I was recently discussing an upcoming recording project with my Chicago Q colleagues, Sara and Kate. We were talking about a choice we had: we could record some of the standard repertoire we’re planning to play next year (Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok), or we could record some of the contemporary music we’ve learned or will be learning (Baxter, Malmquist, Gillespie, Boustead, Falzone, Jaeger).

“If you choose to record a Haydn quartet,” Sara intoned, “you are basically saying to everyone: Hey, you know that Emerson Quartet Haydn CD you have? Throw it away. Because THIS is the recording you should have.”

Okay, so she was being a little melodramatic, and I don’t necessarily agree with her. When a quartet makes a recording, they bring a fresh approach to old repertoire. But you can see her point. The point is, basically, that if we recorded a Haydn quartet for professional release, someone might say: How dare you? How dare you record Haydn when it has been recorded by all the great masters before you and all the great masters after you? Do you think you have something worthy to contribute to this discussion? Are you saying that you’re a master!?!  

Girl, I don’t THINK so.

Because classical music is so steeped in tradition, in emulation of the masters, it can be a little scary when you decide to step out on your own and put your performances out there as a professional. As Kate pointed out, a professional performance is the equivalent of saying, “Here it is. My preparation and schooling are done. This piece is ready.” We’re trained to feel like nothing is ever REALLY ready. After all, we could always work harder and improve more.

This also brings to mind the concept of Gatekeepers. In our field, as in every field, there are certain gatekeepers who have the ability to give you their stamp of Classical Music Approval. A degree from a prestigious school, attendance at a certain summer festival, working with a certain teacher, or winning a job in a certain orchestra can all provide you with a pedigree, and give you a leg up in your career. (Although as we’ve all experienced, gaining this Gatekeeper Approval doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a great musician, an inspiring performer, or a good colleague. Those credentials can’t be bestowed upon you by a Gatekeeper; they have to be earned more slowly from your peers.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the How Dare You phenomenon, combined with the Gatekeeper phenomenon, is why some people end up deciding to quit music. Because they become convinced that they don’t have what it takes to become a part of the superhuman pantheon they’ve worshiped all their lives. They become convinced that what they have to add isn’t good enough. What’s the point of being a professional cellist if you’re not Truls Mork?

A little weeding-out is okay. Everyone who plays an instrument shouldn’t necessarily become a professional musician. But I have a feeling that the harsh and unwelcoming climate may have screened out some voices that we’re poorer without. In a world that is bleak and unfriendly, we need not fewer, but MORE artists — more empowered and creative musicians. Imagine if we had a climate that celebrated the differences between musicians, rather than comparing them like Olympic sprinters. A climate where we were encouraged to experiment and take risks, rather than encouraged to fall in line and conform. I think classical musicians would be happier, and the field would be thriving better.

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