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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Seriously, what do we mean when we say "elitism" or "elitist" about classical music?

Oxford Words defines "elitism" as: "the advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society." Elitism also means, "the attitude or behavior of a person or group who regard themselves as an elite." A graph showing amount of usage has the term entering English around 1950, reaching a peak near 2000, and staying near there since.

I'm seriously concerned about the use of the word now in respect to classical music. It seems to me that a good place to start is understanding what we mean, and what others mean, by "elitism" and "elitist." The above definitions apply in the plural and the singular. Perhaps classical music is a system in the sense of its interlocking institutions, personnel, music, literature, and so on. Concerning groups or individuals, while attitudes are important I think what we say on TalkClassical counts as behavior.

In any case, what do you mean by "elitism" and "elitist" as used in 2021?
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Thanks for these ideas! Here are brief notes on the above 10 posts. Hope I'm not putting words in anyone's mouth:

OP#1: Elitism means both (1) the social phenomenon and (2) the individual elitist's attitude or behavior
#2. Classical music (CM) elitism identified in CM by people outside of it, and also among CM enthusiasts towards each other
#3. Good judgement and taste found only in a few (RK: are these an elite?)
#4. "Elite" as adjective is applied toward the very skilled in a certain area, but as a noun is applied more generally by people who regard themselves as an elite
#5. CM for the audience member is not elite, in appearance, cost, acceptance, accessibility
#6. Unlike club music CM is not elite, doesn't require that you fit with the crowd
#7. Doesn't care about meaning, pleased to be part of CM elite as would father
#8. "Elite" used only to refer to perfection of particular artists
#9. Elitism is illogical - we don't have power to define ourselves.
#10. Art is attempt to define ourselves that won't succeed fully.

From the above it seems to me that elitism means a number of different things. It is applied to society and the individual, and from outside and within CM. It applies of necessity to some artists and the most perceptive judges. Used negatively it is unfair to apply the label to CM audiences, and the whole idea may be illogical.

I guess I'm more aggravated about people calling CM elitist than some. Perhaps because I worked in CM and have been called "elitist" in a negative way. I avoid using the word because I believe it causes confusion and discord. But I'm not saying it shouldn't be used.

IMO classical music can be elitist but should not be assumed to be. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be bullied by this word.
 

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Discussion Starter · #21 · (Edited)
It's often a boogeyman used by people who either generally dislike "high culture" or (understandably) dislike the snobbishness of some people in or into high culture. Such snobs do sometimes exhibit elitist exclusionary behavior but IMO they are so marginal nowadays that to use them for an attack against e.g. classical is strawmanning.
As I occasionally wrote in other threads, classical music has tried to cater to a broader audience for many decades now. There has been some but limited success but to me it seems the zenith has been passed ...
Without a doubt snobbery has been an undesirable part of classical music and institutional biases are still there to see. Many years ago at one of my music teaching positions, an elderly colleague referred to students as "the peasants!"

Now as you say, classical music has tried to broaden its scope and appeal but with mixed results. For those who work in classical music reduction of opportunities and the resultant effect on one's life can be harmful. There is the irony that one is accused of being an elitist while knowing if that was ever true, those days have long passed. Furthermore, still-existent connotations of "elitism" from the general realm of existence are being steered unfairly at classical music, which is in many ways a poor area now.
 

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Discussion Starter · #32 · (Edited)
I know that in my life learning piano and teaching piano to young people - and teaching piano to adult beginners and learning to tune pianos has been helpful in so many ways in my career in science.
Teaching music at different levels -- including beginners -- certainly has helped to keep me grounded. For that matter, so has reading over this thread, because a number of positive points including the one you just raised hadn't occurred to me.

Elitism will remain with us as an issue we need to consider I think, but it shouldn't be a perennial accusation and pretext for damaging attacks. I notice that here it is possible to discuss elitism -- which has a political context -- while keeping the emphasis on how it applies to music rather than getting into a general political battle. Because the latter behaviour is now against the TC rules, I hope people are less likely to veer off topic or even undermine whole discussions. (By the way, the word "Seriously," in the thread title was partly a reminder to myself to be just that, and to avoid silly humour and the like.) :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #35 · (Edited)
Yes, but there's one more point not showing up in here so far, and it might be divisive…
I suspect that without the elitism I wouldn't have stuck it out with learning classical piano, from my first slight fascinations with popular music. I was at an age wherein it motivated me to be a more disciplined sponge to absorb it all. My teacher was austere and very snobbish, it seemed to me as a young observer. It was all for the best eventually (not at the time).
Your observation is a good example of why we have to be so careful in using the "e"-word. What we mean by it is not simply a matter of dictionary definition. What does it mean to me? in my life-situation; or to you; at this time; in the future; and how much? Not a stable word, and yet people unthinkingly use it to make judgements of great finality.

I'm glad it worked out for you eventually. During the time I was teaching music, parental involvement was becoming much more recognized as important and I had to learn to communicate better with the whole family, not just the student. It's common for a classical piano student to want to play popular music; I was one of them. However the situation is accommodated, it has to be supported by the student, parents, and siblings through ongoing discussions that build trust in everyone concerned.

And I've never met pianists who play popular music regret as adults that they continued their classical lessons up to reaching an advanced level before stopping.
 

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Discussion Starter · #63 ·
Yes, but there's one more point not showing up in here so far, and it might be divisive…

I suspect that without the elitism I wouldn't have stuck it out with learning classical piano, from my first slight fascinations with popular music. I was at an age wherein it motivated me to be a more disciplined sponge to absorb it all. My teacher was austere and very snobbish, it seemed to me as a young observer. It was all for the best eventually (not at the time).
Yes this is a tricky point, which is why I've avoided it -- for 2-1/2 months! First, we need a developmental perspective. It's pretty common for young classical piano students (teens or up to a few years younger) to be interested in playing pop music. But if they suspend their classical piano training, in my experience they may regret it later. Perhaps your seemingly austere, snobbish teacher also conveyed a sense of wisdom about the longer-term value of classical piano both for the student and the culture. Perhaps other individuals in your life did too. It's important to try for a just result for the student, parents, and teacher -- whether it's a balance, a focus on one or the other, or something else all together. And not forget that classical piano also can be a support for other activities. For you I'm glad it was all for the best -- the key word I think is "eventually."
 

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Discussion Starter · #101 ·
But what I know for sure is that there are better and worse ways to appreciate classical music, and I strive to do it in the best ways only.
Thank you, I think your post is in the spirit of the OP. That is because you have re-focused attention onto the music itself, which you strive to appreciate in the best ways. The problem with "elitist" and "elitism" is that they imply by association that the systems and societies that once produced classical music are still dominant in the way they used to, or that the people who are devoted to classical music still share the socio-cultural attitudes of those systems and societies. Those ideas have to be proven, not assumed. And I believe that the efforts we make as listeners, performers, composers, and so on bring us closer to the nature of classical music than does any amount of class analysis.
 

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Discussion Starter · #126 ·
I actually meant that comment as a self-referential and self-deprecating joke because like everyone else I have an elitist attitude to music.
(re post #103). Oh well. All I can say is that if someone calls me or strongly implies that I'm an elitist it really hurts. It's so ignorant and dismissive, especially from people who've known me well for a long time. Fortunately it hasn't happened very often. But I'm always wary, more so in recent years as open attacks on classical music have become more common.
 
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