Sunday, November 10, 2019

Hierarchy, musical and otherwise (a ramble)

I have been trying to write about hierarchy in music for quite a while, but I always find myself stumped, because I don't believe I actually understand what hierarchy is. I recently read that hierarchy is the way that men organize the world, but I don't totally buy it. Perhaps it works in some professions, but not in others. The idea that one adult person can actually be considered "better" (a more reliable player, perhaps, a person who arrives on time, perhaps, a person who is flexible with rehearsal time, perhaps) than another still baffles me, even though I have encountered it (and have been alternately attracted and repelled by it) for half a century.

I have always thought of imposing a hierarchy on a group of people as a childish way of organizing a world where s/he doesn't have much say in how things are going. My first encounter with hierarchy was as a kid violinist in all-city elementary school orchestra. My second year I was in the first violin section, so I childishly believed that I was "better" than the kids in the second violins. I also knew that since I was judged to be equal to my stand partner (who grew up to be a stellar violinist), I figured that I must have been as good as he was. He was my measuring stick. But those kids who sat on the first stand were a different kind of better. And I had no idea how to bridge that gap. My older brother was that "different kind of better," and I just assumed that it was an inborn trait.

I was an awfully competitive kid. In elementary school one of my goals was to read every book in the library. Another goal was to be the strongest kid in my school, and the time when my name was at the very top of the "monkey club" because of my prowess at climbing ropes, was one of the great achievements of my childhood.

When it came to school plays, I was never the princess. That role, and roles like it, were all given to girls who were prettier and more feminine than me. And once I was in junior high school, with its ample opportunities for being in after-school shows, I found myself to be cast as a member of the chorus. I knew every line of every show, and went to every rehearsal, but was never one of the people prized for their on-stage abilities.

In high school, as a flutist, I never ventured beyond the orchestra pit, but I set my musical sights high. I noticed that my flute-playing peers practiced, and I figured that if I practiced all the time, I could become a really good flutist. Great, even. There was no other option. I woke every morning at 5:00, practiced scales and arpeggios in the basement until 7:10, and then went off to school. I practiced at school during my free periods, and then practiced after school. Sometimes I went to concerts after dinner (Boston University and the New England Conservatory were a trolley ride away, and I might have read and done homework on the trolley) and sometimes I practiced into the night. I was driven to succeed.

But it wasn't until I returned to string playing after devoting sixteen years to the flute that I found any musical happiness.

I also found musical hierarchy again. I found string players who judged themselves by where they were seated in the section, and I found string players judging me for where I was seated in a section. Once when I played an Ellington program at the University of Illinois and was seated as principal viola (probably because I was the only grown-up amid a bunch of students), one of the section mates told me what an honor it was for her to play in my section, and how much she could learn from me because I knew so much about the music.

(You can all laugh here--I knew very little about the idiom, but the viola parts were easy and clearly bowed. This person was clearly doing what she thought she should do in order to get "ahead.")

After that experience I started noticing some social hierarchies that unfolded in orchestral situations. But those social musical hierarchies were happening in a "world" where everyone is insecure. And musicians who are not insecure about their playing are sometimes insecure about interacting socially. But among young people in their "pre-career" phase of musical life, I still find a deep love for music, though they might not want to reveal it to the casual section mate, for fear of seeming unprofessional. Then there are also issues of ego, passive-aggressive behavior, and the occasional narcissist-in-training to deal with from time to time.

If hierarchy is a male way of organizing the world, I don't think it applies to the musical organizations I participate in. There are more women than men in my day-to-day world of music, and there are more people who do not to ascribe to typical gender-based norms.

The musical possibilities for the listener have exploded lately. Even within the confines of European music from the 16th through the 18th centuries, there is more available to hear than ever before. And now we are hearing music by women from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that rivals the music written by men from the same periods in quality. I still notice that adults (mostly non-musicians) who "consume" music (i.e. go to concerts) often choose their concerts by hierarchy: a known ensemble in a big hall, wins out over a lesser-known ensemble in a church somewhere, and known repertoire wins out over music that may be unfamiliar. My youngest brother, who goes to as many concerts as he can in the Greater Boston Area, which often means five or more times per week, has started organizing his concert-going by the ease of driving and of parking. That makes sense to me.

And then there's the musical social media world. Like in any field, a presence in the big social media apps (you know, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) is the thing that people think makes a musician stand out from the crowd. And when you gather musicians from all over the world and from multiple generations who spend their time playing "classical music" together, and give them smart phones, they can enter into an algorithmically-organized hierarchy that makes some people more visible than others. I guess you can also pay for visibility. I guess in that crowd and with that din you need to pay for visibility if you want to be seen or heard.

Any given group of children will organize themselves into a hierarchy. And physically grown-up children who go into politics or business, or education, or any field that depends on a hierarchy to succeed, will come to depend on that hierarchy in order to determine whether they are succeeding or failing in their lives. And then we have the price tag thing: how much someone is willing to ask for something they are selling determines its value, and from that we get a whole hierarchy of values based solely on how much something is perceived to be worth (the art market, the market for musical instruments). People talk about "marrying up," and that implies that they are marrying their way into a "higher" place in society, but for some "marrying up" means finding a spouse who has more ability to love, to listen, and to care for children than the family someone came from.

Maybe it's time to look at the childish evaluation of position in the world by hierarchy as just that. Childish. Why do we assume that because it is natural for children to organize themselves in hierarchies that it is appropriate adult behavior?

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