Informal poll about negative/positive culture of classical music community

April 30, 2023, 6:40 PM · I'm curious what everyone's experience with the culture surrounding the classical music world, whether as a musician or an enjoyer. Prior to college, I almost always found other violinists my age to be snobby and judgmental at All-State and other Honors ensembles. When I went to a public university to study music, my perspective completely changed. Besides a few pompous outliers, musicians here are only focused on becoming better performers and educators and would rather lift up their peers than compete with them or bring them down. That being said, I still have negative experiences. Sometimes musicians try to gossip with me and make fun of less experienced or knowledgeable people in the music world. Other times, as someone who lacked basically any music education outside of private violin lessons (rural, small towner here) I personally am made to feel inept or like an outsider by fellow musicians.
I want to know what other's perspectives of the classical music culture is. As an educator, I am passionate about ending the stigmas around classical music. I believe that beginners should be made to feel welcome and that anyone can begin to learn an instrument if they wish. I try to convince parents and students that this music isn't stuffy or elitist. I genuinely feel that we as a community are making strides towards becoming more inclusive and relevant in today's world. However, sometimes I go down the rabbit hole of reading comments on classicfm's Instagram posts, or even some threads on this site, and wonder if the classical music truly is a lost cause, full of too many people unwilling to change. Has anyone else had similar experiences to mine, positive or negative?

Replies (15)

Edited: April 30, 2023, 7:45 PM · I think you can find both good and bad in every place. Really competitive markets can drive gossip and cliquishness, there is a lot of marketing going on that is really subtle, and sometimes people just make up parts of their resume. Some teachers can become important or have connections that others don't, and so all the ambitious students flock to them, even though they may not actually be the best teachers. There are so many absolutely talented musicians that never really get a chance to make much of a career. Ambitious parents are annoying and can push their kids too hard and gossip. You also hear about certain important personalities being abusive for years before the news gets out.

With that said, a lot of people just want to make music and minimize the necessary politics. Ultimately, there are a lot of people, at the professional and at the amateur level, that want to make beautiful things and that want to use music as a great way to connect with others and find meaning in their lives. I think that people are generally on this website simply because they think music is beautiful and meaningful. You can try and steer clear of the gossipy or abusive circles and try and connect with the really sincere people; if it seems like everyone around you is really catty and obnoxious, it might look really different once you meet people in other circles. I promise that there are a lot of wonderful people that are deeply dedicated to all the higher values that music and art are about, but almost everyone is ultimately some mix of the pure love of the music and the need to engage in politics to do so.

The best thing you can do is to find a community that supports you in being vulnerable enough to put your art out there, and the more you have that community, the deeper you can go into what matters, and then other people will start to see it too. Playing music that was composed a long time ago has certain conservative assumptions built in, but it's a big world out there, and music holds a lot of people; just not a lot of them are going to get rich from it.

Edited: April 30, 2023, 10:01 PM · I suspect a lot of the toxic behavior in elite youth orchestras and high school honors ensembles is mostly an extension of the upper-middle-class suburban college admissions rat race. Kids from that background tend to make up an overwhelming majority in high school All-State ensembles, and things like tiered ensembles and ranked seating only make the hyper-competitiveness in that culture worse. (And it's not about getting into music schools... many of those kids will never play another note after graduating from high school.) Also, they often take the privilege of starting private lessons at early ages for granted, because in their musical activities they tend to be surrounded mostly by other kids from the same upper-middle-class suburban background.

That can also spill over to teachers in affluent communities. I moved to an affluent US suburb in middle school after 9 years in the Middle East, and when I was trying to start lessons as a teenager, every teacher my parents asked said I was already too old to learn a string instrument and it would be almost impossible to learn even the basics at that age. The school district didn't bother with beginner string programs at all, and treated its orchestra programs more like competitive sports than educational programs.

On the other hand, my experience as an adult amateur has generally been much more positive. Until I was finally able to find a teacher and take lessons in my 30s, I mostly learned violin and viola by playing in community orchestras and getting pointers from more skilled musicians who were willing to help a self-taught late starter contribute a little more. Although community orchestras aren't totally immune to toxic behavior (I've been in two community orchestras with unpleasant social dynamics), it seems far less prevalent.

I also think the culture may be changing. Most of the string teachers I've encountered in recent years have at least a few adult students. Adult beginner ensembles, which were virtually nonexistent until the 1990s, have become much more common in the last 15-20 years.

April 30, 2023, 9:39 PM · On the high school situation, I think some of that is the insecurity and and clique-ism of that age and some of it is likely related to class/culture. At my kids' school there's a sense from the strings players that the choir kids are "no skill" and the band is pretty rocky. The orchestra has multiple kids who play in competitions and can solo beautifully. The demographics of all three groups are surprisingly different. I think this is because with violin there is a much higher barrier to entry (teacher, instrument, starting age, camps, etc.).

I think some of classism/elitism carries into adulthood, but my sense of this group is that it surprisingly friendly and there are a wide range of people who just want to encourage violin love. It still heavily leans classical but not in an oppressive way. I think people genuinely want to help everyone improve.

April 30, 2023, 10:03 PM · Those types of negative exchanges say more about the individuals, than about the genre of classical music.

In any context, I avoid people who demonstrate that level of shallowness.

April 30, 2023, 11:12 PM · In the professional world, colleagues who gossip, backstab, or are otherwise unpleasant, tend to be called for fewer gigs. Thankfully such people are a minority.
May 1, 2023, 5:04 AM · I can honestly say that here in NC, in any all-state or ensemble situation, we have never run across anyone being snobby, judgemental, elitist, or whatever. As a group, high school classical musicians here are about the nicest bunch of people you will meet. I agree with what others have said about teen immaturity and insecurity in the context of hyper-competitive music and school cultures.
May 1, 2023, 6:51 AM · I agree with Andrew, that a lot of this comes from the high school rat race. Ironically, I have not seen this much at all at the very high levels, where the kids are amazing and likely going into music. They tend to be very supportive of each other. They would much rather hang out and play chamber music than be snobby with each other.

On the other hand, it is rampant in my daughter's youth symphony and at places you find good but not great students, like region orchestra or all state and even orchestra-based camps.

Edited: May 1, 2023, 10:45 AM · Thanks for the very insightful responses! As someone partway through their musical journey, it's refreshing to hear that it seems like the snobby-ness tends to lessen as you get into higher levels. I try not to involve myself in any community that makes people feel ostracized, and as someone who has chosen to dedicate my life to learning violin, it makes me wonder if I am part of the problem. After looking over some comments and reviewing my own experiences, it seems to me like the people in my life who really know their stuff (college professors, professional orchestra players, soloists, etc.) rarely, if ever, exhibit these negative behaviors that portray classical music as elitist and classist.
May 2, 2023, 8:51 AM · I don' think my daughter has encountered a lot of snobbishness at her music camps. At Kinhaven they rotate principals in the orchestras, etc., for the weekly concerts. I'll have to ask her about all-state orchestra, but she didn't mention anything so probably it was chill there too.

I see more snobbishness in jazz and especially "fiddle" play-ins. You can be made to feel very inferior if you try to open a fake book. Then there are the hotshot young-gun horn players that want to count off bebop jumps at 240. The local "blues night" is entirely welcoming. I think it really boils down to who leads these things.

May 2, 2023, 10:58 AM · "You can be made to feel very inferior if you try to open a fake book."

Yeah, well, in oral tradition fiddle music, there's good reason for that. You would be asked not to open your fake book at the Irish session I attend, for sure. Fiddle tunes can be transcribed, 'tis true, but fiddle music is not played from notation. When players try to read music in a fiddle session, they disengage with the others, they don't listen closely, they drag the rhythm down, and the fact that they think they need written music indicates that they haven't learned the style. While snobbiness is an issue in some contexts, so is disrespect. If you show up to a fiddle session with a music stand, you may not see it this way, but you are imposing your agenda on the music, and that's disrespectful. If I show up to play Mozart and decide to improvise a little blues over a quiet section, you'd get annoyed. How about clapping along with a Bach allegro? Every style of music has its performance practice and traditional rituals, and if you think they don't apply to you, then you're the problem.

May 2, 2023, 1:00 PM · You make a good point, Paul. As a jazz musician I can agree that it's frustrating to have people join a jam session who cannot improvise, cannot interact, etc. I imagine learning a tune by ear fairly immediately (or just knowing a fairly large number of tunes and being able to adapt quickly to the local nuances) is something like that in the fiddle realm.
May 2, 2023, 2:20 PM · I suspect the climate of the "classical music community" depends on the local context in which your interactions are embedded. When people feel there are scarce resources/opportunities available, the competition is fierce, and they perceive unfairness in how resources/opportunities are distributed, they may become resentful. All kinds of negativity will then flow. When people are already at "the top" (however they define that locally) and believe that they will be given opportunities per their merit and hard work, the climate will feel more positive; they may even cultivate some noblesse oblige toward others with less...
May 2, 2023, 2:37 PM · I will say that the provincial politics seem to be less common at the top, but even Isaac Stern, at very top of the world of classical music (and in my opinion, an undeniable musician), pretty much stopped practicing at some point, and spent his time notoriously boxing-out other violinists like Szeryng and Rosand, among others. It's even weirder when the politicians seemingly have nothing left to gain, and still misbehave.

Some people are just incredibly talented jerks.

May 2, 2023, 11:36 PM · I suspect that for adults, one has to gauge the environment's expectations. An open jam that is mostly frequented by pros is going to have wholly different expectations than a slow session where beginners are welcome, for instance. (At a slow session, I expect that nobody cares if beginners bring music stands, even if there might be an encouragement to try to learn by ear; such environments tend to emphasize everyone feeling welcome and able to participate, whatever that takes.)

I think the more music is treated like a competitive sport, the more people will be jerks in the same way that you get annoying parents of athletes and "stage parents" and such. Fortunately, music stops being treated like a competitive sport once you truly either get into the upper echelons of the preprofessional world, or you enter noncompetitive environments (as is usually true for adult music).

Even competitive environments can be very welcoming. During the pandemic I started doing Scottish fiddling, and competed at regional competitions as well as US Nationals, and people have all been extraordinarily friendly and encouraging.

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