Why I’m probably not a classical musician

— although I am classically trained. Or maybe, this should be titled “Why I can’t identify with the tribe of classical musicians.”

I remember being in graduate school for physics, specifically high-energy physics, which to this day, I still consider pretty cool. I still think that quantum mechanics is one of the most awesome things ever conceived.

And at the time I was in grad school, there was controversy about the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. The project was under fire, and people were openly wondering if it was necessary. At the time, it seemed to me that there was still plenty of good physics to be done at the CERN complex at Geneva, that the SSC — drops voice to a whisper — maybe wasn’t needed.

Being surrounded by a bunch of physicists though, I kept my mouth shut and listened to them all opine about How Very Important what they did was, how average people just didn’t understand how very hard they worked, and basically just a bunch of entitled nonsense.

Decades later, the Higgs boson was discovered after the LHC came online, or at least a particle consistent with our current understanding of the Higgs was discovered, proving that yes, the damn thing really wasn’t necessary. At the time, I didn’t realize that my opinion probably meant that a career in high-energy physics was not in the cards for me. I simply didn’t think it was the most valuable thing one could do with one’s life and that I was entitled in any way to a collider because I was doing something so elevated and lofty with my life by studying physics.

Sure, maybe it would have been a great idea for its own reasons, much like your typical oh … Mars rover. But not because the NASA geeks who built it are so much more special than the rest of us and have Worked Very Hard doing things that the proletariat can’t possibly comprehend (even if they are). It’s because they bend over backwards to make sure that it’s everyone’s rover, and that the community is fully engaged and enjoys all the bennies of the space program. (Like oh … improved airplane aerodynamics that make flights safer for all of us. These are hardcore benefits.)

It was the insane back-patting and sunshine-pumping about how much more elevated the physicists were as an argument in itself that really frosted me.

Listening to the opinions on making a living expressed by classical and non-classical musicians reminds me very uncomfortably of the exact same thing: that I probably shouldn’t be thinking of myself as a classical pianist despite being classically trained and playing music that most outside-the-beltway listeners probably couldn’t tell apart from classical piano music. I Am Not Of The Tribe.

On one side, I’m hearing lofty pronouncements on What It Takes to be a musician, with strong implications that it’s unfair that such people experience financial instability at a time when some entire nations are teetering. I’m hearing the same sort of stuff from classical musicians as I heard from those physics professors. We Work Very Hard, what we’re doing is so much more important than everyone else, and those peons just don’t understand how hard we work. Perhaps if we explain it to them in small words, they’ll grasp why we should get our collider.

And on the other side, I hear Keating say that just because she sells music today, that she can’t take for granted that she will sell it tomorrow, she doesn’t expect to be able to do this in ten years, and that it’s up to her to remain relevant. Bassist Steve Lawson says that making music for a living is inherently unstable, and that any unneeded expense is incredibly unwise. He further links to another musician Danny Barnes who goes as far as to say that any working musician who so much as smokes is being foolish.

Jesus. I mean what is providing the difference in attitude between people in classical and non-classical music? They also work very hard, and many of them started very young. What the hell is it with classical musicians who are part of the accepted industry that has grown up around classical music in the 20th century? They thought that they would be set for life, and they aren’t. At a time when we’re going through a cataclysmic global collapse, they think they should somehow be exempt from the consequences. When the hell was being a full-time musician ever a stable career choice, and who told them that it was just because their music was special? They got sold a bill of goods, and waxing eloquent about just how special their music and they are is not going to solve the problem.

Damn it, but that bugs me, especially given that there seem to be an awful lot of musicians outside of that tribe who are a lot more pragmatic about survival in an inherently unstable profession.

And at bottom, isn’t there somehow a way to choose to do something really, seriously challenging with your life without thinking that you’re better than everyone else, that there isn’t anything else just as valuable that people can do? I’m the first person to say that science has been the single most civilizing influence on the human species. But I’m not going to rank either science or music as more important than other people’s homes and lives. That would invalidate the purpose behind both disciplines: that music communicates among people, and that science civilizes people. How can I value the civilizing effect of science and the positive communicative effect of music on my fellow humans if I don’t value them equal to myself? If I think that in times of horrifying financial catastrophe, I should automatically be paid first while so many of them are flat out of work?

And I still maintain that that’s what’s behind all of this opining about how very hard it is to consecrate oneself to the sacred gods of music. It starts and ends, as most things do, with money. That is the point of origin of all of these conversations.

And again, what is the difference between classical musicians and other musicians that causes other musicians to very coldly and accurately acknowledge the financial instability of their chosen vocation? And without the sunshine-pumping blather about What It Takes to be one of them? Jesus, they may even think it about themselves, but they’re not stupid enough to say it out loud!

I probably shouldn’t press “publish” on this …

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