BY SALINA MYAT, 2017 CUTCOMMON YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR – RUNNER-UP
This blog awarded Salina Myat a runner-up place in the 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition. It responds to the entry question, Classical music: what’s in it for young people? We publish this story as part of our Young Writers’ Month.
When people ask me what I do for a living, it feels very self-indulgent to tell them that I study classical music. Young musicians like myself have been brought up in STEM-centric education systems where the arts are seen as an unessential luxury; government funding cuts worsen the situation.
Those of us still willing to follow through with music had better build a fortress that is strong enough to withstand the inevitable ‘starving artist’ jokes and incessant questions of pragmatism. We’re all taught extreme discipline and hard work, but in a bull-headed all-or-nothing kind of way that seems to aggressively emphasise the success of the individual (probably as a logical reaction to the bleak reality of job prospects).
To be a successful musician these days, it seems you have to market your ‘product’ in a way that appeals to as many patrons as possible; programming concerts with the primary agenda of satisfying an audience, prioritising instant gratification over meaningful engagement. Either that, or we retreat into our evermore shrouded niches of intellectual obscurity – still a non-ideal anti-reaction to the same problem: we’ve focused our endeavours too specifically on gaining recognition and/or success.
Surely there’s more to this art than the pursuit of personal glory
Even though there will always be a place for classical music in our society, the personal sacrifice of endorsing it has grown too heavy for many to bother. Caught up in an increasingly achievement-minded world that rewards tangible productivity, we’ve perhaps lost sight of why it might have meant so much to us in the first place. Surely there’s more to this art than the pursuit of personal glory. Otherwise, what more is it than a private party for the privileged?
Certainly on a daily basis, it’s far too exhausting to confront the question of why we do what we do past the fundamental reason of ‘liking it’. When we step into a practice room as part of our daily routine, we focus solely on the short-term goals of that session: note-perfect scalic passages, that frustrating duple/triple cross-rhythm, getting a nice tone whilst maintaining the accuracy of the notes. But technical proficiency is just a means to an end – a tool to enable creative expression. And that’s why it’s essential to be grounded in our creative purpose, whatever it may be. If nothing else, whypower is a more sustainable source of motivation than willpower alone. Without this, it’s easy to forget that we don’t do the grunt work just for the sake of being technically superior, and therefore more professionally employable. We obsess with networking, realising that ability is only half the equation of success; the other half being who you know. We’ve probably evolved this way to keep our heads above the water, but have taken it so far that it masks the essence of what we do with politics and competition. The intellectual value of the artistic process is easily overlooked when we constantly manufacture ‘end-goals’ to chase after. Even though the notion of collaborative art is promoted, how can we genuinely believe in it when we are taught to focus our efforts towards ‘winning’ auditions and submissions in which there is only space for a select few?
Classical music could be a greater asset now more than ever
Maybe we need to shift our entire mindset in order not to be paralysed by the question of whether or not we will ‘make it’, or what’s in it for us if we don’t. Too readily we become disillusioned by the reality that unless you are exceptional, you will probably end up having to settle for much less. We might only manage to involve ourselves in second-rate commercial music jobs that don’t feel genuinely fulfilling to us. In this case, why bother at all? Maybe the answer is to avoid the question altogether, and consider instead what we can contribute creatively. Rather than adapt too literally to a world of automation and instant gratification, shouldn’t we be more secure in the fact that creative careers are the only thing we have left to celebrate our existence in a way that is truly separate from mechanisation? Classical music could be a greater asset now more than ever.
There have been many times I’ve come close to giving up entirely because I was stuck in the futility of not being good enough. I realise now that I was just trying to indulge my ego instead of immersing myself in classical music in a way that creates meaning. Maybe the real question to ask then isn’t ‘what’s in it for us?’, but rather, ‘what can we give?’. To have a convincing answer to this question might just be enough.
About Salina Myat, runner-up
Salina is studying her second year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She majors in percussion performance, after having spent a year training in composition. Salina says: “I still struggle to be decisive about my specialisation; I’m genuinely passionate about both composition and performance, but realise how difficult it is to maintain both at a high enough standard. I think it’s important to write about what we do in a way that might prompt a more open-minded reception of classical music, and create a better platform for us to exist within. I have no formal experience of music or arts journalism so this is an exciting opportunity that I’m very grateful for.”
Check back in as we continue to showcase talented young musicians responding to this question throughout CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.