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Are `classical` musicians snobs?

December 6, 2009 at 1:28 AM


well, as global warming continues to mess up the seasons and the environment here in Japan I have learnt to expect the unexpected.  A hitherto unknown occurrence in my organic broccoli ,  fresh delivered to my door every week.  They actually contained almost no broccoli florets ,  about ten happy looking caterpillars and an awful lot of caterpillar poo.

A very intriguing discussion these last few days on snobbery stimulated by Mr. Bell`s Doodling after the Brahms compels me to write a looney blog with a strong position.   Will the last person to be offended turn off the lights as they leave the room please.

Are classical musicians snobs?

Unequivocally not as far as I am concerned.   There are instances when we may be guilty of snobbery ,  but the behaviour is not the person.  Such instances I feel most strongly are 1)  where a `classical` player denigrates another musical form as lesser and requiring less skill or talent  2)   claiming certain genres of classical music are inferior to others as a blanket criticism while ignoring the context and or purpose for which they were written and 3)  denigrating of dismissing beginners (either children or adults) as not being worthy of attention.  I am sure there are a few more but those are the ones that I personally consider the most worthy of the accusation. 

But, how do I support the view that the  behaviour is not the person ,  and that such instances are not representative of classical players as a whole.  Frankly,   I base it on my personal experience.   With the obvious caveat that all human beings are different and more or less sociable I find classical musicians friendly,  helpful,  supportive and open minded. This may not stretch to spending weekends at blues gigs,  having as many blue grass recordings as those of Oistrakh and so forth but this is a limitation of the job/art rather than genuine snobbishness.   While striving to keep an open mind to all,   one cannot just let go of one`s own art,  whatever it is,  and there are fewer harder or more time consuming taskmasters than classical music training.  One can quite reasonably make this statement without the implication that other forms or skills are lesser.  Simpler is often more throughout all fields  of human endeavour.

So how does this relate to oft cited examples of `snobbishness` such as wearing concert attire of a formal kind, frowning on clapping between movements,  not playing `accessible` or children friendly music or whatever?

For my answer to these reasonable criticisms I would look at society in general.  On the whole,  there are very few people in the developed world (actually a racist,  certainly snobbish term) who are relatively sane;)!   And I do mean to suggest that the gap between the clearly insane (according to definitions that may in themselves be highly inaccurate) and the majority of us is -very narrow indeed.-   One argument in support of this is simply to look around at the world we have created which is racing towards self destruction of our own species.  The fact that we all know and feel deeply war is wrong,  violence is wrong and somehow we manage to let it happen etc. etc.   This is both a consequence and an action working in a vicious circle that we have manged to create and feed.   

It affects people drastically and the insanity I refer to is basically a kind of endless noise,  for want of a better description, going on in our heads,  both from external and internal causes.  Another way to look at it is imagine a TV remote control that has got a mind of its own and shifts randomly three times a second between channels.  As a result we have less and less ability to focus on one thing;  to strive for understanding;  to explore and most of all -appreciate- others or even actually love other people (hence the unending cycles of violence). No where is this more profoundly demonstrated to me than in the huge percentage of children being fed drugs such as Ritalin (until they graduate to Prozac) just to keep some semblance of educational structure or happening in those things called schools.

Classical music and musicians have a role to play in all this. We are exponents of an art and this art has parameters.  One may well become more skillful, knowledgeable or insightful about this art by studying and performing blue grass but it doesn`t alter the fact that that is a different art with different parameters,  intentions and so forth.  In order for classical music to retain its function as an art it needs to retain its somewhat formal role.   But one should not mistake the formality for snobbery.  It is a -signal- of intent to the mind if you will.  The mind of bothe the performer and the listener who are essentially one anyway.   The statement it is making is `we are now entering a particular world together,  you as the listener  and me as the performer.`  At the end you and I may well be united in harmony and feeling or love but this is only possible in this art through certain roles or a making ready.  We can only find sumikiri (stillness in movement)  by going through certain procedures which serve to gently take us away from our crappy job,  two hour drive to work and miserable relationship or whatever.  That is what we are seeking to do together.  And where our job has certain demands that we hope achieve this purpose your role as listener and  partner  has certain gentle demands too.  One of them is to leave the outside world at the  door.  This is not a soccer game where one stands and cheers every great play.  There is no need to stand up and clap between movements unless genuinely compelled to do such a thing and the difference between a fake ovation and a real one is very clear.   And yes,  attending a concert is a time to do something we the insane find harder and harder.

To actually be silent.  

To not comment on things to one`s neighbour because we are conditioned by the endless chatter of talk shows,  and frenetic noise of the outside world.  And yes,  tough though it may be,  if you have a cough then don`t go.   To make such a sacrifice may be both an emotional and financial blow of great magnitude. But by actually showing respect for the stillness of mind of others (and preventing the spread of  illness) one has also grown in some way that is quite tangible.   

Perhaps the weekend vote should be `Are classical musicians snobs?

Time for some prunes I think,


From Alison S
Posted on December 6, 2009 at 10:31 AM

To the question "Are classical musicians snobs?" I would answer, "No more or less than any other group of musicians". 

For example some folk musicians get very uppity if you ask for the written notes, then they will helpfully point you to something like this:

X: 1
T: Wind That Shakes The Barley, The
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
R: reel
K: Dmaj
A2AB AFED|B2BA BcdB|A2AB AFED|gfed Bcde|
|f2fd g2ge|f2fd Bcde|f2fd g2fg|afed Bcde|
f2fd g2ge|f2fd Bcde|f2ae g2be|afed BcdB|

Now that's not written notation. No really, it isn't.

(Shhhhhhhhh, I don't want to complain too much because I can actually read it). 

Posted on December 6, 2009 at 1:30 PM

See full size image

oh, I have met my share of violin players whose excrement must be made by Channel. (I save the term violinist for Stern, Milstein, etc). These uppity, ego-maniacs can be spotted a mile away. Are they good players, of course...but are they the big frog in the small pond...also, of course

From Royce Faina
Posted on December 6, 2009 at 1:29 PM

I may have missed it.  But a short story comes to mind as an illustration.  Whether it is of my own creation or Aesop, I cannot say at this time.

The Rock, The Tree, & the Clump of Grass.

Basically a tree & a clump of grass were growing out of a crag (crack) in a boulder (You see this here in Wyoming).  Both the tree & the grass made sport of the rock, saying it was a snob since it did not dance extaticly with the wind.  It just lied there.  The rock was content enjoying the songs of nature, etc.  Again the tree & grass said that it should loosen up and move with natural forces and air that surounds them (The same rain and wind erroding the crack and the ground arround the rock).  Well, the rock did move, and when it shifted due to those forces it split in two and both the tree & clump of grass fell out and died!

Buri- Much more than usual to think about with this current Blogg!


PS: At Sam- I have had a fly in my soup, but a frog in my's a first! LOL!!!

From Anna Meyer
Posted on December 6, 2009 at 3:24 PM

I am quite impresed by your blog Buri. To answer your question whether classical musicians are snobs: A few rotten apples wreck the whole box! I know great profesionals who are very much down to earth and could never be accused of being snobs but I also know of others whose snobbery one can sniff out instantly. So to me most classical musicians are not snobs, we just like our music :)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 6, 2009 at 7:18 PM

I agree with Anna!   A few rotten apples is what we think of first and this is why we forget the non snob ones!  (also some people aren't able to be marry formality with accessibility) You can actually speak to your audience even if you don't talk... They can guess your personnality from your acting on stage!

Sometimes, you see from a mile away (as to steel Sam's expression!) when a snob performer is comming on stage.  You also see from a mile away when a guenine performer is comming on stage and by guenine I do not necessarely mean super talented (can be a normal student who just really tries to do its very best) 

(I personnally think very much) that you can see all this just in the face and eyes of the person, the way he she looks to the conducteur and the other musicians if it's with an orchestra, the way a snobby might look all around to be sure everyone is looking at him/her, the way one smiles (from the heart or in an artificial way) Sure, everyone looks like angels with violins in their hands but I still think you usually "feel it" by the attitude and playing of the person!  Funny that our society tends to produce little princes and princesses (along with artificial values) used to beeing the center of attention nowadays though and you see more and more of these in the classical field as well as in the other fields.   


But this is an educationnal and social issue! But yes, we often forget the non snob ones because we just see those who are snob.  



From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 2:02 AM

I feel snobbery coming from many classical musicians who devalue nonclassical music, the skill required to play it well, and the people who enjoy and/or play it.  There have been many examples of such snobbery published here on, but I won't name names.

I also feel snobbery from many nonclassical musicians about classical music and those who play it.  A lot of nonclassical musicians believe that anyone who can read music can not feel music.

BTW, I addressed the same issue in my blog of Nov. 3, 2009.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 6:29 AM

I hope my response was not too late to be read as the previous ones probably did. If a tree felled in the woods but absolutely no one heard the 'thump", did it actually make a sound?

Anyway, terms like ‘snob’ and ‘elite’ often mean nothing more than name-callings, whether it’s justified or not. In a world full of junk and anything goes, snobs are endangered spices and in need of protection. I’m always like to speak for the underrepresented, so I’ll say, be proud of yourself if you were called a snob!  Ask yourself why you are feeling so insecure that you have to call someone a snob?

I am a food snob and I’m proud of it. I have innate ability and talent to discriminate a dish of excellence from an ordinary one.  There are certain ways of eating certain type of food – the kind of procedure and formality directly affect one’s gourmet experience. If you don’t care about what is that you are eating and how you are eating this dish that I carefully prepared or chose for you, I don’t want to dine with you very often, if at all.

I’m proud of being a classical music snob, if it means I stick to certain artistic and technical standards and procedures, if it means I show great respect to excellence within this particular tradition, and if it means I get irked terribly when seeing people being disrespectful or insensitive to the delicacy and hardworking of classical musicians and their fine work. A little bit of snobbery shows we care a lot about something others might not. A little bit snobbery makes the world a better place.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 7:13 AM

Buri, my own experience with growing backyard organic vegetables suggests that caterpillars and aphids only attack the weak plants but leave the health sturdy plants untouched.  In my humble snobbery opinion, a gardener isn’t careful enough to spot a weak plant (and not to sell it!) or does not watch for the worms in the food before selling it is not a very attentive one. But it’s possible that they were only worm eggs or the worms were too small to see at the time of harvest, but then the question is how long the broccolis had been stored before delivered to your place? At any rate, the farmer may want to know how active her little critters have been.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 7:30 AM

 but i don`t want to be a broccoli snob;)

From Bart Meijer
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 12:03 PM

Those worms know what's good for them.

From Brian Lomax
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 3:49 PM

The answer is sometimes. This has nothing to do with clothing or the ability to read music but deals with how you treat others. Many times I have heard classical players put down artists by being intensely critical of performances of even famous artists such as Markov ,Kaplan, or Perlman. One does not promote excellence within oneself by tearing down the efforts of others.  I largely blame teachers for showing this sort of behavior.

This applies to treatment of different genres of music as well. Some classical players consider that any one playing bluegrass or blues must simply be too stupid to play classical.

In fairness, most classical players do not behave in such a manner. I belong to bluegrass circles and most classical people that come around simply view themselves as exploring another facet of their chosen instrument. As stated in an earlier post, one bad apple can leave a bad taste in every one's mouth.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 5:56 PM

Yixi, my father would love you! He's exactly like you for the food!  When the company comes, he his all happy to set rules about which glass to take for x wine and kills them if they eat before drinking wine, a meal is not a meal without rich cheese, butter and the meet must be still red or he'll be very very very dissapointed etc  In addition he can spend half of the day or more to make the meal and choose ingredients...  But you know what it has done to his 3 kids???  It scared us and we don't like much of this (except italian stuff such as pasta, special pizzas, bruchettas mmm!) Me and my siblings find he spens too much time and money on things that will be eaten up anyway and will end (well we all know how and where!).  In addition, we don't find "la bonne bouffe" very healthy ; )  But we respect his food passion as everyone has the right to have his/her passions. I guess practicing like crazy for months for a gig that will last a few minutes is as crazy!!!

Happily, he just does this on weekends and the rest of the week we eat mom's "crock pot" boiled loads of vegetables, soup, cereal bread etc ( In short, violinist diet lol)  so that we can stay thin! 

Just happy to see he's not the only one food "crazy" : ) 

Anne-Marie      (sorry for this off topic post)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 8:27 PM

I haven't experienced most classical musicians being snobs at all--like others have said, there may be a few bad apples, but not more so than anywhere else.  Sometimes I've felt uncomfortable when I'm outside of what seems to be the majority among the people I know.  For example, I'm a musical "mudblood," as Laurie puts it.  I don't come from a musical family.  Neither of my parents plays an instrument now.  My father was forced by his parents to play the clarinet as a child, which he claims to have hated.  And he also claims to be tone-deaf.  So in my family, I've experienced almost the reverse kind of snobbery:  that classical music, and music in general, is somehow "inferior."  I think this just is a kind of defensive reaction--but didn't realize that as a kid.  And then, coming from such an environment into the classical music world is another kind of shock .  Before YouTube and iTunes, it wasn't that easy to get exposed to the "standard repertoire" unless you heard it at home.  I remember more than one awkward conversation in which I was just finding out about some piece that was new and cool to me, but which everyone else thought was passe and boring because they'd already heard it a million times, like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"  or "Ode to Joy."

At this point, I'm pretty happy (and relieved) that most snobs--of any stripe--don't want to have anything to do with me, because I tend not to want to have anything to do with them either.  As far as I'm concerned, life is far too short to waste it getting irked about any of this sort of stuff.  I want my meals, and my music, to be relaxing, forgiving, enjoyable occasions.  Not anxious affairs in which I have to self-consciously worry about what someone else is going to think of me and my taste (or lack thereof).

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 7, 2009 at 9:39 PM

Karen, what you say about the reverse snobery is very interesting! So true that many people who grew up in a non musical family are often seen as the (... artists) when all the rest of the family is scientists for example.  

Very true!


From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on December 8, 2009 at 3:35 AM

I enjoyed reading this blog. I used to be a snob. I am wondering if "used" is the right word (at least, I no longer think of myself as a snob). IMO, the snobby things I would say where just a way to bring down the players I was listening to. I was projecting my own insecurities. Nowadays, I am very careful with my words, and my teacher keeps my ego in check.

Are classical musicians snobs? Buri answered his own question with, "the behaviour is not the person." From my experience, a few act like snobs, but the majority of performers don't act that way. There is just not a good reason to act like a "snob."

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 8, 2009 at 7:53 AM

Bart, worms are not all the same. What Buri got were more likely to be smart cabbage worms rather than caterpillars. Caterpillars don’t know what’s good for them and they give worms a bad name. ~ Yixi the worm snob

Karen, there are fun snobs and boring ones.  I can see you get along quite well with the 1st group.

Anne-Marie, your father sounds like a lot of fun.

From Royce Faina
Posted on December 9, 2009 at 10:04 PM

Mmmmmmm Protine!

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