Is Classical Music Elitist? Part 5

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I’ve been posting quotes I find interesting from a discussion thread on The Guardian’s website, and making my own comments on them. But today’s item from that thread really aggravates me, one thing especially, and I’m going to devote a lot of time to one common misconception. But first, katyekpay’s answer to Maritz [excerpted for length and appropriateness]:

6. Pop musicians can become famous without having the skills to rehearsed with the “big string section” they have hired to lend some gravitas to their “act”. They rely on the conductor to rehearse the musicians on music that has been written by someone else and recorded (both vocally and instrumentally) by someone else.
That the greatness of Improvisational Jazz is the understanding of the chord structures of music and then improvising upon a chord progression without any rehearsal or discussion?
I have met many classical musicians and ballet dancers who cannot improvise to save their lives, their replies are respectively, show me the dots and I can play it, show me the steps and I’ll dance it! They rely on the conductor to rehearse the musicians (dancers) on music(movement) that has been written (choreographed) by someone else?
This sounds like most classical musicians I know who perform work written by people who died centuries ago.
Could I also point out being classically trained does not make you creative, it merely makes you a tool waiting to be told what to do.

[emphases preserved from the original]

All right, katyekpay, now I’m angry. I’m going to address your “show me the dots” comment.

When the great theatre and movie actors perform, they are “reading the dots.” It’s called language, and I doubt that we would appreciate an improvised reading of Hamlet, or even our favourite movies or TV shows, as much as we do the product that is presented to us. Yet no-one accuses them of a lack of creativity. No-one accuses them of being “tool[s] waiting to be told what to do.” Musicians have a language, too, which you choose to denigrate as “dots.” Those “dots” tell a musician everything needed to perform a piece, in the same way that a theatre actor reads not only his part, but stage directions and all the rest. The great ones also know quite a bit about subtext, literary interpretation, history, and many more areas of knowledge that relate to their text; classical musicians do, too, have a knowledge of musical form, theory, structure, harmony, progression, stylistic considerations, historical performance, even how instruments were held and bowed hundreds of years ago, or the construction of eighteenth-century pianos and how they relate to modern instruments. The best medieval singers have studied the reconstruction of medieval language to be able to sing the medieval forms with something approaching our best guess of how people actually spoke and sang, a thousand years ago.

As I tell my students, when they can perform the music with perfect rhythm, pitch, tempo, accents, and dynamics, that’s when the real work of interpretation begins. Just like being able to read a passage aloud with feeling is a skill that must be acquired, so too, performing music is a highly-developed skill, and to do it with sensitivity, subtlety and feeling is something that requires years of training. There’s a reason why people prefer musicians’ recordings to MIDI files–and that reason is the creativity, which is the difference between “reading the dots” and performing. If you don’t believe me, listen to a MIDI file and then listen to a highly-trained musician and tell me there’s not a difference.

There’s one field of classical music where creativity and improvisation do come into play–Baroque music. Performers are required to improvise in Baroque music, and the “dots” are just the outline of what is to be sung or played. Although in amateur circles this is not practiced, in professional-quality productions this is a necessary skill, although the improvisations must be done according to Baroque tastes (and there are whole rulebooks for Baroque improvisation). Especially in recitativi and da capo arias, in oratorios and operas, this is standard practice, so don’t be surprised if you are following a score–the performer hasn’t gone off-track; [s]he’s showing off the skill of improvisation.

To say that classical musicians are mere tape recorders, playing back the works of long-dead composers, is to belittle the millions of people who have devoted most of the waking hours of their lives to bring you enjoyment and, frankly, sounds like someone who hasn’t bothered to acquire the skill to read music. Rather than praise improvisation and denigrate those of us who attempt to determine and interpret a composer’s wishes, let us recognize that each has an appropriate place in music. This is not about who is better–this is about recognizing the strengths and places of everything in music.

And another thing–improvised music is performed once and then lost forever. With the “dots,” and those people who have dedicated their lives to classical music, we have a direct connection with those composers who lived before us, and to the tastes and culture of our own history, which we would otherwise lose. Would you erase every history book and oral tradition? Or do we treasure the best of the genius that has gone before us?

Leave a comment if you have an opinion!

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2 Replies to “Is Classical Music Elitist? Part 5”

  1. As more and more ballet companies add contemporary work to their repertoire, working with choreographers who use improvisation as a part of their devising process is enabling more and more “join the dots” dancers to be creative.
    Being a technical musician or dancer does not make you more creative.

    1. Dear Katyekpay,
      I’m going to ask you to please reread the quite lengthy reply I made to your original comment for The Guardian. As a professional classical musician and classical music teacher, I can assert quite confidently that there is far more to classical music than “joining the dots.” Or rather, that the creativity lies in being able to “join the dots,” as opposed to merely reproducing the dots.

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