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Monday, April 15, 2024

Does classical music deserve to die?

A genre of the past doesn’t have to be dated 

What do we think of when we hear the term “classical music?” For many, the term evokes images of powdered wigs and sparkling grand pianos. The senses recall scenes of sterile concert halls and the potential energy that radiates off the stage just before the first flick of a conductor’s baton. 

As a former “music kid,” classical music was always part of my childhood. Preschool piano lessons, middle school band classes and high school orchestra rehearsals were significant in my upbringing. For me, music was a lifestyle. There were moments in high school where I likely read more music notes than actual words. 

Californian music education was the most rigorous I’d seen in my entire life. I bought into the culture of these programs, and it changed my perspective on the classical community as a whole.

Classical music often reads as a very high-brow art form. It’s a part of our culture that we feel must be saved for the highest and mightiest of society. It’s this feeling that creates a stigma around the classical community and begs the question: Does classical music deserve to die?

It’s hard to convince anyone that an entire genre of music should be obsolete. People within the classical community are very passionate about their music. But this doesn’t change the fact that there are some valid arguments in favor of classical music extinction. 

The term “classical” is an issue in and of itself because it’s alienating. Merriam-Webster defines classical as “of or relating to music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries characterized by an emphasis on balance, clarity, and moderation.” If a new listener or player doesn’t fit into this “classical” mold, then it’s like they shouldn’t be there. Gatekeeping is, unfortunately, an inherent part of this genre of music.

This alienation is not just found within the term “classical,” but also within the culture surrounding it. The fact that the phrase “classical music” is so often associated with high-class figures is no mistake. 

Economically, many orchestras survive off the patronage of donors as well as high ticket prices. I felt the implications of “donor status” in my high school: reserved seats and a spot of favoritism for families who donated a considerable sum of money. These dynamics exist in the lower rungs of the classical community (high school orchestras) and follow musicians into their professional careers.

The genre is but one part of the problem, however. Music education is flawed. It is rooted in a strict dogma that produces sterile musical robots over unique musicians who implement individual perspectives on musical forms. 

In formal music training, you are taught that there is a level of individual expression in all performances. Regardless of the piece, your interpretation is your own and it is unique from all other renditions.

Sure, you decide to widen your vibrato. Maybe you’ll add your own little crescendos here and there. You’re encouraged to practice “good musicianship” and play music with your own creative flair. But at the end of the day, you’re really just interpreting within the acceptable realm of classical training and nothing more. This is what makes classical music antiquated in ways that other genres are not. 

Rap and pop are constantly evolving. Subgenres and new voices seem to appear every other day. Classical musicians are subject to a rigid set of repertoire –– so rigid that they often play the same piece twice for concerts. 

With so much emphasis on the past, it’s hard to see how classical music will play into our futures. The continuation of classical music lays squarely upon the shoulders of young people and those who shape their understanding of music.

Music education is often approached in the way history classes are taught: learn a concept, understand the context and apply it. The difference between classical music and history is that history is completely fixed in the past. Music is fluid and should be taught as such. 

Pianist Gabriela Montero is a prime example of this. Montero is an improvisational classical pianist who takes motifs from classical works and applies them to a longer form of her own improvisational work. Sometimes, she even does this in the style of other classical artists

This ability to simultaneously reproduce different styles and employ one’s own influence can only spell greatness for the future of classical music and will create a space for it to thrive in a world that is careening toward the future. 

Classical music doesn’t deserve to die. What it does need is a fresh coat of paint: A new approach that is more accepting of free form and imagination as opposed to its current desire to preserve the past.

Written by: Isabella Chuecos –– ifchuecos@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


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