Why so serious?

Let’s put it straight. This, what an ordinary man on the street thinks about classical music people, is true. They are not relaxed and their sense of humor is very limited. Generally speaking of course, because I know many classical musicians that are fun.

Well, not so many, but some! They exist! And those have an extraordinary sense of humor, they can joke like nobody else and are like a breath of fresh air. But this is a tiny percent. Unfortunately.

The rest is restrained, careful when they try to say something funny: just in case, that it doesn’t appear rude, doesn’t sound ambiguous, doesn’t offend anybody etc… etc… So, after applying so many restrictions, the joke they’re telling is usually not funny at all. At least not for the outside world. It’s either deprived of all ingredients needed to sincerely amuse, or it’s totally overdone and the joke-maker laughs the loudest while the spectators applaud out of politeness only. Also, understanding jokes is sometimes of a problem: musicians (on average) tend to be very touchy and they take many things extremely personally, even if there is nothing personal in the joke itself. You have to be careful that your joke doesn’t backfire…

But why is it so? I’ve always asked myself this question, which popped up on my mind already when I was a kid.

I was a funny mix of an insider-outsider. Playing violin, being raised in a musical family, I was meeting artists from the very early age on and I was enjoying that tremendously. But on the other hand I was surrounded by kids that had nothing to do with music or arts, who lived so called: normal life. Then at the age of eight or nine I announced to my family that I was quitting music school… and my rhythm changed. All those who are into music from 4 or 6 years old on, and later become musicians are dancing the waltz: they move around the circle continuously. I danced the cha-cha: one step forward towards the classical music (going to concerts, meeting musicians, listening to music and participating in the music-oriented family discussions) and one step back towards my life (non-musical friends and non-musical education). Being in and out all the time, being in both circles simultaneously, and feeling good and natural with both types of people, helped me keep a relative objectivity about the behaviour and the attitude of the music circle. So naturally I asked myself questions that few people, who are stuck in only one milieu, raise. Why, generally speaking, there is such a difference in how we perceive humor, depending on whether we’re stuck in the classical music circle only or not?

Years ago, I started to analyse and compare people from these two worlds. First, it was my family and friends. Later, I moved towards acquaintances, artists (those with a “smaller” and a “bigger” name), people from the business and those from other fields. And my conclusion is quite complex.

Let’s start from the very beginning. Obviously, all kids are more or less jokey in the same way, there is no sorting: you have no sense of humor – go and do classical music, you have sense of humor – go and do anything else. Although that would be quite funny.

The thing is that once a kid is dragged into classical music for real, the humor is in a way sucked out of him or her over the years. They mature quicker, they learn perseverance much better than their peers, they train their focus with much better results than their peers, and subconsciously they follow the whole code of conduct of the music circle that doesn’t leave much room for craziness. All in all, it’s not so bad. At least there is no monkey business. But there is a drawback.

Once you’re in the circle, it becomes your second skin, you feel comfortable (or sort of), you enjoy it (or sort of). You do music, your main (or the only) interest is music, your friends are mostly musicians, and your enemies are musicians too. In the end you marry a musician and you’re happy that you’re with somebody who understands: you, your practicing for hours, your touring, your lack of time for anything else, your artistic struggles and your mood swings. And there is basically nothing wrong with it in theory. It’s great. You live in your own world.

What you don’t realize is, that in the process you infuse all traits typical for the circle – which is very hermetic and conservative. You’re surrounded by it from all sides all the time so you’re not even aware that your sense of humor becomes very controlled, different, a bit tarnished and slightly tense.

This is one of the reasons why many outsiders look at the classical musicians as at weirdos. Boring, stiff – they say. Classical musicians are, of course, often aware of being perceived this way, but they like to explain it by saying, that: first of all it’s not true, second of all – those outsiders don’t like them simply because they don’t understand classical music. And if you don’t understand classical music, you’re immediately worse, less sophisticated etc. In other words, not worth to be bothered with. Dot. They won’t tell you this in the face but this is what they think. And, obviously, they are usually convinced that they are right. They never question that perhaps the vibe that comes from them (as beings) is simply so much different, peculiar or even arrogant, that the outsiders don’t feel welcomed in the classical music world. And that’s a pity, because if they would, perhaps one could naturally grow the % of the classical music listeners and – what comes with it – improve the classical music’s financial situation (something that most of the musicians complain about).

Lack of understanding of the music itself is only a result of a personal barrier created between the classical music people and the people who don’t belong to the classical circle.

The personal barrier usually comes with the social standards endorsed by one group, that are not corresponding with the norms of the other group. Classical music circle, for some reasons, often confuses politeness with stiffness. One has nothing to do with the other. In fact, what I often observe in this circle is a shortage of the first one and excess of the latter. But this is another subject.

Due to this confusion, these ones who would be even willing to be silly at times, easy going and sincerely relaxed, simply happy – prefer to wear a straightjacket which allows them to keep themselves under total control, just in case: so that they don’t appear foolish, not serious. So that nobody criticizes them. One sees that pretty well with the younger generation which still shows some glimpses of uncontrolled spontaneity but quickly learns how to restrain anything what could look inappropriate.

I’ve been observing that for years closely looking at my husband, who – probably due to a different path, late start or just his inner sarcastic and cheerful nature – is most of the times happy, jokey and smiling. But even he, with his positive and open attitude, was becoming occasionally a “von Stiffo” family member in a split-second. It had nothing to do with concerts (before those, one is obviously slightly tense – this is normal). That was happening as soon as there were people from the business on the horizon: a photo shoot, a video, a talk with other “von Stiffos”. Now, fortunately, he is much freer and, what comes with it, much happier.

People are not free in their reactions when they are afraid of being criticized. It’s safer to wear a mask which protects their image. The problem occurs when wearing the mask gets cozy. Then it’s glued forever and you don’t even realize you wear one. After some years it looks dull. But not for you. For the outside world.

The classical music world is far from being an idyllic meadow, where artists are flowers enjoying the rays of sun and a pleasant breeze. This is a tough place, which can be unkind and dry like a desert. Therefore, a mask may seem to be not such a bad solution. But from an artistic point of view it can rob you of your character, individuality and spark. It can make you boring. As a human being and as an interpreter. In the end your music suffers, because the way you play it, becomes boring too.

I’m kind of torn. On the one hand I understand the classical music circle and its natural alienation caused by all the factors that shape this group: years of focused work from childhood on, total devotion and discipline, sensitivity and ambition, often loneliness, sometimes frustration, then the pressure of the business, and this hope for being accepted, being wanted and loved as an artist. This all in a way detaches you from the outside world.

On the other hand, I’m partly with the outsiders who put the classical music genre and everything what is connected to it on a special shelf called “boredom to ignore”. And, again, they do that not because all of them are ignorant and uneducated, but because you (classical musician) let yourself disconnect so much from others that they don’t get a chance to understand you and – what comes with you – your music. Your own community becomes your life sentence. You may like it, be still satisfied, but in the end it’s like with a bird that has never lived outside the cage: you’re sort of fine with it because you don’t know anything else.

In order to lose the built-in tension feature, to get relaxed and to improve our sense of humor we need to distance ourselves from our life, our profession, our complex, our usual surroundings. And this is only possible when you sometimes leave your cage for real, throw your mask off and check what’s out there, in the unknown. Outside. Far away from your “natural habitat”. And I don’t mean going on holiday.

Be open to life. It’s bigger than you think. And much more rewarding.


  • Peter T
    Great writing and so true! It would do classical music good, if more musicians would be free and less cyborgs.
  • classical musician
    Totally agree!
  • Tomasz

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