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My Beef With Classical Music


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I love playing classical music, but I'm disappointed in the elitist nature of the music. You're either top-notch or you suck. With folk music, any mook with some basic skills can get together with others and have a good time playing, but I've NEVER seen that happen with classical music, even though there is plenty of easy material around. Why is that? Why can't a group of amateur classical musicians get together for a night of music and laughter, the same way sessions are held? Don't tell me it's because the music is too difficult, because I've been to sessions and I know just how hard and fast they can get.

 

I'd wager there are millions of amateur classical musicians out there who would love the chance to play with others, but don't want the hard-core strict atmosphere of typical classical music events. I would kill for one night a week where I could get together with some fun musicians and just play whatever strikes us. Want to do a solo? Go right ahead (when it's your turn of course). Want to do a duet with someone else? Go right ahead. I know what you're thinking; "You can't just pass out sheet music and expect people to be able to play together." Yes, that's entirely true, BUT the same is also true of any ITM session, isn't it? You have to have studied the music before you can sit down in a session, yet that's not a deterent; people study hard just to be able to sit down at a session and "jam." How is that any different than classical music? Just like you have a list of your own session tunes, so too would you have a list of classical session tunes. If so-and-so wants to sit out on a particular song because they don't know it well, go right ahead (just like in a session). Note that I'm not talking about 20-minute long operatic movements here...

 

Basically, my point is that it would be wonderful to have "classical sessions" but I have never heard of one existing. I'm toying around with the idea of trying to start one, so please feel free to give me feedback. Does the idea suck? Would you slap your mama to play in a gig like that?

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What's going on in a folk session? There are some, indeed lots, of people playing the tune, and tehre are some chord instruments playing the chords. If you know the tune, you play the tune. If you know the chords, you can play that, or busk a bass line, and generally there is only one chord a bar.

 

If you put together a group of random orchestral instruments, there just isn't a classical repertoire that can be busked like that.

 

Of course people do have "classical jam sessions", but on the basis of puttng together something resembling an ensemble which the classical repertoire expects, and those people having knowledge of the relevant repertoire, and/or being given music to play. When I was singing in a choir at [high] school, if the choir went out to enjoy themselves we would end up singing choral things standing on rocks, top of castle towers, etc. But we sang things we knew, and we would feel we couldn't do it if the people present didn't bear some approximation to a balanced choir. When I go and visit my friends who play piano/sing to roughly same standard as me, we sing at the piano. When a string quartet gets together, they'll have fun playing the string quartet repertoire. If you have an orchestra together, they'll have fun and a few missing or extra probably won't matter too much.

 

I had a madrigal party once. I tried very hard, and succeeded in putting together two to each part plus a couple of extras. We all turned up with a copy of the same book of madrigals. We could only sing a subset of the songs in the book that actually reasonably matched our forces. And quite a few were too difficult for us to sight-read. But we ate roast goose, drank the finest Barolo, and sang a lot.

 

I think basic issue is that western classical music grew out of a tradition of polyphony (blending of tunes artfully put together, sounding terrible if anyone departs from the planned construction). So it tends to be carefully composed for a specific ensemble. And then the players tend to be given a specific part to play, often without showing them the rest of the music.

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A lot, maybe most, of the people I've met playing in orchestras are keen on meeting up informally and just enjoying playing music together. One difference is that they generally do it in private, meaning that most classical music non-players hear is being "performed". I'm not so sure this is a bad thing either - surely one way of putting people off certain music genres and instruments is hearing them being played badly.

 

In my experience most of the "elitist" nature of classical music comes from audiences - I've been to so many concerts where most people just look bored, spend time reading the programme notes instead of listening, and take great delight in turning/russling/staring at coughers/mobile-phone rigers and so on. Most players just enjoy playing, for much the same reasons as session-players enjoy playing probably, even though they go about it in a slightly different way.

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Interesting topic Jeff and one I have mused on often.

 

Ivan makes some very good points as to structure, form and texture of what for this discussion has been called "Classical" music.

 

Much of what is lumped into that term was indeed meant to be performed in just the situation you invision, take Schubert's chamber works and songs. During his brief life there was a strong "Salon" society in Vienna where goups of folks would meet at a friend or patron's home and have an impromptu evening that might include poetry, a song cycle by Schubert (maybe even him at the piano) with someone reading the vocal part, a string quartet (the ink barely dry...hand out the parts and have a go at it)...any number of offerings all fueled by conversation and strong drink. Different time, different reality.

 

Depending upon where you live, this still occurs. As Danny points out, private which depending on the evening and amount of strong drink is indeed a very good thing.

 

"Classical" music has become ossified from the standpoint of a great number of performance organizations and audience members. It is seen today as most of it's creators never invisioned. Musical and cultural bigotry aplenty and a very sad situation it can be.

 

Dispair not Jeff, we are out here.

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In my experience most of the "elitist" nature of classical music comes from audiences - I've been to so many concerts where most people just look bored, spend time reading the programme notes instead of listening, and take great delight in turning/russling/staring at coughers/mobile-phone rigers and so on.

 

It's interesting you should say that, because I was arguing that exact same point a few weeks ago with my girlfriend. It's like being an audience member is an activity pursued for its own sake. The music is inconsequential except as a tool to increase you social standing ("I saw so-and-so last week for $100 a ticket.").

 

Thanks for the feedback. It looks like I just need to hob-knob with classical musicians and find a group. The problem is that I don't have any musician friends. What I thought about doing was calling local music teachers to see if A) any of their students are interested, or B) they're hosting an amateur quartet (or whatever).

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...where goups of folks would meet at a friend or patron's home and have an impromptu evening that might include poetry, a song cycle by Schubert (maybe even him at the piano) with someone reading the vocal part, a string quartet (the ink barely dry...hand out the parts and have a go at it)...any number of offerings all fueled by conversation and strong drink.  Different time, different reality.

 

Man, that sounds great. I need to pick me up some schubert.

:)

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The music is inconsequential except as a tool to increase you social standing ("I saw so-and-so last week for $100 a ticket.").

 

I guess I'm once again the non-conformist....I've got free symphony tickets for tomorrow night. I almost never get to go (too pricey) and the wife and I are really looking forward to it!

 

Greg

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Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! I'd better say a word in defense of the audience members mentioned here (after all it's me darlin's bread an' butter and they have a valid reality they're coming from).

 

The program notes are very important to them. Performer bios, notes on the the featured composers and works to be presented really add a lot to their enjoyment. The whole "scene" is for some like a religion (music is my religion) and the adhearants want to make sure they know what's going on (ya got's ta get the liturgy right after all).

 

They get grumpy about cell phones an' such (as can I in a concert hall). There is an elaborate comportment thing going on. The halls are hallowed places. Very different if you are more comfortable in a pub listening to a session.

 

Bars and pubs bring out the holy thing in me as well. My old band was booked into the Trade Winds in St. Augustine, Florida (long time ago). I was very impressed and frankly overwhelmed. It's a gritty dive right on the canal which is home to some out there whackos and a stop over through the years for a veritable who's who of American folk music. I remember stepping up on the stage, taking in a good lung-full of the old cigarette smoke and stale beer and thinking who may have tood right where I was then plantin' my feet. Brought a tear to me eye it did. Had a similar response when I stood for the first time on the stage of Jordan Hall in Boston.

 

All music is holy and all audiences deserve their place in the pews...now let's pass the hat bretheren and sisteren! :P

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There is another element here, one that appears to be growing growing (around here at least), that music is something for "professionals" to do, excluding those who are not professionals. Some of you may remember the old "follow the bouncing ball" film clips in theaters, where the whole audience sang along with the script onscreen. Mitch Miller's popular "Sing Along With Mitch" TV program appealed to the same impulse: "let's have a song.

Lately, it seems that people are not willing to join in song in informal settings out of some kind of feeling of embarrassment: "I can't do that! I'll look like a fool!"

Most people can do just fine even if they are not top-notch performers, but the feeling seems to be to just let the recorded music fill in the space.

The only exception to this seems to be the Karaoke phenomenon. Still, however, the mood there is altogether different than a jam or sing-along.

How many of us have had the experience, I wonder, of hearing someone begin to sing or play, and have someone else interrupt, saying, "Yeah, lets play some music!" and proceed to slip a record on the stereo?

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Traditional music comes from people having fun. Classical music comes from people trying to create impressive artistic constructs.

 

I think most of the differences between the two forms comes from that distinction. There's some mixture between the two, but it's often an uncomfortable mix. The points of view are too different. When it works, it usually keeps the point of view of the "main" form: an intellectual kind of fun in classical pieces, or a physical kind of impressiveness in traditional music.

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I love playing classical music....Why can't a group of amateur classical musicians get together for a night of music and laughter, the same way sessions are held? 

 

 

It does happen .... but probably not in pubs :-)

My DH (fiddle) gets together once or twice a month with a few other amateurs just to play classical string stuff. They keep it simple and have even been known to play some folk! Main difference from a session might be that they hand out some sheet music that's someone's brought along 'cos they think it'll be interesting.

What it needs is someone motivated enough to organise it! There are a couple of groups locally. One of them also organises larger gettogethers ("Any-level Strings" held in Nantwich Cheshire UK) which are informal day workshops led by a professional or two. This is a bit of plug for them ... but if you're in the area and play viola, they REALLY, REALLy would like to hear from you :-)

 

Chris J.

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There is another element here, one that appears to be growing  growing (around here at least), that music is something for "professionals" to do...

 

Yeah, I see that too. It doesn't seem to be a problem with folk musicians though. My belief is that it's more rewarding to play bad music myself than to hear someone else play good music, but...if someone thought the opposite, that might certainly make them look at any amateur music as pointless.

 

My DH (fiddle) gets together once or twice a month with a few other amateurs just to play classical string stuff. They keep it simple and have even been known to play some folk! Main difference from a session might be that they hand out some sheet music that's someone's brought along 'cos they think it'll be interesting.

 

That sounds ideal!! My problem is not knowing other classical musicians. No wait...I take that back...I do know one person. Hmm...maybe I should talk to him and see what he thinks.

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Oh good grief sorry folks I'm far TOO TIRED to deal with this properly but must stick my oar in ... here are a couple of disjointed thoughts ...

 

Classical musicians do jam, but they need written music to do it from. This is not to do with "constructing" things, it is simply the way classical music works - from a basis of written music. (think of it as the dots providing a reminder of the structure for the musician in the way that the written text of a folk-tale can provide the same for a storyteller). So I played for a number of years in a "mock-clarinet trio" with two clarinettists and myself playing French Horn. We played anything we could lay our hands on that worked for three instruments of overlapping pitch - Pleyel trios, arrangements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven trios, the theme tune from Brideshead Revisited, The Teddy Bears' Picnic - anything, stuff we'd written ourselves ... This started out as just for our own amusement (i.e. privately, at someone's house), but eventually we offered to be the "muzak" for coffee mornings and jumble sales with some success.

 

My partner and I have recently set up a brass quintet locally. There is a "standard" instrumentation for such a group, so we have two trumpets/cornets, a french horn, a trombone and a tuba. We play music from dots written or arranged for this combo. We're having a ball. Eventually we hope to have a "set" of material to take to the public, but my main motivation is just playing, I'm not bothered if there's an audience or not.

 

There is a tradition of amateur orchestras in Britain which may or may not be replicated elsewhere, but which I would also put fairly and squarely in the camp of amateur musicians making classical music for fun, not profit or to impress or whatever ...

 

None of these instances is "jamming" as I understand it, because I believe that to mean improvisation, and if it's improvisation it's not "classical" music (roughly speaking). But ... what I describe above is not stand-offish, high-brow, or indulged in for the price of the tickets! It's "classical" musicians playing for physical as well as intellectual fun (aren't folk musicians after both, too Boney?). It does happen. Seek it out, Jeff (I think it was you who started the thread ...) sorry for garbledness ...

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Samantha, there are amateur groups throughout the States and Canada. A very fine one is the Longwood Symphony in Brookline Massachusetts which I was honored to be involved with in a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The orchestra is made up of medical professionals and they play to a very high standard indeed. They collaborated with the Dedham Choral Society, also an amateur group and made a joyful, beautiful noise. Beethoven was well served with their efforts.

 

On improvisation: If one wished to expand the discussion to Baroque...then yes, the ornamintation in a da capo aria would invite such a romp within boundries for voice as does figured bass for the klavier. One of the best klavierists in Boston is a financial advisor by day and a monster harpsichord master by night (wonder does he have a cape and tights to go along with that discription).

 

David, somehow I am not suprised you play the cello. I am envious beyond words.

 

Jeff you rascal, nice topic!

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My wife and daughter and I play together several nights a week. When the weather is suitable, we sit out on the front porch. We have several neighbors who play a little, some pretty good. They join us when they hear us playing outside.

 

Exept....my next door neighbor who plays violin in several of the classical groups around the city.

 

She has never once in fifteen years joined us, in spite of several invitations.

 

Now we are not bad musos mind you. I think she would have fun..I got the dots for some of our tunes too.

 

ah well.

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None of these instances is "jamming" as I understand it, because I believe that to mean improvisation, and if it's improvisation it's not "classical" music (roughly speaking). But ... what I describe above is not stand-offish, high-brow, or indulged in for the price of the tickets! It's "classical" musicians playing for physical as well as intellectual fun (aren't folk musicians after both, too Boney?). It does happen.

Yes, classical musicians can have fun, and there can be intellectual aspects to traditional music. But they ARE very different. It's like the difference between competitive ballroom dancing, and bumping and grinding at the local disco. They're both fun, but in different ways. And it's very rare someone can really do both well. If you can, you're using an entirely different set of skills for each one.

 

One form of music comes from a purely social, entertainment point of view. The other comes from a structured, technical point of view. In the end, both want to serve the music and let the inner beauty of the music come out. But they come at it from opposite ends.

 

I once heard a professional classical musician say something very like this: "Playing classical music is like acting Shakespeare on stage -- it's the greatest thing there is. But it's not a conversation. Improvising music with others is like having a conversation. When you work with structure a lot, sometimes you forget you can color outside the lines."

 

I think this difference is crucial. It's why there aren't classical "sessions." It's why "folk groups" with precise arrangements and technically-minded players don't sound right. It's why people think classical music is stuffy and elitist (even when it isn't). It's why people think traditional music is simplistic and corny (even when it isn't). It's why traditional musicians frown on too much harmonization or modern instrumentation. It's why classical musicians don't use spontaneous variations. It's why traditional musicians play tunes that have organically evolved through "word of mouth" over hundreds of years. It's why classical musicians create entirely original compositions. It's why traditional musicians often frown on using sheet music -- the trappings of classical music often keep people unconsciously stuck in that point of view.

 

There are exceptions to all of these, but even when the forms "cross over," the point of view the person started with is usually prominent. Most people naturally fall into one point of view or the other, and find it very difficult to understand where the other group is coming from, and almost impossible to truly "switch" to the opposite point of view.

 

You can't really perform Shakespeare and have a conversation at the same time. It might be fun trying to mix them, but it'll probably end up seeming like a gimmick, or it'll really be one with trappings of the other grafted on.

 

By no means does this mean that I think people shouldn't get informal groups together to play classical music -- that sounds like fun to me! But it wouldn't have the same feel as a "session." It can't and shouldn't.

 

(By the way, I play both traditional and classical music, and like them both, but my heart is in the trad stuff.)

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