The following took place during my time in undergrad. It is a cautionary tale.
I was fortunate enough to get an internship working with the operations department of a moderately large symphony orchestra. The experience was very valuable for me; I probably got close to ten free meals out of it.
On the first of these complimentary boxed lunches, we interns went around and introduced ourselves along with our majors. Now, I was a young and tender child, and I didn’t have a lot of experience in this conversational dance called “who will have the most fiscally justifiable degree”. It’s a dreadful ceremony among young professionals, a masochist cult of anthropomorphic LinkedIn profiles who don’t bat an eye to being compensated entirely via wet turkey sandwiches. “What’s your major?”, much like how the adults say “What do you do?”, is less of a fun ice breaker and more of a means for interns to gage the each other’s net worth. I remember the interaction as such:
“Oh, uh, my major? Music Performance.” I utter with a mouthful of bad sandwich and shame.
Wow! That’s interesting, what do you play?
“The trombone,” I answer.
I feel faint, knowing the deathblow cometh: Ah, okay…what do you plan on doing with that?
After this question, I usually mumble something about “auditioning” before everything goes black and I wake up in a practice room, an IV with Yamaha Slide Lubricant taped to my arm. What happened instead was an angel appeared to my rescue:
“That’s amazing! I’ve always admired the classically trained”
The Volunteer Coordinator, a benevolent figure who no doubt had taken pity on many of my kin, had come to my aid. Instead of graciously accepting her allyship, however, I said something very stupid:
“Classically trained? What do you mean?”
“Well, isn’t that what people who attend music schools are called? That’s just how we describe our symphony musicians”
This was, in fact, the first time someone had given me this honorific title. And despite the circumstances for which it was meant to empower me in the face of this humiliating ritual, it made me feel…gross? Classically trained? The phrase evokes images of boys in robes reading The Republic in Ancient Greek, not me.
The memory of this exchange has stayed with me, and now that I’ve graduated, I think I can make sense of it. Why the shame of being a music major? The shame stems from the fact that there is a implicit acknowledgement that education is, in a general sense, not okay. Although everyone ought to have the opportunity to choose what they want to pursue on the basis of passion, interest, and love, it’s hardly a secret that for many people, what they do after primary education is dictated by practicality.
A practical major, as I’ve come to understand it, is one that grosses the highest average salary after graduation. Admitting to being a music major is either admitting ignorance to our grim economic reality or a brazen indifference to whether you’ll be paid a living wage after you receive a diploma.
If just being a music major isn’t practical, then what does the label “classically trained musician” offer? There’s something about the exclusivity of music school, the arcane rituals we dictate, and the general worship of tradition that makes the music major something out of time. Entrenched in the roots of elitism, we seek asylum from the mechanized jaws of a late capitalist hellscape by fulfilling an archaic but indispensable role in society. I think if my boss had swooped in and clarified that I was, in fact, a wizard, I’d have been granted a similar level of safety.
So I clearly have some mixed feelings about the classical tradition, but there’s no running from the fact that I did spend four years immersing myself in the study of magic – ah, music. Through the unholy baptism of the sophomore proficiency jury, I’m now steeped in a tradition that will forever affect my art.
What keeps me from embracing the term is that it only serves a purpose when looking to impress or avoid shame. As tempting as it might be to sell myself as “practical”, I can’t help but suspect that we performing musicians have long ago abandoned any pretense of economic security. So why bother pretending I’m something I’m not? I believe that since I have the choice, willfully playing into the follies of a broken society is abdicating a responsibility for possible improvement
Every now and then, I’ll whisper to myself, oh so gently: classically trained. It still feels gross. I consider if it’s time for me to grow up and just play the damn game. No, not yet.
Jules Shinkle is the graduate assistant for Brittany Lasch's trombone studio at Bowling Green State University.