Given how fraught the trad/classical divide tends to be, I suppose I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when my entry (“frank advice for classical musicians in traditional spaces“) took off last week.

No matter what, it has been such an honor to receive multiple perspectives in response to my call for a mosaic of stories.  Here are three responses that were shared – each representing experiences that cross boundaries of many kinds.

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“…in the end, both trad and classical players benefit the most when assessments of the “authenticity” of a player’s style are not the dominant aspect of the exchange.”  From pianist Heather Taves in Waterloo, Ontario, who kindly offers samples of her recordings here:

I do agree with much of this, but I confess for me it brings up some problematic points too. I grew up in the heart of “trad” country, Prince Edward Island, in the 60s and 70s when “trad” wasn’t touristy or a big seller, it was just what everyone there heard everywhere, such as on our one radio station. To me, it means home, family friends, and a whole complex of other stuff that’s “bred in the bone”. Yet I was trained in classical.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, the classical and trad worlds of that time had an uneasy relation to each other. Since there were many trad musicians and only a few classical, as a school kid I was sometimes made to feel awkward or shamed for playing classical. This makes your suggestion of classical musician being “humble” towards trad players problematic for me. You see, for me, if anything, my upbringing privileged the trad players. Nevertheless, I loved trad and took part in it, albeit with a classical “accent” – but what’s wrong with that?

Thus, I can’t really agree that the interchange between classical and trad must be the classical musician 100% giving themself over to “humbling” themselves to learn the trad style. Music is alive, and we are who we are. Music changes every time it’s approached, there’s no need for having to feel like a lesser person or hide one’s own voice. Clearly, we have much to learn about style from one another. But I also think that in the end, both trad and classical players benefit the most when assessments of the “authenticity” of a player’s style are not the dominant aspect of the exchange.

I’ll leave you guys with a little story from my life. There was a time in my life which was mostly spent in a Mi’kmaq community. Since there were no pianos around I had my Roland with me, and spent many hours talking about and making music with friends there. Just never classical. After some months, one day we had to move the Roland to the living room of a Grandmother for some reason. Thinking I was alone, I started to lose myself in playing solo classical music. When I finally looked up, the Elder was sitting watching me with a radiant expression. Then she said, “NOW I know who you are!” That was one of the most impressive lessons I ever learned – not to hold back from bringing my own background to the table.

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“I hope that as a music teacher I can help my students feel good about performing ALL music.”  From Tanya in Hong Kong:

When I was about 11 I saw Riverdance on TV. I watched the beautiful woman playing an electric blue violin and thought to myself ‘I wish I could play like that!’. I had been learning the violin already at school since I was about 10. My parents bought the Riverdance CD and I listened to it eagerly, and even learnt some of the tunes by ear. But despite this I continued to learn the violin from teachers who were all firmly rooted in the classical tradition.

I then completed a Music/Education degree, specialising in violin performance.  I quickly became fed up with the competitive, ‘no-mistakes-allowed’ attitude of playing classical music. And I also suffered from debilitating performance anxiety. Although I loved music passionately, I certainly did not love playing the violin by the time I graduated.

After completing my degree, I taught music full-time in a secondary school for a few years before quitting my teaching job and becoming unemployed. I joined a group of young people who performed traditional folk and bush dances. I was given some sheet music for the tunes and started to learn them from the notation. I progressed slowly, able to play the notes but never really getting the ‘feel’ of the music.

Three of the young musicians in the group were siblings who had grown up surrounded by traditional music and they certainly had a natural ability to play it. I began to spend a lot of time with this family as they welcomed me into their lives. This was already completely different to my classical music experience: since when did people sit around playing music, chatting and laughing in their lounge-room? Yet isn’t that how classical music performances began: in venues where audience members were free to walk around and chat and eat at their leisure? Perhaps the two worlds are not so separate after all….

The point is that the actual learning of traditional music for me was so much more enjoyable. Sure, it was extremely difficult to ‘unlearn’ many of the techniques I had developed during my music degree and to actually start listening to and feeling music rather than worrying about how many mistakes I was making. But I had so much support: from the family I mentioned before, and in general all the players at the sessions in Melbourne and at folk festivals around Australia. Traditional music is a shared music and I truly hope it stays that way.

One of the most wonderful developments for me has been my willingness to now explore different styles. I started with Irish and Scottish, then I began to explore American traditional music and now I am even delving into jazz. I now live in Hong Kong and play many gigs alongside my music teaching job. My husband is a trumpeter who plays a lot of jazz and he always says how much he wishes jazz music was as open and friendly as folk music is. I wish the same for classical and hope that as a music teacher I can help my students feel good about performing ALL music.

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“…I wanted to play my violin again. A coworker was taking beginning guitar lessons through a community center that was teaching mariachi style music. He said they were looking for a violin player for their group and I said yes, but that I hadn’t played in about 10 years…”  from Shannon in Austin, Texas:

I played the violin 4th grade through freshman year of college when I realized I wasn’t really a “serious” musician and I felt over my head in the college orchestra. I played in my high school orchestra, church groups, and I briefly took Irish fiddle lessons (but dropped out when they were trying to get me to take on more than just the fiddle lessons that I wanted. I don’t sing or dance.)

A few years ago I wanted to play my violin again. A coworker was taking beginning guitar lessons through a community center that was teaching mariachi style music. He said they were looking for a violin player for their group and I said yes, but that I hadn’t played in about 10 years. Did I mention that I barely passed Spanish in college? The music teacher would speak in Spanish to the rest of the class then translate to me. They were super welcoming even though I was not a part of the tradition. I was just there for the chance to play again with a group that was more a beginner fun group than something more advanced and over my head. The mariachi style actually felt more familiar to me playing wise (the pretty long stroked ballads) than the fiddle lessons I tried even though I was wasn’t super familiar with the music before showing up for lessons.

I had a good time playing music again. I got to play a Posada at Christmas time around the neighborhood where the community center was. The classes were free (through a grant) and were designed to teach basic intro guitar, and most of the class was guitar players or guitarron players, but the teacher was a violin player and I believe there was one other much younger violin player (eight or nine?). My husband made a video of our Posada and we showed it to my mom and dad when we went home for Christmas.

After one semester the grant ran out and I don’t think there were any options to pay for the lessons. I think the program just stopped. I found out that my dog hates when I play my violin and howls like I’m killing him, and got pregnant and promotions and book clubs and other things have filled up my time, but that’s the story about the last music group I was a part of.

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So there you have it: three voices from the community that read the original post.  Many thanks to all who shared the post and found something worthwhile – even worth debating! – in it.

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