What comes to mind when someone says “classical music”? Formality? Traditions? Outdated antiquity? It’s funny how the term has adjectival implications. I was once described by a stranger who, upon our first encounter, said, “You just look like someone who listens to classical music.” Though she is not wrong (because I do listen to classical music, but not for what she thinks), the images attached to classical music in modern-day society are deeply concerning. Privileged, white, nerdy, cultured (as opposed to counter-culture), not for youth: a relic of an anachronistic elitist society. Through my own experiences in China and Britain, I’ll examine how the pedagogy of classical music teaching is built upon a narrative that supports class hierarchy and cultural exclusion and how it could be much more than this.
This September, I went with a few friends to a classical concert at UPenn where TwoSet — a violin duo composed of Eddy Chen and Brett Yang, whose YouTube channel has amassed millions of followers — was performing as part of their U.S. tour. The concert was different from a classical event you would imagine: silly charades, repertoires while spinning a hula hoop, and concertos with blindfolds on. TwoSet brought classical music to the stage humorously. But behind this ensemble of comedic mishmashes was an effort to decolonize the mind of classical music listeners and concertgoers from the stereotypes of classical music. The entire performance was centered around one story plot: “The Academy of Music,” a fictitious global classical music administrative organization, deemed the duo to be “an unhealthy model and representative of classical music” who do not qualify as serious professionals. In return, TwoSet has to complete a series of challenges to prove themselves worthy. This resembles a Greek hero’s quest, as the duo seeks to bring down the Academy and its confined perception of an exemplified outlook of classical music.
The concert made me reflect upon my own education in classical music. Growing up in a middle-class Chinese household, the study of classical music has always been, in scholar Annette Lareau’s terms, one of my “organized leisure activities” as part of the larger process of “concerted cultivation,” with which my parents keenly engaged themselves. This becomes a defining phenomenon for families with children from similar backgrounds, as parents exploit classical music as much as they can in an effort to gain institutional advantages so that their kids don’t “输在起跑线上” (lose before the race starts).
A stark contrast, however, can be drawn from the pedagogy of working-class families, where adults, as explained by Lareau, “do not consider the concerted development of children, particularly through organized leisure activities, an essential aspect of good parenting.” I remember seeing children around my age from the school next to mine – which was mainly for students from migrant and working-class families – playing on the school field every afternoon after school, while my peers and I were picked up and shepherded to our numerous activities.
But there is another layer on top of this for the children themselves who were involved in such “concerted cultivation.” As the teaching of classical music conducts itself in an oppressive manner that does not tolerate room for mistakes, it instills into children the notion that the so-called “harshness” or “toughness” is the sole, normalized methodology adopted on the path to success. For a long time in elementary and middle school, piano lessons were equivalent to hours of unnecessary intimidation and scolding by teachers. I was frequently told that this was the only way to success, not only in the study of classical music, but also in life. Such belief reinforces a rigidity among middle-class children in China that comes with the acceptance of a toxic work ethic from a young age. It also molds them in a way so that pride is felt for being able to endure such pressure. Those who are not able to adapt to this, many coming from the working class, are seen as incompetent and lazy, thus further emphasizing a class division.
My study of classical music went on after I went to England. In my all-boys, private, white middle school where programmed extracurricular activities of classical music seemed to be a necessity in the daily schedule, I observed a difference in the aim of classical music. Whereas a Chinese education sought to use classical music for institutional and future economic advantages, its British equivalent sought to exploit classical music for upkeeping, whether consciously or not, an impenetrable class hierarchy and cultural superiority.
The first classical concert that I ever performed in made this even more salient.
It was only a few months after I moved to England for school, and I was playing for my middle school’s orchestra which I joined as part of my attempts to fit in. I remember the pristine uniform that I was wearing and all the other formalities, but most of all I remember how I felt out of place. Looking around me, I can hardly see another Asian or racial minority student performing that night. Looking at the audience I didn’t see anyone non-white or under 50 years old. Earlier that day I was learning about the Korean War in my history class. The quick tempo of the music made me zone out, and my thirteen-year-old self started imagining myself as a POW during the war who somehow not only understands English, but also knows how to play trumpet, and is thus taken to the army band to play an unfamiliar piece for a strange audience with very different people with whom I am not acquainted.
This particular experience left a special mark on my memory. Perhaps it was an exaggeration of the issue at stake, but what I observed from this, as well as many more concerts that I later went to across the pond remains true: there is an overwhelming lack of racial and generational representation in western classical music. An education in classical music is not only a byproduct of a united middle-class effort to uphold its socio-economic status and reinforce the extant class crevice, as shown by my experience growing up in China, but it could also be used as a tool to assert cultural dominance and superiority within its strictly controlled sphere of participants and listeners.
Nonetheless, one might take upon the seemingly straightforward rebuttal: how is there not enough diversity when performers from minority backgrounds are appearing increasingly more on stage? It is insufficient if not perfunctory to define diversity solely as an increase in the featuring of minority performers. Instead, diversity means to truly embrace and incorporate the varying identities of those performing into the subject matter. Gholdy Muhammad, a leading scholar in the field of critical race theory, rightly points out how the current curriculum in American schools is not “typically written with our students’ identities in mind, especially Black and Brown children,” and thus, by doing so, schools are in fact teaching them “other people’s curriculum.” Likewise, the current curriculum for classical music is not made for minorities, because it is unwilling to respond to the complexity of its being and the multi-faceted histories that amount to its success in the first place.
After finishing the final concerto immaculately, TwoSet proved themselves capable and brought the Academy to an end, but it was not after two more encores that the duo finally decided that this was enough for the night. Facing a crowd of some 400 people who all stood up to applaud, a sight that I had never seen before in any other classical concerts, they gestured for us to sit down and said “We would like to take a selfie with everyone together if that’s fine with y’all,” and so I had my first selfie taken along with hundreds of other strangers. As I walked out of the theater, I heard the same thing over and over again: “I have never been to a classical concert like this before.”
What happened that night was the embodiment of this excerpt I remembered from James Baldwin’s A Talk To Teachers. He wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” Both Yang and Chen were trained in the same way as any other professional violinists would have been, but they decided to challenge that very pedagogical structure, as they redefined classical music by undefining it, leaving a room full of young audiences – once again, contrary to popular opinion – to imagine what classical music could be.
And that is all it is. An education of classical music is much more than an echo chamber that derives from a collective middle-class and ethnocentric narrative that serves only a small, selected group of people. Instead, it is something very much alive and gifted with an enduring malleability to adapt to challenging pedagogies and to embrace varying identities. If approached correctly, it has the potential not only to decolonize our minds but to also support us in seeking pure beauty.