Musical Perceptions: Classical Music Culture- Virtuosity as Vice, Communality as Authenticity?

Musical Perceptions: Virtuosity as Vice.

Scott Spiegelberg, associate professor of music at Depauw University, and author of the blog, Musical Perceptions, suggests that classical music culture could learn a thing or two from folk music culture.


I came to the conclusion that in at least some genres of folk music there was a disdain for polish or virtuosity. Authenticity in these circles was shown by knowing lots of songs in the canon, and through communal performances. Time spent by oneself working on performance craft is less time spent performing with others. I wonder what would happen if classical music took more of that attitude, valuing community over individuality and broader knowledge over specific virtuosity. Jazz has more of that balance, respecting individual skill but also valuing communal improvisation and memorization of the canon.

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7 comments for “Musical Perceptions: Classical Music Culture- Virtuosity as Vice, Communality as Authenticity?

  1. Marc Helfman
    July 17, 2010 at

    I think David has really put his finger on it. Although I still go to classical concerts (usually the rehearsal the day of the concert which is more informal and definitely cheaper), I've heard a lot of musicians say they'd much rather play music than go to a concert. When you think of the pop music world, their performances offer a lot more than just the music. Its more of a spectacle which involves costumes, lighting, special effects etc.–just think of Lady Gaga who was originally a performance artist. The audience feels itself part of the this spectacle as opposed to sitting quietly for two hours. How all of this can be translated to the classical music stage to attract the younger audience is a real challenge that no one seems to have figured out yet.

  2. July 16, 2010 at

    Its easy to forget that Classical music was the pop music of its time.It was intended to be enjoyable for the listener and not just an exercise of talent for the performer. It certainly requires a level of decent playing but if you want a bridge from classical to todays listeners you have to build it from what they are listening to now. What they find valuable . Every generation has its stamp. A friend and I are going to perform as a clarinet duo and we definately plan to add pop and some "schtick" to the performance to bridge to classical music. Franky I think the whole gendre is poorly marketed. With all the studies on how music listening and performance increase your IQ and scholatic ability I'm surprised that people aren't beating a path to our doors just for the boost in intellegence. (sp sucks) Anyway, I think we can open classical to the world , you just have to meet them halfway.

    • July 17, 2010 at

      Hi Keith- The rapidly changing "entertainment" world makes it difficult for and old art form to keep up. Many experiments are being tried, some with success. The main problem with orchestras is how expensive they are just to maintain, let alone actually build and grow. As an orchestral player, I admit that the idea of going to a concert in a hall and sitting quietly in a seat for 2 hours is not something even I would want to do. There are just too many other fun ways to hear classical music which are cheaper for me, and more flexible.

      One of the biggest issues preventing orchestras from adapting is the nature of the musicians in them. High level musicians are quite isolated for much of their lives, practicing to hone their abilities. That sort of introverted personality has trouble adapting to a much more "public" and "popular" approach to performances.

      • July 17, 2010 at

        I would agree. I am trying real hard after performing pop music of various kinds for 30 years to get away from music stlyes, notes, forms, even instrumentation. The average listener doesn't walk away from most performances ruminating over the third part of a concerto. They don't think really of in tune, out of tune, tight , loose, if the solos were hip or in a classical vein authentic. Either you "touched them" or you didn't. I watch the audience as we play some of our musty tunes from the 30s and 40s and they are polite. but when they can recognize a tune that is from the last 20 years or so their heads perk up and they sing along, enjoy it more. What I'm really saying is that for us as musicians to get someone away from You Tube to a concert we need an emotional reason for them to go. They know what they like and they have an idea when they leave if they will ever try whatever again . So, the lines I'm thinking are who might benefit in what way from something I can perform and what instrumentation makes sense that I can create , manage, and promote. I am recently retired from a day gig and am dusting off my mus ed degree and the things I learned at Berlee College of music to see what I want my next 10 years to look like. I have the luxury of not needing music as a living income so I don't have to grovel for 70 dollar a night bar gigs until 2 in the morning. Anyway, thats where my head is at. I think we are poised for some new way of presenting music/the arts that nobody's thought of. I am leaning more and more toward small, intimate house perfromance where I educate, entertain and enlighten while they (the audience) smiles

      • July 20, 2010 at

        Thanks for your comment Keith. I have had some trouble getting responses back to my commenters. Sorry.

        I like your last sentence. It states all your ideas into one concept. "small, intimate, educate, entertain and enlighten, audience smiles." Sounds like a plan to me!

  3. July 14, 2010 at

    There is some classical music that begs for communal sharing, the finale of Stravinsky's 'Firebird'. for example. It has often aroused a spirit of awe and pride when played on the football field at the end of a half-time ceremon. It's wonderful when young people and their parents can share something great that otherwise would have seemed arcane to them. From a performance aspect, though,there is still and always will be a need for real virtuosity in classical as well as jazz and folk music, especially if we include country in the latter genre.This is what schools are about, allowing students to become the best they can be without regard to practical considerations like sharing a common aesthetic. There's definitely room and need for both approaches. There's a lot of serious music composed during the last century that should be part of the canon, and anyone who loves classical music should share it freely with others without fear of being labelled elitist. At this point in history we all deserve and need to know our own heritage, which, as largely the offspring of imigrants includes all the great symphonists of the world!

    • July 14, 2010 at

      Hi David- I agree with most of what you say here. But one of the problems with classical music these days is that it is approached like a science project, purely objectively, with technique as the main goal. Whereas in the times of Bach and Mozart, music was a personal expression; it was a part of the living culture, an organic product of that culture. I propose a revolution in music education, along the lines of “El Sistema”, so children grow up with music as a part of their being, not something to be conquered and dissected.

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