The Dark Truths of Classical Music

By: Ian Ye

What is music for? The essence of music is in the sharing of emotions. Musicians paint a scene through their instruments, inviting the audience to find themselves in it. It’s a beautiful two-way channel that transcends words. A classical music performance can be a sublime experience. But behind the scenes, things aren’t always so pretty – in fact, they almost never are.

The world of classical music is very similar to that of sports. It’s cutthroat. Mere seconds can decide your future; your best efforts often never translate to success. The harsh reality of music is that there can only be one violinist on the stage or only ten cellists in an orchestral section. And if you’re not one of those ten, you struggle to find jobs.

So by nature, classical music becomes a competitive endeavour: competing to win opportunities, to win spots in a program or an orchestra, or to win competitions themselves and gain recognition. Winning is necessary to launch your career forward, most perfectly embodied by auditions into music conservatories. Anxiety takes over as windows to improve slowly close. Then, friends become rivals. Toxicity and jealousy simmer, hidden behind fake smiles and congratulations. Watching a peer perform without trying to find ways to validate to yourself that you’re better becomes difficult because that’s what matters in a sport: being better than the next person.

And the pressure of competition breeds a culture of technical obsession. Be perfect, and be in tune at all costs – before phrasing, colours, expression, and originality. In music, that’s the only objective measure of success. But music isn’t supposed to be objective. Any computer can make perfectly accurate pitches and rhythms. What makes classical musicians unique is that they can express themselves.

Unfortunately, the systems of classical music, where competition is so fundamental, force us to forget the purpose of music until we’ve won. I can preach about how my favourite memories come from the emotions I felt playing with others. But how did I get those opportunities? I won a spot in the National Youth Orchestra, or I was chosen to be in a talented chamber group.

Ironically, all of this causes us in the music world to forget about the music itself. While I’m guilty of being overcompetitive myself, I’ve grown to shift my mentality and appreciate the music more. I understand that competition is part of the game, but I’m no longer blinded by the desire to win. I hope that other musicians can do the same.