Classical music is paradoxically more inclusive than folk. Here’s why.
Spoiler alert: BOTH can be pretentious.
My musical background is in folk, so much so that I started singing as a child, but only now in my 30s I’m learning to read sheet music. It isn’t that I didn’t have an interest in that skill before, but in folk you tend to sort of learn by ear (aye, even with instruments). As far as my own experience goes, that’s true for both sean nós and nueva canción anyway.
When we think of classical musicians and singers — especially if your own background is in folk — we tend to imagine people who are 1) affluent, 2) pretentious, and 3) holier-than-thou. Often all 3 at once. I must confess that although it’s a silly stereotype, I used to believe it unironically until last year. This isn’t without precedent, though. There was a time when this was a truth, not just a stereotype (Here’s a video explaining the history of classical music if you’re into it — clickbait title aside). So I am not going to come here and say “hey, classical music was never pretentious”, since that’d be untrue; What I am saying here, however, is “the stereotype is no longer true in today’s world”. And the reason for that will surprise you big time.
So, why has classical music become more accessible? Was it TV? Was it the Internet?
In case you’re wondering, no, it has nothing to do with technology. I understand the knee-jerk reaction though: human beings are fascinated with technological advancement. We assume the ONLY THING CAPABLE of advancing society is technology — Look no further than “futuristic” novels, series, films etc where the only thing that defines the future is the shiny new devices, since apparently characters need to be relatable to us here in the present. I always found that funny. If you think I’m exaggerating, no I’m not: go take a second look at The Jetsons and see how the gender roles in that series are reflective of the 1950s, and today it’s ridiculous to imagine stay-at-home women submissive to their husbands in futuristic houses, ain’t it? Well, I bet you any money, the creators of that series thought they were innovating, and the thought of social (not technological) advancement never even crossed their minds. Just like today’s sci-fi authors (or just most of them! gimme some Margaret Atwood anytime) can’t possibly imagine a future where people no longer have the exact same mindset and social organisation as us here and now. But I digress.
In short: by and large, human beings have the most fertile imagination for the distant past or distant future, but draw the line at advancements in human relations. I’ll let you wonder why.
I mean, sure, it’s way easier now to google Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor and have access to the composition anytime anywhere, than it ever was to even find it a century ago (Not to mention that female composers were frowned upon for the longest time, and only now we’re collectively opening our eyes to their genius). So in a way, technology made that easier. But google is a tool. Even though the tool is there, we could have simply not bothered using it. Why DO we even look for classical compositions now in the era of “exciting” genres like pop, metal, rap etc? These are all on the radio all the time. Classical music is something you need to intentionally look for.
The answer, my friend, is culture.
Before you cancel me for saying the above, take a deep breath and OWN your interpretation of the word “culture”. I didn’t imply it in a pretentious manner — maybe you did. Not my problem.
I meant culture as in the dictionary definition: a collective custom which breeds a community around it. Enjoy a photo of hip hop culture above. It’s equally valid and I like it. I can’t use copyrighted material here but I’m listening to good ol’ 50 cent today.
The thing about classical music culture is that it’s changed dramatically during the 20th century. Previously, it was a very exclusive and gatekept culture. It was entirely a mark of status and a staple of the aristocracy (we’re talking Victorian era when the wide majority of the population worldwide didn’t have access to literacy, let alone music education). With schools becoming mandatory for ALL social classes at the turn of the century (or later depending where you look on the world map), one of the subjects included happened to be music (I mean, classical, not folk). So, suddenly everyone started having access — or at least a vague knowledge and sense of familiarity — to classical compositions, music theory, etc.
Essentially, what was once very exclusive and gatekept, went mainstream through the reformed education system. And when a thing goes mainstream, it becomes inclusive (or inclusive to a point. We’ll get into that).
Imagine the implications of that cultural shift! Suddenly poor people could also “dare” dreaming of a career in classical music if that was their wish, because they were being taught the basics by default at school anyway.
“But Meron, classical instruments are expensive”
You don’t say? Lol tell me about it. I’m making do with a folk harp like the woman above, while I save up for a “full” pedal harp in the future. I’m aware not everyone wants to be an opera or choir singer (not my cup of tea either, although way cheaper, since all you need is classes).
In reality, some things simply cost a lot of money, and we just have to deal with this fact. If you need a car and you aren’t affluent enough, you need to save up. The same is true for a musical instrument — there’s no need to get the best one in the market, but it’s still an investment.
Folk instruments are usually* cheaper since they tend not to be fully chromatic (and therefore simpler/smaller/made of common materials), fyi, it isn’t because of social “inferiority” or whatever. (*Not always true, just usually true. Look at exceptions like violin vs fiddle). This is a necessary digress, in case anyone comes lecturing me about what they DON’T truly know.
So although it is indeed valid to comment on prices of instruments as a potential gatekeeping factor (because I’m sure it happens somewhere), this isn’t the strongest argument against my point here. In the end of the day, we all “know a guy” willing to lend their instrument, just like a person who needs a car but doesn’t own one can always try to borrow one, or use public transport, or other alternatives. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It comes down to culture again: if you’re in the culture, you have a supportive community somewhere. That’s where folk music fails to measure up to classical in terms of inclusivity.
Whereas the gatekeeping you’re likely to encounter in classical music has to do with variables (money / free time / willpower to stay perfectionist / etc)… It still pales in comparison to what you’ll find in folk, because folk gatekeeping has to do with constants (your blood / origin / ancestors / looks). Sure, “not every folk musician”. It goes without saying — just like not every classical musician gatekeeps based on instrument quality. My harp teacher certainly doesn’t. But WHEN it happens in folk, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. No amount of practice, no amount of money or willpower will change your DNA or your past. That’s why it’s worse.
I mean, even if we ignore the more serious iterations of this problem (like, ya know, selective erasal of foreigners within the community and all the other “fun” stuff I mentioned before) and only focus on the mildest side of the spectrum… Maybe you can deal with constantly getting asked “why are you singing An Spailpín Fánach if you aren’t from Connemara” in the beginning (although it’s annoying even once, because what exactly are you supposed to answer? It’s just awkward and pointless), but it takes nerves of steel to hear it for the 100th time and stay civil. Meanwhile “I like Bach” is a good enough justification for learning the classical harp, no further questions asked.
And, well, if we’re so quick to open our mouths for criticising classical gatekeeping, then why the hell aren’t we also willing to address the same problem in folk?
I’ll tell you my own theory: attachment. Human beings have nostalgia and attachment to the times gone by. We have a hard time coming to terms with change because it feels like death. For something new to exist and catch on, its latest iteration has to “die”. A lot of people hate to deal with that. That’s why we’re still attached to the idea of classical musicians being elitist even though it isn’t “a thing” anymore since the Victorian era. The world changed. But uhh, change, that’s very scary. Attachment is cosier, it feels safer and more familiar.
Attachment is also behind folk gatekeeping: 10 times out of 10, folk gatekeepers are nostalgic people. They wish they could go back to a “simpler” time, before all this hustle and bustle of globalisation. Before colonialism. Before international travel. Before race mixing… I’ll stop here, because the paradigm starts on a positive note, but the more you dig into it, the uglier it gets. I’ll just repeat something important here: NOT every folk musician.
“But Meron, stop being so insecure, just ignore the haters”
This kind of “friendly advice” (which isn’t AT ALL an advice, it’s just a thinly-velied gaslighting tactic to get me to shut up) bothers me more than folk gatekeeping itself. I’m not saying it bothers me in a “my feelings are hurt” kind of way. What I’m saying is it bothers me because it’s a structural, societal problem people are in denial about, and if the outrage of denial wasn’t enough, they want me to enable it. No I won’t. I won’t enable, excuse, or ignore a sentiment that is [directly or not] fuelling things like Neonationalism and Ecofascism. I won’t shut up. It goes way beyond my feelings, Susan.
This is not to say people who engage in folk gatekeeping are “evil”. I do believe some level of gatekeeping is healthy — like, perhaps don’t close doors entirely to outsiders, but don’t completely remove these doors either because conmen and malicious impersonators should stay out, for the sake of everyone’s sanity. I don’t dislike gatekeeping itself. What I dislike is certain criteria people sometimes use for gatekeeping. Like I said above, if you’re going to gatekeep, at least rely on variables, not constants. Better yet: focus on the current reality, not a nostalgic/traumatic past. Sure, the past needs time to be processed psychologically. Sure, certain groups of people deserve the justice they never had when they should have had it. But at the same time (and without invalidating any of what I just said), the past is gone. I’m saying this in all seriousness, it’s something even I, a psychic medium, can see. And mind you, I talk to people from “the past”.
The problem with attachment to the past is that it can lead you to misunderstand the present. It can lead you to shoot the wrong target. Hell, perhaps the target will end up being your own foot. I’m not saying “get over and forget the past completely”. By all means remember it, since we tend to repeat History unless we learn from it. But at the same time, take off this blindfold and JUST LOOK at the present too. I hope this isn’t asking too much. I believe in you. Zero sarcasm.
So no, sorry, I won’t “ignore the haters”. I continue to practise folk regardless of it, don’t worry. I continue to be the freak who doesn’t quite belong in Chilean/Argentinian tradition because I wasn’t born there, and the freak who doesn’t belong in the Irish one for lack of blood — regardless of the nuisance. Classical music is just a new passion on the side. And if one day I find myself in another cultural community completely at random (say, Nigerian or Chinese. Who knows?) I’ll practice that too. Respectfully and BOLDLY. The more racial/background gatekeepers I bother with it, the better. I am simply talking about this “hate” at the same time. It is not anyone’s place to try and silence me.
I will continue to talk about it as long as I need to. In case a miracle happens, and this racial/background gatekeeping in folk stops happening completely, I will consider it a thing of the past and stop harping on it (pun delightfully intended).