Courage in Contradiction
OK, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I sit here on a Sunday morning, wondering what on earth I’m going to write about, and end up with something fairly speedily prepared and whimsical; and other times, I have a thought in my head from the middle of the week, which gradually bobs around in my brain and knocking into other associated ideas until it’s cooked enough to type up and send out into the world. But it’s rare that what begins as a mid-week acorn has actually sprouted to 100 Acre Wood proportions by the weekend. On this occasion, however, this seems to be the case.
The initial thought, as I was driving back to Helmsley from Scarborough on Thursday night after interviewing Robert Hollingworth prior to a wonderful concert by I Fagiolini, was to do with remembering not to simply follow. Quite literally: I was tailing a car for most of the journey (around an hour), it was dark, I was tired, and I realised that if I wasn’t careful I would simply carry on following said car even if it was not in fact going to the same place that I was. This prompted idle thoughts about other situations in which we follow on a kind of auto-pilot, because we are social creatures and used to picking up the opinions and ideas (and actions) of others around us. The newspapers we read, the food we buy and what we are prepared to spend for it, the social obligations we feel we should fulfil – whether that’s to do with the way we organise parties, or the need to send cards to mark certain occasions, or the kind of language we use and topics we focus on (or avoid) when meeting people for the first time. These things are all things that we can think deeply and critically about. But they are usually a combination of things we’ve considered, and things we haven’t. I’ve certainly spoken to friends before about certain political, environmental or cultural issues on which they’ve expressed a strong opinion in line with those of the rest of their social groups (myself included) but when pressed for explanations, eventually admit that they are outraged or angry or acting for change because others suggest it’s the right thing to do, rather than because they have undertaken extensive research themselves.
That’s ok, we all do it. It would be monumentally hypocritical to suggest otherwise. We work on assumptions all the time, in all aspects of our lives. These are particularly prevalent when we have no immediate need to challenge the status quo: in other words, when the current situation suits us more than it isolates us. If you’re white, literate, financially secure (there are levels here, obviously), employed and have friends, most of the status quo will suit you just fine. If you’re those things and female, less so. And female and LGBTQ+, less so again. And so on. One you start to head away from the basic components of WEIRD society (White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) things get a whole lot more complicated.
We (and by ‘we’ I mean us WEIRD people) seem to be waking up, gradually, and thanks to the extremely hard work of a great many people, to the fact that even if our own lives work within the status quo, others don’t, and we should be paying attention to that. For those of us who spend time in the classical music world, the extreme WEIRDness of the audience (and often musicians) is such a standard state of affairs, particularly outside of London, that it’s easy not to notice it. Which is one of reasons why initiatives like Chineke! are so crucial – and it was a pleasure to speak to Chi-Chi Nwanoku about this in Ryedale last week. And why we should be fighting for fair access to music education for all school children in this country. It should bother us that diversity is not immediately apparent in our audiences, when a trip to a play or musical will often (not always, I grant you) will see you sharing the room with a massively more diverse group of people in terms of age, ethnicity, heck, even dress.
And it can take courage to be the odd one out. To be in a room of people not like you. To be the person who doesn’t wear the tie, or the dress, or have neatly combed non-dyed hair. The person who doesn’t know when you ‘should’ clap. (And may I just say, the annual journalistic dogfight about Proms applause is getting SO old now people, there are many, many more interesting things we could be spending our time and energy on than this again…) If you are that person, well done. Keep it up. Carry on having lessons, going to concerts, wearing shorts and flip-flops when you do. The world needs you. If you are the people sitting next to that person, say hello. Don’t roll your eyes, don’t wish they had Dressed Properly, don’t assume they have no idea about the culture they’ve walked into and need Telling How It’s Done. They have probably come because they either love this already, or because they are curious. Both of those possibilities are amazing, to be cherished and applauded and encouraged. This person is not conforming, they are not blindly following. They are putting themselves in a space where they are probably very conscious that they don’t ‘fit’. Show them they can fit anywhere they damn well please. Show them this music is there for anyone who cares about it. It would be such a delight to walk into more concerts, in more places, either to give the talk or simply sit and listen, and marvel at how wonderfully the people around me contradict the old stereotype of a typical classical music audience.