If you’ll pardon me channeling Peter Griffin from Family Guy for a moment, something that really grinds my gears happened again recently: I was mistaken for a Public School Boy. For anyone reading this from outside the rather narrow British tradition, a public school is the exact opposite of what it says on the tin. They are extremely expensive, long-established private schools which have been a breeding ground for our ruling class for hundreds of years. They comprise of roughly the top 10% of private schools in the UK, being in general older and more expensive than the other 90%, not to mention state schools. When David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed their coalition cabinet in 2010, twelve of them had received a public school education compared with five who had been to a state school. Nineteen of our Prime Ministers have been educated at Eton.
Eton College, Windsor
There is another similarly agéd British tradition of attacking these schools and those educated there. I have neither the desire nor intention of doing that, despite my distaste at being put in their camp. I recently saw a superb documentary that followed Tony Little, the Head Master of Eton, and demonstrated that the school is both enlightened in outlook and deeply concerned for the complete welfare of its students. His philosophy is that every child at Eton has a particular talent and passion for something in which he excels and that, in addition to a well rounded education, a school’s job is to help every student find their element. This is Sir Ken Robinson territory and not something you might expect from the most traditional of all traditional schools.
No, what I dislike is the assumption that to be a professional classical musician, particularly a conductor, one must come from a background of privilege. For the record, I went to a very ordinary Comprehensive School (also often a misnomer) in a closed-down mining town in the Midlands of England. I hated most of my time there, but benefitted from some of the most passionate, and caring teachers I could have hoped for. English Literature and Biology were my loves, due entirely to the extremely high level of teaching in those areas.
So why is it that people make this assumption about classical musicians? I believe that both here and in he USA many people still associate classical music with wealth, privilege and an expensive education. Just look at any episode of the excellent American sitcom Frasier where to be interested in classical music is a shorthand for waspish snobbery and disposable wealth.
For my research I’ve been wading though Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, a book that kicked up a great deal of dust when it was first published in 1980’s France. Bourdieu’s argument is that judgements of taste are related to social position and are in themselves acts of social positioning. As he puts it “taste classifies and it classifies the classifier”. In other words, we use our taste judgements to define our own position in society. If you don’t believe me have a think about what drinks you can order in a pub: Would you order a pint of bitter or a Babycham? A glass of port or a pint of lager? Often our tastes are defined in opposition to what we dislike, as much as anything else.
So if the perceived demographic of classical music is that of well-off, expensively educated snobs, why the hell would anyone outside the 1% want to join our club?
I know a huge number of professional musicians from all over the world and very few come from a background of privilege. Talent and a great deal of hard work over many years is what’s got them to the top of a demanding profession. Like many British brass players John Gracie and the late Maurice Murphy, both superb trumpeters, started in colliery bands. Like me countless others took free lessons at school, went through the youth orchestra system and went on to music college or university. My great worry is that as free instrumental education is being squeezed out of state schools, it will become solely the domain of the privileged. But that’s a topic for another day…
If you still need any convincing that professional musicians are not privileged snobs, I suggest you join them for a night in the pub on tour. As John Gay said in the Beggar’s Opera back in the 18th Century: “Music might tame and civilise wild beasts, but ’tis evident it never yet could tame and civilise musicians.”
William Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment
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1. By the way, if you haven’t read Kate Fox’s Watching the English, stop reading this and run out to buy a copy. It’s the first thing I give to foreign friends who move to the UK for use as a handbook for understanding our quirky little island.