Stereotypes

As a musician and music educator, I, of course, see music differently than the non-musician. I see it as something that—unless you are a savant or a prodigy (which is very rare)—takes a good amount of hard work, and even scales! I see music (and the banjo) as being worthy of serious, academic study—as something not to “settle” with at whatever level I easily attain, but to go beyond my natural limits, through (gasp!) hard work if necessary.

Thanks to popular culture and perception, the non-musician sees music in black and white; something you either have or not, regardless of what level of actual talent, dedication, and work may be involved. If you play an instrument at any level, it is easy for them to think you are just “born” to it (“cause I certainly can’t do it!”).

Many folks took band/choir or piano lessons in school, and for whatever reason, it “didn’t take” (music is not for everyone); it would be natural to come away from that experience thinking you “just don’t have it”—and attitudes/mindsets learned in childhood are famously hard to overcome (“I learned that in Junior High!”). Never mind that just being a kid is a demanding job; things that take time and patience often get dropped before it can take hold. I’ve known many fine musicians who “didn’t have it” at first; persistence, parental pushiness, hard work, and expensive lessons can really pay off!

If you have even a tiny amount of musical aptitude and/or the open-minded desire to try, of course you can be strumming three chords on a guitar (or a banjo, or a ukulele, or. . .) in a matter of minutes! Three chords are frankly all you need for a lot of music! Going beyond that though, and becoming a musiciancapable of playing music that the average listener doesn’t understand—now that’s a different story. Compare that with being able to snowplow down the bunny slope after a one-hour ski lesson; the expert trail is still a long way’s away! If you’re happy with snowplowing, then more power to you.

I don’t mean to drag race into this at all—because that is not what this is about—but it is germane to my point: I am currently re-watching the Ken Burns documentary series Jazz (on PBS; I highly recommend it!), and one thing really caught my attention. Talking about James Reese Europe (1910s—the guy who introduced jazz to Europe during WWI!), and his “colored” Ragtime orchestra in NYC: Although all of his musicians were classically trained music readers, he found that “proper white society” (his audience) refused to believe that colored folks could ever learn to read music. So, he required them to memorize their music in order to capitalize on the perception; “Oh, those colored folks just come by it naturally!”

Thank goodness (and the hard work of civil rights activists) those racial stereotypes are mostly gone! I believe though that this is still the general perception of jazz musicians as a whole, regardless of race. Yes, of course there are savants who “come by it naturally”—and they should be celebrated as the rarity they are! But the majority of musicians had to work hard to achieve their greatness.

Charlie Parker is often held out as the genius “Mozart” of his day, but we tend to forget; he was kicked out of a cutting session early in his career, after which he spent 3 years practicing 6-8 hours a day (which amounts to more practice than many of us will do in a lifetime) before his big breakthrough in jazz. So, nature or nurture? Where did one leave off and hard work take over?

The banjo fits easily into the native-skill perception, being seen as a “backwoods” instrument (“them country folk!”). Surely education and/or hard work can’t have anything to do with it! Actually, I believe that all music fits into that perception to some extent. The general, non-musical public wants to believe the myth that music is all about native skill. That is no less-stereotyping than racism; maybe I should call it an “unconscious bias.”

Whenever music is referenced by Hollywood, this perception is re-sold. The best example I know of is the movie Mr. Hollands Opus. I was in college for a music education degree when that movie came out; it was billed as this wonderful thing that was going to transform school music.

Whatever you may think about that movie, I can sum up my skeptical feelings in two scenes: The first time he conducted the high-school band, they sounded like they had never played their instruments before (I have heard better Elementary school bands); by the end of the first year, presto-change-o! They sounded like the Seattle Symphony (who just happened to provide the soundtrack)! My immediate thought was “ugh, this is going to set music education back a bit.”

Now, I understand that you want quality music for a movie (and most folks can’t tell the difference anyway), but the story was about a high-school band, for gosh sakes! They could have just as easily had an “honor band” provide the music, and it would have been at least a little realistic (and us musicians would have heard and appreciated the difference, and applauded the realism). The money that went to the pros could have gone into a college scholarship program for music students.

Skill at the level of professional symphony musicians takes decades to develop (certainly longer than any of those high-school students had been alive); I’m sure everyone in that organization has at least a Master’s degree in performance! Non-musicians just don’t get that. Many probably don’t believe that there is such a thing as a Master’s in Music! “What, the marching band musicians are actually students here?” I’ve known several with Doctorate degrees!

Another example from the same movie is the infamous “play the sunset” scene. One of his clarinet students was assigned to play a solo; she was working on it, but all she could manage to get out of her instrument was squeaks and squawks (I think it was actually the actress, attempting to play the clarinet for the first time). To cut a long scene short, he had her close her eyes and imagine a sunset; all of a sudden, she was playing it, and by the time of the concert, she sounded just like the symphony clarinetist who played the soundtrack!

Boy, what a miracle worker that Mr. Holland was! I know from personal experience that the clarinet is one of the hardest instruments to play; I guess I just had the wrong teacher (or not enough of those magical sunsets).

I wouldn’t be so passionate about this except for my own real-life experience. When I washed out as a school music teacher and resigned (not a disciplinarian, thank you), I actually had a disappointed parent tell me that when she first met me, she thought I was going to be “just like Mr. Holland” (and by extension I suppose that her little princess was going to be just like that student). I was so dumbfounded by this that all I could manage to say was “I’m sorry”; I shut up and took the blame for not living up to the unrealistic expectations perpetuated by Hollywood.

Music is certainly not the only subject to get the “Hollywood treatment,” but as a musician and a music realist, this money-making misperception really gets my goat. The movie got a lot of praise, but as far as I’m concerned, it did more damage than good.

Let’s go back to my earlier comment—“capable of playing music that the average listener doesn’t understand”; why would you want to? Isn’t music about entertaining an audience? Well, yes of course it is! But it is also about stretching the limits of what you can do, and what those listeners can understand (and helping them evolve as well). Take Buddy Wachter as an example; there are those of us who learned from him, and consider him to be the “second coming,” but there are just as many who simply don’t understand, and thus don’t like his music.

This is how all art forms and academic subjects develop over time. As it is—with the modern-day popularity of fairy-tale movies, the advent of electronic instruments, the rule of money (as in “got’s to make lots of it!), and the “dumbing down” of school music—I believe we are devolving, at least at the popular level. Without evolution and temporarily-misunderstood/disliked music (which doesn’t sell), we’d still be banging rocks together!

Demanding that musicians dumb-down their music so as not to go over the head of the average listener is part of the reason that serious music forms are struggling today. Nothing against the non-musical listener (they pay the bills and buy the tickets), but my dream is to advance to where I can please the discerning listener! I want to be the best that I can be, regardless of being liked or not! You can’t do that with the pop standard of “it’s got a beat and you can dance to it.”  

While I appreciate you thinking that I’m a “natural,” I’d rather you knew the truth (and perhaps be inspired by it); I have had to work hard to get past the barriers of any “gift” that I may have, and I would bet that the majority of my fellow banjoists have also. We musicians tend to do our hard work in private, so as not to embarrass ourselves (fragile egos!); maybe the perception is partly our own fault!

I say all this in a long-winded effort to reestablish the notion that music is a difficult, serious subject, worthy of serious study. The banjo is a musical instrument after all, and so should fit into that hard work paradigm. Please don’t take this as discouragement if you simply don’t have the time or drive to take the long road (or the rare gift to just “do it”). I mean it to be encouragement; you could do it if you wanted to.

2 comments on “StereotypesAdd yours →

    1. Yes, but only in this form, not in my hand. I may have to buy one! I’m glad to see others doing something like this for the plectrum (though I’m not sure if he actually plays it or not). I actually hope that my book inspires others to write their own (whether in agreement or disagreement with mine).

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