Unlike most people, I always start my annual Halloween celebrations early. Usually, this is something I reserve for my old "alter-ego" site with Krowness, but in the past few years, posting on that site hasn't really had the same spark that it used to have for me. Sure, going there from time to time and seeing articles littered with curse words purely for the sake of it alongside other rants is funny, but I also realize how much I've grown over the past several years and that the need to hide my real personality behind a "clown" in order to deflect hurtful comments from trolls and generalized internet ne'er do wells, as well as fears of coming off as "unprofessional" just because I'd like to inject some humour into my writings, feels outdated.
As a result, I'm going to start using my own website to post critiques when I'm feeling the need to review something (a music video, software, an event, etc.) as well as for the occasional satire or comedy infused piece. Most of these are going to move away from the sailor mouthed rantings of my Viking alter-ego, so it'll have a more professional and family friendly flair, but anything that just requires that sort of language will come with a NSFW warning so that younger people (and my own younger students) know to keep on scrolling and ignore it. This is something I've already started with the creative writings I've shared, as many of those touch on more mature subjects or use profanity as a means of expression or tone setting. So from here on out, if I drop a nasty word that would get Ralphie a mouthful of soap, it's only going to be for a good reason and you'll know in advance if the blog post contains such materials!
Anyways, moving into the spirit of the season, I just can't resist sharing one of my favourite costumes from way back when. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be the best dressed when going out for candy, or when I was older and running "the haunt" at home where my dad and I would try to make the scariest display and features (we'd always beat the competition as he had been working for Spooky World). Out of all the costumes I ever had, the two favourites of mine were Duke Nukem (complete with body armour made of foam and an unloaded BB gun) and Torgo.
You don't know who Torgo is? Well, then I have to introduce you to the worst movie ever made! Manos: The Hands of Fate was a mostly obscure flick from the 1960s made on a bet. It involves a family on vacation who gets lost on their way to the Valley Lodge when they stumble upon The Master's polygamous cult (complete with an evil dog) and a satyr named Torgo taking care of his house. This movie became infamous after Mystery Science Theatre 3000 featured it, and it has since gained a cult following amongst MST3K/Rifftrax fans and connoisseurs of B-movies alike. I just had to do a theme off of this after I saw the MST3K version when I was in high school, and I did the best I could!
Since I went to a private school, I wasn't allowed to have a beard (and mine wasn't that thick or course anyway, even at 15), so I used a burned piece of cork to create that part. The walking stick was a branch that fell off a tree across the street from my house, the hat was an Indiana Jones fedora my dad had, and the coat was just my winter jacket. It looked the part. Since I was older, this was a costume to be used in the haunt. My dad was The Master, but re-imagined as a skeletal nightmare maker instead of "guy with a moustache" like the movie.
My favourite part was getting Torgo's irregular accents of words down, and I was amazed by how many people were scared of me! I was a pseudo-satyr with a speech impediment, once they got past me and hit my dad, it was crazy! I got so much free candy from the bags and pieces they dropped as they ran I may as well had gone out as a "Halloweenie"!
Anyways, here's 15-year-old me as Torgo!
Pardon the non-canonical braces.
Note: This is the original article that I posted on August 12, 2016. I linked it to a Facebook group about certain Arts involving Piano Pedagogy as a way to help fellow teachers further explore classical music beyond what we already have and to shut down the stereotypes that often plague not only the genre, but art in general. I received so much hate mail for it that the admins deleted the link and kicked me out of their group! I ended up writing a rebuttal over the content in the original link to show how far they missed the point (and to make it visible to them if they went back to it).
So, here's the original writing. If you can figure out what was so inflammatory about this, please let me know in the comments below because I'm stumped!
If you’re involved in the arts in any way, it won’t be long before you come across the typical artistic snob. Whether you are perusing a piano forum, checking into a Facebook group for painters or just heading out to a concert or gallery, it won’t be long before you come face to face (or monitor to monitor) with at least one such person at any given event. These are the individuals sitting atop mighty pillars of ego, looking down on everyone else who enters their domain, ready to drop a nice steaming load of narcissism onto anyone who thinks differently from them, for we all know that any interpretation of an artwork that is different from theirs is inherently wrong. And if you consider yourself a teacher of the arts and dare go against the grains of this one person’s predetermined conclusions, then it is nothing short of blasphemy!
Because the arts are such a massive, diverse arena to cover, let’s go to an old stereotype and just focus on the classical music snob in order to save bandwidth.
We’ll begin our study on snobbery in the arts with the story of a concert pianist named Wallace Stuckupington. Wally is not just any pianist though; he’s the best in the world! How do we know? Ask him (but he’ll tell you regardless)! He will gladly point out how your performances are flawed compared to his own (or those of Gould or Horowitz on the occasion he’s feeling particularly humble), how his emotional interpretations of Chopin can end wars, how only the music he plays matters and to Hell with all others and those who enjoy them! You can’t say otherwise, because Wally has won several classical piano competitions and has studied with only the best instructors at the only best conservatories, and that alone should be proof that what he says is fact and not blind self-devotion, because criticizing him must mean you are also criticizing those institutions or competitions. Don’t be naïve! After all, you can never be anywhere near his level of talent or greatness! Just smile and know that you had the chance to bask in the light of The Great Stuckupington at least once in your meagre little life! That alone should make you happy, so put down your instruments now and give up. Greatness has been achieved, perfection and godhood is at hand, and there is no use in trying now. You can add nothing to this conversation that hasn’t already been said.
That is what it can feel like when one of these snobs shows up to a post or event and starts putting his or herself before everyone else. Even though they’re a minority of artists and art connoisseurs, with over 7 billion people on the planet, you’re bound to find one statistically speaking. This attitude is not limited to just classical music, or music at all. As mentioned earlier, you’ll find these sorts of people in jazz clubs rattling on and on about how jazz hasn’t been innovative since 1949, or staring sardonically at a new painter’s latest creation and brushing it aside because the colour choices and brush strokes aren’t the same as Monet’s. It’s a disease that has plagued our world since the first human decided to create something new, and it’s become stereotypical of our culture as you’re now guaranteed to see at least one stuffy character with a fake accent (possibly with a monocle or perpetually wearing sunglasses) in attendance of anything involving art in any film or cartoon you happen to watch. Many from outside our circles make assumptions about us as creatives purely because of how solidified the image of the egotistical musician, artist, dancer, actor, etc. has become in modern society. And for the vast majority of us, it is simply untrue and we are left on the defensive while we try to show our collective audiences that we are just ordinary people like them who happened to follow a different career path or passion (or got lucky in making it successful).
I came upon this on a piano forum that will remain nameless for the sake of their privacy. A young woman had recently been hired to accompany a performance of show tunes and pop-styled music and was asking for suggestions on how to memorize and more easily navigate roughly 20 pieces in a short amount of time. Since I have done this sort of job many times myself, I suggested that she write the chord symbols over each measure and even include a numbered version (Nashville system or Roman numeral, personal choice though I recommend Nashville more for its ease of use). This way she can see the harmony right away, use that as a road map and if a slight mistake were to be made, she would still have the foundation of the part until she could recover it. Adding the Nashville styled chords make it easier to transpose in the event a singer or the musical director requests a key change to better fit the vocals. The Nashville system is based on the root of the key signature so in the key of E-flat, the E-flat chord would be “1”, A-flat would be “4” and an inverted chord like B-flat/D would be “5/7”. This makes changing keys incredibly easy as it’s based off the movable “do” of the scale rather than having to rewrite the parts or the letter-based chord symbols if the need arises.
She was very happy with the suggestion and the post started to dwindle. Then the classical music snob showed up. Seeing my post, he responded thus: “For pop music and jazz maybe. You wouldn't do it for this or classical music in general. Say a Beethoven violin sonata.”
Good point, so it’s a good thing we’re working with pop and jazz music then, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t we do that for this particular set? He never answered, but his response gave me an idea. While I was studying composition, I would often analyze classical scores and then write not only piano reductions of them, but also the letter-based chord symbols above the reductions so that we could dig deeper into the theory and harmony used in the piece. It was a way of looking into the composer’s mind, discovering what made their music sound the way it does and a means of finding new harmonic ideas that we otherwise might not have explored.
I proposed that this thread-hijacker try it on the first few measures of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata 1 just to see what he could find, and in the process, try to humble his now out of control attitude (that the others in the thread were exhausted of). Maybe, by studying the chord progression and the melodies and counterpoint painted with that, he could find something that wasn’t there for him the last time he played or listened to it. That he may hear the piece in a new way or think of it differently once he knew what was going on “under the hood” so to speak. This way, he has a deeper knowledge of the piece over playing back the written part without knowing why it was written that way at all.
Rather than even consider the audacity of such a thing, he responded: “Not unless it was written as figured bass. Changing Baroque figured bass is okay. Composers know what they want and they write it out. Beethoven especially. I wouldn't dare reduce the quality of their music by reducing it to simple fake book chords. It might make it worth more in the realm of improvising and jazz, but it would be blasphemous to the composer. I love jazz and improvisation, but I don't think the two should interfear [sic].”
So, instead of analyzing the progression, he jumped to the conclusion that I wanted him to recompose the piece, remove the written notation in the piano part and replace it with nothing more than the chord symbols, leaving the accompaniment up to the pianist in an improvised setting. That’s not at all what I asked. Oy, this is a tough one to reach!
I clarified my point, telling the snobby thread-hijacker I was merely asking him to analyze the harmony, nothing more. But, if he wanted to, try leaving it just as chord symbols and either orchestrate a new part, or go all out and let the pianist improvise the accompaniment as an experiment. Continuing my challenge, I asked him; what would that sound like? What sort of pianist is needed to perform under those circumstances? If we leave the violin part as written, what would happen if the pianist were to improvise the accompaniment? Vice versa? What would happen if such an improvisation were as strong as the original written part, or at least better received by the audience that way?
These are merely questions to get him to think of an old piece of music differently, to challenge his preconceptions of Beethoven and just to explore not only the original work but music in a broader sense, to try to open his mind up from the echo chamber he was so blatantly trapped in. Instead, he walked away and started to heckle another teacher who was looking for ways to help a student who was a little too inexperienced to play “Let it Go” from Frozen, all the while talking about how music in film and on pop radio has nothing on Beethoven and can be “safely ignored”.
This sort of snobbery, while difficult to confront, can only be defeated through critical thinking. As we have seen here and with our fictional story of Wally, snobbery is born of ignorance, whether it is ignorance of other genres and techniques, or just an unawareness of one’s own limitations that are overcompensated for with immeasurable ego. By challenging people like this to think harder about something they believe they know everything about, you can open them up to some humility and the acceptance that they, in fact, don’t have all the answers and are not the gods’ divine gift of music to the whole of mankind. My first bass guitar teacher once told me “those who think they know it all still have much to learn”. A line he had found in a Zen guitar book and one that I strive to live by and instill in my own students.
We have to accept that the composers of classical music were human, like you and I (but not Klepbor from Omega Epsilon VII, he’s from another galaxy entirely, sorry). Music, like all art, is born from our emotions and because we are not divine beings, our emotions are imperfect. These little imperfections make art unique to us as creators. Not every composer used a groundbreaking chord progression or rhythmic style, many were set in their ways towards the end of their lives and little nuances can be discovered if you look closely at Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc. and find where they used the same sort of ideas across many of their works. This is what made their music theirs, and it comes from the fact that they were not perfect writers, that they often recycled older ideas that they had used in other pieces, and that it was these imperfections that gave them an original voice. Modern composers do the same thing. As a contemporary classical composer myself, I am also guilty of it. We all are!
From the standpoint of those experiencing the music, we too have our own set of images that go through our heads as we listen to a sonata or concerto that tells a story based on our tastes, our experiences and what makes us unique. There is no such thing as a “correct interpretation”, just interpretations that either did or did not resonate with the player and/or audience. Unlike high school English lectures where the instructor’s ideas are final, art in the real world is far more fluid. One performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations may strike you as boring, but another pianist’s (or even a different recording or live concert by the same musician) may speak to you in ways you never thought possible.
We also have to understand that classical music and art are not exempt from criticism, something people with those holier-than-though personalities tend to ignore. An exercise I give my students in any subject is this; listen to the music or look at the artwork like you are the first person to ever hear or see it. What makes it work for you? Is there anything here that doesn’t work for you? Is something in this piece filling you with joy or sorrow, or is it boring you? This makes the work relevant to them; it gives them the desire to learn more about why art makes them feel a certain way, but not someone else. It helps them understand what makes a strong interpretation of a musical piece, to hear your own emotions come alive in someone else’s notation. This makes classical music more approachable to the layperson that believes the genre sits atop an ivory tower that only the most elite (or super-villainy) of our society can appreciate (or play).
Art is subjective, and all too often we grade what others do based on what has already been done with the same material. This is why I’m not a fan of music competitions, especially in the classical style. Many judges and critics are basing their opinions of the performances not on the originality or the passion in the musicians competing, but how well those recitals resemble the likes of concerts and recordings by Janis, Horowitz, Gould and Weissenberg. What made a piece speak to any one of those concert pianists was different, and the same goes for anyone else playing that music. Competing musicians are told never to “play to the judges”, yet when the material is subjective by nature, how do you play naturally when one moderator may deem your natural performance as pandering to them? It is not an easy feat and I applaud anyone with the stones to go up there, often before a critical audience of people who have never played a concert in their dreams (including the journalists who will be symbolically breathing down their necks the entire time) and still perform to the best of their abilities. That takes a lot of guts just to go out there, never mind making it into the finals or placing.
Trying new ways of performing old music keeps our understanding of it fresh. New variations on old themes we’ve long since memorized give us room to challenge our technique (for example, Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin's Etudes) and force us to relearn something we thought we already knew. Most importantly, it keeps music from centuries past relevant to young students who, growing up surrounded by the negative stereotypes of the genre and those who play it, may be reluctant to give Bach a shot.
Bear in mind, almost all of the great composers were also great improvisers. Improvisation is a mostly forgotten art in the classical world and many of the composers, whose works we play to the note without question in the 21st century, were quite fond of inventing new parts while they performed. We don't hear those pieces today like audiences did in the composers' lifetime. This is true of Bach and Liszt, the latter being known to have improvised entire concerts, a display not common outside of jazz in this day and age. It is worthwhile trying it just for the sake of experimentation when you go back to The Well Tempered Clavier or a prelude by Rachmaninoff, just to hear what happens.
The good news is that improvisation in classical music is starting to come back, and the idea of recomposing classical works has taken off in recent decades. Both of these are some of the foundations to Third Stream music, and are increasingly a requirement for performing contemporary classical music where entire development sections of sonatas may give you nothing but chord symbols and slash notation (the cue to start noodling)! Contrary to what the earlier snob said, you most certainly can meld classical and jazz ideas together.
But that’s not the point here (I can easily do an article on fusion and contemporary recompositions, but another time). The point is that snobbery, as we’ve seen, is detrimental to art and extremely dangerous for students, especially young ones who are more open to experimentation. It turns people off of art, it discourages children from picking up an instrument, it makes it harder for us to make a living because of all the negativity and stereotyping that surrounds our careers. When we see people acting like this, we need to give them something to challenge that mindset. They have it in their heads that they know it all, that there is nothing new for them to discover. Give them that new idea to explore and try to open them up! Show them how complex the world beyond their echo chamber can be, and offer them an invitation into that greater realm.
The world needs more creators and art teachers working together for the common good, not more self-absorbed Wallace Stuckupingtons who can’t find their way out of their own ass, and are so set in their unbending methods that they refuse to even consider the existence of other paths to achieve the same goal.
Note: Read the original article here. If you can find what's wrong with it, let me know.
You can probably tell from looking at the URL to this post, that I've changed the title, and with it, the content. This is because the original post that challenged snobbery in the arts, particularly those few self-centred individuals of the classical music world, whether they be listeners or performers or what have you (because I wanted to keep the article under a dozen pages and focused only on one subgroup of the arts) received so much hatred that I feel I need to update the link to the post so that all those who disregarded my writing or missed it entirely can figure out what went wrong, and to address a very serious issue that came about in the aftermath of it.
I retold and quoted a story about an encounter I had on a piano forum (that I will keep nameless for their sake, just as I did in the original post) where a young woman was hired to be an accompanist for a pop styled performance and I gave her some advice on keeping track of the accompaniment part. My advice was to write out chord symbols over each measure either as letter based chords (such as E-flat) or, ideally in the Nashville style in case any of the vocalists she was working with needed the work transposed (so if the key is in E-flat, the first chord would be written as "1", the Ab as "4" and the B-flat with a D root as "5/7" etc.)
This is something I learned doing accompaniment work in my late teens when the MD I was working with demanded that the key for one song be changed so it would fit his saxophone part better, even though the singer couldn't work in any key other than E-major, the key of the piece (not a trained singer, wasn't a major show, huge amount of trouble including legally with that MD, not worth talking about him). By using this sort of system, if you have the need to change the key it makes it much easier to adapt the accompaniment to any key over going through the song and rewriting the letter chord symbols or trying to do it in your head live. This is why it's the preferred method for session musicians in Nashville (hence the name) and also goes by the West Coast System from the session scene in Los Angeles.
Anyway, after I made this point, and the original poster was happy with a solution that made learning nearly two dozen pieces easier on herself, another user chimed in stating that I was being "foolish" because that is no way to approach classical music accompaniment. Never mind that the music we were discussing wasn't classical at all, but pop and show tunes, he had to get that sample of traditional classical music snobbery going and hijacked the thread about why classical music is better, why the composer's notation is flawless and why the performer should always adhere unquestioningly to the written note.
Because this went off point, I decided to try something. I asked this thread hijacker if he would ever consider even the notion of trying this sort of accompaniment technique. He scoffed at it and said it would never work for something like a Beethoven violin sonata and that any sort of reduction to "simple fake book chords" would be "blasphemy" to the composers who know best.
Wanting to challenge his snobby attitude, something the other posters in the thread were quickly growing tired of putting up with, I proposed that maybe he try analyzing the harmony in Beethoven's first violin sonata, writing chord symbols for it just to dig deeper into the harmonic aspect of his favourite composer's mind and then, seeing what he could find. He refused, stating again that it would be a disgrace to the composer and lower the work's quality.
First, I corrected him and said I only wanted him to analyze the harmony, as any student would in a Music Theory/Harmony course in a conservatory or music program just as a start. But, since he brought up the idea of recomposition/arranging, I challenged him to consider what that may sound like, and that maybe a classical improviser out there could use nothing but the chord symbols to provide a new and daring accompaniment. What if the violin part stayed the same and you had a player with the improvisational skills and ears like Keith Jarrett give it a shot? Just try it as an experiment. It wasn't like I was attacking classical music and saying written music should be abandoned for entirely improvised work. I wanted to challenge his understanding of music and propose a new idea and approach to an old work, just to think about it in a new light. He ended up leaving the post soon after and started another flame war on a thread where a teacher was trying to find strategies to instruct a young pupil on how to play "Let it Go" from Frozen, talking about how the movie and its music was garbage compared to Beethoven. Sigh.
I explained the majority of this in my original post, and approached it with a bit of humour towards people with that ridiculous attitude. I then went into the heart of the article explaining my approach for giving my students a new idea on older music, whether it be classical, jazz, blues or Tin Pan Alley standards. I discussed a teaching approach where I tell my students to think of classical music, or any music for that matter, as if they were the first person to ever hear the piece. What works for you? What doesn't? What sends a burning sensation throughout your soul? What is boring you in this piece? The idea is that classical music and art should not be exempt from criticism outside contemporary performances or showcases of it. That we have just as much right to critically analyze the original page of a classical work and discuss it just as much as we would a new piano sonata by a contemporary composer that was published this past week.
I raised a lot of points about how to analyze music in the traditional and contemporary repertoire in order to make students think of what they often see as "really old music" in a new light, to show them that these works still have staying power, why they have that power with some but not with others, etc. And, most importantly, that the composers were human and they didn't always use the best or most unique chord progressions or note choices as music comes from one's feelings and our feelings are imperfect by nature. That imperfection is part of classical music because classical music is part of the human experience, and that it is not part of an ivory tower that constitutes some sort of defined perfection that only an elite few can tap into as listeners or performers. It was that simple.
I shared my findings on a Facebook group for piano instructors. They had a field day calling my article "reverse snobbery", the whinings of a "jazz snob" who couldn't handle the idea that these classical players were better than me (they also missed the point where I released two classical records and am a contemporary classical composer, which they would have known if they had read the article in the first place), that my writing was unprofessional and I needed a good long read of the self help book "How to Make Friends and Influence People" because "my words were doing nothing for [them]". Because trying to help music teachers teach music in new, inventive ways is how you make enemies apparently. And from my experience, that was exactly the case. An admin of the piano pedagogy page ended up deleting the post because of all the hate it was getting, then messaged me about being nicer to a community of classical musicians and teachers and that "[my] attacks on them would not be tolerated".
Yes, because talking about the harmonic analysis of scores and thinking critically of not only classical music, but music in general, was an attack on The Art of Piano Pedagogy group and its nearly 12,000 members (at the time of this writing). The reaction of the group, and how they saw it as an article about them just reveals that there is indeed a great deal of narcissism that infects the page (including the admins). That's absolutely pathetic. This reaction from the group's members shows that they are, in fact, more interested in putting importance on themselves than they are the common good of sharing musical ideas and discovering new teaching techniques. You're not doing your students (or music) any favours by behaving like that.
All but two people on the entire page that offered their commentary missed the point so far that if this were a Red Sox vs. Yankees game, I would be throwing the ball at Fenway while they were all in New York trying to hit it. I have never seen so many teachers miss a point like that or give into the very judgmental attitudes that I had discussed at the beginning of the article as a lead into the heart of the matter. Something I would think these mostly classical instructors would have liked to read as that core was on using these ideas to keep classical music relevant for young students. However, they read the title where I was challenging snobbery in the arts, took it to mean that I was making a direct attack against them and their group, activated Super Saiyan Rage Mode, and threw so much verbal fecal matter at me that I felt like I was in middle school again. Thanks a lot, your students must love having to work with you people if that's how you treat them.
My favourite comments came from a guy who decided to go for the low hanging fruit and rather than even mention the article I wrote and shared, decided to make fun of my disabilities. You see, I have a form of dyslexia and spelling is not my forte (and never was). If it weren't for spell check and many careful re-readings, I'd come off looking like an idiot a lot of the time. He jumped at the chance to mock misspelled or wrong auto-generated words and that I should "go back to school", never mind that I was writing comments with my phone at 3 a.m. (and the screen is damaged so it's not as responsive as it should be). I really hope you don't instruct special needs students, sir. That behaviour towards the disabled makes you come off like a monster.
After the post was deleted by an admin, this morning I awoke to find my professional inbox filled with quite a few threatening letters directed at not only myself but also my family. All of them came from the most rage filled instructors on that Facebook group (about three of them, and they each sent more than one email). I am now taking these emails to the local police as they make threats of violence, sexual assault or are just outright harassing.
This is not acceptable behaviour from anyone, let alone music teachers who principally work with children! For Christ's sake, show some professionalism and respect. You jumped to conclusions, you ignored what I had to say when you so obviously missed the point (and refused to consider the challenge of rethinking music that was posed in the article and comments), and then you carry on a temper tantrum as grown adults and try to turn the table and make me look like a snobby brat, rather than accept that maybe you didn't read the article in full or at all, otherwise you'd see the hypocrisy in your own words and actions. Then you send me threats of assault or rape? What sort of person are you?
My answer is someone that should not be teaching, let alone be near children, or anyone who is interested in learning.