The classical gap

True Story No. 1: In three completely separate conversations with as many different long-time classical music fans, my interlocutor has used the same phrase to describe a cappella (i.e., unaccompanied) choral music: “It was just singing — no music!”  This story always gets a chuckle from my choral-singing friends, who most certainly consider themselves to be musicians and what they do to be music.

True Story No. 2:  Many years ago, I attended a recital by a top American oboist, featuring among other works, J.S. Bach’s Sonata in G Minor for oboe and harpsichord, BWV 1030b — which, as the oboist explained from the stage, is, “better-known, of course, in its later version in B Minor for flute.”  Of course?  Raise your hand if you knew this already.  Uh-huh…I thought not.

OK, so the nice people in the first story may have been confused.  And the oboist in the second story may have added “of course” to his intro as a verbal tic, without thinking.

But scout’s honor, I could come up with several other instances to demonstrate the same point, which is:  Classical musicians and other insiders (academics, critics, presenters, broadcasters, etc.) often assume a higher level of musical knowledge among the audience than the audience actually possesses.  And the insiders too often operate accordingly, oblivious to or unconcerned about the fact that most of people they’re addressing don’t understand what they’re saying.  I call this difference between insiders and non-insiders (i.e, typical listeners) the “classical gap.”

One more story:  Last year, I taught two sessions of a very general music appreciation course called “The Orchestra Through Time” for Amherst Leisure Services.   Along the way, while tracing the orchestra and its repertoire from the Baroque to the present day, I dropped in some very basic music theory — staffs, clefs, major, minor, flats, sharps, key signatures, that kind of stuff.  With few exceptions, this stuff was a revelation to the attendees, who’d been listening to classical music for years without having anyone explain it to them.  So that’s what they mean by “Symphony in G Minor” or “Concerto in B-flat Major!” (And by the way, the attendees also didn’t know the difference between a symphony and a concerto until I explained it to them.)

Of course, this gap exists outside of classical music as well.  I remember attending a birthday party for a potter friend, attended mostly by other potters, one of whom told a pottery joke.  When I didn’t laugh, the joke-teller said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t be funny to a non-potter.”  You know, I hadn’t previously given much thought to my sad life as a non-potter.  But boy, I sure felt like a non-potter that night.

Maybe that’s partly why I’ve become sensitized to the insider/non-insider classical gap.  And remember: By “non-insider,” I don’t mean the next person you meet on the street.  I mean the exclusive subset of the population who enjoy listening to classical music.  Even they can’t be assumed to know their G Minor from their B-flat Major.

So what should insiders do about it?  I could list lots of things, and certainly welcome your ideas.  But I will recommend a few crucial steps, before which nothing good will happen:  Acknowledge the gap.  Reflect on it — and I really mean reflect, as in looking at yourself in a mirror.  Embrace it.  It’s a fact of modern classical life, and cannot be wished away.  Ignore the gap, and continue as if it didn’t or shouldn’t exist, and the gap will widen.  You will be tuned out.  Bridge the gap, by first learning how to hear yourself as those on the other side hear you, and it will narrow.  These are good, smart people on the other side, people who pay your salaries and deserve your respect.  Work with them, get to know them, listen to them, and they’ll follow along.  Classical music will be much the stronger for it.

2 thoughts on “The classical gap

  1. Excellent examples and suggestions as well. I try to do this, though when you speak to a given audience frequently (most of whom you know are there every time), you don’t want to repeat every explanation every time… then comes the time to decide what will be most helpful in this particular context. But the principle is definitely correct. Assume nothing, and decide what can be explained briefly, so it won’t bore the knowledgeable, but at sufficient length that it clarifies for the newbies.

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