What It Means To Be a Teenager Who Loves Classical Music

What It Means To Be a Teenager Who Loves Classical Music


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As young musicians, most of us have already aged. One violinist I know, who is 16, wears a top hat and breeches to each orchestra rehearsal. Another girl is never seen without her small heels. Nails are short and clean, and all the young women tie their hair back before picking up their instruments.

As children, we practiced every day, whether it was beautiful outside or not. In middle school, we went to school dances and played on sports teams, but we also learned how to use vibrato and memorized our scales. By high school we were enmeshed in youth orchestras and master classes, and we began to do competitions each spring—not to win, but because we craved every performance. By the time junior year arrived, we had created double lives, balancing our school life, the domain of prom and homework and sports—and our music life, the domain of Rite of Spring and sight-singing and unparalleled bliss.

Every spy has a hard time keeping up a double life, especially when both sides are so polarizing. As a teenager—and, in fact, in American culture generally—one must either eschew classical music entirely, or eschew everything but. Sometimes, I want to listen to classical radio in the car with my school friends, but they’re unable to sit through a single sonata. “Oh God, Fiona, I know you like it, but spare us.” Meanwhile, with my classical-playing friends, it’s the opposite; any mention of a group outside the genre is a no-no. It’s all-or-nothing. Bring up James Blake in conversation, blank stares arise.  The Black Keys? Nothing. Justin Bieber? Laughs, after a pause to remember who I’m talking about.

As a fierce advocate of both sides of the spectrum, I am disturbed. I’m 17 years old, and I have hundreds of friends from orchestra, quintets, summer festivals, competitions, et cetera, who are thoroughly and completely invested in classical music. I also have hundreds of friends who could care less. Whether these friends will go on to Juilliard or Morris, music or sales, is irrelevant. What matters is the joy that our respective musical upbringings—whether raised on Joni Mitchell or Wagner—have given us, the way music has shaped us and allowed us to speak.

What disturbs me is to hear people asking, as Jay Gabler recently did, who gives a shit about classical music. I give a shit. My quintet gives a shit. My teacher gives a shit. We give as much of a shit as you give about the music that changed your life. But because of the deep divide between the communities, classical and everything else, so to speak, I cannot blame Mr. Gabler for asking the question.

Remember when you started to love the Beatles? Was it when you heard “Blackbird,” or perhaps “Here Comes the Sun?” You didn’t try to, you didn’t need to, per se, but this love just happened, it just appeared. Passion is not snobbish—this passion arises. That is the essential truth, and that is what we forget, when we spend all our time denouncing each other’s tastes as simpleminded (as classical listeners might say about pop) or pretentious and boring, mere “sawing away” at old compositions (as Jay Gabler said about classical).

This passion arises, as it did when you heard that Beatles song. It arose in a young plastics factory worker 38 years ago, when he heard a violin concerto for the first time (my father). It arose in a poor first-grader six months ago, when she learned “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” at school (my student). It arose in a shy and anxious girl almost 11 years ago, when she heard a silvery flute played like water (me). We are not born loving classical music, but anyone can love classical music. That is the essential truth.

I have no idea how to save the Minnesota Orchestra—like I said, I’m 17. But it scares me that kids after me, kids like me, won’t get to experience what I’ve experienced. They won’t have Manny Laureano, principal trumpeter, conducting them in a youth symphony. They won’t have Wendy Williams, second flutist, teaching them every week. They won’t have Friday nights with Debussy and Mozart.

These people, this music, will be in other cities, but not this one. The community of classical-lovers, people like me and my friends, will get smaller and further removed from the rest of the population, who, as a result, will never get the chance for passion to arise. They’ll never hear the concerto that could change their life, or see the silvery flute, or learn the choir song.  They’ll see an ever-diminishing group of aficionados, far away from them, and never know if classical could give them joy. That, to me, is a tragedy, and that’s why some of us give a shit about classical music, and that’s why everyone should give a shit. Because passion arises, and it could be yours.

– Fiona Kelliher

  • Classicalfan69

    just because you like classical music doesn’t mean you have to be a wiener about it. Mozart does not approve of wieners.

  • We classical players are quite used to walking (often running) down that road less travelled. We feel safest among like-minded travellers. It’ll always be there for us… this insular world of metaphoric possibilities. But one FUTURE for classical music is also out THERE… outside the comfort zone in the brave new world of people hungry for beauty and meaning but without the keys to unlock this treasure. Thank you Fiona! Study hard and openly. Shape phrases like rainbows. Lean IN and explain the game of making music matter. Share your discoveries widely and convincingly. Honor BOTH banks, feet firmly planted, to be a two-way bridge across the swift running waters for all humanity!

  • KK

    This is part of why I think video game music is a big deal. A lot of it is written for orchestras–there’s a fair mix of other genres too, and occasionally you’ll get something like an “orchestra plus rock band” track also. But the point is that, contrary to popular belief, the masses do love the orchestra–otherwise, you wouldn’t get shows like Video Games Live, or The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, or Distant Worlds: the Music of Final Fantasy (all of which I’ve seen and can recommend). They just don’t *realize* it.

  • Snooze

    I hate to be difficult here, but I’m pretty sure Mozart would have approved of wieners, having lived in Vienna for quite a while, he probably ate them all the time… I’m a student of classical music too and loved your article. Thanks!

  • JTB

    A big part of the problem, as I see it, is that “classical” music requires silence on the part of the audience. You don’t have to be quiet at a rock concert (or a sports event, for that matter), you don’t have to be COMPLETELY quiet in a jazz club…but for an orchestral concert or other types of music of that sort, you must be silent, and that’s something that takes practice, practice the last 2 1/2 generations haven’t had. No texting, no cells, sitting quietly…for many people, that’d be a highly uncomfortable experience.

    • michael aachey

      I think if you have the passion you want to be quiet.

  • Yes, orchestras provide a variety of unique sound-textures. Video game music has a very different aesthetic than classical music. Game music is recorded in-studio and played occasionally at concerts. I’ve played several and love to see a young audience turn out. However that’s a far cry from the full-length, imaginative adventure of a symphony, say by Beethoven or Mahler. Yes, silence actually becomes a PARTNER with the music; part of the CONTRAST fine art is based on. And we listen INTO it… in the spirit of MEDITATION to maximize the effect. When we listen to video game music at a concert, we imagine/remember visual images. With classical we CREATE those mental images for ourselves, usually just behind the music as our minds crank out what is happening in the instrumental music. It’s more like a self-contained musical movie. The game here is to REALIZE the possibilities of the music. “Classical” simply means it was inspired by ideas from the ancient Greeks… who also inspired modern democracy, the Olympics, calculus, philosophy, etc.

  • Well said, Fiona! What a fantastic post. We’re really lucky here in Philadelphia to have a community of students for whom this passion has arisen too — we even get some of them to write for our blog: settlementmusicschool.blogspot.com

  • Liz

    This is incredibly well written. I am also a 17 year old who loves classical music (I play the cello). I love the points you make and I completely agree! I am using this article as a source for a project I am doing, so congratulations. I also have a twitter called @orchdork_probz that i have quoted you in the bio for. Please follow and give us a shoutout!

  • Pingback: What It Means to be a Teen who Loves Classical Music | Credo: Develop, Acknowledge, Respond.()

  • Stuti Kute

    Hi, I am a 16 yr old and although I am an electric guitarist, I share that passion for classical music. It is akward for me to manage three worlds: School; ELectric music buddies; my own classical music persona. I was 15 when I fell in love with chopin and Schubert. But I am torn because I can’t and will never like what I play on my guitar. It is just not me. I know what you feel .