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