If They Care, Shouldn't We Listen?

February 25, 2014, 7:22 AM · Last week’s coincidental intersection of Olympic sports and violin playing was notable not just for the novelty of such exposure, but also for the startlingly negative reaction to the news within the classical music community. Just like the clip of Charlie White scratching out a few notes on a violin for Al Roker, the recent news from Sochi about violinist Vanessa Mae’s skiing exploits for the Thailand Olympic team was met by fellow musicians on social media not with support, but with a significant heaping of snark and vitriol.

Charlie White
Olympic gold medalist Charlie White and his violin. Photo via The Today Show, NBC

We musicians are a funny lot. We talk incessantly about "outreach" with missionary fervor, but deep down, we don't really want to reach out. Like shaking hands, that term implies an extension- meeting someone else halfway; a gesture that would require compromise and the capacity to entertain another perspective. Feeling misunderstood and unappreciated by the masses can be lonely and painful, and it's easier to swallow with the protective coating afforded by an air of superiority. I know, because I used to do that a lot. I think we musicians often would rather feel like an elite cognoscenti with the ability to safely snicker at those not "in the know" than to risk the vulnerability implicit in an honest attempt to find common ground with them.

Yes, Charlie White's violin playing is nowhere close to even the most basic entry level professional quality, and is, in itself, not worth being celebrated on-air on NBC. But the young man just won a GOLD medal at the Olympics, and if he wants to use his moment in the sun to demonstrate something else in his life that he's proud of, then hey- good for him. What's the worst thing that could happen? Will people see this clip and believe Mr. White to be as exceptional a violinist as he is an ice dancer? Or they’ll think that rhythmic clapping and some sort of seated Cossack dance is an appropriate way to listen to Vivaldi? Isn't it possible that if one young kid out there saw this on TV and thought, "Hey, maybe violin isn't so lame if this Olympic gold medalist likes to play it" then it might be worth these risks?

Similarly, Vanessa Mae's body of work is not impressive to professional, classically trained musicians, and we often meet her enormous success with resentment and scorn. I’ll admit the little I’ve heard of her music feels like enough for this lifetime, but that’s only because, as a composer and string player myself, I’ve developed enough of an understanding of how and why her music is put together the way it is that I don’t feel the need to explore it further. I think it’s unfair, however, to dismiss it out of hand as worthless to anyone else, as many of my colleagues do- and as I used to do. What, exactly, is so threatening to us about Ms. Mae’s lucrative violin career? Is it that some listeners may assume she is at the pinnacle of violin virtuosity and her music is finely crafted classically based composition? Isn't this initial misunderstanding something we can live with, if it serves as an entry point for just one listener out there who might develop the curiosity to look deeper into the tradition of string instruments and classical music?

And why does it bother us so much that she used skiing for the Thai Olympic team as a way to pursue a lifelong dream and also reconnect with her estranged father? Is it because she flaunted her considerable resources to traipse around the Alps in order to qualify for the Olympics by her pet “Chihuahua’s whisker,” as she, herself, puts it? Isn't this display of opulence tolerable if just one little girl out in the world sees and is inspired by a woman who earned enough money from her violin playing career to follow such a daring dream? And as a side note, isn't it okay to come in dead last in a race, if that race happens to be the Olympics?

There's a TV show in the works on Amazon.com called "Mozart in the Jungle." Guaranteed, it will also be met with a chorus of snickers, groans, and OMGs from our classical community. To be fair, it will probably miss on a lot of details of our line of work that we will find insulting and reductive. But doesn't that happen routinely to trial lawyers, ER doctors, and forensic pathologists? Isn't it possible that getting the small stuff wrong is something we can live with so that those who don't belong to our little club can at least be exposed to the notion that we are real people with rich lives worthy of empathy, behind the caricature of our concert dress?

About a year ago, a member of a major American symphony proudly declared to me to be unaware of the existence of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as if this ignorance was some kind of badge of integrity. I read the comments of another very distinguished musician who zealously proclaimed the emotional impact of a Beethoven or Shostakovich symphony to be far beyond that of any current pop music. Hmmm. Is it possible that such a Eurocentric worldview is somewhat dated and limiting, if not frankly racist? We let out a unison condescending chuckle when anyone misunderstands the minutia of our craft, but then we turn around and say things like "rap isn't music," a phrase I’ve heard more than once by my classical friends. Can anyone who has uttered these words talk intelligently about the history and nuances of that genre for more than 30 seconds?

What exactly are we afraid of? Is it that if we listen honestly and with open minds to hip-hop, hardcore, salsa, top-40, or the musics of other cultures, we'll love Beethoven any less? He's a big guy who has endured a lot over the years, and I think he can also withstand this. Yes, there are many people out there who prefer other music to our own, and would rather keep their headphones on than set foot into a concert hall. What if we attempted to recognize that what they're listening to actually has value and commonality with our music, and that their emotional experience in listening to it is just as valid and not subordinate to our own tastes? If a 16-year old girl gets misty-eyed listening to A Great Big World’s "Say Something” on her car stereo, are her tears any less legitimate than those of a gray-haired concertgoer listening reverently to "Missa Solemnis?”

We’re bringing a masterful boeuf Bourguignon to a potluck, but then we proceed to devour it ourselves without trying anyone else’s dish. Is it possible that "outreach" could extend beyond our effort to educate and prove our value to others, and include a gentle look within our own ranks? We claim to possess the world’s most sophisticated ears, honed from years of training and dedication. Would it hurt to open our minds, our hearts, and these Olympic-caliber ears of ours to make room for all kinds of music, not just the precious tunes we already have in our heads?

Replies

February 25, 2014 at 04:18 PM · I hate violin snobbery. there is a violinist in my town who will not go to hear the state champion fiddler. 'I don't care for that kind of music'. and I think it's great that Charlie White played on the today show. musicians should be well-rounded people, if they can ice skate, that's cool. or if skaters can play music, that's cool too.

I love classical music, but also listen to fiddle music, jazz, most popular music. why limit oneself?

February 25, 2014 at 05:06 PM · Spot on article. One of the greatest nights of virtuosic violin playing I ever heard took place one June not in a fancy concert hall but in a non-descript public school auditorium on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, as one local fiddler after another got up on stage and let loose. No brand names or famous folks, just kids, young adults, folks in their 80's, and so on, one pair of sisters in breathtaking exact unison. I'm classically trained and don't even try to recreate Cape Breton Island fiddling on cello. But I sure did appreciate hearing it.

Joshua Gordon

Lydian String Quartet

Brandeis University

February 25, 2014 at 06:22 PM · I didn't know about the snarking, but I'm not surprised. I agree completely with what you've written here, and thank you for writing it. I cannot see the place for exclusivity regarding 'the universal language'.

February 25, 2014 at 07:42 PM · Greetings,

well the comments on this site were generally positive. You do raise a good point but I do wonder if the majority of violinists really do care one way or another? I think one sees unpleasant remarks because they are outside the norm and the person in question has an agenda to be seen. However, whether this automatically means that a majority of violinists feel that way is much too big a generalization in my book.

I think there is a huge spectrum of opinion here but the people who really begrudge her money and fame are probably relatively few at the end of the day. Some people suggest it is unfair that one of the tools of her success is having a nice body etc. That may be true but classical violinists are equally guilty of that. Look at the latest CD covers...

What does upset some classical violinists is when the level of actual playing ability is directly compared. This is understandable, but at the end of the day why worry about things one cannot change.

the Vanessa Mae`s of this world get where they are by drive, hard work, and intelligence as much as anything else and as long as we recognize those qualities I dont think a little poking fun at the actual playing is that out of order.

Cheers,

buri

February 25, 2014 at 09:19 PM · Great article, and great points all around! I always find the classical snobbery (violinists seem to be particularly drawn to it, unfortunately) immensely frustrating - how can you outright dismiss an entire genre of music, simply because you either don't like it, or worse, don't understand it? And yet, we all lose it when someone states, "Well, I just don't like classical music." But, but, but - it's the foundation of modern music as we know it! Don't you know that your Jay-Z is founded on Mozart's chord progressions (making this up...no idea, but you get the point)! Rather than use this as an opportunity to be educational, or explore the differences (and similarities!) between genres, we shut ourselves off completely from new experiences and therefore continue the image of classical musicians as aloof elitists.

When I was in high school I used to be super judgemental of other violinists; it was less because I was a hypercritical teenager, and more because I was extremely insecure of my own playing and how it fit into the performance world at large. Tearing down other musicians, no matter how accomplished, makes you feel - or at least makes you THINK you feel - like a better musician yourself; "Hey, at least I played the Bruch better than that chick over there - I'm awesome!" Because violin is such a competitive instrument beginning at a relatively early level, it inherently fosters this defense mechanism in younger players: I spent so much more time worrying about how others sounded (especially around audition time), rather than focus on my own playing.

In the case of these two Olympians, I think it's because we need to have SOMETHING to tear them down over; obviously they are tremendously successful at their respective sports, and it's just plain unfair for them to be good musicians, too. Again with the insecurities: it makes us feel better to rip them apart, because otherwise these athletes are just too good at too many things, and it makes us on the other side feel less accomplished. So, we take shots at their accomplishments in lieu of our own.

February 25, 2014 at 10:20 PM · Isn't this article itself a bit condescending?

this quote is what I find irksome:

"Yes, Charlie White's violin playing is nowhere close to even the most basic entry level professional quality, and is, in itself, not worth being celebrated on-air on NBC. "

Not worth celebrating? Isn't that comment exactly what you were pointing out as being the problem with all of the violin community looking down it's nose at such a rude display of amateur violin playing?

Consider the fact that that piece is from Suzuki book 4, right? It takes a considerable amount of effort for any young person to reach that level of violin playing in the first place, yet alone the fact that 99% of his free time must have been devoted to skating practice, the gym, homework, etc.

He didn't sound bad. The piece may be easy for you, but it is not like he scratched out a bad rendition of Twinkle. He played a decent intermediate level piece.

And so it goes....

February 25, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Great article! Unfortunately the very ones that need to hear this message probably won't. I understand why many highly trained players look down on and may even feel threatened by the two Olympic athletes you mentioned. After all when one has spent so many years and so much energy and, yes, money to reach a high pinnacle of expertise it can be unsettling to see someone like Charlie White or Vanessa May lauded for his efforts at violin playing and she for her skiing ability but isn't it nice that they aren't just one dimensional people.

February 25, 2014 at 10:45 PM · Greetings,

sometimes I think we have to be careful not to confuse issues here. Charlie White is a super athlete who clearly takes pleasure in many things and is a lesson to us all. Anybody who mocks what he did is about as small hearted as they come. No sympathy at all for that kind of meanness.

The VM thing is a little more complex. First of all it is not the same as violinists who dismiss other genres. Yes, those people are somewhat narrow minded and do indeed make mistakes about the quality of many of the works those genres produce. It is also very often true that exploring those genres can help a person develop both as a musician and as someone who needs to understand better what it means to communicate to an audience. Its also true that a great deal of rap for example, is devoted to violence against women.

In the case of VM I think the people who whined about her serious and very much in the spirit of the Olympics skiing are just being petty.

however, having listened to her playing a lot of stuff to ensure that I at least vaguely know what I am talking about, I do think there is a violinist's side to the story. Objectively speaking VM is a mediocre player who would probably not get into a high level conservatoire in the US for example. So discussing this as though serious professional violinists are doing down her violinistic ability out of jealousy may be off the mark. It may indeed be extremely galling for talented professionals who through no fault of their own are struggling to make a living and then hear VM described as a world class player. She isn't even close.

However, she is clearly a very smart lady who has a great talent for presenting what she has in the best possible light . basically she arranges stuff so that at no point does her violin playing weaknesses become obvious. IE she plays the opening of caprice 24 on electric violin and then covers the variations with loud guitar and tap dancing. Or when it looks like she has to play faster in a Bach Tocata a massive organ sound suddenly enters the room. There is absolutely nothing wrong with her creating shows like this that give a lot of people pleasure and if she makes a mint in the process it is well deserved. She ism in my book, extremely talented and creative, just not on the violin as a classical instrument.

So let's try and be fair in not ridiculing her achievements in a world where women are not always given a fair shot, people are discriminated for or against by their looks. But at the same time please don't paint all classical musicians with the brush of prejudice or automatically assume that they don't occasionally have reasons behind what they say.

Cheers,

Buri

February 26, 2014 at 12:20 AM · Thank you so, so much for starting a V.com blog! I'm sure it'll be greatly appreciated by Portland violists and fans... or at least me.

It's refreshing to read these types of articles in a world so full of elitism. I'm so guilty of snobbery that I've dug myself into of a hole of pretending that I actually listen to indie pop to seem like less of a snob to certain friends while denying any appreciation I have for "lighter music" in PYP. Why do we have music in the first place? Is it not for communicationand enjoyment? Certainly, I feel that the more people who can communicate through music and enjoy it, the better. That's what outreach is, and most of all, that is what music is for.

February 26, 2014 at 05:57 AM · Historically, the world operated on class structure and social exclusivity. That was broken down by world wars, the Beatles, and mass education in the 20th century, and now, in the early 21st century, social inclusivity underpins all modern teaching, learning and intercultural literacy. But classical music structures seem to still subscribe to exclusive ways, such as orchestra leadership leaning toward the dictatorial, or studying the violin being only for the elusive talented, and subjective back room dealings deciding who wins or works and who doesn’t. The classical music world remains a bastion of snobbish subjective exclusivity still-trying-to-hold-on as the rest of the progressive thinking world integrates into the socially escalating curve of inclusivity.

Shinichi Suzuki brought violin playing out of its exclusive domain to the masses. He told the world that anyone who could learn their mother tongue was capable of learning to play the violin. Suzuki’s then-radical idea may have been the first mass act of inclusivity in the classical teaching world and still, it continues to meet with heavy fires of criticism largely from the ‘traditional’ guard for its lack of exclusivity.

I don’t know if Charlie is part of Suzuki’s inclusive classical music culture or not, but somewhere, he learned to celebrate an extraordinary moment with others by playing music, and truly, how can anyone complain about such a beautiful intention? Charlie played on NBC not to compete or oust or judge, but to share his joy with the world through art. What a refreshing, beautiful demonstration of heartfelt, populist inclusivity.

February 26, 2014 at 07:12 PM · I'll tell you what to be afraid of: Your jobs. Popular music trends, generally speaking, are not inclusive of your craft. This is what spawns the "snobbery". On the few occasions traditional instruments are included, the parts are somewhat akin to muzak. We need to bridge the gap between bands or dj's that sample classical music and ensembles that cover pop music. Be a band leader.

February 26, 2014 at 07:15 PM · Outreach doesn’t mean lower the artistic standards, nor does it mean we have to dumb down the artistry to replace technical and musical excellence with commercial tricks in order to attract the uninitiated. I think what serious musicians, whether classically trained or otherwise, should be very afraid of just such tendency displayed in VM’s works.

It is easy to point to jealousy among her critics, too easy perhaps. Many probably share your view that her work didn’t compel us to explore further after we’ve heard a little. Surely we can appreciate why some have reacted to such substandard display in a way that might be a bit stronger?

A more difficult question is how to reach out without compromising excellence? Last night I watched a holocaust documentary called “Defiant Requiem (2012)”, an extraordinarily moving story about Jewish inmates in the Nazi concentration camp (Terezin) performed Verdi's Requiem fifteen times as a way to express dignity and defy against Nazi’s cruelty and horrors. One of the survivors said that it was the most civilized moment she felt in her whole life.

It also reminded my own childhood during the Mao’s regime in the Communist China when we had to listen to Western classical music by putting our ears next to the gramophone turntable without using the speakers in fear of the neighbors ears and tongues, and of course the persecution. We risked our safety to do so nevertheless because we rightly believed then that Western classical music was one of the greatest achievements in human history, and life would be meaningless without it. Thirty years later after I have more direct exposure to this genre, I believe even more strongly that Western classical music is the single greatest achievement in human history that it has lifted us above the human circumstances and has given us nothing but excellence, beauty, good and spirituality.

While Eurocentric worldview is limited, just as many other worldviews are, it saddens me to see people have all the access to the finest classical music works but tosses it away and embraces lower quality products. It may be cool to be progressive, but remember that Bach was considered to be conservative at his time and we all know where he stands today and probably hundreds years afterwards.

February 26, 2014 at 09:15 PM · Very thought provoking -- thank you for posting.

If a person is a snob or elitist at heart, it comes through. One reason I strongly feel that the stuffy snobbery surrounding classical music, or Western fine art music, is hard to break, is that a lot of classical musicians talk down to -- and play down to -- their audiences. The attitude seems to be: "Here I am, you lucky -- and, oh, so VERY ignorant -- people."

Even if they all wore denim jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps, as I do, instead of tuxes -- and practiced and played in empty gyms, unused locker rooms, and garages, as I like to do for the reverb -- that wouldn't dispel the snobbery.

From a very young age, I've liked many music genres -- classical, country, Big Bands, 50s-era oldies, some Far Eastern. Bottom line: A piece I will like is one that strikes a chord with me -- it appeals to my soul and aesthetic sense. I don't have to understand it at first hearing. But there's enough of a hook to make me want to hear it again.

"Is it possible that such a Eurocentric worldview is somewhat dated and limiting, if not frankly racist?"

Dated and limiting? Quite possibly. But racist? A lot of people get race and culture mixed up. They're not one and the same. The first, we're born with. The second, we acquire. Music genres, like languages, aren't ethnic or racial characteristics.

Two cases in point: All the German-Americans -- and Germans -- who don't play Bach and Beethoven and Wagner -- and all the Asian-Americans -- and Asians, for that matter -- who do play this music. Or all the Hispanic-Americans who don't speak Spanish -- and all the Anglo-Americans who do speak it.

February 26, 2014 at 11:45 PM · Nice Job, Kenji--great writing. Wrapping oneself in a narrow world in which one has controlling expertise is very human--and at times very destructive.

Gordon Noel

Portland Oregon and Phnom Penh Cambodia

February 27, 2014 at 07:18 PM · I totally agree with you, are we really that snobbish that we can't have a little bit of FUN with the violin, do we all have to be professional standard?! Surely violin playing and classical music/modern music/ Jazz/folk are for everyone to enjoy at what ever level of understanding you bring to it.

I think this also links with a major issue (particularly in the UK) with class and learning an instrument. There is very little, and mostly no, funding for instrumental lessons, so the working classes just don't get an opportunity. Classroom music in schools is usually teaching 30 students, so what hope there of teaching the violin or any other orchestral instrument? Sadly it has become an elitist hobby for the rich. I wonder how many students studying to become professional musicians are from working class backgrounds?

funkyviolins

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