On not being a Classical Musician

This past week my husband and I met a friend at a neat little performance venue in Decatur called Eddie’s Attic (If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor and look it up — Eddie’s Attic).  We love our Eddie’s evenings and look forward to when our favorite artists come through Atlanta.  This is a place where the evening is all about the music– you sit, have a drink, maybe some food, and listen while some fabulous musicians pour out their souls on the small stage in the corner of the room.  The room is outfitted with bar seating and tables and chairs, and when the musicians start playing, you turn your chair around and get cozy, settle in, and enjoy the show.  During their sets, the musicians talk to you, maybe tell a story or fill you in with some background of the song they’re about to play you, sometimes even requesting audience participation.  It’s a shared experience between the musicians and the listeners.  It’s intimate– both in your proximity to your fellow listeners (you’ll be snuggly here as the seating is close) and to the performers, where the stage starts at the knees of the people an the front tables.  The set up really allows for the whole deal, from start to finish, to be a give and take between all involved.  You listen, maybe clap a little, perhaps sing along in some places, sometimes even cry a little, if a lyric or a harmony reaches out and touches you.  They sing and play, sometimes sharing the stage with each other, and you leave feeling like you’ve all had a good, deep conversation.  It is a personable, approachable, and engaging experience.

Can you picture the musicians that I’m talking about?  I’m sure you can.   Touring singer-songwriters, eager to sing late into the evenings.  Acoustic and electric guitars, harmonicas, often percussion instruments, sometimes an instrument I don’t even recognize.  If I’m really lucky, there’s a mandolin.  (I love me some mandolin).  The musicians each have their own approach to their art that shows through their musical style, their lyrics, harmonic choices, and how they dress.  Most of the time they stand up to play in jeans and a comfy flannel top, maybe a cool jacket, a killer hat, and often some fun jewelry or a cute dress.  I love how different each set can be.  Attending these events are so comfortable.  I can relax, enjoy the show, engage when I want to or just sit back and listen, sipping on a beer or eating some fries.  No pressure.

So last Wednesday, when we were sitting there listening to the fabulous Crystal Bowersox (no joke, check her out.  She’s worth knowing.), I started thinking about how much I was enjoying the experience and it actually made me a little sad.  See, I am a musician, too.  I’m a bassoon player.  A classical musician.  Picture a classical musician.  What did you just see?  Someone in a formal dress or tuxedo, standing on a big stage, maybe a full orchestral set up, while the audience, also dressed in nice clothes, listens, clapping appreciatively at the end of the work (not at the end of the movements).  It feels entirely different to me.  It feels sort of stuffy, maybe even, dare I say it, a little pretentious.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think there is 100% a time and a place for the tuxedo and the formal dress and the grand stage with the lights.  It’s keeping with hundreds of years of tradition and reflects the seriousness of the musician’s training and the depth of the works.  It is important to perform classical music this way.  It’s Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic or a senior recital.  What a rush, what an amazing opportunity to play in that venue or with that organization and an important milestone.  It’s history and convention of an institution.

But as I sat there listening, I found myself wondering, is that the only way to perform classical music? At one time, I would have told you that yes, that’s it.  That’s how it’s supposed to be.  We do things how they’re supposed to be done, and that’s how we do it.  Don’t ask questions and for god’s sake don’t push the envelope.  But now, see, I’ve blown through enough supposed to be’s in the last few years to know that there exists a whole different kind of life on the other side of them.   Might there be one here, too?  The thought is intriguing to me, and oddly, it’s comforting.  You see, I am a classical musician, but I do not fit in as a Classical Musician.  I struggle to dig into the competitiveness of it, the focus on perfection rather than connection.  I struggle with the please don’t let me screw this up for fear of what “they” will think of me part of being a classical musician.  I realize that there is probably that aspect to a degree with any music, but it is strong in the musical worlds of which I’ve been a part.  I have seen it.  I’ve been in it.  We’ve been intimate.  It wasn’t fun.

Music, when you really get down to its essence, is about sharing something intimate between souls, between the performer and the listener and back again.  A wordless exchange of the intrinsic nature of the human experience.  It can be a mutual exchange.  That has been the exception for me, though, and not the rule.  So what are these singer-songwriters doing that works so well to break through the invisible barrier?  I’m not sure exactly, but I think the set-up of the performance situation might be an interesting start.  What if, just for kicks, we put on an evening of classical music and we didn’t call it a recital?  What if it happened at a place like Eddie’s Attic where the listeners could sit and have a burger and beer and the performer had a glass of whiskey on stage?  What if they wore jeans and talked to the audience like friends during their set?  I just can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t take my seemingly separated world of Beethoven and practice rooms and make it a little more approachable for an audience– I’m sorry– listeners.  Would it maybe make it more approachable for the musician, too?  What if that could open up the give and take a little?  Us, sharing this, instead of me showing you.

You see, I think I’m a Flannel Shirt and Jeans Musician.  Music runs in my blood, but until recently, I just couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get it.  Whatever it was.   I have spent the majority of my life studying music and playing many different instruments, focusing on bassoon.  It is an intrinsic part of me that I can’t deny (despite my best efforts).  Music is home.  I feel the most like myself with my instrument, but it also felt forced to a degree.  I am the square peg to the round hole of classical music.  I can’t be the only one.  What if there existed a square hole of classical music?  Would that make the music any less beautiful, exotic, or legitimate?    I really don’t think so.  It’s not a replacing of something old and antiquated, but an expanding and opening of something wonderful into a different way of experiencing it.

So let’s share the stage.  All of these different kinds of musicians are just people looking to share their soul with yours through their art.  We all practice hard for long hours and take lessons and struggle to learn basics and good technique and fundamental scales and chords.  Lyrics and guitars aren’t really so different from a flute concerto, after all.  Different means to the same end, perhaps, but I think they should be able to be equally approachable for everyone.  I will wear the formal dress and bow on the stage and proudly wear my concert black in the full orchestra, but I also really want to sit and play you a Vivaldi sonata over shared glasses of whiskey.

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