We often use labels to identify ourselves and others.
“I am a conductor.”
“She’s a bassoonist.”
Labels can be valuable in letting people know some of the things we’re trained to do. In a few short sentences, they can tell people what you’re trained to do, what you’re good at. They can give a sense of belonging. While labels can be helpful in these ways, they can also hold us back and put barriers between us and others. They can consume our identity, and send the signal to others that they do not fit with us.
When I was in college, I tried to fit into the boxes I thought I was supposed to. I tried really hard to sing only classical repertoire around my musician peers, and avoid any hint that I had inclinations to do anything else. I thought that, if I was studying classical music as a major, I needed to prove myself and be as classical as I could be or I wouldn’t be worthy. I pretended to LOVE music I didn’t (e.g. Wagner, don’t @ me), hid the fact that I came into music as a self-taught guitarist and singer, and never admitted that I didn’t know something about music theory or history. Because of what I had been conditioned to believe about classical music, and whether or not I belonged in it, I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t a real musician.
But then I got to know my peers.
One was Kate Oliphant, who became one of my best friends (and was in my wedding!). She’s a classical guitarist, music professor, and a passionate connoisseur of pop music. She even co-founded a duo — Not Quite Classical — that specializes in pop arrangements for guitar.
I later roomed with a flutist who loved boy bands and played ukulele in her spare time. I became friends with a composer who was passionate about creating quality rep for high school bands because that was where he had discovered his passion for music. Dr. Carolyn Billings, my music history professor, was as big a fan of Schubert as she was Shankar. In getting to know them, I realized that my image of what classical musicians were like was wrong. They were multi-dimensional. They had skills, interests, and even insecurities. They were people.
My misconception of what a “classical musician” was supposed to be made me feel inadequate. I thought I was the only person in my department who came into music late. I thought I was the only person who’d had to play catch up learning theory and history. I had falsely believed, even throughout my college experience, that classical music was for people who had been in it from childhood. For people who listened almost exclusively to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (maybe some Chopin if they were feeling frisky). For people whose aspirations were to become opera singers, play in or conduct an orchestra, or compose for those genres.
If that’s how I felt after having had years’ worth of positive experiences in the world of classical music, can you imagine how someone with zero experience might feel, especially if they don’t ever see or hear themselves represented on the stage?
My classmates and I dropping labels and just being ourselves, sharing our passions and our stories with each other changed the way I thought about classical musicianship. It made me feel at ease, and eventually gave me a sense of belonging. It was the first crack in the wall in my mind that told me that I wasn’t a “real musician.” My classmates showed me they hadn’t all been playing since age four, they also had composers they didn’t care for, and they liked things outside of what we were studying in class. They were themselves, dynamic, complete, and unique.
One of the best examples of this label-smashing on a larger scale is Lizzo’s career. Did you know there’s been a boom in people taking flute lessons since 2019?
Seriously: Lizzo getting up on stage, rapping, singing, and playing flute has made people realize that flute isn’t boring! And she’s never been shy about her story as an artist. She’s shared her failures, flaws, struggles, and successes with people and that’s part of what draws people in. She lets people know that there is for sure more than one way to succeed as a classically-trained musician.
People are watching you. People are listening. When you go on stage, when you teach, when you post on social media, you are defining what it means to be a classical musician. You have the power to show a kid who thinks — because they started late in the game classical music isn’t for them — that it is. You can show the person who thinks that classical music is only for the elite, that it can and should be for anyone and everyone. You can show people that, to quote TikToker Biscuits224: “Mozart slaps.” From where you are right now, you can change how people perceive this genre and the people in it.
It’s intimidating to admit where I started out, even to this day. I do it anyway because somewhere out there there may be a kid, plunking away teaching themselves in their bedroom and I want them to know that that’s just as valid as someone who started in lessons at age five. If I do that, I may invite them into this new world, and start to change what this genre looks like to those in it, and those who feel like outsiders.
*For fun, I made this Spotify playlist of non-classical musicians who are classically trained (one of them even built his own instrument).