Monday, March 10, 2008

The Benefits of Being Classically Trained

I cringe when I hear the words "classically trained," especially when they refer to musicians. The idea of someone being a "classically trained" instrumentalist or vocalist implies that there is some kind of singular "classical training" connected with the instrument that he or she plays. The use of the verb "to train" also implies a kind of rigor that one would apply to athletes, animals, small children learning to use the toilet (and I don't even think that the word is appropriate for children), or what you do when you have a lock of hair that you want not to fall into your face, or you want to move your part from the left to the right. The idea of "classical training" implies that there is one "classical technique" that is used for "classical musicians," and that there is another kind of technique that used by everyone else.

There is something called "classical ballet training" which is a set of techniques that are used methodically in the process of building a "classically-trained" ballet dancer. It would be expected that a classically-trained ballet dancer would be able to perform a series of movements with a certain degree of strength, and those movements would be movements that a person without "classical training" would not be able to do. What would be parallel in music to this? Being able to play scales and arpeggios in all keys? Is that what playing music is all about?

In the case of performing musicians, it seems that the main reason for someone to call him or herself "classically-trained" is to make a contrast with someone who has only learned to play his or her instrument through playing music that is not "classical," but it is often used as a way of giving more cachet to they idea of having taken (and paid for) private lessons, or knowing how to read music. The term "training" implies the loftiest idea of private study: training at some kind of "classical" academy, at the hands of a "trainer," who demands serious applied discipline. Some teachers do demand discipline, but many don't, or they don't know how to teach students to develop self discipline.

Many of the good musicians I know have developed their techniques after a period of study, and usually it was study with a good teacher. Some have developed excellent technique in spite of having a teacher who was not very good. Some have done it without much help from a teacher at all. It is rare that a violin teacher would ever think of him or herself as a "trainer." Even Suzuki teachers, uniform as they try to be in their methods and materials, offer different perspectives, different senses of sound, slightly different ways of holding the violin and the bow (there is no right way because everyone's body is different), and a different sense from one another concerning the whys and wherefores of playing music.

My own violin "training" is not training at all. I practice. I learn what I can from whoever I can. I even learn from people I would never have the chance to meet, and I even learn from people who are no longer alive. I learn from people who don't even know that I am learning something from them. There is also a lot of great musicianship and technical strength to be found in the playing and singing of people who have never had any interest in playing "classical" music or "getting" "classical training."

I apply my own methods of practice to material that I choose to use to develop technique. I apply my own interpretations to the music that I play. I could never in a million years call myself a "classically-trained" violinist or violist, and my students could never in a million years think of what they are getting from me in lessons as "classical training." Sure, I encourage them to read music, have strong hand positions, play in tune, and think about the music they are playing as vehicles for expression, but it doesn't come from any "training."

Wouldn't it be nice to either eliminate the "I'm a classically-trained" this or that and substitute it with a phrase that is a bit more realistic?


Patty said...

I've not really thought about this all that much, Elaine, but I guess it's never really bothered me. Hmmm.

I use "classically trained" to contrast with those who play jazz and have come from that background. In most cases they seem to be much more adept at improvisation. I'm sure there could be a better word. Maybe "frozen to the page trained" ...??

Kidding ... sort of.

(I have all my students improvise each week; I'm bound and determined to free them from the perfection of the page thing. I know it may sound odd, but when I'm improvising I'm not likely to ever miss an attack, while when I'm working from a written part I might.)

Anyhoo, now you're going got have me pondering a bit! :-)

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for the link to this post on your blog, Patty (a blog that I can't seem to gain access to make comments on, for some reason). I hope that it generates a bit of discussion. I certainly would love to know if this little phrase bothers any other musicians besides me. And I'm interested to learn the product of your pondering.

I don't think that improvisation is in any way at odds with "classical" playing or "classical" composition. All composers improvise. That is the way most of us get our ideas: by messing around.

I used to think that all improvisation needed to be jazz-based (or chord-progression-based), but eventually I discovered that improvisation can be anything it wants to be. Some organists I know can even improvise fugues!

gelci72 said...

Well, I am totally envious! I CANNOT seem to improvise. I couldn't do it as a dancer. I certainly could never improvise ont he piano, even after seven years of lessons. And oboe? Well...believe it or not, oboe's a LITTLE different; it's the first intstrument I've actually "PLAYED AROUND" on! But it's still not real improvising!

Sigh...I think the hypoxia at birth kinda put the improv section of my brain at a disadvantage or something, or I was born without it entirely. Whenever I hear my daughter's choir teacher improv on the organ at church after playing the recessional, I am always floored at how he can just DO that, come up with stuff off the cuff that is complex and rich and wonderful...

Elaine Fine said...


Playing around on your oboe IS real improvising.

T. said...

Really...? But is feels like so much trial-and-error with more error than trial! :)

I do think some folks have more of a "knack" for the art than others, but I appreciate the affirmation and will keep "playing around!"

Anonymous said...

This "classically trained" business bothers me too. Whenever I'm in the position to do so I simply delete it. After all, why introduce everyone to the new PR manager saying she's a "classically trained flutist" when you can just say she's a "flutist"?

Clearly if you play an instrument (and are willing to say so) then you are accomplished and that accomplishment has come about as the result of some kind of training /study/practice.

The tradition in which one develops skills may be "monolingual", i.e. just pop or just classical or just jazz or..., but there's also a good chance one has been exposed to at least a couple of traditions.

Sometimes it makes sense to specify: you might, for example, choose to say that you're a "jazz flutist", because you want to define the kind of music you make as well as the instrument you play. Or there are instances where you might – because of the context – want to clarify whether you are a "professional flutist" or an "amateur flutist".

But the "trained" part? The word is simply redundant.

That's like saying "Olympic trained swimmer". Well, an "Olympic swimmer" clearly trains and has been coached much more intensively than the lap or fitness swimmer, and those two words are enough. Ditto the "classical dancer".

Daniel Wolf said...

Beautiful post, Elaine.

I've been reading Carolyn Brown's memoir of her time with Merce Cunningham, and have a certain amount of envy for the dancers' practice of going to "class" on a regular basis, daily, sometimes several times a day, in addition to rehearsals proper. Musicians don't quite have an equivalent form of practice beyond warming up and brief technical exercises and scales, and we certainly don't do it career-long and in group settings like dancers do. For composers, this is particularly the case (especially since, with C Chopin, etudes became an elevated, performable genre), although I find doing counterpoint exercises is a form of practice that comes very close.

Patty said...

It's interesting, Elaine, that I wouldn't refer to a composer as "classically trained" as I might an instrumentalist. I really do think it's all about us having to play perfectly off the page or something. A composer doesn't compose off the page, after all!

A composer is a "creator", while a symphony musician is a "creative", if you know what I mean.

Hmmm. Sorry. My brain is in a muddle right now (working on a project for my daughter's bridal shower has taken its toll on my thinking, I fear!)

And believe it or not, I've met a few musicians in the symphony who can't improvise to save their lives. Really. So not all musicians can do that. Or at least they think they can't!

Rebecca M said...

I really appreciate your thoughts on this Elaine. But I have to admit that I've used "classically-trained" as a succinct way to avoid requests to sing the theme from Ice Castles and other pop tunes at weddings. It isn't a qualitative judgment except to say that when I sing pop tunes, I sound terrible.
"Opera" doesn't quite work either. I am "classically-trained" but don't sign me up for Die Walküre. Any suggestions for a better term?

(Reposted without the hooked-on-foniks spelling error)

Anonymous said...

AMEN SISTA!! Ya know ive been in pre production of an indie rock opera and you probably can't guess high enough on how many people respond to casting call ads saying that they are classically trained. They say simply that they are but they leave out what they are trained in. Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to me.

Regardless, what am i supposed to do? Hire them based on that and give them a $1000 sign on bonus?

Ive actually posted a little casting call website for my movie telling anybody that if they use those words, that they will be promptly dismissed from the auditions.

I guess you can say im classically trained because i played the cello in 4th grade. Personally, the term is used so loosley that some individuals with the same senario will toss about. Someone gave them a few lessons in something and VOILA!! I can put classical training on my resumes now.

Im also a black belt, but i haven't been in a dojo for close to 5 years. And hardly did i think i could whoop up on anyone then as i do now. Sort of the same analogy.

Thanks for posting this explination further supporting what i also think about the 'C' word.

Anonymous said...


I am an American living in Italy and I really understand, now, why so many people use the term. It seems to be a kind of "eurocentrism".

Itis supposed to mean that one has gone a thorough study of the Masters and the basics of European Art Music. .....As if it is a cut above all the rest of the music in the world.

Americans have used it to cover up a sense of inferiority related to European Culture. Therefore, being classically trained makes one more European.

The hilarious part is that So many Europeans are going crazy trying to learn indigenous American Music...understanding it's complicated harmonies and modes..

While the "classically trained Americans" snub it. It is all so interesting to hear the European musicians and singers include something like Jazz Gospel,Bluegrass, Soul in their to their performance repertoire...
Expressing a knowledge of American Musical culture that many of them no nothing about.

"Sounds like the cow in the pasture looking at the grass on the other side thinking that it is always better...Go figure!!"

Glad you put the topic up.


Zac H said...

for me, classically trained has a specific meaning

there is something missing (not necessarily without a reason) from modern popular music that was relished for hundreds of years, and that is the use of rhythm variation in conjunction with the interest of the melody....

ie... an exert may build up to a big crescendo either by slowing down or speeding down... whichever is appropiate to the music (usually either add an element to whatever music is being played)

modern popular music rarely uses this, preferring to stick to a concrete tempo.. which can have it's benefits, especially making it easier for multiple people to improvise melodies & accompaniments to....

the difference comes when someone plays around with a piano or guitar... do they use this rhythmic variation? when i start playin around on the piano its a common element in everything i try, whereas my friend who plays drums and guitar is keen on a rigid, or at least predictable tempo. i would argue that working with the tempo can add passion, but my friend would argue (correctly) that he can keep a beat much better than me....

basically classically trained (i.m.o.) means someone who feels the urge to slow/speed music up to enhance the passion, as opposed to working with a steadfast tempo...... ... and i love dance/trance/drum and bass/dub step... but im a right sucker for Clair de Lune

Anonymous said...

Many of the SURVING artists out there in the REAL World are all classical educated. Just because that some of you folks who seem to believe that you can just "come up" with ideas based on experiment does not make money nor fame.

Chris said...

I really like your article, but if I could make one suggestion. You might appear to hold a tiny bit more credibility if you spelled flutist, "Flautist" instead... Just a suggestion. I mean they are both excepted, but alot of trained musicians perfer the latter.

Elaine Fine said...

@ Chris: I was a flutist for around 20 years, and have never been a flautist!

I have actually never met an English-speaking flutist who referred to himself or herself as a "flautist."

Anonymous said...

I think it's pronounced 'flautist' but spelled flutist.

I took classically trained to be applied specifically to pianist. Some pianist are taught mainly to play classical music while others are taught to play maybe jazz or accompaniment music. I just tell people I have been formally trained as opposed to learning by ear which is considered more informal, if that makes sense.

Xylotrupes said...

@Christopher, I believe you are confusing technician with musician. The greatest instrumentalist are all considered "great" not just because of musicianship but also technical ability.

The greatest singer is an unusual one because "classically trained" singers are taught to sing a certain way and they need to generate volume; while most contemporary singers have the benefit of microphone and are not limited to a set way of producing sound. I can never imagine Pavarotti singing the songs that Freddie Mercury sang and vice versa. I can never imagine any famous mezzo singing Karen Carpenter's songs better than Karen Carpenter; they would probably sound overwrought and probably wouldn't have the right timbre.

I have never heard a famous player of Chopin play Bach anywhere as well as a Bach/Baroque specialist. He will have the technical ability but not the state of mind.

But in the end I do think "classically-trained" has useful information similar to saying "BFA in music, Oberlin College" or "mostly self-taught". But the proof will be in the pudding at the audition or performance.

Anonymous said...

I play piano. And I will say, the average classical piano piece is technically much more difficult than the average pop song. It takes me one hour to bang out a pop song, while it takes me one month to bang out a classical piece. Being technically proficient frees your you to explore and heighten your musicality. it adds layers to your music. When you find a musician who has had the classial training, even if it's a pop singer, you can hear it in their music. Sometimes classical music is sterile sounding on its own but when blended into a modern sound, there's no touching it. It is vibrant, rich, complex, miraculous.

I would further argue that those with a "jazz" background have a similar technical foundation as those with a purely "classical" foundation. Jazz is a lot like Baroque music anyway. You will find that most serious dancers have a core regiment of ballet and jazz dance, and it is the same with music: classical and jazz are the most technically rigorous.

High Altitude Muse said...

I am a flutist because I play the flute, not the flaute. Please, I've been playing and performing & a member of NFA for over 20 years - none of the flutists I know prefer "flautist." - yuck, sounds elitist....

Unknown said...

Hi Elaine,

Thanks for bringing up the subject, because both as a musician and a writer this phrase bugs me. It implies some sort of standard that doesn't exist. You could have graduated with honors from a conservatory, or you could have taken lessons every Tuesday afternoon for three years when you were a kid from Mrs. McGillicuddy three blocks over, and both would be "classically trained." It's not a genre thing, it's the implied but nonexistent standard that bothers me. Since there's not an accepted curriculum or level of performance accomplishment we can associate with being "classically trained," maybe we could just describe with some specificity what sort of training we're talking about for a particular person and let it go at that. You studied with private teachers for 12 years? Cool, whatever. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Someone saying that they are "classically trained" doesn't bother me. I know they're differentiating that they're all about the sheet music and striving to recreate and perfect what is written on the sheet, versus looking at a lead sheet/chart and interpreting it as they choose. Neither is better. It's a 'whatever floats your boat' kind of thang'. ;)

Tracy Smith said...

I have a degree in music, with my major instrument being the French horn. I did not go to a prestigious university, though I was accepted by Berklee College of Music, but did not attend there, because of financial reasons.

Anyway, I would never refer to myself as a "classically trained musician" because I find that term rather pretentious. Similarly, if I were currently a working musician, I'd never refer to myself as an "artist", as there's nothing shameful about using the more direct word, musician. I find it quite sufficient to say that I've had formal training in music and to leave it at that. On my Facebook profile, I have it listed what university I attended, along with my major, and I let people draw their own conclusions from that.

Thanks for this post. I was having a debate about this phrase on Facebook and had googled the phrase to get other thoughts on the matter and your excellent post popped up.

Unknown said...

Classically trained pop singers truly have an added advantage.classical vocal technique is the best in terms of posture, breathing, tone production and articulation.classical training will build our technique so that we can have a stronger foundation in breathing, tone production, intonation, dynamics, and optimising our vocal range.

Pete Barber said...

Just on my personal experience, I found that my guitar ability as well as writing capability improved greatly after taking formal classical lessons. I did not particularly enjoy the formalness and style of the lessons but I cannot deny a large increase in my musical ability.
I do think that the term "classically trained" should not determine someone being better than another but what should really separate musicians is what they can create. For me I think of a musician as better than another (although it is subjective) by how much emotion and feeling they can create in a song which is something that can occur with or without formal lessons. My point however, is that I found I could create so much more emotion in my own improvisation after formal lessons than before, and so I think that classical training can be a huge benefit to an aspiring musician.
The term "training" honestly I think is fine, I prefer to just generalize it as "formal training" instead of "classical" because formal just implies it is someone with a greater knowledge of a subject training another in what he/she knows as opposed to being self taught. I think this applies to many things really as someone could be formally trained in music, martial arts, cooking...anything really.

classically trained singer said...

In classical training, you will be taught by professionals the various components that go into the composition of music. Learning how to play an instrument or learning how to sing by a professional can help you to better understand your instrument and technique in order to become a well-ranged musician. When you train classically, you learn music theory. Learning music theory, which is the study of how music works in terms of rhythm, melodies and form, can help you hear and create music in a way you never have before. By learning from a professional, you will learn methods of playing your instrument as well as learn new things that you may not have known practicing on your own.