Here’s a phrase from the biography of Beth Bahia Cohen, a violinist who plays our kind of classical music, but who also plays just about every violin-like instrument found anywhere in the world. And specializes in music from Hungary and Greece.
She’s on the faculty at Berklee. Where, she says, she
teaches Global Strings Ensembles, Greek Music Ensemble, and private lessons in world violin traditions including European classical music.
So how about that!
European classical music, positioned simply as one of many world traditions.
Is that what we do in our field? Nope. As cultural theorists might say, we privilege our music, giving it special status.
Most likely we acknowledge other music, enjoy it, maybe think it’s important. But still we make our kind of classical music special, maybe even think that kids should learn about it in school. As if it were more important than other kinds of music. My Juilliard students often say it’s deeper, more expressive, more emotionally powerful than music of other kinds.
Which of course is their truth, but maybe not a universal truth.
I’ll grant that we’re in tricky territory here. Because European classical music — our kind (because there are other kinds of classical music: Indian, Persian, and more) — has a kind of world imprint that other musical traditions may not have. Beth plays traditional Greek and Hungarian music, but in Greece and Hungary I’d think European classical music is more often or at least more prominently heard.
Though, come to think of it, I don’t know that. But certainly European classical music has a wide imprint and much prestige in those countries, and elsewhere in the world.
And that’s tricky, in two ways. First, popular music has a far wider imprint, far wider circulation, far more impact on people. It’s another musical tradition or rather a huge complex of many traditions, happily blending, changing each other. (African music blends with western music and evolves into gospel music and blues. From which R&B emerges, from which disco evolves, and then electronic dance music, which elsewhere in the world blends with Arab music. While African music blends with the R&B that evolved from it. And onward from there.)
And then, second trickiness, the universal imprint of western culture on one hand is, well, universal, but also has a colonialist history. And in the widest cultural world we agree now that all cultures contribute, all get respect.
So we should think that about music, too! And let our music take its place in the wider world.
And then maybe I should have put the next part much earlier…
How we benefit!
Maybe this seems counterintuitive. If we dial back the prestige of classical music, if we step off our pedestal, if we admit that European classical music is less important than we’ve thought it is — wait for it — we’ll do much better than we do now. Be happier, get a wider audience, even grow artistically.
That’s a big admission for many people in our field, but it’s the truth. If we want a new, bigger, younger audience — which we badly need! — then, yes, our prestige stemming from a lingering sense of our superlative importance) does give us an advantage. So many people I meet say, in an apologetic way, that they know they should listen to classical music.
But then they never do it! Which suggests the downside of our prestige. It can scare people away. Makes people think they don’t know enough to enjoy classical music, that they need to be educated in it, that at concerts there are special rules. That they’ll never understand classical music, that maybe they’re not even worthy of it.
And so on! We’ve all encountered these ideas.
Let’s not be scary
And the more we treat our music — which is only the classical music of Europe (India, Iran, and other countries have classical music of their own) — as special, the more we scare people away.
So if we give up on that, and just happily say, hey, European classical music is just one the many kinds of music you can enjoy…if we show that we like other kinds of music, too…if we show that we live in the same multimusical world other people live in…we’ll make ourselves much more approachable.
And we’ll build a bigger audience. And advance in our quest for diversity.
And by opening ourselves to blend with other music, we’ll grow artistically.
i should note that, while I know Beth Bahia Cohen, these are my ideas, and not necessarily hers.