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.