Classically Lame

The most bogus claim in the music business.

Classical, my ass

Everyone is entitled to their youthful indiscretions. For Chris O’Riley, the concert pianist and host of the weekly public radio show From the Top, they involved synthesizers, Lewis Carroll-meets-Robert Moog musical suites, and Frank Frazetta album covers. “I was really into prog rock as a youngster,” says O’Riley, who recently released a disc of solo piano interpretations of Radiohead tunes. “I collected all the stuff Keith Emerson did with The Nice. I started getting into The Doors, Yes, and Iron Butterfly. Then I realized that a lot of these ‘classical virtuosos’ were just doing parlor tricks, like putting a rock beat behind an intermediate classical piece. In retrospect, I don’t look too good, but then again, I was a kid.”

And not the first music fan, kid or otherwise, to buy into one of pop music’s longest-running semantic fudge jobs: “classical training.” Tossed into a bio or regurgitated in a feature article, that phrase—along with its cousins “classical background” and “classical studies”—can add depth to the frilliest of pop-culture images, leading some to think that a million-dollar contract is the only thing keeping their favorite artist from the recital hall. Alicia Keys, Dave Matthews’ violinist Boyd Tinsley, Beyoncé, and even the avant-hop producer the Automator, all have some form of “classical training.”

Here’s the problem: Few people outside of music students know what that really means. To wit: extended study and mastery of a complete system of techniques, pedagogy, musical knowledge, and repertoire. In the piano field, according to O’Riley, it commonly includes beginning, intermediate, and advanced material by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Liszt, Shostakovich, and other composers. It also implies a mastery of specialized techniques, performed from the easy to the most challenging tempos, as well as a thorough schooling in music theory, harmony, and composition.

Those criteria alone exclude a good many performers, but like all great fudges, claims of “classical training” contain an element of truth. Hip-hop’s long-lived obsession with street-corner vérité obscures the fact that many of its practitioners are well-acquainted with the scholastic side of music and performance. Erykah Badu, Boyz II Men, Mya, even Tupac Shakur—all have performing arts-school backgrounds. And since classical pedagogy is still an integral part of musical education, that promo clip of your favorite pop singer tackling “Figaro” shouldn’t come as that big of a shock.

But merely practicing curriculum-standard classical music and actually having demonstrable “classical training” are two very different things. The problem comes when “taking classical lessons,” “getting accepted to a conservatory,” and “working with a classical voice coach” are confused with concepts like “mastery,” “virtuosity,” and, yes, “training.”

Take Alicia Keys, for example. A capable pianist, she studied classical piano for more than a decade as a youth and makes a point of taking C.F. Hanon’s technique bible, The Virtuoso Pianist, on tour. Truly “classically trained,” right? Well, maybe. A lot of people studied classical piano in their youth—by itself it means nothing. Imagine someone claiming pro baseball skill based on 10 years of Little League and high-school experience. And, while many advanced players use The Virtuoso Pianist to maintain technique, it’s really just a building block. Familiarity with advanced material and techniques doesn’t qualify as “training,” either. Downbeat magazine ripped Keith Emerson a new one in a scathing review in the late ‘70s, posing the rhetorical question, “What can he do that any second-year conservatory student can’t?” Ouch.

With that kind of face job always on the horizon, why do claims of classical training remain so prevalent? First of all, few artists are foolhardy enough to allow anyone to describe them as a true classical virtuoso. Stating a provable, publicity-worthy fact—that a headbanging guitarist negotiates Bach lute pieces in his spare time—is enough. Fans and journalists often do the embellishing on their own (“Dude, you can hear their classical training in that melody in the middle of ‘I’m About To Go Postal’ “). Which brings up the second reason pop stars use the term so widely: It lets people know that you are a serious musician, and not just a singing aerobics instructor.

“Oftentimes, people don’t have the courage to let their music stand on its own,” O’Riley says. “They have to pull out the ‘classically trained’ badge just to have some sense of pedigree.”

That pedigree, however, sometimes extends only as far as the bio. Classical sensibility, in which players infuse classical “attitude” into everything they play, is as important as technique (consider how Aretha Franklin added subtle soul and blues grace notes and melismata to her operatic performance on the 1998 Grammys). This sensibility is usually a sign of extensive classical training, but not always. Someone like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is an “untutored” player, says O’Riley, but he approaches the piano with the same sensibility as Tori Amos, who has a classical piano background. In short, classical training doesn’t necessarily make nonclassical music better. It merely means that a pop musician has better technical control of his instrument than most of his peers, though not as much as a true classical musician.

Furthermore, technique and pedagogical accomplishment don’t necessarily make good music. It’s Alicia Keys’ overall creativity and musicality—more than her classical-piano chops—that sell her records. Bill Melin, a professor of music at Lafayette College, claims that some of the worst students in his electronic music class had “years of classical training” but were very limited in their ability to stretch beyond their experience. This was especially true of the pianists, who had very rigid ideas about what “music” is.

That’s one reason why Bunky Green, the director of jazz studies at the University of North Florida, is opposed to the “classical über alles” philosophy. Since technique is usually defined by musical idiom—there’s a classical way and a rock way of playing the guitar, for example—you’d have to be a hard-core monoculturalist to assume that European classical pedagogy is the overarching standard for all types of musical skills.

“A lot of time, people assume that because someone has a classical background, they have more ability,” says Green. “But I don’t buy that because there are great musicians, like John Coltrane, who studied with classical players, but to actually play the music, had to go down to the ‘hood and participate in the oral tradition that is the foundation of American music. I hear a lot of kids with classical sax training, and when I hear them, I think to myself ‘Oh God, let me just get up there and play these kids some blues.’ “