I had a rather shocking exchange on Facebook the other day, which was shocking mostly because I hadn’t realized how far I’d come in my thinking, away from what I might call the “old school” of “serious” classically-trained musicians, who are trained to work hard, not to enjoy themselves.
The exchange exemplified for me much of what I think is wrong with the world of classical music these days, and why so few people actually pursue it as a career and succeed, while enjoying happy lives. It is also a key to why such high percentages of musicians suffer from mental illness, as well as physical pain.
It all started with an innocent comment a friend made (who is a fantastic musician who should have an endless supply of excellent students knocking at her door), wondering why people are “scared off” when she suggests that they take lessons in her rather uncommon instrument.
Here was part of my response, intended to encourage her in attracting more students: “Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking, calling it something else (not “lessons”), and giving it a different feel, something that is really attractive and fun instead of the old school “hard work”, etc?”
What shocked me was the response my comment generated, from a rather high-profile professional artist and educator – a response which generated quite a few “likes”. I won’t quote all of her response verbatim, but here’s a summary: “Lessons are hard work. A career in music is MUCH harder. We do people a disservice by making work sound like fun. It’s not fun. It’s disciplined, it’s critical, it’s rigorous, and when it goes well, it’s rewarding. I really do not think “playing” and studying or practicing are the same thing. It’s insulting to the work we do to think it’s easy or entertaining.”
Her comment not only surprised me, but made me feel sad. Sad for this performer who works so hard without having any fun, for others like her, for the students, for the whole world of classical music… Because this attitude is joyless, and closed to new possibilities.
Where is the love of the everyday music-making that we give to ourselves? Yes, music-making can be rewarding, but not just when the performance goes well and as planned! Where is the joy of learning, of experimentation? The spark of curiosity? The excitement of discovery? Where is the delight in making sound for the sake of making sound? Why take the fun out of what we do 90% of the time, which is in the practice room, not onstage? Why make such a harsh division between play and the studied attention we pay to detail in the practice room or in a lesson?
Maybe I’m over-reacting, but I don’t think so. Classical musicians are notorious for being serious, hard-working perfectionists who don’t have a lot of fun. If having fun is devalued like this, it’s easy to see why. Just think about classical music performances, by the way… how often are they “fun”? And how many musicians do you see onstage really truly enjoying themselves? How many smiles? I tell you, it’s all too uncommon. It’s the #1 reason I wanted to become a soloist instead of an orchestral musician.
The professionals you see onstage who are working so hard and not having any fun (and are likely in pain, too) used to be students. If students are taught to “work hard” and don’t have fun in their lessons, then they won’t have fun in the practice room, either. If they don’t have fun in the practice room, they won’t have fun onstage. My Alexander Technique students at CCM come to me all the time telling me they get performance anxiety just to go to their instrumental lessons – this is why!!
Here’s how I responded on facebook:
“Personally, I do not see the concepts of “fun, ease, and play” and “discipline, criticality, and rigor” as mutually exclusive. I strive to find a balance between freedom and form, seriousness and light-heartedness, work and play… in such a way that they support each other and, in the end, become no longer distinguishable because of the attentiveness this balance brings to the moment. I feel infinitely blessed that I have found ways to make my work fun.
Also, when people comment on my playing by saying how “easy” it looks, I appreciate that – I am not insulted. Because it IS easy – they’re right! Yes, it’s easy because of the many many hours of “work” I’ve put into it – but I’ve put those hours in only because I’ve enjoyed it – and I know that is not the case for many musicians. Many musicians are suffering because of all the work they’ve put into something for so many years without much joy, for very little visible gain.
It is my belief, gained from years of experience working as an AT teacher specializing in helping musicians, and based on research, that far too many are suffering from psychological and physical pain, in large part to a lack of joy in what they do.* In fact, I think the whole classical music industry is suffering from this lack of joy, but that’s another topic altogether.
Good work CAN be fun – if we want it to be….”
I’m not against the concept of “hard work”, mind you, as long as it’s not painful. But why not enjoy the work while you’re at it? You’ll be making much better music that way, because you’ll be using your body-mind with much less tension, and your movements will be more fluid and spontaneous.
Thankfully, not all classical musicians have the attitude of “this is work, not fun”. I did get one “like” for the above comment, from another well-known professional who loves music and loves every moment of making it. Thanks to such musicians, the joy of classical music will certainly live on.
But, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why a musician would prefer things to be hard than easy when given the choice?!!
I would love to hear your comments on this.
* In 1988, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians surveyed orchestral musicians and found from the 2,212 respondents that 76 percent had a significant medical problem that affected their ability to play.
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