Lately I’ve been wondering if it is worth the mental and financial struggle, as well as the hours of physical dedication, of being a musician. The worship of sensationalism and fame, which is not only connected with established musicians but also with all that is young and new, that we have cultivated in our modern classical music society seems to go against the essence of music. Although legends like Heifetz were also once deemed as „prodigies“, what we celebrate are the mature performances and recordings, as well as his contributions to society by sharing his experiences with younger musicians. We don’t spend hours listening to a seven-year-old Heifetz, and though some would do so if given the chance, we wouldn’t prefer those recordings over those made in his prime. Now we all seem to be glued to the latest “discoveries” made on the internet of technically precocious teens, yet placing little emphasis on whether the performers develop an artistic persona, a depth of emotional character or refinement in taste. As long as young artists can technically play better than some, or as long as they can produce a “different and interesting” interpretation, they are deemed geniuses. Due to misinformation, many people now believe that musical talent depends solely on the popular adage “40 hours of practice a day”:
Do we look further for the individual qualities which we loved in the masters of old, which not only take talent and practice to develop, but also the invaluable life experience which made each artist so personal and special?
Music should not only be a medium for expressing our innermost emotions, but also a form of giving back to society. Yet when asked what they want to be when they grow up, most young musicians reply either “soloist”, “concertmaster/principal in a renowned orchestra”, or a “chamber musician who plays with famous artists”.
We place so much importance on these few career options that anything else, such as teaching and playing in non-leadership positions (especially in relatively unknown institutions) is deemed as Plan Bs to produce income for those who were not “talented or successful” enough to “make it in the industry”. As soon as musicians get to an age and stage where they become preoccupied with their “careers”, one rarely sees relaxed and spontaneous music-making between friends purely for the reason of sharing music together and spreading joy to audiences. I have seen many youngsters evaluate the “prestige” of either the venue, the organizers of the concert and even their colleagues, before assessing whether they would like to play in a concert or not: The program and the repertoire are virtually not of consideration to some youngsters, as long as the concerts “sell”.
In terms of giving back, some soloists and conductors create much-needed foundations (which is very much appreciated), whereas others only post the occasional masterclass (where a student probably plays once for the maestro in their lifetime) - and this is deemed enough by their adoring fans.
Where is the appreciation for the actual front-line of teachers and educators who struggle to make a living while nurturing love for music in a new generation? Who raises the next generation of (hopefully) concert goers who are the basis of these stars’ careers? With well-placed connections, financial backing and suitable marketing strategies, any reasonably good musician can become a hype, though by no means will they become an enduring and respected musician. Do we still value the learning of human qualities of patience, generosity and responsibility that creates not only a well-known musician, but a good person and pedagogue, who does not just create “results”, but passes on a love of classical music?
Because we foster a cutthroat environment that values technique over more human qualities in music, it is no wonder that few pursue classical music for enjoyment and instead turn to other forms like pop for recreational listening (which is what concerts essentially are). The learning of an instrument is no longer a way to develop one’s character and to learn to create music together, but a highly demanding task that requires excellence from a young age and constant comparison to those who are considered more technically “talented”. Because we no longer foster enough true music-lovers, many modern classical audiences go along with the latest hypes: whichever name happens to be promoted at the moment in the big concert halls or whichever artist can play with a good tone and better technique.
They no longer look for performances that can touch them, but rather for performances that don’t bore them.
Competitions become the main way to deem which artists are considered worthy of attention, as audiences are slowly becoming less capable and willing to search for less familiar names and to understand what truly touches them in classical music. Until a couple of decades ago, prizewinners with truly captivating personalities, like Martha Argerich and Grigory Sokolov, became the next generation of legends. Yet now, competitions also choose their winners based on sensationalism: A competitor’s internet and social media presence, as well as how popular they are prior to the competition, can even influence the outcome due to online voting and the possible backlash of netizens, in addition to many competitions’ dependence on their online communities. As a result, some prizewinners are chosen to go on to top billing careers not for their playing, but for their connections: Other musicians can win dozens of top prizes but be forgotten quickly as soon as the next edition of winners come along.
In our digitalized age, we worship appearances, views and popularity, yet neglect the humanity behind those facades. Whenever we see a “good” player online, we instantly think that this one performance is the whole of their artistic ability. Some people go viral just for their playing in one video or of one piece. Vice versa, when someone plays badly, we immediately judge them by this one performance and they go viral for the opposite reasons - we never stop to think if this person could actually be a consummate artist, who just happened to have a bad day.
We don’t love the artist anymore but the performance: So many people have thousands of views online, but what do we know of their artistry beyond what is posted there on the internet? We judge instantly and harshly, and very rarely do we take the time to search and listen to potential new favorites because we judge if they are “good” or not immediately by looking at their number of views, and then comparing the similarity of their playing to artists we know, right from the first few notes. Ten views on a video doesn’t mean the playing is worse. Just because someone sounds different from Perlman doesn’t mean they are “wrong”. Just because someone won a prize in the Tchaikovsky competition doesn’t mean only they are the best at playing Tchaikovsky (or anything else for that matter), and that their interpretation is more “correct” than someone who won a prize at a differently named competition, or someone who didn’t win any prizes at all. To truly appreciate artists, we have to learn to disregard the facades and get right down to the actual question of whether the artist touches one emotionally. This is a matter of pure taste, as it is in all other subjective arts, but just as there are infinite possibilities in personal taste, there can be infinite numbers of artists whom one can learn to love, instead of the limited options we have when we judge solely by what and who we see in articles and advertisements on social media. When we judge performances based on what touches us, there can also be a more diverse market for classical musicians: Instead of an Eurocentric idea of taste, musicians of all races can be promoted equally - perhaps a young artist of non-Caucasian race might interpret some classical standard in a way that touches a listener on the other side of the globe, who will no longer judge solely whether the interpretation is more “traditional” or if the playing is more “correct” based on name-recognition or how “famous” the performer is.
Most importantly, it is vital that we change the classical music environment for the mental health of our younger generation of musicians. Especially during times of lockdown, where one’s time is mostly spent online, we are harming young musicians with our hero- and prodigy-worship. Whereas a lockdown could be construed as a time of innovation and outreach, most young musicians focus instead on gaining enough likes and prominence to compete on social media platforms: Who would do otherwise when as soon as one opens a popular social media channel, one sees the latest “winners and grinners” and the thousands of likes and views garnered by other teens given opportunities (over many other just as deserving musicians due to the ability of sensationalism to fill halls) to play concerts with big names in the industry and famous orchestras?
Those who do focus on outreach and giving back during times like this fail to receive the same amount of online visibility, due to our preoccupation with sensationalism. Yet, does viewing the latest personal achievements of so-called prodigies do more good to society, or learning about and supporting an actual program that gives lessons to underprivileged children?
Going on to the content of most online videos, when one speaks in terms of listening to music during times of pandemic, we generally want music that inspires and heals.
Does listening to recordings from artists like Christian Ferras and Ivry Gitlis touch and inspire one more, or the latest video of a high-speed Caprice? The latter mostly inspires only because of the supposed virtuosity, and most people feel awe as a result. Some prefer the latter simply because it doesn’t require one to give the same amount of emotional input as when listening to a true interpretation of art: Due to digitalization, our attention spans have shortened and we mostly just “like” and scroll by. However, as musicians we should understand better than anyone else that being in awe at technique/theatrical flair is not the same as being individually touched by a personal interpretation of a piece, and that the aim of classical music is much higher than the number of likes or the flashiness of a piece.
Classical music should not be a vehicle for shallow and sensationalist values. It should not teach children self-doubt, due to constant comparison and preferences in treatment to those who are considered more “ talented” in a traditional sense. It should not teach young musicians that the only standard to success is by becoming famous, and that fame is more important than actual quality.
Music should teach them to discover just how original and expressive they can be; to learn to see the beauty in simple structures; to be able to feel and identify an incredible range of emotion in a way that others can also relate to. Being a musician should teach them that the arts are subjective, and therefore personal success in the arts should be measured by fulfillment and not by fame and prizes (ego), different to the way that success in standard jobs can be measured by points, seniority, promotions and awards. It should teach them that one can learn something from everybody, instead of teaching them to judge harshly in attempts to avoid being judged themselves.
Music should teach children that if things go their way, they should not rest on their laurels or their prizes, but to continue along a lifelong path of self-improvement.
And when things don’t go their way, young musicians should know that rather than being marked by supposed “failure”, these experiences are more valuable than any material prizes, and that due to the personal growth which such experiences bring, one can walk out of this as a stronger person and an infinitely more expressive artist, due to the wider range of emotions that one can now connect and relate to.
Music should teach all musicians to feel pride in a profession where we can personally change lives through our creations: Being a musician is not just any job, but a way of life that has been won through discipline, inner strength and which results in infinite possibilities of creativity and expression. At the end of the day, if one can still love music and being a musician, despite all the challenges which it entails, it is proof that one is strong enough to survive almost everything.
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