enough to live to her age, I'd be thrilled, as she is, to know that the musical tradition is being carried on after I'm gone.

Anyway, sorry for the rambling, but I loved this blog and really related to it. Thanks again!

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 4:47 PM
The cynic in me feels that this controversy has been largely manufactured for page views. Lebrecht has had a long, passionate, very public love affair with controversy. Look up some of his other writings.

None of my friends who are interested in classical music would begrudge Bell's appearance on the show. And there are only a few people out of the many on this site who I can see agreeing wholeheartedly with Lebrecht and ariel. But, as usual in today's competitive media, the most provocative voices tend to be the loudest, regardless of if they're representative of the views of the majority or not...

Edit... Also this whole attitude reminds me of the hipster trend. I come from the same town as Bon Iver, so I've read about Justin Vernon's career for a looong time. The band was a pretty big hipster deal around 2008-2009. However, when they released their second album and appeared on SNL and Ellen and won their Grammys, dozens of people started complaining on Facebook that he was selling out, that he's becoming commercial, that he's not cool anymore, blah blah blah. It's just like, oh for Pete's sake. If music moves you, you should share it. What's the good of hoarding it? You get to feel good about yourself and your amazing taste? Whoop-de-doo, good for you. Music and culture is bigger than any one person; it seems to me that no one person or group of people can ever be its gatekeeper, its guardian. It belongs to whoever loves it. Anyway, this whole dynamic can also be observed in indie rock, and I imagine in other genres like hip-hop, as well. It just manifests in a different way, with a different crowd.

From Gene Huang
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 5:59 PM
Congwen -- Great post! I was really happy to see Joshua Bell performing on DWTS and giving classical music & violin more mainstream exposure. In my humble opinion, he sounded great on the show. Your comments to Mr. Lebrecht's blog were spot on. I've been listening to classical music for 40+ years (including 13 years of violin lessons), but perhaps I'm still a "yahoo" when it comes to appreciating it. If being an "elite" would have made me cringe at Bell's performance, then I don't want to be one!
From Frieda Francis
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 6:41 PM
Thank you for a beautiful, heartfelt post. I agree with you that some of the critiques make classical music seem more elitist than it should be and could be hurting, not helping the music reach broader audiences.

But there is also this weird point that's hard to reconcile in classical music. On the one hand, there are people who are less familiar with the music but are open to it. It may take a "hook" to get their attention, like that subway station experiment or DWTS or seeing their friends play in a community orchestra. On the other hand, there are people who have come to expect a lot, through training or years of obsessive listening, and they have developed very specific tastes. Like, they only want to hear Bach in a chamber played by people who look like statues, and anything else is sacrilege to them. It's tough to satisfy everyone. I think we see the same kind of divisive opinions every time a rock band decides to change directions or try a different sound.

Also, having spent a lot of time playing the violin, I admit that I can't help but notice when a performer's timing is off or intonation is sloppy. I've been trained to pick at my own playing (and others') in order to improve. By now my ears are so sensitive that technical things that most people might not even notice are hard for me to ignore. This is not a good thing, since it distracts me from enjoying many people's playing. I've been working on trying to sit back and just enjoy the big picture. But maybe that is where a few of these critics are coming from.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 9:06 PM
"By now my ears are so sensitive that technical things that most people might not even notice are hard for me to ignore. This is not a good thing, since it distracts me from enjoying many people's playing. I've been working on trying to sit back and just enjoy the big picture."

I've also been playing violin for a long time, but only in recent years has this started to happen to me. It seems to have come along with my making a more concerted effort to be aware of and improve my own intonation. For example, I recently went to hear a conservatory student friend's recital, and I heard occasional out-of-tune notes. I'm sure that a couple of years before, I wouldn't have noticed anything off from a player who had made it to conservatory. I still don't notice when pros play out of tune notes, and I'm just as glad.

When I embarked on this effort to improve my intonation I was concerned that it might get in the way of my being able to enjoy amateur performances, student performances, and so on. I would find that an unacceptably steep price to pay, in fact. But so far it hasn't been very much of a problem. I'm finding I can turn it off more or less at will. It's turning on the critic when "needed" that I still find more difficult.

I think some people must come to this kind of critical approach more naturally than I do. I have kids who play stringed instruments and they both went through a period of playing out of tune, very much so, to the point that it was obvious even to me. This bothered my husband quite a bit, much more than it bothered me, even though he isn't a musician at all.

I also remember having an acquaintance who said, as if it was obvious that anyone and everyone would agree with him, "it must be just awful to be an elementary school music teacher, having to listen to that day in and day out." He was shocked when I said I didn't think it was that bad. "But you're a musician!" Um, yeah, which gives me more compassion and understanding for how hard it is!

From Congwen Wang
Posted on May 3, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Thank you all for the comments. They are a joy to read.

Karen – Thank you for sharing your stories. I’m glad that you feel you can relate to my post. And the part about the old lady – 94 years old, how wonderful! I wish you and everyone in your community orchestra all the best.


Emily – I think you are right. Mr. Lebrecht is probably laughing in front of his computer that people got all worked up. Definitely a boost of page views lol… And yes, this kind of attitude is definitely not exclusive to classical music. I remember some 5,6 years ago Coldplay was one of the “cool” Brit band, and now because they are so well known, a lot of people just say they are uncool… Oh well.

I really like this comment of yours: “Music and culture is bigger than any one person; it seems to me that no one person or group of people can ever be its gatekeeper, its guardian. It belongs to whoever loves it.” Really well said!


Gene – thank you for sharing your thoughts. One thing I like about musicians like Bell and Kennedy is that they are not self-conscious about what they play or how they play. There is a certain kind of honesty and integrity in it, I think.


Frieda (and also to Karen) - You raised an interesting point. I feel that I'm not really qualified to comment on that, but I do get what you mean. I laughed when I see "they only want to hear Bach in a chamber played by people who look like statues, and anything else is sacrilege to them". Yeah, I can totally imagine that. There was a time when I refused to listen to the Goldberg Variations played on pianos, because I thought that it shouldn’t be played on an instrument that didn’t even exist in Bach’s time. Now looking back, I can see how many enjoyable things I had missed at that time. (And by the way, there is a wonderful version for string trio, which I absolutely love.) After all, I listen to music mainly for enjoyment; and an interpretation of a piece doesn’t have to be the most “correctly” to be the most enjoyable. I feel that a deeper understanding of the theories and techniques do make one appreciate the nuances in music more, but it can also get in the way sometimes. I guess it’s true that this comes more natural to some people than others. My cello teacher said that I had good ears, because I could sing accurately. But I think my intonation was pretty horrible when I played the cello – I could move my finger around a little, and think that the notes all sounded “not wrong”!

Which reminds me of this question that I’ve always had about intonation: is there really “perfect” intonation? If I understand correctly, violinists usually use just intonation? But because the violin is so flexible, violinists can sometimes use different intonation for expressive reasons, right? In this case, will people still say that they play out of tune?

From Jacob Bass
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 3:39 AM
I don't believe that the issue of elitism is quite so simple.

Correct me if I have misunderstood your post--I may have--but it seems to be a description of your experience with a kind of snobbishness based upon the differences in individuals' musical educations.
I have seen people who are new to classical music who have been publicly shut down or dismissed after voicing their opinions on a performance or artist. I have also seen this happen with people who are new to jazz, rock and roll, popular music, rap, and other art forms--dance, literature, etc. Even politics and philosophy.
The unique thing in classical music, if my reading of your argument is correct, is that this snobbishness directed at those without extensive training can contribute to the deterioration of classical music's audience, and is therefore far more dangerous than in other art forms.

First, I do not believe that anyone, regardless of how rudely they are condescended to, would walk away from music forever after having the kind of meaningful experience that you described. You certainly do not seem to have lost interest in spite of having to put up with such self-appointed arbiters of of taste as "ariel." There may be those whose budding interest in music criticism is dampened, but I consider it a stretch to imagine a scenario in which someone listens to a performance, likes it and expresses this enjoyment, is told off for daring to have opinions, and is so traumatized by this telling off that classical music is forever tarnished, that Joshua Bell is somehow associated with "ariel," and that this happens so often that it is really turning people away from classical music. To sum up my first point, I find--and believe that others will as well--Brahms's writing to be more persuasive than Ariel's.

My second point is that you present only one side of the issue intentionally, while unintentionally giving an example of the other. Just as I have seen people try to censor others through intimidation because they perceive themselves to be more educated on the subject matter, I have also seen people who fairly and sometimes even politely offer legitimate criticisms shut down and silenced by groups of less discriminating listeners who, being unable to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate, dismiss all criticisms as snobbishness or, better yet, jealousy ("I don't see YOU playing on TV."). You are not actively calling for anyone who criticizes anything to be shamed and silenced, but you are presenting the issue as one-sided when it is not.

The way that I distinguish between legitimate criticisms and unthinking snobbery is by reading for content. If a comment contains specific criticisms based upon knowledge of the instrument, piece, context, etc. ("He/she ignores Beethoven's dynamics," "He/she is using anachronistic fingerings," "He/she is using an inferior edition that contains incorrect notes," or even just "He/she is playing out of tune"), I will read and consider--which is still not the same as agreeing. If the comment tosses around words like "bad," "talentless," "weep for the future of the world," "well so is your MOM," etc., I will generally find other ways to spend my time rather than read further.
The difficulty here is that simply because someone has something to say does not mean that he or she is polite or even can make him or herself understood. Reading YouTube comments is truly the best way to instill in oneself a deep, genuine appreciation for grammar. Again to sum it up, you have to manage to read for content, not tone.

Were I in your position, as someone who loves music but does not feel secure in my technical knowledge of the subject, I would make a hobby of listening, reading, practicing, etc., and do it for my enjoyment. I would discuss it with friends and have intelligent conversations where intelligent conversations may be possible. I would do my best to avoid looking at comments on internet forums, which is where the worst of humanity seems to reside, and I would not, to be brief, Feed The Trolls.
People are going to be annoying, usually in a thoughtless, stupid way. Ultimately, the only person over whom you have any real control is yourself, so try to focus on what you like about music rather than what you don't. We'll have snobbishness as long as we have people who are insecure, so pick your battles.

From Congwen Wang
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 4:36 AM
Thank you for your comment. This post is just some of my thoughts, and it wasn't my intention to present only one side of the issue - it's just that I missed the other side, perhaps because I didn't see that often. Thank you for pointing that out. (And I think the occasions you describe is also partially the result of what I was focusing on. When there are so many unreasonable, disrespectful and self-important critiques around, it's easy to overreact whenever there is criticism. Of course, that's something we should try to avoid.)

When I wrote the post, I wasn't thinking about one's musical training. I think what I see in the elitist thoughts is more vicious than that - it's this assumption that only a certain kind of people can (or should) have "good" taste or listen to "good" music.

My concern is that certain listeners may give people who are not familiar with classical music an unwelcome impression, and I think they might intentionally make it that way in order to keep the classical music to the "elitist circle". I think this kind of "possessiveness" or "ownership" is the danger.

If one is open-minded, it's easy to get into classical music. But the problem is, not everyone is (my old self was a good example). And the stuffy, distant image of classical music that some classical listeners try to create and maintain might just close quite some people's minds. And once one determines not to listen, there nothing we can do about it.

I myself certainly wouldn't turn away from classical music just because someone looked down upon my violin hero (thanks Laurie for bringing up this title lol); I don't mind being the "yahoo", anyway. But for listeners who are just at the door of classical music, who are not yet sure about their commitment, the attitude of the classical music listeners might make all the difference. Imagine that you hear a few Bocelli's songs and really like them, and you think that maybe you should try opera; then all of a sudden, you see those opera listeners' nasty comments about Bocelli "being a disgrace", how would you feel? I personally wouldn't feel too encouraged to listen to opera, really. You see, for some potential listeners, this might just be the missed window. That's what I find unsettling.

I hope this clarifies some of my thoughts. And thank you again for your comment.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 5:51 AM
Well I can't advise you to stay away from Internet forums, I run one! But you all seem to be expressing yourselves with clarity and respect. SO FAR! ;)
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 1:35 PM
Jacob, thanks for that very interesting, balanced, and informative response! That advice, to read for content rather than tone, is some of the most useful I've heard. And it's not just for internet forums.

You write,
"I do not believe that anyone, regardless of how rudely they are condescended to, would walk away from music forever after having the kind of meaningful experience that you described . . . I consider it a stretch to imagine a scenario in which someone listens to a performance, likes it and expresses this enjoyment, is told off for daring to have opinions, and is so traumatized by this telling off that classical music is forever tarnished, that Joshua Bell is somehow associated with "ariel," and that this happens so often that it is really turning people away from classical music."

Here I partially disagree. I think you're right that very few would walk away from classical music *forever* based on being treated rudely and condescendingly. But I think that children and adolescents, because their opinions about music and about the people who make music are still being formed, could be affected negatively by such treatment in ways that would potentially last lifelong.

I trained as a scientist and work in science and there is a lot of discussion in the field about keeping young people (especially girls) engaged in science once they hit their teens. Among people who care about this issue, there is a distinct impression that kids start out curious and excited about science when they are in elementary school, and then when they hit middle and high school, participation drops off and science is no longer considered "cool." There is yet more attrition in college and beyond. And there have been studies that cite negative attitudes, stereotypes, and the attitudes of other scientists, as major factors in why people leave science. Kids get weeded out. And as a consequence there are major initiatives to keep kids engaged, to make science more fun, more hip, more relevant. Some of these initiatives are more successful than others.

I only base this on my anecdotal observations, but I see a similar phenomenon happen in music. The elementary school string program at my kids' school is huge. The middle school string program is smaller, the high school's is yet smaller. Sure there are a lot of factors in play there that cause kids to quit. But I think the phenomenon that the OP is talking about is one of those factors. If kids have bad teachers and/or bad experiences in any subject--science, history, music--it can impact their trajectory in that subject for years to come. I have an acquaintance who is a chemistry professor, and people (inevitably non-chemists) regale him all the time with tales of how much they hated chemistry in high school.

They might come back to it in adulthood, with maturity and a different perspective. Lots of people do that, and that's all to the good. But I think the stakes are particularly high in classical music. If you step off the professional track as an adolescent (or are pushed), unlike some other fields, there is really no way back on.

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 3:07 PM
Karen: I agree. I saw it in jr high where one teacher singlehandedly ruined pretty much my whole class's appreciation for literature. If something is not cool in 8th grade, it's pretty hard to get it back.

Re: Jared and the other side: I think your comment about objective criticism is good. I also think there's a different approach that can be taken generally: Sure, we can recognize that a lot of the "crossover" stuff is maybe a little fluffy. But why be arrogant and dismissive when we could use it as a bridge--Hey, you know that Josh Bell guy? Check out this link...this recording...try going to this concert with me...hey, have you ever listened to Heifetz...etc.! I read a fabulous article (and I'm on my phone so I won't be able to find and link, but I think it was on rd.com) about Einstein of all people introducing Bach to a young man who thought he hated music. One layer at a time, opening the doors. Will have to find that and post later; I think you guys would appreciate it.

From enion pelta
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 9:09 PM
Interesting Discussion . Congwen, you are a good writer - maybe you should go for Norman lebracht's job. Though it would be a shame to have someone who loves music so shamelessly working as a music critic....
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on May 4, 2012 at 10:14 PM
lol
From Elizabeth Kilpatrick
Posted on May 7, 2012 at 11:26 AM
My two cents! Very good writing. I love it when a show like DWTS or something similiar will branch out and include or feature a well-known classical musician. I think it shows that classical music is not as over-looked in this generation as it might seem. It also exposes a group of people to classical music that might not have given it a second thought before! Anyways...just my thoughts - I think some one else already touched on some of them.
@Kathryn, I also saw the article about Einstein and Bach - that was incredible.

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