Don’t stop me, even if you’ve heard this one before. I’ve been telling this story a lot the last few weeks, but now it’s got me thinking.
A short time ago I had my first visit with a new doctor. As part of the getting-to-know-you process, she asked what I do for a living. I replied saying that I teach music history at a local university. “Oh, you do music,” she responded, “What instrument do you play?” Mostly because while wearing one of those fancy medical gowns and being lectured about my blood pressure makes me less than talkative, I just said, “Actually I sing.” She then said, “Oh, you’re just a singer.” “Hmm…”
Normally, I would say something to the effect of how I am actually a scholar who also holds a master’s degree in vocal performance, but since I was there to oversee my healthcare it seemed wise not to antagonize, but the longer I thought about this exchange, the more it annoyed me. JUST a singer? You mean like you are JUST a general practitioner?
I think the thing that strikes me strangest when I look back on this discussion is that a) this woman had no idea how rude she was being, and b) why would a non-musician have these kinds of notions about the comparative skill set of various types of musicians?
Certainly, there are stereotypes associated with performers of different instruments/voices and styles of music. And often, the more deeply someone embeds themselves in the music lifestyle, the more specific they become.
As an undergrad, the recording technology majors were seen as slackers, who didn’t care about their school work, and were only interested in partying and playing with bands. Of course, they were not all like that, but that was the general perception.
When I studied vocal performance, sopranos and tenors were haughty, scene stealing ego machines, while mezzos, altos, baritones, and basses were either highly industrious or sad sacks.
As my interest became increasingly academic, performers became seen as dingy, self-centered, and impractical.
Even now, as a historical musicologist, we often have joint meetings with our colleagues in music theory (nerds) and ethnomusicology (hippies).
What purpose do these kinds of notions serve? That is primarily a question for cognitive and social psychologists, but simply put, stereotypes help people easily draw conclusions about a person based on a set of understood generalizations. This then aids in our social responses to this new individual.
Since people tend to be drawn to others who share their interests, the idea that notions about “others” would arise makes sense from a purely cognitive ad psychological perspective.
Of course, stereotyping can lead to prejudice and animosity, and it is our failure to recognize that an individual is always more that what another person instantly perceives and assumes to be true about them that causes the problematic stigma attached to stereotypes.
All that being said, what does it say about the pubic perception of music when a layperson assumes an inferiority of “just a singer” over an instrumentalist? Or a scholar over a performer?
I suppose there must be something about that notion stemming from the fact that singers use an instrument that nearly everyone has at their disposal. Without an instrument outside of our bodies, we as singers have not mastered anything that anyone could, if they tried. In theory…
Our culture in recent years has also seen an unending barrage of people who think they can sing and feel no qualms whatsoever about displaying their “skills” on karaoke stages, television talent contests, and other public venues. Is it possible that performers like these have diminished the overall level of respect that hard-working, gifted singers are entitled to earn from the general public?
As for scholars, culture at large still seems to believe in the old axiom, “Those who cannot do, teach,” assuming that anyone who would pursue the scholarly aspects of music because they lacked the talent or heart to make it as a performer.
I’m sure that these notions hold true for some singers and scholars, though certainly not all. Musicians, just like everyone else, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, level of intelligence and dedication, etc. etc. etc… Nonetheless, we’re all guilty of stereotyping, so it should come as no surprise when such notions are aimed back at us, whatever the reason.
So where am I going with all of this? Honestly, I’m not longer sure. I started writing with my feathers in a ruffle over something said to me by an innocent (though still ignorant) party. Then, as I looked into how ideas like that nonchalantly blurted out by my doctor making small talk are simply part of society’s collective cognitive mechanism. Now, I guess I’m left with the idea what everyone makes snap judgments about others, but the proof in the pudding is how we act on them.
I’ve kind of gotten away from music here, but I suspect that it’s ok. Reminding folks to be kind to one another seems more important somehow…
I had a hard time deciding what would make sense as a listening example for this post. Then it hit me…
Listen Without Prejudice: George Michael
I found this CD is a used shop about 6 months ago. I hadn’t heard the album in years, but I remembered liking it a lot when I had it on vinyl. I still like it.
George Michael is one of those artists who is almost remembered more as a punch line than a musician, but nonetheless, he has a great voice and can write really thoughtful music. This album was viewed as being somewhat pretentious, as I recall, back in the day, but I suspect that the artist was simply trying to demonstrate that he was capable of more than shaking his butt and writing songs like those recorded by Wham!.
Perhaps the best way to approach the music is just as the title suggests, without prejudice. Enter with no expectations, and no preconceived notions of what an artist such as George Michael should sound like. Only then, can the artistry really shine through.
Consider it not only an exercise in listening, but an exercise in living…
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.